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The week passed quickly. The days consumed with meditation, sparing, alchemy, library and evening practice. Their only respite was in the brief meal breaks they took. They were all tired when they streamed into the class for the end of week’s morning meditation.

The students settled into place under Jyoti’s golden gaze. As he’d done a hundred times before, Xan closed his eyes and reached for his Qi. He pulled black healing water into his Qi and cycled it through his body. He used it like a river torrent to cleanse away his sore muscles, heightened his senses and refresh his weary mind. He pulled more Qi in and sped up the raging water. He envisioned the black Qi whipping through him. He pulled more. He heard the crackling sounds of Qi in his mind’s eye as he pulled more water in, reaching deep into his dantien.

His body vibrated in response.

A soft voice gently poked into the rapids of his meditation, “Xan? Xan?”

With a grunt, he let the cyclone of Qi settle back into the depths of his dantien and cracked opened his eyes just a hair. Instructor Jyoti was before him. Xan was surprised. He glanced around at the other students. They were still in meditation. He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head at the instructor in an unspoken question. Instructor Jyoti motioned for Xan to follow him to the corner so they could talk without disturbing the class.

“Are ya alright, Xan?” he asked very quietly.

“Yeah, just doing meditation. Why?” Xan wasn’t sure why Instructor Jyoti was acting weird.

“Aye have never seen someone pull so much Qi through their body before. Ya were healing weren’t ya?”

At Xan’s nod, he continued.

“Ya were healin not just ya-self but all of those around ya. Ya need to be careful with seepage. That is where ya leak da energy ya are manipulating. This can lead to undesirable effects when ya are working with another practitioner.” The look on his face told Xan this was serious.

“Thank you, Instructor. You have given me something to stay aware of.” Xan bowed slightly. He had no idea that magic could radiate out of him like that. Seepage. What a notion.

Jyoti said, “Go on back—” an exultation interrupted him. They both turned to see Sue wreathed in crimson flame, a rush of sound in their minds heralding that she just attuned to fire. “Congratulations Wang Sue for attuning to fire!” Jyoti called out, his exuberance almost palpable in the air.

Xan saw the elation on her face and was excited for her. Though, a small part of him was bitter as he hadn’t yet discovered his second attunement. Classmates gathered around her to congratulate her, offering smiles and back slaps. Xan noticed that Kai stayed firmly on the other side of the room. His face neutral. What had Jyoti done to him?

Once the furor died down, Instructor Jyoti announced, “Next, we are going to learn how to work fire against metal. Pair up. Go slow,” he said.

As usual, Xan paired up with Cho initially. “Metal or Fire?” Cho asked.

Xan grimaced, a pit forming in his stomach at the thought of having to channel and wield metal. “I’ll go metal and get it over with.” He spoke the words as though they were sour in his mouth.

Cho grinned and dropped into a natural offensive stance. Xan could see the scarlet veins of energy crawl up his arms as Cho powered his Jin with fire. Xan was appreciative that he needed to know metal, but he disliked it. His arms tingled as he slowly coaxed metal into them. Like the practice they held nightly, the two left little on the table as they went at each other.

#

Sore and beaten from practice, they headed out past the wall. This was the first trial they would undertake that didn’t take place inside the walls. Cho, Xan and Sue walked slowly through the gate, which had just opened for the morning. Wagons had queued up to head off down the road for the next adventure. Their drivers called to the horses and the snap of their reigns heralded the creak of wheels as the caravan lumbered forward.

“Why do you think the test is outside the school?” Xan asked. “You don’t think it’s too dangerous for inside, do you?”

Cho shrugged. “We’ll find out soon enough, I suppose.” He skirted over to the side of the road, angling toward a ditch that was overrun with a variety of colorful wildflowers. The smell of lavender and columbine brightened their mood as they walked.

They quickly reached a path that snaked off to the left and away from the road. After two hundred yards, the path led around a low hill. There, the students found Instructor Jyoti, representing Fire, Aer the Metal instructor, and instructor Bao, master of Water. Next to both of the other instructors were what had to be elementals for both metal and water.

The metal elemental appeared as a man-shaped mass of different pieces of metal and ore, all bound together in pulsing white energy. It was as if someone had glued it all together with metal Qi. The squeaks of the metal rubbing on each other permeated the clearing whenever the elemental shifted.

The water elemental next to Instructor Bao looked like a small waterspout had decided to walk away from the river. It was maybe five feet in height. Where the metal elemental’s noise was piercing and sporadic, the steady rush of a river could be heard emanating from the nonthreatening looking aqua elemental. Looking closely, Xan thought he saw fish inside the water elemental, as if it were a mobile aquarium.

The Seekers filed in and took their usual class positions, just as though they were going to do meditation. Instructor Jyoti addressed them. “Today, ya all are going to be taking da trial of fire. Aye know all ya will do well. With me are Instructors Aer and BaoWith me are Instructors Aer and Bao, who you should all be well familiar with. We also have two guests, though. I’ll let my colleagues introduce them.”

Instructor Aer stepped forward. “With me today is the elemental named Alloy.” Aer turned to the moving metal pile and made a series of squeaks and metal scrapes with his mouth. The sound was a spike of pain in Xan’s ears, and he flinched on instinct. Xan figured that must be the elemental metal language, but something about it absolutely set his nerves on edge. Xan figured that must be the elemental metal language. Alloy tromped forward and raised both of its arms and squeaked like a fork on a metal plate. Instructor Aer nodded then turned back to the class. “He says he is excited to help you with the trial.”

Instructor Bao stepped forward and gestured towards the water elemental. “Today the element Wave will assist us.” The instructor bowed slightly to Wave and Xan could hear him say to Wave, “The trial will begin soon. These all thank you for being here.”

Wave responded, “I am eager to assist the grand design.”

Xan whispered to Sue “I am surprised the elemental speaks common.” He glanced at her. She was looking at him like he was crazy. “What?” he asked, genuinely confused by her reaction.

“It sounded like burbles and drips,” Sue whispered back, shooting him odd, sidelong glances.

Xan was about to say more when Instructor Jyoti spoke again.

“We are going to begin. Form two lines and we will work offence with Alloy where you will use Fire to overcome metal constructs and Defense against water constructs from Wave.

Xan took his place in line, waiting patiently for his turn while he thought about the words he had heard. I am eager to assist the grand design. He was sure that was what Wave had said—but how could that be?

The students went fairly quickly in the metal line. Cho went up, bowed and used fire to blast the metal construct to pieces with hardly any effort at all. Jyoti and Aer both nodded. “Pass, go to the next line.”

With a smile and a bow, Cho moved off to the end of the defense line.

Suddenly, it was Xan’s turn.

He stepped up when directed to do so. Instructor Aer smiled at him. “Are you ready?” he asked Xan softly.

Xan nodded and licked his lips as he got into stance.

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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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