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Today marked the beginning of the Fourth Cycle: fire.

Xan was anxious to get started on this longer, eight-week cycle that started midway through the month of the Snake, ran through the month of the Horse and finished in the month of the Swallow. This cycle, and one more, and they were done with the school-year. He had never felt closer to the finish line, and with it the reassurance that he wouldn’t be turned away from the school—cast out to fend for himself without friends or family to help him. Though, with the problems they just had with the midterm, Xan was more than a little worried about how hard the final was going to be. He set his jaw and hardened his resolve. He and Cho needed to nail these next two units, and Xan was determined to do just that no matter how difficult they were or how much extra practice it required.

He drank the last of the bitter potion that Instructor Bimi had helped him with three weeks ago. He let the liquid warm him and settled to do his Qi projection. He focused on his dantien and directed the Qi around his core. He reached for water and started by cleansing his Qi. He inhaled positivity, poured in water infused Qi, and pushed out all the impurities and exhaled negativity. He worked outward from his kidneys, the strongest source of water in him, then flowed it down the bones in his legs, then his arms.

He spent extra time concentrating on his broken arm, sending waves of healing energy into the weakened limb. Infusing it with power and life, willing the bones to strengthen and mend. He envisioned himself mixing the potion with his cleansing water Qi, circulating it through the shoulder, down into his bicep—where it pooled for a moment—then onward to his wrist, before starting the journey once more. The whole process took ten minutes. After doing it daily for most of the last four weeks, his arm was almost whole. True, there were a couple sore spots, but even Instructor Mint was impressed at the speed of healing. After the first week, he had been able to hold a cup.

Exercises done, Xan dressed for the day, dressing slowly and deliberately as though preparing for battle. Finally, he opened his door and was startled to see both Sue and Cho standing in the hall, waiting for him. Normally, they met him at breakfast. “Good morning,” he offered hesitantly. “What’s going on?”

“We wanted to see how you were doing before we head to the fire arena,” Sue replied. “No sling today? How’s the arm?”

“Honestly, it is feeling great.” He moved it around, showcasing the range of motion. “Even Instructor Mint is happy with how it has progressed. Between the Qi healing and the potion we made, I think I should be fine in practice,” Xan said with confidence.

Cho simply held out his left hand open like for a hand shake. Xan took it. Cho gave him a firm, muscle-driven shake, then let go. “Good enough for me.” Cho turned and walked down the hall.

Sue looked at Xan, then at Cho’s retreating form. “That’s it?” she asked.

Cho continued on, answering over a shoulder. “Yes. If it were broken still, he wouldn’t have been able to shake hands.”

Sue narrowed her eyes at Xan. “Is that true?”

Xan shrugged. “In the beginning, I couldn't do anything with the hand. Breakfast?” He headed after Cho.

Xan appreciated his friends caring about his well-being, and he would never tell how much the handshake hurt. Xan surmised that the pain was letting him know he had further to go with the Qi healing.

“Fourth Cycle. New Element. I’m very excited.” Xan spoke quietly into the silence at their table as the others ate. “Do you think we will learn more about the final test this cycle?”

Sue started at that. She must have been lost in her own thoughts. “I don’t know.” She admitted with a slight frown. “We are two-thirds done with this year. I can’t believe they would wait until the last cycle.

“You haven’t asked your grandfather?” Cho asked.

She glanced at him, then looked away. “I haven’t spoken to him since the inquiry for the mid-terms.” She squirmed in her seat.

“Are you okay?” Xan asked.

“I’m afraid I’ve disappointed him,” she admitted.

Xan put a hand on hers, “Did he say something? Or are you guessing?” he said soothingly.

Sue forced a small laugh, “It’s probably me making monsters out of shadows.” She patted his hand.

Cho stood up and shrugged. “Let’s go learn Fire.” He went and put his bowl in the wash bin. The others followed suit.

The trio walked to the fire building. This was the section of town where Sifu’s house was. That was the only time Xan had ever been this direction. No one really spoke. Xan fervently hoped this was going to be a good day.

They rounded the corner and took in their new training area. The building glowed along every line of the gray stone that made up the structure. It looked as if the whole place had been mortared with yellow-hot metal. The dark iron-bound doors were open. Xan couldn’t tell the wood of the door itself was old, or fire-scarred.

Inside the arena, a black stone statue dominated each of the corners of the room, closest to the door was a Dragon. Then clockwise were statues representing the other fire-based styles of Tiger, Fox and Turtle. Red fiery eyes glowed in the faces of each of the animals, and Xan felt as if they watched him. “Wel-cam to da skool of Fie-ya. Too-day we ahre going to start wid stahn-ding me-di-tay-shon,” Instructor Jyoti called out to them, the sleeves of his deep-red robe pulled up showing dark muscular arms folded across his chest.

“What did he say?” Cho whispered to Xan and Sue.

“I’m not sure. Where is he from?” Xan whispered back.

“He’s from the far south, from across the desert,” Sue responded. “Now pay attention.”

Once they were settled and attentive, Instructor Jyoti addressed them in a relaxed, slow-paced, deep voice and with much less of an accent—almost as if he had heard them, “Today we are going to start with standing meditation. Get into posture, an aye will explain as we go. Close ya eyes. As ya breathe in and begin to cycle your Qi, I want ya to listen to da beat of your heart.” He tapped the center of his chest with two fingers. “Focus on your heart. It is there, in your heart, that ya will find the element of fire. Every beat of your heart is da echo of the fire within ya. Focus on the heart. Reach your awareness into dat place, just like ya feed a cook fire, feed it your Qi. Let it catch fie-ya.” The melodic cadence of his accent helped guide Xan in meditation.

He walked around the front of the meditating students. “Reach out ya awareness. Once ya ignite your Qi, Aye want ya to fill a ball with fire Qi.” Xan felt the flames catch on his focused Qi stream and formed a ball between his palms.

“Eee! Dis is a first.” Instructor Jyoti said. “Aye can not tell who was first. Kai Jin, Wang Su, or… Gao Xan.” Xan’s eyes flew open in surprise. He was almost first! Elation rippled through him. He turned his head towards Sue and found Jin looking at him from her other side with disdain. Xan nodded his head at him and saw Jin’s frown deepen. Xan caught Sue’s look and smiled at her, then wiggled his eyebrows. She cracked a small smile and shook her head at Xan’s antics.

Cho clapped his hand on Xan’s back. “Good job.” Xan smiled his appreciation, relieved that this wasn’t going to be the wagon-wreck that Metal had been.

“Please keep focusing. Aye need all of ya to be able to pull da fire.” Instructor Jyoti told them, meeting Xan’s gaze with those golden eyes. Xan nodded and closed his eyes to resume pulling fire.

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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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