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The next morning, Xan and Cho made their way to the water building. The idle banter of the students from their class echoed in the nearly empty streets. Cho occasionally commented, but Xan couldn’t shake the disturbing news that three students had died the previous year. Sure, Cho said that wouldn’t be them, but how could he really know? They all moved along the avenue that led to the training area that Sue had taken them to when they’d first arrived at the school. An event that seemed like ages ago to Xan. His stomach was a hard knot of nervousness, not knowing what to expect. They passed shop keepers opening up, dragging chairs out and setting up wooden tables for customers. Xan smelled the tantalizing aroma of the pastry shop; promises of fresh bread and sweet treats wafted through the air.

His mouth watered at the thought of a buttery biscuit, or fruit laced pastry.

In short order, they were at the facility. Xan recognized the symbol for water featured prominently above the door. The pair filed in with the other students. Across the practice area from them stood a thin man with short, dark gray hair. He watched as the students arrayed before him in their practice lines. While the man smiled, Xan noticed the smile didn’t quite reach his startlingly blue eyes.

Once the students settled down, he clapped his hands together in front of himself so quickly the sleeves of his blue robes snapped in the air from the movement.

“Welcome to the First Cycle,” he said, voice smooth and vibrant, like the sun reflecting on the river. Though, like the man’s not-quite-smile, Xan sensed a hard edge lurked beneath the surface. “I am Instructor Bao, Master of the Swallow style. I will have the privilege of teaching you the element of water. Some of you may already know this, but for simplicity, I am going over it so everyone has a foundation.” He moved around the group as he spoke, his hands clasped in front of him, palms together. “Water is fluid. It is soft. But it can also be hard, forceful and penetrating. Like a river that cuts through a mountain, water can be irresistible. It fills things up and cleanses away dirt and taint. In this cycle you will learn how to channel water within your Qi. You will learn how Water overcomes Fire in martial combat and you will learn the forms for water in martial magic.”

He stopped. “Questions so far?” No one made a sound. He waited until the silence grew uncomfortable—though he didn’t seem particularly bothered by the quiet—then kept moving and talking. “Some of the other elementalists will tell you that water is weak. Let me correct that thinking here and now. No one element is more powerful than another. Just as no one animal style is superior to another. It is the person. Not the person being more powerful, but being the most judicious at using what power they have. The smallest trickle of water will eventually cut rock or kill a tree given time enough.”

Instructor Bao stopped at the front of the class, abruptly turning to face them. “Let’s talk about what it means to channel water.” He waved to a Follower who had been waiting on the side of the area. The woman quickly jogged to his side. “Please create a plain Qi sphere.” he said to her. Then, addressing the class, “you all can create a physical manifestation of your Qi.” He pointed at her apple sized ball of translucent energy. “When you concentrate on your Qi, there are wisps floating around the outside. They might appear as streaks of color or maybe a fleeting memory or thought. When you focus and apply the correct stance and hand positions, however, it acts as a focus to a specific type of energy, allowing you to grab that element and channel it into your Qi.” As he spoke, the woman curled in the last two fingers of each hand, then held the other fingers of her hands wide and rotated her wrists. Her translucent orb flashed blue and became more solid as it brightened.

“The reason everyone starts with water,” he continued, “is that it is also the cleansing element. Life is a messy, often painful thing you see. And, as we stumble through that mess and pain we build up toxins, and, in time, negative energy. Practitioners of martial magic who fail to cleanse such impurities can become bogged down. Like an overburdened yak going through mud. Too much negative energy can lead to corruption, as some of you have experienced first hand.” He looked right at Xan and Cho. “You will learn an augmentation to your daily meditation that will help you cultivate your Qi while simultaneously cleaning it. Then as you channel Qi, it will clean you. Just as the stream washes dirt from your hands.”

The mention of dark Qi got Xan’s head buzzing. “Instructor Bao? Can Qi be used to wash the corruption out of another person?” he asked.

