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The final day of the cycle had come fittingly on the last day in the Month of the Tiger. It was a cool walk as the students headed to the wood building for the trial. Xan was apprehensive about this test—even more so than the others he’d faced so far. Other than the one time practicing projection, they hadn’t really done more of that in the class. Everything was more about fine manipulations, like what they did with the cooking, using elemental wood to infuse plants and ingredients.

They entered the building and at the front of the dirt-floored arena appeared to be a large creature—except this thing was as big as a horse. It was similar to a badger with a wide blunt muzzle covered short red fur, bright yellow eyes that looked like enormous citrine gems, and ears high back on its head. The rest of its body was shrouded in long coarse fur colored in browns and grays. Next to it stood Instructor Luli.

She leaned over, whispering with the creature.

The students settled down and once they were still, Instructor Luli turned her attention to the class. She beamed out at them. “My friends”—she straightened and folded her hands behind her back—“I would like to introduce you to Mo Chan, a spirit of the earth. She has graciously agreed to help with today’s challenge.”

One student raised her hand. “Forgive me Instructor Luli, but how is a spirit different from an elemental?”

Mo Chan stirred at that and issued a series of chirps and clicks. Instructor Luli bowed to Mo Chan and stepped aside. Mo Chan regarded the students with her intense saffron eyes, then she spoke in a high squeaky voice. “Your question has no ill intent, so I will answer it. A spirit is a force of nature made up of elements and the spirit of the Immortals. We each have a responsibility to nature, to the earth, to the oceans and to the sky. We preserve our domain and help those willing to assist us in that preservation.” Mo Chan turned to Instructor Luli and spoke again in her language. Another series of clicks and squeaks.

“You may tell them.” Instructor Luli said, nodding.

Mo Chan looked back at the students. “Elementals are narrower in focus. They only care about what they do and how their element is supporting the grand design. I won’t say elementals are stupid, perhaps it is just that spirits can be smarter.” Mo Chan stopped like that was all there was to explain. Xan was confused but held his tongue.

“For today’s trial, Mo Chan will animate earth into a figure that will attack you. You will use elemental wood Qi to overcome it.”

Once again, a student raised her hand. “If we destroy the Earth figure will that offend Moe Chan.”

Mo Chan shook her massive head side-to-side. “No, they are merely constructs powered by elemental Qi.”

Could anyone create a construct like that, Xan wondered.

“If there are no more questions, let’s begin. Wang Sue, as you were the first to embrace wood, you get to pick your order for taking the test.”

“I’d like to go first, if you please,” Sue said. At the instructor’s nod, she moved to the front of the class, bowed to Mo Chan, then took her stance.

Mo Chan lifted a massive front paw, black claws extended, and scraped twice at the ground—a simple action with no pomp or ceremony to it. Xan shifted to get a better view. A short humanoid figure sprang up out of the ground. Xan thought he saw a lattice of Yellow and blue in the construct. It looked like liquid earth—a mudman. It hesitated just a moment, then began walking towards Sue.

Sue gathered her Qi and infused it with wood, moving her hands in concentric circles before fanning them out at the conjured creature. Four green darts exploded out from Sue’s out thrust palms and impaled the mudman, two in the torso, one in the right leg, and the fourth buried directly in the head. It collapsed like a balloon with a slow leak.

“Excellent. You pass.” Instructor Luli beamed at Sue. “Next student.”

Another student made his way to the front and the process repeated, Mo Chan summoning the strange imp of a creature then unleashing it on the student.

At the half-way mark, the instructor called for a break. So far there had only been one mishap where the student couldn’t pull Qi as she was too terrified of the mudman. And two students had attuned to wood during the exam, which set a small ember of hope burning in Xan’s chest. Maybe he wasn’t a lost cause after all.

#

During the break, Xan headed down the hall to the changing area to splash some water on his face. The small alcove had cubicles for stashing robes and other gear. At the end was a stand upon which rested a pitcher and basin. Xan poured some cool water into the bowl. He took a deep breath and gently splashed water up into his face. The chill and deep breaths helped sooth his anxiety. Patting his face dry with a towel, he met his gaze in the small mirror above the basin. Calmer, he emptied the basin and put the towel in a basket

On the way back, Kai Jin and his cronies were blocking the hall.

“What do we have here?” Kai Jin asked his buddies, sarcasm dripping off his tongue as he stared at Xan.

“Oh, looks like a peasant sweatin,” San Shun mocked, arms crossed in front of his thick chest. The ninth son of some merchant family on the far side of the Bear clan territory, Shun had immediately hooked his wagon to Kai Jin’s train.

“Looks like pig shit in seeker robes.” Lee Chao chortled, straw hair bobbing as he cackled. The other puppy in Kai Jin’s entourage, Chao, had grown up in a village near Mogu. No one understood how he ended up at the school, but his personality made him a perfect lackey for this kind of nonsense.

“Ha ha very funny now let me pass, please,” Xan said unamused. Of all times for the stupid trio to pick on him, now was when he needed it the least. He was already a ball of nerves thanks to the test.

