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Xan sat next to the wagon driver as they crossed the plains. The screech of the wagon wheels, the steady nickering of the horses, and the low but constant moan of the wind was the only thing to be heard. Before this, Xan had thought the life of a caravaneer was exciting and glamorous. Whenever the caravans had come to Mogu, they had astounding stories of adventures in faraway places and they traded items, spices and exotic trinkets. The reality of the monotony of travel by wagon chafed Xan’s backside as he sat on the unforgiving wagon bench. Since Cho was mostly sleeping in the bed of the wagon, Xan alternately took turns staring out at the landscape or watching the wagons ahead of them. In the distance, he could see a rock formation. The caravan was headed directly for it. As with anything on the plains, the distances were deceptive. They could see the rocks long before they even remotely got close to it.

They made camp again that night. Once again, the guards put up the wards. It was Cho’s turn to be thunderstruck with the awesome display of martial magic. With the wards up, the group began their evening activities. Unhitching the horses and grooming them. Since the wagon they rode in had the feed for the horses, Xan and Cho were recruited to pulling out the hay and alfalfa and setting it for each of the horse teams to graze on. There were no attacks, but everyone was alert just in case. Xan and Cho slept under the stars next to the wagon.

As soon as the sun was up enough to see where they were going, they headed once again towards the rock formation. Xan noticed a split in the base of the bluff. With every passing mile, the bluff grew larger. “How far away is that?” Xan asked the driver, pointing at the bluff.

“Oh, we will be there the end of the day.” He responded.

“And then what?” Xan asked.

The driver smiled at him. “It’ll be a grand adventure.”

The day passed in agonizing slowness with the rock formation looming ever larger. The tedium of the previous day returned and the only sounds to interrupt his thoughts were the occasional whinny of the horses, the constant wind and creaking of the wagon wheels. No attacks came, and all was calm, at least on the outside. Inside, Xan was a hurricane of uncertainty, doubt, pain, and anxiety. He felt more than a little numb as he tried to process everything that had happened.

A day ago, he’d been a simple villager, the future apprentice to a potions master. The biggest thing Xan’d had to worry about was whether ground squirrels got into the catalyzing agent and who was going with him on the next harvest once Cho joined the guard. And now? Now he was homeless. His family likely dead. His village razed almost to the ground and filled with the ghosts of those he had known.

No, he scolded himself. His family wasn’t dead! He hadn’t seen the bodies, which meant there was a still a chance they were out there. Still, unbidden, the image of Zhang Wei’s boot invaded his thoughts, the amputated foot lying in the road, blood pooling around it like a crimson halo. He swung between overwhelming sadness and impotent rage. For the rest of the day he wrestled with himself—what would he do now? Where would he go? His idyllic village life as he’d known it was over, and now he would need to find a new way. A new path. And revenge? How could he get revenge for his village? He wasn’t a fighter, as Cho liked to remind him. Subconsciously, he clutched at his father’s amulet, dangling around his neck.

A few hours later they arrived at the gap in the stone. The caravan stopped snapping Xan out of his reverie. The driver got down. “Let’s check the wheels and the brakes. If either fail, our ride to the bottom will be very exciting.” He smiled at Xan’s puzzlement.

They pulled some grass out of one brake. Xan didn’t have a lot of experience with wagons, but he knew enough that these had incredible brakes the likes of which he had never seen. The brake levers on either side of the wagon seat connected by a handle to a large steel wheel with teeth that, in turn, connected to an arm running under the bed of the wagon to each wheel that manipulated shoes for the wheels on that side of the wagon. Pulling the lever clamped the set of shoes on the wheel itself using friction to slow the wagon. The lever release, a metal pull to unlock the gear, let up the pressure from the brake shoes. Everything seemed in order so the caravan slowly moved forward. At the signal from the dismounted lead guard, the wagons entered the stone archway one at a time. As each wagon entered, the guard held up his hand for the next wagon to wait. The guard watched inside then would give the go-ahead to the next wagon. Xan watched as they approached the black maw. Soon there was only one wagon in front of them. It moved slowly through the arch then dropped out of view.

Xan looked at the driver. “Where did it go?” He nervously wiped his sweaty hands on his pants.

The driver chuckled darkly at Xan’s anxiety. “Down. Ya might want to hold on to something. It’s our turn.”

Xan looked askance at the gap as they approached. The white stone of the bluff was a stark counterpoint to the black of the passage into the rock.

“Get ready!” the driver cackled and clucked to gently ease the team forward. He shifted the stout leather wrapped wooden handle to set the brake on his side and motioned at Xan to do the same. “Two clicks and don’t let go of the handle.” The cart lurched and the horses headed down a sharp incline, quickly swallowed by darkness.

