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They stepped into a long hall and followed Sue back to the front office, the hardwood floors occasionally creaking as they stepped. Xan really wanted to have a private conversation with Cho about everything—to talk through their options and get a feel for what Cho was thinking. When they reached the front office and Mistress Fang, Xan asked her, “Is there a place we can freshen up before seeing the Sifu?”

“Of course. If you go down one floor, there will be a room on the right.” Mistress Fang told them. “Wang Sue can show you.”

They got their packs and followed Sue back down the stairs. She pointed at the door. “I’ll meet you back upstairs. Don’t take too long.”

It was a simple room with little in the way of pomp or frills. A waist high wooden table—stained so dark it was nearly black—spanned one wall and on it stood several tan ceramic basins, all evenly spaced apart. Each basin had a pitcher decorated with bands of strange symbols next to it. A stack of light green towels and wash cloths lay folded on a low wooden table on the opposite side of the room. Beside the door sat a large bucket, presumably for the wastewater, and a basket for the used towels and washcloths. It appeared they weren’t the first to use the wash room today.

“I didn’t know you were so interested in cleanliness.” Cho said, setting down his pack and unbelting his jacket. He moved to one of the basins and poured water into it from the pitcher next to it. Steamy wisps rose from the bowl, curling in the air. Cho dipped a finger into the water in the basin. “It’s warm!” he exclaimed. He looked at the sigil etched pitcher. “Amazing.” He put a hand to the side of the pitcher. “It is cool on the outside, but somehow it keeps the water warm on the inside.” He picked it up, turning the pitcher this way and that, examining it with squinted eyes. “I wonder how in the world they managed that?”

“I totally could‘ve used one of these in Mogu. Heating up wash water was a serious chore.” Xan couldn’t help but think about all the early mornings, filling buckets from the well and getting the fire up to heat the water. He could almost smell the smoke from the kindling. With a stab of sadness, he realized he would never do that again. For better or worse, those days were over. Still thinking, Xan picked up the pitcher at another station. “I wanted to talk with you before we see the Sifu.” He poured water into his basin, dipped in a wash cloth and wiped the dust from his face and neck. “What do you think about the school?” Xan watched Cho as he washed, trying to gauge his friends feelings.

Cho paused in his cleaning efforts. “I don’t like the fact that if you don’t pass their tests you get kicked out.” He stopped and looked pointedly at Xan. “We have nowhere to go. We can’t afford to get kicked out.”

Xan undid his jacket and poured a little more water into his basin. “I’m aware of that. But what else can we do? We’ll,”—he returned Cho’s gaze—“I’ll just have to work extra hard to succeed.”

Cho dipped a smaller cloth into the basin and rubbed his neck and ears with it. “Maybe.” He paused, pensive. “What we really need to do, is go get the scum that destroyed our village.”

Xan stopped. “Yeah, but how do we find out who did it? Where did they go? These people know those things. They can help us figure it out.”

“I don’t trust them. They aren’t telling us everything.” Cho resumed scrubbing.

“Especially Sifu Wang.” Xan agreed. “But again, where else can we go? I don’t think they’ll let us just hang out indefinitely.” He wiped at his arm pits and chest.

“They do teach an amazing amount of things.” Cho looked at Xan. “Are you ready to learn how to fight?”

Cho’s question resonated with Xan and echoed the day on the mountains when he had saved Xan from the corrupted coyote. “If we are going to get revenge, I have to.” Xan toweled dry and went to his pack for a change of clothes.

Cho had finished putting a fresh set of clothes on. “Well, it won’t hurt to see what he has to say, I suppose.”

Xan hurriedly changed his clothes while Cho poured their water into the large bucket. Xan threw the towels and wash cloths into the wicker basket. Xan felt much better having talked things through with Cho. Looking much more presentable, the two gathered their stuff and headed back upstairs.