The master faltered for a long moment, face twisted in contemplation. “It would take a powerful water elementalist,” he finally said with a thin nod, “but I can’t see why not. Well, other than the corrupted creature trying to kill you during the process.” Instructor Bao quipped. “But, that is a good segue. With each element there are levels. As you learn the elements and open yourselves up to them, each of you will become attuned to two elements. You will gain a closer bond with the element and will be able to do things with that element that no one that isn’t attuned will be able to.”

The comment coaxed a round of excited murmurs from the class.

Bao held up his hand placatingly. “It is thrilling, true. But with all truths, there is a catch. You don’t get to pick. The elements, they pick you. I am attuned to water and wood. Not by choice, but by spiritual disposition. It just happened.”

The cryptic remark only got the students talking even more earnestly and excitedly.

“Peace Seekers. Peace,” Instructor Bao quieted them down. “I know this is a lot of information to absorb, students, but humor me only a little longer and then we can begin practicing. As I mentioned before, within each Element, there are levels. According to the scrolls, each element has five levels. I have only seen four myself, and even then—other than myself—I only know of three other Water elementalists that have attained fourth level. Regardless of the elements, the general progression for the levels themselves is projection at first level, deflection at second, some sort of resistance at third, and elemental summoning at fourth. As for the Fifth, the scrolls are quite vague on the issue.”

“One last bit on the elements. The elemental combinations for affinity guide what animal style you will have access to. I am attuned to water and wood. During my second year, I became affiliated with Swallow.” He pulled back his right sleeve and a stylized tribal of a swallow marked his forearm. He let the sleeve drop. “Though, when I first began on my Animal journey, my affinity to water and wood opened the path for Rooster, Hawk, Sparrow, and Alligator as likely candidates. As with the elements, your animal affinity will choose you. But animals, they are next year—assuming you unlock both elemental affinities and actually advance to second-year.” His voice was oddly solemn, driving home just how important this was. “Go ahead and take your meditation stances.”

#

The next couple of days passed in a blur of work, practice, and diligent meditation. This morning, Instructor Bao walked amongst the concentrating students—just as Instructor Wu had before him—correcting postures here, tweaking hand movements there, whispering words of encouragement to some and having others quietly take a break for a few moments. It was during one such break that Xan saw a blue flash. “Congratulations to Kai Jin,” Instructor Bao called out, “for being the first to fill your Qi with water.”

Naturally, Kai Jin looked pleased at the accolade of being the first. He was a peacock with yet another colorful feather to show off to anyone willing to look.

Xan could only sigh and resume his stance. After several long minutes of congratulations and fawning, the others got back into position to continue as well. After another hour, a third of the students had filled their Qi with water. And, naturally, Xan was not among them.

“You are all doing well,” Instructor Bao said after calling for a break. “I can feel you are on the verge of getting this. I have brought in two Followers so we can show you some of the water powers. Something to motivate those of you who are still lagging behind a bit.” Two students entered from an arched corridor. The woman from yesterday and a tall wiry man they hadn’t seen before. “May and Dan have been working with me for a while now. May just hit second level in water. Dan, on the other hand, is attuned in earth and fire—a quite natural paring that some of you will also have.”

The two students faced each other and bowed. “May will project water and Dan will block with earth.” Instructor Bao said, nodding vigorously at the two Followers.

May immediately dropped into water stance and positioned her hands moving them in a circular motion, conjuring a bright blue sphere, then, with a push of both of her hands the azure orb shot out directly for Dan. Dan stepped into a deep stance, made fists and brought them in front of his chest, knuckles to knuckles. Xan heard a rush, as if a flood of water poured through his mind, and a plate sized yellow square shimmered into existence. That wasn’t the first time he had heard the mind-noise when someone used magic. The blue ball detonated against the shield and both vanished in a shower of blue and yellow sparks.

The display was met with a quiet round of oohs and a smattering of applause.

“Now Dan will project fire and May will deflect using her water,” Instructor Bao said.

