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Sifu nodded to Xan, then broke the gaze. He turned and led the three instructors into his building.

Xan was puzzled by the antics of the instructors and Sifu—worried even—but he was fairly certain that he hadpassed the trial, even if there was some irregularity. Finally, he let out a sigh and turned to his friends.

“Well, that was certainly an adventure,” Cho said, clapping him on his back.

Sue slowly approached, though there was little cheer on her face. Rather, she wore a solemn expression; her eyes held a pitying bent. “Congratulations on attuning, Xan,” she said, sounding anything but congratulatory.

“What’s wrong?” Xan asked her. First the confusion with the Sifu and the Instructors, and now this. He wondered if he did something inappropriate.

“Xan—” Sue began.

Kai Jin’s cackle cut her off.

“So, you have affinities to opposing elements!” Kai Jin crowed in victory. “Great job on that, scrub.” Kai Jin wore an expression filled with a malevolent mirth. He hooted and headed off, his cronies in tow. “Guess that’s the end of your time here at school. And good riddance.” He hooted and headed off, his cronies in tow, all of them laughing at some great joke Xan obviously didn’t understand.

The remaining students, mostly the ones that trained in the evening with Xan, Cho and Sue, were aghast as Kai Jin had verbalized what many of them had been thinking. Xan heard the ghost of Instructor Jyoti’s words: “Nothin will put out a fire as quickly as water.

Hurt, shock, and confusion warred within Xan. He had tried so hard, had practiced and studied. He didn’t pick to attune to fire. He looked around the arena. Everyone was glancing at him and whispering. Kai Jin and his cronies were actively pointing and making jokes at Xan’s expense. He didn’t know what to make of everything and it was overwhelming him.

Why won’t they stop looking at me? With that, Xan decided he needed a change of scenery, got up and took off at a run. The echoes of Kai Jin’s cackling laughter chased after him as he fled.

Xan headed over to the student garden and wandered the paths around the reflecting pool. Thoughts a whirl. “Why me?” he shouted at the pigeons in sudden anger, startling them to flight. He watched them fly off and suddenly wished he could just fly away with them. Xan flopped onto a bench. He put his head in his hands and fought back tears of frustration. After all of his hard work. The calls from a raven in the garden mocked him. Caw!

“How can I ever become the weapon of vengeance?” he moaned in despair to the heavens. It wasn’t fair. He tried so hard to attune to metal. Why would the Five Immortals want him to know fire? Or the spirits? Or whoever it was pulling his puppet strings. Why couldn’t it be easy for him just this once? He fingered his father’s pendant.

He pulled water Qi. It came easily, the blue sphere floating above his palm, the excited Qi causing his palm to tingle, almost like when it was asleep, prickles of energy like a thousand pins. He pulled again and filled it with black water. He was second level with water. The youngest they had seen. With a thought, he drained the sphere of water and effortlessly filled it with fire. The crimson swirl of fire was enchanting to watch. Fire was a seduction. It didn’t just come when he called, it leapt. He let it dissipate.

Finally, Xan got up, wanting to work off some of his nervous energy, and wandered the shops and streets of the city, without a plan, until the sun had sunk behind the lip of the valley. He shivered as he went. He heard a coo and turned sharply to see if it was that bird from his dreams. A pigeon regarded him from the corner of a shop’s eaves. Coo, it said and cocked its head at him.

He took a deep breath. This couldn’t be that bad. Could it?

“Am I just a failure?” he asked the pigeon. It turned its head and regarded him with a turquoise eye. Coo, it replied.

Xan sighed heavily. You’re probably right. It can’t be all that bad. Can it?” He wandered lost in thought until he found himself outside the secluded practice area. Cho and Sue looked up as he entered.

#

“I hoped you would make your way here. How are you doing?” Cho crossed his arms, tucking his hands into his armpits.

Xan relaxed as he entered the calming familiarity of the student practice yard. Normally there were eight of them practicing here, his friends from the year. His support group. The events from earlier must have thrown a pall on everyone’s desire to practice extra, Xan surmised when he found the area empty save for Cho and Sue. He shuffled over and sat on a bench watching lightning bugs do their dance to the chorus of crickets in the bushes. Sue sat on the bench next to him and Cho took a position directly in front, patiently waiting for Xan to speak.

Xan sighed, blowing his breath out slowly. “I don’t know how I am,” he said morosely, “but my thoughts are everywhere. Seeds carried on the spring winds. I don’t know what to do. What to think.” He turned his gaze on Sue, who was watching him intently. She had a strange expression Xan couldn’t quite make out. Pity? Maybe. Or maybe it was something else. Something more. “I don’t know what this means for me,” He said honestly, his voice tinged with despair. “Part of me thinks that Kai Jin is probably right and that this is the end…” he trailed off, unable to say more.

Sue put her hand on his arm. “I am sorry if I have added to your burden, Xan. But please, don’t give up—not yet. I’ll talk with grandfather. There has to be something that can help.” She moved her hand up to Xan’s shoulder. “After all, we are a team and I...” she looked at Cho and blushed a little then focused back on Xan. “Um, We are here with you to the end.” Sue looked him in the eyes and Xan saw she was committed. When the school year started she might not have thought highly of him, but she was his friend, and she would now stand by his side. Even to the bitter end.

And, it was possible, the ending would be bitter indeed.

Xan returned her gaze and began to feel that she had turned a corner with him. He wasn't sure want that meant, but her directness warmed his heart.

Cho spoke, cutting through the tension that had been building between them. “She’s right, Xan. We are a team. No matter what happens, we have to lean on each other. A single stick can be broken, but a bundle can hold the weight of a man.”

Xan grabbed Sue’s hand and stood, pulling her up with him. He pulled the three of them into an embrace. His heart soared at his friends support. Nothing seemed insurmountable with their help. Xan stepped back. “I appreciate you both. You have helped me more than you know. We can figure out all this tomorrow. For now, I am going to turn in.”

“Do you want us to walk you to the dorm?” Cho asked.

“No,” Xan replied with a shake of his head. “I need a little more time to process what this all means and how I might be able to move forward.” He paused. Lingered. “But thank you. Both of you. You’ve made the unbearable a little better.”

He gave them a weak smile, then turned away and weaved through the courtyard, exiting under the archway and heading for the dorm. He thought while he walked. He might not have a plan, but he had two strong friends to lean on. No matter what may come at him, he would always have that. Tomorrow would be time enough to figure out how this played into, what did Wave call it? the Grand Design, whatever that was. With his thoughts racing, he reached his room in no time. Tomorrow would be painful, but a good night’s sleep would help to even out his mood. Putting the key to lock, he opened his door—

The world seemed to shudder and falter as the door swung open, a pit forming in his stomach. It wasn’t his room on the other side…

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Thank you for taking time to read my story. If you would like early access to whole chapters, they are available over at Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/markstallings?fan_landing=true


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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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