#

After Mistress Fang gave a polite knock on the polished wood of the door, they entered Sifu’s study. Inside, Sue sat talking with her grandfather. They fell into an uncomfortable silence as Xan and Cho entered the room and crossed to where they sat. There were two cushions arrayed next to the low table. A tea pot sat in the center and a steaming cup rested on the table near each of the empty cushions. Xan and Cho sat at the table.

Once Xan and Cho were seated, Sifu spoke, his words slow, measured, deliberate. “My granddaughter tells me you have seen the school, the craft areas and a bit of the town here. So.” He paused and folded his hands, kind eyes regarding them. “Do you have questions?”

Xan and Cho looked at each other. Xan’s mouth went suddenly dry and he took a drink of tea. He gulped the overly hot beverage, the searing liquid illuminating the entire path to his stomach and making his eyes water. Xan took a deep breath, blinked at the tears then looked at Sifu. “Yes, we saw quite a bit and I do have some questions. First, what is the purpose of this school?”

Sifu smiled. “This school was founded long ago to serve dual purposes. The first was to teach those willing and able to learn the martial magic. The second was to unify the twelve clans and provide a non-combative way to better their practice of martial magic. In the days before the school, clans warred with each other for even minor slights, stemming from the idiocy of ‘my style is better than your style.’ Since the founding of the school and the annual Tournament of Clans, there hasn't been any inter-clan warring.”

Sifu stood, his robes swishing around him as he headed over to one of the many shelves occupying the room. He shuffled several scrolls and longer pieces of parchment around until he found what he was looking for. Sifu turned toward them with a scroll that was an arm’s length wide. He unrolled the scroll, spreading it out across the table for all to see. It was a map of the school and the surrounding provinces—though it looked like someone had spilled ink on the upper right portion of the map, obscuring a swath of parchment. There were twelve colored areas on the map still visible. Each had a picture of an animal on it.

“This shows the lands of the twelve clans and our surrounding territory. Here is the school and,”—he traced a finger a little to the south and a depicted forest and mountains—“this is where Mogu lies. Before the school, there was constant fighting. Once the clans stopped fighting each other, the school was able to attract the best and brightest students to develop into Adepts. Those Adepts embrace three guiding principles.” Sifu rolled up the scroll and put it back on the shelf, before resuming his seat on the mat. “First, to make the world safer. Second, to defend the weak. And finally, to fight the corrupted.”

Anger welled in Xan. “Defend the weak?” he barked, surprising everyone. “You mean like the followers of the Path of Peace? Like my father and those in my village? Where were your Adepts when our family was murdered and the village was destroyed? Huh? Where were they when they chewed on our friends?” The rage flooded his eyes with red. He swept the tea cups off the table sending them bouncing along the floor. “How can you possibly tell me there is a school, which specifically trains warriors to stop that kind of thing from happening, and you did nothing to help them!” Xan shot to his feet, breathing heavily, emotions roiling in him, carrying his reason away like a leaf in the wind. His heart hammered in his ears.

Cho rose and dropped a reassuring hand on Xan’s shoulder to calm him down.

Sifu nodded, “I understand you are upset. However, we did send people as soon as we found out. The major challenge with evil is they only have to win once, and you don’t know how many times we drove the corrupted away from your village.” Sadness crossed his face. “It was the forces of the corrupted general, Golden Spear, who destroyed your village.”

“You know who did it?” Cho was astonished.

Sue reached under the table and held up a medallion. “We found this in your village.” The dark medallion had a golden elongated spearhead on it.

“That is the insignia for the forces of Huang Jinrong, known as Golden Spear.” Sifu set out two more cups onto the table and poured burbling liquid into each of them, the tea pot in his right hand, his left hand holding the sleeve at the bottom of his right wrist—both providing support and holding the sleeve out of the way. After he set the pot down, he looked up at the two men.

All anger drained out of Xan as Sifu calmly went through the tasks of pouring tea.

Xan flushed with embarrassment both at his outburst and his lack of manners toward their host. He grimaced and dropped down gracelessly beside the table, all the fight having suddenly left his body. “I am very sorry for my behavior,” he said before stealing a glance up at Cho.