Xan inhaled sharply and his grip tightened on the brake. It took Xan’s eyes a few terrifying moments to adjust to the darkness before he saw they drove on a very steep downward-sloping road.

“Get ready, we’re turning.” The normally placid driver said tensely, an edge of both mild trepidation and excitement coloring his words. “When I say to, I want you to ease off your brake a bit.” He squinted ahead intently. “Okay…” He pulled the leads hard to the left. “Now, ease off it.” The driver stood, his left boot on his brake handle for leverage. The brake shoes screamed against the steel bands covering the surface of the wheels, and Xan felt the wagon careen sharply to the left. Cho cried out in alarm as everything in the back shifted.

The wagon wheels locked on the left side from the brakes biting into them. The wheels skidded in the gravel and dirt on the granite ramp and the wagon tottered sideways on the road, gliding towards the edge, lubricated by the loose gravel. Xan’s heart was in his throat. He whimpered a bit. They kept sliding towards the precipice. Being on the right side, Xan could see down several hundred feet to the floor of the shaft where huge stone spikes shone with unnatural light, patiently waiting to end Xan’s existence. We are going to go over.

“What—” Xan said, then the wheels finally bit into a groove worn into the rock and the wagon abruptly completed the turn and headed down a narrow road. Xan was breathing heavily, hands shaking.

“Okay set it again. Just two notches this time. We won’t want the wagon running over the horses.” He chuckled at Xan’s wild-eyed expression. “You always remember your first trip to the Valley. With the gravel, this one was a little more exciting than usual.”

As his eyes continued to adjust to the cavern, Xan saw they were on a switchback road headed down. He leaned a bit over the side and saw the switchbacks continued to a bright opening below that was the source of illumination for the ominous stone spikes. Xan shuddered at the thought of how he almost ended. “What is that light down at the bottom?” he asked the driver.

“That, my boy, is the entrance to the Valley of the Moon, where the School for martial magic is. No outside force has been able to take the valley since the Animal Wars and that was four hundred years ago.” The driver motioned at Xan’s brake and they made the next switchback. This one wasn’t nearly as adventurous as the first.

It took the better part of a nerve wracking hour to creep down the switchbacks. When they reached the bottom, Xan looked up the way they had come. “Someone who didn’t know what they were doing would fly straight off that first turn and land down here,” he mused.

“The same for a wagoner who wasn’t paying attention.” the driver said solemnly. “I lost a friend that way a few years back.” He tied a cloth over his eyes. “You’ll want to cover your eyes for when we go out into the sunlight. It will be a mite bright.” He clucked at the horses and shook the reigns as the wagon moved out into the light.

Xan looked back to where Cho sat nestled in his make-shift spot in the wagon bed and told him, “Cover your eyes.” Xan turned to face front and put the crook of his elbow over his eyes. Shortly, he could feel the sunlight warming his body. After a few minutes, keeping his eye closed tight, he shifted his hand to shade his closed eyes. The bright of the outside world stabbed painfully at first but it lessened with every moment away from the dark of the ramps. Soon he could squint with just his hand shading above his eyes.

The vista ahead of them was impressive. It was as if a giant knife had carved out a slice of the earth leaving this valley. From the entrance where Xan sat atop the wagon, a cool breeze blew up the rock chimney they had just navigated. It was much cooler here than the hot plains above. Xan could smell honeysuckle and jasmine on the breeze as well as a bit of moisture as the shifting sun burned off the dew. The wagoneers called to each other and snapped reigns to get the creaking wagons moving forward. Horses whinnied and snorted with the efforts to overcome inertia.

Xan looked down the length of the valley. Gray granite rock walls climbed several hundred feet up to the plains above. He tried to see the far end of the floor of the crevasse they were in. It stretched to the school and beyond where it curved off in the distance. “How is this place possible?” Xan asked.

The driver shrugged. “Maybe a river cut it? I never really thought about it.”

