Chapter 19:

The Outer Sect IX - "Finding the Groove"

Destiny Marine

At the end of the next day of training, Isaac faced down Kieran, his fists raised in a boxer’s pose. Kieran still had that smug grin on his face, but Isaac didn’t let it get to him; instead, all the smugness bounced off of him, liking a river moving through rapids. His companions definitely noticed the change in attitude. Babs held Lynn in a conveniently-placed headlock so she could see the fight. Amid some ground grappling, Oksana wrapped her legs around Demetrius to form a guard position from which she could view Isaac undisturbed; Demetrius wasn’t fighting all that hard, considering his head was slightly tilted back to see the fight out of the corner of his eye.

Even Kieran must’ve realized something new was in the air. His narrowed his eyes even more than usual and his legs tensed in anticipation of the coming fight.

“Think you’ll beat me today?” Kieran called out.

Isaac felt light on his feet. “You bet your ass I do.”

With no more words left to speak, the two went at it. Isaac followed his usual routine, lifting a hand to throw his street brawl-style exaggerated punch. Kieran closed the gap, prepared as usual to throw his own faster punch, but then Isaac gave a metaphoric tilt to the board; rather than try to overpower Kieran with a head-on assault, Isaac suddenly slid to his left, the movement kicking up dirt.

Kieran’s strike hit air, and his face contorted in his confusion. However, even as his mind tried to process the new information, his body moved on its own accord, the muscle memory from years of fighting activating. With Isaac on his side, he made a hasty move to face him head-on, but Isaac hadn't stopped moving - he still remained at Kieran's side.

Having outflanked him, Isaac went for his main attack. He used a Reed-patented move - a knee to the thigh that hurts like hell - that knocked Kieran off guard. With their fights mainly involving fists and only the occasional kick, a sudden low strike successfully weakened him. Isaac gripped Kieran’s collar and sleeve, and that was the end. Once he held that, he could move Kieran’s entire upper body - nowhere left to run.

His opponent tried to free himself, but Isaac held tight and went for the coup-de-grace. With a leg extended outwards, he tripped Kieran backwards over it - the same move Kieran finished him with in their first match. A cloud of dust and a groan from Kieran signified one thing only - game, set, match.

Isaac remained standing, a grin on his face. A sense of giddiness and relief ran through him; he’d have to thank Babs and Reed later. Demetrius and Oksana nodded in approval before going back to their own match. Even Lynn, after getting her face planted in the dirt, seemed to smile (before getting it planted there again).

Why’s everybody so happy? Is it because this guy comes from a rich family and wanted to see him get knocked down a peg?

That certainly worked for Isaac. He leaned forward and offered his hand to the fallen Kieran. He looked at Isaac’s hand for a moment, his face twisting with an angry disbelief, then swatted it away. Kieran got up under his own power and raised his fists.

“Again,” he ordered.

Isaac decided to oblige him.


Their matches went back and forth. Now that Isaac employed tactical thinking, Kieran did as well. No longer did he simply try to throw his punches faster than Isaac; he now also sidestepped and circled around, trying to attack from the side. Kieran rattled off a few victories in a row, but Isaac stayed calm and thundered back, using several of the throws he had learned this first week of training. By the end of the day, both men were breathing raggedly, having given it everything they got.

Having fought him for so long, Isaac got a better picture of Kieran as a person. A person’s fighting style, the weight they throw into their punches, and the snarls and contours of their face all serve as a window into their soul. Kieran desperately wanted to defeat Isaac on an existential level, as if his very worth depended on it. Isaac understood that very well; it seemed like, until his meetings with Babs and Reed, his own depended on victory here and now as well.

But life winds and rivers bend and the Silk Road meanders. Obstacles came up in the form of Kieran’s victories, but Isaac now understood they were only temporary. Even if he lost three times in a row to Kieran, he still felt confident he’d win the fourth. His opponent was the exact opposite. Once Isaac got into a groove and won a string of victories, Kieran would become desperate, fighting sloppily with brute force, his mind overwhelmed with fears and negative thoughts. Isaac knew he’d had him at that point; the mental victories greatly contributed to his physical ones.