Cho just stood there, clearly stunned. He looked as if he was processing what he’d just heard; his eyes open wide one moment, then narrowed the next. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then promptly closed it, shook his head, and took his seat. “Thank you for the tea.” He picked up the cup and inhaled the sweet scent of jasmine.

After a long, tense beat of everyone sipping their tea and giving Xan time to collect himself and Cho to process, Cho asked, “How did our village not know about this Golden Spear?”

“They knew.” Sue said with a sour look. “They chose to—”

Sifu interrupted her, raising one long-fingered hand. “Your Path of Peace Elders decided it was in the best interest of the village to keep the information quiet about a threat that might never materialize.” He shrugged and sighed, regret painted his face. “Quite simply, they told us to go away.”

Cho’s eyes bulged with surprise.

Xan sputtered tea. “My idiot father,” he murmured softly, the words meant for his ears alone.

Sifu handed Xan a red cloth napkin. “I am sorry for your village. I really am. What happened was a tragedy.”

“How do we find this Golden Spear?” Cho asked, his white-knuckled hand grasping the tea cup so hard it began tremble, ready to take vengeance.

“If I told you where to find him and let you go after them as you are, I would be just as guilty as Golden Spear in your deaths.” Sifu offered more tea. Xan, Cho and Sue declined. “That would be a tragedy of its own.”

“How can you be so sure we can learn what you have to teach?” Xan asked.

Sifu smiled and reached into his sleeve. The wizened old man pulled out a plum-sized glass ball, which swirled with colors, then rolled it across the table at Xan.

Xan grabbed for it, barely keeping it from hitting the floor. It flickered changing from blue to black to crimson in his hand before finally going clear. Xan glanced at Sifu and noticed he was staring intently at the orb.

“Grandfather—” Sue sat up straight.

“Let Cho try.” Sifu said interrupting her, nodding at the other boy.

Xan handed the orb over to Cho. It flashed white, bright and brilliant, then turned clear. Xan and Cho looked at each other quizzically, then they both turned to Sifu.

“What was that?” Cho asked.

“If you have potential, the sphere will flicker with lights. If you don’t, it stays perfectly clear, inert.” Sifu held out a hand for the sphere and Cho gave it to him.

Sue cleared her throat and Xan thought she looked a little pale. She set her tea cup down and glanced between Cho and Xan in turns. “I am starting at the school as soon as classes begin next week.” She looked simultaneously proud and nervous.

Sifu seemed surprised at first but smiled gently and nodded to Sue. He looked back at Xan and Cho. “I know this is a lot to absorb. Since you both have seen that you have the potential to learn martial magic,”—he waved with the glass ball—“you are welcome to join us here at the school.” Sifu put the orb back into his sleeve. “If you do so, you shall discover more of the world, learn the martial magic, or worst case, gain skills in crafts that will benefit you no matter what path you should choose in the future. You are welcome here.”

Xan and Cho glanced at each other and Xan put his tea cup down. He was amazed at learning the two could learn magic, but the way Sifu had described it, it seemed he might have suspected it. Xan glanced at Cho, then nervously cleared his throat.

“Can we have some time to talk about it?” Xan wiped his hands on his napkin unconsciously. “This is a big decision for us.” He worked hard to keep all emotion from his voice. He didn’t want to tip his hand prematurely.

Sifu nodded, “I can understand that. Sue will see you to our student dormitory as classes are not in session for the harvest. You can give me your answer in the morning.”

#

Silently, Sue led Xan and Cho down the stairs and outside. The trio crossed the courtyard and headed for a blocky unadorned building, three-stories tall, with gray stone walls and a dark tiled roof. The walls were new and sleek compared to the weather-beaten blocks of the tower. Windows were evenly spaced along the walls on each floor.

Sue led from the front, utterly quiet save for the whisper of fabric as she walked.

The silence was unbearable for Xan. “I would have thought you were already in the school.” He said. “You seem very knowledgeable.”

