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1736, 13th day of the third month of the cold period. Eighth day of the week.

The days pass and before I know it a full week has gone by.

“Anessa, over here.” Bola says, drawing my attention away from the fire we’ve created to keep warm.

“What’s up Bola?” I ask, looking up to him.

“It’s time I show you how to hunt the rats that plague the HQ,” Bola says. He draws a knife and starts to sharpen it on a portable whetstone.

My eyes focus on the knife and my breath quickens. A burning sensation flares across my neck. I start to back away holding my hands to my throat. I walk back until I’m in my usual spot next to the idol. I start to rock forward and close my eyes.

Vivi comes to me and asks, “Hey, what’s wrong?”

A few moments pass and I’m not entirely sure myself why I freaked out. A smile forces its way onto my lips as I open my eyes.

“I think I know how I died,” I say.

Vivi’s eyes go wide and she gives me a hug, “That’s no good.

“We were going to show you how to hunt rats today,” Vivi pauses, I suspect to choose her next words, she shakes her head and adds, “not today. Today we show you… essence.”

Before I can ask her what she means, she’s bolted over to Bola. She swings her hands at her side and almost bounces while she speaks. She has so much energy.

“Sorry Anessa,” Bola says. He shows me both of his hands are empty.

Guess Vivi was telling him to keep the knife hidden. The heat at my throat has passed and I join the rest of the kids. They seem eager to play with this essence.

“So what’s essence?” I ask, curious.

Ian pipes in first, “It lets you do neat things, like make fire, create ice or move the air.” As he says this he picks up a handful of dirt. He holds his hands in front of him and the tiny bits of stone fly from his fingers and whirl about in his palms.

My eyebrows shoot up at this display, “Wow.” I have never seen anyone do something like this. It’s textbook magic, but there’s no words, magic circle or anything.

Bola coughs, “Yes, well not everyone can be as lucky as Ian and Vora.” He pulls out a piece of paper with what I guess is writing on it. He lays it in front of the kids on a large pillar fell a long time ago.

“Essence is what cultivators use to manipulate the world around them,” Bola starts. “They advance in steps, stages and…”

“Boring!” Ralph, one of the older kids, shouts. “I want to spar,” he says, taking Ian and Vora by the hands.

The kids pair off and scatter to do their own thing, not the least bit interested in Bola’s explanation. They have mock battles if you could call their playful attacks that.

“… and what?” I ask, eager to learn more.

Vivi’s standing by me and has taken her own seat with a brick or two she’s setup as a chair.

“And realms,” Bola continues, “Steps are the smallest, then stages, and finally realms.

“Almost everyone, save pure mortals,” Bola says. He points to the top of his chart, which he doesn’t realize I can’t read, “starts in the First Breath step of the Energy stage of the Mortal Realm.”

Not wanting to interrupt, I raise my hand.

Bola laughs, “Yes, Anessa?”

“Why did you call Ian and Vora lucky?” I wonder.

Bola shakes his head and looks at the two who play fight with Ralph. “They started in the Elemental stage, an entire stage above normal,” he brings his hand to his stomach, “That means they can manipulate the elements in which they have an affinity.”

So Ian and Vora can do more than people who are below them. So the rest of the kids here may not be able to repeat their tricks.

“What can you do in the Energy Stage?” I inquire.

Bola makes his first scroll disappear and brandishes another, which shows a person that sits in the lotus position.

Bola goes on to explain essence purity, advancement and breakthroughs. He starts to get frustrated at the slow pace since there are many words I don’t know that he has to deviate to describe. We then go to start and collect essence.

Bola opens his arms wide, “Essence is all around us. When we cultivate we draw the energy in, purify it, and make it our own. Usually you only have to push the energy, after it’s been purified, into your dantian and the rest is done for you.”

I place my right hand on my chest and ask, “How would I do that?”

“Close your eyes and feel your body breathing. Try to visualize yourself separate from everything outside of yourself,” Bola says. “You should see something outside of yourself in the air.” He places his pointer and thumb together, “like tiny specks of sand.”

Vivi has already closed her eyes and assumed the lotus position. My breath slows and I close my eyes. I try to visualize myself and everything around me.

Unlike on earth I can see with my eyes closed. This change almost makes me jump in excitement. It’s vague and indistinct, but I see the specks he was talking about. A void exists where Vivi is sitting and I see nothing beyond a few feet. Bola’s too far away to see the void he occupies.

The edges of my lips curl up, “I see it.”

Bola is pretty good at explaining this. I wonder why. Looking after a bunch of brats isn’t a hobby most boys his age should have, is it? I shake my head, when I say it like that it sounds wrong. I sense no malice nor ill intent from him.

“Now try tugging on them and pulling it inside yourself. Don’t worry about purifying it for now, that’s more complicated.”

The specks rush toward Vivi at an expeditious rate. The lights around me, I find, are simple to coerce. Once I imagine the lights all around me rushing forward toward me and my skin tingles as the specks hit my skin from all directions.

“Slow down Anessa,” Bola warns, “This is just practice. You need to learn more before you go all out. If you don’t build a solid foundation, you’ll regret it later.”

Vivi and I stop our efforts and I watch the void of essence we’ve created around us. In moments, the energy we’ve taken in has been replaced.

A ball of essence forms in my chest as I clump together what I’ve gathered. Bola said that your dantian is just below your navel. A black sphere rests in the spot he indicated. Its surface crawls and tendrils stretch from it and loop back to the object. If that’s a dantian, it’s somewhat scary.

Tendrils from the black sphere reach out and engulf the ball of essence as I nudge it toward the sphere. By reflex, my hands shoot to my stomach due to the pain. He didn’t mention that it would hurt.

“What’s wrong Anessa?” Vivi asks, her hand on mine.

The black sphere eats the ball of essence that I’ve gathered. The ball starts out a light gray and shifts into a brilliant white as it diminishes. Specks of dark gray scatter throughout my body as the black ball finishes its meal.

I explain to Vivi and Bola what happened.

Bola listens and flips a gold coin over his fingers. He balances it on his pinky and flicks it into the air to catch it.

“That’s not normal,” Bola comments. “I’ll have someone come here tomorrow to look at you, okay?”

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Your dantian should be visible yes, but not black. It should be transparent and you should be able to send your mental vision into it. What you explained it doing was essence purification. It seems this black ball does it for you for the price of pain.”

Vivi informs me that Bola is a cripple because he cannot influence essence. He was hurt as a toddler and became unable to cultivate. He must know a lot because he’s tried so hard to do something he won’t ever be able to do.

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Allen Clark Copeland, Jr.

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