Sunset’s fiery glow highlighted Hideki Kazuo as he strutted into the alley to face Kai. Turning her soul ring, Kai eyed the towering young man.
He was a year younger than her but seemed so much older, his silver hair falling around the shoulders of his gray robes. Blue trousers, a white sash, and black shoes completed his garb.
A sneer twisted his bronze-skinned face. A face with a nose so big it begged to be smashed. She wanted to do the smashing; she’d dreamed of doing the smashing.
Years ago, she’d promised to make Kazuo and his friends pay. Today, I’ll keep one promise.
She’d often thought about what it would feel like to face a real enemy. Sparring with Keitaro, Papa, and Uncle Senbi was supposed to prepare her for this. But she felt different now than when she faced them.
They would only hurt her to a certain extent. Kazuo had no such limits. He’d aim to punish her. Maim her. Perhaps, even kill her.
And yet, despite the fear bubbling within her, there was another sensation. An electric tingle that crept through her. A flutter in her gut. It reminded her of being on a roller coaster, the feel, the euphoria a moment before the first steep drop.
She loved it. A stupid grin crept onto her face before she straightened her features.
For a moment, she considered if there could be some technique Kazuo could use, one borne from his sect’s Way of the Blade Storm. She quickly dismissed the idea. He couldn’t practice a Way until he was an Adept.
“What gifts did you bring me, lame?” Kazuo rolled his neck.
Ignoring his question, Kai focused on being in tune with zan, emptied her mind, and cycled. Within the connection she discerned the pattern of Kazuo’s body, the bounce of his hair, its silver limned by sunset’s fire, how the strong wind whipped loose strands to one side, the rhythm in every stride, the dirt disturbed by his feet.
With her next breath she embraced the Heart of Harmony.
In her mind’s eye she drew Hell’s Circle around her. She engaged Shadowless Step, images of zanquan’s endless forms and its mantra easing through her head.
Fluid as the Flows. Violent as the Streams. Hard as the Forms. Obscure as the Abstract.
The momentum of her imagined movements built and then leveled off. Calmness ensued.
Kazuo loomed in front of her, scorn marring his features. “Your senior asks a question, lame. Show the proper respect and answer.”
Words are but breath.
For all of a moment Kai thought about standing straighter, squaring her shoulders to show confidence in the face of her enemy. Not succumbing to the temptation to attack with her spear was an exercise in restraint.
Initiating the fight was to give him an excuse. Not that he needed one.
You’d also be dishonoring yourself as his junior.
She grimaced inwardly at the idea. Instead, she let her shoulders droop, took the tiniest step back, and bent her head ever so slightly as if properly cowed by the fool before her.
“That’s better.” Kazuo took two more strides, crossing the threshold of Hell’s Circle until he was a little over two long strides away.
He clasped his hands behind his back. “Now, answer my question. What gifts do you have in the bag for me, lame.”
A ghost of a smile played across Kai’s lips. “Lessons.”
“You heard me.”
He looked down on her as if she were the dirt beneath his shoes. “Did you forget what I did to you all those years ago? The day the likes of you could teach me anything is the day the heavens open, lame.”
Smile widening, she gripped her spear a bit tighter. “Lesson one. Kai Bree.”
“What did you say?”
“Lesson one. My name is Kai Bree.”
Kazuo’s brows shot up before his eyes became pebbles of hate an instant later. “Honorless dog. It’s past time someone truly showed you where your place is.”
He lunged, snatching at her spear arm. Kai drew her arm back and twisted her body, sending him stumbling through the empty space.
Kazuo whirled to face her, teeth bared. A vein pulsed along his temple. “That’s the last mistake you’ll ever make.” As he uttered the words, Kazuo shifted into a zanquan stance.
Face a complete mask, Kai let her spear drop beside her and stepped on it the moment it touched the dirt, stopping the spear from moving.
A frown formed on the brow of the silver-haired Iron Cliff Neophyte as he glanced at the spear and then back up to Kai’s face. He smiled wolfishly. “That was stupid.” He dashed in low to the ground.
From the rhythm and style of his movements, he had chosen Bloodwolf Follows the Moon, an aggressive form that relied on speed and favored eight directional palm attacks.
Kai used Kazuo’s force to guide away a palm strike at her midsection, shifted from the path of a front kick, and ducked under the roundhouse kick that followed. She stepped in and looked to deliver a dual finger blow to his unprotected side by way of Hummingbird Rides the Wind.
