After standing meditation, Instructor Wu spoke, “Excellent, my little sparrows. You are doing well and your focus seems strong.” He pointed at the woman next to him and a father-like expression caressed his face as he looked at her. “Today we will learn about Qigong. It is the next step from Standing Meditation. This is Instructor Mint. She is the leading expert on Qigong and healing at the school.” He smiled at her. “Or possibly anywhere outside of the divine realm.”
Instructor Mint was about Sue’s height with a shock of corn-silk hair, worked into an intricate braid trailing over one shoulder, and bright blue eyes set into an almost unnaturally pale face. With her smooth cheeks and glinting eyes, she could’ve been a girl no older than Sue, yet the way she carried herself spoke of someone with years and years of life experience under their belt. There was one thing Xan was certain about, however: she was radiant. His heart thundered in his chest as he watched her oh-so-carefully pick her way across the floor toward Instructor Wu. Xan wondered what she liked for lunch—
Cho elbowed him. “What are you doing? She asked you a question.” He hissed at Xan.
Xan blinked a couple times, heat creeping into his cheeks, then cleared his throat. “My apologies, I was… elsewhere.”
Instructor Mint turned her thousand-watt smile back on Xan and asked him, “Instructor Wu has mentioned that you are quite the diligent student, so I asked if you knew anything about healing?”
Xan was surprised but answered truthfully before his brain could fully register the question. “Master Tang has a variety of mushrooms we prepare for aiding in healing.”
A round of quiet chuckles filled the air..
Instructor Mint’s smile deepened, laugh-creasing the edges of her mouth.
“He’s not wrong you all know.” She said addressing the class. “Alchemic solutions are one of the most potent forms of healing available to martial warriors such as us. However, healing can also be done directly through Qi manipulation and transference. Has anyone seen it before or, perhaps, even experienced it first hand?” Lacking a response from anyone, she continued. “Qigong is the combination of mind and body through action. It is how you heal the body, calm the mind, and purify your energy.” She got into the pose for standing meditation. “I want you all to start with the pose for Standing Meditation. Only keep your eyes open and follow my movements.”
She moved her body forward while keeping her feet still, similar to Push Hands without an opponent. “This is both a meditative and martial action. The various forms of Qigong exercise the organs, massage the pathways, or meridians, in your body and help regenerate your Qi. Try it. Go slowly.”
Xan felt it was easier to calm his thoughts with the movement. The action helped to distract from the tedium of clearing his mind, allowing the movement to focus him. He breathed in with one pass and out with the next. Each circle helped him visualize the cycle of energy flowing through him. After an hour, she called a stop.
“Now Instructor Wu and I will show an advanced form that you will be able to do with more practice. She got into the stance for Push Hands and then seamlessly flowed into Dragon Grasps Pearl conjuring an orb of pure white light as easily as Xan could breathe. Instructor Wu faced her, got into the same pose, but positioned his weight on his forward leg. She swayed toward him and extended her hands, the orb of Qi flowed from her to him. Instructor Wu rocked back as he caught the mystical ball of power, moving in a circle before extending the Qi back to her.
Back and forth, they caught and released the Qi, smooth like the pendulum of a clock. The two instructors moving almost as one. Finally, Instructor Mint caught the ball then extinguished it by bringing her hands together, her fingers briefly flaring with light as she absorbed the power.
“I will see you all here the day after tomorrow.” Instructor Mint said, a coy smile playing across her lips. Xan imagined she was looking directly at him, his heart hammered. “Enjoy your day off.”
“And Practice!” Instructor Wu reminded them.
The next day, their rest day, Xan and Cho were in the courtyard. They had experimented with the ball of Qi, blending it with Push Hands just as Instructors Mint and Wu had done. With only a little practice, they found they could pass the ball back and forth, though the movements were far less fluid and graceful. This was a pale imitation of the real thing, yet the fact remained that they were making sustainable progress. They were in the middle of passing the Qi orb when Sue stepped into the courtyard.
The sudden and unexpected movement caught Xan’s eye and briefly drew his attention… Unfortunately, Xan looked away at the exact moment when Cho pushed the Qi ball his way. The rather benign-looking orb of energy smashed into his check with a loud crack, sending him flying backwards to land sprawling on a bush several feet away.
Naturally, Sue giggled, which didn’t help at all with the wave of mortification washing through Xan.
Cho went to help get him out of the bush. He could sense the mood change in Xan. He said so only Xan could hear, “Don’t blame her. You were the one not paying attention.”
