Kai floated in a black void.
A room appeared in front of her like a live performance, similar to what she’d experienced when the immortal had shown her the futures.
A copper-skinned woman was lying on a bed, its sheets bloody, her exposed round belly stretched to its limit, her face contorted in pain. Dark hair splayed about her face. She cried out.
Kai recognized the woman, as odd as it seemed. The woman was her mother, Shui. Not Marie, the mother she’d known all of her life, but her mother nonetheless.
Kai wanted to reach out and help Mama. She winced every time Mama wailed.
Grimacing, Mama looked over to the bearded chocolate-skinned man gripping her hand. “T-Talk to me, Dak.”
An angular jaw and intense golden eyes completed Dak’s features.
Kai knew him, also. Dakera Bree, her father.
“Remember when I found you wounded and wandering along the slopes of Coiling Ridge?” Papa caressed Mama’s face. “You were the strongest woman I’d ever seen. The most beautiful, too. I knew then that the heavens had blessed me.”
Papa squeezed her hand. “You weren’t from any of the clans or sects here in Dragon Valley, but I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was help you.”
Mama balled again.
“Remember when we attempted to become members of the Mountain Giants? We ended up facing each other in the Grand Tournament.” Papa smiled, tears welling up in his eyes. “I really thought I’d beat you.”
Mama smiled for a moment before she winced again. She looked up to the ceiling. “Heavens, help meeeee.”
“Hang on, my love. The healer will be here soon. Just hang on.”
Face contorted, Mama turned her head to Papa. “She-she won’t wait, Dak. She-she’s coming now. Our Kai is coming. I’ll push. Help our little flower come.”
Papa released Mama’s hand and positioned himself at the bottom of the bed. He reached forward to her, his chocolate face a mask of concentration.
With a cry, Mama bent her neck forward, balled her hands into fists, and pushed. She strained, veins bulging on her forehead.
“I see her head!” Papa’s voice echoed with excitement.
A moment later, Kai’s vision changed. No longer was she looking down from the void. She was looking up into Dakera’s face.
Additional memories merged with her old ones from Earth. Kai let out a wail. The wail of a newborn babe.
Papa was laughing and crying at the same time. “Look, Shui, she is a precious little flower. Our little flower, Kai.”
He looked over to Mama. Laughter vanished. He burst into heart-wrenching sobs.
Dakera rested the baby on the bed close to Shui’s head. He got on his knees and stroked Shui’s face. “I love you, Shui. Your Dak loves you sooo much. Please come back, my Shui. Please.” He blubbered on and on.
A sense of dread rippled through Kai. A sense she knew too well.
Deep in her heart, she felt as if something had stabbed her. Her pain mirrored Papa’s. She wailed, knowing Mama had just died.
From the moment she was born, she felt something inside her. It throbbed with a beat to match her heart, a beat to match something unseen outside of her body. The thing was like a soft echo, whispering to her.
What is this?
She reached a tiny hand out. The unseen thing was trying to get in. Everything within her said she should let it. So, she did.
Days after she was born, Papa began reading to her. Months later, he was teaching her numbers, letters, and words. By two, she could read and count.
At two years old, she was sitting beneath a tree, her skin like rich walnut, her hair a dark mane like Mama’s.
Dakera slipped a leather cord with an amulet around her neck. She looked down. The amulet resembled a thumb-sized seed.
He sat beside her. Papa’s amulet was a ruby teardrop gem embedded in a small silver disk. “Close your eyes, Little Flower. Listen to the wind. Feel it. Hear the birds. Hear and feel your breath. Feel the ground beneath you. The dirt between your toes. The grass. The warmth of the sun on your skin.
“Breathe deep and take in every smell. Everything is filled with essences and all connected by zan.”
Kai did as Papa asked. The wind was a cool breeze, rustling the leaves even as the sun warmed her skin. Birds sang a medley above her. Grass pricked through her robe; the dirt was as grit between her toes; the air smelled of the nearby river.
“Zan is a gift from the heavens, the life energy produced within all living things, allowing them to harness the essences that make up the elements of creation. Zan holds the world together and sustains life.
“Focus and you’ll feel zan all around you, feel it within you.”
Without even trying, Kai sensed zan. It was the thing she’d felt at birth. She could always feel it. Zan felt as if the wind caressed her on the outside while at the same time connected within her.
“From birth, we’re cultivators at the Seed stage or realm.” Papa touched her amulet. “Able to absorb zan within our bodies and souls. Our bodies produce small amounts of zan which our soul uses.
“Seed is the first of many major realms, but within each are levels or thresholds you must reach and bypass in your soul’s progression. Your soul should feel like a reflection of yourself. Can you feel it?”
“Yes, Papa. It’s like an echo.”
He nodded. “Good. At the center of your soul, below your navel, is your Soul Root, the foundation of your soul and body. Attached to that is your wellspring, which stores your zan. Your Soul Root sprouts from your wellspring.
“Picture your wellspring as a circular pool. You should feel zan within it.” Papa paused a moment. “Got that?”
“While picturing your soul and wellspring, connect with the zan outside of you, and picture yourself bringing it within you through your skin. We call this, absorption.
“Yes. Yes. Just like that. Now, the next part might be difficult but try anyway.”
Furrowing her brow, Kai held the image in her head. I can do it.
Papa’s soothing voice resonated. “While still focused on your wellspring, become one with zan. Imagine you can grip it.” He paused. Moments passed while she did as Papa instructed. “Were you able to do it?”
