– 09 –
There was an odd sense of deja-vu in the moment. Tao looked at the beer at his foot, Zhi making another horrible concoction over the fire. Fu slept comfortably at his feet, her warm fur pressed closely to him. Tao felt the ridge on his tongue where hours ago an open cut had been. Zhi had taken one look at it before giving Tao an herbal paste to apply. In an hour, the parted skin had reattached itself like a zipper.
“True dreaming,” Zhi finally said, “True dreaming, even in Xiangbala, is rare. Most Sages aren’t sensitive enough to Qi to channel it subconsciously in their sleep.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that even in Xiangbala, people don’t know what to make of it. Usually, divination works by using a medium to sense the flow of Qi in the wider world. Bones, coins, dice – it doesn’t matter what an Oracle uses. But dreaming is different.” ”
Because there’s a different medium?”
“Because the person is the medium,” Zhi ladled the soup into three bowls, passing two of them to Tao. “And that comes with its own problems. People can’t control their dreams, or make sense of what they’re seeing…” Tao placed a bowl next to Fu. Her emerald eyes fluttered open, her nose gently sniffing the air. Tao could feel that Zhi wasn’t telling him something.
“What happens to them? Dreamers?”
“I knew only one Dreamer in Xiangbala. We competed in the Elemental Tournament together… He killed himself right after he became an Adept.” Zhi slurped his soup, leaving Tao to digest those words. Tao wasn’t worried about his own health. True, he barely slept and was hundreds of miles from home, but he never felt truly out of control. He never felt that hopeless.
“Why am I seeing a dragon die then? He wasn’t actually a dragon, right – he was some guy.”
“He was my friend,” said Zhi, before finishing his soup. “I didn’t see him die, but I buried him all the same. I don’t know why you were born a Dreamer, kid – or why you’re dreaming what you’re dreaming.”
“So… Basically, you can’t even tell me whether I should turn back or not?”
“Would you turn back even if I told you to?”
“Probably do the opposite, honestly.”
“That’s what I thought… There’s a woman in Xiangbala – Chen. She’s probably the only true Oracle left now. I can’t promise you that she’ll help you, but I can tell you she knows more than anyone else about divination.”
“Which means I’m still going to Xiangbala… Sounds about right. But, um, there’s kind of one small problem.” Zhi looked at Tao from over his beer.
“I kinda need someone to take me there…”
– 10 –
“How you doing, kid? Surviving?”
Zhi sauntered through the mist with his usual ease, his tinkers’ pack of pots and pans clanking from his shoulder. Tao dragged his feet after him, struggling to keep up. The mist was relentless, almost thick. Tao felt as if he was fighting the current, each step pitting him against another wave of mist. Worse, every time he closed his eyes, he could feel the faint tingling of sleep laced with memory.
“Your Qi – control your Qi!” Zhi shouted before Tao bumped right into him, Tao’s eye catching an errant pan handle. Fu extended her paw to Tao’s leg, half-worried, half-consoling.
“Look,” Zhi continued, “It’s not hard.”
“Yeah? How about we take a vote on that?” Tao could feel the bruise forming around his eye. He’d close it from the pain if it wasn’t for the fact that the mist posed a constant threat every time he blinked.
“Kid, will you just shut up and think? If you can control fire, then you can already control your Qi on some level. All you have to do is take your time and think – just think.”
“If I focus on keeping a flame alive, that will my channel my Qi, right? That’s what Yu-Qi is all about – channeling your Qi to control an element?”
“Weren’t you keeping a flame in your hands when you decided to jump off a cliff?”
“Ugh, I hate mist, I hate nature. I want normal smog and a busy city – not rocks and poison gas.”
“I told you. I can either take you to the Moongate, or I can take you back to the Sungate. It’s your choice.”
“Right, okay – an alcoholic is giving me life advice. This is new to me.”
“Look, controlling the elements – especially fire – is about pushing Qi out,” said Zhi. A flame sprouted from his finger tip, shimmering in the mist. “It’s active – it’s yang. But pushing something outward isn’t the same thing as letting something come in.”
“And that’s Yin?” “That’s defense.” Zhi circled his finger, the little flame folding into itself before dying and transforming. A small ball of wind danced on his Zhi’s finger before it rolled down his hand and dissipated into the mist.
“So how do I do it? This defense?”
Zhi started walking again, Tao resuming his struggle to keep up. “Focus on your breathing… It’s not about pushing the mist’s Qi out. Even stones in the river are broken by the current, given enough time.”
“Yeah, that’s a great metaphor, but not exactly a step by step guide.”
“Yin and Yang exist in harmony in all parts of nature. That image is a guide. For once, stop being the rock and start being the current. Flow with the mist’s Qi, then redirect it. Where the river starts isn’t where it ends.”
Tao scowled at that. It was easy for Zhi. He was so strong that Tao was confident that he was the most dangerous thing in the forest. But Tao was different. Walking was hard enough with the mist. Focusing on his Qi at the same time was almost impossible. In his mind’s eye, he tried to see it – the river of Qi around him. He felt it it’s weight, its endless assault on his mind. But he couldn’t bring himself to let the Qi in, let alone redirect it. He furrowed his brow, trying harder, before crashing into Zhi again.
“Why’d you stop?” Tao asked. Zhi didn’t answer. Instead, he gently lowered his pack to the ground. He then broadened his feet and entered into a shallow, angled stance. His hands swept the air slowly, quickly gaining speed. Wind whispered at his finger tips, first gently. But as he weaved his arms, the wind got stronger, wrapping itself faster and faster around Zhi. With a final downward thrust, Zhi brought the force of the wind straight down onto the ground. The resulting blast nearly sent Tao flying backwards and left a large, gaping hole in the mist.
For the first time in days, Tao could see the blue sky above. But on the ground before them was absolute carnage. A man lied dead, his skull cracked on the ground beneath him. Nearby, an arm dangled from an stone sarcophagus, as if he had been crushed alive by the earth itself. Zhi gently picked his way past the bodies, Tao frozen still. Zhi stopped in front of the third body. It’s arm lied limp, nearly torn from its socket. Ice – even the in heat of the forest – had sprouted like thorns from his skin.
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