But Kazuo casually parried her hand away. He countered with a palm strike intended for her jaw.
She was just able to turn her head in time, the wind from the missed blow fanning her face. She leaped away, his next strike whiffing through the space she’d vacated.
Kai frowned. He’d been wide open. How’d he known where I’d attack? How was he able to parry it?
And then it dawned on her. His Neophyte aura. He’d felt the incoming blow. In the heat of the fight she’d forgotten about the aura.
She’d also underestimated the agility he might have gained from being a realm above her and the fact he could be using the Limit Gate Flow.
Or even the Stormrage.
She barely had the thought when he was on her again. This time, he was much faster, making her regret not using her potions.
His speed forced her to flare several Limit Gates to the second level. Kazuo unleashed a flurry of kicks and palm strikes.
She dodged and parried, using circular motions to nullify the weight of his blows. As she’d practiced for years, she continued to shift around him, executing Shadowless Step, making it difficult for him to predict her intentions.
When she saw an opening, she struck with the Phoenix Rises, unleashing a one-handed handstand kick, which he parried. She twisted her body, reversed her momentum, landed on her feet into a front kick then shifted into a spinning kick.
He countered her every move.
During one of those counters, she made to sidestep his kick, but his foot caught her potion pouch, shattering contents. Before she could react, he landed a palm to her jaw.
She turned with the blow, but it still hurt. The metallic taste of blood welled up in her mouth.
With that same turn, she realized she’d left her back open. Even as she braced for pain in her back, he swept her feet from under her. When she fell, she landed on the supply bag, reminding her that she was still wearing it.
The Heart of Harmony shattered.
Frantic, she rolled clumsily, dodging a stomp by a hair. At the end of the roll, she was on her back, resting on the bag. She placed her hands on the ground to either side of her head, brought her legs up, and sprang upright, ready to counter him with the Phoenix Rises.
But he hadn’t charged in as she’d expected. Instead, he watched her from a few feet away, smiling confidently.
He wasn’t a fool after all. She had to give him that.
Face throbbing, she wanted to remove the bag, knowing she would be that much faster without it, knowing more speed might provide a way past his aura. But any attempt would leave her open. He was waiting for such a mistake.
You fool, how’d you forget you were wearing it?
Even as she berated herself, she knew the answer. Years of training with a bag of rocks on her back made it feel like a part of her. In that same breath, she recognized there was but one way to win.
Re-embracing the Heart of Harmony, she added the Fire Gale to her cycles, engaged the Stormrage’s second level, tripled her speed, and charged him. His brows shot up for all of an instant.
Shifting through different forms, she attacked from numerous angles. He dodged or parried her attacks with relative ease.
A sardonic smile eased across his face.
When at last she unleashed a right-footed crescent kick aimed at his head from Swallow Courts the Dragon, she narrowed her nodes, executing the kick a bit too slow, leaving her ribs open. Recognition flashed in his eyes and the pattern of his movements. He countered with a side kick.
And fell for her trap.
She flared the nodes in her lower body to the third level, driving zan through her channels in a fully charged Stormrage Flow. Lightning and fire surged through her. Her leg blurred through the rest of the crescent kick, her foot touching the ground while his leg was still mid-strike.
The instant her right foot touched the ground she transferred her weight to it, slid her left foot, shifted her body laterally, and braced herself to take his blow and absorb its impact.
Even as she was shifting, she stepped forward into him, bringing her up to his thigh, and caught his leg as it connected with her side.
She grimaced as something in her side crunched despite her move reducing the power of his kick.
Kai drove the crown of her head up toward his chin. As Kazuo tilted his head to avoid her blow, she unleashed a punch into his gut with her free hand.
Kazuo grunted and folded over into the knee she brought up to smash his face. He crumpled to the ground, nose and mouth leaking blood.
It took everything she had not to fall to her knees from the pain in her side and the cost of opening the Limit Gate to maximum during the Stormrage. She hoped she hadn’t damaged her soul or channels.
Grimacing, she inspected both. She found no fissures or cracks to indicate a rupture. Her soul felt normal.
Relieved, she began cycling normally and looked down at Kazuo. “Second and final lesson. I’m better than you think.”
Something swelled inside her with those words. A sense of satisfaction. Pride. I beat a Neophyte. Me, a Seed. And I didn’t use any potions.
