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Twelve-year-old Hok sat perched high in a tree in a dreamlike state. All around her, Cangzhen was burning. Thick black smoke rushed over her on currents of air formed by the intense heat below. Her brothers, Fu, Malao, Seh, and Long, had already taken flight. It was time for her to do the same. Grandmaster had told them to scatter into the four winds, so into the wind she would go.
Hok spread her arms wide and let the warm, rising air lift her into the night sky. She welcomed the familiar feeling and soon found herself soaring through the darkness, circling higher and higher. Yet no matter how high she flew, she couldn't escape the smoke. It burned her eyes and obscured her vision. She had no choice but to descend once more. Maybe she could somehow fly around the trouble.
Below her, the Cangzhen compound came into view again. Through the smoky haze, Hok saw the outlines of a hundred fallen monks. She was as power-less to help them now as she had been during the attack. She frowned, and continued on.
Hok headed for Cangzhen's main gates and saw her former brother Ying just beyond them, his carved dragon face contorted into an angry scowl. Grand-master was with Ying, and so was her brother Fu. Hok watched as Ying cut Fu's cheek with his chain whip, then blasted a large hole clear through Grandmaster's upper body with a qiang.
Hok shuddered and blinked, and Ying disappeared like mythical dragons were rumored to do. Fu ran away, and Grandmaster slumped to the ground.
Behind her, Hok heard her youngest brother, Malao, giggle. She glanced back, but saw no sign of him. Instead, she caught a glimpse of a monkey demon dancing across a burning rooftop-
What is going on? Hok wondered. She had had strange, vivid dreams before, but never one quite like this. Everything was so clear and so . . . violent.
The images got worse.
Hok saw Grandmaster suddenly stand, streams of smoke drifting in and out of the bloody hole in his chest. He glanced up at Hok soaring overhead, and his wrinkled bald head tumbled off his shoulders.
Hok shuddered again. She had had enough. She wanted to wake up. She pinched herself-and felt it-but nothing changed. She was still gliding on smoky currents of air. She felt as if she were asleep and awake at the same time.
Perhaps the smoke had something to do with it. If she could just get away from the smoke, maybe she could find a way to wake up. Hok glided beyond the tree line, skimming the treetops. She flew as low as possible, hoping that the drifting smoke would rise above her.
She hadn't gotten very far into the forest when she passed over a large hollow tree and caught a glimpse of herself burying Grandmaster's headless body inside it. Curious, Hok landed on a nearby limb and watched herself finish the job, then drift off to sleep inside the tree.
As Hok stared through the smoky darkness, she saw a soldier with the head of a mantis sneak into the tree hollow and sprinkle something over her sleeping face.
She had been drugged. That was why she was having trouble waking up.
With this realization came a dizzying sensation. Part of Hok's mind raced back to her lessons with Grandmaster concerning certain types of mushroom spores and different plant matter that, if inhaled, could put a person into a dreamlike fog for days on end. Hok grew certain that she was now only half-asleep, which meant that she was half-awake. She made a conscious effort to pull herself into the waking world, and the smoke around her began to thin.
At the same time, Hok watched the soldier's impossible insect head in her dream. It transformed from that of a mantis into that of a man, and she recognized him. His name was Tonglong. He was Ying's number one soldier. Hok watched Tonglong lift her unconscious body and carry it out of the tree hollow.
Hok spread her arms in her dream and leaped into the air, following Tonglong. She glanced down and saw that two soldiers were now carrying her unconscious body along a trail. She was bound and hanging from a pole like a trophy animal.
Hok blinked and the scene below changed. She was now unbound, having a conversation in the forest with Fu, Malao, and a . . . tiger cub?
Hok blinked again, and a stiff breeze rose out of nowhere. It whisked the remaining smoke away, and the images went with it.
When the breeze stopped, Hok felt herself begin to tumble from the sky. She pinched herself again.
This time, she opened her eyes.
Hok found herself facedown on the muddy bank of a narrow stream. The earth was cool and moist, but the midday sun overhead warmed her bare feet and the back of her aching head. She raised her long, bony fingers to the top of her pounding temples and felt something she hadn't felt in years: hair. It was little more than stubble and caked with mud, but it was undeniable.
How long have I been asleep? Hok wondered. Where am I?
She lifted her head and her vision slowly gained focus. So did her other senses.
Hok twitched. She wasn't alone.
"You've been drugged," a voice purred from overhead. "Let me help you."
Hok looked into a nearby tree and her eyes widened. Lounging on a large limb was a lean bald man in an orange monk's robe. The man raised his bushy eyebrows and leaped to the ground with all the grace and nimbleness of a leopard. He approached Hok with smooth, confident strides.
"Dream Dust, I'm guessing," the man said. "If so, you'll be feeling the effects on and off for days. It's powerful stuff. It blurs the line between dreams and reality."
Hok stared, unblinking, at the man. If she remembered her training correctly, Dream Dust was derived from the pods of poppy flowers. Powerful stuff, indeed.
"My name is Tsung," the man offered. "It's Mandarin for monk. A simple name for a simple man. I am from Shaolin Temple originally, but I live outside the temple now among regular folk. Hence, my name."