Sue glanced over one shoulder and smiled slightly at that. “Well, I have lived at the school for most of my life. I do think Grandfather was surprised when I said I was attending this year. He wanted me to study crafts or music or pretty much anything other than martial magic to stay safe,” she finished. Her voice stayed unnaturally placid and even, given what she was saying, but a tightness around her eyes told Xan how she really felt: frustrated, maybe even angry, at being pushed away from the sacred arts.

Xan grunted remembering the last argument he had with his father about joining the guard and finally acquiescing to learn herbalism. “Same for my father. The path of peace. For all the good it did them.” His bitterness surprised himself.

Sue ushered them through a set of large double doors and into a common room of sorts, with a few chairs and a spattering of end tables. Directly across from the entryway stood a black lacquered wooden desk, worn in a few spots, with a matching cabinet behind and just to the side. The door to the cabinet was open and a young man, maybe a couple years older than Xan sorted through something inside.

A polite cough from Sue startled him and he straightened as they approached, smoothing his robes with nervous hands. He was of medium height and wore the same style garments as the followers Xan had seen sparring in the practice yard. His short hair looked like he cut it himself, sticking up at uneven angles and patches. Xan suspected he hadn’t used a mirror. “How may I be of assistance?” He asked them.

Sue pointed at Xan and Cho. “These two are guests of the Sifu and they need rooms for a short time.”

“Of course.” The student turned to the cabinet once more, rooted around, and came out with two brass keys each with a ribbon tied to the end of each. Golden numbers stood out on the scarlet strips of silken fabric. The young man offered Xan and Cho a thin-lipped smile and gave them each a room key, before pointing down the hall. “Your rooms are on the first level. I am Chu Sam, by the way. There’s someone here at the front desk all the time if you need anything.”

“I’ll be here in the morning to get you.” Sue paused, lingering a moment to see if they had any questions. Hearing none, she turned abruptly and left them to find their rooms. Xan looked at Cho quizzically. Cho just shrugged and they headed into the building.

The hallway was austere with beige painted wooden walls and a worn gray slate tile floor. The doors were simple and and guarded only by the most basic lock. Xan inserted his key into the lock, gave it a half-turn, opened his door, and put his pack inside. He glanced around the tiny the room. There was a simple mat, a low table with a lamp on it and a modest well-used wooden wardrobe for clothes. It was smaller than his room in the village and lacked any personal touches, reinforcing that his life had changed. He swallowed at the lump in his throat and moved into the space.

Xan sat on the pallet. It was surprisingly comfortable. He turned and stretched out on the bed. The room was quiet, insulated from outside noise. He couldn’t even hear crickets. What am I going to do?

#

The sun streaming in the window warmed Xan’s face and woke him. Mother must have opened the window again. He didn’t hear any birds which was strange. Normally, that was what woke him when mother opened the window. She did that in the early morning to keep Xan from sleeping all day. He crawled out from under the covers, stretched with his arms wide and looked around his bedroom. His rock collection was in its place on the low table along one wall. The shiny quartz and fool’s gold glimmered in the sun. He smiled thinking back to when he fell in the stream trying to get the fool’s gold. What had he been, eight?. His favorite book, well, his only book, was sitting on the table. I thought I lent that to Cho? The old red rug on the floor was a little off center. He’s have to fix that again. He padded on bare feet to his battered wardrobe—lacquer coming off the cabinet in places—and opened the door. The only thing inside the large wardrobe was a white shirt, light gray pants and robe. He put the clothes on and left his room.

He tromped down the stairs, the wooden steps groaning with each foot fall. The kitchen was empty, all the pots hung quietly from the rack and the fire was banked showing his mother hadn’t been in here for a while. Normally this was her domain. He called out, “Mother… hello?”

A voice called from outside. “Out here.”

Xan headed to the inner courtyard. This was the place where the family would eat or relax. He stepped outside and the rush of the water feature near his father’s shrine suddenly splashed as if it had just been unblocked.

