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“Okay, Xan, it is your turn,” Instructor Bao said encouragingly. “Take your stance and concentrate. Give me a ball of water.”

Xan bowed slightly, took his stance, inhaled deeply and reached for the water with his thoughts. His hands moved in the slow circular motion which had been drilled into his head for days and days; a small blue ball formed in front of him.

“Very good, Xan. You pass.” Instructor Bao smiled at Xan, then moved to the next student.

Xan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. His nerves relaxing and his stomach unclenched. That was an immense relief. He must have conjured a thousand water-filled balls during this week to make sure he got it right today, his anxiety keeping him up most of the night. Cho clapped him on the shoulder, breaking him out of his reverie.

“I told you that you had it,” Cho whispered.

Xan smiled and wondered what was next. Instructor Bao moved through the remainder of the students. Everyone had passed.

“Well done, everyone. Well done,” Instructor Bao moved back to the front of the class. “But pulling elemental water is only the foundation upon which we build. Now, you must prepare to learn the martial aspect of Water.” In a flash, he dropped into the water stance. “The main property of water is its penetrating or drilling aspect.” He punched with his right arm, his fist moving upward and twisting outward, led by the knuckle of the pinkie finger as it traveled, ending where the palm of the fist was heavenward. “This is useful when an opponent offers a hard defense.”

He waved May over and they faced each other. She threw a punch in slow motion with her right hand. He spiraled over her incoming fist with his left hand, moving at the same speed. The end result was that her punch was out of position and his upturned-fist was in front of her nose.

“Alright, break into pairs and practice this. Slowly, yes? Make sure you both try it.” He looked around the class. “Slowly.” Instructor Bao clapped his hands twice.

Xan and Cho paired up and began practicing. Instructor Bao made his rounds, correcting Cho’s stance in passing before moving onto the next pair. The adjustment, though relatively minor in Xan’s mind, seemed to have a huge impact—in no time, Cho was easily deflecting the strike and moving Xan out of position.

Eventually, Instructor Bao called for them to switch opponents. “This gives you an opportunity to try the same technique against different bodies and energies.” He had them switch a couple more times before class was dismissed.

On the way back to the dorms, Cho and Xan compared notes.

“Why did the change in stance make such a difference?” Xan asked.

Behind them, Sue answered. “It is a principle called Cross the Great River. Instructor Bao changed one small piece and your Qi flowed with the stance.”

Cho and Xan stopped and stared at her. “Can you show us?” Xan asked.

Sue hesitated.

“Please?” Cho asked her with a smile.

Sue looked at him and begrudgingly nodded. “Fine. After dinner. Meet me in the practice area and don’t tell the others.” She said quickly, then turned and bolted for the dorm. Xan watched after her, wondering what was so secret about Cross the Great River.

After dinner, the two young men made their way to the practice area. Xan was curious as to what the secret was and also irked that Sue would only show them because Cho asked. The area was deserted with students elsewhere reading up on herbalism for tomorrow’s first class in the Herbalism cycle. That class, at least, Xan wasn’t worried about. His time working with Master Sung had given him the basic skills and ability to read a recipe and he knew he was leaps and bounds ahead of most of the Seekers in his class. At least there is one thing I excel at.

Sue entered the arena and beelined for the pair. “Let’s go through this quickly,” she barked without preamble. She looked nervously over one shoulder, then back at them.

Cho quirked an eyebrow at her. “What’s the hurry?” he asked.

“Well… a,” she bit her lip. Xan thought she looked like she was struggling with what to tell them. She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and alternated between looking at the two of them as she explained quietly. “I don’t want some of the others in our class hearing what I am going to show you two.” She narrowed her eyes. “There are a few who feel you don’t belong.”

“And you don’t feel that way?” Xan asked heatedly, irritation spiking. Cho put a hand on his shoulder to calm him down.

She looked chagrined, her cheeks coloring just a bit. Finally, she met his gaze. “At first, I didn’t. But then I saw you trying to get better and helping the group we train with. You deserve the same chance everyone else has been given.”

Frankly, Xan was impressed with her honesty and it deflated his ire.

“We appreciate any help you would be willing to give us,” Cho said with a smile.

“Yes, thank you for working with us.” Xan nodded in agreement and that seemed to appease her.

“Okay. Let me show you what Instructor Bao did and why.” She got into the stance. “If you look at my stance, I am more upright. My feet square. This was your original stance before Instructor Bao corrected you. Get into position opposite me.” She indicated Cho should take a stance opposite. “I will use the technique on you from earlier, feel how it works.” Cho threw a punch and Sue did the drilling technique. His hand moved a bit. “Now if I deepen my stance, right foot back and shoulder width apart, this provides a firmer base and allows the Qi to flow from the back foot to my left hand. My Qi will cross the great river. That is the secret. Punch again.” Cho threw another punch with his right hand. This time, her drilling strike threw him off balance and she narrowly avoided giving him a firm punch in the nose. “See the difference?”

