Kang opened his eyes just enough to let in the morning light filtering through the tops of the persimmon trees. His head still swam with images of the mysterious woman inside the book. Was she really the same person as Princess Xi Shi? She certainly didn’t look the same, but there were little things that reminded him of her, nothing he could put his finger on, just a collective of a few nuanced mannerisms.
The book, still tucked into the leather pouch beneath Kang’s tunic, pulsed gently. He sat up against the tree and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. The remnants of his persimmon feast was scattered at his feet, already in the process of being cleaned up by a line of ants snaking their way out of the grass in single file. He watched them for a time with a newfound fascination...wondering how they communicated with each other, what made them move in such an orderly fashion, and how far had they travelled on the scent of the half-eaten fruit.
The book pulsed again, a little stronger this time. Where was his horse? He stood up quickly, nearly slipping on the dewy moss at the base of the tree. He scanned the area, but saw neither hide nor hair of the beast.
He called out to the book. “Do you know where the horse is?”
Near a stream a short distance to the north.
Kang started off in the direction of the stream. He noticed a couple of delicate hoof impressions in the soft soil and adjusted his course.
The book pulsed again. There are others nearby.
He froze in his tracks. “Others? Horses?”
No. Other people. Scanning...four, possibly five.
“Who are they?” He took a few cautious steps until he found cover behind another tree. “What do you suppose they want?”
I am unable to make any determination. The book pulsed once more. They seem to be very near to your horse.
“Horse thieves,” Kang muttered. An unfamiliar anger rose from deep inside. “I can’t let them take my horse!”
Only fools rush in, the book warned.
It was too late. Kang burst out of the tree line, surprising both his horse and the four men approaching it from all sides. Kang assumed the stance of the tiger while he summed up his enemy.
They were large men with swarthy complexions and dark unruly hair that fought its way out from beneath straw hats. Each wore a ragged brown tunic over dirty breeches tucked into fur boots. Kang’s eyes immediately noticed the curved sabers hanging from thick leather belts at their sides. None of them were drawn, but he guessed it wouldn’t take long. He also surmised by the scars on their arms and faces that they’d each used their blades more than a few times.
The man furthest from him had just finished cinching a rope around the horse, while the man closest to him slapped his knee and let out a boisterous guffaw. This seemed to spur the others on. One by one the group erupted in laughter until tears streamed from their eyes.
Kang puffed out his chest. “I am not sure what you find so humorous, but you won’t be laughing for long if you don’t release my horse.”
This only increased the mens’ laughter. It rose and crescendoed in a wild cacophony. Kang felt a bit of the unfamiliar anger well up in him again.
“This is your last chance,” he warned.
The man nearest him shook his head, still laughing as he approached Kang. “I think you have that the wrong way round, little one.” He smiled, revealing a patchwork of rotted and yellowing teeth. “I’ll give you one last chance.” He stopped a few feet in front of Kang, crossing his arms.
Kang stood his ground. “Give me back my horse.”
The man laughed once more, and then turned his head back toward his comrades. “Hey, Gao, you think I should go easy on him--”
He didn’t get the rest of his words out before Kang’s foot planted firmly in his neck. The man fell to the ground gasping and coughing, a look of surprise painted on his face. Kang didn’t give him a chance to get back up, he kicked him hard between the legs.
The man made a muffled grunt in the dirt and grabbed at his crotch.
The book pulsed out a quick warning from within the leather pouch beneath Kang’s tunic. He glanced up from the fallen man to see the man’s friends charging toward him. New pathways opened up in his mind, keeping panic at bay and affording him the time to survey the situation.
The man closest to him out of the three remaining was midway through drawing his blade. The next man had opted for a wooden staff over a sword and he raced toward Kang with it outstretched between his fists screaming in anger. The man who had put the rope around the horse’s neck, looped the other end around a sapling by the water’s edge.
Within the span of a few heartbeats, Kang had his plan. The book pushed a wave of energy through his core as the dreamlike voice of the woman in the orb, Ambriel, came to him. Energy and power surround you. Pull it from the earth and through your being and push it out again like the tiger leaping into the tree.
Kang drew the energy the book had given him up through the pit of his stomach, up into his chest, and out through his right arm as the nearest man approached. Kang placed his left hand on the man’s right hand before he could finish drawing his blade. With his own right, he released the pent up energy and drove the heel of his palm upward into the man’s nose.
