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The class was a bit restless during the next day’s morning meditation. It took some admonishment from Instructor Luli to get them to settle down. Xan was able to get the wood to flow fairly easily. He focused on concentrating on his ball of Qi. He worked to condense it, building the power in it yet trying to get it ever smaller. He heard the leafy whisper in his ear, “You pass.” Xan was so surprised, he let his ball evaporate away. He looked around and saw Instructor Luli whispering at another student.

Next to him, Sue suddenly erupted in verdant energy, a cry escaping her lips corresponding with a roar in Xan’s mind from the whirlwind of Qi. Tendrils of green roped around her like vines, pulling her limbs out as they wrapped around her. With a whoosh and pop, the energy disappeared into her. She had attuned to wood. Xan was happy for her, but also bitter that he hadn’t attuned.

It only took a few minutes longer for all the students to pass the exam. By Xan’s accounting, Sue was the thirtieth student that attuned to wood. He figured if each student was going to attune to two of the five elements, and there were seventy-eight students left, that roughly thirty of them were going to attune in each class cycle. Wood isn’t over yet.

Luli clapped her hands twice. This brought everyone to attention. “You all did very well. Now that you have the foundation, we are going to learn how to apply wood to martial magic. We will discuss strikes. If I could have Wang Sue join me up here.” Excitedly, Sue moved up to the front of the class. “Excellent, now take your wood stance.” Sue moved into the low stance, feet close, knees in, closing the groin area. She raised her hands in a generic fighting stance.

“Good, now make a fist with the front hand, fist vertical, wrist slightly down bent. Your other hand will be closed at your navel. When you punch, the hand at your navel will rotate out. This is like the tree growing into a space. As you push Qi into the movement, it will provide Pung, the penetrating force. Your returning hand blocks downward as it returns to your navel.” Instructor Luli demonstrated the motion a couple times. Then she got into a stance opposite of Sue and threw a slow punch, which Sue blocked before throwing a return punch of her own. Luli blocked and offered a flowing counter-strike; they exchanged punches, slowly at first, then with increasing speed. Finally, once Sue was covered in sweat and shaking from the rapid-fire cycle of strikes, Instructor Luli called a stop.

She straightened and bowed to Sue. “Impressively done, Wang Sue. You honor your grandfather.” Then, to the rest of the class, “I want you to pair up and practice that bit. Once we have the fundamentals of that exchange down, we will try something a little different.” She said.

As usual, Xan paired up with Cho and they began the punch and block cycle. It was surprisingly hard work and after a minute, they switched sides. Still, they both were feeling pretty comfortable with the exercise before too long—though they never manage to hit the same stride or speed Sue and Instructor Luli had. Two claps sounded the end of the round.

Xan and Cho bowed to each other and turned to the front.

Next to Instructor Luli were two students in the black robes. Xan hadn’t seen them come into the school, focused as he had been on the exercise. “These two followers have graciously agreed to come and work with you on earth. In the destruction cycle, wood overcomes earth, just as the root effortlessly carves its way through the dirt beneath your feet. You are going to work on attacking and blocking with wood as they use earth techniques. Form two lines.”

Xan ended up at the front of the left line. He approached the student. “I’m Xan,” he said with a bow.

The student returned the bow, “I’m Luna.” She said. She was fairly tall and could have been Cho’s sister. She took an unfamiliar stance. “Are you ready?” She asked, quirking an eyebrow which made Xan think he was not, in fact, ready at all.

Still, Xan took his wood stance, low and compact, preparing his core and focusing his thoughts and intentions. “Here we go,” Xan said, despite his reservations.

He threw a punch, turning the fist over and driving with both shoulder and hips. She easily blocked and returned a viper-fast cross body punch at Xan’s chest that knocked him down. Didn’t see that coming, he thought, regaining his feet.

“You ready?” She asked, her smile took some of the sting out.

Concentrating, he threw the earth technique. Once again, she blocked and responded with the fast punch. This time, his return fist pushed it down. He counter-punched and she punch-blocked with another cross-body move. They worked through the exchange a few more times.

“Hey, good job. Usually, I have to knock people down a few times before they figure it out. Nice.” Luna grinned at him, then called out, “Next!” Xan bowed and went to the back of the other line.

Once the students went through both lines, Instructor Luli called a halt. “You did very well. Now for this next bit we are going to practice projecting wood at an Earth Qi defense.” There was a bit of tittering as students were worried abut projecting Qi at each other. “Calm down, Calm down. We aren't going to be throwing Qi at each other. I have done this a time or two before. Our two helpers will stand up an earth element target away from themselves and you will project wood at the target.”