They continued to block Xan. “You in a hurry to fail and get back to your family?” Kai Jin asked, then feigned surprise, “Oops. My mistake, they are all dead.”

The three guffawed, San Shun braying like a donkey at their cleverness.

Xan’s faced flushed with anger. “That isn’t remotely funny, you pompous ass.” He tried to shove his way past, but they formed a wall of flesh and pushed him back again.

“Well, his village is gone. So he will have just as many friends there as he does here. None.” San Shun said, folding his thickly muscled arms across his chest.

“Is he about to cry? I think he is.” Chao pointed out with glee. Kai Jin and San Shun laughed.

“That’s enough!” From behind them, Sue’s voice cut through the laughter like a knife.

The trio let Xan by and Kai Jin whispered to Xan as he passed, “She is only putting up with you because her grandfather told her to.”

Xan forced his way out and seething, he stalked towards Sue. Xan saw Sue give Kai Jin a withering look, then she turned to escort Xan back into the trial arena.

Back in the arena, it was Xan’s turn for the trial. Shuffling, he took his place at the front of the arena and got into stance. That complete asshole, he thought, anger swirling in his chest. I should have punched him in the face.

Like before, Mo Chan conjured a mudman that trundled towards Xan.

“Xan!” Cho yelled as the construct bore in on Xan. That broke Xan out of his turmoil and instinctively he reached for Qi, spun quickly and a cannoned the conjured creature with a bright blue sphere, dissolving it with a shower of blue and yellow sparks. Too late, Xan realized what he had done.

Cackles of laughter pealed out from Kai Jin and his two henchmen. Stricken, Xan looked at Instructor Luli, then turned and ran from the arena.

“Xan!” Sue and Cho both yelled after him.

#

Xan heard a rapid series of footsteps behind him. He pivoted, fists ready to fight. He saw it was Cho and dropped his hands.

“Xan! Come back to the arena.” Cho said to him, concern plain on his face.

“That Immortals-cursed larva!” Xan fumed. Tears of frustration and hopelessness streamed down his face.

Cho held up his hands. “What are you talking about?”

“Right before my trial, Kai Jin and his two testicles stopped me in the hall and gave me a hard time. They thought it was funny that our village was destroyed. I was still angry when I went to the trial,” he said morosely, shoulders slumping in defeat. “I failed. I violated the ninth principle.”

They both intoned in unison, “do not practice when you are upset, because your mind will be disturbed and Qi circulation will not be smooth.”

Xan sighed heavily. “Well, they got what they wanted.”

“We’ll see about that,” Cho replied firmly. Xan looked up at his friend. Cho had an expression of determination. “Come on, follow me.”

Cho turned and marched back to the Wood building. Xan followed in his wake, both curious about what Cho intended to do and resigned that his fate was sealed.

When they entered the arena, Sue hustled over to them. Sorrow painted her countenance. “Xan—” Cho interrupted her “Come with us.” He angled for Instructor Luli who was conferring with Mo Chan. “Instructor Luli? Honorable Moe Chan? May I have a moment?

She glanced at Xan and Sue then settled on Cho. “Cho, I’m glad you brought Xan back.”

“Instructor, please give Xan another chance. He wasn’t right when he took the trial. Some other students purposely riled him up before he took the test,” Cho pleaded. “They were trying to get him to wash out.”

“That is a very serious accusation, saying another student deliberately interfered with a student’s trial. Do you have proof?” she asked.

“No, Instructor Luli” Xan finally answered sadly. “Cho wasn’t there.” Xan felt lower than a slug.

Instructor Luli looked grim, “There isn’t anything I can do with no proof of wrongdoing. I’m afraid Xan’s failure will—” Sue interrupted.

“I saw it happen and I didn’t interfere until it was too late,” Sue admitted reluctantly, dropping her gaze and absently tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “Kai Jin, San Shun and Lee Chao were taunting Xan in the hall, not letting him come back to the arena.” She turned to Xan, “I am so sorry I didn’t intervene earlier, please forgive me.” She looked chagrined.

Clicks and squeaks reminded them Mo Chan was there. “She speaks truth.”

Instructor Luli looked thoughtful, then glanced at Mo Chan. “Honorable Mo Chan, are you willing to create another construct for a retrial?”

Hope surged in Xan. He held his breath.

Mo Chan spoke with a series of clicks and squeaks.

Instructor Luli nodded. “I see.” She looked grimly at Xan. “Are you ready for a retrial? Can you center?”

“I am, I can, I’m ready.” The words tripped out of his mouth in a rush.

Moe Chan squealed. Xan, Cho, and Sue looked anxious.

“She is only laughing.” Instructor said with a smile. “Get set, Gao Xan.”

Xan rushed over to the starting point.

“What is this?” Kai Jin yelled, shoving his way to the front of the class.

Instructor Luli held up a hand with a stern look. “Remember your place, Kai Jin. You and I will have a discussion shortly. For now, quiet.” Her expression softened as she turned to Xan. “Are you prepared?”

