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Every structure associated with the school, that Xan had seen so far on this sprawling campus spread across the town, was made of the same gray stone as the tower. As Xan approached the training facility, it was apparent this building was different. The structure was made entirely of metal. From the gleaming copper tiled roof to the dark steel walls, this building hadn’t been built. It had been crafted. Stepping close, Xan couldn’t see seams in the walls or any sign of fasteners, screws or rivets, holding the place together. It appeared to be one piece. Xan marveled at the construction, “How is this possible?” He said to himself.

“Magic.” Sue said softly, causing Xan to jump. Lost in his thoughts, he forgot they were right behind him. She giggled and pointed to the entrance. The brass doors stood partially open, so Xan pushed on the right half. It swung back effortlessly, making the soft metal on metal sound a pair of scissors made when you cut, as it glided open.

They entered the hall and a tang was in the air from the morning dew evaporating from the different metals. At the front area stood Aer, the man from the cafe. Xan approached him and asked, “What are you doing here?”

Aer offered Xan a knowing smile. “I’m your metal instructor,” he said in a soft voice. “Now, go take your place so the class can start.” Aer winked at Xan’s astonishment. Xan headed to his place in the arena.

“What was that about?” Cho whispered to him.

“I met him in the cafe yesterday. I had no idea he was our next instructor,” Xan responded.

“Okay, let’s begin. I am Aer and I will be teaching you metal. You have been through two cycles now, focusing on the intricacies of those individual elements exclusively. With what we are going to be doing in this cycle, you will be learning to incorporate the elements you have already learned so that you can integrate them into a cohesive flow by the fifth cycle.” He moved with a casual grace around the front of the class as he spoke, his back straight and hands clasped behind his back.

“Too many instructors focus on the destructive cycle and minimise the importance of the creation aspect, which is just as important in martial magic. The natural flow from one element to the next, from one strike to the next, from one concept to the next. Just because water is the destructor of fire, doesn’t mean you can’t use metal against a fire instead,” he said. “When you get into animal forms, you will see the natural progression and blending of the elements as part of your fighting. For now, it is important to feel how they flow into each other. Fighting doesn’t follow a formula, and neither should you.” He paused and held up a finger. “Unless it is for crafting.” He smiled and a few students chuckled at his jest. Xan was beginning to really like this instructor’s style. “I have an open question policy. Feel free to ask as we go. If you have a question, others might as well.”

“Now let’s talk about the stance you will be using in metal. I want you to start with your feet together. Shift your left foot so it is at a forty-five degree angle. Step forward with the right foot, about two-and-a-half foot-lengths. Your front foot should tilt inward just a bit, and the front knee needs to be bent to provide support. Your weight should be about forty percent in the front leg and sixty percent on the back leg. This gives the whole stance centered stability. Now look at your back leg. Your back knee should be over the back toe with both knee and toe facing the same direction. If you bend the knee too far over the toe, you weaken your stance and have a chance to hurt your knee.” He demonstrated the stance.

“Go ahead and take the stance. Shift your weight forward and settle back,” Aer said.

As Instructor Aer moved around, Xan worked on his stance. He could feel the stability with having his weight back. Aer was next to Xan, “shift your front foot forward a bit. That puts less stress on your knee.” Xan shifted and immediately felt more comfortable.

Aer headed back to the front of the group. “Now, your hands will be open with palms towards the opponent, thumb out and fingers curled slightly. This is called ‘The Tiger’s mouth.’ Both hands will form a triangle with the fingertips and thumbs together up in front of your face. Relax and let the hands fall. Palms rotating to face up and resting blow your navel like you are holding a big ball against your belly. This is the San Ti, the three power posture.

“Of all the elements, metal is the easiest to reach for as it is right in front of you. Close your eyes. You should feel metal all around you. When you breathe in, your lungs are pulling metal. Within you, your lungs are the source of your metal. Now, elemental metal is not metal metal per se. It is more than that, and also that. Don’t think like you are reaching for an object made from metal. Since elemental metal surrounds you, you are pulling the essence from everywhere, not from one specific object.”

“Breathe and reach out with your awareness. Feel the white that is metal flow into you as you breathe in. Once you have the awareness, fill a sphere of Qi with metallic essence.”

Xan closed his eyes and opened himself up to metal, reaching his senses out to the various objects in the room. He felt water and wood waiting for him to pull them, but they were muted, distant things—a shadow seen from the corner of your eye. Xan pushed them away, settled his thoughts and imagined he was in a pool of bubbling hot metal, washing around him like warm water. Xan took in a deep breath from that pool of metal. He felt his awareness spread out and slowly formed his hands to make a ball. Despite Instructor Aer’s insistence that metal was the easiest element to draw from, the power was elusive to Xan. It felt like trying to grab smoke.

