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“Begin!”

A fist blasted into Xan’s left cheek. He barely had time to go with it to rob it of its full force. He hit the retreating arm with a wood empowered fist, causing Kai Jin to yelp as he connected with the nerve on the wrist bone. His triumph was brief and Kai Jin drove a brutal Tiger’s Mouth strike into the middle of his chest, the open palm snapping as it hit. Xan staggered back a couple of steps and managed to sweep his leg up to divert the follow-on kick by tapping it just a bit at the thigh.

“Excellent block, Xan.” Instructor Aer said.

“That was new, village-boy. Where did you learn that?” Kai Jin asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

Xan ignored him, trying to flow metal into his offense. It was grabbing sand with a fork. His form felt flat as he moved forward to attack. Jin had enervated his own flow and easily blocked Xan’s strike, countering with a drilling fist. Almost without thought, Xan channeled water, sinuously shifting low and to the right, maneuvering out of Jin’s path.

“Metal!” Instructor Aer barked.

Jin circle stepped and threw a Tiger’s Mouth directly at Xan’s throat. In a panic, Xan flowed his hands up in a ripple motion, using the backs of his wrists to deflect both of Jin’s attacks. Once more, Xan had used water.

“That’s pretty, now use Metal!” Instructor Aer barked.

Kai Jin pivoted on his back leg and snapped a front kick to Xan’s thigh faster than he could block. Xan grunted in pain as he absorbed the blow then countered by attempting to channel metal and throwing the Tiger’s Mouth at Jin. Jin smiled viciously, did a double metal hand push down and effortlessly transitioned into another metal powered Tiger’s Mouth straight to Xan’s chest. Xan heard cartilage pop in his sternum and he was pushed violently backwards. Xan winced at the pain but deftly managed to get his hands up in time to parry the finishing punch, the effort causing his forearms to go numb from the impact.

“Alright that’s good.” Instructor Aer said, clapping sharply to call an end to the round. He looked at Jin, “Excellent metal work there Jin.” He turned, “Xan, you can’t keep leaning on water to get you out of trouble in the metal cycle. You need to work on that.” He looked into the group of students watching. “Let Xan be an example: no matter your primary strength, you need at least a fundamental grasp on every elemental form if you are going to advance along the path of Martial Magic. This is precisely the reason why every student must cycle through every element—because without all five, there is no balance. A wagon wheel with a broken spoke.” He let his words hang heavy in the air for a long moment, before nodding. “Next pair!”

Xan slipped over to stand with Cho. He rubbed at his chest. It was really starting to hurt. “Well, that could have gone better,” he mumbled.

Cho didn’t take his eyes off the next match. “Yeah, he pretty much spanked you like that time your mom caught you in the honey.”

Xan winced at that memory. “It wasn’t that bad… was it?” Xan looked to Sue for help. She just shook her head sadly.

At the end of class, Xan just wanted to lie down his chest hurt too much. “I probably need to go get some tea to recover from that,” Xan said. “Are you headed to the library?” He asked.

Cho was about to answer when Sue put her hand on his arm. “Yes. Meet us there?” she asked Xan.

“Works for me. I might be a bit, though,” Xan replied, before grabbing his stuff and heading to the dorms. He gingerly poked at his chest, fingers searching out the angry spots around his sternum. For all of Kai Jin’s pompous self-importance, Xan had to reluctantly admit that the man could hit like a sledgehammer. He would need to seriously sharpen his skills if he hoped to defeat him the next time they were forced to square off. And, if there was one thing he was certain of, it was that there would be a next time.

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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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