Xan nodded, sinking into his wood stance. “I am.” He pulled Qi and infused it with a deep green.

Moe Chan pawed at the ground and a mudman sprang up. The conjured figure paused a brief moment then took off at Xan, moving faster than any others had, little legs quickly eating up the ground.

Xan heard Sue gasp, but he was already moving. He flexed like he had been taught, a massive willow branch in the wind, and threw his wood spike. A blazing line of green as thick as a tree trunk intersected the mudman and blew threw him with a fountain of green and yellow. It had completely blown out the torso of the construct, and the head bounced and rolled until it rested at Kai Jin’s feet before melting away.

The class cheered. Instructor Luli smiled and said, “Pass.” Xan’s heart soared with elation and relief. His head swam at all the people coming up to congratulate him. Off to the side, he could see Instructor Luli ripping Kai Jin a new rear end and Xan could only grin.

#

Xan woke early the next morning, even though it was his rest day. While he got cleaned up, he thought back to the events of the previous day. He shouldn’t have let Kai Jin and the other two rile him up like that. His father had always said, ‘One moment of patience may ward off a great disaster; One moment of impatience may ruin a whole life’ and yesterday really exemplified that. He sighed a heavy sigh. He and his father didn’t always see eye to eye, but he wished his father was around to share his wisdom. “I miss you father,” he whispered.

Xan headed to the cafe. After yesterday, many of the students would sleep in. He had the place to himself except for one gentleman who always seemed to be there whenever Xan visited. “Good morning.” Xan told him. He smiled at Xan and inclined his head in greeting. Xan saw the special today was a fried river fish on rice. “Could I get the special and some hot tea, please?” The woman working the counter gave Xan a teapot and a cup. Xan took them to a table off to the side. By the time he returned, his food was ready. “Thank you.”

With everything that had happened, Xan enjoyed a little alone time, sipping his tea and eating breakfast in peace and solitude—his thoughts returning idly to the day before. He almost failed out of the school. If that happened, he was well and truly over a barrel. With his cooking and herbalism, Xan felt he was in a good place to be able to make a living if he could find some place to take him in. As an apprentice. But that wouldn’t satisfy vengeance, nor restore the honor of Mogu or his family. A polite cough interrupted his reverie.

Xan looked up to see the other patron of the restaurant. “May I join you, Gao Xan?” the dark-haired man asked. His face was plain, but not average. His grey eyes seemed honest and sincere to Xan, but Xan didn’t remember meeting him formally or interacting with him before today.

“Please,” Xan said, standing and offering the open seat at his table. The stranger nodded and sat, placing his teacup on the table. Xan immediately refilled it from his pot. The man smiled, leaned back in his chair, and smoothed the front of his tan jacket. His clothes revealed nothing about him—instead they indicated what he wasn’t. He wasn’t a student. Wearing a jacket and pants, he wasn’t wearing the robes of a guard. Being in his thirties, he didn’t seem in the same age as the instructors who all had gray in their hair. Maybe someone’s parent? But he was here almost every day. Part of the school faculty? “You have me at a disadvantage,” Xan said politely. “Have we met before?”

“My name is Aer and I have taken an interest in you.”

Xan was astonished. “Why me?” he asked. What on earth could have brought Xan to Aer’s attention?

“I have seen you around and have heard of some of your story from Sifu. I wanted to come over here and see how you were doing? It is no mean feat to go from villager and son of one on the Path of Peace to a practitioner of martial magic.” Aer took a drink of tea, watching Xan. Gauging his reactions, or so it seemed to Xan.

“The Sifu must have told you a lot.” Xan wondered what this guy’s deal was. “I’m doing okay. Yesterday was a bit rough, but it is important to learn from yesterday to—”

“Prevent tomorrow.” Aer finished the saying. “Your father used to say that a lot when he was young.”

Xan’s eye went wide. “You knew my father?” He was astounded.

Aer smiled. “I knew him when he had just started on the path of peace. We both attended the same monastery and took the pilgrimage to the Temple of the Five Immortals.”

“I didn’t know that he went to a monastery.” Sadness welled up in Xan. “I guess there is a lot I’ll never know.”

Aer smiled sympathetically. “I didn’t intend to bring up painful memories.”

Xan narrowed his eyes. “What is your intention then?” he asked.

“I wanted to let you know that a single failure or a struggle in a trial doesn’t have to define you. You won’t be perfect, and if you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough. The key is exactly what your father used to say about learning from yesterday. And in your case, it literally was yesterday.” His eyes took on a faraway look. “There once was a time I let a failure define me,” He muttered, finally focusing back on Xan. “And it cost me my relationship with your father. Don’t let it define you.” He slid his chair back and stood up. “I’ll leave you with your peace. Trust me when I say that with what’s coming up in your training, the only easy day will be yesterday.” He winked at Xan and left.

A myriad of emotions overwhelmed Xan. He was excited to meet someone who knew his father. He missed his family. He was also intrigued at the prospect that people were talking about him and he worried about the upcoming midterms at the end of the third cycle. Xan sipped his tea and thought on it.

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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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