Remembering Daisuke, she turned to find the reedy boy standing over an unconscious Divine Tree Neophyte. Footsteps drew her attention to the Iron Cliff Seed, sprinting down the alley. He vanished around the corner.
Daisuke limped toward her, fear alive in his eyes. Despite being eleven, he was taller than her by a head.
Kai eyed his leg. “How bad is it?”
“I think I twisted my ankle. I’ll manage.” He stopped beside her and looked down at Hideki Kazuo, whose eyes were closed but whose chest rose and fell evenly. “It’s madness that you beat a Neophyte, but you shouldn’t have involved yourself.”
Kai was taken aback. She’d just saved the boy. “You’re welcome.”
Wincing at the pain in her side, she hoped her ribs weren’t broken. She untied the potion pouch from her belt.
“You don’t understand.” Daisuke shook his head. “Their sects and clans will demand vengeance.”
A glance into the bag revealed her fear. All her potions were broken. She tossed the pouch aside. “But they were in the wrong. They acted without honor. They were robbing you.”
Daisuke glowered at her. “Who will report them to their elders? You, the cursed village outcast, whose family name is dirt for having abandoned the place they were gifted in one of the Five Sects?
“Me, with a mother hated by those same sects and clans? They’re going to believe us? They’re going to listen to us?
“What power do we wield to make them do so? They decide who is wrong, what honor should be.”
Kai opened and closed her mouth, at once ashamed and annoyed she hadn’t thought such things through. She wondered if the sects were truly beyond consequence.
“You forgot who they were. You forgot your place. ”
“Like you did?” Kai knew the retort was childish, but she couldn’t help herself. She hated the idea of someone else dictating her ‘place’ in the world.
He let out a resigned breath. “You played your cards, leaving me with no choice. No matter the outcome, they would’ve blamed me also. Now, we must flee Dragon Valley with our families.” Still limping, Daisuke headed toward the alley’s other end.
Kai picked up her spear and strode after him, doing her best to ignore the pain in her side. “Flee the valley? Isn’t that a bit extreme?”
“Not if you don’t want to end up as a slave or dead.”
“Why would-” Kai began.
“A year ago, Guo Zhou Sun got the better of another Divine Tree disciple who is usually a part of this group.” Daisuke turned down a street, headed toward the Woodwind District. “When the sect elders summoned Sun, the Zhou family, and the Guo clan, they claimed it was Sun and his three brothers who’d banded together and attacked the lone disciple.
“Sun and his family were given a choice. The four boys would each face a Divine Tree Adept in combat, their clan would pay a thousand high grade zan stones or its equivalent in essence crystals to be split between the Divine Tree sect and the disciple’s clan, or they would be hanged.”
Kai’s eyes narrowed at the punishment. Although a clan of high standing who’d been dishonored could demand anything they wished of the offender, she’d only heard of reparations of a hundred stones and a public flogging if the offender hadn’t murdered the victim.
“When the Guo clan protested that the boys were only Neophytes, to at least give them a fight on even footing, Matriarch Diakos stepped in.
“The disciple who’d been humiliated was her youngest son, Cephren. She said the brothers hadn’t fought on even footing, and honor demanded the same in return.
“The duel took place two weeks later at the Divine Tree compound. The Guo clan was only able to present five hundred high grade stones.
“When the first brother stepped up to fight, Matriarch Diakos suggested for all of them to do so. She said it was only right that they fight together again.
“When she called out her champion, it was none other than her son, the prodigy, Favian, a Sapphire Adept.”
Kai’s brows shot up. “They might as well have been rabbits fighting a bloodwolf.”
Daisuke stopped and stared down at her. “That’s exactly how Favian treated them when he slaughtered the four.”
“He killed them?”
With a nod, Daisuke set off again. “That wasn’t the end of it. Since they couldn’t meet the price, the rest of the Zhou family were sent as part of the yearly payment to the Satsuna. The Guo clan was still required to furnish the balance.”
This time, it was Kai who stopped, mouth agape. “The rest of the family was sent? You mean to be slaves?”
The boy faced her. “Yes. It’s not unusual. It’s the fate of any who don’t make their yearly payment.” He shook his head. “There’s no way this ends well for us and our families. Our only hope is to leave now before Elder Jiro and the others send their warriors after us.”
Lightning cracked. Gloom replaced sunset’s fiery glare. Kai snapped her head up to the sky. An ocean of angry clouds greeted her, drowning the light from the dying sun.
“I have to get home.” Kai broke into a run, dashing past Daisuke.