Chapter 4: You Don’t Need a Weatherman…

Nash’s first stop was the police station. It looked as though a bomb had hit it. The front wall around the doorway was caved in, and shattered glass still lay scattered around on the pavement . Further inside, Nash could see the sergeant’s desk had been trashed. His heart began to pound, as his fingers went into his pocket, touching the ring. He got out of the rental car, running up to the small group of locals. Pearl was standing in front of the building, with Sergeant Dio beside her, surveying the damage.

The hallucination was vivid. Around Dio was an atmosphere of intense violence. It wasn’t visual, or even a sound. It was more like a smell, the scent of ozone and rain-wetted earth, with just a hint of blood. Nash had thrown back a couple of pills this morning. He shouldn’t have been feeling any of this. He swallowed, steeling himself, and strode past Dio, towards Pearl. “Something missing? A body, maybe?” She turned to him, surprised. “I’ve had a rough time. If I’ve gone completely insane, I hope that you’ll be able to tell me. Last night, I saw a woman who should be dead lead me to a graveyard in the woods full of more headstones than I’ve seen in one place in my entire life. I shot someone in a robe who was doing something with Dean Constantinou’s body. Skeletons burst from the earth, and attacked me, and you smell like you live in a wildfire.”

It was true. The smell around Pearl was that of untamed flame. Burning wood, the crackle of fat as it melts. The smell of smoke hung around her like a perfume. She stared at him for a few seconds, and then began to laugh softly. “Well. I didn’t expect things to go wrong quite this quickly.” She smiled apologetically, seeing the anger in his eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to mislead you. You’re right. This place isn’t normal. And Dean Constantinou’s body is missing. Something forced its way into the police department, tore it open, and took the body. Something…” She waved a hand towards the torn building. “Very strong. And very discreet. None of the deputies were in. The security cameras went out.”

Sergeant Dio looked over his shoulder, a frown on his face, his eyebrow raised. On a man that stoic, it was like a scream of outrage. The townsfolk were melting away, the crowd dispersing. Nash narrowed his eyes. The black rage was pouring into him, thick and cloying. “So everyone in this town knows about… Whatever the hell secret you’ve been keeping from me? Whatever secret nearly got me killed by skeletons, walking bones, last night? Don’t give me that little wide-eyed look! You knew that something was going to happen to me! And I am sick and tired of being given the runaround, here!”

“Dio. Tape off the area. I’m going to take Nash out to breakfast. It sounds like he’s had a very difficult night.” Sergeant Dio gave her a concerned look, but walked to the torn-up entrance to the police station. Pearl waved for Nash to follow her. The momentary boost of energy from righteous indignation was already fading. He was dog-tired. Fatigue was settling into his bones like lead, making his whole body ache. Pearl opened the door of her cruiser for him, and he slumped into the passenger seat. His head was so heavy it bent forward. He rested his forehead on the dash board. “Long night, I can tell. Alright. Take me through your night again, from the very beginning. Everything you can remember about it.”

He looked up at her. He could feel the weariness weighing him down. The certainty had been so strong, before. Now, with exhaustion came doubt. Fear. He might be wrong. Dear god, what if he was wrong? “Chief. Pearl. I suffer from schizophrenia. I medicate with anti-psychotics. They’re clearly not working anymore. I don’t think that anything I have to say-”

“You mentioned the town graveyard. I think I know the place.” She pulled off the pavement, onto a dirt road. The forest closed over the car. Memories of last night ran through his head. His heart pounded, and he could feel it pounding against his temples. After perhaps five minutes of bumpy driving, the car emerged from the forest, into a bright, green valley. And there, the countless headstones were standing, stark and monochromatic in the bright light of day. Halfway up the hill, mounds of white bones sat in the sun. They were far enough away that he couldn’t see the individual bones, but he didn’t have to walk up to check. His work from last night was still sitting there. It hadn’t been madness, or a dream. In the light of day, the bones seemed a little sad, forlorn, rather than terrifying. Nobody would know who they belonged to. “Those your work?” she asked, lightly, giving him a smile. His face was gray, as he stared wordlessly at the scattered remnants, sitting in plain view. His stomach was twisting, the memories flashing in his mind.

“What is this place?” he asked, softly, as though afraid he might send himself spiraling into a psychotic break if he spoke too loudly.

“Everyone who dies in this city is buried here. There have been thousands of men and women over the years, and every one of them deserved to be remembered. They were Heroes, one and all.” Nash fancied he could hear her pronounce the capital letters. More hallucinations. He stared out at the field. “They lived here, loved here, and died here, and they will be back. The Heroes we bring here, we show them their heritage through these grave markers. They are the reminders of all that has happened before them. It’s important. It helps them to understand just how important they are.”

