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Xan slept poorly waking up what felt like every five minutes, anxiety and worry blazing through his brain, his mind churning over the unexpected in his first day at school. He lay restless on his pallet until he started hearing students moving around in the dorms. Xan gave up on the prospect of sleep, quickly got ready, and met up with Cho for breakfast. He hadn’t seen Sue since the event in the courtyard a couple days before and she wasn’t there for the morning meal. As most of the first-years present didn’t really know each other, they ate in a silence only broken by patrons placing orders and the sounds of the mess-hall: the clatter of ceramic bowls, the scrap of shifting furniture as people came or left, the clink of dishes being cleared.

Xan absently spooned food into his mouth, preoccupied with his thoughts.

“You should calm down,” Cho said around a mouthful of rice and fish. “They aren’t going to expel you the first day.”

Snapped out of his reverie, Xan looked at his friend and grinned. He was relieved that Cho was back to his joking self, more or less. There were still moments when the man was quiet, his eyes hazy and distant—clearly chewing on dark thoughts. But, Xan would take the bright moments when they came. “You never know, I could be the first in history,” Xan retorted.

“I wouldn’t put it past you.” Cho stood up. “Come on, we should get going.” He headed to drop his bowl.

Xan cleaned up the remnants of his breakfast, dropping his bowl and spoon into the bin set aside for dirty dishes, and joined Cho at the front. They headed off with the other students to the class area for learning Qi. The cool morning was quiet except for the occasional cough and the birds chirping, in search of their own breakfast, no doubt.

The file of Seekers threaded toward their first practice area. The building was a big gray stone frame with a slate roof. The walls themselves were made up of lacquered wooden panels hung from the top of the frame which opened the walls vertically to allow light and a breeze. The classroom itself was an enormous rectangular area, easily large enough to hold three times the thirty students in the class and a small office was tucked in the corner. The scuff of leather soles on the gray flagstone echoed in the large space as students gathered. They were met by a wizened old man wearing ornate white robes trimmed in silver, Xan assumed that marked him as an instructor.

The man waited patiently, his eyes closed. His arms were slightly rounded and low like he was holding a big ball at his navel. His back was straight and his feet were shoulder width apart, knees bent. He stood patiently as if he was the only person in the room.

Everyone settled down and either from a subconscious desire to mimic him or some external suggestion whispered on the wind, they emulated his posture. Xan was surprised to notice when he looked around that all the students had shifted their posture, including himself and Cho. Sue stood across the group from them in the exact same stance with her eyes closed.

The instructor spoke without opening his eyes. He didn’t have to speak loudly since his voice seemed to come from everywhere. Soft as silk, but strangely clear. “I am Instructor Wu. I will be guiding you through the first cycle where you will learn about Qi. The life force that drives everything. All beings generate Qi. It is through Qi cultivation that you can become strong. When you neglect your Qi, you get sick, weak, or even die. Everything you do at this school will involve Qi. Everything. In this cycle, I will show you how to invoke your Qi. You will learn to manipulate your Qi and establish the fundamentals of Qigong—the meditation that allows you to regenerate your energy over time.”

Instructor Wu opened his eyes and smiled at the group. “I can see we will have a good class. You are already in a position for standing meditation, which your Qi asked you to get into. Your feet should be shoulder width apart. Your knees should be slightly bent. Tuck your tail bone under. This helps align your spine, you see. Stand tall, as though someone has tied a string from the ceiling to your head. Feel it pull you heavenward. Now for your first exercise, I want each of you to take a step forward or sideways.” He watched as they complied. “Good. Good, now get back into the posture for standing meditation.”

The students shifted back, a spring to their steps and excitement buzzing in the air.

Instructor Wu drifted around the classroom, correcting a stance here, straightening shoulders there. After a time and what felt like endless rounds of correction and subtle adjustments, he spoke again.

“Excellent. You are ready to work with Qi.” He moved up to the front of the class. “Close your eyes and breathe normally.” He stepped in front of the first student on the left and continued talking. “Picture a bright pool at your navel, your dantien. That bright pool is your Qi. Slowly, ever so slowly, raise your arms just a little so there is some space between your arm and your body.” As he talked, he continued adjusting postures. “Pretend you are holding a large pot. Round your arms, encompassing the pot and letting your middle fingers touch just so.”

Instructor Wu slowly glided to the last student on the back row. “Now, I want you to imagine there is a river that flows from your dantien up your chest and out your left arm. It is naught but a trickle from your pool. A gentle brook of Qi flowing down your arm, across your hands where your fingers touch, and up your right arm down your chest and back into your dantien. Like the waterwheel at the mill, turning, flowing, building energy.”

