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Once they were out into the courtyard, Sue looked around and her gaze settled on the tower, she sighed, seemingly resigned to get this over with. “We might as well start with the tower.” She strode towards the entrance to the looming structure and her demeanor changed.

“The school for martial magic was founded a thousand years ago.” She droned on, utterly bored, like she had said this a thousand times. “The Founder was a wandering monk who had learned how to manipulate Qi and apply it to various techniques to produce a greater effect. Whether it was offensive or defensive.”

“The martial magic is broken into various elements—”

“Like the water and wood?” Xan excitedly interrupted

Broken out of her routine, she looked at him with surprise.

“Po explained the caravan wards and showed me a bit of Qi and the elements.” Xan explained, dropping his eyes as his face flushed with heat under he intense stare. “Is… is that what they teach here?”

“More or less, yes. There are five elements. Water, wood, fire, earth and metal. That is the foundation. If you actually become students,”—she sounded skeptical—“then the first year you will learn the elements.” She stopped at the base of the tower and turned to face them. She pointed behind them and they turned. The road led straight from where they stood to a squat building at the wall a thousand yards away. “That is the elemental practice area for water. Each element has a building along the outer wall that is directly accessible to the tower. Not only does it allow for students to progress, but it forms the foundation of our ward for the school.”

“You know a lot about this. Are you a student here?” Xan asked.

“No, I grew up here with my grandparents. No one can become a student until they are eighteen.” Sue explained then waved her hand like shoeing a fly. “Now, enough about me—back to the elements. They work together, just like the wards. But they also work in opposition, like the martial magic combat you saw.”

“Oh, when the caravan set up the ward, Wei Po showed me the different elements in a ball. Is that what you mean?” Xan asked.

“It is more complicated than that. He probably showed you the physical manifestation of Qi. Practitioners of martial magic spend years learning how to cultivate and control their Qi. The greater the control, the more you can channel. Let’s head over to the practice yard and you can see for yourself. There are generally Followers there.” Sue walked towards the water building. Xan and Cho moved to keep up.

“What is a follower?” Cho asked, his curiosity finally awakened.

Sue brightened a bit at Cho’s attention. “The school is divided into three kinds of students. The Seeker of wisdom, or Seeker is the beginning student looking to understand the five elements and the basics for the various animal styles. There are a series of tests over the first two years of being a Seeker. If the Seeker passes all the tests, they move up to become a Follower. The Follower is someone who specializes in a specific style and element combination. They Follow the Guidance of a master, much like a craftsman takes an apprentice. That is why they are ‘followers.’”

Sue navigated around some wagons being unloaded.

“What is the third student?” Xan asked.

Her attitude became a little more frosty when she addressed Xan. “The third student is an Adept. There aren’t many Adepts here. They are out in the world on various tasks for the masters, or researching. She paused, a ghost of a smile spreading across her lips. “Grandfather sometimes says they are chasing an interesting cloud. At any rate, whatever they are doing, it generally happens away from the school.” Sue stopped. They had arrived at the training area for Water.

“Isn’t Po an Adept?” Cho asked her.

Sue smiled at him, “Yes, he is. He had been on a task for grand- the Sifu when he met up with us at the Temple.”

She motioned for them to follow her and stepped into the practice yard. The space was a large square stone tiled area bordered with a wooden walkway. The ceiling was vaulted giving practitioners fifteen feet of height. Only a few people occupied the yard. Some looked to be waving their hands in the air and a couple pairs actively sparred.

Sue pointed at the few on the side not sparring. “They are working with their Qi and water.” Xan could see blue spheres of light in front of each of them growing or shrinking with the arm movements.

She gestured at the pairs of students sparring. “These are working on improving their martial magic. Different elements overcome others. Water overcomes fire. Earth overcomes water. So, they come here to practice. Watch these two.”

She indicated the closer pair. A medium-build man just a bit older than them was sparring a whip-thin woman with her dirty-blonde hair in a tight braid down her back. Xan saw a green nimbus surround the man who suddenly sprang into the air. At the height of the jump, he seemed to hang as the faint image of an eagle superimposed on him. He dove towards her, feet first. She waited, patiently, watching him until the last moment. With a flick of her wrists, white tendrils of translucent energy rose up out of the ground, coiling around her and up her arms. A bear image flashed around her as she drove upwards with both fists. Xan saw flashes of green and white and felt the energy crackle when they collided. The attack was deflected and the man rolled away, they resumed circling each other, smiles on both of their faces.

