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“Greetings students.” The image was real enough, though slightly translucent. There was a circle on the stone below the image with several characters Xan recognized and a few he didn’t. It must be powering the construct. “In this trial you will need to get to the portal up on the ledge you see behind me.”

Xan looked around the area. There was a rocky ledge about twenty feet high behind the image. From here, Xan could see a portal shimmering up on top. There were some saplings at the base of the ledge and about 20 feet away was a small three-tiered fountain bubbling water not dissimilar to the one in Sifu’s backyard. Xan wondered if that was on purpose.

The apparition continued speaking, his voice placid and unhurried. “This challenge will comprise two parts. First, water a sapling using what you have with you. Grow the sapling to the ledge, climb the tree, go through the portal.”

“Seems simple enough,” Cho grunted, rubbing at his chin while he eyed the waterfall and saplings in turn.

“It seems simple, doesn’t it?” the image said, surprising all three of them. “Well, there is a complication. Actually, three of them..” He stuck three thin, delicate fingers into the air. “Elemental constructs will be attacking you, just like in your tests before. You will need teamwork to defeat the constructs, gather water, and grow the tree so it is big enough for the three of you to climb it.” The Sifu image raised its hands up in a benediction. “You have three minutes to start. Ready yourselves and good luck.”

“Wait, you said three complications.” Xan said.

The image turned to him and smiled. “That I did. The longer it takes you, the faster the elemental constructs will come. So don’t delay.”

Xan was stunned. “You understood me. How is that possible?”

The image didn’t speak further.

“Okay, let’s get this going and get out of here,” Cho said. “Dump the bundle and let’s build the bucket.”

Sue unwrapped the cord from the burlap package and dumped the contents onto the ground. They squatted next to the materials and quickly sorted through them. There was a metal ring and fifteen curved slats that formed the exterior of the bucket. “Where is the bottom?” Sue asked. She lifted the sack and looked in, as though the missing piece might have somehow stayed in there. After a long tense beat, she glanced up at the others and shook her head, her mouth puckering into a grimace. “Now what?” She asked.

“How in the wisdom of the Five Immortals are we supposed to carry water with a bucket with no bottom?” Cho asked, his face red.

“Maybe we could tie our shirts on the bottom?” Xan asked.

Sue looked from the water to the trees. “It will pour through before you get halfway.” Frustration was plain in her voice.

“We have to try something. We’re running out of time before we start getting elemental visitors,” Cho said, his eyes already roving, searching for any signs of movement. Xan could tell he wanted to yell and was barely controlling himself.

“And what exactly would you suggest, hmm?” Sue asked, scowling at him as she crossed her arms.

Something occurred to Xan and he moved to stand between the water and the tree.

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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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