Instructor Aer broke the silence suddenly. “Congratulations to Cho for being the first to fill your sphere with metal.” Xan’s eyes fluttered open and he looked at his friend next to him holding a white orb of metal infused Qi. Xan whispered, “Good going!” On the other side of Cho, Xan could see the scowl on Kai Jins face. Seeing the displeasure on Jin’s face at Cho’s success made Xan happy, almost as happy as the pleasure he felt over his friend’s success. He grinned, then went back to filling his orb.

After what seemed like an eternity, the class was dismissed. Xan was frustrated at his lack of progress but determined to get it done. Over half of the students had filled their orbs, but Xan hadn’t even come close. Somber, he headed back with the group, trailing behind Cho and Sue, lost in his own thoughts.

True, he’d excelled at water, but they’d already gone through wood, and he hadn’t attuned to it. That meant he had to attune to metal as there are only Water-Wood and Water-Metal practitioners. Xan was confident if he worked hard, he would attune quickly and this would all be behind him. It was possible that metal would come more naturally in time, but right now it felt like he was actively opposed to metal.

“You okay?” Cho asked, glancing over one shoulder at Xan.

“Channeling metal is very frustrating.” Xan replied. He tried not to be sullen, but he was feeling very frustrated. Cho made the metal thing look easy.

“Hey don’t sweat it too much,” Cho said with an encouraging nod. “You’ll get it, eventually. Plus, we can practice it tonight.”

Xan sighed, “Yeah, alright.”
After a quick dinner of steamed rice covered with stringy peas and a thick duck sauce, they headed to their practice area. Naturally, the others were already in there. Of the eight students in their late study-group, Xan was the only one who hadn’t pulled metal. They started with the metal San Ti. Xan thought he could see the metal, but it was like holding water in the hand—it just flowed around his attempts to pull it.

They worked through the other areas where Xan was more than capable and he was glad for it. He really wanted to end the night on a positive note. Xan still hadn’t manifested a metal filled Qi sphere by the time they finished, but he was resolved that tomorrow would be the day he would succeed.

#

Instructor Aer held his hands up to get everyone’s attention. “Okay. I am sure the rest of you will be able to pull metal soon.” His eyes quickly darted to Xan. Did Xan see worry there? Maybe it was just a trick of his imagination. “For this next activity, we will learn blocks and strikes. First, we will learn a single arm strike. Second, we will learn a single arm block. Then, we will put them both together.” His face looked earnest.

“Instructor Aer? That isn’t how the other instructors showed us blocks and strikes in the other elements.” San Shun said, his voice gruff and blunt as a stone. He stood close to Kai Jin with his arms crossed.

Instructor Aer nodded his head. “Well, that is exactly why different instructors teach the different disciplines. Each instructor has a slightly different way of teaching. I learned my technique at the Jiayuguan Fortress School of Magic on the far side of the Tiger Clan’s territory.” That caused a stir with the students in the class. So far, all of their instructors had come from the Valley of the Moon.

“All right. For metal get in stance. Tiger’s Mouth. The strike itself looks like you are pushing down. You are pushing both down and forward. This generates the power in the motion. Here it is generated. The hand comes up your center-line with the palm up. It pushes forward and down as you step into your opponent. The hand motion and step both end at the same instant.”

“Isn’t that incredibly weak? Why would you do a one armed technique?” This time it was Kai Jin’s other crony, Lee Chao. Xan was amazed they would openly challenge an instructor. He knew Instructor Aer was young and friendly, more like a buddy than any other instructor so far, but still.

“First, it breaks down the technique into smaller pieces so you can focus on it and second, come on up here and I’ll show you just how weak it is. You too, San Shun.” He waited until both students came up. Then told them, “Attack me, punches only,” he told them placidly, not at all concerned that he was outnumbered. “Together. Go!”

Both students didn’t hesitate and started throwing punches. Instructor Aer blocked each of them with one arm. He was able to keep both students in check by blocking everything they could throw with two arms. Xan could see Instructor Aer do something, though it was hard to tell what. He shimmered with a halo of white light and his blocks became quicker and more forceful, slapping the punches coming at him with just a little more force than before. Another ripple of white flowed up and he blocked a punch then immediately riposted each of the students with a strike—the very same strike he was just teaching, which knocked both students back and down to the ground.

“Do you have any more questions about why one arm?” Instructor Aer asked them, raising a telling eyebrow.