“Uh huh. It was easy, Papa.”
“Good, good. Now pull zan. Guide it. Don’t push it… as that can hurt you. Zan will travel along your soul channels, which you can’t see as yet, but you can feel them.
“This allows zan to flow to every part of your body and back to your wellspring. That’s called a cycle. Cycling strengthens your channels, body, and refines zan, casting off impurities called miasma, which you can’t see.
“When the refined zan has pooled in the center of your wellspring, filling it, you can squeeze the refined zan as if you’re closing your fist. That condenses zan, making it thicker for the next cycle.
“In this way, you achieve your condensation peak, allowing you take the next step in advancement. The entire process is cultivation, a key aspect in the mystic art of shuzan.”
Kai tried to squeeze zan as Papa suggested. She folded her hand into a fist and imagined she was doing the same within her wellspring.
Zan slipped through her fist.
“With cultivation, you begin to build your Foundation,” Papa continued, “which will one day allow you to become a true mystic. A mystic can only go so far as their Foundation.
“If you can’t complete some cycles the first time, don’t be discouraged. It can take months of training to accomplish.”
Determined to impress her father, Kai again focused on his instructions, maintaining her awareness of the world around her, connecting it to the center of her soul, and zan. All three merged.
Though zan was heavy and sluggish like mud, she felt as if it wanted to travel in multiple directions from her wellspring. She took a hold of zan and imagined herself pulling it.
Zan responded to her will. By the time she completed a few cycles, the zan within her had become lighter like fresh air.
“I did it, Papa. I made some cycles.” She giggled. “It wasn’t hard at all.”
Papa ruffled her hair. “Heaven’s blessings, Little Flower, you’ve achieved One With The Body by learning the art of cycling. Now, you must master it.”
Grinning, Kai clung to her father. Warmth filled her. I don’t want this feeling to ever end.
Papa ruffled her hair. “I love you, Little Flower.”
“Love you more, Papa.”
Dakera leaned away from Kai and took a hold of her Seed amulet. A knife appeared in his hand as if from nothing at all. He carved a small line into the amulet.
“This mark shows your progress.” Papa’s smile was like the sun itself. He twirled his hand; the knife disappeared. “Practice cycling as much as you can. By doing so, you will reach the peak of One With The Body, allowing you to advance to the next level.”
She was four when Papa dressed himself and her in their best wide-sleeved layered robes with matching trousers beneath. Over his neck he slipped the string with his ruby teardrop amulet.
He brought her to the walled compound of the Mountain Giant sect in the Heaven’s Hand district of Sengar Village. Unlike their small wooden home, the compound was a collection of stone buildings two or three stories tall with statues of Divine Beasts on either side of its wide entrance.
“Today, you’ll meet the elders, the most revered people in all of Dragon Valley.” Papa held her tiny hand as they walked down a cobbled road to a set of stairs before the main building. “They’re the leaders of the five great clans and sects who founded the Five Territories in Dragon Valley hundreds of years ago. Two of them, the Patriarch and Matriarch, were among those founders.
“Becoming a member of one of the Five Sects or clans is the goal of almost every mystic in the valley. It’s a great achievement. It means you’re strong. With strength comes respect.
“When you greet the elders, remember to bow like this.” With his hands at his sides, Papa bowed from the waist. He straightened.
“You can also salute them this way, with one or two hands.” He brought his palms together in front of his chest and dipped his head. “Give face or show respect when speaking by nodding slightly or referring to them as great or esteemed elder.”
Papa hand’s fell to his waist. “Honor demands that we give face to those more powerful in shuzan, whose sects and clans sit atop the world. The elders are the strongest here.”
She looked up at Papa, eyes round with wonder. “The strongest in all the world?”
Papa shook his head. “Only in Dragon Valley. But the valley is our world.”
“So there are stronger people than them outside the valley?”
Papa ruffled her hair. “Yes, there are, Little Flower.”
Not long after, Kai bowed deeply to the elders who were dressed in rich layered robes, their sect sashes running diagonally from shoulder to waist. Three of them wore amulets with sapphire teardrop gems. The Matriarch and Patriarch amulets had oval gems that looked as if they contained flames.
“Your father says you’ve mastered One With The Body, child. Cycle so we can see.” Matriarch Eunike Diakos regarded Kai with graphite eyes that stood out in her milky face.
A thick snow-white braid fell down the matriarch’s back. Her pointed ears twitched. As leader of the Divine Tree sect, her sash had a white tree with an over-sized canopy.
A gentle smile creased the matriarch’s thin lips. “Go on, cycle.” She gestured.
Kai had been afraid of the matriarch the first time she met the woman months ago. There was something about her. But now, seeing Matriarch Diakos’ smile, and the warmth in her eyes, made Kai smile also.
Kai cycled as her father had taught her.
“Mastering One With The Body at such a young age is quite an accomplishment.” Elder Zhang Sheng of the Vermilion Birds stroked his wispy white beard that hung down to his waist. “She might be a prodigy.” His sash featured a fiery bird with its wings spread wide.
“Agreed.” Matriarch Eunike Diakos nodded. “The child will be a storied mystic.”
“Advancing to Neophyte by her eighth year looks to be assured.” Patriarch Ahmose Khafra, the tiger-faced leader of the Whispering Eagles, held up a cup to Papa. “She’ll surpass you at Ruby Adept, Dakera.”