“Concentrate on your breathing. Each exhale, you see, pushes that light down your left arm. Each inhale, pulls the light up your right and back into the pool. Slow, calm.” He stopped in front of Xan and put a finger on his forehead. “Don’t hold your breath, young one. This should be continuous. Just like life. If you don’t think about breathing, it just happens. Life can happen like your breathing. Meaningless, formless, ambling and without direction. Or…” The ghost of a smile crept across his weather-worn face. “Or, you can control it. Make it slow down. Make it continuous. The light flows. Your Qi is flowing.”

Xan closed his eyes and pictured the light moving down and back up—though holding the picture in his mind was a struggle. Still he focused, breathing, in, out, in, out. His fingers moved apart and a spark jumped from the left finger to the right finger with a whisper of a pop. Instructor Wu was suddenly there in front of Xan gently guiding his fingers to touch. Xan’s eyes fluttered open in surprise. He smiled at Xan with encouragement and moved on to another student.

After what felt like hours to Xan, Instructor Wu spoke to the class, “That’s enough for now. Or, perhaps it was just the beginning? For Standing Meditation will be a part of your life from now on.” He moved back up to the front of the class. “While you live and practice martial magic, you will be doing standing meditation. It is our way. The foundation of all other arts to follow.”

Xan noticed that a senior student stood at the front near Instructor Wu. Xan figured he must have come in while they were meditating. He was lean with dark hair and a deep bronze skin. “This Follower was once like you,” Instructor Wu said. “Standing right where you are now. Yet he has moved on through practice and self-discipline, the core tenants of martial magic. Now, he is going to assist with the next presentation just as someday you might. If, that is, you have the fortitude to stay the Path.”

Instructor Wu took up a position opposite the student.

“In this cycle you will learn how to project Qi.” He moved his arms in a circular motion, so that his hands were positioned like he was holding a small ball in front of his chest, palms about eight inches apart. Suddenly, a ball of light shimmered into existence in front of him. The class gasped. “This is Dragon Grasps Pearl. That is the poetic name for this action. You will quickly find that everything in martial magic has a poetic name—if you care to learn it.” Xan was excited to see real magic. “This is my Qi. Or, at least, it is a physical manifestation of the energy within me. You will learn to do this and it will become second nature.” He let the ball disappear with a flick of his wrist.

“The martial application of Qi is very much like your exercise envisioning the projection of Qi. My helper will now attack me.” Instructor Wu turned to face his assistant, dropping into the now familiar Standing Meditation pose then motioned for the student to begin.

#

The student shot in, hurling a lightning-quick punch at Instructor Wu’s face.

Instructor Wu moved his head back a little and the punch missed.

The student threw another punch, this time a powerful cross with his opposite hand.

Instructor Wu glided a hair to the left, moving effortlessly, not a concern in the world. Once more, the punch whiffed, breezing through the space the Instructor has occupied mere moments before.

The student gathered himself and launched into a flurry of punches and kicks, many of the attacks so fast Xan could barely follow with his eyes. Instructor Wu dodged all of them by the slightest of steps that took him off angle. Each small movement by the Instructor meant the punch or kick was in the wrong location.

“My opponent projects their Qi with each attack, accept that as true. But there is more to the story, you see. They also project Yi, or their intent. It is the energy of the attack combined with their intent that tells me where the attack is coming from.” Casually, he pulled out a length of blue linen cloth from his pocket and tied it across his eyes. “Those paying attention to the subtleties can feel the attack and, without sight, can avoid it.” The blindfolded Instructor Wu raised his hand for the student to attack again.

The student hesitated only for the barest of moments before throwing a dazzling array of punches. Each one hit empty space as Instructor Wu economically moved and bent and swayed to change the distance, effortlessly throwing off the timing of each attack.

“Or, since your opponent is telling you when they are attacking, you can counter it, yes?” Instructor Wu struck with a punch just as the Senior Student started his next assault, stopping the attack cold with a curled fist to the student’s forward shoulder. The strike didn’t appear all that powerful from what Xan could see, yet the student dropped to the floor, his legs refusing to hold him up.

Amazement coursed through Xan. He glanced around, taking in stunned expressions painted across every face in the class. Even Sue looked impressed.

Understandable. Not only had the blindfolded instructor avoided every single blow, but he was able to flawlessly switch to an offensive defense in the middle of lecturing them. Xan certainly had never seen anything even remotely like that before. He locked eyes with Cho and they nodded to each other. This was exactly what they were looking for. This man, for all his fragile appearance was a force of nature… Maybe if they could learn this art, they would be well prepared to exact revenge on the Golden Spear and his Corrupted who had destroyed their homes.

