Si’s muscles flex as he swings his long fighting stick toward me.
He looks like an avenging angel; fast and deadly, with no mercy. His short black hair is slicked back off his forehead, and his dark brown eyes are focused on me like he’s already planning my death. Mostly those same eyes are wreathed in smiles, with lines crinkling around the edges. But in a fight, he’s hard and unforgiving.
To him there’s nothing more than to win or lose, to live or die.
Perhaps he’s right. I know he’s only trying to save me from my enemies.
I block his next attack with my own fighting stick then leap back out of range, landing a quick swipe to his side as I go. Si’s expression doesn’t change.
I’m sure it hurt like hell—there wasn’t enough time to pull up his supernatural defenses—but he’s a pro at hiding his emotions.
As for me? I try to hide what I’m thinking, but it doesn’t always work. Like right now; sweat’s dripping off me, and my legs and arms feel like jelly. We’ve been at this for a couple hours, and I’m sure my face says exactly what I think of continuing this training session.
But there’s no stopping til Si tells me to stop.
Fight and retreat.
Smash and return.
I’m tempted to ask him to call time, but I know I have to fight on. If I give up, Si will make it ten times worse. He’s big on lessons that will make me stronger.
Life doesn’t just stop because you want it to. If this was a real fight, do you think your enemies would let you take a break?
Si shifts his fighting stick to the other side, his loose cotton trousers swishing as he moves gracefully into a different fighting stance and attacks again—this time slamming his stick toward my midsection.
I block, then attack, kicking one leg high toward his face.
He evades and steps back. “You’re not concentrating, Mei. You’ll get yourself killed,” he says, frowning. His voice is gravelly—some long-ago fight messed with his vocal chords—and it makes him sound grumpy all the time. He was probably defending me, for all I know.
I narrow my eyes and glare at him, but don’t reply. I don’t know why he’s not suffering more from the high intensity training he’s been punishing us with. I’m fit and strong, but somehow he’s always fitter and stronger.
He’s tall and lean, with zero body fat, and a mix of German and Korean ancestry that gives him an unusual look. I’ve never been able to figure out how old he is, although he’s much older than me, of that I’m sure. He’s been one of my mentors since I was a little kid, one of the protectors sent to keep me safe from my hunters, but as far as I’m concerned he’s always looked exactly the same. With his smooth olive skin and thick dark hair, he could pass for any age between twenty-five and forty-five. Given that he’s a supernatural, he could be even older, and I wouldn’t be able to tell.
It’s his chameleon shifter genes, I guess. He could be two hundred and still look the same age.
A shiver runs along the spell web clinging to my skin, alerting me to another presence nearby; Jeff—my other mentor—has stepped into the training ring alongside Si. The older man might have slowed down with age, but he’s a dangerous opponent, and uses whatever tricks he can.
Like surprise, for example.
Luckily I have a secret weapon—my unique link to the spell web that covers all supernaturals makes it impossible for anyone to sneak up on me at close quarters.
I turn, pushing out a back kick, attempting to put Jeff off and give myself a few seconds to prepare for fighting the two of them at once.
Jeff avoids my kick—just—and I feel the movement behind me as Si attacks again.
Sidestepping, I manage to avoid a stick to the head.
I strike out at Si with my stick, landing it against his side, even as I avoid another attack from him.
I twist in midair, landing with a thump, and roll into a low fighting position.
Jeff can’t quite keep up with my movements, and I turn fast behind Si to land a kick on Jeff’s stomach. He grunts and moves backward.
I take no satisfaction from scoring a point over Jeff. It’s like hurting an old faithful dog—a Rottweiler with big teeth, and a nasty streak—but an old dog nonetheless.
Even worse, today he’s wearing a lurid Hawaiian shirt instead of his usual dark shirt and tie. He’s even got a bit of salt-and-pepper stubble on his face, to go with his slightly longer-than-regulation hair.
He looks like a damn tourist instead of a wily Supernatural Intelligence Group agent.
