It was a cool day in the middle of the Month of the Turtle. Today was the first day of the new six-week cycle that would run through the end of this month and all the first month of the new year, the Month of the Tiger. And, despite the fact that not everyone had passed the trial—two students had washed out, one horribly burned, both unable to defeat the Fire Spark—the mood was light and playful. Even Kai Jin was being friendly, which made Xan more than a little nervous—he hadn’t forgotten Kai’s attempted sabotage during his own trial. The man was dangerous and had it out for him and Cho; Xan would need to keep his guard up, no matter how friendly that snake seemed.

After breakfast, the students headed to the Wood building.

The walk from the dining hall took nearly ten minutes, but eventually Xan and Cho found themselves in front of a wooden archway carved with elaborate vines, delicate flowers, and surprisingly lifelike forest scenes. They slipped through the archway and found themselves in a circular practice hall with a domed ceiling, the floor loamy dirt instead of tile or floorboards. The walls were covered in crawling vines, studded with bright purple flowers, and copses of thin maple trees with white bark and vibrant red leaves ringed the practice area. The center of the room was dominated by another three, this one a towering blue wisteria that reached all the way up to the domed ceiling.

Congregating beneath the tree were the other students and their new instructor.

She was a wizened shorter woman with dark green robes proving stark contrast to her long white hair that had been done up in a braid and coiled around her head like a crown. She had dark skin and warm brown eyes. Xan couldn’t tell how old she was, but knew she had to be ancient. She was by far the oldest instructor they have had to date. And, considering Instructor Wu, that was no mean feat. However, she moved lithely and seemed energetic. She reminded him of his grandmother. The students settled into place and she spoke with a surprisingly deep and rich voice.

“Good morning class. I am instructor Luli. Like you, I was a student here long ago. I remember standing where you are and being terrified.” She smiled, the crows feet at her eyes creasing in response. “I won’t take that from you, but let me stand as a testament that if you practice and apply yourself, you can succeed.” Her smile faded and she looked more serious. “In this cycle you will be learning about wood. You just passed the Water trial, and while you will have a trial for each element, you need to know about mid-terms and the finals.”

The students started whispering. She raised her hands and the students settled down. “You have probably heard rumors and I am here to set you straight. Let’s start with the mid-terms. The test comes at the end of the third cycle and will combine what you have learned in the first three cycles in a challenge.” She held up a hand with three fingers up. “You will enter the challenge as a team of three students. The goal with all of this is to both prove your mastery of the elements and to demonstrate teamwork.” She clasped her hands in front of her. “This is even more important in the Finals. The same team of three will have to complete three challenges. If you succeed, you will continue on to Second year.” Xan had already heard this part from Sifu. “If you fail the trial, you will be sent back to your clans or villages.”

She surveyed the now quiet students. “As there are seventy-eight of you remaining,”—she emphasized that last word, a firm reminder that failure was a very real possibility—“there will be an even twenty-six teams of three. You can form your teams and at the end, I’ll help out as I am able.”

Sue immediately grabbed Cho’s arm. “I’m with Cho on a team.” She declared, staring down any of the other women in the class who might have designs on him. He was, after all, tall, fit, good looking and charismatic.

Cho grabbed Xan’s arm, “And Xan makes our team complete.” His announcement seemed to have startled Sue. She looked at Xan, opened her mouth, narrowed her eyes, then appeared to decide differently and shrugged. It fascinated Xan, seeing the emotions play across her features.

The other students quickly formed teams. Instructor Luli had to break up three teams of two in the end.

“Good, good. Now, over the weeks and months ahead, you must get to know your team. Learn them inside and out, just as you would any technique taught here at this school. Your success will depend on your teammates as much as their success will depend on you.” She moved back to the front. “In the meantime, let’s discuss wood, shall we? The elemental wood has the color of green and is associated with life.” She gestured to the wisteria, “In the creation cycle water leads to wood, just like plants need the rain to grow. In the destruction cycle, wood overcomes earth just as metal overcomes wood.”

“In application, Wood is straight, like an arrow and delivers crushing attacks.” She squatted down into a low stance. “Wood is different from the water that you just learned in that it is a lower stance, knees in and feet closer together providing a rooted back leg and strong trunk. Get into stance and we will start the first exercise, calling wood energy and infusing your Qi.” The students got into a stance and she moved around correcting the people that needed it. “Just like with calling water, wood is a natural flow. Envision your roots digging deep into the soil, your branches stretching up and gathering sunlight. Pull both into your Qi.”

Xan could feel the wood pressing in at him from every side—he could feel the roots of the wisteria below his feet, the branches of the great tree overhead, and pulsing in the vines on the walls surrounding him. It was life, vital and healthy, and it was everywhere. He reached for it with his thoughts just as Instructor Luli interrupted, “Congratulations Wang Sue for being the first to infuse your Qi with wood.” Xan opened his eyes and looked at Sue, who was concentrating on holding a verdant sphere of energy, a joyful expression on her face.

Xan sighed, closed his eyes and started again, determined to not be the last this time. He worked hard the rest of the session and again that night.