The trio watched a couple more passes, then Sue motioned back to the entrance, and they left the building.

She turned back toward the giant gray structure looming over them. Xan noted that Sue slipped back into lecture mode, complete with a bored expression. “The Founder, built the tower,” she said. “Once he learned to master the elements, he studied the animals, how they moved, and interacted with prey and predators. He created the animal styles, elemental forms that power the martial magic for that style. Bear, Eagle, Snake and so on.” She checked each off on a finger as she went. “There are ten primary animals.”

Cho said “Oh, like what we just saw?”

Sue smiled “Yes, that was their animal form. When they power martial magic, you see glimpses of an animal and those attuned see their aura for the elements too.”

“Oh, were those the colors?” Xan asked.

Sue was surprised. “You could see that?”

It was Xan’s turn to be surprised. “Can’t everyone?” He looked at Cho.

Cho grimaced and shook his head. “I didn’t see much of anything when that thing hit me at the mountain. During their practice, I saw animals, but no colors.”

Sue looked thoughtfully at the two for a moment, then shook herself out of her reverie and pointed at the tower, resuming her tour-guide persona. “The tower is twenty stories high and is the largest of its kind for teaching martial magic. It serves the Followers, Adepts, and the Masters—who teach the various animal forms. The first three floors are set aside for visiting adepts. The next ten floors are for each of the ten animal styles that the twelve clans practice. The Followers and Masters for that particular style. The next four floors are for the practitioners of the alternate animal styles. Not every one of the alternate animal styles are taught in each of the clans.” Sue turned away from the tower to one of the streets along the perimeter, parallel to the outer wall.

Xan squinted at the tower and worked the numbers. “Hang on. You said twenty.”

Sue stopped. “The top three floors of the tower have been sealed off for safety.” She shrugged. “There was a fire and it is really old after all. Come on. I’ll show you the crafts areas.”

#

They wound their way through the bustling traffic and wagons of various sizes. Sue slowed near one larger shop.

“Just like any other town or village, there are all kinds of shops that make all manner of things. Soap, wine, pastries, clothes, shoes, noodles. There are five major crafts that the Seekers learn. Each one corresponds with the element. This is the herbalism shop and attached to it is a classroom. The other crafts are cooking, alchemy, pottery and blacksmithing.”

They stepped into the shop. Inside various customers looked at bundles of dried herbs, teas, and tinctures. Mixed in amongst the customers, were black robed Followers, lending assistance to the patrons.

Sue pointed to the back area. “That is where the students learn about herbs and preparation.” She motioned for them to step back outside. She headed off down the street. Cho and Xan hurried after her. A curving street ran a circle around the town with the tower at the center. Xan observed the cobblestone streets they traversed were laid out well, segmenting the town and providing for reasonably direct paths to the different areas.

Sue stopped in front of a busy restaurant. She went down the side of the building to an entrance and stepped through. It opened into a courtyard with a set of taller wooden tables each with stools arrayed around it and a series of fire pits along both walls.

“This is the cooking school. Here students learn about various foods and spices that can give sustenance, remove the need for sleep and aid in Qi recovery.” With a glint in her eye and an almost dreamy expression, she pointed at the kitchen. “They also make scrumptious dishes and are immensely popular with the town here.” Xan wondered what her favorite was.

She gestured to the entrance they had come through, and the three stepped back out into the alley. Sue led them back to the circling street and they continued on.

The next building had a front wall with a solid iron bound wooden door that had been painted a deep red. Sue hit a small iron chime with a little mallet attached by a cord to a hook next to the door. A small window in the door opened. It was just large enough for the man’s face that appeared in it. One eyebrow was missing and the hairs of his mustache had curled on one side. Singed. Xan knew from experience. The man’s cheeks were flushed and he narrowed his eyes.

“May I assist you?” he asked.

“I am Wang Sue, Sifu Wang asked me to show these potential new students the school. May we step into the courtyard? I promise we won’t go into the labs.”