“I broke their bones. I destroyed them.” He could feel the guilt stabbing him between the ribs. The desecration of the dead weighing heavily on him.

She shrugged. “They’re just bones. The part of them that mattered is not held in a bland mix of calcium and phosphate. Who they were, what they were, that’s all still there. All you broke were husks.” She started the car again, pulling a K-turn on the rich green grass, leaving muddy tracks. “You’re not a madman, Silas Nash. You’re seeing the things that are really there. You’re not schizophrenic, though I can see how you would be mistaken for it. Now. Tell me your story. I’ll tell you mine.”

And so he told her the story. The strange woman outside his room. She nodded sympathetically as he talked about the long hike through the cold forest. She narrowed her eyes as he mentioned the ritual. And she smiled when he mentioned the wind. “About what I thought, then. Someone took Dean’s body. I’m not sure why. I know a great deal about the people in this city, and I can’t think of anyone with a motive to do this.” She frowned, lost in thought for several long seconds. “They said they wanted to bring him back to life… Could be true. Could be a lie.”

“When I asked you before, I didn’t mean the graveyard. What is this place?” he asked, softly.

She chuckled. “Well. I’d say you wouldn’t believe me if I told you, but you’d probably get angry. This is Zion. One of the Five Keystones. It holds apart the world of men, and the world of stories.” She sighed. “Why do humans give a name to natural disasters? Why do hurricanes have names like Bob, and Carol, and Katrina, and Steven?” she asked, her voice soft. “I’ve always believed it’s because you feel it gives you power over them. By naming something you control it. You limit and define it. And sometimes, you ennoble it.” She smiled. “Ariel will be able to tell you more, for now. There is a proper order to these things. What is important is that I cannot interfere. I can have my men help you to unwind this case, to provide what aid they can. But you were brought here because you’re an outsider. You are not bound by the rules, by the laws, of our truce. You’ve been brought in because you can act where others cannot.”

“So, whatever you are. Do you actually need to be mysterious and withhold information, or is it simply psychologically satisfying?” he asked, an eyebrow raised. She sighed.

“Like I said. Rules. I can’t help you beyond certain things. You can ask questions, and I can answer them, if it won’t violate the rules.”

“Can I know the rules?” he asked, and the look she gave him was all the answer he needed. “Of course not. It was an act of purest optimism to have posed the question in the first place.” He considered for a few moments. “You said stories. What did you mean by that, exactly?”

“My view? I think there are forces in this world. Ancient forces. They existed before humanity. Like hurricanes, firestorms, earthquakes, seas, glaciers. These things had power. They could change things. But they didn’t have any motivation. They simply existed. Humans changed that. Humans saw these forces, and gave them names, and motivations. And in doing so, they made forces into people, with all that was good and bad about that change. They gave storms minds, and dreams, and hopes. And then, they called them monsters. Dragons, the dead, elemental forces, fae, yokai, spirits. They were other, and they were powerful, and they were frightening. So humans dreamed that they could master, and fight these things. And so Heroes arose. Human thoughts shape the world.”

He frowned. “No. Come on, that’s ridiculous. Humans come up with some interesting technology, but- thoughts are just that. Humans can believe that a storm has a grudge against them, or that they can get revenge against a white whale. But that doesn’t mean that it’s true. It’s just a delusion. A desperate desire to think that we can treat everything like a fellow human being, and have it work. You’re fucking around with me.” He shook his head. And then he saw the look in her eyes. The bitter disappointment. Her lips were drawn into a tight line, and he felt as though he had just failed an incredibly important test.

“You don’t have to believe me, Nash. The metaphysics of it all don’t matter. What matters is that there are powerful things out there, and Zion exists to keep them away from humanity. Monsters hunted humans, Heroes hunted monsters. Do you know what it feels like, to have existed for an appreciable fraction of forever, only to find your life taken by a human? Something that’s only existed for a few scant years, but which can cut your heart out if you let your guard down for a moment?” She smiled softly. “It can be scary. And rather exhilarating. And so, the truce was formed. Heroes and monsters live together in these places. And through the harmony here, the world of stories is kept separate from those of humans. No kraken tearing shipping freighters below the waves. No dragons roosting in Wall Street. No vampires ruling nations. And no heroes venturing forth to slay them for their actions. It’s an elegant system. And someone is about to ruin it all.”

