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The day for the water trial came all too soon. Xan was nervous. Six weeks of classroom and practice and it came down to today. The fact that they knew what they were supposed to be doing today didn’t help Xan’s anxiety at all. He fidgeted at breakfast, knee bouncing uncontrollably under the table as he absently poked at his food.

“Xan, you need to eat something.” Cho told him. He was calm as he devoured a bowl of grilled chicken and rice.

Xan grunted noncommittally and picked at the fruit on his plate, lost in his thoughts. It had been good talking with Po. Talking about travels, studies, and the girl Po was seeing the next village to the North. It really helped ground Xan. He was pulled out of his reverie with a bump. Xan looked up to see Kai Jin leering at them.

“You bumpkins ready to fail?” Kai Jin laughed. His two cronies, Chao and Shun, chuckled with him. They were his constant shadows. Chao rail thin and gangly with a wild mop of hair that stuck out in every direction like a sun-bleached bundle of straw and it looked like he cut it himself. Shun was short and stocky with a barrel chest, dark hair and eyes and the overall grace of a bulldog.

“We’ll see who fails, Jin.” Cho shot back with a scowl. “I doubt it will be the guy attuned to water.”

Xan noticed Sue was watching the exchange, a frown on her face and her arms crossed in front of her. Let’s see how this plays out.

Xan stood up. “Run along Jin,” he flicked his hand like shooing away a pest. “You’ll have your opportunity to fail soon enough.”

Kai Jin moved closer to them, anger evident. He tried to loom over Xan. “Don’t dare to presume we are equals, peasant.”

“You’re right.” Cho sprang up, rattling the table in the process. “We definitely aren’t up to your level of asshole.” Jin might be taller than Xan, but he wasn’t taller than Cho.

Kai Jin looked as if he was going to say more, then he noticed Sue’s unwavering gaze and unamused expression. “Well, don’t keep us waiting too long,” Jin sneered. He turned abruptly and stalked out of the eating area, his minions following like puppies.

“Well, that was fun. We should head to the Water arena and get this over with,” Xan said with resignation.

Sue slipped up beside them. “Don’t let him get to you,” she said softly. “We’ve practiced and you know what to expect. Jin is just trying to get into your head.”

The trio chatted as they walked. Sue worked to keep their minds distracted by talking about the different shops as they passed. In a short time, they arrived at the Water area. At the front was an instructor in dark red robes. His belt was orange. His reddish-brown hair was shoulder length and pulled back in a ponytail. He had dark skin and yellow eyes that almost glowed. Even more startling was the seven-foot-tall fire creature looming beside him. He was man-shaped but made up entirely of flame, oranges and reds swirled down its arms and legs while the torso and head were yellow—almost white. It had two dark red embers for eyes.

“That must be the fire elemental,” Cho whispered, voice brimming with awe.

Xan nodded, speechless. He had never seen anything so beautiful.

For a long moment he just stood there staring, slack jawed. Eventually, Cho grabbed his sleeve and gave it a sharp tug, coaxing Xan into motion once more. Xan reluctantly let himself be hauled away, and the trio found their places amongst the other students. Naturally, Kai Jin was across the way from them, holding court with his fans.

Once the last student was in place, Instructor Bao clapped his hands. “Today we are having the Trial for Water. This is the final exam for this cycle. With me is Instructor Jyoti from the Fire school. If you pass, you might have the honor of learning from him. We also have Eldur who has graciously agreed to help with the trials.” The class bowed. The elemental bowed back.

Instructor Bao said, “Eldur will create a Neisti, a spark, or fire construct. You must use elemental water to overcome it. It is that simple.” He looked out amongst the students. “Chun Lee, you are first.”

The Elemental waved an arm in a circle over the ground in front of him and a gout of flame erupted and even Xan felt the heat from it where he stood. With a whoosh, a little boy shaped figure of pure flame sprang into being. The Elemental made hissing and popping sounds as it spoke in the fire language, and the spark trundled towards Chun Lee.

Chun Lee barked a short laugh. “This is it? Seriously? A fire toddler?”