Xan was at the front of the class with Luna again. She smiled at him, “You ready?” she asked. At his nod, she modified her squatting stance and made angular gestures with her hands. A square block of Yellow energy rose up out of the ground.

Xan got into his wood stance, adjusted his hands and conjured a verdant sphere. He moved around like they did when projecting water and… nothing happened. His ball of energy was stuck on him like a needy child. Instructor Luli was next to him in an eye-blink.

“Think of it more like a branch throwing a needle and less like swirling water.” She got into stance, brought forth a green orb of Qi and whipped her hands. The ball stretched into a needle as it flew to the barrier and shattered the yellow block. “You try.”

Xan repeated the conjuration, then mimicking her toss, he flicked his wrists and his wood shard flew into the earth barrier.

“Excellent. Next!” Instructor Luli smilingly dismissed him to the other line.

#

The rest of the week passed where the class focus was on blocks and strikes. They learned a front leg block as a counter to a front kick as well as the front kick itself. Another five students attuned to wood during the exercises. Xan was becoming disheartened at attuning to wood. The last day of the week, after morning meditation, Instructor Luli called them into two lines. “Today you will go through the attack and defense exam. Pairs of you will come up and demonstrate the blocks and strikes. I will call for offence or defense and you will need to show me you have skill with the wood. You may use punches or kicks.”

Xan was surprised. He thought he would have more time. He glanced to the side, Cho and Sue seemed eager for the exam. The students at the front of the line matched up.

“Mary offense!” Instructor Luli called and Mary launched a series of punches and kicks at her opponent. Her last punch scored a hit to the center of the other student’s chest, causing him to stagger back a couple of steps.

“Mary, defense!” and the other student moved like the wind, unleashing a similar set of strikes and kicks.

Mary blocked them all and made it look easy.

“Very good, both of you. You pass. Next pair.” The Instructor said.

All too soon, it was Xan’s turn. He had noticed when the lined formed, that Kai Jin had purposely set up opposite him, which was likely a bad sign. With a sneer of contempt, he stepped up to face Xan.

“Xan, Offense!” Instructor Luli called. Xan launched into the familiar martial forms, alternating between kicks and punches. Kai Jin easily blocked everything that Xan could muster, as if Xan were moving in slow motion, or a child, or both. After thirty seconds, Xan was breathing heavily while Kai Jin simply looked bored.

“Xan, defense!”

Now it was Kai Jin’s turn. His grin turned wicked. Blindingly fast, he threw a punch at Xan’s face. Xan barely got his hand up to block. A kick slammed into his left thigh with a meaty slap, sending a bright lance of pain shooting through his leg. Sidestepping and dropping low, Xan blocked the follow up punch, but the next punch caught him in the ribs. Xan blocked the three savage kicks with leg blocks, but each punished Xan’s shins in the process. It seemed like an agonizing, brutal eternity when Instructor Luli finally called out.

“That’s good. You both pass. Next!”

Xan limped back to his place in line. Cho clapped him on the shoulder and offered him a reassuring grin before shooting a dirty look in Kai Jin’s direction. Xan looked across the way to where Jin was gloating with his cronies. He had done it on purpose, just because he could. Xan promised himself he would do better next time.

#

“You have fifteen minutes.” Chef Moreno shouted in the workspace.

Students frantically tried to get their concoctions together and doing it in what Xan thought was a ridiculously short period of time. The cooking challenge was to make a soup or stew in whatever style, using any ingredients they could find in the pantry or the market. He was making a roasted mushroom soup using some of the mushrooms from his harvest and some he found at the market.

This particular recipe called for roasting the mushrooms with garlic, oil and thyme before chopping and putting into the soup pot. When they made it at home, his mom would let him caramelize the onions and garlic in butter. He didn’t realize how long it took to put it all together. Growing up, the cooking seemed to have passed so quickly. He moved the pot away from the heat of the fire so only the side of the pot was heated. He stirred to keep the soup from burning. Wine, flour, chicken stock and bay leaves were simmering away. He dipped a tasting spoon into the mixture, blew on it and tasted it. The soup was a little sweet from the caramelized onions, so he added a little more of the dry wine, whisking as he poured. Xan channeled the barest whisper of wood Qi into the mixture as he stirred. Another tasting spoon showed Xan the flavor was balanced.

“Five more minutes. Five Minutes.” Chef called out.

