A note from Mullayo

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Edited 21/1/20.  Present. Better? or worse?

Rusty Creek, Kaja Gu, Wangchung Kingdom, Nu Man Continent.

A needle-thin whine pierces the stifling summer miasma. Veering towards an ornate pagoda, the drone blossoms to become the whirring purr of an impertinent dragonfly. Soon the thrumming buzz is loud enough to disturb the apprehensive hush which has fallen over the crowded local council hall.

Off to one side, a cluster of butterfly-bellied little innocents are lined-up, their vibrant outfits dot the dark wall like brightly-coloured splotches on a painter's palette.
The blue-eyed skimmer flits through the open doorway and the sticky-thick air, tracing an esoteric route towards the motley youths. They throng together in the shady depths of the hall near the slightly-raised stage, studiously avoiding the glaring oblong block of sunlight streaming in. Against the shadows they appear like peach blossoms carelessly strewn upon umber mud...

Hovering at shoulder-height, a bulbous array of sea-green eyes curiously beholds the kaleidoscope of brightly-attired boys and girls.
The 15 fidgeting childlings have been crammed into clothes far too formal for normal use - flower-covered cheongsam of silk for the girls with billowing cotton robes for the boys. Severe straight-fringed haircuts encircle sun-burnt, stoic country faces, each adorned with an artless expression.
“Fishes out of water.” Jian Cheng silently scoffs from the rear of the queue. “Or ignorant pigs to the slaughter...”
Suddenly, the stocky boy’s arm lashes out. With a snap of the wrist, the back of his hand swats the whizzing skimmer away,  sending it spiralling across the room into a gloomy corner. Silence has been enforced.

Smirking, the boy steps back into line and leans back into the cool embrace of the shadows. He calms his breathing to conserve energy. His wide back rubs up against the lattice panels and he inhales the fragrant scent of cedar. Outwardly the boy appears calm, but inside his five viscera and six entrails are roiling and his senses are elevated. This afternoon’s test is the biggest event in Jian Cheng’s young  life. Today he’ll take his first step onto the martial path of the jianghu... Hopefully... No, definitely...
He leans forward, bending at the waist, twisting his neck to gaze up the queue, wondering how his two friends are bearing up - mostly to make sure they appear more pitiful than him...

Four children ahead is an adult. Grown-up-sized at least. Well, almost... After wedging his bulky body between two of the many elm pillars that support the pagoda, Fatty Li Feng is laying back in a relaxed manner. Even his eyes are closed... Aargh, he’s not asleep is he?
Shaking his head, Jian Cheng furtively shuffles sideways past a few of the queuing sheep. Arriving less than a chi away, he reaches out and thrusts several knuckles deep into his best friend's belly, earning a startled yelp.
“Wake up Fatty, you've failed the test!”
“What?” Befuddled, the hulking 10 year-old lurches upright. Blinking about, he wipes drool from the corner of his mouth on his sleeve. “Wait, what test?”
What test!? Unbelievable. Jian Cheng cannot even look the lazy sloth in the eyes, glaring at the floor he stalks back to the end of the queue. Why last place you wonder? In case there are any special techniques of course... Or hidden traps to be revealed, while the cannon fodder are taking the test. A basic precaution, because better results naturally means more benefits. Also, as every soldier ever knows, only a simpleton volunteers to go first... It’s simply courting death...

Frustrated at Fatty’s sinful indifference, Jian Cheng scouts out his other playmate and newly-crowned best friend... As usual though, Fen Ling is not where she’s supposed to be. Earlier, she had been third in line, but now he discovers she’s somehow out in front... And appears to be as pleased as punch about it. Idiot!
Oblivious to her friend’s disdain, little Fen Ling's sparkling eyes are greedily gazing all about trying to take everything in at once. Aagh! How is she not nervous? Or smarter?
Jian Cheng's jealous reverie is interrupted by the sound of sedate yet heavy footsteps. The special sect elders have finally arrived!