“Defend yourself.” Instructor Jyoti said.

Chun Lee stepped into the water stance. He moved his hands in the well-practiced water flow to pull water Qi, his eyes on the little figure as it kept coming straight for him. A ball wavered into existence, then flickered away. The figure closed the distance. Chun Lee tried again, he managed to get a blue ball formed just as the spark reached out and touched his left leg. Chun Lee screamed as the fiery hand burned through his uniform and into the flesh beneath. Smoke poured from his uniform, carrying with it the sickly sweet smell of burned meat.

Instructor Bao waved his hand and a splash of blue separated the two, causing the Nesti to vanish. He waved at a pair of Followers waiting on the side of the arena. “Take Chun Lee to the infirmary.”

Blisters and charred flesh could be seen through the gaping hole in Chun’s pant leg. One of the students near the front turned to the side and vomited.

Xan was shaken and glanced at Sue. She returned his glance with a stony expression.

“I told you this was serious,” she whispered.

Instructor Bao clapped his hands. “Settle down and focus. Remember your training and you will be fine. Kai Jin, you’re next.”

Eldur created another spark with a wave. Once again, the hissing and popping commands sent it at Kai Jin.

Kai Jin didn’t look as confident as before. He dropped into stance and created a blue sphere of elemental Qi. He spun once, hands moving around the ball. As he turned back to face the spark, he extended both hands towards the flaming construct. The azure ball flew at the spark. Xan wasn’t sure if it was a shimmer from the heat, but the sphere just missed. The fiery construct kept advancing. Kai Jin took a quick breath and repeated the gesture. This time, the blue sphere detonated when it came into contact with the creature, sending blue and red sparkles out in a fan. The spark crumpled in on itself, the fire losing cohesion.

Xan held his breath. Kai Jin was much better at this than Xan, and he had missed. Anxiety rippled through Xan. He blew out his breath in a hiss as fear got a grip on him. What am I going to do?

“Very good. You pass. Next student…” Instructor Bao worked through the students. All the students seemed to pay more attention. Each able to form the ball of water, though Lucy took three tries and managed to stop it just as it reached her, her clothes steaming from the heat. Instructor Bao looked at him. It was Xan’s turn.

Xan took his stance. His heart hammered in his chest. His hands were clammy. The Elemental created the spark and sent it at Xan. With a sharp intake of breath, Xan gathered his Qi and pulled water, forming the blue sphere. Xan stepped to throw and his foot came down on something, causing him to stumble and throwing his aim just a hair—the blue sphere streaked past the Spark. Xan glanced down at the object that wasn’t there when he stepped up. He caught Kai Jin smirking. Focus! Xan took a deep breath to calm himself and gather his Qi. As he drew in the power, Xan saw a veil of sparkling blue Qi hanging in the air around the fire creature. A notion pulled at Xan and he positioned his fingers and swept his arms wide as if wrapping his arms around a large object. He pictured gathering up the water Qi and wrapping the fire creature in the blue mist, like pulling a blanket around. He visualized the blanket tightening on the spark. He projected his Qi through his hands as they wove the blanket. The spark slowed like it was wading through molasses, as the water Qi thickened, the spark became smaller until it was barely a reed-thin fire stick. With a pop, it disappeared.

The room was silent except for the flame pop and sizzle of the Fire Elemental. “Good job, Xan.” Instructor Bao said. “What made you select that method for overcoming the spark?”

“It seemed like the logical method,” Xan shrugged. “I saw that the water was already in the air, I just wrapped the spark in it.” Xan said.

Instructor Jyoti seemed impressed. In a deep voice he said, “I have not seen a spark overcome dat way by a first-year.” He nodded. “Well dun.”

Xan’s cheeks got hot at the compliment. He stammered a reply, “Th-thank you.” He bowed and fled back to his spot on the wall. Cho clapped him on the shoulder. Xan noticed Sifu on the side. He met Xan’s gaze and nodded, then he turned and left the arena. Xan felt good that Sifu had come to see the trials.

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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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