“Maybe I should talk with Sifu and get your days off cancelled,” Instructor Wu told the students. “You seem to have forgotten everything from just two days ago.” He corrected the posture of one student. “Okay, that is enough. It hurts me to see you struggle with something so simple. Please, dear students, let this serve as a reminder that Standing Meditation is something you should be doing every day, yes? It must be part of the very fabric of your lives.” He moved to the front of the class.
“Now, despite your failings, today we are going to start learning Qi projection.” He moved his arms in a wide circular motion settling into Dragon Grasps Pearl. As everyone watched, an orb of energy flickered into being and scintillated between his palms.
Instructor Wu let the light flare for a moment, then fade out of existence. He straightened. “Get into position and close your eyes.” He moved around the room. When he got to Xan, he shifted his hands a slight bit, then moved on. “Once more, picture your dantien, your center just below your navel, and two streams of Qi flowing down each arm and into your hands. Visualize the Qi compressing into a ball between your hands.”
Xan imagined the Qi flowing to his hands. He felt his hands growing warm. Surprised, he opened his eyes to look, but there wasn’t anything there. Disappointment washed through him like a flash-flood down a mountain river.
“It works better with your eyes closed, Gao Xan,” Instructor Wu intoned softly as he glided through the hall. “Excellent Kai Jin. Well done forming your ball. When you have formed your ball, you can move over to the wall.”
Xan sighed then closed his eyes. He repeated the process, sent the Qi, felt the hands get warm—
“Excellent Wang Sue,” Xan heard. The Qi evaporated.
Xan started again. He sent the Qi down his arms, felt it warm his hands, pressing it into a ball. Xan peeked. Nothing. He tried again, this time going slower. He tuned out the names of the students, the sounds of Instructor Wu’s shuffling footsteps—blocked out everything around him— and visualized the Qi flowing into his palms, the energy swirling into a ball and compressing. Still, even with complete concentration, it felt like an impossible task. Why hadn’t it formed, what am I doing wrong?
His attention started to waver just as he heard, “Excellent Tang Cho.” Reluctantly, Xan opened his eyes. He and Cho had been the last two students to complete this task, and Cho just finished. Xan was utterly and completely alone in the practice area.
“Would you look at that,” Kai Jin said, scorn dripping from his words, “the village hicks can’t do the simplest Qi manipulation.” A round of snide chuckles followed his pronouncement.
“That’s enough of that Kai Jin.” Instructor Wu said firmly.
Kai Jin put his hands up in mock surrender but the superior smugness never left his face as he looked at Xan.
“Close your eyes and focus on your task. You almost had it,” Instructor Wu told him softly.
Xan did just that. He took a deep breath to recenter. He focused his Qi and once more imagined a ball. He seized on his frustration with Kai Jin, and the annoyance with the Qi projection and his fear of being the last student to get it. He poured all of that emotion into the mental furnace of an orb and compressed it, he focused on the ball getting super dense, cramming in the angry thoughts and feelings of fear and worry. Mentally tightening down, Xan let the energy compact and coalesce.
“Excellent Gao Xan,” Instructor Wu said.
Xan opened his eyes and he caught the fading wisps of energy dissipating. He was both exhilarated and dissatisfied.
“About time.” Kai Jin mumbled quietly—though loudly enough to reach Xan’s ears.
Instructor Wu caught the comment as well and gave Kai Jin a withering look. Kai Jin had the good sense to adopt a humble pose, eyes downcast, head bent slightly, palms pressed together. Xan knew Jin was just feigning humility, but he took the small victory, anyway.
Meanwhile, Instructor Wu addressed the whole class, “You all have done very well today. Remember to practice your standing meditation. I cannot stress enough how vital it is to have an unwavering base. For now, however, you are dismissed.” Instructor Wu turned to Xan and spoke softly. “Keep practicing Gao Xan. And ignore Kai Jin. He’s been doing Qi manipulation for as long as he has been able to notice the difference between boys and girls.” He patted Xan on the shoulder, the simple gesture surprisingly reassuring.
The comment buoyed Xan’s spirits a little, though being last in the class still stung.
Xan walked over to Cho, who pounded Xan on the back.
“Your ball looked cool,” Cho buzzed with excitement, sounding truly like his old-self for the first time since the attack.
