Authors: Christina Farley
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2014 Christina Farley
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Skyscape, New York
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Skyscape are trademarks of
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ISBN-13: 9781477820353 (hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1477820353 (hardcover)
ISBN-13: 9781477820346 (paperback)
ISBN-10: 1477820345 (paperback)
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014902141
Cover illustration by Cliff Nielsen
For Mom and Dad, who showed me not only the beauty of language, but also love.
My Tae Kwon Do instructor says my obsession with winning isn’t healthy. But he hasn’t seen his skin shrivel before his eyes. Hasn’t breathed his last breath. Hasn’t seen his grip loosen from his loved ones as they are carried off by dragons.
But I have. These memories are branded into my mind, a nightmare on instant replay.
Winning for me has become the difference between life and death.
Just thinking of that final fight with Haemosu, the Korean demigod obsessed with kidnapping me, and of the creepy tomb where he kept the souls of my ancestors in jars, makes my throat pinch. Sweat trickles down my back underneath my
I squeeze my eyes shut.
, I tell myself.
Focus on this fight. Nothing else
I sit cross-legged on the edge of the mat, waiting for my turn to spar. This is just a belt test, but Kukkiwon’s three-story arena is packed. The stands can hold three thousand people and surround all four sides of the mat. This afternoon they are nearly full. Each section is color coded, and behind the rows of plastic seats, wide windows overlook the city. Flags of different countries and organizations stare down at me from the ceiling, and the powerful lights streaming onto the mat make everything appear glitzy and glamorous.
I have to take the final test here at the headquarters in order to get my second-degree black belt. It’s mandatory for all the
in Seoul. Otherwise I’d skip all the drama and hype. Ever since I found out about my family’s curse, crowds and noise have made me jittery. Nervous. I’m always glancing over my shoulder.
But I need to be here. It’s my stand against the insanity that ruled my life three months ago. It’s my way to tell the ones I love that I’m stronger because of everything that happened.
Even if most days I don’t believe it.
The anticipation of performing for the judges and my need to win this match send my pulse into overdrive. I inhale deep breaths. Around me, students sit calmly, waiting for their names to be called, while my muscles grow tense, prepared to spring at the slightest provocation. My best friend, Michelle, always says I’m too paranoid. Marc, my boyfriend, says it’s totally normal after what I’ve been through. I don’t want to admit to Marc that I feel the Spirit World tugging at me, calling to me in my dreams. That I’m terrified my life will never be the same.
How could it? I mean, how many girls have an ancestor who escaped being kidnapped by a Korean demigod, leaving the oldest daughter of every future generation cursed with Haemosu’s rage?
That is, until three months ago, when I beat the crap out of him and then killed him with a magical arrow. Remembering his death still brings a smile to my lips.
I search the sea of faces above for Marc and Michelle until I spot them halfway up the bleachers, waving. My heart warms, knowing they’re here to support me. Marc is one of the few white kids in the arena, so he sticks out in the crowd. He’s wearing a black henley-style shirt and dark jeans, his brown hair wild and sexy as usual. Even this far away, his green eyes seem to sparkle when he looks at me, as if I’m the most amazing thing on the planet. I touch my mouth, where the good-luck kiss he brushed against my lips still lingers.
Michelle is beside him, looking sophisticated in her black dress, which she said was in honor of my black belt status. Her long dark hair is combed straight to perfection and pinned back with two silver butterfly clips. She must be wearing heels, too, because she’s almost as tall as Marc. I chuckle as I adjust my shin guards. Only Michelle would come to a Tae Kwon Do belt test looking as if she were headed to the opera.
My eyes pass over the empty seat next to them. The one they saved for Dad. He’s not here. Again.
He’s never around. He’s busier and more distant than ever. Sure, he made it to my last belt test, but that was back in Malibu before we moved to Seoul. Before my world was turned upside down.
My thoughts are interrupted when my name is called. I stride to my quadrant of the giant mat, but before I bow and face the judges, I glance back up at Marc. He shoots me a smile, but there’s worry hidden beneath those eyes of his, and I know he remembers. This won’t be the first time he’s seen me fight. Just the first time it’s not to the death.
My opponent meets me in the center of our section of the mat and nods to the judges. They frown at his lack of proper etiquette. He’ll probably get a point off for it. Sizing him up, I see he’s ethnic Korean like me, with long hair pulled back in a ponytail, and a trace of a mustache and beard. His
is almost shimmering. He looks like he’s from another time.
His gaze finds mine and I gasp. His eyes are dark pools, so black I can’t tell where his irises meet his pupils. We bow to each other, and a thread of unease curls through my belly.
our instructor yells out, signaling the beginning of the fight.