Their position up at the top end of the valley afforded them a magnificent view of the school and surrounding town. An imposing stone tower dominated the center of the massive walled town. It had an octagonal structure, each level marked with a terraced gable to keep the water off the windows of the level below. Xan squinted in the hot sun, shielding his eyes as he counted twenty floors. The top part of the structure was blackened like the top of a torch and Xan wondered what if that was the result of an accident or by design. Even at this distance, he could see the tiny specks of white birds roosting on the tower’s gables, flying after insects and swooping to return to their perch. Xan shifted his attention to the town splayed around the massive structure. It was easily four times bigger than Mogu village with hundreds of buildings packed in the wall. The streets meticulously cut the town into even pie wedges, each avenue straight and leading to the tower. This segmentation neatly sliced the buildings like the spokes of a wagon wheel, the tower being the hub. Around buildings stretched a tall gray stone wall. Xan could make out people moving along the top of the wall. At this distance they appeared like ants. As they were looking down into the village, he could see the whole of the wall. Five larger hexagonal buildings with the same style of gables per level were evenly spaced around the perimeter forming part of the wall itself. Each of those outer structures were squat imitations of the main tower. Within the wall, slate-roofed houses of all different sizes and too numerous to count, filled the rest of the area. The sheer scope of what he saw made Xan feel insignificant. With his village destroyed, he hoped they could find some place here that might welcome him and Cho both.

Between Xan’s caravan and on the road leading to the main gates, wagons and small groups of people moved into and out of the tall ironbound gates. Some transited the road they were on and others headed out into the surrounding fields where tiny dots of workers moved amongst the green vegetation. Xan wondered if that was the source of the jasmine.

Xan was awestruck with the enormity of it all.

The driver chuckled. “It has stood for a thousand years. I remember meh first glimpse of the school. I was a little younger than you when meh da brought me here. Still takes meh breath away.”

Off in the distance on either side, a goodly way from the school, the steep granite walls of the canyon sloped up and away from the school, too steep to ascend with anything other than wings.

“Welcome to the Valley of the Moon.”

The caravan followed the road to the school. It only took an hour to reach the massive steel banded gate. As they drew closer, the size of the walls became more apparent. Massive stone blocks formed the wall, each block as tall as a person. The wall itself was easily fifty feet in height. Its twin doors stood open and on the inside of the gate several groups of people in various colored robes went about their business. The gate guards wore robes like the caravan guards—thigh length top, armored vests and loose pants tucked into knee-high boots. One motioned for them to enter the school. Once through the gate, the caravan took a sharp turn onto a road to the right. They followed a road that ran along the inside of the wall past workshops and warehouses. After Xan’s wagon had cleared the gate and turned onto the border road, the lead called for the wagons to stop.

The caravan master stood on the seat of his wagon, got Wei Po’s attention and pointed at the guards then Xan’s wagon.

“Looks like it’s time for you to leave, lad.” The driver said. “If you need anything, go to the Caravan Hall and ask for Stan Chu.” He indicated himself with the jerk of his thumb at his chest.

“Thank you Mister Stan.” Xan moved to the back of the wagon to get the packs and help Cho out.

The driver cackled. “Just Stan.”

Once the men cleared the wagons, they walked over to Wang Sue, Po, and Lee Bo. The drivers shouted and clucked at the horses getting the wagons moving down the road.

As they approached, Wang Sue looked Xan and Cho over and frowned at their simple garb and dusty appearance. “I guess we had better take them to see the Sifu.” She sniffed, then walked off down one of the avenues towards the tower.

“What’s with her?” Xan asked Cho.

“What? Who?” Cho was faced away, ogling the town and watching the bustle of workers and townsfolk.

“Never mind. It’s good to see you up and about.” Xan handed Cho his pack.

“I can’t believe how much I slept. I felt weak as a kitten but I feel better now.” Cho put the pack on and adjusted the straps. Even though he still wasn’t his normal self, Xan thought he looked much better.

They hurried after Wang Sue and the others.

#

Wang Sue set a fast pace. Xan had to almost trot to keep up. It didn’t afford Xan and Cho much of a chance to see the sights. The buildings they first encountered seemed more like warehouses for goods—squat gray brick two-story structures with few windows and very large doors. The ones that were open showed stacks of boxes and crates. The smallest warehouse was still larger than anything in Xan’s village. As they walked, the areas shifted to craft shops, brewing supplies, or grain merchants in store fronts that had living spaces above them. As they traveled closer to the tower, the shops began to phase into higher-end specialty shops made of better construction materials with large windows to showcase the products. Xan saw spice merchants, a specialty plant shop and a couple of bakeries. They passed a pastry shop and the smells of fresh bread and fruit tarts pummeled them. Xan’s mouth instantly watered reminding him that they hadn’t had a bite since breakfast.

“Will we be stopping for lunch along the way?” Xan asked.

Wang Sue didn’t even look back. “We’ll eat at the school.” She kept walking.

Lee Bo looked sympathetically at the pastries and then focused back on the street. As he turned back, he blurred to the side to avoid almost knocking over a man carrying a large stack of leather-bound books.