“Do you know who they are?” She was silent. “Ah hah. So you do, and can’t tell me. Can you give me one good reason why I should trust you for even a moment?”

“You would be dead now if I hadn’t told Ariel to give you the gift of breath.” She stated in a matter-of-fact tone. “Your bones would be out there. You’re just a human, agent Nash, and you’re playing a game of monsters and gods. If you don’t trust me, then you aren’t going to stand a chance. And… vice versa.”

He stared at her. Her expression was deadly earnest, and firm. He relented after a couple of seconds. “Fine.” The car stopped at the diner. It was still early, 10 AM. “I’m not feeling very hungry.” He lied. His stomach growled loudly. It had been a very long night, and his last meal was drying on a field of shattered bones.

“Tell you what. I’ll get myself something, and if you want to eat, then you can feel free to have some food with me. Now come on.” She stepped out of the car, and after a moment of weighing his options, Nash followed. He was an FBI agent. He was highly trained, and he didn’t have to be cajoled into breakfast. But his rumbling stomach told him that he was going to eat, or it would make him pay.

He followed her into the diner. The last of the breakfast rush was filing out of the place as Pearl took a seat at one of the booths. Ariel gave the two of them a look, and pulled a chair up to the table. Today, she was wearing an apron over a matte-black t-shirt, exposing her arms. A pair of jeans with ripped knees completed the punk ensemble. If the apron was removed, the shirt would no doubt have the name of a band on it. “So. You survived, G-man.”

“Thanks to you.” Nash was quiet for a moment. The atmosphere around her was divine. Like the perfect breeze on a hot summer day, carrying heat away. Like the wind that shakes the leaves out of the trees in autumn. Like the fresh air of spring, clearing out dust and cobwebs. And a hint, just the barest hint, of the winter, and the sharp smell of frost. “I know you have a grudge against me, Ariel. I don’t know entirely why, but you saved my life with whatever you did when you kissed me.”

Ariel grunted. “Would have saved us all a lot of trouble if you had died.” But she seemed slightly mollified by his words, brushing her fingers through her blue-green hair. “I gave you the gift of breath. Power over air. It manifests differently in everyone who receives the gift.” She looked curious despite herself. “How did it change you? I figure, G-man like you, might have enhanced your sight, given you infallible aim, something along those lines…” She was all interest and enthusiasm, her hostility forgotten in the moment.

“Actually… My gun was fairly useless. I was attacked by these skeletons. Bones risen from the graveyard. The gun just chipped parts of the skull away. When I broke their bones by hand, they seemed to become inanimate again.”

Ariel nodded. “Makes sense. Magic requires a circuit. Interrupt the circuit, and the magic is grounded out. Necromancy… Doesn’t narrow things down much for you. I can think of a dozen people in this city who could do something like that. That Nekomata woman. The Hell Hound at the station. Old lady Wendigo. Izanami. Orpheus. Bone-Gnawer. But tell me, you’re a martial artist? Usually, the gifts enhance your greatest strength. I didn’t take you for the spiritual type, G-man.”

“I’m not much of a martial artist. I practiced it when I was young. I guess there just weren’t many other strengths to choose from.” He frowned. “It was like… Well. There are three things.” He held up a finger. “One, I wasn’t getting out of breath. I was fighting as hard as I could, but I wasn’t short of breath or panting. My body was getting tired, but I kept going.” He held up another finger. “Second, I was… more aware. I could feel the swings before I saw them. I was prepared for their attacks. It made fighting easy.” He took a deep breath. “And third, I can smell things on people. Or feel them. I’m not sure what the right word is, but Pearl smells like a bonfire. And you smell like…” He hesitated.

Ariel stared him in the eye. “Say it.” He swallowed hard. Just saying it might make it real.

“You’re the wind.”

Ariel was poker-faced for a moment. “Let me get you two something to eat.” She stood up, bustling into the kitchen. The tension broke, and Pearl smiled at him.

“Good job. You impressed her.” Pearl smiled. “You didn’t favor the skills she thought you’d favor. She likes people who can surprise her like that.” Nash frowned, as Pearl brought out a plates. A large stack of pancakes, adorned with fresh strawberries, and sticky-sweet maple syrup, were placed in front of him. A cup of fresh green tea sat beside it. He considered asking for a cup of coffee, but the effervescent scent attracted him. He took a sip, and was glad he had. He felt suddenly calm, and clear-headed.

“So, Pearl.” Ariel moved back to the kitchen to get her food. “Do you have a gift for me?” he asked, a light smile on his face for what felt like the first time that day.