A part of Kai wanted to ruffle the patriarch’s fur. But he had gilded eyes, scary eyes, that often seemed to glow.
“You must be very proud, Dakera” Copper-skinned Elder Hideki Jiro of the Iron Cliff sect twirled strands of his silver beard and mustache, the only hair he had. His sect crest was a line of white cliffs. He was the shortest elder by far.
“I am, great elder.” Papa’s smile broadened, and with his palms pressed together at his sternum, he dipped his head to Elder Jiro.
“As are we in the Mountain Giants.” All eyes shifted to Elder Chika Joba, lampstone light glinting off his night-skinned bald head. Even in his robes he had tree trunks for arms and towered over everyone. “I look forward to the day she reaches Perception and becomes an official member of the sect.”
Kai puffed up her chest at all the praise.
“Having said that.” Elder Chika stepped toward Papa. “To seal our pact for Kai, I’ve decided to make you an honorary member.” He handed Papa a brown sash .
Papa took the sash and bowed deeply from the waist. “Thank you, great elder.” He straightened, his face like the sun. “There are no words to convey the honor I feel at this moment.”
With tears trickling down his cheeks, Dakera placed the sash reverently over his head, and pushed his arm up through it. The sash fell diagonally across his chest, revealing a crest of a giant standing before a mountain.
Kai ran over and threw her arms around Dakera’s leg. “Compliments, Papa. I love you.”
Papa laughed and ruffled her hair. “Thank you, Little Flower. Love you more.”
She was sitting on the steps of their small home, eyes closed while she cycled. She counted the cycles, each the same as a normal breath.
Papa had taught her that five hundred cycles was a hacule. A thousand was a thenule. A day had forty-eight thenules. Four days made up a week; ten weeks a month, and ten months a year.
Every hacule, she’d imagine a fist in her wellspring and squeeze zan.
Papa said if she cycled, pooled, and condensed long and often, she would reach Seed’s condensation peak by the time she was eight. Then, she’d be able to advance to the Neophyte realm like the elders had said.
Whenever he talked about her progression, Papa was very happy. In turn, so was she.
Something beat a constant rhythm from inside the house. Tok. Tok. Tok tok. Tok. Tok tok tok. Tok tok tok. Frowning, she climbed to her feet and followed the noise.
When she got to the back room, Papa was in the middle, sweat pouring down his face as he stood before a wooden doll that matched him in size. Three pairs of short rounded beams jutted from the doll like arms at various levels. Papa swayed this way and that as if he were doing some kind of dance.
Ohhh, I love dances.
Darting forward, Papa was a blur. He struck the wooden doll’s arms and body. Tok. Tok. Tok tok tok. Tok tok. Tok tok. Tok. Even as Papa shifted around the wooden man, striking it, he still moved as if he were dancing.
Papa retreated from the wooden man but continued his rhythmic movements. “This is zanquan, a martial art created to help with cultivation. It relies on internal and external harmony.
“Harmony is the base of shuzan and zanquan. Becoming one with yourself and everything around you. Then you practice the same aspects used to cycle.
“Your hands, feet, and body move accordingly, creating a flow from one form to the next in a constant stream. Pull, push, cycle, and an imitation of flexing by delivering a strike.” He snapped his fist out. “The movements are fluid, slow one moment, quick the next, ever in rhythm with the world itself.”
“Zanquan begins with the four elements, the Flows, Forms, Streams, and the Abstract, representing the four cardinal directions.” He struck forward and up. “North.” Then he aimed down. “South.” Side to side. “East and West.”
Papa struck in multiple directions moments later. “In between are the countless positions that represent the essences within each element.”
He slowed and brought his palms together. “There are many forms of zanquan, most named after one beast or another. A reflection of zanquan’s connection to nature.
“Zanquan helps you achieve One With The Mind, the next level in Seed, which is as the name suggests. You become one with zan, clearing and centering your mind, banishing all thoughts. Your mental awareness increases tenfold.
“Practice zanquan every day as you would cycling. That is how you become stronger.
“Repetition is the mother of mastery. Follow my movements and recite the Principles of Zan after me.
“Fluid as the Flows. Violent as the Streams. Hard as the Forms. Obscure as the Abstract.” Papa’s movements matched his words.
Following Dakera’s lead, Kai repeated the Principles of Zan. From the first zanquan move, something felt different. It was as if zan was pulling at her, but the more she tried to reach it, the farther away it grew.
“There’s a meaning behind each line of the Principles.” Papa’s hands moved in slow circular shapes. “Fluid as the Flows. It represents the element of the Flows and the essences within it, like water, air, magma, and vapor.”
Papa’s movements sped up, his hands slicing the air. “Violence represents the Streams and its essences like fire, heat, cold, ion, dark, and lumen.”
His entire body stiffened and when he whipped his fist through the air, the sound was as if they impacted something solid. “Hard as the Forms and its essences, like metal, earth, wood, stone, and ice.”
When Papa shifted, his entire body contorted, and this time his hand movements were formless. “The Abstract from which comes force, spirit, nature, life, and death.
“These are but a few of the essences, but they’re the easiest ones to sense. Remember them as you practice. Try to feel them. They may not mean a lot now, but when the day comes that you rise to Adept, the essences and elements will decide your power.”
She was five. Every day she would practice zanquan fist, seeking harmony in an attempt to achieve the next level. When Papa felt she was adept enough at the basic forms of zanquan fist, he taught her another style, zanquan sword, using a wooden lathe. Zanquan sword was similar to the fist in many ways.