The next morning, Sue joined them for breakfast, setting down her bowl with a thunk on the wooden table and noisily dragging a chair over. The nerve-wracking scrape of wood on stone caused Xan and Cho both to shudder. “Um, good morning.” Xan said hesitantly, not sure what she was doing. She’d grown more friendly over the past few weeks, but she never ate with them—definitely a new development here.

Sue sighed and visibly forced a smile to her face. “Good morning. Since we are on the same team, I think we should get the ground rules straight.” Her back was ramrod straight and the smile didn’t make it to her eyes.

Xan looked to see what Cho thought. Cho just shrugged and kept eating. “Okay let’s hear what you have in mind.” Xan said cautiously and leaned back, crossing his arms. This should be good.

“First off, this is my team. I am the leader and you will do what I say, got it?” Sue was looking directly at Xan as she spoke.

“What else?” Xan said noncommittally.

“We will meet before class and again after dinner to practice. I will draw up a lesson plan and we will work to that.” Sue continued.

“Hmmmm,” Xan grunted. Cho kept focus on his breakfast. Xan could see a smile creeping on his face that he hid with his bowl.

“And finally, I will come up with our plan for the tests.” Sue ended looking proud of herself.

“I see,” Xan said. “Anything else? Need me to do your laundry, maybe? Or clean your room? I wouldn’t want mundane tasks to get in the way of our leader strategizing,” he added, voice dripping with sarcasm.

Cho snorted in laughter, then started coughing as he choked on his breakfast.

Sue narrowed her eyes at the two of them and slapped a slim hand down on the table. “You need to take this seriously.” She said vehemently. Honestly, Xan thought she was really pretty when she was angry.

“Look, princess,,” Xan said flatly, “I’m not sure how you thought this was going to go, but we are a team of equals. Equals,” he said again. “You got that? And, since the class is an even number, you are stuck with us. We will respect your opinion and give you an equal voice, but you’re not going to tell us what to do. You can propose, but we all have to agree. On top of that, we already practice at night and we practice more than the rest of the class combined. If you want to practice in the morning before breakfast, knock yourself out,” Xan said firmly, meeting her flinty gaze.

Her gaze was so cold, if she could, she would have shot ice daggers out of her eyes. The frosty glare shifted to Cho. “Well?”

Cho had recovered and set his bowl down. He shrugged and grinned. “Xan is right. If this is going to work, we are equals. You aren’t superior to us and just because your grandfather is the Sifu doesn’t give you special authority.” His smile faded as he leaned towards her. “The guards might defer to you, but we don’t have to. Our abilities will be what gets us through the trials and, like Instructor Luli said, our team cooperation. I sincerely want to succeed, and I want to succeed with you.” Her cheeks flushed, and Xan suspected it was not from anger.

Deflated, she slumped a bit. “You have given me something to think about. We should get to class.”

Xan opened his mouth to object, and Cho nudged him. “Xan, can I take your bowl? We need to get going.” Cho turned his back to Sue and made a face at Xan that Xan thought meant for him to go along with it. So he kept silent.

They made the trek to the Wood building and crowded in around the dominating wisteria with the other students for morning meditation. In short order, Xan and his fellow students fell into their customary retinue, Instructor Luli moving through the ranks with a keen eye and helpful suggestions. Xan focused on his energy and pulling the wood into his Qi. Yesterday the barest trickle of elemental wood came to him. As he adjusted his fingers into the correct posture and corrected his stance, he could feel it flowing more freely. Was it possible he would also attune to wood? Since he’d attuned to water, the adjacent elements to water were wood and metal. Either was a likely candidate, and he had to admit that wood felt strong, right somehow.

Xan felt like he was right on the cusp of harnessing wood essence when the roar of flowing Qi filled his mind, accompanied by a bright emerald flash of light. Another student had just attuned. The third in class so far. Xan sighed. If he wanted to be among that number, he would just have to concentrate harder and work more. Resuming his stance, Xan focused, pulling more elemental wood in his Qi until his arms and legs shook from the effort. The wind roared in his ears from the power flowing through him, but attunement didn’t come.

“You cannot force attunement, Gao Xan. If it is going to happen, it will, on its schedule, not yours.” Luli’s voice was the barest of whispers, almost the rustle of leaves. He let the Qi evaporate, opened his eyes, and was astonished that she was at the front of the class. She winked at him.

“Alright, that is enough for this morning,” Instructor Luli said with a clap. “For lunch, you will be heading to the Cooking school. You will be spending the rest of the day there and I will see you all back here tomorrow.” She smiled at them. “Enjoy lunch.”


The largest eatery in Mogu would have fit in the waiting area of the Restaurant in front of the cooking school. There was a sign at the front, ‘Lunch Service Closed for Private Party.’ The restaurant’s warm wood walls and tables, the wide windows letting in the sunshine, and the white treatments on the tablecloths, chair cushions and curtains made for a homey feel, like Grandmother’s kitchen. The students filed in, each taking a moment to look around. Both Kai Jin and Sue went right in as though they knew this place as well as their own homes. But then, having grown up in the valley, it was likely they had spent a fair amount of time here. Xan wondered if Sue was going to appreciate the food once she had to prepare it. He smiled at the thought of her and Kai Jin peeling potatoes.