“I do. Let me try it first wrong, then right.” Cho said. They went through both and the difference was spectacular.

“Why didn’t Instructor Bao explain it to us?” Xan asked when it was his turn.

Sue shrugged. “It is a more advanced concept. He may be figured you would pick up the how when he corrected you, and the why would come out in a later lesson?” She looked around again. “Look, I’m sorry, but I need to go. Right now I can’t afford conflict in the class. You two have it from here?” she asked.

“Yes. Thank you for showing us. We appreciate it.” Cho said.

“Please don’t tell anyone what I told you.” And with that, she fled the practice area.

Xan watched her go, his own feelings in turmoil. He felt frustrated that there were pieces that the others knew almost instinctually, like Cross the Great River. By the Five Immortals, how am I supposed to learn if they won’t teach?

“What do you make of that?” Xan asked Cho.

“Well, I think you are winning her over.” Cho said with a grin. Xan was relieved his friend was back to joking.

Xan rolled his eyes and sighed. “About the other students.”

“People always fear what they don’t know. We are different. They might be frightened of our success.” Cho reasoned. “I can understand that Sue doesn’t want friction with her friends over us.” Cho resumed his stance seeming unconcerned by what Sue had told them. “Come on. Let’s practice a bit more.”

Xan shook his head. Cho was right. He should focus on what he can control. He took his stance and the two worked through the techniques, keeping their positioning and timing in mind. He would show the others up with practice.

#

The next morning, Xan was moving slowly from all the late night practices and the trek to class with Cho helped work out some of the kinks. They entered the herbalism shop and made their way to the back area. During their tour so many weeks ago, Xan had been impressed with the wide assortment of plants and other materials. The shop dwarfed Master Sung’s shop back in Mogu village. It would be good to work with herbs again.

Cho and Xan were shooting to be among the first few to arrive. Kai Jin, his two cronies, and Sue were already there. Kai Jin sniffed derisively at Xan when he arrived.

“Ignore him.” Cho said under his breath. Xan nodded at Cho, adopted a smile, and resolved to explore his intense dislike for Kai Jin later. The rest of the class filed in over the next few minutes until the room they were in was crowded with bodies. A small bell tinkled at one side of the workspace, a decent-sized space roughly sixty-foot square. Smooth wooden waist high work-benches were arrayed in several rows that filled the room, parallel to the side the instructor stood at, gently ringing a little silver bell to get everyone’s attention.

“Hello everyone, group at each of the tables. Fill in the space,” a matronly looking woman said. She wore gray robes similar to theirs, though she also sported a brown canvas smock. Her shockingly blonde hair was styled to veil the right side of her face. Xan could tell there was something she was trying to hide. Maybe a scar? She regarded them with warm brown eyes nestled in a well-tanned face. Xan surmised she must spend a lot of time outdoors to get such a dark complexion. “My name is Bimi and we are going to explore the wondrous world of Herbology and the practical aspects of Herbalism. There are three parts to this class. The first will be a lecture on plants, animals and minerals and their properties. The second will be on the identification of ingredients. And the third will cover the necessary skills required to brew a potion.”

The class tittered at the mention of potions. Instructor Bimi smiled and rang her little bell again until the class quieted. “Now, as I was saying, you will be graded in this section on the efficacy of your potion. It has been a few years since one of my students poisoned themselves and I will not be going to a funeral this year.” Xan couldn’t tell if she was joking. Bimi held up a jar with small four-petal purple flowers in them. “Who can tell me what this is?” She looked at the students, a broad smile on her face. One eyebrow quirked questioningly. A spark of mischief in her eyes, deep dimples in her cheeks. After a minute of silence, “Anyone?”

“It is Lilac Daphne, Instructor Bimi.” Xan said with utter confidence.

Everyone’s eyes turned on him in surprise, and Xan couldn’t help but flush from all the attention.

“Very good, and just Bimi please. Can you tell me what it is used for?” She asked.

“It is used for treating coughs, Inst… um, Bimi” Xan replied struggling with the more informal title.

“Correct.” She beamed, earning him even more astonished glances from his classmates.

She held up a different jar, this one contained a reddish gold mushroom. “And, what about this one? Can someone tell me what this is?”

There were a few guesses that were wildly, painfully off base. Cho elbowed Xan and whispered, “Didn’t we harvest some of that?”

“It is Chaga” Xan said aloud, worried Cho would rat him out to the instructor.

“Excellent. Can anyone other than Xan tell me what it is used for?” She asked the class with a patient smile. After a couple of minutes of awkward silence, she looked back at Xan and raised an eyebrow.