Every three years, the prestigious Misty Cloud Sect dispatches a triumvirate of elders to test the qi spirits of young children. They are actually on a circuit of every village, town or city within their territory, one that covers a full-third of the country...
The round trip spans many thousand li and takes almost a year to complete. In that time, tens of thousands of children between eight and 10 summers are tested in town halls and village greens alike. Of those many thousands, only four or five hundred end up accepted into the sect.

Parents, siblings and village elders already line the other walls nearby, nervous for the natures and futures of their children to be unearthed.
The muscular figure of Zhao Cheng is backed up against the farthest wall. He constantly wrings his hands, forming fists that he thumps mercilessly on the elm pillars behind his thighs. At this moment, the blacksmith’s powerful arms are impotent, an unsettling feeling. Sensing her husband’s discomfort, Li Na Cheng nudges him gently with her hip then turns to nestle under his arm, placing a calming palm on his chest. For some reason his parent’s nerves sharpen the boy’s focus and he begins to feel better.
“Ke-ke, greetings and welcome everybody, especially to our esteemed visitors from the hallowed Misty Cloud Sect.” Aargh! Mayor Tong has taken the floor, Jian Cheng shouts "stop thief!" or he should have...

The smarmy worm truly can't let any chance to ingratiate pass by un-snatched. Such face! Jian Cheng has waited 10 years for this test and now it feels like another 10 has been cruelly added on. An incense stick of time later, everyone else has also heard more than enough - even the guest elders, who have been praised unceasingly - and utterly undeservedly - to the high heavens,  have had it with him. The trio of ancients had long ago completed their simple preparations, and finally Jian Cheng’s dream would be deferred no longer.

One-by-one, the children will step forward before the senior sect elder, as their names are announced off of a vellum scroll. The first elder’s spindly white figure presides over a small maple table, holding an ornate boxwood case with a lychee-sized crystal inside.
First in line, Fen Ling hears the first hanzi of her name read aloud... At once she darts forward and wraps her small hand around the crystal orb. Instantly her shocked eyes shine at the sizzling energy emitted from it. A ticklish trickle of something flashes out from her belly and runs along her arms... Then the increasingly milky liquid within the orb wildly swirls...

The lanky elder leans over and stares deep into the crystal ball. He narrows his eyes and steps back before declaring the rank and nature of her spirit.
“Wind affinity - tier-three.”
The pale elder's porcelain face actually cracks a smile at such an auspicious start to proceedings. Her nervous parents breathe again, before smiling too. In the middle of the line, the reawakened Fatty is also smiling proudly and appears about to call out some random comment. Instantly Jian Cheng steps forward and cuffs him across the back of the head, but he is smiling just as broadly. Seeing that every important person in her life is smiling, Fen Ling naturally smiles too and the room feels the better for it. One smile truly undoes a thousand worries!

After a stilted second, she turns to return to her parents... And Jian Cheng suddenly realises, she doesn’t understand what any of this means... He’s stunned. He’s not the only one. The smiling eyes of the stern elder flare wide-open in shock, staring at the orb. Everyone in the village hall is also surprised, mainly to see a third expression from such a stone-faced old misery guts...

Cupping the orb completely in one fist, the first elder curls the crook of his other forefinger and the other two elders scuttle over. They huddle together and a flurry of harsh, urgent whispers ensues. After a minute, the three separate and the ceremony continues - though Jian Cheng notices they are regularly casting stealthy glances towards Fen Ling and her parents...

Each of the 15 children in line is ascribed an affinity and a tier. Most get tier one which means they aren’t currently eligible to enter the sect. Only tier-two and tier-three results earn the right to become outer court disciples. Under 10 years-old, a tier-four result was rarer than a qilin horn or phoenix feathers. At their age a tier-four anything, affinity or not, would instantly be ushered into the privileged and pampered inner court... And probably fast-tracked towards becoming a core disciple in the famous Misty Cloud Manor! Not that anyone in this village would likely encounter such a unicorn in their lifetime...
A few minutes later, Fatty steps up to the table and achieves a solid if unspectacular fire affinity tier-two making him eligible for the sect. With his size, he also had the makings of a fine soldier... Jian Cheng would happily accept that outcome. He’d prefer tier-three, or in his dreams tier-four, but a fire affinity is his first choice. 
Your level you can always improve upon, but affinity is set in stone. Yes, he’d take Fatty’s result in a heartbeat...

