Chapter 18:

The Outer Sect VIII - "I Know You Can Do It"

Destiny Marine

The days continued on with the same routine - morning assembly, morning classes, afternoon physical education, afternoon cultivation. Isaac couldn’t tell if he was making progress or not - apparently, when a cultivator ascended from 1A to 1B, they would feel the Rddhi filling their body, threatening to push beyond its limits, but Isaac still felt half-empty. He remained lackluster in class, lackluster in running, and lackluster in combat. Demetrius beat him in every match, but at least he was respectful about it; on the other hand, Kieran continued his taunting.

Not even the joys of showering with other men at the end of the day could lift Isaac from his frustration. The walk back home and the trudge up his apartment steps didn’t do much to help him either. A whole week had passed - not only had some unawakened cadets unlocked their powers, but both Demetrius and Oksana reached Circuit 1C. Even though he was still ahead of the majority of cadets, Isaac felt like he was falling behind.

At the end of this day, the moon hung high in the night sky, but Isaac only gave it a passing glance as he stepped inside his room. As he closed the door behind him, he found a piece paper waiting for him, presumably slipped in beneath the crack below his door. The scrawl across the sheet looked lazy, including parts where it looked like the author couldn't even be bothered to lift the pen off the page from one letter to the next.

Filled with suspicion - perhaps that officer Connor wanted more money out of him - Isaac gave the paper a look.

To my esteemed recruit,

I’m a very popular and busy and beautiful girl and haven’t been able to check on you this week, but I hope you’re out there kicking ass right now. Moving to a new place can be scary - I remember how I felt when I first moved here. Don’t get the wrong idea, though. I handled those feelings with grace and precision.

But enough about me. How are you doing? I’ll be free tonight if you want to say hello. And perhaps this weekend you can make use of your coupon.

Coupon? Isaac glanced at the bottom of the paper and found more writing.


Cash in whenever you like. Only available at participating locations (ie, the place Reed chooses).

Isaac stifled a laugh and shook his head. He tucked the paper inside his jacket and sat down on the floor, gazing at the ceiling. Life kind of sucks but life is kind of neat, too.

As if to emphasize that, there was a knock on his door. “Isaac, heeeellloooo!”

Recognizing that voice, Isaac called out for her to come inside. Babs stepped through the unlocked door. She must’ve just come from the shower, since her hair looked damp and she only wore a light nightgown. She tilted her head, giving the sight of Isaac sitting on his wooden floor a curious look.

“I’m just…thinking,” Isaac explained. Before he could get up, Babs sat down across from him. She held something in her hands, deliberately placing them to block his view of the object.

“Thinking about what? I feel like I haven’t seen you this whole week.” She leaned her back against the door. “Guess we’ve both been busy with cultivating, huh?”

Babs raised a hand and snapped her fingers; red Rddhi sparked through it. “I hit Circuit 1B today.”

Isaac’s eyes widened. “You did?”

“Yessir. I stayed behind on the field today to get some extra outdoor cultivation in and all of a sudden, wham, it just hits you.”

“That’s great,” Isaac said. He felt bad - his voice probably wasn’t as encouraging as he wanted it to be.

Babs pointed at him. “And now that I’m 1B, I’m gonna get you there, too.”


“Of course! We made a promise, Isaac. For change. No man left behind. And to signify that promise, I made you something in class." She offered up her hands, displaying the standard-issue cultivator marine combat knife. The only difference was the slip of paper wrapped around the handle, which featured a lightening bolt drawn with a graceful brush. For a girl who beat the stuffing out of street urchins, her hands could also apparently move quite definitely.

"It's not much," she explained. "I had Reed show me how to do it. This a Lightning Shock Charm - could for one use. You stab someone and pour some Rddhi into it - the charm will activate and give a light shock. Nothing crazy, but I hope you'll think of little ol' Babs when you use it."

Here Isaac was, walling in self-pity, while she was doing something nice for him. He gingerly took the knife from him and looked it appreciatively. "The Lightning Shock Knife. Maybe it'll save my life one day, and I'll have you to thank for it."