I spring to the ready stance, bouncing on the balls of my feet. He comes at me with a quick front-kick. I retaliate by stepping to the side and giving a twisting-kick, smacking him in the side of his arm.
Leaping to the right, he side-kicks into my shoulder, so swift I don’t even see it coming. I stumble, shocked at his power. In a blur, he’s already in front of me again, kicking me in the chest.
My body flies backward and lands hard on the mat. Stunned, I gasp for air. Maybe I’ve lost my touch. This guy isn’t even breathing heavily, and his expression hasn’t once changed.
A shimmering dome rises from the floor and circles the two of us like some kind of shield, muffling the sounds of the stadium.
My heart rams against my rib cage as I sit and frantically crane my neck. Outside this strange wall, the crowd looks intently on the match while the judges bury their chins in their hands, eyes glazed as if they couldn’t be more bored. No one seems to notice anything.
I stagger to my feet and scan the room for Marc. I need to see him. I need to look into his eyes and know everything is going to be okay.
Finally, I spot him moving in slow motion. He’s slowly, so slowly, standing, reaching out to me, mouth opened as if screaming. The shield has somehow altered time. I can see the whites of his eyes despite our distance.
My heart stops. Ever since Marc was struck in the eyes by Haemosu, he’s been able to see the supernatural.
And the terror in his face tells me everything.
This man with empty eyes before me isn’t from our world. He’s from the Spirit World. It’s as if I’ve stopped breathing. This shouldn’t be happening.
I killed Haemosu. I’m supposed to be free of the curse.
I sprint toward the exit. I don’t care that I’ll lose. My black belt is no longer important. But I smack into the shimmery barrier. It bends slightly to my body weight as if made of a clear, rubbery substance, but it keeps me inside, trapped. I run its entire perimeter, pushing against it and hoping for a weakness.
There isn’t one.
My opponent cocks his head to the side, unfazed or perhaps amused as I scramble around like a mouse caught by the tail. I’m imprisoned with a guy whose empty eyes mirror death. I should feel strong, unstoppable with the memory of defeating Haemosu. But I don’t. Fear grips me as images of pain and suffering numb my muscles.
My attacker breaks into a run with unbelievable speed, attacking me with a roundhouse-kick. Somehow my body unfreezes. I sidestep and duck, twisting around and giving a back-kick. Reeling, he recovers and jabs a front-punch. I jump higher than I’d thought humanly possible and spin in a double roundhouse, nailing him in the forehead. He staggers backward, his expression unchanging.
I race at him before he can recover. As I lift my leg in a front-kick, he grabs my foot, twisting it, and I crash to the ground. Pain shoots up my leg. In a normal world, I’d be writhing in agony. But whatever shield this lunatic has put around us, it must be connected to the Spirit World. Its power floods my body.
He bounces to his feet and slices the air with his fist. I block it, then rotate into a wheel-kick, causing him to lurch. Leaping up, I snap out a jump-kick, and he drops to the mat.
A half glance at the judges’ bored faces tell me they see none of this. I don’t know what they see, but it’s definitely not me fighting for my life. I’m on my own.
I kick the guy again. Again and again until I know he won’t stand back up. Then I punch him. Pain shatters through my fist, but I don’t care. I shove every bit of leftover anger at Haemosu into each blow.
This is my life, and I claim it as my own.
I step back, heaving from my endless pounding. I stare down at my hands. They are bloody, shaking. A rush flows through me. I’ve defeated him. The triumph of winning energizes me.
A rush of wind whips around the two of us, sucking up the man at my feet.
And then a voice echoes through the dome. “Most impressive, Jae Hwa, descendant of the water god. I will be watching you.”
The man vanishes, along with the shimmery dome, and I’m left alone on the mat. I face the judges, waiting for them to exclaim in shock, but they just write something down and wave me off the mat.
Numbly, I turn to see Marc leaping over the barrier between the audience and the competitors’ area. Looking at his face, I know he saw the entire fight. I slip off my helmet, letting it drop to the floor. My long braid tumbles over my shoulder, and I stagger to him. When he reaches me, he draws me into his arms, clutching me so fiercely I think I might suffocate.
“Oh my God,” Marc says. “I couldn’t get to you!”
I shudder, burying my face into his chest, drinking in the smell of him.
“What the hell was that?” he says. “I thought this Spirit World stuff was over.”
“So did I.” I bite back tears. Here I thought I’d left my worries over the Spirit World behind when I killed Haemosu. But it’s happening all over again.
I knead my fingers over my temples. I can’t live like this, knowing for the rest of my life I’ll be haunted and tortured by immortals trying to kill me.
This has to stop. Because it’s only a matter of time before I lose.