“Not quite yet. It’s not the right time, yet. You wouldn’t be able to handle it, anyway.” She frowned. “Things are going to go bad in this town. You’ll learn about the details over time. For now, concentrate on the investigation. You need to find the reason for all this if we’re to live through the week.”

Nash studied Pearl’s face. The bags under her eyes were deeper than they had been the day before. “Pearl. How much do you know about what’s really going on, here?”

Pearl smiled softly, a sad look in her eyes. “Everything.”

“And why can’t you just tell them? Why can’t you make them understand? Wouldn’t it be simple?”

“The information that you’re searching for has to be found in the proper order, to avoid something horrible happening. If the culprit is simply revealed, her motive given, there will be blood on the streets. This place will fall. And the world of humans and the world of stories will mix and flow, like candle wax. Humans will be preyed upon by monsters. Monsters will be preyed upon by Heroes. The truce will be broken, and we will be at each other’s throats again. A thousand years of peace will collapse overnight. You need to find the truth, and figure out the right way to solve this problem. And I am… constrained, from interfering directly.”

“Someone’s dead, Pearl. There aren’t a lot of happy solutions to a problem like this.” Nash cut out a chunk of pancakes. The sweet tang of strawberry and the smooth texture of the pancakes blended in his mouth. In spite of the darkness of the topic, he couldn’t help but enjoy the taste. It made things feel a bit better, for just a little while. How long had it been since he’d ate well regularly? How long had it been since he’d had anyone to care, to keep him from simply skipping meals and ignoring his body’s needs?

“I know. But I’m counting on you to find them. You’ve got to.” Pearl looked up, as Ariel arrived with her food, and took a seat. “Ariel. I wanted you to teach him, today. Things are going to get bad, and soon. People are already growing suspicious of one another.” Ariel nodded gravely.

“Meet me out back after you finish your pancakes, G-man.” Ariel stood up, removing her apron, and walked out through the back door of the restaurant. Nash treated himself to an extra strawberry. He’d been right about the band name, but he wouldn’t have taken Ariel for a Sonny and Cher fan. There’s a surprise. He stood up, and followed her, after taking one last sip of his green tea. He turned to Pearl.

“Today, we’re going to check out that shack. Without a body, without proof of this being a straight-up murder, I don’t think that I can get us any help from the FBI field office. The disappearance of the body will buy me a few more days, enough time to investigate, but we might as well be on our own out here. The more evidence we can find, the more of a case we can make, the more I can keep them off our backs. After I finish up with Ariel, I’ll meet your team out there, alright? I’ll walk over to the police department to pick up my car.” He paused for a moment. “I may not believe this bullshit about monsters and gods. There’s something strange going on here, maybe even supernatural, but that’s all beyond me. There’s been a crime committed. We’ll find out who’s responsible. And what happens then is going to be justice, not revenge.” With that, he strode through the back, and out into the broad, grassy, tree-filled lot behind the diner.

“The first thing I remember,” intoned Ariel, with the voice of one who was imparting a great wisdom. “Was the scent of a human. He shone with sweat, and had been walking many miles. I blew across him, and he bowed his head in gratitude, and thanked me, and called me Zephyr. I remember throwing a bolt of lightning, to lance a tree that displeased me. A man took an ember from it, and he said a prayer to me, and called me Thor. I remember filling the sails of men with air, to carry them across the great waters. And they worshiped me, and called me Aer. I am the wind, human. I am the wind that blows, that carries, that scourges, that soothes. The storm and the breeze. You have come to this place, and by doing so, you have made a prayer in my name, too. My gift is breath, and you could not live without me.” She had changed. It wasn’t visible, but the atmosphere made it obvious. She wasn’t some angry young woman, headstrong and rebellious. She was old, older than writing, older than civilization, older than life itself. She was the storm, and she was never trapped, because she could flow around any obstacle. You couldn’t catch her. You couldn’t tax her. You could only hope that when she passed, she would favor you a little. He swallowed. No wonder she’d had a bad attitude towards him.

“I didn’t take you for a martial artist, either.”

She snorted. “I’m not a martial artist. I am martial arts. One of the four great principles. I am the wind, and I am movement.” She shook out her shoulders, her back straightening. “Attack me.”

Nash was not an idiot. His entire childhood had been filled with this little trick. He gave her a frank look. “This is going to be painful, and humiliating, isn’t it?”

She smirked. “Of course it is. But it’s also going to teach you. Attack.”