Xan grunted in a non-committal assent. Extracted from the bush, he turned his attention to Sue.
“What brings you today? I thought you had errands for your Grandfather?” Xan asked, brushing leaves and broken twigs from his jacket.
Sue flushed slightly at the emphasis Xan put on grandfather. “No, there is an exhibition for the first-year students on the animal forms we will learn next year. No one knew where you guys were, so I volunteered to come find you.” Her eyes were practically glued on Cho. “That was some pretty advanced work on Qi manipulation. Maybe you can show me how to do that?”
Cho picked up his towel, shook it out with a pop and looked at her flatly. “Xan is just as good. He can show you while I go get cleaned up.” He walked out of the courtyard without another comment or backwards glance.
Sue watched him leave, a frown on her face then turned to find Xan observing her.
“You don’t really need to learn that do you?” Xan asked her softly. He watched her expression change and her cheeks flush. “I didn’t think so. I’ll meet you out front.”
Xan picked up his stuff and headed off to his room to change.
They arrived at the second-year training arena. It was a plain and unadorned squat square building about twenty feet high and made of the same gray stone as the rest of the buildings and topped with a tiled roof. When they entered, Xan noticed the center area was open to the sky and there were low, wooden benches surrounding the arena positioned to where the spectators had shade from the tiled overhang of the roof. The practice area was full of all thirty of the first-year students and a good number of second-year students besides.
Sue bolted to the area where their classmates were sitting.
Instructor Wu was in the center area talking with another instructor Xan didn’t recognize. He estimated the other instructor was about his father’s age or perhaps even a few years younger. Xan thought he was rather young compared to Instructor Wu, but then so was everyone. Yet, the man held himself with a poise and presence that projected confidence. A boldness that was in stark contrast to Instructor Wu’s serene stature. He seemed more like Cho’s father, a warrior. Xan turned his attention to the fourteen men and women standing behind the two instructors in two rows of seven.
With a shock Xan recognized two of them and hissed at Cho, “It’s Li Jie and Lee Bo!”
Cho’s head jerked to where Xan pointed. A wide grin split his face.
Xan waved at the two men but neither seemed to notice him with all the bustle of students until Lee Bo said something and both men looked at them and each lifted a hand in acknowledgement.
Unlike Xan and his classmates, or even the Second-year students, the strange practitioners with Lee Bo wore jackets and pants which were all dark brown, though each one had different colors on the cuffs of their sleeves.
Xan leaned over to Sue. “Are they students too?”
Sue looked at him. “Those are the Followers.” She didn’t say more.
Although her answer was frustratingly vague and entirely unhelpful, Xan assumed they were the ones giving the exhibition, so he settled in and waited.
Instructor Wu bowed slightly to the other man and moved over to sit with his class.
The new instructor spoke, his voice rich, full, and brimming with spirit. “All right, y’all settle down. I’m instructor Wei Lin. I teach the animal forms for the second-year students with the aid of the Followers y’all see behind me. They’ve passed the Trial for the Temple and have specialized in one of the fourteen animal forms.”
Xan leaned towards Sue again. “Y’all? Where is he from?”
Sue sighed and leaned back to Xan, “He’s from a province well East of here. The school tries to get instructors from other places to help round out our world view. Now hush.” She glared for a moment, Xan was sure to get his cooperation, then faced back to the front.
Xan watched him. The Eastern Province. He had read about the vast prairies and herders in the books about travels along the trade roads. Stories of strange creatures and stranger clans. The tales couldn’t all be true. Could they?
Instructor Wei moved around the arena looking at the different first-year students as he spoke. He used the same technique that Instructor Wu did to make his voice heard without having to shout. “Today you’ll see a very brief demonstration of each of the animal styles. If y’all pass your final test—and bear in mind, that not all of y’all will—you’ll spend your second-year learning each of the base ten animals. Each animal style is based upon the Elements y’all are currently learning. That’s why it’s hyper critical y’all have a base mastery of each element.”
Xan craned his neck looking around at the students assembled.
“What are you doing?” Cho whispered.
“I’m counting second-year students. There are about sixty of them.” Xan whispered back. “If their first-year class was about the same, that means twenty of eighty didn’t make it. One in four.”
