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As they got closer to the rise, smoke on the horizon caught their attention. This encouraged them to step up the pace. When the group crested the hill, they caught their first real glimpse down into the wide basin that contained the fields and the village itself. Before them stretched a lush field of grass that reached down to the planted fields in the distance. The sparkling ribbon of the river cut through the forest and ran past the western edge of the moderately sized village. Black-gray smoke streamed from several of the tan two-story houses with dark tiled roofs, adding to the haze that lay thick over the village. Nothing moved. No cattle, no dogs, no people. The smell of burnt meat carried to them on the breeze.

“No!” Cho shouted and ran headlong down the slope that led to the edge of the field.

Xan tried to follow after him, but Lee Bo grabbed his arm and stopped him with an iron grip.

“That’s further than it looks.” Lee Bo said. “Your friend will wear himself out before he gets too far. Let’s keep a steady pace so we can make it there and back to the caravan.”

Xan saw the wisdom in Lee Bo’s words. But his heart yearned to run after Cho and worry gnawed in his belly.

Cautiously, the group followed the path Cho tore through the tall grass. It took them half an hour to catch up to him. He lay spent in the grass. His breath was wild and ragged. Xan went to him.

“Are you okay?” Xan asked.

Cho tried to sit up but ended up on his side as he retched into the grass.

“Here, give him some water. Only a few sips to start.” Wei Po held out a water bottle.

Xan took it and knelt by Cho. “Here is some water.”

Cho took the flask and tried to drink greedily from it.

Xan took it from him. “Slowly or you will just puke it back up.” After a couple minutes he gave him the water again.

Cho sipped a bit. His breathing finally back to normal, he still looked a bit wild.

“Can you stand?” Wang Sue asked Cho. “Even if we walk slowly, at least we will still be moving.”

Xan and Lee Bo helped Cho to his feet.

Together, they resumed their trek to the village. The only sounds were the chirp of crickets and the wind cutting through the tall grass. The lack of the normal village noises stabbed an icicle of fear into Xan’s gut. Eventually they came to the road that led to the village. By then, Cho had improved, so they picked up the pace. They wound their way across the slope and reached the stone border of the fields. There on the edge closest to the road they saw a shoe poking out in the tall vegetation growing in the ditch. Wei Po moved over to it and parted the grass. His face went ashen. He looked at Lee Bo and shook his head.

They moved on somberly. Thoughts chased fears in Xan’s head as his apprehension grew with every step.

They passed bloody bits of torn fabric and a dumped basket. When they got closer to the village wall, they found bigger piles of clothes and body parts. A pale leg, neatly severed above the knee cap, lay in the middle of the path. Not far off lay a fan of bloody bones in a pile of entrails; flies buzzed around it, the rest of the body was nowhere to be seen.

Xan threw up into the grass. He wiped his mouth and stopped cold. “Is that Zhang Wei’s boot?” Xan pointed with a trembling hand. The brown leather boot with embossed birds down the side stood upright in the road in the middle of a pool of blood. Normally, the boot came to the knees on Zhang Wei, one of the guards for the field, and he loved to tell the story of how he won the boots in a dice game. A bloody bone stuck up out of the top of the boot, looking like it had been gnawed upon. Xan’s stomach clenched again and he gagged.

Cho grabbed his Xan’s arm and urged him forward. Xan wiped his mouth and kept moving.

The group made it to the wall bordering the edge of the village, it was made up of stacked squared stones and stood about ten feet in height, topped with a sloped tile overhang. The stout wooden gate was propped wide open. Inside of the wall, next to one of the ironbound gate doors, was a dead man. He lay facedown, his tunic was shredded, and blood had pooled around him. Flies buzzed all around.

“Li Quang!” Cho shouted, dashing to the man’s side. Cho carefully turned the man over which tipped the head up. The entire face had been ripped off, revealing the bloody-white bone beneath.

Once again, Xan retched. Even the hardened guards looked away. Wang Sue’s face paled and she averted her eyes.