The man looked at the trio appraisingly. The window slid shut with a clap. A few moments passed.

Xan whispered, “I think that’s a no.”

Finally, the door groaned opened, hinges protesting from disuse. Man looked disapprovingly as the trio came through it. Xan noticed the sleeve of the man’s jacket was blackened.

The man shoved the door closed behind them. “Be sure you don’t stray, Mistress Wang.” He bowed slightly to her before leaning against the door, arms across his chest.

“This is the school of alchemy.” Sue explained. She saw their puzzled expressions. “Do you know what alchemy is?”

Cho said “It’s where you use stuff to…” he squinted, “Okay maybe not.”

Xan just shook his head no and stayed quiet.

Sue smiled at Cho. “Alchemy uses Qi to manipulate ingredients and create elixirs and medicines. They also had experiments that sometimes go awry.” Sue pointed at the windows they could see into.

Xan moved closer to the first window. Inside was a wide assortment of jars and burners and things smoked here and bubbled there. He noted that each room was separated with a brick wall. Looking into a second window he saw several people moving quickly around a burning brasier belching a greenish smoke.

“Alchemy can take many forms. From simple potions, like what Xan worked with, to sense altering smokes and vapors.” Sue pointed at the brasier that was beginning to vibrate.

A loud bang from the right most room that rattled the windows. Xan jumped and even Sue appeared startled. The gate attendant sighed loudly as a wall of blue smoke billowed out of the window.

“You need to go now.” He said and held the door open. Their trip cut short, the trio left back to the street. As they cleared the frame, the door slammed shut behind them. Xan could see the blue smoke that rose up from the other side of the door.

“As you can see things can be a bit unpredictable. But, just like making a pie isn’t exactly the same twice, so too is alchemy.” Sue shrugged.

“We didn’t have any of that at Mogu.” Cho stated.

“This is the best Alchemy lab in the region. People come from the other eleven clans to study here.” Sue shrugged and walked off down the street.

Eyes wide, Cho and Xan looked at each other, then Xan looked at the column of blue smoke that stretched skyward. Xan was amazed. This is the best school in the land? Watching as the smoke turned a greasy yellow he couldn’t help but wonder what a bad school of alchemy was like. He shook away that thought and hurried to catch up with Sue, who marched on, unconcerned with leaving them behind.

It didn’t take them long to reach their next destination. The building had a little store front with pots, bowls, urns, pitchers and other bits of pottery. Sue thread her way through the crowded shop to the back area, a wide and open area with stations all around the outside. The center was occupied by a massive stone oven. Followers tended the oven and put pieces of pottery in or pulled them out.

“This is the pottery school. Everyone needs cups and plates. Grandfather never really brought me here much so I’m not entirely sure what all else they do. But, the students have to learn it so it has to be important.”

“We traded for our pottery.” Xan said. A flash of grief passed as he remembered the joy his mother had when father had brought home a new pitcher from the trade caravan. The symbols interwove with a flowered pattern around the rim and along the base. Father had bartered hard for that piece. For a small man and dedicated acolyte of the Path of Peace, he sure bargained for it like his life was on the line. Xan sighed heavily and wiped away a tear as they headed back out to the street and moved to their next stop.

Cho seemed puzzled. “Why is there such an emphasis on crafts at a school for martial magic?” Cho asked.

“Well, each of the schools for martial magic teach valuable crafting skills that aren’t really taught at the villages. At least crafting items with Qi manipulation.” Sue explained. Looking at their blank expressions, she sighed. “The craftsmen here infuse their products with Qi. This enables the food they prepare to provide more nourishment, the pottery to be unbreakable and the potions more powerful.” Xan caught on and could see that Cho understood.

“I told you there were trials the Seekers went through?” She asked them.

“Yes. You said something like if the seekers passed a test they became followers?” Xan offered.

“Close enough for this discussion,” she replied tersely. “There are a series of tests. If a Seeker doesn’t pass the test, they are put out of the school. Hundreds of years ago, the masters decided they needed to teach crafts so if a student fails and is expelled from the school, they can still be useful when they returned to their village.”

Xan and Cho looked at each other with surprise. Xan’s anxiety began to climb.