“I wish I’d been able to see it.” Xan replied wistfully.
“We’ll practice until we’re the best in this whole school,” Cho said with determination. “As for pretty boy, well he can pound sand. Let’s go,” Cho said, hooking an arm around Xan’s shoulders and nudging him back toward the dorms.
Morning meditation with Instructor Wu passed much the same as it had every day before, though Xan found it particularly hard to focus on the lessons and the practice, his thoughts flitting about like a butterfly in the flower garden. They weren’t trained like the rest of the students and were at a serious disadvantage in many key ways. They would have to work twice as hard as the rest of the students if they hoped to earn a place here—and more importantly, survive. Despite that, though, the constant worry made it nearly impossible for Xan to manifest even a simple sphere of Qi.
To add to Xan’s distraction, a new Instructor he had never seen before joined the class just as things were winding down. She was about the same height as Instructor Wu, but with a far slimmer build and gray hair pulled into a tight bun at the back of her head.
“Students,” Instructor Wu called, his reedy voice carrying in the morning air. “That will be all for today. But I do have the honor of introducing you to your newest Instructor, Mistress Fu…”
“Good day students.” Mistress Fu addressed the class. “I am looking forward to working with you in discovering the world of calligraphic art. It is the first of the crafting skills you will learn during your tenure here. I would say it is the most important as any Qi imbued item requires the symbols to be drawn perfectly.” She bowed to the class.
Everyone bowed back.
Instructor Wu clapped his hands, “Students, you are dismissed.” He bowed slightly to Mistress Fu and stepped close for a conversation while the Seekers filed out of the practice hall.
Xan and Cho met up with Sue for the walk over to the studio.
“This should be interesting. Have you been learning calligraphy, Sue?” Cho asked her.
“No. Well… Yes I have learned calligraphy. I haven’t learned whatever Mistress Fu is going to show us,” she responded rather cryptically. The trio followed the other students along the street to a two-story structure. Like the other buildings around it, it was made up of the same gray stones that dominated the architecture, however, this one had frosted windows for the majority of walls of the second floor. Once they stepped inside, they could see why.
The center space in the building was open to the roof. The rafters up above them were easily thirty feet up. The first floor, like most of the buildings they had been in so far had small rooms along the outside wall. In this building, the second story opened into the center area, with large windows along the perimeter occupying the twenty feet of wall between the top of the first story rooms to the rafters and provided an enormous amount of light. The room glowed with illumination and the frosted glass of the windows diffused the light to remove shadows or the harshness of direct sunlight. The effect was very apparent on the calligraphy desks arranged in the interior space, bright and well lit. Trim wooden desks with stacks of paper, an inkwell, and brushes atop each were set up in neat rows facing a center lectern and a massive easel. The students filed in and took seats. Xan guided Cho and Sue more towards the front. Xan’s excitement was contagious as the trio sat down. As he looked around, he could smell new paper and ink.
Mistress Fu waited calmly for the students to take their seats. Once they had settled down, she smoothed out a parchment on the easel, clipping the corners into place. She took out a brush, dipped it into ink and began to draw a landscape, fields, trees, clouds in the sky. “In the early ages of man, there was a lack of permanence. Oral tradition only lasted if the people telling the history could remember it accurately.” She brushed symbols onto the paper at various points in the branches of the trees, on the clouds. “Seeing man struggle, the Gods took pity and sent their emissary to show us writing. Once man had mastered writing, some quested for more.” She set the brush down. "After the discovery of Qi, soon came the discovery of the Words of Power. These words embody the characters of Elemental Magic and when written by a practitioner of Qi, the characters can imbue items with aspects of the Elemental Magic.” She blew on the scene she had just drawn for them and the symbols blazed with a multitude of hues, then faded into the drawing. The scene came alive. The clouds moved, the river below the mountain sparkled as it flowed, a flock of birds traveled across the sky, the trees flowed with the wind.
Xan was enthralled. He soon realized he was holding his breath and let it out slowly, glancing around to see if anyone noticed. Everyone was staring at the calligraphy.
Instructor Fu wiped her hands on a cloth. “What I’m going to show you in this class is how to correctly form the words of power. Then, you’ll learn how to infuse those words with Qi to evoke an effect. These concepts will impact every other skill you learn while at this school. Even if you don’t continue on as a practitioner of martial magic, a craftsman who has learned Elemental Magic is in a class above other makers. Take the windows in this hall as an example.” She gestured up to the windows glowing with sunlight around them. “Do you realize the sun only strikes one side of this building during the day?”