They continued into the village past tan two-story houses and the occasional squat workshop. The low whitewashed walls and rough tiled roofs crowded in to the road. No sounds other than their footsteps could be heard.

“Oh no! Wen Mei!” Cho took off down a side street. Xan recognized the street. Slumped in the redwood framed doorway of a house was the bloody body of a young woman in what used to be light blue robes. When they caught up with him, Cho knelt next to the body, his shoulders shaking with grief. He looked back at Xan, tears streaming down his face. Anguish in his eyes.

Xan watched his friend and his throat tightened with sorrow. “She was his girlfriend.” Xan whispered hoarsely to Lee Bo.

The upper right half of her torso was gone. Like something had taken a giant bite out of her. Empty clouded-eyes stared blankly at the group. Lee Bo gingerly edged around the pair, entering the house. He returned with a blanket, then carefully draped it over her.

They pulled Cho away from her body. As they walked, Xan kept his arm around his friend, he quietly murmuring words of consolation as they went. Everywhere lay mutilated bodies and broken baskets. Recognition of people they used to know threatened to overwhelm them. When they reached the center of the village, they decided to go to Cho’s house first then to Xan’s.

They proceeded down the avenue towards the river facing section of the village. Smoke hung limply in the still air, stagnant without a breeze. The pungent odor of death and singed dog hair permeated everything. Xan tried hard to calm his roiling stomach. The smoke got so thick, the guards pulled up their dust masks to protect them from the worst of it. Xan’s eyes burned.

They rounded the bend in the street. Cho gave an inarticulate cry and ran to the house at the end. The front door had been smashed in, splintered boards hung from the iron frame and hinges. They trotted after Cho. Xan and Sue in the center, Lee Bo at the rear, Li Jie and Wei Po on the flanks, their gazes constantly sweeping over the destruction.

Ahead, Cho ran into the main house yelling for his father and mother. In the entryway trailed a smear of blood and a spear lay on the floor. There was no sign of the occupants. Xan heard his friend in the different rooms of the house shouting names. After a few minutes, Cho came back to the front of the house where the group waited just inside the entrance. Xan could see fresh tears streaming down his face as Cho held a stuffed dog that belonged to Cho’s little brother. Xan remembered when Cho bought it from a caravan and gave it to him. It was his favorite toy. “Maybe they ran away?” Cho asked softly as he surveyed the carnage.

“It’s possible.” Lee Bo said reluctantly. “But if they ran off wouldn’t they come back for possessions or food? Did you see anything missing, like they came back?”

Cho hesitated. “No. There’s food on the table. My father wouldn’t have left his spear.” He pointed at the weapon lying on the floor and held up the stuffed dog. “And my brother would never have left his temple-dog,” he finished weakly.

“Get whatever you need, let’s keep moving.” Wang Sue told him coolly. Her face was devoid of emotion.

Grimly, Lee Bo picked up the spear. Silver symbols glinted in the blued metal of the broad leaf shaped spearhead. He seemed to admire the workmanship. He hefted it a couple of times and nodded with an approving look before handing it to Cho.

Cho took the spear and sighed heavily. He looked around the front of the house one last time. “I don’t really need anything else.”

“Let’s move on then.” Lee Bo stepped out through the ruined doorway to the street beyond.

Next up was Xan’s house. The buildings they passed on the way showed more of the same: smashed doors, scattered possessions, and blood. So much blood.

The smoke thickened into a haze that limited their sight and stung their eyes. Wei Po stepped into a shop and came back with three pieces of cloth. He handed one to each of the young men, another to Sue, then all three tied them over their faces. As they got closer to the domicile, the smoke became more acrid. They turned onto the street where Xan’s house stood and were greeted by a half-burned husk behind the wall that surrounded the property.