"Don't worry about it, it's what friends are for." Her voice moved from encouraging to gentle. “We haven’t been able to talk recently, but it looks like you’ve been struggling with something.”

Isaac set the knife down and then placed his hands behind his head. “Yeah…I feel like I’m not progressing fast enough. And…” He couldn’t help himself. He wouldn’t reveal the full story, but he just had to tell somebody, and Babs had proven herself to be a good friend. “My brother died a little over a week ago, and I couldn’t even have a funeral or anything…I just left my hometown where I lived my whole life, so I’m now somewhere completely new…I lost my job and now I’m in the military.”

He sighed, trying not to sound pitiable. “There’s just so much going on. I feel like there’s a big weight on my shoulders. It’s all so overwhelming.”

People were supposed to be strong in a military power like Arcadia, so getting that off his chest made Isaac’s face red with shame. In contrast, Babs gave him a sympathetic smile and scooted across the floor closer to him, close enough to where their legs almost touched.

“You remember our lessons with Shokahu?” she began. “Circuit 1 is the Vegetative-Invertebrate stage, right? That means, in cultivation terms, we’re just newborns. Babies don’t ask to get born; they just are. One day, they’re thrust into this brand new world where they gotta eat and sleep and do all these other different things. Don’t you think it’s overwhelming for them, too?”

Isaac raised an eyebrow. “But they’re babies. They don’t know any better.”

“Then shouldn’t we take inspiration from them?” Babs asked. “That’s our curse - that we’re aware of both our own limitations and the limitations imposed by the world. That’s because we let our mind get filled up by distractions. Worries and fears. Babies don’t have any of those. A baby’s been carried around his whole life - do you think he’s afraid he’ll never be able to walk? No, a baby just goes out and does it. He lifts himself up and crawls forward until he finally can stand on his own two feet and walk along. Once you learn how to walk, you don’t ever forget - so the hardest part is learning how to do it.”

She leaned forward. “That’s what Circuit 2 is. Walking. So, the hardest part is moving up Circuit 1 - lifting yourself, crawling along, walking along, letting go of fears, and just doing it.”

Isaac stared at her in amazement. “Did Shokahu teach you all that?”

Babs smiled. “I'm just a goddamn genius. Now c’mon, I have an idea.”

She spun herself around, then gestured at Isaac to do the same. “On cold winter days in Neponset, my mother and I would sit down together like this,” Babs explained. Isaac felt a sudden warmth when she scooched backwards and connected their backs. “They say it’s warmer this way. You think so?”

Isaac placed his hands on the ground and looked at the ceiling. “It might be.”

Babs laughed, then spoke softly. “I never had any siblings, but my parents passed away, too. They starved so much that they grew weak enough for disease to do ‘em in. I feel a ton of pressure, too. I want so badly to change this country, but I was scared I would never be strong enough to do it.”

She leaned her head so the back of their heads touched. Auburn hair mingled with brown. “But then, last night, something just clicked. ‘Becoming strong enough’ to create a "truly just world" is such a vague concept. And that’s far off in the future. All that matters is the here and now. There’s no point in worrying about reaching Circuit 5 or 6. The only thing on your mind should be making it through the day. Making it through this next session. You don’t achieve progress by looking towards the end of it. You achieve progress by focusing directly on what’s in front of you. See what I mean?”

Isaac didn’t answer at first. Instead, he ruminated on her message, slowly realizing that the two were breathing in unison. He let his worries about the future drift away. All he focused on was the feeling of the small of her back, the cool wood floor beneath him, and the slight threads produced by all of it. An unknown amount of time passed with the two just sitting there, saying nothing, soaking in each other’s company and the world of the room around them.

“Yeah…I think so.”


Later that night, the moonlight reflected off of Reed’s aviator shades as she stood in the middle of the training field. A few fellow late night cultivators were out here as well, under the watchful gaze of the Naval Police, but Reed paid them no mind.

“So, you’ve come to me for help?” she asked with a smug grin, her arms crossed against her chest. “You’ve certainly picked wisely. Though I’m not known for my endurance…or martial arts skill…or all-around physical prowess…or teaching ability…I’m sure I’ll make you a better fighter.”

