The ground rushed to meet Tao as he fell face first from the second floor. He whipped his hands in front of him to brace for the impact. He should’ve screamed – he should’ve panicked – but in the mere seconds between his fall and his crash, Tao’s mind went blank. Absolutely blank. And there was a freedom in that – timeless, unbounded. And from somewhere deep inside of himself or from somewhere far away, Tao knew what to do. He extended his arm to the approaching ground and jettisoned a blast of air downwards.
The wind helped break his fall, as he managed to skid across the street below. Tao looked at his hands in disbelief. Fu barked from up on high, and Tao looked to see Zhi’s hand waving goodbye. “Enjoy the freedom,” Zhi called down. “That’s what being one with the wind is all about.”
“That could have killed me!”
Tao shouted back. An empty beer can came flying over the balcony in response, hitting Tao’s head on its way down.
“And that was my beer!”
A small crowd had gathered in front of the inn, watching the spectacle unfold. A world away, in the streets of Beijing, Tao could have just slipped away into the crowd and disappear. But here… Tao was the only one dressed as if he belonged to the twenty-first century. No matter where he went here, he was the spetacle. Tao simply put his head down and powered his way through the throng of people. He didn’t have to give them any more of a show.
Tao had settled himself at the other gate, as far from the inn as he could get. The people of River Rock were curious, but they didn’t follow. In his hands were a few Baozi that a street vendor had sold him. It had been nearly two weeks since Tao had eaten meat, and he tore into the steamed buns like an animal.
“There are rumors about you.”
It was all Tao could do not to jump. Just beyond the gate, a figure walked out of the forest mist. A young woman, no older than him, wearing a grey, modern cheongsam. She stopped just short of him, and brushed a stray lock of hair from her face. She smiled, and Tao felt the Baozi knot in his stomach.
“They’re saying the last candidate to cross Sungate was stupid enough to challenge Jun for his Taiji Coins.” She was being friendly, but Tao could feel the air crackling around her. It was the same as when Zhi had bested him. She was strong.
“I’m guessing that’s me, isn’t it?” Tao put his food down and smiled. Either confidence would win the day, or…
“You didn’t know about Jun, did you? That everyone says he killed the men who owned those coins before him?”
“So does everyone know he’s a bastard?“
“And does everyone know I’m a screwup?”
She was close enough that Tao could smell her. She looked at Tao with the strange curiosity of a predator finding a never before seen prey. She extended her hand to him.
“My name’s Yu. I can tell that you’re nervous.“
“Tao,” he said, shaking her hand. “I can tell that you’re not going to kill me now.“
“Probably not,” Yu said, before seating herself next to him. “I’m kidding. River Rock is a Way Point. Between these gates – and well, in front of them too, actually – fighting’s prohibited.”
“So I’m safe?”
“Provided you don’t fall off of anymore balconies.”
“You’ve been following me, haven’t you?”
Yu smiled, and with her free fingers lifted a few small pebbles into the air. They circled her fingertip slowly as she talked. “I was the first one to reach Moongate, so I decided to circle back. Everyone on the road is an enemy. It’s better to choose your ground and fight them here than fight random lots in an arena.“
“Right… Something tells me that you were looking for that bastard, weren’t you?“
“Jun? Obviously. I didn’t think he’d start so far behind everyone else. But he must have left the path as soon as he passed Sungate, because I couldn’t find him.”
Tao smiled. He was beginning to understand her. “If I was a real threat – if I was anything but a curiosity – would you still be talking to me?”
“What do you think?“
“You’d leave me half dead in the forest.”
Yu laughed, and Tao couldn’t help but find himself laughing along with her. Yu righted herself and extended her hand again. “It’s been nice meeting you, Tao. Hopefully you don’t die before you get to the next Way Point.“
“If I’m still alive, will that make me more of a threat?” Tao said, standing to shake her hand once more.
“Maybe,“ she smiled.
Tao watched as Yu crossed the gate and slipped back into the forest. He slouched back against the gate, before picking up his Boazi again. But then, out of the corner of his eye, Tao noticed the pebbles Yu was playing with. Before leaving, she had arranged them in arrow pointing just to the left of Tao. Tao traced the line with his eyes, before slowly bringing them up to the gate. Just as he did, a large stone toppled off the top of the gate. It smashed right where the arrow was pointing.
Right where Tao had been sitting only moments ago.
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