A large man came into the eating area. With that physique, Xan thought he looked as if he should be chopping trees or shaping stone. His arms rippled with muscles and his waist showed he liked to taste his own cooking. He wasn’t fat so much as thick. Xan thought dense might be a good description.

He greeted Kai Jin and Sue affectionately, then turned to the rest of the students. “Good afternoon!” He boomed. “I am Chef Moreno and I will be guiding you on the preparation of food, of cooking meals, the selection of ingredients and spices. And, most importantly, how to infuse each dish with love and care.” He shrugged his massive shoulders. “With Qi, you see, cooking is more about preparation than power. A small push with the right spices will do more than a bucket of Qi.” He looked around, a wide grin on his broad face. “Who here is attuned with wood?” Three hands went up. “That’s good. More of you will attune soon, I suspect.” He wiped his hands on his apron. “Cooking is aligned with the element of wood. Wood helps herbs become more vital. A little bit of Qi when the plant is growing helps infuse the herbs to reflect more of what they are capable of. This overlaps with herbalism, but instead of pills and tinctures and potions, our delivery is food.”

A student raised their hand. Chef Moreno pointed at them. “Sir, are there specific foods?”

“I’m glad you asked,” the chef said, slapping his belly. “Not just any food can contain the power we are talking about.” His eyes twinkled with mirth. “Only good food will contain the best power.” He chuckled at his own joke, then realized he was the only one. “Ah well, let me explain. The higher the quality of the ingredients and the quality of the spices, the better the prepared food is able to contain power. We grow herbs and infuse them with elemental wood. We use elemental water to quench their thirst. And when it comes time to cook them, we use elemental fire. Thus the recipes, combined with the ingredients and Qi, can bring about stew that can heal, pastries that remove the need for sleep and roasts that grant speed or strength.”

Another student, a small mousy girl with a thick braid, raised a tentative hand. “Will we be able to do all of that? We haven’t learned fire yet.”

Chef Moreno nodded. “No worries, little mouse. No worries at all—not in my kitchen! The cooking area has been infused with elemental fire as part of its construction.” He waved a beef slab hand through the air. “But you will learn more of that in Pottery.”

Black robed Followers wearing white aprons poured out through a set of batwing doors that lead to the kitchen, bearing platters of steaming food, which they set on the tables for the students. They removed the covers simultaneously, and the aromas of roasted vegetables and succulent meats pummeled the hungry students. Xan’s mouth watered so much he was afraid he was drooling.

“This, now, is an example of what you will be preparing in this class. At the very least, regardless of the trials, you will leave here being able to prepare a decent meal. Please dig in.”

The clatter of plates and knives and large spoons dominated the restaurant as the students ate.

Once again, Sue sat with Xan and Cho, though this time she looked worried. “Don’t stress, I won’t eat it all,” Xan joked with her. She offered him a thin, weak smile. Xan put her out of mind as he took the first bite of roast. Flavor exploded on his tongue. In just a couple of bites, he felt more energized and alert—his mind sharp, his senses sharper. He was amazed. It was almost like a good tasting version of the Elixir he and Master Sung had brewed with the mushrooms.

After the meal was finished and the dishes were whisked away, Chef Moreno led them back to the cooking class area. It was an open courtyard around which were thirty tall wooden tables. Each had three stools around it, and along two of the walls were the stone-ringed fire pits they would be using. On each of the tables was a basket of ingredients, a cutting board, a knife, a mortar with pestle, and a small black cauldron.

“Alright, today will be your first lesson. You’re going to use the ingredients in the basket to make the Soup of Learning. If it is prepared correctly, you will have a better memory of everything you did here today. You need only follow the recipe and use all the ingredients. You have an hour. If you have questions, my follower Diego will be right here.” He pointed at a lanky young man with a blue apron. “Get to it.” He said something softly to Diego, then he went back to the restaurant.

Xan started pulling ingredients out of the basket and putting them in front of the cutting board to be chopped or the mortar to be crushed. He looked up at Sue, who was just standing there looking helpless… or maybe lost. Xan couldn't decide which. Then realization dawned on him. “Have you ever cooked before?” he whispered to her.

Her face flushed and her expression saddened. “No, grandmother does all the cooking,” she replied softly, the words meant for his ears alone. Xan felt like there was more to the story, but decided now wasn’t the time to press.

“It’s alright,” he said with sincerity. “We all learned at some point. Now is just as good a time as any.” His heart almost burst at the gratitude in her eyes. “Besides, Cho can’t cook either.” Xan said with a wicked grin. He grunted when Cho punched him in the arm.

“You never complained when I cooked on the mountain,” Cho said, arranging the vegetables to be chopped.

“Maybe not with my mouth, but was screaming on the inside,” Xan whispered loudly to Sue as he rolled out the recipe.

Their banter seemed to lighten Sue’s mood, Xan thought. “Okay come look at this recipe and it will tell us most of what we need to do. Cooking is an art, but it is also a science—and the most important thing is following the instructions. I’ll walk you both through it.”


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About the author


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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