Isaac nodded along. After that cultivation session with Babs, he felt lighter on his feet and quicker in his mind. When he asked Reed to help him with physical combat, she shrugged and said, “Sure, why not?”

Now that she was out here, she took much more enthusiasm in it. “Alright, Isaac, just ‘cuz I’m a woman, you don’t have to go easy on me.” She flicked off the aviator shades; when they landed on the grass, they snapped in two. Reed looked at them in mute disappointment for a moment before turning her attention back to Isaac. “Give me your grips, give me a punch, give me a throw.”

Steeling himself, Isaac did all three, taking Reed down to the ground without any issue. She stood back up and dusted herself off. “Well, you certainly got the technique down. Are you having issues with the actual fight?”

Memories of being tossed to the ground over and over echoed in Isaac’s head. He gave a reluctant nod.

“Let’s practice that, then,” Reed decided. “Come at me like you would with Kieran.”

The two battled for a moment. Isaac came out swinging, but his punches only hit air. Reed was already at his back; she kicked the back of a kneecap, sending him to a kneeling position, where she subsequently slipped a thumb around his neck to secure him in a chokehold. She gave a light squeeze to indicate her victory, then let go.

As he stood up, Isaac kept his cool this time - frustration was a natural thing, but “improving his skill at unarmed fighting” had a much more tangible answer than “getting stronger to save the country”, which helped him stay calm. Reed rubbed her chin in thought as she analyzed their skirmish.

“I see. You’re still approaching this like a street brawl. Uncoordinated attacks might work against malnourished child laborers, but not against a rich kid who’s been trained all his life. On an individual basis, you got the footwork and techniques all down. You just need to use that big brain of yours and put it all together now.”

“How should I do that?” Isaac asked.

“Let’s get esoteric.” Reed walked in slow circles around him. “Do you know what the Silk Road is? It’s this huge highway out in Zhanghai. But they built it before the Unleashing - people have been using it for thousands of years. Imagine that - one road stretching through an entire continent. Do you know how they can build such a road?”

She raised a finger in the air and wagged it. “They navigate through obstacles, rather than forcing their way through them. When it comes across mountains, the Silk Road avoids them until it finds a gap. When it reaches a valley, it slinks down into the valley and then back up the other side. It never acts like a bull. It acts like water. See what I’m saying?”

Isaac scratched his head. “Uh…not really.”

Reed continued. “Haven’t you noticed anything about the way Kieran fights? Does he always lead with a certain foot? Does he always move in a certain way?”

After reflecting on their fights, a realization did come to Isaac. “It’s always the right foot leading, with the right hand striking. It’s always faster than me.”

“Then try anticipating that,” Reed encouraged. “Never attack someone head-on. Always approach from the sides. That’s how you be like water.”

“You mean…reacting?”

“Not just reacting,” Reed clarified. “It means staying calm and taking whatever comes your way and turning it into your own advantage. The Silk Road becomes the valley. Water becomes the cup. When faced with mountains, the Silk Road finds gaps in it to run through. Become the winding road that always reaches its destination. Become the water that can be a smooth stream or raging torrent.”

Moonlight reflected off her pale face. Isaac resisted the urge to laugh. “You just took that whole spiel from a movie, right?”

“Films are just distillations of our own reality. Do you get what I’m saying now?”

“The distillation part…not really. But the Silk Road water thing…you know what? I think I can do that.”

The field had emptied by now; it felt like the two had the entire world to themselves. They practiced being like the Silk Road and being like water for another hour, smoothing out the rough parts. Finally, when Reed was satisfied with his progress, she called it a night.

Before they left the field, Isaac came to a halt. “Thanks for everything…Hibiscus Reed.” He enjoyed saying her full name. Though she denied all connections, saying “Reed” conjured images of that family’s megacorporation and the Army it ran. Hibiscus felt much more personal, like it really belonged to the small girl standing in front of him.

She tilted her head and cracked a grin. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. I like going by Reed, so that’s how I’ll go by.” She raised her head back up, her smile full of warmth. “But I know you can do it, Isaac Spallacio.”

Once again, Isaac found himself clasping hands with a trusted friend.