There was a nice circular wooden table constructed of a dark maple. It had been his father’s mother’s table. Grandma Gao had spent hours sitting at that table since she had moved in with them, working on some craft project or other. I wonder where she is. She never moved from that spot. Sifu Wang sat at the table drinking tea. He was wearing ornate sky-blue robes with white trim. An empty chair sat to one side, a teacup on the table before it.

“Would you like some tea?” Sifu asked. “It’s your mother’s favorite blend.” Sifu pointed at the other seat at the table.

Xan sat down and noticed a strange bird over by the small pond. It looked as if it had been assembled from left over bird parts as it had the delicate head of a golden pheasant, the almost square body of a duck, the long spindly legs of a crane, the daring wings of a swallow, and the magnificent five part tail of a peacock.

Sifu brought his attention back by asking him, “Are you ready?” The sleeves of his robe rustling, he gently poured a cup of tea for Xan. There were little birds worked into the fabric that seemed to fly as the fabric moved.

“Ready for what?” Xan asked craning his neck around. “Where are my parents?” He turned back and picked up the tea cup. Its warmth spread through his hand. He took a cautious sip and the not-too-hot liquid bathed his taste buds in sweet jasmine and just a hint of honey.

“Where your parents are is something for another time.” Sifu said solemnly. The strange bird emitted a sound that was half chicken cluck, half eagle cry. Sifu nodded at the bird and looked at Xan. “So, are you ready, Gao Xan?”

“You keep asking me that.” He set the teacup down. “Ready for what?”

“For doing what needs to be done.” Sifu said simply and took another sip of tea.

“That isn’t an answer.” Xan pointed out.

The bird squawk-cried again. Sifu continued to watch Xan and sip on his tea.

“I don’t know what you want.” Xan protested.

Cluck-shriek! The bird was louder. Xan got the feeling it was telling him something. Sifu observed him. His thoughts swirled. What does Sifu want?

“Tell me what to do!” Xan said. His emotions roiled in consternation, thoughts whipping like a willow at high wind. His heart raced and his fight-or-flight instinct amped up. Like with that creature in the woods.

Cluck-shriek! More insistence from the bird and Xan’s thoughts settled. One emotion stood out from the rest. Sifu watched.

“All right! I’m scared.” Xan admitted. For some reason, having admitted his fear, his thoughts settled. His heart beat stopped hammering in his ears.

Sifu smiled and the strange bird cooed, it flapped a wing and dug its beak at something in its feathers under the wing. “Admitting your fear is an important step, Gao Xan.” Sifu said.

The bird clucked at them, then went after something in the shrub. It emerged with a long white worm. Xan was amazed at the size of it and watched in fascination for a moment.

“What are you afraid of?” Sifu asked as he filled both of their teacups.

Xan took a deep breath, leaned back in his chair with both hands behind his head and stared up at the purple clouded sky for a long moment. The cool breeze pushed through the courtyard making the leaves dance. The bird cooed again and continued devouring the worm. Xan pondered the fear, poking at it like poking a half-burnt log in the fire.

“Failing.” Xan said finally, his shoulders slumping a bit. “Letting my parents down… my father down.” He smoothed his robes with both hands. The brushed cotton soft under his fingers.

The bird cooed catching Xan’s attention and slowly walked toward the table, each long legged foot reaching forward carefully. It stepped into a bright patch of sunlight and its feathers shone with an iridescence that continued with it when it stepped out of the sunbeam almost as if it had been set on fire.

“What kind of bird is that?” Xan asked fascinated, watching the colors play along its feathers like a visual chorus.

“It isn’t important.” Sifu dismissed the question and captured Xan’s gaze. “What about letting yourself down?”

The question rocked Xan to his core. That was, of course, his fear. What if he failed? He would bring shame on everyone. He started to deflate as he quibbled on the topic, descending into a funk.

The bird cooed. Xan felt like the sun shone on him now, pushing his internal darkness back like a blanket falling off him and filling him with positivity.