Xan’s heart caught in his throat at the sight. He hurried his steps and stepped over the smashed bits of the iron-bound gate. The courtyard beyond was a wreck. Plants and benches had been scattered or broken as if thrown about by an angry giant, child. The door to the house itself barely hung half off the hinge and leaned precariously into the courtyard. Xan gathered himself to go into the main house.

“Xan!” He heard Lee Bo shout. He dashed to the sound of Lee Bo’s voice, blood hammering in his ears.

“Xan! Over here.” Lee Bo called out as he knelt next to a body.

Xan gasped. “Oh no! Cousin Wei!”

Xan ran over, stumbling, then dropping to his knees next to the still body. “No, no, no,” he muttered, running a hand over the dead man’s face. Cousin Wei was only a couple years older than Xan, his brown eyes open but vacant, his long black hair splayed out around him. The neat braid he kept having come undone. He was the one who had led their adventures during the summers when his family stayed with them. Wei was about to be married. And here he was dead. The massive spar from the roof had crushed his chest like a paper lantern. “What happened here Wei?” Xan asked the still form, shoeing the flies off with a wave of his hand.

There was no answer—not that he expected one. Xan stood, swiped a hand across his cheeks, and headed back through the other side of the house, yelling for his father and mother. There was no answer.

Xan went out to the small garden in the back. There stood the shrine his father prayed at, nurturing his inner peace. Blood pooled on the steps of the entrance. Xan ran to the open doorway. “Father!” The inside was empty. Xan noticed something in the sticky puddle of blood. He bent to look closer. It was his father’s silver-sunburst pendant and chain. He picked it up. Xan remembered when the Order had given it to his father. The whole village had gathered for the ceremony. It seemed like such a long time ago. Xan glanced around, wiped away another tear and headed back to the front.

Xan showed the others the bloody pendant. “It’s my father’s. He never took it off as it showed his rank with the Path of Peace.”

“I’m sorry.” Wang Sue said. “This is what the Corrupted do.”

Xan looked at her helplessly. “Why?”

Lee Bo shrugged. “Why is evil evil? Why is water wet? Why are clouds fluffy? It is the way things are.”

Wang Sue shook herself out of her reverie. “Okay. We’ve stayed here too long. Grab whatever you might need and let’s get back to the caravan.”

Xan stood and stared daggers at her.

She just stood, coldly returning his gaze.

Xan narrowed his eyes, glaring at her, then grunted and went into the house to pick up a few things. His mother’s favorite book of poems, the bag of herbs they used to treat illnesses. He carefully cleaned his father’s pendant with a cloth from the kitchen and put it on. He stopped at his mother’s desk, opened the ink and scrawled a quick note saying that he and Cho were alright and headed to the Valley of the Moon.

Xan emerged from the house. “Before we leave the village, we should stop by Master Sung’s shop.”

“What is there, Xan?” Lee Bo asked.

“He is the Herbalist for the village.” Cho explained. “You are thinking the energy elixir?” He asked Xan.

Xan nodded grimly.

The group set off down the street. The oppressive silence getting on Xan’s nerves. He sensed it was affecting the other’s too. Everyone moved quickly and quietly. Cho’s knuckles were white on the shaft of the spear and Li Jie started sweating, eyes darting from place to place. The silence became deafening where the occasional cough or scrape of shoe on the road were welcome additions to the thump, thump, heartbeat in Xan’s ears.

They hooked left, heading down a narrow dirt path, lined by simple wood hutches with gray-tile roofs and edged by thick, bushy shrubbery. If Xan hadn’t turned into a narrow space in the shrubs, they would have walked right past the route to the shop. Despite the damage everywhere else, Master Sung’s shop stood undisturbed, just as it always did. Xan slipped in, padding forward on silent feet while the others waited outside, tension and anxiety radiating off them in waves. Inside, everything was in its place. Different jars of herbs and dried mushrooms sat on shelves and behind glass-fronted cabinets. Xan ducked into the workshop in the back, grabbed a brown leather satchel, and scooped up the set of vials on a rack. He went to the cabinet in the back and removed a jade mortar and pestle, which Master Sung used to grind up various herbs, and a scroll. He stuffed both into the satchel, took one last look around, then left the shop, carefully closing the front door.