Taking a moment amidst the clank and clatter of pots and dishes, Xan wiped his forehead with his sleeve and pulled the kettle off completely and carried it to his workstation. A loud yell and curses signaled one of the students had dropped a ladle of soup on the floor. Ignoring the commotion, Xan had set up a serving bowl and a small pitcher. he grabbed a set of oven mitts, gripped the sides of his cauldron, and poured the soup into the large bowl. The savory aroma of the garlic and mushrooms combined with a sweet tang of the cream. This recipe was supposed to feed eight. Done pouring, he set the pot aside and grabbed the pitcher of cream and a large spoon. He poured the cream in, stirring the mixture as he poured.

Xan grabbed a plate of bread he had sliced and toasted. Thankfully, he didn’t have to bake that too.

“Two minutes.” Chef Called out. “You had better be plating!”

Xan set a plate with a bowl out in front, put two pieces of bread on the plate, then grabbed the ladle. He put a towel over the large serving bowl and waited. He watched people frantically trying to finish their dish or set plates. One girl turned too quickly and her bowl flew off the plate to dump all down the front of her table mate.

“Time!” Chef yelled. “Stop what you are doing and step to your table.”

Cho and Sue had finished their dishes. Not everyone was so prepared.

The chef moved from table to table, tasting dishes and listening to their description. When he got to Xan’s table, Xan pulled the towel off and ladled a serving into the bowl on the plate.

Chef nodded his head appreciatively. “Good move, keeping the soup in the main bowl covered. It keeps it warm until time to serve. Tell me what you have here.” Chef Moreno picked up a spoon and gently sipped the soup.

“I have prepared a roasted mushroom soup using mushrooms from Mogu Village and some that I was able to get in the market. The base is chicken broth with herbs and garlic with a bit of cream added in at the end. I used elementally grown Thyme from the pantry here and infused elemental wood during the final simmer.”

“Well done. Good earthy flavor and a wonderful creamy texture. While I can feel the vitality in the dish, I think you could have used another spice to greater effect.” Chef nodded, then turned to Sue.

Sue was finished, but was visibly a wreck. She looked as if she had run a marathon carrying a pregnant yak and a barrel of flour. She had mimicked Xan and had covered her stew with a towel. When she removed it to serve the chef, a savory and spicy aroma permeated the area. Xan felt a little refreshed just smelling it.

“Tell me what you have here,” Chef said, reveling in the aroma of the stew.

“Well, Chef, I have prepared a braised rabbit stew with parsnips, potatoes, bok choy and carrots. I used elemental infused water to boil everything for making a vegetable stock, then I wood infused the ingredients as I prepared them to go into the pot. I found Tien Tsin peppers in the pantry and they added the spice you should detect. Garlic, rosemary and onion round out the flavors.”

Chef gingerly put a spoon of the stew into his mouth. He closed his eyes as he chewed and made “mmmm” sounds. When he finished, he took another large spoonful. Once he had chewed that mouthful, he looked at Sue. “Masterful. This is the best dish I have tasted from a first-year in a long while. I would like you to please consider letting me add it to the restaurant’s menu.” He looked at her earnestly.

Sue almost fainted from the attention from the chef. Xan caught her before she swooned.

“Thank you chef” she said weakly.

Chef reached over to Xan’s station and took a piece of bread and held firmly onto the bowl of Sue’s stew. “You should have a bowl of your stew. It will do you good.” Chef smiled at her and moved on to the next station with his stolen prize.

Xan pulled out a stool for Sue while Cho explained his dish.

“You did great.” Xan said to her quietly. He dished up a bowl of stew for her and handed her a spoon. She dug in, looking better with each spoonful. “Do you mind?” he pointed at her serving bowl. She nodded, mouth full of the savory stew. Xan ladled out a portion, grabbed another spoon and dipped it into the bowl. The aromas made his mouth water and he took a big bite.

Immediately, he felt grounded, less anxious, and there was no other way to explain the feeling but loved. He felt wonderful—like a sunny day wrapped in a grandmothers hug while listening to your favorite story. “Wow!” Xan said to her.

Sue blushed and set her spoon in a now empty bowl. “I suppose I need to thank you.” She said begrudgingly. “If it weren't for your help in this class, I never would have been able to pass.”

Xan looked her in the eyes. “It’s what friends, teammates do for each other.” He smiled.

Once again, she blushed, then looked to see where Chef was in the evaluations.

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A note from MarkStallings

I did the cooking scene to show the growth of Sue. Did I hit the mark?


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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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