They both got up and shook their heads negative, slinking back to their places with their heads down.

“Alright, get back into place and practice the strike.”

After that display, the students eagerly started practicing the technique. Once he seemed satisfied with everyone’s progress, Aer called a stop. “Go ahead and take a break. When you come back, we will learn the block.”

Xan caught Cho’s attention and pointed to the instructor. They approached him. “Instructor Aer? When you were fighting, it looked like you shimmered with metal energy.” Xan asked.

He cocked his head to the side. “You mean the Jin?” he asked.

Xan had no idea what that was. He glanced to Cho, who shook his head. His expression was that he didn’t know either. “I’m sorry, Instructor. But, what is Jin?”

Instructor Aer looked incredulous, mouth hanging open for a moment, “You’ve made it two cycles and they haven’t explained Jin?” he took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling. Xan assumed he was trying to figure out how to explain. Instructor Aer let his breath out slowly and focused on Xan. “Okay, go take your break and I’ll explain it when the class comes back.” He shooed them away with one hand, looking rather frazzled.

“Thank you, Instructor.” Xan said with a half bow and he turned to head out with Cho.

After a quarter hour, all the students were back in the training area. Instructor Aer started.

“It was brought to my attention that you have not been trained in the art or knowledge of Jin. Let me ask, who here even knows what Jin is? And, I’m not talking about Kai Jin.” He looked around. Of the seventy-eight students, only Kai Jin and Sue had raised their hands. Instructor Aer looked even more disgruntled than before. “All right. Nothing to do but teach you what Jin is and how it works. You will need to know this. Jin is the power that comes from muscles that have been energized with Qi. Muscles that have been empowered this way cause the martial magic practitioner to be stronger, faster and allow us to do things for longer than would normally be possible.” He looked thoughtfully at the students. “How do you do it? You are asking?”

“Well, it starts by getting into a stance—any stance is permissible. You pull energy just like when you form a sphere of Qi. Instead of pulling the energy into the ball, however, you pick where in your body you want to enhance.” He held up his hands. “Now, before you go and try it, I really suggest you try it with the barest of trickles of Qi. Start small and work your way up. I have seen a student pull too much Qi and burn themselves out. And I mean that in the literal sense. That former student can’t feel Qi and their family has to feed them and change them when they soil themselves.”

That certainly got everyone’s attention, and murmurs from the students broke out.

“Alright settle down. Start slow and you won’t have a problem. Get in stance. Again, any stance—it doesn’t have to be metal. In truth, use whatever stance you are most comfortable pulling elemental power in.” Xan instinctively adopted a water stance. “Close your eyes and pull the barest of Qi into your legs,” Aer instructed.

The class concentrated. One-by-one, the students were able to energize their legs. Xan grinned at Cho. He felt amazing.

“All right. Feels good, doesn’t it? Now that you can do that, we need to talk about the dangers. It takes something out of you when you energize. Short bursts aren’t so bad. But it is just like running. You run fifty feet, no big deal. You run ten miles the first day without working up to it, you won’t be able to walk tomorrow. If you energize for too long, you will eat your internal Qi. No matter how much you pull from the outside, a portion always comes from you. Let’s do it one more time.”

Xan closed his eyes and reached deep into his well for the black water essence and filled his legs. His legs felt as if they were packed full with ants buzzing with energy and he felt as if he could jump a mile. Instructor Aer stopped next to Xan and looked quizzically at him.

“Am I doing something wrong?” Xan asked.

“No, I just haven’t seen that style of water enervation in a long time.” Aer looked at Xan thoughtfully, then said, “Keep it up and let me know what you get from it.” The instructor moved on until he had worked with each of the students.

Back at the head of the class, he clapped his hands twice. “All right. That will be enough for today. For your own sake, only practice Jin in the presence of another practitioner. You are dismissed.”

Xan was excited during the walk back. “How did it feel? I used water and I feel like I slept all night and am ready to start my day, rested and refreshed, despite the fact we’ve been working hard. What did you use?” Xan could tell Cho was amused. “What? I like learning things I can actually do.”

Cho just shook his head as they walked. “You’re like a kid with a new candy.”

“We should try the different Qi at practice tonight. See what it does.” Xan said excitedly.

“All right. But let’s check with Sue first,” Cho cautioned.

“Done!” Xan said. He looked up ahead. “Oh! There she is. I’ll go talk with her.” Xan took off at a trot.

#

The next morning in class, Instructor Aer called for a break. “Xan, can you stay for a moment?” He asked.

Xan knew what this is about, and the dread sat in his stomach like a lead ball. Reluctantly, he headed up to the front of the class. “Is this because I am the last person yet to fill a sphere with metal?” Xan asked.