“Wow, look at all those books!” Xan said in astonishment. The man was carrying half of all the books in Mogu village in his arms down the street. “Cho, did you see that?” Xan glanced at his friend. Cho just walked along, face downcast. “Cho?”

Cho didn’t respond beyond a brief glance with his eyes. He had withdrawn into himself and Xan worried for his friend but gave him space for now.

In short order they entered the school grounds. They angled for a building near the base of the massive stone tower. A small shop occupied a space at the front of it, a faded wooden sign announced it was a noodle shop bearing a bowl with noodles and chopsticks. Large windows in the front had been propped open to allow the heat out. It was a well maintained, yet obviously old shop. The wood was smooth and polished along the counter. The walls had a fresh coat of paint along the outside. The scent of chicken cooking on a grill permeated the air and Xan’s stomach rumbled loud enough to draw attention.

Sue looked at Xan, Cho, and Lee Bo appraisingly. She turned to the shop keeper, “Can I get four noodle bowls with chicken and some tea, please?”

The shop keeper nodded. “Yes, mistress. We will bring it out to you.” She indicated the tables outside the shop and turned back into the shop to prepare the order.

Several well-worn wooden tables had been placed out front. They were clean, but in definite need of a new coat of varnish having worn down to the wood in several places. Sue sat at a table for two. Basically, dis-inviting them to sit with her.

Lee Bo frowned at her for a moment then took the other chair from her table and made a point to move it loudly to another nearby table and motioned for Xan and Cho to join him. The food arrived and everyone dug in. The broth was rich and salty, the chicken was so tender it fell apart, the noodles were perfectly firm. In too short a time, Xan looked at the sad bottom of an empty bowl.

As soon as they finished, Sue stood up. “Let’s go.” And off she went. Even Lee Bo had to scramble after her as she headed to a nearby building. Compared to the looming tower, the five story stone structure seemed squat. It was easily fifteen wagon-lengths wide and twice that deep. A short sloped awning-like red tiled eave separated the second and third floors. Another separated the fourth and smaller fifth stories. A red tiled roof came to a sweeping peak, stylized creatures at either end of the peaked roof. This single building was larger than any Xan had ever been in and could fit all the largest buildings in Mogu inside its space.

They entered the building and turned to go up the smooth stone stairs just inside the door. After the fourth floor of stairs, Xan was glad he had been hiking mountains for the last couple years.

At the top of the stairs they entered a wood paneled corridor. A woman sat at the desk, she looked startled at the sight of Wang Sue. “Oh, my dear!” she moved from behind the desk to hug Wang Sue. “Your grandfather will be so happy to see you.”

“Mistress Fang!” Wang Sue returned the embrace. “Is he available? We had some trouble on the trip.” She looked pointedly at Xan and Cho then back.

“Oh yes, he has been expecting you.” Mistress Fang gestured at an alcove across the hall from her. “You can stow your things in there.”

Lee Bo motioned for Xan and Cho to put their packs and spear in the small recess. They obliged. Xan was relieved to be done carrying the pack for a bit.

“Come with me.” The matron headed down the corridor to a set of ornate green wooden doors. Carved into the face of the doors was a circular pattern, composed of a Large circle and five smaller circles evenly spaced around the larger circle—etched inside of each of the smaller circles were symbols Xan has never seen before. The matron tapped once on the door then opened it up and quietly ushered them in.

Xan stopped at the threshold of the room. It was longer by half again as it was wide. The polished floor was entirely made from a golden wood as well as the paneling along the walls. Down each side of the room stood ornate columns carved from the same material with figures and symbols. Eight hanging lanterns evenly spaced along each wall provided a cheery and inviting note to the room with their soft warm glow. The pattern on the elaborate wooden cases for the lamps complimented the style of columns.

At the far end of the room sat an older man as evidenced by his long gray braided hair. His lined face showed a thoughtfulness as he brushed on the paper before him. His dark robes had a pattern Xan couldn’t quite make out. He rested on a light-brown mat, a small desk before him. The man looked up as they entered and set aside his calligraphy brush. He moved the desk to the side and stood up to greet the guests.

“Grandfather!” Wang Sue said and rushed to embrace him.

“How was your trip?” Sounding relieved, he hugged her.

She said something quietly to him.

He frowned.

She kept talking softly then pointed with one hand at Xan and Cho.

Eventually, the man gave them a contemplative look. Then the two of them had a quiet conversation.

“Good thing we are so interesting.” Xan said quietly to Cho who merely nodded in return.

After a few minutes, the man and Wang Su came to some conclusion that apparently she wasn’t too happy about.