Once outside, he handed each of them a vial. “It’s an energy elixir that Master Sung made.” Xan popped the cork out of his and threw it back in one swallow. Cho quickly did the same. The guards and Sue just stood there, vials in hand, skeptical looks on their faces. Lee Bo squinted at the two villagers, then glanced heavenward as if asking guidance. He took a sip of the concoction. Seeming to be satisfied, he told the others “Drink up,” then consumed the elixir. The others followed suit. After a few minutes, the potion took effect and everyone’s mood lifted, they stepped a little lighter as the group headed out.

Once they reached the edge of the village, they picked up pace. Xan and Cho left their childhood behind them.

#

They followed the road the caravan traveled along and, with the aid of the elixir, made good time. Faster than expected, the group rejoined the caravan. Weakened from the fight earlier—and reeling from the devastation of the village—Cho passed out as soon as they climbed into the wagon.

The wagon they rode in held food for the horse teams, bales of hay and bundles of alfalfa covered with a tarp. Cho lay between two of the bundles. Xan sat up on the stacked hay so he could survey the activities of the wagon train. Off to the right, Po and Lee Bo kept pace with the caravan.

Several times creatures broke from the trees to attack the caravan. Some creatures appeared man-shaped like the one that had attacked Cho. Others looked like twisted bears, wolves or large warped birds with black greasy wings and wailing screeches. Xan thought one looked like a mule sized dragon from one of the illustrated adventure books he had read.

Each time a creature would threaten the caravan, one of the guards intercepted it. Xan observed the martial display from his perch on the wagon. The power and strength of the guards amazed him. During one encounter, a tall and wiry guard streaked out from the wagons when one of the corrupted creatures managed to flank around the guards already engaged with other attackers. The guard was surrounded in a blue nimbus as he sped faster than a normal man could run. Just before he reached his opponent, an image of a galloping horse super-imposed on the guard as he struck the attacking creature knocking it to the ground. The guard rounded quickly returning to stomp the fallen beast into the ground for a few moments, blue and white sparks fountained up with each impact. Satisfied, the horse guard trotted back to the caravan, his blue aura fading.

It appeared to Xan that the trio of Li Jie, Po and Lee Bo were trying to out do each other. They laughed and threw jibes at each other with each encounter. On one attack, Lee Bo glowed green, leapt into the air and flew at a creature. He knocked it backward, ass over teakettle, to land with a resounding thump and lay still. Xan was impressed with the raw display. Po mimicked a great yawn on Lee Bo’s return. “Boring.” Po said. “Unimaginative.” Li Jie agreed with a grin. Lee Bo bowed to each of them as if receiving a great compliment. They all laughed. It continued all afternoon. Xan watched, captivated.

The caravan moved away from the edge of the forest and into the plains as the sun slowly sank in the horizon, then, eventually, they slowed near a stone outcropping that stuck up out of the swaying fields of golden-green grass. The dark granite rocks slanted towards the south as if a giant had stuck them into the ground to mark a specific spot. The moss streaked stone rose about forty hands in height at the tallest and three wagons in length. The wagons drew into a circle around the formation. Once they parked, the drivers unhitched the horses and set up camp. The caravan cook went to a spot along the outcropping with a cleared space and a ring of stones that, from what Xan could see, had been previously used for a fire. A rocky sheaf jutted up and out from the larger formation providing some shelter from the wind.

“Set up the ward.” The lead driver yelled out.

Xan climbed up on top of the wagon so he could watch.