Kang heard the cartilage snapping and felt the warm blood mist across his face. He threw his left leg behind the man’s legs and used his own momentum to push him backward to the ground.
Kang pirouetted out of the path of the next man’s wild swing with the staff. Before the man could correct his trajectory, Kang grabbed the staff by its midsection and used it like a fulcrum to launch the man over his fallen comrade. He sprawled over his friend and landed in a heap next to the man Kang had kicked in the groin. He was attempting to regain his footing when Kang turned his attention to the man near his horse.
The last man had evidently witnessed Kang’s unbelievable skill and decided to draw his sword and let Kang come to him. He spiraled his blade through the air daring him to advance.
The book spoke in his mind as it sent another gentle pulse through his body. Use the gifts that the Sixth left you within.
Kang knew he was more completely attuned to the book than he was the day before. He called out to the jade dagger Princess Xi Shi had left for him within the orb. It responded without hesitation, erupting out of the leather pouch, slicing through his dingy tunic.
The man’s blade deflected it with a deftly delivered upswing. Undoubtedly feeling confident, the man charged Kang and brought his blade down toward Kang’s head.
The jade dagger fell to the ground and stuck in the soft soil with an audible thump. Kang jumped to the side to avoid the man’s swing, at the same time he drew energy up through the earth just as Ambriel had shown him.
A shower of dirt and rocks erupted from the ground and into the man’s face giving Kang enough time to refocus his attention on the jade dagger. He called out to it again. This time it shot straight up into the air, turned several times, and then launched itself at one of the other men who had regained his footing. It planted itself deep in the man’s neck sending up a fountain of blood as the man’s eyes went wide and he fell back to the ground.
Kang called out to the dagger again, but it struggled to dislodge itself from the man’s neck, and Kang had little time to react. The man nearest him wiped the dirt from his eyes, spat, and cursed Kang.
With all of the energy he could muster, Kang jumped into the air and kicked the man in the chest knocking him backward and into the stream. The man hit his head on a rock and rolled face down into the water.
Kang was about to retrieve his horse when he felt another pulse from the book. He turned just in time to see the wooden staff swinging toward his head. It hit him hard in the temple blacking his vision momentarily and sending shockwaves through his skull. He tumbled to the ground stunned.
The man poked him with the staff as if he was checking to see if Kang was still alive. Kang moaned and tried desperately to get back up, but the man held him to the ground with the staff.
The first man, who still had a look of pain written across his face, rested a hand on his comrade’s shoulder and stared down at Kang. “What’s that in his pouch?”
The man with the staff shrugged. “Don’t know, but it looks shiny.”
The first man smiled his rotted smile again. “Let’s consider it payment for all the trouble he’s caused.” The man looked at his fallen friends and then back at the man with the staff. “Looks like we just have to split our bounty two ways now.”
The man with the staff chuckled. “Looks like it. You grab the pouch, I’ll keep the little bastard pinned.”
The first man bent down and reached out for the pouch. Kang could tell by the look on the man’s face when he made contact with the book that he instantly regretted his decision. He began to scream, but his jaw locked and his scream became a sickening guttural moan that reminded Kang of the sound a dying animal would make before it took its last breaths. Small lines of blood trickled down from the corners of his eyes as he started to convulse.
The man with the staff jumped back and attempted to knock his friend free of the book’s deadly grip. He was not successful.
Froth and foam bubbled and dripped from the first man’s mouth until the tips of his fingers were charred and he fell over at an unnatural angle, stiff and broken.
The man with the staff lunged at Kang screaming with rage. Kang screamed aloud for the dagger and at the last moment before the staff had a chance to make contact with Kang’s head another time, the dagger buried itself into the back of the man’s neck and protruded through his adam’s apple, once again misting Kang with blood.
Kang rolled out of the way just before the man fell forward.
The book pulsed once more and pulled gentle bands of energy from the earth and into Kang’s core. He looked up at the cloudless sky, slowly breathing in and contemplating his next move. The little horse looked down at him and snorted. Kang wasn’t sure if the horse was grateful at having been rescued, or perturbed that he’d taken so long to find him. He cared little either way. He decided he would lay on the ground for a little while longer and let the book restore some of his energy.