He did it again.
Tao remembered the first time he called upon fire. It was a winter in Beijing, and Tao had spent the past few days freezing on the streets. He needed food – money – so he took to Financial Street, where all the government agencies were. It was dangerous to be a pickpocket there. Those were people you didn’t steal from. Unless you were stupid. Unless you were desperate.
Tao stood on the street for hours until he had found the perfect mark. A man with a billowing overcoat, a wallet bulging from its pocket. Tao crept behind the man, slowly inched his hand forward, before crashing into his back. The man had stopped to check his phone, and Tao had plowed straight into him. He turned to look at Tao, before neatly putting his phone away. Then he raised his hand slowly, and then brought it down hard into Tao’s face. He beat him. Until Tao’s
blood painted the snow red. Until all the heat began to leave Tao’s body. Until he was cold.
Tao remembered lying there alone, desperately focusing on the little bit of warmth he had left. He started breathing in and out. In and out. And then there was fire. Enough to stop him from freezing, but not enough to stop the bleeding. Tao had made a mistake that day: He had stolen
from the wrong person.
He did it again.
Flames began to flicker then pour from Tao’s fist, first warm and then hot. Hot enough to make the air shimmer and singe the ground. The fire grew and consumed his opponents’ hand, but the man kept Tao’s wrist tight in his white knuckled grip. It was as if the fire never even touched
“And you think you can reach Xiangbala with that?” the man asked. And then there was a crack.
Tao screamed as his wrist snapped cleanly in the man’s grip. The flames sputtered then died as Tao tried to tear himself away from his enemy. There was a time for fighting and time for running. Now Tao had to run.
“Let me tell you the First Principle of Yu-Qi,” the man said. Tao felt fear, real and raw, screaming from every cell in his body. “Every action ripples.” Tao was ripped forward, pulled by his arm, twisted and off-balance. The man took out Tao’s legs with a mighty kick, and Tao crashed face first into the dirt, his arm wrenching out of its socket with the fall.
There was pain, unbearable pain. Any moment Tao would black out. He needed an escape. But his wrist was broken, locked in his opponent’s grip. He needed a plan. Anything. Anything to give him distance. And then he had it.
“Ever play 52 card pick up?” Tao grinned.
With the last bit of his strength, despite his broken bones and pain, Tao opened his hand and tossed the Taiji coins. They landed with a clink on the stone path, bouncing and rolling in different directions. Tao smiled, right before the man brought his foot down on Tao’s face.
The sky was awash with swirls of reds and oranges, the last light of the dying sun. Tao had watched the day slowly ebb into night, all from the comfort of the cold, receiving earth. He hadn’t moved in hours. He couldn’t. His wrist was broken, his face was swollen, but he was alive. He was lucky. Tao looked to the gate that still loomed in front of him. The carved sun above the doors held the sun’s last breath. On the other side was apparently a place called Xiangbala. If
only Tao could get there.
Tao managed to sit up. His options for the next day weren’t great. In all likelihood, there would be more strangers passing through this gate. Considering his last encounter and his own sorry state, neither begging nor stealing seemed feasible. Another fight would be suicide. Tao opened his backpack and rooted through it with his good hand. He pulled out a crushed packet of prawn crackers. Better than nothing.
The sun was quickly setting, the temperature dropping. Tao tried to focus, to funnel the heat from the furnace of his torso into his limbs. A flame sputtered from his finger tip, then died. Of course it did. It was going to be a cold night. Again. Tao reached for another prawn cracker, only to find the packet gone. Of course it was. A hungry crow likely stole it while he wasn’t looking. Tao reached into his bag. He had food for another two days. All of it was prawn crackers. As he opened the next pack, he heard a small almost dog-like bark in front of him.
A fox sat in front of him, its fur dipped in all the colors of the setting sun, its eyes two star-flecked emeralds. Behind it, two tails gently swept the ground in excitement. And in its mouth, a prawn cracker.
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