Five of the caravan guards walked to points outside the wagons. From his vantage point Xan could see four of the guards. The fifth must have taken up station on the other side of the rocks. The four he could see faced out as they began. When the first guard completed her sequence, she yelled something Xan couldn’t make out and flashed with a white aura. She shouted again and turned to face the next guard. He squatted low and moved his hands and arms around ending with a clap. A blue aura flowed up from the ground and coalesced around him in an azure nimbus. He shouted and turned, Xan assumed to face the guard on the other side. Xan saw a green flash and heard another shout then the next guard Xan could see on the right performed an intricate dance causing red bands to form around him. He swept his arms upwards and the red bands wavered like flames. He turned quickly to the last guard that was right near Xan. This guard stomped each foot into the ground in a wide stance and brought his fists together with a shout. A yellow emanation flashed around him. He turned to the first guard and pushed his hands palms forward to her, as if he was shoving someone. All five guards shouted and a multicolored ring blazed through the grass connecting each of them. The guards stepped out of the glowing radius as moved back into the wagon ring and resumed their tasks.

Wei Po came over to the wagon Xan was standing on. He saw the wondrous expression on Xan’s face and stopped. “Don’t tell me you ain’t seen a ward before?”

Xan shook his head still looking at the circle that slowly faded to a dim band on the ground. “Not like that. Our village ward is stone and doesn’t glow.” He climbed back down to the bed of the wagon where Cho was still sleeping. “Why did the guards glow? How did you glow when you fought the monster?”

Po guffawed, then stole a sidelong glance at Xan. “You boys really are country mice. Been living under a rock your whole lives. Look, that there was martial magic. We draw on the elements and shape the Qi into a form. You trackin?”

Xan wasn’t.

Po smiled at Xan’s confusion. “Can’t believe I’m the one teaching you this.” He peered at Xan then sighed. “I really hope I was never this ignorant.” He said softly then looked Xan in the eye. “Let’s roll it back. Do you know what Qi is?”

Xan nodded. “Everyone has Qi. It is our life, yes?”

“Yeah, more or less. It’s the foundation of all things. It’s everywhere and in every thing. People like me, practitioners of martial magic, have spent years cultivating, controlling and channeling their Qi. We can gather it, manipulate it, and project it.” Po dropped into a stance with his feet roughly shoulder width apart and right foot forward a quarter-step. His front leg was bent slightly at the knee and most of his weight rested on the back leg. He moved his hands like he was using both to polish a melon sized ball in front of his navel. As Wei Po focused, a small speck began to glow. Dimly, at first, but as the speck grew it brightened. A ball of white energy. “This is a manifestation of Qi. It is a simple exercise. One of the first that students learn.” He moved his hands and shifted his stance and the sphere turned blue. “This is water and water leads to wood.” Po’s fingers moved through a pattern and his stance shifted again, the orb turned green. “Wood leads to fire.” He pulled his hands up and down, fingers in a new position and the sphere turned red. “Fire leads to Earth.” Po took a deep squatting stance, clenched his hands into fists and the ball turned yellow. “And, Earth creates metal.” He stood up, more erect, hands opened into knife blades as he moved them intricately around the orb and it turned white again. He opened his eyes and the energy evaporated.

Xan’s eyes were wide. “That’s amazing!”

“Pfft, any first-year can do that. Now, what the masters can do with their Qi, that’s amazing.” Wei Po looked at the wagon. “Is your friend still sleeping?” Po moved closer looking at Cho and Xan saw concern pass across Po’s face. “Looks like he’s still passed out. Has he moved much today?”

Xan went over to the wagon and looked at Cho’s snoring form slumped on the stacked bales of hay. “He hasn’t stirred since we got back from the village. Was it that purple stuff when the creature attacked us? What was that mist? I didn’t see that color in your Qi.”

Wei Po narrowed his eyes as if he was deciding something. “That was dark magic. The Sifu at the school we are traveling to will explain.”

“Dark magic? Will it hurt Cho?” Xan asked softly, frightened for his friend.

Wei Po frowned. “Your friend should recover soon, if he’s gonna recover. The folks at the school will know what to do.” He put a comforting hand on Xan’s shoulder. “Come on, no point worrying over something that may not happen. You guys have been through a lot in a short time. Let’s get some dinner.” He guided Xan toward the middle of the camp.