“Gao Xan, Tang Cho of Mogu Village, this is Sifu Wang Wei, the headmaster of the School for martial magic and head of the Wang Family. My grandfather.” She said, bowing slightly. Reluctantly in Xan’s opinion.

“Sifu Wang, it is a pleasure.” Xan bowed. Cho followed suit.

“My granddaughter tells me you had quite the adventure getting here. I am sorry about your village. Please accept the hospitality of the Wang family and the school.”

“Thank you Sifu Wang.”

“Let’s sit and have some tea, shall we?” He looked past them. “Mistress Fang, will you bring tea for our guests to my work room?”

“Yes headmaster.” The matron replied and exited the room closing the door behind her.

“This way.” Sifu moved to a wood panel and touched a section of the intricate carving. With an audible click, the figure he was pushing on depressed and a panel in the wall popped open to reveal a doorway. Xan was blown away. He had never seen such craftsmanship and never would have seen the door if Sifu had not opened it.

Sifu entered the area beyond the hidden door. The room was half as big as the previous hall. It was appointed in the same light woods on the floor and paneling along the walls but somehow this had a cozier feel. The left side of the room was occupied with six sets of floor-to-ceiling shelves. Each shelf was filled with all manner of boxes, bound stacks of paper, scrolls and books. The same style lanterns hung at the end of each shelf providing illumination for the windowless room. The other side of the room held a grouping of comfortable-looking chairs around a low table.

A door opened at the far end, through which Mistress Fang entered bearing a tray with a large pot and cups. She set the tray down on the table.

“Thank you Mistress Fang.” Sifu gestured at the chairs and looked at the travelers. “Sit, please.”

The group took their seats. Sue sat on one side of Sifu and Lee Bo rested on the other.

“Granddaughter, will you pour the tea for our guests?” Sifu asked.

Sue got a sour look on her face but quietly set out the cups and poured tea into each.

Once the tea was poured and everyone had a chance to sip it, Sifu asked “Tang Cho, Will you tell me how you came to be here?”

At the lack of response, Xan poked Cho. Cho looked startled.

“Kind sir, my friend has had a rough time. If I may be permitted, I’ll tell the story,” Xan said.

Sifu looked at Cho with sympathy and nodded for Xan to continue. During the telling, Sifu asked pointed questions, had him retell a couple of things involving the corrupted creatures and the mist. At the end he looked at Lee Bo. “They attacked the wards?”

Lee Bo nodded, “They did. Almost like they were challenging us, Sifu.”

“Very interesting.” Sifu looked contemplatively at one of the shelves, stroking his wispy gray beard for a long beat. “Interesting indeed.” He seemed to gather himself. “Well, what are we to do with the two of you, I wonder?”

Both Xan and Cho had no response. Four days ago they had been harvesting mushrooms.

“I wonder if you would be interested in joining our school here?” Sifu asked.

Wang Sue stiffened. “Grandfather.”

“They don’t have many options with their village destroyed.” Lee Bo said. “They managed to kill one of the corrupted, so they might survive the training.”

Xan wasn’t sure what exactly they were offering, but if serious danger was involved, he wasn’t sure it would be a good fit. “Sifu Wang, I appreciate your offer, but we don’t have any idea what your school does.”

Sifu looked at Sue expectantly. She met his gaze for a moment, searching his face, then she dropped her eyes and looked down at her tea cup. Several emotions ran across her face. After a moment, she seemed to arrive at a decision. She sighed heavily and looked up at her grandfather. “I could give them a tour of the school.” She said meekly.

“Excellent.” Sifu Wang smiled at his granddaughter then looked at Xan and Cho. “My granddaughter will show you the school, then we can talk about your future.” Sifu stood up. Lee Bo and Wang Sue quickly followed suit.

Xan realized they had been dismissed. He nudged Cho and stood up. “Thank you Sifu Wang.” Xan bowed stiffly.

The group moved towards the door that Mistress Fang had come in through.

“A moment of your time, Master Lee,” the Sifu said and resumed his seat.

“Of course,” Lee Bo replied, lingering in the room as Xan and Cho followed Sue through the exit.

Once the door was closed, Wang Su looked at Xan and Cho. Xan could see thoughts warring on her features. He guessed she didn’t want to deal with the nerf-herders. That’s okay. “What’s our first stop?” Xan asked, a smile creeping over his face. Maybe Sue wasn’t happy about this assignment, but Xan was resolved that he would make the best of it.

Sue glowered at the pair of them, her eyes narrowed to slits. “Follow me,” she ordered, face set with resignation, swooping around them to lead them downstairs.

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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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