Coo.

What if I succeeded? He thought.

Coo.

What is fear to me? Xan thought.

Coo.

What is stopping me? Xan thought. He put his hands over his eyes and gently rubbed his face. When he took his hands away, Sifu sat next to him on the cold metal bench. They were now over by the water feature, its burbling flow splashed down several stepped angular rocks creating a soothing sound as water navigated from one level to the next. Xan had never figured out where the water came from nor why the pond never overflowed.

Sifu handed him a piece of bread. “Would you like to feed the bird?” he asked. A kind smile on his face.

Xan took the bread, and seeing the treat, the bird walked over to him. Xan tore bits of the still warm bread to offer the bird. It was if it were fresh from the oven, the earthy sweet aroma of the bread reminded him he was hungry. He extended his hand, the treat in his fingers. The bird took it from him gently, gulping it down, neck stretched up and it swallowed.

Sifu looked at Xan. “Are you ready?”

Xan opened his mouth to speak then felt something nudge his shoulder.

“Xan. Are you ready?” a voice said from faraway.

#

Xan’s eyes flew open.

“Xan! Are you ready? I’m hungry.” Cho shook his shoulder.

Startled panic left Xan as he recognized Cho. He was in the dorm room in the Valley of the Moon. He sighed. “I’m so sorry. I just laid down to see how comfortable the bed was and must have dozed off.” Xan sat up and rubbed his eyes. “How long was I asleep? I had the strangest dream…”

Cho shrugged. “I don’t know. Couldn’t have been that long I just threw my pack in my room and came over here.” He glanced around the bare room. “Your room looks even plainer than mine.”

Xan’s stomach rumbled loudly. “We should talk and find some food.” Xan got up and led the way out of the room. Once Cho passed him, he closed and locked the door, then tucked the key into his waist-sash.

“Let’s go outside and we can talk through this.” Cho said. Without waiting for a reply, he turned and led the way down the hall, past the check-in desk, and out the main door.

A warm breeze blew across the campus even as the sun dipped to crest the top edge of the far canyon wall. Xan thought it was strange to be below the plains, almost like a reverse mountain. With the harvest going on, the area around the dorm and noodle shop was practically empty. Which made it the perfect place to talk and grab a bite to eat.

“So, what are your thoughts?” Xan asked.

“What Sifu had said about the village surprised me. I can’t see my father going along with that. He’s not a milksop like…” Cho glanced at Xan quickly, stopping himself.

“Like my father?” Xan kicked a stone in frustration. “I can’t believe they would do that. The whole village.” Xan felt betrayed.

The two walked for a bit in silence, their own thoughts churning.

Xan spoke first. “I think we should stay here and learn to fight.” he said.

“Okay.” Cho stated without argument.

Xan faltered, incredulous. “Okay? That was easy.”

His friend shrugged. “Look, Xan, there was never any doubt in my mind that this was the right choice. But, I needed you to decide for yourself if you were going to do this. If we fail, we’re out—and if I’d forced you to choose, you would’ve failed because doubt would’ve eaten away at your will to succeed. So, you need to be sure this is the path you want to walk.” Cho took his friend by the shoulders. “Are you ready?” Cho asked him.

Xan was shocked at that and looked Cho in the eyes. “I don’t know what I want. But I know we need to avenge our family, our village, no matter… how scared I am.” He sighed and looked down. “Admitting that was hard.”

Cho shook his friend gently, then let him go. “Oh my friend, the hard part is just starting. Come on, let’s get some noodles and worry about that tomorrow when we tell Sifu we accept.” He walked up to the counter. “Two bowls of noodles, please.” Xan admired his friend's confidence and stamped down hard on his self-doubt and the insidious whispers running through his thoughts. I won’t let you down Cho.

The shopkeeper dished up two steaming bowls and set them on the counter.

They each took a bowl over to a table. The friends ate quietly and watched the sun set over the valley. Tomorrow they accept.

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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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