The windows were glowing like the sun was on every side of the building.
She smiled as everyone glanced up around them, once the realization set in, wonder and amazement blossomed on the student’s faces. She continued, “It’s hard to see from here,” she said, the smile growing as she spoke, “but there are Words of Power infused with Elemental Magic on every window. And, they are all linked. So, if one glows, they all glow.” She looked each of them in the eyes, in turn, gaze moving slowly from student to student. “You’ll learn this. You will be able to perform similar feats of wonder. If,”—she held up a single finger—“you practice. This is an exacting art. You must form the words of power precisely. Or, when you apply Qi to it, you won’t get the effect you are hoping for… And worse, you might unlock a very nasty effect instead. Although this art is a thing of beauty and grace, it is the beauty of a sharpened sword: one wrong move can cut you to the bone. So, wisdom. Patience. Perfecting. These are the virtues of the Calligraphist who lives long enough to master the art.”
She moved over to the easel. “Let’s begin.”
The pair took to practicing regularly in the garden area of the dorms. The birds and crickets chirped encouragement as Xan and Cho worked. It seemed none of the other students ever bothered to find the courtyard, so the pair unofficially staked it out as their practice area. They each took turns coaching the other through the meditation needed to conjure the sphere of Qi. First, one of them would correct the other’s feet and tweak his posture, then the other would talk through the meditation process. They would celebrate each conjured sphere of Qi, then change roles: Practitioner and Coach. Over and over they practiced, the motions becoming more deeply ingrained with every cycle, until both young-men could conjure the sphere at nearly every fourth attempt.
During the next classroom invocation, they were among the first students to complete the exercise for the day. The pair reveled in the surprise and resentment that oozed from Kai Jin. It was especially poignant when Instructor Wu held the two up for what a student can do with practice.
Wang Sue approached the pair after class. “You both have improved. If you would like,” she hesitated, then continued shyly. “I can join your practice sessions when Grandfather doesn’t have tasks for me.”
Cho surprised Xan when he said, “I would like that.”
Sue flushed slightly and left.
“What was that?” Xan asked, bewildered at her change but also happy to have someone with more knowledge helping out with the training sessions. Although she had been frosty to Xan so far, there was no denying that she was well connected and knew far more about this place than either he or Cho did. Since they were outsiders, Xan figured they could use any ally that was willing to fight in their corner.
“I talked with her and we came to an understanding,” Cho replied simply, shrugging one oversized shoulder. He gathered his stuff and made ready to head back to the dorms. “You ready? We have more practice to do.”
That night, Sue joined them for their late practice session. Initially, she sat on the grass to the side, legs folded beneath her, and watched them work for several rounds, her dark brown eyes giving away nothing as she noted their posture, hand positions, and breathing techniques. After a time, she nodded and entered the fray, offering polite suggestions about stance, cadence, and thought—not lording her knowledge over them, but seemed genuinely interested in helping them. Xan was more than a little shocked by her attitude and was starting to think that just maybe she wasn’t as stuck up as he’d first thought.
Each night they would gather for practice. At first, Sue had plenty of guidance, and both Xan and Cho soaked it up. By the end of the week, she was finding less and less to comment on and all three of them were almost able to form an orb at the first attempt.
At the beginning of the next week, Instructor Wu announced, that the class would be learning a technique called Push Hands. A technique that it seemed Kai Jin and Sue already knew, although no one else did.
“This is a sensitivity drill for feeling your opponents Qi and Yi,” Instructor Wu intoned, robes swishing with every step as he paced back and forth at the front of the class, “This exercise will allow you to sense your opponent’s intent, you see? Pair up.”
The students broke into couples—Xan and Cho naturally picking each other, facing off with practiced ease. Still, Xan noticed that Sue kept shooting guarded glances their way and felt just a twinge guilty for not even thinking to include her. With all the help she had been giving them after hours, Xan resolved to include her in class more.