“You’re scared of the new SIG agent,” says Jeff, his breath puffing as he tries to recover from my kick. He pronounces each of the letters in the acronym with only a hint of his New York accent. “Maybe he’ll be a stickler for the rules. Won’t let you go off on your own like I do.”
He smirks at me, his bright blue eyes dangerously perceptive.
That’s how Jeff wins his fights these days—through mind-fucking his opponent. He’s not fast or particularly fit anymore, he’s just tough and smart.
And it works.
Despite the fact I know it’s an attempt to make my emotions take over and put me off, I feel anger and resentment rising up. Jeff’s retiring from the SIG. He’s quitting his job, leaving me, like I’m some damn piece of furniture he doesn’t want any more.
Who the hell does he think he is? He doesn’t know what I’m feeling.
I take a deep breath and let it out, trying to release my animosity. I narrowly sidestep a punch from Jeff, only to have Si land a solid hit to my leg. Dammit.
My resistance crumbles along with my leg. I stagger to one side, barely escaping another slam from Si’s stick. Who am I kidding? I don’t want Jeff to go. It feels like I’m losing a limb.
He’s the one who figured out how to keep me safe. He’s been around a long time; he and Si watched me grow up, looking after scraped knees and drying off my tears, which is more than my real father ever did.
And maybe Jeff’s also a little on target. What if the new guy is a total jerk? I try to imagine the replacement SIG agent. All I can picture is some starched-up dude in a suit, which is about the last kind of person I want following me around. I can take care of myself.
And just like that, Jeff lands a punch to my side and I spin backward. I only just manage to stay on my feet.
“I heard he goes by the rules,” Jeff taunts. “Talked to an old friend at the cadet academy. He’s fresh out of training and won’t want to ruin his chances of promotion.”
The words make my hands clench tighter around my fighting stick. Another ripple goes through the spell web and I finally use it in my defense. I reach out along the glowing grid and push a pulse of energy toward Si. He blinks and shakes his head, stepping back out of my range. I can’t do the same to Jeff, because he’s more human than super, but I hit out at him with my stick.
I’m too distracted to even get close.
Desperately, I try to focus. I know I won’t get any points for taking on the two of them at once. Si barely counts Jeff as an opponent these days. The spell web ripples in warning, and Si’s weapon slams into my side, knocking the breath out of my lungs with his precise positioning. Where Jeff is all brute strength and trickery, Si is precision and accuracy. I stumble backward, gasping for breath.
Jeff takes the opportunity offered and kicks my legs out from under me. I land on my back; stars fill my vision, and for a millisecond, I wonder what I’m supposed to do. They’ve got me on the ground, two against one. Si and Jeff loom over me, both waiting for my next move. They’re not stupid enough to think I’ll stay down.
There’s really no question what I’ll do next.
I seldom use it. Si says it’s a crutch and has banned it in the ring. But desperate times...
And Jeff started it. He cheated first.
Water from the nearby fishpond slams into the two men towering over me before either of them knows what’s happening. It knocks them both down, pushing them away so I can scramble to my feet. Seconds later, I use my stick to strike three precise hits to both Si and Jeff.
This time Si knows it’s coming and has already pulled his protective chameleon scales over his skin, and probably doesn’t feel it. Jeff rolls away with a grin, and I can see he’s enjoying my response.
I strike again with my stick, directly at his smug expression.
But Jeff’s been doing this too long to be caught by a cheeky sideswipe to the head and he ducks back out of range.
“I’m thinking I might not come back, like I planned. I might take a long cruise. Maybe meet someone nice,” he says.
Even though I know it’s a lie designed to knock me off balance, I still let his words affect me. I stumble and glance toward Jeff. He knows I’m strung out by his impending retirement, and he’s using it against me. I wish he’d give it a break sometimes. He’s always testing me, trying to make me stronger, unbreakable. Sometimes I wish he’d just say, well done, you’re doing great.
Instead, Jeff just raises his eyebrows at me. “You better keep an eye on both opponents, Mei. You never know when the other will strike.”
Again, a ripple along the spell web alerts me seconds before Si slams his stick into my left thigh. I crumble to the ground, but manage to turn it into a roll at the last minute, and come back to my feet, a little bit away from Si. I turn toward him, ready to take him down once and for all.