Cho fell silent, a grimace forming on his face. Xan could understand the expression. One in four washed out, and since there were two of them, chances were high that one of them wouldn’t make it through the final. Not unless they stepped up their game and stayed one step firmly ahead of the rest of the students. The truth was, they couldn’t afford to fail in this—there was nothing left for either of them to go back to. No town. No family. No life. This was everything.
Instructor Wei moved towards the center. He started with the Standing Meditation then quickly moved through a series of postures. Xan could see a blue shimmer around him for water. He changed his hands and stance to a different posture and the shimmer turned to green. Instructor Wei shifted to rounded arms and the shimmer turned red. His stance shifted and hand positions altered and the shimmer turned yellow. Then he stepped forward hands snapping open and the shimmer turned white. He effortlessly dropped into the base stance again and Xan saw the shimmer fade entirely. An eagerness bubbled in Xan.
“As y’all progress through the first-year cycles, you will discover your affinity for the elements. Everyone has an affinity to two elements. One element pushes, the other pulls, forming a wheel at the center of all beings. Two complimentary forces that drive existence and set your feet to the path you will follow, you see? And, that path leads, inevitably, to an animal style. The perfect expression of your own unique power.” Instructor Wei turned to the first two of the older students, Li Jie and Lee Bo. He motioned for the students to move into the center.
“The foundation for all other animal forms are the eagle and the bear.” Lee Bo and Li Jie assumed odd poses and as they did, Xan saw the ethereal form of an animal superimposed over each student. Just like when the two of them fought the corrupted creature what seemed like forever ago.
Instructor Wei continued, “The eagle is based on attacking, control and advancing.” Lee Bo, the eagle student, went through the postures. He exploded off the ground, arms/wings spread, soaring, then he brought both arms/wings in tight to his body to dive and strike at an imaginary foe like the raptor the style was named for.
Xan’s heart hammered in his ears as he remembered the same strike at the horrible creature that had mauled Cho. His breathing quickened.
“The bear is the yang to the eagle’s ying. It is defense and protection.” This time Li Jie shifted through postures, the bear lumbering forward, solid. Just as he had that day. With a roar, Li Jie stretched up tall, bear-arms upright and crashing down to the arena floor. “You want to defend and protect like a bear, and attack and advance like an eagle.” He turned to the two students and bowed. “Thank you.” The two students returned to the group. Xan still remembered the day at the base of the trail, made more vivid with his two friends back in the visages of their animal avatars.
“Are you okay?” Cho nudged him.
Xan snapped out of his daydream and responded with a huge grin, “Yeah, this is awesome!”
The Instructor continued, “Next we have the snake.” The next student flowed up and slid forward smoothly, sinuously, shifting through postures as a viper, head whipping side to side, twin hands with pointed fingers stabbing and retreating. Xan wondered why Wei Po wasn’t here. He had been the snake in the battle. He sniffed, Wei Po is better.
“The Tiger,” the fourth student erupted in energy, let out a massive roar, the translucent luminous image of a Bengal tiger superimposed over the student, emphasizing the mask of animal fury to match the sound. He bounded forward moving ten feet with each step and rapidly threw clawed strikes to either side. The arena clapped at the display.
“If y’all liked that, then you’ll love this. The Dragon.” The next student shimmered with the coiling sinuous body of a blue river dragon, he flowed forward in big coiling movements that Xan couldn’t decide if the student was jumping or swimming through the air, when, suddenly, he sprang straight up thirty feet and came down in a strike that fountained blue and white sparks and shook the building. Xan realized he had been holding his breath and let it out in a rush. The arena erupted in clapping and Xan shot to his feet with excitement, joining in with the others.
Cho hollered as he clapped. Turning to Xan, “I like that one.” His eyes shown with excitement.
The Instructor waited until the clapping died down. “The Rooster.” The sixth student stood, shimmered with the aspect of a fighting cock, stepped forward deliberately, first one foot, then the other, his chest out, hands at his side, then rushed forward with a shriek, hands as wings lifting, talons milling ahead of him, rending and battering forward as he settled into a wing-fanned posture. Xan wouldn’t want to be in front of that attack.
“The Horse.” A female student stood he hair pulled into a series of pony tails down the middle of her head as if she were already imitating the horse. White and blue energy blossomed around her, swirling until it shimmered into a radiant mare outline with a dazzling mane that cascaded sparks as she tossed her head. She lifted each leg carefully for a few steps. Then she surged and stomped with each foot/hoof in a powerful assertive motion as she moved forward, arms sweeping in front of her as she stepped. Xan was awed by the power. He had seen an angry stallion crash chest first into a wagon, knocking it over. He was confident she would do worse.
