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“Yeah, I saw it, too. Just like on the mountain with the coyote, Corrupted Qi energy,” Cho said darkly. He turned to Sue. “Is that part of the test?” he asked, tone doubtful.

Sue shook her head. “No. This isn’t right. Not at all. No instructor would touch the dark Qi required to corrupt a creature. Manipulating dark Qi taints you to the core.” Her face was painted with disgust.

“Well, that’s a fine mess,” Cho snarled. “I’m not strong enough with water to take it down. And we need Xan to get the water to the tree.” Cho looked around for the next golem.

“Maybe Sue can try on the next one?” Xan asked, already back to drawing a flow of water. “How’s the tree?” he asked, shooting a sidelong glance at the sapling.

“It’s coming along slowly. But the top is almost to the ledge now,” Sue replied.

“Wood.” Cho said simply. Then a few moments later, “Got it.” He moved over to where the other two were working. “Can I help?” He asked Xan.

“You really can’t,” Xan said. “I can’t even explain how I’m able to do what I am doing.”

Cho peered at Xan and narrowed his eyes. “I’m trying to see the threads of your weaving. I really can’t see anything.” He scratched his head. “I can’t even hear you using water.”

Xan shrugged and maintained the flow.

“Mudman,” Cho said and moved over to deal with it. He came back. “That one seemed a little bigger.”

“That means a Spark should be next,” Xan replied, his arms and back sore from the effort of moving so much liquid. He dropped the flow of water—glad to have a small reprieve—and moved around. He stretched his arms out wide then bent down to his toes, letting his spine relax and elongate. He got a good pop in one of his vertebrae. “Ugh. I didn’t even know I was bound up.”

He looked across to where the constructs came. It was only a minute before he saw the Spark. Definitely beefier than the last. “Okay Sue. You up for trying this one?” Xan asked? Apprehension ran through him. What if she couldn’t do it? How are they going to get out of this? He tried to smile at her, but it felt weak.

Sue nodded and took up position. She got into her water stance, Dragon Grasps Pearl. She brought forth an azure sphere and thrust her hands forward in a palm push; the orb flew like a meteor at the fire construct. A great shower of blue and red sparks erupted as the orb hit it and the automaton staggered back a step. After the barest of moments, it started forward again. Sue’s lips pressed together into a thin line and she formed Dragon Grasps Pearl, conjuring another ball of water. She thrust her hands out, propelling the cerulean orb. It struck the Spark with an even bigger shower of sparkles, but the creature just kept coming.

“Xan…” she muttered, sounding more than a little panicked.

Xan gathered and threw in one quick motion. The water detonated with a spray of blue and crimson sparks. There was another pop of plum energy and the automaton fell in on itself. “That was educational,” he sassed. “If I’m the only one who can overcome those, we better hope they don’t send two at once.” Xan went back to pulling water to the tree.

Cho repositioned himself, moving over by Sue. “You need a brake? I can work on the tree.”

Xan glanced at her. She seemed tired as if throwing the water took a lot out of her. “You okay, Sue?”

She nodded. “I’m okay. Frustrated more than anything. First the bucket, then this? Super sparks. It isn’t supposed to be like this. We’re supposed to succeed.” She shook out her hands and took a deep breath. Her hands glowed green again and Xan could see the trickle of wood Qi caressing the tree.

The next hour passed in an endless cycle of constructs and water and tree growth. Xan was getting tired of the water. The fire golems gave him a break, but each throw was taking a little more time to recover from.

“First branch is over the ledge!” Sue called out. They were making slow, steady progress. Xan looked up and the sapling was now a young tree and the finger-thin branch had just passed over the top.

“We got two mudmen,” Cho said.

“You need help?” Sue called.

“No, you both keep working on the tree. I’ve got this.” He whipped a hand forward, hurling a verdant spike through the air and into the first mudman, impaling it cleanly through the chest. The other picked up speed, sprinting to run on its short stumpy legs. In a blink, it was ten feet away, then eight feet. Cho gathered again. Now four feet. Cho threw. The green spike blew through the mudman causing it to fall backwards as it decomposed into a pile of clay.

“That was close.” Cho said. “I might need some help if two keep coming.” He wiped his forehead with a sleeve, leaving a dirty streak across his skin.

“Well, you might get your wish.” Xan pointed. Two more mudmen were lumbering down the path. “You want help?” Xan asked.

Cho shook his head, face screwed up in determination, and took a deep breath. “You keep working the water magic. Sue?” He asked, getting into position.

Sue turned, dropped her stance lower and from where she was, hands still glowing green, shot. An emerald bolt lanced into one of the mudmen imploding it where it stood. Xan marveled at the display.

Cho threw his green stake, stopping the other automaton, then turned to Sue with raised eyebrows. “Impressive.”

She bowed slightly, then got back to work. The trunk of the tree had thickened considerably since they’d begun the trial. “I think it’s almost big enough for me to climb,” Sue said.

“As soon as it is, you should go up it.” Xan told her.

She opened her mouth to argue when Cho called out. “We’ve got two sparks incoming!”

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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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