Behind me, Jeff speaks again. “I came out to let you know your father’s coming tomorrow. He’s going to do the debrief himself.”
I drop my guard in surprise. My father? I haven’t seen him since I was four years old. An emotion I can’t name grabs hold of my heart. I turn to Jeff again. “What?”
An arm snakes around my neck from behind and pulls me into a lock position, slamming me into the ground and holding my face to the floor. I struggle, but can’t break the hold. My concentration is shot; I can’t access my magic. Even the spell web feels like it’s smothering me. It tingles along my skin, making my magic short circuit.
“Enough,” I mutter. “You win.” They’re cheating, not letting me fight Si properly. They’ve been doing more and more dirty fighting in the last year. I don’t know why I’m surprised every time it happens.
“You can’t give up like that,” Si says. His voice is inches from my ear. He speaks softly, with only the barest trace of a Korean accent. “You’ll die.”
“It’s not a fair fight. Jeff knows all the buttons to press. I won’t be fighting someone who knows that much about me.”
“You don’t know that. You have to train for all eventualities. It’s the only way to survive,” Si replies, before letting me go.
“Is he really coming?” I uncurl from my prone position on the ground, but remain seated, my legs crossed.
Jeff hesitates, then nods. “He is. Said he wants to meet this new agent personally.”
“He didn’t do that when you started.” I don’t remember much about it, but I’m certain my father didn’t come out twelve years ago when Jeff first came on the job.
“Maybe he didn’t think you’d make it to twenty at that point,” Si says. “There’s less than two months to go now. There’s more at stake.”
I try not to let the words hurt. Si isn’t trying to sting me, not like Jeff would have in the ring. He’s just stating a fact. What I am means more to my father than who I am. He’s not coming to visit with his daughter; he’s coming to protect an asset. My father thinks I’m important—not because I’m his daughter, but because of something inside me, something he thinks I can do. This new agent probably means more to him than I do.
I’m not even entirely sure why my father feels so strongly about protecting me. I know I have enemies, people who believe I’m dangerous. They’ve been trying to kill me from the moment I was born. I don’t even know these people, I’ve done nothing more sinister my entire life than run and hide out. Sometimes I wish I could actually do something to piss off one of my hunters. At least then I’d feel like I had some kind of control over my life.
The irony is, they’re all wrong. I don’t have anything different or special inside me. At least, no more than every other supernatural out there. The ability to manipulate water, and to sense when someone is coming up behind me on the spell web. I keep waiting for the day they realize it’s all a mistake, a miscalculation someone made at my birth. Everything that’s special about me has been taught to me by Jeff and Si, through blood, sweat, and tears from the age of eight.
None of it involves magic or an all-consuming power that could destroy the world.
Si extends his hand out to me, and I take it, letting him pull me to my feet. I sigh. “I’m going for a swim.”
“Don’t be too long. He’ll be here soon,” Jeff says. There’s nothing but concern in his voice now. He’s made his point.
I nod, but don’t look back as I head along the path between the trees that goes to the river. It might have been part of my training, but Jeff’s words are like a thorn under my skin. I need time to lick my wounds and regain my equilibrium.
My steps get faster the closer I am to the water. Soon I’m all but sprinting toward the roar of the waterfall. I emerge out of the forest next to the pool where the river has widened beneath the surging waterfall; the spray hits my body and I let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding. As I gaze up at thirty feet of water gushing over the rocks, I can literally feel the power leaking into the air around me. This place has been my savior more times than I can count. It’s not just because I have water magic; it’s that it soothes me, it envelops me. It shaves off the hard edges of my life and gives me peace again.
I strip down to my bra and panties and start the climb to the top. My body falls into a familiar rhythm, and I let the energy soak into my body, consciously allowing my fears and worries to slip away.
By the time I reach the top, I’ve almost recovered; I’m clear headed and ready to face anything. I hold my arms out to the side, take a deep breath, close my eyes, and dive over the edge into the water.
Hidden Dragon: Dragon Rising Series, Book 1
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