After a martial arts session, she’d sit, meditate, and cycle. The more she cycled between sessions, the longer she could train.
She practiced both zanquan forms atop a small hill near her home, overlooking the winding Red Scale River, the wind fluttering her robes. Shifting this way and that as if copying the breeze, she lost herself to the movements while repeating the Principles.
Fluid as the Flows. Violent as the Streams. Hard as the Forms. Obscure as the Abstract.
As always, zan pulled at her even as she pulled upon it.
She flowed beside it as if she were the river or the air itself. The flow sped into a passion like fire in her belly before she stiffened, making her body as strong as a boulder yet supple as a young limb, all the while she was one with the twittering birds, the lap of water, the susurrus of grass. One with life. Nature.
She and the pull merged. Kai snapped her eyes open. The world was different. Colors more vivid. Sounds more distinct.
She smiled. Papa had described this sharpening of the senses to her. This was a part of One With The Mind.
Her brow bunched at a difference within her. She could now feel her soul channels. They were like a network of veins. Along the channels were nodes, the vital points that controlled the flow of zan.
She ran home to tell Papa she’d attained another level.
When she got to their four-room wooden house at the outskirts of Sengar Village, she found Papa in his archive where he spent a great deal of time reading from his collection of hundreds of books, scrolls, and tablets.
Papa wasn’t reading today. He was standing over a square hole in the floor.
“I’m glad you’re here.” Papa beckoned to her. “Come.”
Gaze riveted on the hole, she plodded to Papa.
“This is a trapdoor to escape should anything bad happen.” Papa tapped the door that was angled outward beside him. The door flipped down on well-oiled hinges. Papa reached down to a small indentation and pulled it up again, revealing the dark hole.
“Anything bad, Papa?”
He nodded. “Sometimes the valley is raided by the Satsuna clan, who live in Windreaver’s Steppes on other side of the the Titan’s Leg. They capture mystics and sell them into slavery, usually to the Seven Storm Empire far northeast of us beyond the mountains, where the slaves are forced to work in essence mines. If the day should come when the village is raided, this space is where you’ll hide until the Satsuna are gone.”
“Yes, Papa.” She hoped the village was never raided. Frowning, she turned in a circle to gaze at the books and scrolls. “What are all of these about?”
“Shuzan, zanquan, and tales of our world.”
She beamed at the idea of a good story. “Can you read one to me, one about adventure?”
“Of course. But first.” Papa reached down, took her amulet in his hand, produced the same knife from the air itself, and carved a second line beside the first. “Heaven’s blessings on reaching One With The Mind.”
Her brows shot up. “How could you tell, Papa?”
He smiled knowingly. “I can see the strength in your soul.” He ruffled her hair. “The next step is improving your condensation. Remember what I taught you about holding refined zan at the center of your wellspring until the center is full?”
“Every time you complete a cycle back to your wellspring, squeeze the refined zan. It will get smaller. Then add more zan from the next cycle and squeeze.
“That’s called condensing and pooling. Both strengthen your wellspring and help with advancement.”
She dipped her head and saluted. “Thank you for the guidance, Papa.”
Smiling, he returned the gesture. “You’re most welcome.” He turned to the shelves, picked out a book, sat on his stool, and patted his leg. “Come.”
Kai climbed onto her father’s leg. “What’s this one about?”
“It’s a tale of the great Devil Hunter, Sage Tendaji Abara.”
On days when Papa traveled to Sengar Village for supplies, he instructed her to follow him and encouraged her to keep up. Sometimes, she had to jog or run to do so, as Papa refused to stop until he got to the village.
When they reached Sengar proper, Papa lifted her onto his shoulders and made his way along streets bustling with people, vendors shouting about their wares, and bearers carrying litters. It was one of those days when they encountered a crowd of villagers surrounding a square bordering the Heaven’s Hand district.
Standing in the middle of the square was a bent-back woman with long gray hair. Her eyes had no pupils or irises, just milky white sclerae.
The woman wore a round Onyx Adept’s amulet and was dressed like a beggar, but she moved like a gentle breeze, shifting this way and that, as she practiced zanquan with a spear. Her spear whirled, the shaft a blur, the blade glinting in the sunlight.
When she finished, the crowd broke into cheers. So did Kai. The woman brought one hand up to her chest, palm open, and dipped her head in each direction to the crowd, then she beckoned to two men.
The men were Jasper Adepts, a level below Onyx. They drew their swords. Kai sucked in a breath. The men stalked around the old woman.
She didn’t face either of them. Her head was slightly tilted to one side, her milky eyes unsettling as she gripped her spear with both hands.
With nods to each other, the Jasper Adepts attacked as one from opposite sides. The spear whirled. With deft strokes, the old woman blocked their attacks and swept their feet from under them.
The crowd cheered. Kai grinned.
The gray-haired woman picked two Jaspers and an Onyx the next time. That fight was over in seconds also, resulting with the men on their backsides. Not once had any opponent gotten close to her.
Kai tapped Dakera’s head. “Who is she?”
“Mistress Hayashi Anai.”
“She’s amazing.” Kai smiled at Mistress Anai, who was now teaching shuzan principles.
“She is, isn’t she? The best part is that she’s blind and is possibly the greatest scriptor I’ve ever met.”
Kai opened and closed her mouth. She couldn’t believe Mistress Anai was blind. “How can a blind person move like that or be able to draw scripts?”