Once more, they bowed to each other. Dan took an aggressive forward leaning stance, his fingers crooked while he whipped his arms rapidly in front of him, almost as if fanning a flame. A ball of crimson shimmered, then blazed out at May. She quickly positioned her hands and moved them in a tight arc in front of her. A wet-looking azure disk coalesced. It enveloped the red orb and, with a loud pop, both manifestations vanished in a shower of red and blue sparks. The students clapped again.

“Thank you both.” Dan and May bowed to Instructor Bao, then turned to the class and dipped their heads, just a fraction of an inch. The class returned the bow more deeply. Dan and May moved back to the side. Instructor Bao resumed his lecture, “That is a very simple application of Qi and projection. We’re going to break for lunch, but when you return, we’ll continue with your cultivation. Class dismissed.” He clapped his hands twice.

“That was amazing,” Xan said to Cho, “when she projected the water at him. I could almost feel it.” Xan was giddy at seeing the display. We are doing this. We are learning magic.

Xan could see the start of a smile on Cho’s face. “It was cool and you know it!”

“Fine, all right,” Cho laughed. “Yes, it was cool.”

Together they exited the water building.

Up ahead, Xan caught a glimpse of Sue. The fact that she was part of the throng of students obsessing over Kai Jin was more than a little sobering.

Cho pushed Xan. “Don’t worry about that peacock. Let’s go get some food.”

The brake seemed to drag for Xan, but eventually they were back in the practice area, shifting stance and pulling Qi. The blue ghosts were flickering on the edges of Xan’s awareness. He almost got his mental fingers on one when a cry shattered his concentration like a rock into a mirror. He looked for the source of the commotion and saw one student wreathed in blue power. It coalesced around her, then faded into her as if she’d absorbed the energy somehow. Xan hadn’t seen anything like it before, but a single glance at Instructor Bao set his nerves at ease—he clearly wasn’t worried about whatever had just happened.

“It’s okay,” Instructor Bao assured them, placid as ever. “Mary attuned to water. I told you it happens.”

“But she was covered in energy,” one student exclaimed, voicing the sentiment on everyone’s mind.

“Did it hurt?” another asked.

“Are you okay?” Xan asked.

Instructor Bao held up his hands, urging the students to settle down. Mary blinked at all the attention, her cheeks flushed.

Instructor Bao explained, “This is all a normal part of the process. It will happen to each of you… twice. You can see that Mary is fine, yes?”

Mary nodded in agreement, still blushing like mad.

“Are all attunements like that?” Cho asked.

“Yes, and no. Each attunement will be for the elemental color. Water is blue. Wood is green, Fire is red, Earth is yellow and Metal is white. The hardest thing for the student is that it is surprising when attunement happens as no one knows when it will pop.” Instructor Bao explained. “But one thing is certain, you will all go through it. It is a matter of time and practice.” He clapped his hands. “Back to practice. By the end of the week I want you all to be able to invoke water, regardless of whether it is one of your primary attunements.”

After another hour, Instructor Bao called a halt and reformed the class into a demonstration circle. “Next we will learn to block. Mary? Would you come up here, please?” He smiled benignly. Xan knew it was a ruse. “I would like you to throw a slow punch with your right hand, if you would.” He settled into a stance, weight on his back leg, left arm bent so his hand was up in front of his body, right hand open at his navel. Mary threw the punch. “As she throws the punch, my left hand will push down. In this instance, water is soft.” He pushed her hand down and out in a slightly circular motion. “If she speeds up, it works the same.” She threw a series of punches, each increasing in speed.

“Instructor Bao, what makes this water?” a student asked.

“Like a wave pushes your boat, this block pushes the punch. At more advanced levels, you will learn to Qi infuse your attacks and blocks to make them stronger, faster, heavier, and imbued with special effects. For now, trust that the technique, in its simplest form, is Water.” He addressed the class. “Break into pairs. Practice slowly. Take turns. And make sure you try the other side once you are comfortable with your left.”

Xan smiled at Cho as they paired up. “We are learning martial magic!” he whispered excitedly.

“Focus on the technique so we can go through it with the group tonight.” Cho told him as he readied himself to attack.

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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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