Instructor Wu removed the blindfold and started the class working on a new exercise. “You are going to learn how to do what I just did, only not as aggressively. In pairs, you are going to work on Qi sensitivity. You will face each other and stand with feet shoulder width apart and knees bent. One of you will be the aggressor, the other will attempt to feel the energy of the attack. The attacker will step forward with one foot. The responder will try to feel which foot the aggressor is stepping with, which side the Yi is on, and step back with the same foot. Then reset.” He turned for the office, stopped and turned back—a small smile playing across his lips. “Start with your eyes open, please.”

Xan and Cho paired up. Cho went first as the attacker. Xan couldn't help but look at Cho’s feet. After a few minutes of back and forth, Xan decided to close his eyes. The first time Cho stepped into him. They both chuckled. Xan glanced around and saw others were doing the same thing.

Instructor Wu spoke from the side, “Keep your eyes up, look at their throat, but see all of their body. This isn’t just about feeling your opponent’s energy, it is also about seeing the manifestation of their intent. There are a thousand clues, if you are willing to see them.”

Xan did as suggested and focused on Cho’s neck. This time when Cho stepped, Xan thought he could see the moment Cho decided to move. Their interactions became more fluid.

After half an hour of continuous movement, Xan’s thighs were burning from exertion. While he had been active at the village, he had never done physical exercises like these.

Instructor called for them to stop and switch partners. Xan was paired up with a young man about his same size with medium length black hair and dark eyes.

“Xan.” He introduced himself.

The other man bowed slightly. “Chen. You want to go first?” At Xan’s nod, Chen stepped forward.

After another half hour, Instructor Wu called a halt. Xan was sweating and his legs felt like limp noodles. Working with a different partner was tough. Everything Xan thought he was seeing when Cho moved wasn’t nearly the same with Chen.

Instructor Wu stood at the front of the room again. “Good job. We will reconvene tomorrow.” With a wave, he dismissed them.

The rest of the first week was spent in standing meditation and Qi sensitivity. Each day they would rotate partners. By the end of the week, Xan was doing pretty well at seeing when people were moving and was able to anticipate which leg the opponent would step with. At night, Xan and Cho would practice in the courtyard by the fountain. They were moving well in the sensitivity drill and Xan was more comfortable in the Standing Meditation. Either he was getting stronger, or his legs had just stopped complaining.

At the end of the week they had their first exam. Each person had to go up before Instructor Wu to see if they could feel the Qi applied to them.

The exercise was for the student to center and close their eyes. Instructor Wu held up one of his palms and projected Qi at them. They would say when they felt it and which side it was on. They had to do it three times to pass.

“You are an excellent group of students. Probably the best I have ever trained. You all passed. Please enjoy your rest day. We will resume the day after tomorrow.”

Xan and Cho strolled back to the dorm.

“That was so intense.” Xan said. The meditation was very much like that his father had him do. Center the mind, still the thoughts. Thinking of his father, even for a second, sent a pang of deep loss rippling through his center like a rock tossed into a still pond. For a moment, Xan could see himself, sitting crossed-legged on the floor on his little cottage, flies buzzing around him as his father spoke, his voice simultaneously soft but sure. All life, Xan, even the smallest creature has a natural place in the world. The one who is of a calm mind and heart, can feel even the passive pressure of a fly. Xan, grimaced and pushed the thoughts away.

Cho nodded, “I know what you mean. When I practice with others, it feels tentative. Like a breeze that might be blowing. With Instructor Wu, it was a pressure.” Cho struggled to find the right description.

“For me it was a beacon. When he started projecting, I could see it light up in my mind.” At Cho’s puzzled look, Xan stopped. “Close your eyes and point to the Sun. You can feel the radiance, the glow and you know right where it is. That’s how that test was for me.” Xan was excited. “I’ve never experienced anything like that before.”

Sue passed them quietly. She gave Cho a brief glance, but quickly looked ahead.

“You really need to fix that.” Xan told Cho.

Cho looked at him, one eyebrow quirked. “Fix what?”

Xan pointed at Sue’s fleeing form. “She has no use for me, but we need a friend here and she has her sights firmly fixed on you.” Xan paused, giving his friend a sideling glance. “You know, you sure can be oblivious.”

“That?” Cho shrugged and hooked a thumb toward Sue’s retreating back. “It’s no big thing. I think you’re probably just reading into something that isn’t there. The only thing she cares about is proving her honor.”

“Completely oblivious,” Xan said again. “Just talk to her okay? We need all the allies we can get.”

Cho threw his hands into the air. “Fine, fine. I’ll talk to her, alright? Happy?”

“No,” Xan said with a shake of his head, shaggy hair swishing at the motion. “But it’s a step in the right direction.

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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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