“The power of shuzan.”
Kai pointed at the people, both children and adults, who’d lined up behind Mistress Anai and were practicing zanquan. Most wore Seed or Sprout amulets. “Papa, can I train with them?”
“Doing so would upset the elders.”
Papa sighed. “Though Mistress Anai was never a member of the Five Sects, she knows some of their Ways, and teaches mystics the sects have rejected. If you wish to ever become a sect member like me, you can never be seen training here. You can watch, but never train. Understand?”
After that day, whenever they visited the village and she saw Mistress Anai, Kai asked Dakera to stop so they could watch. Kai memorized the movements and would practice them at home without a spear.
At six, she experienced her first Founding Festival, a celebration of when the Five Clans had fled the Third Great Devil War to inhabit Dragon Valley and form the Five Territories.
People came from all across the valley, some in wondrous airships. Multi-colored streamers hung across streets from one building to the next. Colored lanterns were on display wherever she looked.
Music filled the air, the instruments as diverse as the people. There were drums, shakers, rattles, flutes, long-necked lutes, seven string zithers, harps, reed wind pipes, and more. Kai found herself clapping or bobbing from one melody to the next.
People dressed in their fanciest robes to watch beast tamers hold gamba races, the hairy eight-legged creatures rumbling along in their segmented shells when they rolled into balls.
A sudden boom startled Kai. More followed. Fireworks burst in the sky.
So pretyyyy. She grinned, a tiny hand raised up to the spectacle.
Kai and Dakera stopped before a griot with skin like bronze. He wove a tale before an enthralled crowd, his robes rippling as he gesticulated.
“Avros is an amazing world filled with wondrous and terrible things.” The griot twirled his hands before settling with his palms up.
Kai and the crowd gasped as several miniature lands appeared above his hands, continents and countless islands floating in the sky, rivers and oceans pouring off their edges into thick clouds. A few of the lands were even inverted.
“There are savage territories ruled by evil Devil Beasts and deathfeeders.”
The image rippled, changing to wild forests, desolate plains, volcanic mountains, and deserts. Humongous beasts of all sorts inhabited these lands, some with mystics riding upon them, or flying beside or above them on Empowered Swords or in airships. A fearful murmur shivered through the crowd.
Kai clutched onto Dakera. She’d heard tales of the Devil Beasts and deathfeeders, how they attacked villages and towns and made off with people. They’d been the cause of the Great Devil Wars.
A wave of the griot’s hand and the image changed to a city whose spires and towers soared into the clouds. Kai let out a relieved breath.
“There are cities and forests where Divine Beasts roam, places where you can see an Elder Divine Dragon and an entire dragonwing take to the sky.”
A coiling dragon rippled above the conjured city, followed by the rest of its dragonwing, numbering ten in all. The dragons faded.
“You ever seen a Devil?” asked a little boy.
Murmurs rippled through the crowd. The boy’s father gave him a little shake. Gazes shifted from the boy to the griot.
The storyteller’s expression was grim. “Unfortunately.” He let out a breath. “One day, the great Sages and Elder Dragons will drive them back to the hells where they belong.”
He looked to the crowd, smiling this time. “Do you know how your valley got its name? Dragons once lived here over three thousand years ago, but they ascended, and claimed the Reaches and the Sky Islands as their new homes. To this day, every great mystic strives to be like them.”
Kai imagined she was outside the Five Territories, not in the Unclaimed Lands, but outside Dragon Valley itself. She pictured fantastic sights like those the griot had mentioned.
“Have you ever seen a Divine Dragon?” A girl stared up at the performer with wonder in her eyes.
The griot turned to her. “Once. I will never forget. It was a little over two hundred years ago just before the Third Great Devil War when allll dragons and humans co-existed in harmony. The leader of the Emerald dragonwing, Arophoal, invited the best griots to perform at her wedding in the Court of Tears on Emerald Reach.
“It was a glorious event. There were dazzling performances by windriders.”
He gestured. A formation of tiny men and women appeared. They floated in the air, either standing on Empowered Swords or nothing at all. They dived and twirled in intricate patterns.
“Mystics from the greatest clans and sects attended, putting on exhibitions of their Ways. Some moved mountains, commanded oceans, created giant artiforms, or summoned great storms. But all of that paled in comparison to the emerald dragon herself.”
The griot opened his palm. The crowd gasped at the appearance of a beautiful dragon with glistening emerald scales. Its horned head was majestic. Hair flowed from behind the horns down the length of the dragon’s long serpentine body.
The dragon rose in the air, scales rippling as it coiled, spun, and then vanished. The crowd burst into applause.
Kai clapped from her place atop Dakera’s shoulders. “Is that true, Papa? Can mystics do the things he says?”
“You just witnessed one do some of those things. His creations were thoughtforms, a reflection of a particular thought completely made of zan. It’s common to Evokers, using a technique called harnessing.
“He flexed his soul, which carried his intentions to his zan, harnessing it to create the thoughtforms. Most call it flexing zan, because it’s easier to think of it that way.
“Everything a mystic accomplishes with shuzan begins with cycling and flexing. Let’s go to the Grand Tournament so you can see some more for yourself.”
They wove their way through the crowds until they stopped before a massive circular arena surrounded by tiered rows of wooden benches filled with spectators. With one great leap, Papa landed on the topmost set of benches, some sixty feet up. Kai sucked in a breath.
He set her down and ruffled her hair. “Watch.” He pointed to the stage.
