City streets dim with blood-colored lighting; narrow alleys lined with vendors, butchers, and shops. The stench of trash rises from steamy manholes. This is a place of anger, sorrow, and self-pity, lingering for others to absorb. It is also the place of Xiao's childhood, it's where she took her first steps, stole her first wallet; it's where she was shaped and molded like a ball of clay in the hands of scumbags and selfishness.
Little Xiao walks home, only 13 or 14, hopping from rock to rock on the cobbled path in a meditative way. Onlookers observe only to quickly avert their gaze. They've seen battered and abandoned kids like her before, this is nothing new. They don't pity her, nobody has the privilege of that here. Tap, Tap, Tap, as she goes, paying no mind. Apathetic thoughts lead her to a large, dark, red, wooden door with ornamental door knockers. Opening the door, incense leaks out, if only to cover the smell of garbage and rotten fruit for a moment; She savors it and enters cautiously. "Crisis averted," she thought proudly, the door clicks shut.
"XIAO! HERE! NOW!" Face slack, she obeys. Mother Guo sits on a meditation pillow bellow large stone sculptures of the elemental gods. Through the dimly lit room, Xiao is barely able to make out the withered face of her caretaker.
"Where have you been?" Guo looks her up and down "pull your sleeves down before you're mistaken for one of those tramps!" Xiao's gone to a place inside herself in a flash, desperate to escape. Guo prattles on and on, switching between Mandarin and English. By the time xiao snaps back to reality, Guo is on another tangent about aligning with xiao's strongest goddess connection, the goddess of the wind. "You kids never have a talent for mana, I just talk to walls all day don't I?"
Shortly, mother Guo is finished lecturing and she dismisses little xiao. Now empowered with a dull sense of freedom that feels like another trap; Xiao shuffles quickly through crowded streets and cigarette smoke, arriving outside the only quiet establishment around these parts, the roof of an old dilapidated apartment complex. Chipped painted walls of yellow, balconies and footings leading all the way up. Just the right height apart for a preteen girl to scale. Inching her feet deeper into the pavement xiao makes her first jump, then her second, then, subsequently, her third; every jump becoming more straining and increasingly suicidal.
"Xiao ah' swear on goddess Amaya if ye fall an' die one day I'm gonnae have a heart attack!" old lady Wendall hollers in a thick accent. "Just hang your laundry and mind your own business." An older woman with clouded eyes and long, white hair dressed in small braids appears from beneath swaying white sheets.
"How lang' are ye trainin' today young warrior?" she teases with a wry smile. Xiao makes swift punches in the air, making whistling sounds for Wendall to hear. "Och! Well done, what a shame at' they probably lack power" Xiao's smirk deepens as she picks up a ratty tennis ball, throws it in the air and waits for it to come back down. When it reaches her fist again it explodes into four pieces. Wendall can't resist a hidden smirk of amusement, "Please, Back in my prime Ah could do much better, young boys just tryin' ta show off, tch."
Xiao stills, It wasn't hard to mistake young xiao for a young boy in the first place but old lady Wendall's impaired sight made it much easier. Xiao didn't have the heart to correct her, an action she assumed would only end with her being scolded about etiquette and preparing for marriage. Acting defiant as a woman, in this city, especially, is reason enough for a beating. Sensing Xiao's collapse in mood Wendall picks back up the conversation "explain ta' me how ye did that wouldcha'?"
"I'm calling it wind-mana sandwich, to make it explode instead of fly off in a different direction, you need to apply an equal amount of mana on either side of the ball. You have no idea how many times I had to run after these balls to get this right" She summons a small vortex through her palms. "The hard part was figuring out how to simultaneously expel mana from my palm to hit it from one side while also hitting the other side. If someone had told me I could expel mana from a place other than my hands this process would have gone a lot quicker." They sit in silence in the frustrated air xiao created. "Young xiao, what exactly is it ye' plan to do? Why do ye train so hard?"
"What does anyone plan to do around here? Leave and get rich!" Wendall chuckles "are ye sure that's what you're lookin' fur?" Xiao looks at her puzzled "what do you mean by that?" Abruptly, half a roll of bread hits her square in the chest "OOF, hey, ow, what's this for!?" Wendall stares blankly at her "you'll need strength if you're gonnae make it into the academy."
"I can't pay you back you know" "ye don't need to