That’s why, at the end of the second week, Isaac beat Kieran the majority of the time. All he had to do was win a few in the row, and then the rest of the evening would be his. Isaac’s spirited soared that second week; not only was he winning fights, he ran longer and could now explain, in full detail, what vowels and prime numbers were.

It all came down to his cultivation. Every training session, every night of meditation and cultivation, Rddhi continued to pour smoothly into his dantian. The benefits were slow at first, but now seemed obvious - less coughing when he ran, faster thoughts on exams, a better attitude towards life.

The peak came on the final night of the second week. Having spent the day training hard and speaking with his friends, Isaac came home feeling like a man on a mission. Feeling refreshed from the shower and full from dinner, he knew it was time.

He sat cross-legged on his wooden floor and straightened his back out. The breathing came easy, and so did the pouring of energy into his dantian. With his eyes closed, in that darkness, he pulled at the threads as usual. But then, something different happened. Usually, his dantian felt empty, as if the energy was pulled into a never-ending chasm, but soon after Isaac started cultivation that night, his dantian rumbled and then threatened to overflow.

If his dantian was a cup, Isaac had poured all he could into it. Some of the energy he pulled was now bouncing away with no room left for it. Isaac had completely filled his dantian, and he could feel the energy pushing against the edges, struggling for more space. The answer was to give it a bigger cup.

Isaac pushed on, keeping his breathing calm, feeling the wooden floor beneath him. Friendly faces floated through his mind, keeping him steady as his dantian seemed to crack and burst at the seams. His whole body felt hot, his soul felt like it was on fire, as if it could hold no more, but then, right then and there, Isaac knew he wanted to keep going. If he was the equivalent to a newborn in the grand scheme of cultivation, he was no longer content with just sitting in his playpen or stroller; he wanted to go somewhere else, under his own power. If he couldn’t walk there, he’d crawl, and if he couldn’t crawl, he’d at least lift himself up.

The dam burst. Isaac felt a great wave of impurities leave him, out of the pores in his arms and legs and stomach. Though his dantian felt empty again, it also felt larger, stronger in its walls. Heat flushed through the channels of his body; when it reached his eyes, he briefly saw a vision he hadn't seen in a long while - that of Paradise. The peaceful garden with two chairs next to the slow-moving stream. An oddly familiar woman, in the midst of plucking ripe tomatoes, noticed him and smiled. How did Isaac know this was Paradise? He wasn’t sure, but as he settled down from the act of ascension, he forgot all about his vision.

The impurities were made tangible in the form of black gunk and gook that dripped off of him onto the floor. He stood up and brushed it off of him, using a towel to wipe it all away. Isaac took a deep breath, enjoying this new feeling of the wood and walls and stars and sky and moon and sun - this feeling of being alive, as if he was even more alive than before. He had entered a new layer of living.

During the next morning at training, Osip noticed the change in Isaac right away and gave him a nod of approval. After Isaac nodded in return, he got a big fist bump from Babs, a pat on the back from Demetrius, a disdainful glance from Kieran, and a thousand-yard-look of approval from Shokahu. Isaac looked forward to sharing the news with Reed if he caught her during lunch, but instead, a courier pulled him aside and handed him an envelope labeled FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.

Isaac briefly went back to his own room to open the envelope in peace. He wanted to cash in his Reed sandwich coupon this weekend, but life had different plans. In this world, there was no rest for the weary.


Midshipman Isaac Spallacio, Circuit 1B, Designation "Eightfold Fist", is to report to the Operations Room tomorrow morning in lieu of the morning assembly. The General has activated Cadet Squadron 3, which has been assigned to partake in a combat operation.

By the sword we seek peace.

Isaac looked over the letter - well, order - once more and then sat in bed. The paper bore the official navy anchor-spiral galaxy emblem of the Cultivator Marine Corps. To be sent into a combat operation after only two weeks of training seemed a little ambitious - but Isaac supposed they must’ve been waiting for him to hit 1B before activating his squadron.

Ah, well. Whatever they throw my way, I’ll be alright.

The free sandwich would have to wait, after all.