Zhi spent the entire day burying the three men. Tao simply stood and watched as Zhi dug into the earth with his bare hands, shoveling away the dirt for each shallow grave. His skin glistened with sweat, his ragged breathing carrying through the mist. But never once did he complain, or slow his work. At sunset, he lowered the last body into the ground, patting the dirt neatly over the grave. Then, with the flick of his hand, he erected three small tombstones. Unmarked and unadorned.
Zhi walked to his tinkers pack, pulling out three cans of beer. He opened a can and poured it over a gravestone, placing the remaining beer in front of it. He then repeated the process. After he was done, he sat at a respectful distance from the graves. He motioned for Tao to join him. The two sat there for a long time, Fu watching sleepily from afar.
“Why didn’t you just use Yu-Qi to bury them?” Tao finally asked. Zhi stared at the graves a long time before answering.
“The world is like a very still lake. Every action is like throwing a stone at the surface. There are ripples, reactions. Consequences. Knowing when to exert your power against it is important.” Zhi smiled. “I didn’t get to dig his grave in Xiangbala. I was too late. I arrived just as they were lowering his body into the ground.”
Tao tried to digest this, but Zhi slapped him on the back and rose to his feet. He lifted his bag to his shoulders and turned to Tao. “We better get moving.”
Zhi lead the way through the forest, a small flame drifting in the air by his side. Tao had never managed to create a flame without it being in contact with his skin before, but he had more important things to worry about. The mist was still unyielding, every step through it a fresh assault on Tao’s mind. Zhi walked with ease, and even Fu trotted by Tao’s side with all her usual energy. But no matter how much Tao tried to let the mist’s Qi in – to redirect it – he always felt it crash against the wall of his mind.
Eventually, Zhi stopped moving. With a quick gesture, he raised a short stone perimeter around them. He looked to Tao and shook his head, before flopping on to the ground. Tao thought he saw the wind gently breaking Zhi’s fall moments before he hit the ground. Tao sat glumly on the ground across from him.
“For the night,” Zhi said. “I’ll redirect the mist’s Qi in the area. There’s a chance we’ll be attacked, and we can’t have jumping off another cliff.” Tao nodded in response. He could feel the weight of the mist ease off, but his mind was still racing. He had never seen a dead body before, let alone three. The face on the last one is what stuck in his mind’s eye – contorted in fear, his lip frozen in mid-speech.
“What’s going in this forest?” Zhi looked to Tao, before standing up to retrieve a beer from his bag. He cracked the beer open and took a long sip. “It’ always dangerous. There are another hundred or so Candidates in here, all planning on fighting in the Elemental Tournament. An ambush in the Cloud Forest is easier than a fight in the ring.”
“So the honorable monks or sages or whatever of Xiangbala have no problems killing random strangers in the woods?”
“You learn fast, kid. Rule Number One: Never trust a man who brags about his own honor.” Zhi returned to his seat on the earth. With a snap of his hand, a fire bloomed between Tao and him. Fu delighted at its warmth, stretching her toes like a cat in front of its flames.
“If it’s typical for Candidates to kill each other on the way to the Moongate, then why did you erect a barrier?”
Zhi leaned in. Tao could see the light of the fire drowning in his storm grey eyes.
“Because those weren’t Candidates.”
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