He took a deep breath, and shifted his weight from foot to foot. Then, he swung. It was a bad strike. Aikido had taught him a few methods of striking, but they’d all been focused entirely on initiating an attack that would then be defended against. He aimed for her shoulder, without enough power to truly do any damage. She didn’t even bother to dodge as he struck her, his fist lacking any real energy. She gave him a dour frown. “I’m- I don’t like to hit people. It doesn’t feel good to hurt someone.”

“Ah, I see. Don’t have the guts to hit a woman, hmmm? Only the guts to shoot one dead?” She asked, her voice full of scorn. He winced, and wilted slightly. It was that or get angry. “You know the principles of Aikido. A counter is only as strong as the force behind the initial blow. You can’t do damage to someone who doesn’t want to do damage to you. So what exactly is it that you care about? What can I say that’s going to fill you with rage?” She studied his face, and frowned. “Disgusting. Heroes have passion, Nash. Fine, then.” She reached into her pocket, and took out a fruit knife. “Let’s see if we can harness your fear for your life, instead.” She extended the blade with a perfect knife-fighter’s stance, the light glimmering off the tiny, sharp piece of steel.

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“That will make this very simple. Just stay still, then, while I stick you.” She lunged forward. and changed. She wasn’t a woman anymore. She was a sharp wind, a sandstorm, nothing but speed and cutting edges. His arms moved instinctively in response to the wind rushing around her. His hands closed around empty air, completely failing to pin her down. He looked down, and his tie was gone, leaving just a small knot of fabric wrapped around his throat. She was a person rather than a force once more, standing a few feet from him. She was holding the black silk tie in her off hand, a smirk on her face. “Not prescient, then. You’re just very, very fast. You can feel the disturbance in the air, the sudden movement, and react to it faster than any normal person could. But it can only give you so much warning, and you can only move so fast. If you run into someone faster than you…” She shook her head. “Movement is one of the four basic principles of martial arts. Knowing where to set your foot. Knowing the world around you. If you can sense it coming, and you can move quickly, you can avoid the blow. You can strike before your enemy.” She crossed her arms, and looked over across the lot. “See that tree, with the lightning burned branch near the top?” He nodded. “Run to it and back. Quick as you can.”

Maybe he could’ve been resentful, or angry. But it was familiar. Comfortingly so, really. A memory of childhood, and the hard times then. In one fluid movement, he was off and running. His lungs pulled air in easily, no matter how hard he ran. The weakness was in the acid that built up in his muscles, but over a brief sprint, that would be fine. He placed his feet carefully, trying to watch the ground. As his foot descended, halfway towards the tree, he felt a sudden apprehension. Half a second later, his foot should have hit the ground, and instead found nothing but empty air. He pinwheeled his arms wildly, and fell hard on his face, scraping his elbows. The wind rushed out of him in a single painful gasp. He panted for breath, eyes wide. “Did I say you could stop? Keep running, you’re on the clock!”

He scrambled to his feet. His ankle didn’t feel sprained, although he was stinging quite a bit. He began running again. Again, he felt the apprehension. This time, he lengthened his stride just a little bit. His heel caught on the root this time, and he shook, but kept his balance. “Keep going!”

The ground was treacherous. Full of little pits and gullies, hidden by a sea of grass that made everything look smooth and level. Roots waited to snare his feet. A rusty rake ready to break his nose if he stepped on it. All set up to force him to be careful. How had she known? Or did she just keep her back yard like this? “When you fight, your environment is always a part! If it’s not your ally, you can be damn sure it’s your enemy. You can’t look down at the ground to see where your feet are in the middle of a fight. You need a picture of your surroundings, so that you know where every step will take you, before your eyes fall on them! You can feel the wind, G-man! Why not act like it?!”

The run back went smoother. He could feel the gullies. The places where air was, instead of earth. His movement became more confident. He slipped a couple of times on dew-slick grass, but kept his feet beneath him as he moved. He stopped in front of her, panting, and she smirked. “No bad. Need a moment?” His legs were aching. His heart was pounding. But his breath came in smooth, steady movements, always drawing exactly as much oxygen as he needed. He stood up straight. “Good.” Once more, she vanished. She was elemental.. This time, his fingertips trailed across her arm, almost grabbing it as the knife flickered out. She pulled back, and his pants fell to the ground, hanging around his ankles, leaving him standing in a pair of cotton briefs. “Tighty whities? Damn, and here I was hoping you walked around in a leather thong. I thought G-men were supposed to be sexual deviants.” She smirked.

