Nestled in the Wuling Mountains, bookended by two massive stone gateways, was River Rock – a string of old buildings that lined a small, stone road. Lanterns hung from the gabled roofs, painting the street below in their gentle light. Women and men, dressed in cheongsams and changshans, milled about in the night air, their voices rolling with the gentle babbling of the nearby river. Tao looked to himself, then Zhi. The two were covered in dirt and wearing t-shirts, a fox trotting politely at their feet.
“Are we time traveling? Is that what’s happening now?” Tao asked.
“For most people, River Rock is something sacred. Traditions mean more here, even by Xiangbala standards.”
“And for the rest of us?”
“Free food, free drinks, and free beds. Come on.”
Zhi led Tao to the end of the street, where a neat, squat building overlooked a stone archway. He slid open the front door and bowed to a weathered old man sitting behind a front desk inside. Tao followed after with Fu close at his heels. The old man blinked to see the fox, but smiled a toothless grin all the same.
“I thought I’d die before I see that ugly face again.”
“And I thought you’d be senile by now.” Zhi flashed a smile, before hugging the old man. “It’s good to see you again, Ming.”
“Pff, if it’s so good then you should visit more. Don’t have to make it all the way to Xiangbala, just to here. So, who’s the kid? Finally found yourself a student?”
“I found myself a charity case. Go on, kid. Introduce yourself.”
Tao bowed his head to Ming. “My name’s Tao. Zhi agreed to take me to Xiangbala.”
Ming held Tao in his gaze for a moment, bobbing his head in silent appraisal. “You’re lucky this isn’t a race, boy. Great Spirit or not, you’re the last Candidate to arrive here. And they’re all good deal stronger than you.”
“Yeah, I already told the kid he sucks. So any other Sages pass through here?”
“The roads are clogged with Candidates. Any Sage knows better than to travel now. Even a good for nothing alcoholic.”
“Yeah, somehow that line has aged worse than you.”
“I don’t need your attitude making my last days miserable,” Ming said, as he fished inside his desk. He tossed Zhi a small brass key. “Here. Always keep your room open, in case you show up. Right on the corner, second floor. Paranoid, idiot.”
“Go on, get going. We might have real guests soon.”
Tao sat on the edge of his bedroom balcony, looking down at the street below. There was something liberating about being up high. Tao had felt the same way when he jumped off the cliff nights ago – a freedom in the weightlessness before the fall. If he just closed his eyes and felt the wind pass through his fingers –
“Thinking about jumping, kid?”
Tao turned to see Zhi behind, two news beers in his hand. He opened one and took a long sip, before throwing the other to Tao. Tao looked at the can before opening it and taking a sip.
“Not really. So who was Ming then? Your teacher?”
“Do I seem like the type of person who wants to have a heart to heart here?”
Tao shrugged before taking another sip.
“He was like a father to us. Xiangbala wasn’t a good place to grow up. There’s no room for love in discipline – not like that.”
“You mean you entered Xiangbala as a little kid? You’re shitting me, right?”
“The youngest ever.” Zhi downed his beer in a single chug. He crushed the can and threw it back into the room.
“God, I’m nineteen and can’t even count the times I’ve almost died getting here.”
“I gets easier. You learn you either have two options when first leaving the nest.”
“And those are?”
“Either learn to fly or get used to falling.”
Zhi smiled. Then he pushed Tao right off the balcony.
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