“Both of you will stand with your right foot forward and your right hand up with your fingers pointed to the sky, your palm facing you.” He shifted Xan’s forward arm, bending the elbow and tapping Xan’s clenched fist. “Keep your hand open, relaxed. Your right wrist will touch your opponent’s wrist. You will do a gentle set of circles maintaining contact with your opponent’s wrist.” He took Cho’s place and Instructor Wu and Xan faced each other to demonstrate to the class. Exhilaration bubbled through Xan as he paired up with Instructor Wu. It was always special to work directly with the Instructor.
“If he starts the circle, I move back with him.” Xan moved his wrist forward, as it came towards his chest, Instructor Wu subtly took over the direction their hands were traveling. “When my opponent is extended, I push back.” With almost no perceived effort, Instructor Wu looped their wrist out and around back towards Xan. “This isn’t about strength. This is about being attuned to your Qi and feeling where their Yi is directing. Try it.” Xan was amazed, the movements seemed so fluid and natural.
Instructor Wu bowed slightly. “Thank you Gao Xan.”
Xan returned the bow. Cho stepped in and the two tried it out. They were clumsy at first. Especially compared to what Xan had felt from Instructor Wu. The difference between the Instructor’s perfect motions and crystal-clear intent was the difference between a candle’s flame and the light from the sun at noonday—or so it seemed, at least. Still, the more they did it, the easier it got. Instructor Wu called for a partner switch. Cho got paired with Sue.
Xan got Kai Jin. “You ready hick?” Kai Jin asked softly, arm held up.
Xan put his arm up and they started the exercise. Kai Jin was very fluid at Push Hands, not like Instructor Wu, but he was able to take Xan’s energy and redirect it rapidly. His arm was both a coiling snake and rod of steel. Kai Jin quickly reversed the circular direction of their wrists and pushed Xan’s arm to his chest. Xan was forced to take a half step back breaking contact.
“What was that?” Xan asked him, miffed.
“It’s how adults do Push Hands.” Kai Jin jeered, snide and smug as ever.
Xan was about to reply when Instructor Wu called the class together to be dismissed. “Practice what you have learned. If you have questions outside of class, ask Kai Jin or Wang Sue. You are Dismissed.” He bowed slightly to the class. Everyone immediately followed suit, with a deeper bow for the instructor.
Later that night, Xan and Cho met up with Sue at the practice area. There was another student with her, Li Mei. She was a quiet girl of average height and build. She had dark hair and soft brown eyes. She smiled hesitantly at the two men. Li Mei mostly stayed on the other side of the practice group from them. He had seen her outside of class at the mess hall, mostly eating by herself, but Xan didn’t know much about her.
“If we are going to work on Push Hands, it helps to have a fourth person. Mei you work with Cho and I’ll work with Xan. I’ll show all of you the more advanced version of the single hand and double hand Push Hands.”
Mei smiled shyly at Cho and they moved to the other side of the space to give Sue and Xan room.
Sue smiled slightly then turned to Xan and the smile faded. “You ready?” She raised her arm. Xan moved to meet her. “I saw what Kai Jin did to you. Here is how to stop it. Remember, this is a sensitivity drill. When you feel him push, don’t tense up. Instead go limp and lower your center, then guide the attack to the side.”
The four students practiced diligently on Push Hands for the remainder of the evening. At the end of the session, they took some time and worked with Li Mei to help her refine her standing meditation and Dragon Grasps Pearl. While it was hard work, adding Mei to the group had a positive effect as all four could work without waiting.
Their efforts really showed in the classroom the following day. By the end of the second week—filled with nights of diligent practice and near-constant drilling—Xan and Cho were on par with both Kai Jin and Sue when it came to creating the ball of Qi and had moved well ahead of the rest of their classmates. And, with the extra training on Push Hands, even Kai Jin was hard pressed to repeat the previous superiority over Xan or Cho. Something that gave Xan no small amount of satisfaction when the smug weasel tried a repeat of their last match to shame Xan in front of the class… and failed horribly.
Instructor Wu also had them take an exam at the end of the second week, though it didn’t amount to anything more than executing a simple Dragon Grasps Pearl before the class. At this point, it was nearing second nature and everyone passed. If this is the extent of the exams, Xan found himself thinking, then maybe I’ve been worried about washing out for nothing.
The four students met at the noodle shop to celebrate. Their efforts caught the attention of some of the other students, a quartet who approached them and asked if they could also join the evening sessions. That night, the eight of them practiced together.
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- Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA
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.