“Isn’t there supposed to be… You know, katas I should do for this kind of thing? Daily practice? Letting my muscles move without my brain thinking about it?” he asked. The buttons on his pants were gone. The entire zipper had been excised with a surgeon’s precision. Pulling them up would be an exercise in futility. He kicked them aside, freeing his legs, trying not to blush, and failing horribly.

“Sure. I’ll bet you know them. But I teach the fundamentals, in the most basic sense possible. You don’t have time for a lifetime of practice, G-man. You’ve got a couple of days, at most. You need to learn the hard way, which is with no practice at all. You’re going to learn with every lethal encounter you meet, and trust me, there will be plenty.” She put her hands on her hips. “Now-” He could see it coming. Even before she was moving, his hand reached out, and her hand was stopped, an inch from his face. His fingers were wrapped tightly around her wrist. She smirked. She’d been nothing but wind, but he’d caught her, turning her from a force of nature into a person again “Not bad.” Her other hand landed in his solar plexus. The wind was knocked out of him, and it refused to return. He was left choking and gasping, releasing her hand. She used it to smack him across the face. He spun, and landed on the ground.

She stood over him as his breath returned by degrees. “You’re going to be fighting a lot of women here, G-man. Every single one of them is going to be stronger, older, faster, and more willing to kill than you. You’d better not underestimate them. You’d damn well better be smarter than them, because it’s all you humans have. You need my power, and I don’t want you disgracing it, understand?” He nodded, and forced himself to his feet, standing slowly, exaggerating the tenderness of his movements. Then his arm blurred out, as the black rage fell over him. He hated when people mocked him.

His wild blow hit nothing but air. She was still standing, her body tilted just to the side. She’d moved only a couple of inches. Both of her hands were on his wrist. He felt the twist, and surrendered to it. His arm wrenched in its socket, and he was off of his feet, twirling through the air. An old instinct found him, and he slapped the ground as he fell, using his free hand. As his palm struck the grass, something surged inside of him. The grass around him flattened out, as a miniature cyclone swirled under him, cushioning the landing like an airbag. He barely even had the wind knocked out of him. Ariel stood over him, an eyebrow raised, a look of begrudging respect on his face. “Not bad. Not bad at all, G-man. What do you know? You might just wind up being able to do this, if you can keep learning.”

She sat down next to him. He elected to stay on the ground for a few moments more. “Why did you give me the gift?” he asked.

“The quest. I give my power to anyone who can prove themselves worthy of it. I’m the easy one. I’ll give a gift to anyone who will travel for it. You left your comfort zone, you explored, you took a chance and came here to Zion. That was the easy part. The hard part, now, is mastering the gift I gave you, because I’ll tell you this: I don’t accept anyone as a master. The gift is the same. If you can’t figure out how to work with me, then you’re going to die in this place.” She gave him a slow look, up and down. “What are the three lessons that you’ve learned from me, today?” She asked, crossing her arms.

He thought. He hated these questions. When someone had specific answers that they wanted, and expected you to read their mind. He took a breath, and tried to focus. He hated these questions, but this was important. “Don’t try to punch women?”

She smirked. “Not a bad one. You shouldn’t be punching at all. Aikido’s not about striking, or starting a fight. It’s about ending a fight. You let your enemy punch first.”

He frowned. “Watch where I’m walking?”

She barked out a laugh. “Yes! Know your surroundings. The wind can make you fast, but it doesn’t make you psychic. Feel what’s around you. And listen to those feelings. The ability to plan is one of the great talents of humans. And you’re damn well going to need it, if you don’t want to die. Now, the third one.”

He took a deep breath, and thought back to his mother. What was it she said…? “You don’t have to reach your opponent before he reaches you. You only have to get out of the way before he reaches you.”

Her expression suddenly became rather cold. “That’s right. If I take a swing at you, I’ve got to reach several feet. You only have to move just enough to be out of reach. Even if you’re slower than me-” The blow came suddenly. Both of them were sitting, but that didn’t make it any less vicious. He tilted away, head falling back. Her arm was fully extended, her fist where his nose had just been. He’d moved a fraction of an inch to avoid it. She smiled. “You just have to be fast enough to not be there anymore.” She stood up. “Think about these things. Keep thinking about them. Get faster. Use my gift well.” She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t misuse it. Or I’ll know.” The words hung in the air, as she walked back into the diner. He looked down at himself. Those pants had been a present from his instructor after his graduation from the academy. They’d been the nicest pair he owned. He was going to have to make a stop back at the hotel.

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