The next day, Instructor Aer had them break into their teams to work on team sparring. “You need to know each other’s capabilities. Your teammate’s strengths and weaknesses. The upcoming challenge will require a degree of coordination and cooperation you haven’t seen thus far.” He moved around the class, hands folded behind his back. “You have the rest of the day to work in your teams. You are dismissed.”
Cho and Sue looked at Xan. “Do you want to work here or in our practice area?” Xan asked them.
Cho shrugged. “It doesn’t matter to me.” He looked around the training arena. “It looks like several of the teams are going to stay here.”
“Let’s get out of here.” Sue said, voice low. “I don’t like the looks that Jin is giving us.”
Xan glanced to where Kai Jin was standing with his team. If glares could start fires, Xan would be roasting right now. Feeling mischievous, Xan smiled and waved at Jin, whose scowl only deepened. Xan turned back to his teammates. “What a broken tool,” Xan said with a quiet snort. “Let’s go.”
The three gathered their stuff and headed out.
At the practice yard, they got into place, forming a triangle. “Let’s try something basic. How about we pass a ball of Qi around?” Xan offered. The other two agreed.
Xan created a ball of raw Qi and pushed it to Sue who grabbed it then pushed it to Cho. Cho made as if he was going to catch the ball then suddenly spun with it, in one fluid motion and whipped it to Xan. They did another round. This time when it got to Cho he charged the ball with Metal before passing it back to Xan.
Xan caught the ball with a two-handed catch and made as if to crush the ball. It turned bright blue and he spun it at Sue. Sue slid into a deep stance and caught the water-charged sphere one-handed like an egg at an egg-toss. Except, her arm kept spinning around and at the release, a wood-infused bright green orb zipped toward Cho. The trio kept trying to change up the flow, going faster and faster until there was a large green ball flying at Cho’s head like a raging bull. He chopped down on the ball, splitting it into two before it reached him. The spheres flew off in different directions before dissipating.
“Wow, that was impressive. Where did you learn that?” Sue asked.
Cho smiled. “One of the Metal books in the library. Metal overcomes wood as an axe splits firewood. Do you want to try it?” He asked and looked between Xan and Sue. They both nodded and he quickly launched into an explanation of the process. “It was just like the exercise with the metal powering the Jin when I attuned. This time power your hand with Jin. Visualize it is an axe blade. Then when the wood sphere comes at you, chop it. Simple, in theory, though it’s tougher than it sounds. Xan, you want to try first?” Cho asked him.
“Sue, will you throw a wood sphere at Xan, please?” Cho asked.
Sue got into stance and with an impish grin, threw a verdant orb right for his chest.
Xan concentrated on his hand, forming it into a blade-hand which he swung at the sphere. He slapped it down to the ground, kicking up a spray of dirt and debris, though not slicing through the Qi ball in the slightest. “Hen’s teeth!” he swore.
“It’s okay. Take a deep breath. Try it again.” Sue encouraged him. “Ready?” At his nod, she threw another wood sphere at him. This time he was able to cut it, but he stopped his hand where it intersected the ball and two halves flew into his shoulders, knocking him horizontal. He landed on his back with a thump and whoosh of breath, white pinpricks exploding across his vision.
Cho and Sue laughed. A rainbow of emotions coursed through Xan as he tried to catch his breath. He focused on the sincerity of his friends laughter. They were laughing at the situation, not at him. With a wheeze, he rolled onto his hands and knees, then got up. A self-deprecating smirk on his face as he thought through how funny that must have looked. “Alright. What did I do wrong?” he asked.
Sobering up, Cho said simply, “You have to chop both down and forward. You only chopped down. That caused the sphere-halves to not deflect past you. Metal is an aggressive element and always requires forward motion—a blacksmith forging a blade with a hammer.” He smiled at Xan. “One more time? Then we can give Sue a chance to embarrass herself.”
This time, Xan cut the verdant spheres in twain and they passed to either side of him.
Naturally, Sue, having learned from Xan’s efforts, was able to cut it in half on the first try. “I wonder if you can do that to other types?”
They experimented with wood, metal, and water in turns. Only Cho was able to split the other elements. “It must be because you are attuned.” Xan observed, rubbing thoughtfully at his chin.
“Let’s try doing blocks and attacks with our attuned element only and see what happens,” Cho suggested. Each of the three were attuned to one of the elements they had learned so far.
Cho started by throwing Metal at Sue. She blocked and threw wood at Xan. Xan was able to take the wood and redirect the attack at Cho using one of the soft water techniques he had been studying from the books in the library. The attacks and defenses took all of their concentration, but soon they were moving at an amazing speed. Cho received a wood attack from Sue and effortlessly split it while simultaneously redirecting the two halves—sending a metal attack at each of the other two.
Sue stopped the attack at her core, arms crossed and the metal chattering on a bright green barrier with a splash of white and green sparks. Xan jumped and spun, catching his in-bound Qi, converting it and amplifying the sphere so that he returned a massive azure orb, headed back at Cho with a vengeance. Xan flashed with a bright light and for a moment disappeared behind a solid black nimbus. The combination of a return attack and Xan vanishing in an inky-dark flash, startled Cho, so he took the blue sphere square in the chest and was knocked off his feet.
Cho sat up and looked at Xan. “What was that?” Cho asked, his eyebrows climbing in shock.
Xan stood up straight, the black aura slowly fading. “I think I just leveled with water.”
Sue was startled. “It’s rare for someone so young to attain the second level of mastery with an element.” She paused, running a hand down her braid. “In fact, I’ve never heard of a first-year student doing it.” She said in a reverent tone.
“What can you do?” Cho asked.
“I’m not entirely sure but I hope it is cool.” Xan grinned. He was elated. With all the pain with learning metal, it was good that something positive had come from the endless extra practice. Xan got back into a water stance. Blue energy rippled along his arms and legs. “How about we find out?”
The trio practiced into the evening, spurred on by the recent successes and the looming threat of the mid-term.
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- Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA
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.