A man and a woman faced each other from opposite ends of the arena. They were dressed in long-sleeved robes and trousers that matched. Soft flat shoes adorned their feet.
Both wore sashes diagonally from shoulder to waist. The sect crest on his was a large blade. Hers was an eagle’s head.
Papa gestured to them. “They’re Ruby Adepts, which means they’ve reached Ruby Embodiment of the Adept stage.”
“Yes, like me.” He jostled her braids. “Embodiment is determined by tempering and the essences an Adept has an affinity for. Most Adepts begin at Pearl Embodiment.
“At Pearl, they’re working on sense tempering and have an affinity to one essence, which they can flex. They don’t advance until they’ve completed the tempering and developed more essence affinities.
“Ruby means I have an affinity to four to five essences in two or three elements, and I’ve completed the first four temperings of sense, channels, muscle, and skin, making me several times stronger than a Pearl, Jasper, or Onyx Adept.”
“Which tempering are you working on now?”
“What are your essences, Papa?”
“Wood and stone in the Forms. Air and water in the Flows.”
In the arena, a large crescent-shaped blade appeared in the man’s hand. He flung the weapon and blasted forward, leaving an explosion of sand in his wake.
Kai stifled a cry. She’ll be cut in half.
The woman somersaulted over the blade, which vanished moments later.
“That weapon was an artiform. Unlike a thoughtform, it has physical properties.
“He created it using two techniques, harnessing and imbuing.” Papa took a seat on the bench and lifted her onto his thigh. The two opponents circled each other.
“By way of harnessing, he made a blade of zan which your untrained eyes couldn’t see. Then he cycled metal essences, imbuing them into the blade, making it solid, giving it weight.”
“Where did the blade go?”
“The artiform completed its cycle and dissipated into zan and metal essences again.”
The woman leaped twenty feet into the air as if she weighed nothing. Then she appeared to kick off something invisible and shot horizontally across the distance above the man. As she streaked through the air, she flicked her hand out, unleashing a shower of finger-length metal spikes.
The man dashed to one side, his body a blur. Several dozen spikes thudded into the sandy ground and stuck there. His opponent floated in the air.
“She just used reinforcement and harnessing. With reinforcement, a mystic has complete control over their body and mind. She reinforced the muscles in her legs, making them stronger, allowing her to perform such a high leap.
“Then, she harnessed zan and flexed it into something solid, which she used to push off with her reinforced legs. To float, she uses the same two techniques, reducing her body weight, while harnessing air essences beneath and around her.”
“Were the spikes artiforms?”
“No. Those were actual spikes.”
The man whipped around as another artiform blade materialized in his hand. He flung the artiform at his opponent and blasted forward below it, his feet inches above the ground.
She dropped like an anchor, the blade slicing through the space she’d vacated. No sooner had she touched the ground than she burst toward the man with an explosion of sand.
In a blink, they clashed.
An exchange of strikes followed, attacks and counters, many a blur to Kai’s eyes. But there was something familiar about the combatants’ movements.
It was zanquan. Most of the forms were a mystery, but the flow was distinct.
Papa leaned forward. “Their techniques are defined by their Embodiments and their Ways. Take her, for example. She’s of the Whispering Eagle sect. Theirs is the Way of the Gliding Wind, which specializes in air, lumen, and earth essences.
“However, only very gifted Whispering Eagle Adepts could cultivate all three essences, because those essences belong to three different elements. Do you know which three?”
“Flows, Forms, and Streams.”
“Very good. It’s far easier to cultivate essences within the same element.”
“What about her fourth or fifth essence?”
“Could be any of the others within those three elements. That is what adds uniqueness to a person’s technique despite it being of a particular Way.”
“What’s your Way, Papa?”
“Our Way,” Papa corrected. “It’s the Way of the Mountain Gale. When you reach Adept, you can begin to learn it.”
Kai frowned, gaze riveted on the duelists. “Papa.”
“How is it that they seem to know where the other is going to strike?”
“Because of their auras.”
Papa nodded. “It’s a layer of zan a person gains around their body when they reach the Neophyte stage. They can feel anything that touches it as if it were an extra layer of skin.
“Although an aura happens naturally the first time, it’s actually a mystic’s first flex. Eventually, you can control your aura or even imbue it with an essence.”
The woman delivered a punch to the man’s midsection, lifting the man off his feet, and blasting him backward. She stepped forward and threw an uppercut into empty space.
A massive fist of earth burst from the ground, smashed into the airborne man, and knocked him several feet higher.
Shifting smoothly, she stepped forward into a palm strike. A massive azure palm materialized, smashed into the man, and sent him flying backward.
He struck an invisible barrier around the arena and dropped to the ground with a thud. He didn’t move again.
“The winner is Meryt Khafra of the Whispering Eagle sect,” a voice declared.
Meryt Khafra dipped her head to the crowd, turned on her heels, and strutted from the arena. Two robed people ran out to tend to the man.
That’s what I want to be. I want to be a mystic, an Adept like her. Like Papa.
“Now for an exhibition of zanquan spear,” said the same voice.
The next mystic who entered was a man wielding a spear. He bowed in four directions to the crowd, then he dropped into a ready stance and moved.
Kai drew in a breath. The man’s spear whirled this way and that, stabbing, blocking, sweeping. “Papa, can I train in the spear?”
“You mean officially?” Papa chuckled. “Of course.”
“And can I practice zanquan on the wooden man?”