So far, there are six eligible children who have earned wooden badges of sect entry according to their tier - an exceptional showing for any town let alone a backwater village like Rusty Creek.
Fen Ling and Fatty were two of the six, but unfortunately so are three of the town bullies, Liu Tong and two of his followers, along with a younger girl who Jian Cheng hasn’t seen before.

Lucky last in line, the boy knows full well which affinity he wants. Fire, he entreats the heavens as he awaits his turn before the crystal orb.Not only for the awe inspiring fireball attacks, but also to support skill for his forging at the smithy. More than anything he wants to follow his father’s marching footsteps and become a man at arms and a blacksmith to boot... As a youngling, Zhao Cheng tested as a fire affinity tier-three at his qi ceremony 20 years ago - even Li Na Cheng had achieved tier-two earth affinity at her test a year later... While it was traditionally considered bad luck to tell children what to expect on the day of their test, Jian Cheng had pestered his parents so often that even his stern father couldn’t refuse to spill the mung beans. Ever since he’d discovered the details, the boy had his little heart set on directly inheriting from his father...

“Cheng, Jian,” the second elder intones. Instantly he snaps to attention and steps smartly forward. The first elder looms above, severe and straight like a punishment switch... “Stretch forth your arm, to let your true nature be known.”
Behind him, Jian Cheng’s mother ducks farther under her husband’s wing, unwilling to watch... The boy doesn’t even notice her nervous actions, in this moment he is focussed on the fist-sized orb, the one that contains his whole future...
Exhaling heavily, Jian Cheng wraps his thick fingers around the crystal. It’s warmer than he expected, which excites him at first, because fire is his first choice affinity...
Then the clear liquid inside turns milky, but it doesn’t move or solidify into any shape - it simply sits there, placid and implacable...

The elder’s bushy eyebrows knit together in a V shape. Leaning over the orb, his sect badge—of polished mahogany, bearing the Misty Cloud coat of arms and a tier-nine fire affinity —dangles invitingly over the ornate orb box. It is right there... A wooden emblem of everything the young boy wants in this world...
Impatiently, the elder seizes Jian Cheng’s wrist and tugs it upwards.
“Concentrate,” he growls, before pushing the boy’s hand back down.
At his touch, the orb flickers... A spark of hope ignites in the boy’s heart, but it dies down the moment the elder removes his hand... And influence... Soon the orb returns to its former still state.
A nauseous feeling bubbles up in Jian Cheng’s throat, as he realises that without a shadow of a doubt, something has gone hideously wrong!
All his plans for the future have burned up in a single puff of smoke... Or lack thereof...
Over to the side, his mother is engaged in a savagely whispered conversation with the second elder... Her hand-waving becoming increasingly frantic... His father sags boneless against the wall... Several other grown-ups are whispering now and the hissing sound soon spreads like wildfire around the echoing hall...

“Unfortunately he appears to be unable to form an affinity for his spirit or cultivate,” the elder explains his damning verdict like a jaded judge passing sentence. Those close enough to hear gasp. “While there’s qi aplenty, his eight extraordinary and 12 main meridians appear to be blocked somehow.”
Aaargh! He’s a void. A mortal like most of the far too average population. But his bloodlines are so solid? Both parents...
The distraught boy shoots a look at his mother, who’s pinched face has turned utterly pale. The usually upright figure of his father is slumped forward, hands on knees, staring at the floor... He seems to be seeing somewhere else... Somewhere with a different future...

Stricken, Jian Cheng turns towards his two friends. Fen Ling is clutching her tiny hands together, her cherubic face is filled with hurt and confusion. She doesn’t understand... But there is stark horror filling Fatty’s wide eyes and Jian Cheng falls headlong into it...


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