He sighed in resignation. “It is used to reduce inflammation and aids in warding off sickness,” he muttered trying not to draw any more attention to himself than he already had.

Bimi adopted a thoughtful expression. “Hmmm, well, you certainly know something about herbalism. Let’s try something a little trickier. What about this?” She held up another jar and looked directly at Xan. This container held a red and orange tube shaped mushroom.

“Antler Reishi.” Xan said simply.

Bimi smiled widely. “Oh, I thought I had you there. This type of mushroom is very rare.”

Xan shrugged. “I harvested them and fan-Reishi regularly at our village mushroom grow.”

Bimi raised her eyebrows in surprise. “We will have to talk more on this, Xan. You could have a real future here, if you’re willing to apply yourself.”

Xan noticed Kai Jin frowning at him. Xan winked at him, causing his scowl to deepen.

The instructor got everyone’s attention when she pulled a wooden chest out from under her table and set it on top. “Now, moving on. In this class we will be using Shennong’s Materia Medica. I need one of you from each table to come up here and pick up a copy.” She pulled off the top of the chest, revealing numerous leather-bound books. “These copies are for this class only and are to stay in this workshop. If you need to access the book outside of class, there are several copies in the library.”

Students shuffled up to get a copy for their table. Xan was giddy with excitement. He relished the opportunity to touch any book. While books were not so rare a thing in Mogu village, they were always prized. Full of tales of exotic places and legendary heroes, descriptions of cities and a treatise on wondrous food and spices. The grin on his face almost hurt.

The little bell chimed again. “Okay, okay. Settle down.” Bimi said, taking up a position behind a wooden lectern with a copy of the tome propped open. “This book was written well over four thousand years ago. Master Shennong spent the majority of his life identifying and categorizing three-hundred and sixty-five plants, fungus, animals and minerals and divining their various properties. His works have provided the foundations for every other book on Herbology. Everything you will use in this cycle will come from this book,” She paused and smiled. “Except for your minds, of course. Please open to page two. Who wants to read the author’s foreword?”

The class spent the rest of the period reading the notes and categorization criteria. When Bimi dismissed the class, she called Xan over. “I don’t normally get students with such a deep base in herbalism.” She faltered for a moment, almost as though she was unsure how to proceed. “I was sorry to hear about your village,” she finally finished, unshed tears rimming her eyes.

A lump in his throat, Xan croaked out, “Yeah, thanks.” He was unsure what else to say, so he told his story, “We were headed back from our mushroom harvest when the world changed…” His world really had changed. He had lost his entire family and went from villager to a student of martial magic. Sadness welled up in Xan, threatening to overwhelm him when Bimi put a hand on his arm. He pulled out of the downward spiral and took a deep shuddering breath. He saw sympathy on her face. Before she could say anything, Xan decided to change the subject. “I have all the mushrooms from our harvest.”

That surprised her. “You do?”

Xan smiled wanly, “We were headed to the village with the entire month’s harvest.”

“Bring some samples to the next class and we can see what you have. And, if you are interested, I would love to show you some recipes you can use with them.” Bimi said.

“I will do that and I appreciate it.” Xan said, meaning every word. Finally, something in his studies was going right.

“You had better go. Your friends are waiting.” Bimi pointed at the door where Cho and Sue were chatting idly.

“Thank you.” Xan sketched a short bow and left to join his friend for the walk back to the dorms.

#

Instructor Bao stood at his usual place in the front of the hall. With him were two people. One was an instructor they’d seen around the water practice area, but had never interacted with. The other was someone they were very familiar with.

“Good morning class. Today you will have your second exam for this cycle. With me as judges are second-year instructor, Master Jim and Adept Wei Po. Both are very accomplished Water practitioners.” The two men bowed and the class returned the bow.

Instructor Bao clapped his hands twice. “Let’s start off with meditation, then Kai Jin will lead us in exercises.” He clapped his hands once more and Xan closed his eyes, using the Qi breathing exercise to clear his mind.

All too soon, Instructor Bao clapped his hands a third time, signaling them to open their eyes and prepare for the next phase of the exercises. Kai Jin moved to the front of the class, smugness radiating off him, as he guided everyone through the stretching exercises under the watchful gaze of the three judges. After the series of exercises, Kai Jin resumed his place with the other students.

Instructor Bao took over. “Very good. Very good. Now that we are limber of body and clear of mind, we should all be ready of spirit. In the exercise, you will block then strike using the water techniques. Form two lines on either side of the room. The first two students will begin. Sue, Mary. Begin.” Instructor Bao said.