“Children don’t start with the wooden man until they’re much older.”
Smiling, he shook his head, sighed, and ruffled her hair. “Fine. I’ll have one made for your size.”
“Yayyyy.” Kai threw her hands up.
She loved zanquan spear from the very first day she practiced it. There was a beauty to the spear, an instant connection to the lines, the movements, the song it played in her head. She felt stronger with the weapon.
After Papa had shown her the basic strikes to use against her little wooden man, she practiced them daily. She began with zanquan fist before moving on to the sword and lastly, the spear, losing herself to the rhythm each strike played. Though the spear forms bore many similarities to that of the fist and sword, she felt far more effective with the weapon.
Since advancing to One With The Mind, she had grown much better at following the network of her soul. Within that network she could sense the Twelve Supreme Nodes and main channels from which the minor ones branched.
One day, while practicing zanquan spear, she tried to cycle. She was met with resistance at first, but after a few attempts she achieved the feat.
In that moment, she realized the harmony in zanquan and the serenity in meditation used to cycle were one and the same.
I can’t wait to tell Papa. She ran off to find him.
Papa grinned when she gave him the news. He ruffled her woolly hair. “I’m proud of you, Little Flower. The ability to cycle at any time, while doing anything, is key to progress.
“It’s a sign of how strong your mind and channels have become. Continue practicing as you have been, and soon you’ll be able to see the channels, nodes, and flow of zan in your mind’s eye.
“That is Perception, the next level. After Perception comes One With Zan, the last level before you can leave the Seed realm behind and become a Neophyte, or Sprout, as we like to call it.”
“Yes, Papa.” She swelled with pride, confident she would surpass this new challenge.
“You still can’t see the nodes and channels or the flow of zan?” Papa stared at her, brows furrowed.
“Hmmm, perhaps, your zan isn’t thick enough. Have you been pooling and condensing in your wellspring?”
Pouting, she kept her head down. “I can’t, Papa.”
“You can’t what?”
“Pool or condense. I tried holding zan in my wellspring and adding more, then I try to squeeze it like a fist. It doesn’t stay in my wellspring. And I can’t squeeze it.”
“Try it now.”
Focusing, she did as Papa ordered. Zan kept slipping through her wellspring. She couldn’t make it stay or squeeze it no matter how she tried.
She lifted her head, lips quivering. “I can’t, Papa.”
He frowned. “That’s not possible. Try again.”
She spent the entire day trying. Every attempt ended in failure. She doubled her efforts.
I can’t fail Papa. I can’t.
Papa’s brows formed lumpy mounds as he studied her. “Focus in your mind’s eye. You should have a feeling, an impression, of your zan growing thicker in your wellspring.”
Kai tried but felt nothing like Dakera described.
Dakera kneeled in front of Kai and drew her into his arms. “Why didn’t you tell me, Little Flower.”
“Because I was sad, Papa. Every time I did good, you were happy. So I was sad that not being able to do this would make you sad. I don’t want you to be sad, Papa.” She sniffled.
“It’s alright, Little Flower. Papa isn’t sad. You just have to keep trying.” He ruffled her hair.
“I will, Papa.”
He eased away from her, his golden-eyed gaze meeting hers. “You know Papa loves you, right, Little Flower.”
She smiled and nodded. “Little Flower loves you more, Papa.”
The memories churned.
Kai spent her days reading, cultivating, and practicing zanquan. Still, she couldn’t cross the threshold to Perception. She had no impression of her zan’s condensation or pooling.
Day after day, attempt after attempt to pool and condense zan yielded the same results. It felt as if her wellspring leaked.
Papa paced back and forth. “This doesn’t make sense. If you can’t pool and condense, you shouldn’t have reached your peak and crossed over to One With The Mind.”
“All I did was cycle, Papa.” She hung her head.
He stopped pacing. “Fine, focus on cycling from now on, but spend at least a thenule a day trying to pool and condense.”
Her failure continued. With each passing week, each month, Dakera grew more concerned at her inability. His smiles and laughs were few and far between. Kai yearned to see him smile again.
She was sitting at his feet while he read a story. “Papa, are you angry that I can’t pool or condense?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Are you sad?”
He ruffled her hair. “I just wish I knew why.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Papa.”
“Look at me.” He regarded her with soft eyes when she turned to face him. “You can never disappoint me, Little Flower. I’ll always love you no matter who you become or how far you progress.”
Beaming, she threw her arms around Papa, feeling warm inside.
But her sixth year was almost at an end, and she had made no progress.
On her seventh birthday, Papa called her to the archive.
The sect leaders were present along with the masters who taught each sect’s Way. A pedestal stood before them. On top of it was a crystal doll with intricate symbols engraved into it.
Not liking the way the elders stared at her, Kai trudged into the room with her head down. If I keep my head down, they won’t notice me. She bowed from the waist.
“Her soul is stronger than before.” Towering Elder Chika Joba squinted at Kai, his night-colored skin glistening in the lampstone light.
“Too strong for her not to be able to pool or condense, for her to fail to reach Perception.” Bald-headed Elder Hideki Jiro stroked his beard and mustache while he studied her.
Elder Chika nodded. “Indeed. A prodigy would have reached One With Zan and their condensation peak by now, but I still see a lot of promise.”
“The esteemed elders are correct.” Papa saluted with his hands pressed together over his sternum and dipped his head to them. “But it’s as I reported.”
