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Sometimes winning is everything.
My Tae Kwon Do instructor says my obsession with win-
ning isnt healthy. But he hasnt seen his skin shrivel before his
eyes. Hasnt breathed his last breath. Hasnt seen his grip loosen
from his loved ones as they are carried of by dragons.
But I have. Tese memories are branded into my mind, a
nightmare on instant replay.
Winning for me has become the diference between life and
death.
Just thinking of that fnal fght 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 dobok.
I squeeze my eyes shut. Focus, I tell myself. Focus on this
fght. Nothing else.
I sit cross-legged on the edge of the mat, waiting for my
turn to spar. Tis is just a belt test, but Kukkiwons three-story
arena is packed. Te stands can hold three thousand people
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and surround all four sides of the mat. Tis afernoon they are
nearly full. Each section is color coded, and behind the rows of
plastic seats, wide windows overlook the city. Flags of diferent
countries and organizations stare down at me from the ceiling,
and the powerful lights streaming onto the mat make every-
thing appear glitzy and glamorous.
I have to take the fnal test here at the headquarters in order
to get my second-degree black belt. Its mandatory for all the
dojangs in Seoul. Otherwise Id skip all the drama and hype.
Ever since I found out about my familys curse, crowds and
noise have made me jittery. Nervous. Im always glancing over
my shoulder.
But I need to be here. Its my stand against the insanity that
ruled my life three months ago. Its my way to tell the ones I love
that Im stronger because of everything that happened.
Even if most days I dont believe it.
Te 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 Im too paranoid. Marc, my boyfriend, says its totally nor-
mal afer what Ive been through. I dont want to admit to Marc
that I feel the Spirit World tugging at me, calling to me in my
dreams. Tat Im terrifed 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 old-
est daughter of every future generation cursed with Haemosus
rage?
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Tat 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 theyre here to support me. Marc is one of the few white
kids in the arena, so he sticks out in the crowd. Hes 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 Im 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 butterfy clips. She must be wearing heels, too,
because shes 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. Te one they
saved for Dad. Hes not here. Again.
Hes never around. Hes 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
theres worry hidden beneath those eyes of his, and I know he
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remembers. Tis wont be the frst time hes seen me fght. Just
the frst time its not to the death.
My opponent meets me in the center of our section of the
mat and nods to the judges. Tey frown at his lack of proper
etiquette. Hell probably get a point of for it. Sizing him up, I
see hes ethnic Korean like me, with long hair pulled back in
a ponytail, and a trace of a mustache and beard. His dobok is
almost shimmering. He looks like hes from another time.
His gaze fnds mine and I gasp. His eyes are dark pools, so
black I cant tell where his irises meet his pupils. We bow to each
other, and a thread of unease curls through my belly.
Seijak! our instructor yells out, signaling the beginning of
the fght.
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 step-
ping 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 swif
I dont even see it coming. I stumble, shocked at his power. In a
blur, hes already in front of me again, kicking me in the chest.
My body fies backward and lands hard on the mat.
Stunned, I gasp for air. Maybe Ive lost my touch. Tis guy isnt
even breathing heavily, and his expression hasnt once changed.
A shimmering dome rises from the foor and circles the two
of us like some kind of shield, mufing 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
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hands, eyes glazed as if they couldnt 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. Hes slowly,
so slowly, standing, reaching out to me, mouth opened as if
screaming. Te 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, hes been able to see the supernatural.
And the terror in his face tells me everything.
Tis man with empty eyes before me isnt from our world.
Hes from the Spirit World. Its as if Ive stopped breathing. Tis
shouldnt be happening.
I killed Haemosu. Im supposed to be free of the curse.
I sprint toward the exit. I dont care that Ill lose. My black
belt is no longer important. But I smack into the shimmery bar-
rier. 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.
Tere isnt one.
My opponent cocks his head to the side, unfazed or perhaps
amused as I scramble around like a mouse caught by the tail.
Im imprisoned with a guy whose empty eyes mirror death. I
should feel strong, unstoppable with the memory of defeating
Haemosu. But I dont. Fear grips me as images of pain and suf-
fering numb my muscles.
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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 Id thought humanly possible and spin in a dou-
ble roundhouse, nailing him in the forehead. He staggers back-
ward, his expression unchanging.
I race at him before he can recover. As I lif 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, Id be writhing in
agony. But whatever shield this lunatic has put around us, it must
be connected to the Spirit World. Its power foods my body.
Im invincible.
He bounces to his feet and slices the air with his fst. 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 dont know what they see, but its defnitely not me
fghting for my life. Im on my own.
I kick the guy again. Again and again until I know he wont
stand back up. Ten I punch him. Pain shatters through my fst,
but I dont care. I shove every bit of lefover anger at Haemosu
into each blow.
Tis is my life and I claim it as my own.
I step back, heaving from my endless pounding. I stare down
at my hands. Tey are bloody, shaking. A rush fows through
me. Ive defeated him. Te triumph of winning energizes me.
A rush of wind whips around the two of us, sucking up the
man at my feet.
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And then a voice echoes through the dome. Most impressive,
Jae Hwa, descendant of the water god. I will be watching you.
Te man vanishes, along with the shimmery dome, and
Im lef alone on the mat. I face the judges, waiting for them to
exclaim in shock, but they just write something down and wave
me of 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 fght. I slip of my helmet, letting it drop
to the foor. My long braid tumbles over my shoulder and I stag-
ger to him. When he reaches me, he draws me into his arms,
clutching me so fercely I think I might sufocate.
Oh my God, Marc says. I couldnt 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 stuf was over.
So did I. I bite back tears. Here I thought Id lef my wor-
ries over the Spirit World behind when I killed Haemosu. But
its happening all over again.
I knead my fngers over my temples. I cant live like this,
knowing for the rest of my life Ill be haunted and tortured by
immortals trying to kill me.
Tis has to stop. Because its only a matter of time before I
lose.