“Your left!” Zhi shouted.
Tao had a moment to react. He saw the the rock hurdling towards him. He tried to gather his Qi – to visualize his defense – but he was too late. The rock connected with his arm and sent him flying like a rag doll. Tao tasted blood and dirt as he skidded across the ground.
“My left… is your right!” Tao shouted as he struggled to his feet.
Zhi shrugged as he took another sip from his beer. “Wouldn’t matter if you were doing it right, kid.”
“If it doesn’t matter, then why are you telling me which way it’s coming from?”
Zhi looked at Tao, considering the point. Without warning, he dug his foot into the ground and sent another rock spinning towards Tao. It landed with a dull thud right in Tao’s stomach, knocking the air right from his lungs. Tao sank to his knees before crumbling back to the ground. Zhi walked over to him and prodded him with his foot.
“See? Didn’t change a thing.” The two had been doing drills since morning. Zhi had called it necessary. Tao called it masochistic. “Look, kid, here’s the hard truth: You’re not very good. Other Candidates have been practicing Yu-Qi since they were kids. You, on the other hand, can barely control an open flame.”
“My point? How about this: If you don’t get stronger, you’re going to die. Either out here or in Xiangbala. How’s that for a point, kid? That working for you?”
“Good, yeah. Okay, that works.” Tao said, as he rolled back on to his feet. His vision was splitting, and he couldn’t feel his arm anymore. But as long as he wasn’t dead… “Again.”
Zhi and Tao wound their way through the Cloud Forest, Zhi always leading the way. The sun had set hours ago, but Zhi made no indication of slowing down. A flame danced in the air between Tao and him, glowing like foxfire in the night. Tao was busy focusing on his own Qi. The more he thought of the turning waves of the river – the steady rhythm of its stream, flowing like each breath Tao took – the more he felt the mist’s weight disappear. Slowly, he was getting better.
“Those men weren’t Candidates,” Zhi said, as if to no one. “They were Sages. Which means two things. One, whoever killed them is competent. Stronger than you could hope to be by the time we reach Xiangbala.”
“And the second thing?”
“Someone is trying to interfere in the Tournament. And they’re not a Candidate.”
Zhi stopped and turned to Tao. The mist began to thin, and Tao could just see the vague outlines of buildings in the distance. The wind rustled the trees, and on its breeze, Tao thought he could hear the sound of rushing water.
“But that’s for tomorrow. Tonight, we sleep in real beds.”
“Where are we?”
“The first waypoint: River Rock.”
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