The sect leaders and masters murmured amongst each other while Kai stood beneath the weight of their scrutiny. She kept her head bowed as Papa had taught her.
Finally, Elder Zhang Sheng gestured to Dakera. “Testing her is the only way to be certain.”
“If you must.” Papa sighed. His gaze met hers. “It’s fine, Little Flower.”
He stepped beside the pedestal with the doll atop it. “This is a Soul Test artifact. It checks your soul and its root, allows us to see the flow of zan within you. It won’t hurt you.
“Place your hand at the feet of the doll, cycle, and then try to pool and condense. It’ll show us what’s happening.” He smiled reassuringly. “Then we can fix it.”
She perked up at that. Fixing the problem would make Papa happy again.
Kai shuffled over to the pedestal. It was about chin high. The doll was level with her face.
She reached a hand out and rested it on the doll’s feet, the crystal cool to her touch. Focusing on her wellspring, she cycled.
A network of emerald lines lit up within the doll. The middle of the emerald lines held a white tint that started below the navel at the doll’s wellspring and flowed throughout the doll’s body. She knew the white was zan. She felt it in her soul.
Zan flowed along the main channels, following her spine, then made a circle around her midsection, passing through the Twelve Supreme Nodes before branching off to the rest of her body. As she’d done countless times, she tried to force zan to remain in her wellspring where she could condense it.
As with every other time, zan escaped like she was trying to grasp the air itself.
Again and again, she tried, the doll glowing brighter on every attempt. Eventually, the doll grew too bright too look at.
She snapped her eyes closed. Instead of pulling zan, she pushed it. Her channels heated. Her body felt as if it was on fire.
I have to do it. I have to. For Papa.
“Stop, Kai.” Papa’s pleading voice and his hand on her shoulder made her stop cycling. He eased her hand from the Soul Test artifact.
Kai opened her eyes. The glow within the doll faded.
She cupped a hand over her mouth as she coughed, a bitter taste on her tongue. When she removed her hand, Kai’s eyes widened at the blood in her palm.
“She almost ruptured her channels.” Matriarch Eunike was glaring at Papa. “Didn’t you teach her better than to push zan?”
Papa bobbed his head several times. “I did, esteemed elder. She got carried away. I apologize.”
He turned back to Kai. “Let me see you.” He dabbed at her nose and the corner or her mouth with his sleeve, the cloth coming away red with blood. “How do you feel?”
“My body burns a little, but I’m fine. I’m sorry, Papa.” She wrung her hands, tears trickling down her cheeks.
Papa hugged her and let out a deep breath. “It’s okay, Little Flower. We all make mistakes. I just thank the heavens that you’re fine.” Holding her hand, he straightened to face the elders.
“Strength in soul but a flawed wellspring.” Patriarch Ahmose’s deep voice rumbled, a sad expression on his tiger face. “I’m sorry, Dakera.”
“Talentless.” The corner of Elder Sheng’s lips turned up in disgust as he regarded her.
“A lame.” Elder Jiro sneered.
“I had such high hopes for the child.” Matriarch Eunike looked down on Kai with pitiful eyes. “As the child is beyond any healer’s help, you should give the child pills or elixirs to boost her cultivation.”
Papa shook his head. “Even if I could afford such things, her Foundation isn’t strong enough, matriarch. They might destroy her channels, Soul Root, and any future progress.”
The matriarch arched a brow, disapproval written on her milky features.
“I apologize, esteemed matriarch. Pardon my ignorance, I will consider your suggestion.” Papa bowed from the waist.
The matriarch dipped her head. “Good. You should also consider sending her to the Divine Tree. We could find work for her in our village.”
Papa straightened but remained silent.
“You have nothing to lose.” Elder Jiro shrugged. “As she is, the Neophyte stage is beyond her reach. I doubt if she even reaches One With Zan. She will never become a true mystic. It’s likely that you’ll outlive her.”
“Stuck as a Seed forever.” Elder Chika’s disappointed voice rumbled.
Confused, but sensing something was horribly wrong, Kai looked to Dakera whose dark-skinned face was contorted as if he hurt. His golden eyes were glassy.
She swallowed. “Papa, what do they mean? What they said can’t be true. I’m going to be a true mystic; I’m going to be like you, right?”
Papa hung his head. The elders filed from the house to their waiting litters, murmuring amongst themselves.
When the litters departed, Papa turned to her, his expression fierce. “Come, Little Flower.”
Lips trembling, tears flowing, Kai shuffled over to him.
Papa knelt and wrapped her in his arms. Kai sobbed. He stroked her braids. “Remember this feeling. This disappointment. This soul-crushing sadness. Let this be the only time you shed tears about your flaw or your progression.
“Every day, you’ll think about your flaw. You’ll be reminded of it when you cultivate. Then, remind yourself to be strong, tell yourself that one day you’ll overcome it.”
She sniffled. “I will, Papa.”
“Good. And remember the way they looked at you. The pity in their eyes. The words they used. This won’t be the last time you hear awful words. Some may use them to shame you, to wound you. Don’t stoop to their level.
“When those days come, remember this: words are but breath. A breath can’t harm you.”
Kai inhaled and exhaled, long and slow, her chest shuddering. Words are but breath. A breath can’t harm me. She repeated the mantra until she felt better.
Yet, the words ‘lame’ and ‘talentless’ still haunted her. “Papa?”
“Is there anyone else like me?”
“In the world? Perhaps. In Dragon Valley? No.”