“If a student doesn’t pass the tests, they have to leave the school?” Cho finally asked.

“Yes. Those that fail the trials have to go back to the ordinary life in their village,” Sue said. She walked a few more steps. She stopped and turned to the two men her eyes wide. “Oh! Cho, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“Don’t.” Cho held up a hand. “Let’s see the rest of what you wanted to show us.”

Xan put a hand on his friend’s shoulder and nodded.

Sue looked at Cho and Xan. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Alright. One more shop to see.” She turned and walked with her shoulders slumped. They continued in silence until Sue stopped outside a three-story building of red-brick, which radiated heat like a small sun. Even the street seemed warm. The rings of hammers on metal filled the air, ping-ping-ping.

“A smithy!” Xan said excitedly a wide grin splitting his face. He had always loved the smithy. Old man Jan would make tongs and scissors. “We have one at Mogu.” He sobered and glanced at Cho. “Well, we had one.” He said quietly.

Sympathy flashed across Sue’s face. After an awkward moment, she cleared her throat and pressed on, “This smithy makes all the weapons for the guard. And, the adepts who desire a weapon to specialize in, learn how to forge it and imbue it with power here. They infuse the items with Qi to produce strength or resilience or sharpness. They make armor too that no weapon can penetrate.” Sue looked at Cho. “Your father’s spear was probably forged here.”

That surprised Cho. “How do you know?”

“It was power forged. Lee Bo told us on the trip here.” She looked into the entrance of the shop. The air shimmered with heat waves. “Did you want to go in?” She asked, her words and body language implying in no uncertain terms the answer should be ‘no.’

“I think we’re good.” Xan said before Cho could answer. “I’ve seen hot metal before.”

“Well, then, you’ve seen most of the school—at least the parts available to outsiders. I think we should head back and talk with Grandfather. And you two have an important decision to make…”.

#

They had almost made it back to the administration building where they were to meet Sifu Wang when someone called out.

“Sue! Wang Sue!”

They stopped and a man about their age headed towards them. He stood as tall as Cho with an athletic physique. His Jacket was of a fine cloth and the blue matched his pants, lighter blue wrappings wound his lower legs and his long dark hair fairly flowed around him. He stopped in front of Sue. “When did you get back?” He gave her a quick embrace, which she returned a bit awkwardly.

“Kai Jin,” she said with a nod and neutral expression. “It’s good to see you.” It certainly didn’t sound like it was good to see him—at least to Xan’s ears. “I just got back this afternoon… there were some complications that caused us some delay.” She turned partially towards Xan and Cho. “And we managed to pick up some potential recruits.” She moved so Cho was between her and Kai Jin. “Kai Jin, this is Tang Cho and Gao Xan from the village Mogu.”

“Mogu? Where in the world is that?” Kai Jin looked the two men over, noticing their rough travel-stained clothes. “Well, it must be well into the country.” He sniffed dismissively, ignoring Cho and Xan, and instead focusing on Sue, “You must come and dine with me.

Sue hesitated. “Jin, I need to…”

He cut her off. “My parents would love to see you again. You have to tell me… um, us, all about your pilgrimage.”

“I’ll see what time permits. I need to get back to grandfather.” Without another word, Sue forged on, heading down the avenue towards the tower and her grandfather’s study.

“It was nice meeting you.” Xan said, offering a friendly wave before he hurried after Sue.

Kai Jin watched Sue depart. He focused on Xan and Cho and sneered at them. “Enjoy your tour, bumpkins.” He turned abruptly and stomped away, his face a thundercloud of anger.

“Well, that was fun.” Xan said.

“He’s an ass.” Cho said. “C’mon, or she’ll leave us here.”

They could see their destination ahead. Sue wasn’t moving too fast and they caught up to her easily.

“So, what was that about?” Xan asked her, quirking an eyebrow.

“What? Oh, Jin? We used to see each other.” Sue waved her hand dismissively. The consternation on her face belied her feigned indifference.

“Does he know it is ‘used to’?” Xan asked softly, seeing a softer side of Sue.

She glanced at him quickly, sighed, then focused back on the avenue and avoiding people. “He does. He just wishes it to be otherwise.”

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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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