Tao stared at his bowl. The broth was practically water, bits of random plants and animals drifting on its surface. Fu gave Tao a small whimper, a similar bowl of soup lying untouched in front of her.
“Here,” the man said, tossing Tao a can. Tao looked at it before quirking an eyebrow at the man.
“What? It’s a beer. God knows this forest is miserable enough. Might as well have a drink and try to get through it.”
“What if I’m underage?” Tao asked.
“I don’t really care, kid. Eat, drink, and be merry.”
The man cracked open his own beer and took a long sip. Happy, he began slurping down his soup. Tao watched him closely. There was a strange economy to his movements, even in how he ate his soup. As if his every action was concise. Deliberate. That worried Tao. He didn’t know who the man was, but he knew that he was strong. And after his last fight had nearly left him half-dead, Tao knew that his best option was to escape.
Tao took a sip of his soup with one hand, while he rooted around the dirt with the other. Fu stared up at him, her green eyes searching. The soup was awful, but Tao did his best not to gag. After a few sips, his other hand had found what he was looking for – a small pebble. Focusing the heat of his body into the pebble, Tao made the little stone grow red hot. It was now or never.
The pebble exploded from Tao’s hand, rocketing towards the man. Tao dropped his bowl and dashed for the woods, Fu bounding at his heels. He might not be able to outfight the man, but he could definitely outrun him. But with each step Tao took, the earth began to shake. Ten feet away from the campsite, a massive stone wall tore itself up from the ground. Tao came to a crashing halt. He was stuck.
“Shit!” Tao screamed.
“Are you really that stupid? Why would I bother dragging you from the bottom of a cliff if I wanted to hurt you?”
Tao turned to look at the man. He was still sitting by the fire, drinking his beer. For a moment, Tao was lost for words. He knew he wasn’t the only who could control the elements, but he had never seen anyone else do it before. And this – this was on another level entirely. The wall towered above Tao, disappearing into the mist above.
“That was a neat little trick you pulled. You heated the rock so the pockets of air inside would expand. When it got hot enough, the rock exploded, firing like a bullet. Most people in Xiangbala don’t have that kind of creativity. Listen to the Council talk and they’ll tell you that Yu-Qi is about honor – tradition. They’re so in love with tradition they spend their whole lives here worshipping it.
“Kid, could you sit down already? I’m not going to attack you. I just want to have a nice morning beer. Look, your friend gets it.”
Tao looked to Fu sitting back at the campfire, her emerald eyes staring back at him. Waiting. Tao sighed. Running wasn’t an option, and he didn’t seem be in any particular danger. Tao walked back to the campsite. The man picked up Tao’s bowl and refilled it. He extended it to Tao with a smile.
“You can call me Zhi.”
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