“The Swallow.” The eighth student rose from where she sat. She crouched, shimmered with a bird shape settling over her like a cloak and jumped, her arms as wings spread wide. Xan wasn’t sure how she did it, but she seemed to jump from one spot to dart back the other way. As if there was an invisible wall on either side. This gave Xan the impression of a bird darting back and forth.
“The Hawk.” The Hawk aspect settled on the student in a green and red flash. She let loose a screech and launched up to the roof, swooped around the overhang and landed on the ground-space she had just left, arms rounded and fingers curled into talons extended as if she just caught prey.
“The Monkey.” The tenth student let loose an ear-splitting screech that startled Xan. From a sitting position, the student leapt up twelve feet, did a turn mid-air, landed twenty feet away, struck in four different directions with each fist and both feet, and bounded back to land in a defensive posture in the exact spot he started with. The crowd was stunned at the display, then erupted with applause. The monkey student bowed.
Xan was thrilled. “Did you see that?” he clapped wildly.
Instructor Wei surveyed the assembled students and waited for the applause to settle down. “These are the ten primary animal forms you will learn. But, as y’all can see there are four more students. These students study the alternate animal forms. These styles are not for everyone. They require an extra set of skills and mental conditioning and, while they might have the same elements as one of the base ten animals, their techniques are as different as the animals they mimic.” He turned to the four students. “The Crane.” This student shimmered with blue and white power, jumped up, hands/feathers open and arms swooping up like wings, and crashed down with fingers closed like knives to stab the imaginary opponent beneath him.
“The Alligator.” The next student was enveloped in a blue-green hue as the lizard form enveloped him. He stayed low and strode forward with rapid, powerful, squat strides and equally powerful closed-fist strikes to either side.
“The fox.” The student darted ahead hands stabbing forward then spreading outward like pushing through a hay stack.
“And the Turtle.” The final student erupted with a red and yellow tortoise visage, crouched, compressed in, then bounded forward like a released spring, hands chopping as he moved.
Instructor Wei turned back to the crowd. “That concludes our presentation. I’ll see some of y’all here next year. Others… Well.” A small, cruel smile played across his lips. “Well, some of y’all will fail—turned away broken, battered, and dejected. And a few of you will join your ancestors—prey beasts, fit only to feed the bellies of your betters. Listen to Instructor Wu and your elements instructors. Heed what they tell you and you just might survive the trials to learn animals.” He bowed, the movement stiff and almost combative.
Everyone quickly stood, and returned the bow, then started to dissipate-restless murmurs filling the air as they broke into muted conversation.
Unable to find Li Jie or Lee Bo, Xan and Cho waited for Sue to finish talking with Instructor Wu. Once she’d finished, they set off.
“So, what did you think of the exhibition?” she asked after a time.
Xan jumped in, “It was amazing! Oh, I can’t wait to start learning the animals.”
“I liked the Dragon the best.” Cho admitted with a small shrug. “I liked how he moved. Though, if I’m honest, I felt like the bear style suits my personality better.”
Sue smiled at their enthusiasm.
“How about you?” Xan asked. “Which one did you like?”
She got a far away look, almost dreamy. “I like the fox the best, I think. I love how she moved. The Elegance and subtle power. Clever, strong, but not brutish. It fits me.”
“Yeah, that one was pretty cool.” Xan agreed with her.
Sue sobered up. “But we have a long way to go before learning animals.”
“I counted the second-year students,” Xan said after a long pause. “If their first-year class was the same size as ours, there were a lot of people who didn’t make it.” Xan said.
Sue frowned, “It was a hard year. Three students died during the finals.” She looked directly at Xan. “It’s the reason grandfather didn’t want me to join the school.” Sue looked away and drew in a deep breath.
The rest of the walk passed in awkward, tense silence. No one wanting to talk or discuss the revelation that students had actually died during training. As much fun as this had been, that was another sobering reality. Failure wasn’t the only thing on the line. So was death.
“Have a good night.” Sue told them both as they arrived at the dorms.
Xan watched her go, disappearing into the hallways that lead to her room. “Three students died, Cho. Three,” he said softly, once he was sure she was out of earshot.
Cho shook his head. “That won’t be us.”
“Maybe we need more practice?” Xan asked.
“Yeah,” Cho said, nodding his head slowly. “Yeah, maybe we do.”
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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.