Xan watched the pairs until it was his turn opposite Li Mei. Xan took his stance. He was attacking first. He threw a punch and Li Mei easily blocked it. Xan reset and threw the punch again. This time she executed the drilling attack, hands blazing. She stopped with her fist on his nose. “Excellent Li Mei.” Instructor Jim said, nodding sagely.

Next, Xan took the role of defender, mentally preparing his counterattack.

In practice, Li Mei never held back and today wasn’t any different. Her punch came in lightning-fast. Xan blocked it and raised an eyebrow at her. That’s how it is? He thought. Xan cleared his mind as she reset, focusing on his Qi as he waited. The second punch came, but this time it was as if she were moving in slow motion—or maybe his Qi enhanced thoughts were moving faster? He moved his hand forward in the drilling punch, driving from his back foot, Qi flowing like a raging river.

Xan contacted her arm as his fist snaked over hers, the technique effortless and perfect.

Shock sprinted across her face as she whipped around and to the side, staggering a few steps. A wave of Qi slammed into her next. Li Mei spun completely out of position and it was a good thing, since his fist would have devastated her face. A roar came from all around Xan. His heart hammered in his ears and his body filled with Qi, swelling to the point where he thought he would burst. He yelled as he was stretched from within. Black energy enveloped him, swirling around and through him.

Slowly, agonizingly at first, then lessening by the moment, the energy settled into Xan until he was standing still. His breathing hard. By the Immortals! I attuned to water! He grinned, elated—though still lightheaded. His elation faded as he took in the expressions of the three judges. Instructor Bao looked concerned. Wei Po, worried. And Instructor Jim? Horrified. Xan glanced at the class and heard hushed murmurs of “Black energy.” Wei Po motioned for one of the students to approach. When he got up to Wei Po, he whispered something in the student’s ear, then the student took off at a run.

The three judges huddled, communing among themselves. Xan knew eavesdropping wasn’t the honorable thing to do, but he strained his ears all the same, using his Qi meditation to help pick out whatever words he could. What he did hear was far from encouraging. “The corruptor” and “dark Qi.” Past that, though he couldn’t really make out what they were going on about, try as he might. Finally, he glanced at Cho and Sue. Both appeared worried, and that didn’t help ease Xan’s nerves. After an agonizing ten minutes of Xan shuffling from foot to foot, nerves on edge, the judges came to some conclusion.

“Please stay where you are, Xan.” Instructor Bao said. “We need to confer with you and Sifu. The rest of you are dismissed.”

“Hang on.” Xan held up a hand. “What is the big deal?”

Instructor Bao clapped his hands. The sound reverberated through the hall. “I said dismissed!” He looked at Xan. “Just wait a moment and we will answer your questions as we are able.”

The students filed out in a trickle of twos and threes, most giving Xan looks he couldn’t decipher. Cho and Sue were among the last to leave. Once the practice area was clear, Instructor Bao addressed Xan. “When you attuned to Water, the energy was black, not blue.” He looked grim.

“It is the sign of corruption.” Instructor Jim stated flatly, his gaze hard and overtly hostile.

A voice from the side interrupted them, “It is rare but not unheard of and isn’t always the sign of corruption.” Sifu Wang shuffled into the practice area. He looked at Xan, the ghost of a smile on his lips. “Congratulations for attuning to water, Gao Xan.” He bowed slightly.

Xan immediately returned the courtesy. “Thank you, Sifu. But what about it being black? What does that mean?”

“Elemental water is blue and sometimes black. When people attune to water, it is usually blue. Of all the elements, water is the most complex as it is the element that cleans Qi. And, as Instructor Jim likes to point out, it is also the key to corruption. However,”—his voice took a hard tone—“a black attunement does not mean corruption.” Instructor Jim looked like he was going to fight Sifu on that point, but Sifu cut him off with a wave of his hand. “Before you go further, I should probably point out that my water attunement was also black,” he said firmly in a tone that brooked no further discussion. Xan was shocked, and from the expressions on Instructor Bao and Wei Po’s faces, this was news to them too.

Instructor Jim flinched as if struck. He took a shuddering breath, gathered his thoughts, then spoke, “Apologies Sifu for my hasty statements. I will meditate on this and my actions.”

Sifu nodded. “Caution is to be admired and vigilance is the only way we stay ahead of ‘the Ruler’ and his minions. Now, for young master Gao, I would suggest that we explain to the class tomorrow that his attunement might be rare, but is otherwise normal.”

With that settled, Sifu winked at Xan and left. Wei Po came to stand beside Xan. “Let’s go get some noodles.” He said to Xan. “Gentlemen.” Po inclined his head to the two instructors and guided Xan out of the Water area.

“I was wondering how you were, Xan. Looks like you are still making waves.” Po said with a mischievous grin.

Xan felt lighter just being with Po. “I’m glad you are here.”

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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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