“Yes and no,” Instructor Aer replied. “But mostly, I wanted to see how you’re doing?” His gray eyes looked concerned. “You’re a capable student and hard worker—you’ve shown that throughout your time here. So why do you think you’re having such a difficult time conjuring metal?”

Xan sighed, shoulders dropping. “I don’t know. The metal… It just seems like it fights me every time I try to channel it. I attuned to water pretty quickly and since I didn’t attune to wood, I have to be metal, yeah? But, then why is this so hard?” Xan was sounding whiny to his own ears. He sighed again.

“Come over to the bench and sit for a spell,” Instructor Aer said calmly, heading for a stout stone bench. “Let’s talk.” He settled onto the bench with a groan, remaining silent until Xan had joined him. “Attunement isn’t so clean cut as you might think. It’s not transactional, the way some people seem to think—perform action A to get result B. Rather, it is more like a temperamental cat. Sometimes it wants to come play; sometimes it can be coaxed. But most of the time it wants nothing to do with you until it wants to deal with you.” He peered at Xan. “Am I making sense?”

“Yeah,” Xan said morosely. “What you’re saying is that I can’t just force it by practice and that if it happens at all, it will happen in its own time.” He looked the instructor directly in the eyes. “That still doesn’t answer why am I having such a difficult time with metal, though. Even if I don’t attune, surely I should be able to at least conjure a simple metal orb by now.”

“Metal is more finicky,” Instructor Aer said with a lopsided grin. “I know that doesn’t help but look at it this way, with Water you grab it. With Wood, you pull it. Metal is like blowing a cotton puff in the direction you want it to go. You can’t force it. And I can see you are frustrated, so just try it my way after break, hmm?” He smiled at Xan, his eyes wrinkling at the corners.

Blowing a cotton puff? So gentle. “All right. I’ll go easy and see what happens.” Xan said. “Thank you, Instructor.”

Xan left to find Cho. Instructor Aer had altered his perspective and he wanted to validate something with Cho.

Xan found Cho just outside the building chatting with a couple of the students. He touched him on the shoulder to get his attention, “Can I talk with you a moment?” Xan asked.

Cho nodded, excused himself and headed after Xan. “What’s up?” Cho asked. “You okay?”

Xan nodded, choosing his words, then looked up at Cho, “Instructor Aer talked with me about pulling metal.” He explained what Aer had told him.

Cho nodded, “I can see that. Did it work for you?” he asked.

“I haven’t tried. It is just so different from what I’ve done with either water or wood.” Xan explained.

“Let me know how it goes,” Cho said encouragingly. “We should get back inside.”

After the break, Instructor Aer had them get back into their customary metal stances.

“You have learned the strike, and we had to detour to Jin,” Aer said, pacing slowly, his robes whisking around his feet. “Now you are going to practice blocks. Watch as I do it.” He dropped into a metal stance and demonstrated a complicated block form—his front hand grabbing the opponent’s wrist and pulling them back.

“Break into pairs and try it slowly. One punches, the other blocks. I will be walking around. Begin!” Once more, he started circulating around the room, watching each pair practice in turn.

This time Xan paired with Li Mei. In the evening practice sessions, Xan liked working with her. They had a comfortable rhythm and trust in each other’s capabilities. They start off slowly and by the time Instructor Aer made it to them, they were able to block both sides and at a decent pace. He nodded at the pair, then moved on. Once he had seen all the pairs, Aer called for a switch of partners. This continued through several sets of partners until the lunch break. Xan felt pretty comfortable with the technique and was anxious to try the metal Qi exercise.

Xan ate a quick lunch so he could return and try what the instructor suggested for filling his sphere. Once he was in the practice arena, Xan found he was the first one back and had the place to himself. Xan cleared his mind and opened his awareness to the metal. He tried to mentally blow the metal to him. That did absolutely nothing. Then Xan remembered the thing about it being like a cat. While that was specifically for attunement, what if Xan did something like that with metal? He purged his thoughts and made himself available. An open lap for metal to come sit on. Metal poured into Xan and his sphere glowed white. Elation rippled through him. Smiling, Xan opened up his eyes to find Instructor Aer and a few others from his class watching on the side. Cho, with a huge grin plastered across his face, raised up a fist in quiet celebration.

Aer nodded to him. Xan filled another sphere. He felt that now he had found the trick to pull metal, he was confident enough that he could do it for the exam.

With exuberance coursing through him, the rest of the block and strike drills passed in a blur for Xan and in a flash the afternoon was over and they were dismissed for the evening meal.

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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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