The two headed to the cooking station by the rocks where a long low fire had been built. There, two large fat black pots, each the size of Xan’s torso hung suspended on metal tripods over the roaring fire. The aroma of hearty stew wafted from the kettles instantly setting Xan’s mouth watering. Po grabbed a couple of clay bowls from a stack on the nearby cooking wagon and went to the man holding a long handled copper ladle. He was using it to emphasize a point in his story with several thrusts as Po approached. The cook laughed as he joked with the people from the caravan seated around the fire. It was obvious from his physique he hadn’t missed a meal and liked his own cooking. The man smiled as he ladled out rice from one pot and a stew from the other. He kept up a playful banter with the other wagon drivers while he worked.

Wei Po waved towards the stack of bowls with one calloused hand, indicating Xan should do the same.

Xan grabbed two bowls and the smiling man repeated the process.

They grabbed a seat on one of the long wooden benches, and Wei Po explained between bites, “The guards rotate out duties. Some protect the caravan and others range out ahead of the wagons as hunters to catch game.”

Xan ate in relative silence, his mind turning over the events from the day. He vacillated between the almost overwhelming horrors from his village and the wonder of the magic he had seen. The stew was savory, chock full of bits of meat from various animals, while the rice was lightly seasoned with some spice that Xan had never tried before—both sweet and savory.

Once they had finished, Xan took Po’s bowls and headed over to the washing station and cleaned up all four. He set them on the drying rack and returned to where Wei Po sat. “How long until we get to this school?” he asked after a time.

Po squinted up at the stars then looked at Xan. “Two days barring any mishaps.”

“What could—” Xan said when massive chorus of roars sounded from their right cutting him off.

Everyone stood up and turned to the sounds. Along the ward wall dozens of creatures pounded the space above the ward circle as if a physical barrier stopped them.

Xan could see multicolor energy splashes with every strike.

With each hit and each block, the creatures’ fury rose, the blows coming faster and faster until the air above the ward-line was one continuous splash of color.

After several minutes of continuous attacks, they stopped. One large creature with glowing red eyes moved forward. It stood easily half again as tall as the other creatures and had a broad muscular chest and three pointed horns across the top of its forehead at its hairline. It was dressed in filthy tattered robes that clung to its body out of spite. It stopped right before the ward threshold and just stood there. Waiting. Watching.

Xan thought it stared right at him.

After what seemed like an eternity, the host all turned away from the ward-wall and ran back into the forest.

Everyone around Xan relaxed.

Xan noticed that he had held his breath and exhaled quickly. “Does that happen often?”

Po looked contemplatively at the space the creatures just vacated. “Not often. No.” He shook his head. “I need to confer with Lee Bo and the caravan master. Go check on your friend. I’ll find you there.” He bowed, then moved off to the lead wagon.

Xan shrugged and walked to the wagon with Cho.

When he got there, Cho was sitting up, looking around. “What happened? What was all that noise and light for?”

“We have camped and more of the corrupted creatures just tried to get through the camp’s wards. They have real magic wards.” Xan exclaimed excitedly. He faltered for a moment when it became clear that Cho wasn’t really interested in hearing about magic right now. He looked… bad. “How are you feeling?” Xan finally asked, heat rose in his cheeks from guilt that he hadn’t asked that first off.

Cho ran his fingers through his hair rubbing his scalp at the temples. “My head hurts and I’m hungry.”

“Let’s get food into you and I’ll catch you up,” Xan held out a hand to help Cho out of the wagon.

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About the author

MarkStallings

Bio: I’ve been in Colorado since I was a young teenager. I live in the foothills of Pikes Peak with my wife, two children and various dogs and cats. I have a crazy technology background having founded several tech companies centering around human machine interfaces before I discovered a passion for writing.

When I’m not slinging the ink and trying to get paid to fabricate tales that entertain, I like to shoot competitively, drink craft beer, ride motorcycles and play games with friends.

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