“I don’t know. It was like I was slowly walking into a dream or something. First I’m here – or there, on the steps, I mean. Then all of the sudden I’m five years old again and running through the streets of Beijing. Yeah, and then out of nowhere, I was falling a hundred feet to my death.”

Zhi nodded his head before downing another beer. He lined the can up neatly with the others. It couldn’t have been later than 11:00 AM, and the man had already finished six beers. He opened his seventh.

“It’s the mist – it affects your Qi.”

“What, you mean like my life force?”

“More like the animating force of the universe. Everything has Qi, from the stars up above to the rocks down below. Usually, it’s contained. You don’t see one object’s Qi spreading to another. But the Mists of Xiangbala are special. Fluid, if you get what I’m saying.”

“So because I wasn’t – what, controlling my Qi? I started having hallucinations?”

“That’s how it goes. Candidates – always the worse prepared ones like you – go missing in these woods all the time. You’re lucky you got this far, though I’m guessing it’s because of your little friend there.”

Fu preened at the compliment, barking in agreement. Laughing, Zhi finished another beer.

“I’m sorry, is there something I’m missing here?” Tao asked.

“You’re a little clueless, aren’t you, kid? So what, you’re telling me you want to enter the Elemental Tournament and train at Xiangbala?”

“I didn’t even know Xiangbala existed until yesterday. Or the Elemental tournament or anything else.”

“Sounds about right. Listen, kid. Take it from someone who’s been to Xiangala – in fact, the only Sage to ever leave Xiangbala. It’s not worth your freedom or your time. Or your life, actually. Go back to the outside world. Be a normal kid. Go to college, fall in love, get a desk job. You can play with fire in your free time, do a magic trick or something. But the Elemental Tournament? It’s not worth it.”

“I’m not here for the tournament – I couldn’t care less about the tournament.”

“Are you going to drink that?” Tao grabbed the unopened beer by his foot and tossed to Zhi. The man caught it without looking, cracked it open, and took a long sip from it. “So what are you doing here, kid?”

“I’m looking for a dragon. Or I think I am, at least.”

Zhi lowered his beer, and for the first time, Tao could see that all of Zhi’s attention was on him. Tao squirmed under his gaze. His eyes were slate grey, almost black. The light of the fire would flicker in them briefly, before drowning in their dark waves.

“There aren’t any dragons in Xiangbala anymore. The last one just died.”

He downed his drink once more. Eight beers. Tao watched him from the other side of the campfire. Tao could feel it, the weight of what Zhi had left unsaid.

“What happened?” asked Tao.

Zhi leveled his gaze at Tao, but Tao didn’t flinch this time. He stared back.

“He was murdered.”

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MORE CHAPTERS

Chapter 15

Chapter 14

Chapter 13

Chapter 12

Chapter 11

Chapter 09 & 10

Chapter 08

Chapter 07

Chapter 06

Chapter 05