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A note from MarkStallings

New week more edits. Strap on in for a wild ride.

The morning of the midterm, the students were arrayed by teams in the practice arena for Metal. On one side of the area the portal stood, two eight-foot-tall silvered ornate metal rods in stands six feet apart. Even at this distance, Xan could see there were symbols all over each of the rods. Up at the front of the arena were Instructor Bao from Water, Instructor Luli from Wood and Instructor Aer representing Metal.

Instructor Bao stepped forward. “Teams, today is the mid-year challenge. It will put what you have learned to the test. If you rely on what you have trained and work as a team, you will succeed. I will explain this once. Your whole team will succeed, or your whole team fails. This is not an individually graded activity.” He stepped back, face grim.

Instructor Luli stepped forward. Her normally jovial face was stern today. “Each team send one representative to come up and take one bundle from this basket. The contents and their purposes will become obvious in the trial.” Xan shrugged and, after sharing a quick look with his friends and teammates, went up. He grabbed one of the burlap-wrapped packages by the cord that wrapped it and returned to where Sue and Cho were standing. Other students trickled forward, doing the same.

Once the final team had their bundle, Instructor Luli stepped back, folding her hands before her as Instructor Aer stepped forward to take her place.

Aer spoke in a clear voice, explaining what was going to happen, “You will enter the portal. Once on the other side, you will be set on the path of a trial that will require everything you have learned so far. No one can help you save those members in your team. You have the next hour for any last minute preparation. You may look in your package, but you may not take anything other than what is in the sack through. We will activate the portal and your team may enter the portal any time after mid-day meal. You must overcome the obstacles by sundown. I know you all will do well.” Instructor Aer looked around the area. “Are there any questions pertaining to the instructions?” Silence greeted him in answer. “Very well. I suggest you eat and be back here in an hour or so.” He clapped his hands, dismissing them.

Cho immediately opened the sack and peered in. He held the bag open so Sue and Xan could see. Inside were pieces of wood and a steel ring. “We should hit the noodle shop now and get back so we have as much time for the task as possible,” Xan suggested, feeling a flutter of excitement in his belly. That, or hunger.

The other two agreed and the three set their bundle to the side on one of the benches, with their other things, before heading out, angling to beat the rush at the shop. Once outside, the three broke into a jog. They wanted to get this over with.

While they ate lunch—the normally flavorful food almost tasteless in Xan’s mouth—the three talked quietly about the trial. Not that there was much to talk about. Although they knew finishing this test would require them to utilize all the skills they had learned thus far, the Instructors had been oddly quiet on the exact nature of the test or the challenges they would face within the portal. Lacking any real information, they ate quickly and headed back. Some of the other teams saw them leaving and hurriedly followed them.

Once back, Sue grabbed their bundle and met Xan and Cho up at the silvery portal rods, gleaming bright in the light of the noon day. A glowing sheet of shimmering silvery energy stretched between the rods. On each rod several glyphs glowed. There was a low hum of energy. Xan wasn’t sure if he heard it with his ears or his mind. Instructor Aer met them at the portal.

“Are you ready?” Aer asked quietly.

The three nodded to indicate yes, afraid to speak.

“Do you have your bundle?” he asked. Sue held it up. Aer nodded and looked at Xan. “Be careful, follow the instructions and I’ll be seeing you soon. Alright be off.” He stepped to the side, ushering the trio toward the portal with a sweep of his hands. Sue stepped through first. It was like watching her sink into water, the silvery substance slowly enveloping her until she disappeared from view.

Cho went next, hurling himself forcefully into the silver barrier as though it might resist his efforts otherwise.

Finally, it was Xan’s turn. He swallowed hard, took a deep breath to calm the butterflies playing tag in his stomach and stepped through. As his face hit the barrier, it felt like a cobweb brushing along his skin and then he was through and on the other side. Cho and Sue were there looking at a glowing figure. It looked a lot like Sifu Wang. Once Xan stepped up, the odd apparition looked at them and spoke.

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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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