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The next few days passed in a haze of classes, library, and practice. Xan was the first one at the metal practice arena and made sure he was the last one to leave. He was grateful that his friends were willing to put in the effort to get him over the hump. Considering how much they were sacrificing to help him, he wanted to show them that he was giving his utmost. Right after dinner, he would jog back to their secluded practice area to get going as quickly as he could.

After blacksmith class, Cho caught up with Xan at the library. “What are you working on?” Cho asked.

“I have found that the only way I can read this book on metal is to copy it. If I just try to read it, I get sleepy or distracted. I don’t know what that’s about,” Xan explained, then went back to writing, one finger on a line in the book and the other brushing the characters onto white paper.

“Okay, I’ll leave you to it.” Cho went and got a volume, sat at the same table, and read.

When the evening chime finally sounded several hours later, Mistress Hon came to find them. “You boys work too hard,” she told Xan softly. She had been checking up on Xan, and he really appreciated her presence and occasional help. “It is time for you to head to the dorms,” she instructed them gently.

“Thank you Mistress.” Xan replied with a dip of his head in gratitude. He gathered up his pages, ink, and brushes and packaged them into his bag. Cho took the metal volume Xan had been working on and returned the books to the shelves. With that done, they headed to dinner.

“I was transcribing a section about powering the Tiger’s Mouth with Qi that I didn’t quite follow,” Xan said as they walked, enjoying the quiet hum in the evening air.

“I know the section you’re talking about. If you would like, we can go through it right now while it’s still fresh?” Cho asked. “If you could nail that technique, it will really amp up the power of your strikes.”

“That sounds great,” Xan said. Dinner forgotten, the two of them headed to the practice area.

Two hours later Sue interrupted them carrying a tray with tea and two boxes of chicken and rice. The sweet smell of the sauce carried across the area. “I noticed you two missed dinner, so I grabbed something for you. I figured I would find you here.” She moved over to the side where a bench sat against the wall.

“I’m gonna grab a towel,” Cho said, heading to where his and Xan’s stuff was set by the entrance.

Xan went over to Sue and the tray. “Thank you very much for bringing this to us,” he said, realizing for the first time just how hungry he was.

Sue smiled and nodded. She’d been so much warmer toward him since their heart to heart in her private garden. “You’ve been working very hard and your progress is showing.” Cho joined them and handed Xan a towel. “So, fill me in. What have you two been working on?”

“Powering Jin with metal. Driving power from the dantien.” Cho explained, sitting down with an exhausted humph.

Xan wiped his neck with a towel, then dabbed at his sweat-covered brow. “I was transcribing one of the metal books and—” Sue interrupted him.

“Wait. You are copying a book? By hand?” Sue asked incredulously.

“Yeah, it’s the only way I can read it. I think I am cursed when it comes to metal.” Xan shrugged. “So, in today’s pages, I ran into a concept that I didn’t quite get. Cho offered to show me and that’s why we missed dinner.” Xan lifted one of the box lids. Rice with meat in brown sauce. He looked up at Sue and raised an eyebrow.

“It’s boar. The Guards brought in a bunch on the last caravan. Lee Bo said to tell you hi. Him, Po and Li Jie were at dinner.”

“Ah, man. I would have liked to see them.” Xan said around a mouth full of food. Cho nodded agreement but kept right on eating.

“Can you show me what you were teaching Xan?” Sue asked Cho.

“Sure.” He set his box down and moved a couple yards into the practice floor, then took a stance. “The principal is to pull in Qi into your center and, from the dantien, power the Jin and step forward into double Tiger’s Mouths. The goal is to stop all movement at the same time by bringing your hands and front foot coming down together at the same instant to maximize the force. Like this…”

Cho started forward suddenly, both hands rising up and settling down, hands open. As soon as movement stopped, a roar of sound erupted in their minds and Cho was surrounded by a cloud of brilliant white energy. It swirled around him like a swarm of stars, and they lighted on him a few at a time during each orbit around him. He uttered a great cry, arms outstretched, back arched, and thrust up on his tiptoes. As the energy fully settled into him, he relaxed back into a normal standing position. His eyes glowed with argent light and slowly faded to his normal iris and pupil.

“Wow!” Xan exclaimed. “Did you just attune?”

Sue was speechless.

Cho bounced on the balls of his feet, an enormous grin painted his face. “Oh yeah. Metal!” He clapped his hands and spun in place. “That was amazing. It was like when you hit white water in the river. It pushed me around, then calmed down.” Excitement flowed out of him.

Xan was both excited for his friend and immensely jealous. Why is metal so elusive?

The three compared their experiences of attuning and how it impacted them. The food grew cold on the bench, completely forgotten in the excitement.

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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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