The door opened into a large stone chamber. There was a roaring bonfire lit in a fireplace that dominated the far wall. A low table sat on a multicolored carpet that had golden symbols meticulously woven into it. A small square hooded lamp sat on the table throwing out a soft light, illuminating a teapot and two cups. Sifu sat at the table and smiled at Xan as the door opened.

“Come in Gao Xan and have some tea.” Sifu pointed at the empty spot across from him. The fire popped at that moment, startling Xan out of his wonderment.

Uncertainty marking his movements, Xan stepped into the room and the door closed behind him. “How…” Xan stared around the room. It was plain gray stone like most of the school, with a single darkened window in one side, yet it was also unlike any room Xan had seen at the school.

“We need to talk away from others and this is the easiest way.” Sifu explained with a small shrug and a thin smile. “You’ve had a busy day, haven’t you?”

Xan sat down heavily and sighed. “Yeah, you could say that.” He picked up the porcelain cup in both hands, enjoying the warmth of the tea, inhaling the sweet aroma of mint and ginger. The aroma made him feel better.

Sifu set his teacup down, his smile slipping.

“When I was a boy, a man came to our village,” Sifu said, his voice hazy with memory. “He wore tattered clothes, his robe held closed with a rope belt, and he had a shoe with a hole in it so large his big toe stuck out. He had a simple sack that he carried all of his possessions in tied to the end of a long pole. He whistled tunelessly as he came into the village. Naturally, mothers took one look at him and steered their children away from him. The traveler didn’t seem to notice—or if he did, he didn’t care. He took a seat at the only noodle shop and it wasn’t too long before a couple of the village guard came over to give the man a hard time.”

Sifu poured Xan some more tea. “The man was calm and friendly despite the rough attitude from the guard. They were about to force him physically to move on when one of the village teenagers came running, screaming that a child had fallen into a hole on the edge of the town. Of course, everyone rushed over to see if they could help, including the vagabond. The child’s mother wailed, and people were shouting. It was madness—at least as much madness as most small villages will ever see.” The small smile returned, and he nodded to himself.

“You see, Xan,” he continued after a beat, “a sink hole had opened up in the tall grass the children liked to play games in. It was about four feet across and the cries of the child could be heard floating up out of the opening. Suddenly, the tattered man was there. Quick as a flash. He set his pole down, unwound the rope belt and looped the middle of the rope a couple times around his pole. He had someone get a substantial rock that he tied one end of the rope to. He laid the pole across the middle of the opening and lowered the loose end into the hole, instructing the child to step into the loop he had fashioned in that end. When the child was ready, he lowered the rock into the hole. The weight of the rock going down brought the child up.”

Sifu sat back, sipped his tea, and watched Xan saying no more. Offering no further explanation about the odd anecdote.

Xan wondered at the story. How did it relate to him? He watched Sifu watching him. There was something in the story that Xan was meant to get. He thought it through. “Help comes in strange places?” he asked hopefully, cocking an eyebrow.

Sifu smiled. “Yes, that is true,” he replied, bobbing his head. “And also, not everything is always as it seems.”

Xan canted his head to the side, listening to the crackle of the fire for a moment. “This is about me, isn’t it?” Xan asked. He knew it must be, be he couldn’t quite understand how it applied.

Sifu nodded, though, confirming Xan’s suspicions.

“The students attune to elements. Elements lead to animals. Don’t let preconceived paths dictate your actions,” he told Xan. “The path you see in front of you isn’t always the only one. Or even the best—though it might well be the most well-trodden.” Sifu reached into his robe and pulled a wooden token out. It danced among his fingers, then he set it on the table and spun it. “Sue says you like the library and are a diligent student. This might help you. This token will grant you access to sections of the library normally off-limits to Seekers. I have a feeling you will use it responsibly.”

The scrum, scrum, scrum of the token falling to the table drew Xan’s attention to it.

“Why are you helping me?” Xan asked.

Sifu offered Xan his enigmatic smile. “Everyone needs help. I think that is something you learned today, yes?”

Xan flushed and nodded. He reached out to take the token. “I appreciate it. I really do.”

“Don’t tell anyone about this for now,” Sifu cautioned, hands disappearing into the ends of his robe. “You had a busy day and you should get some rest.”

Xan stood up, “Thank you for the help, Sifu. And the story.” He went to the door, opened it and stopped. He looked back at Sifu over one shoulder. “How do I get back to my room?”

“Just step out, close the door and your room will be back when you open it again.” Sifu smiled at him as he closed the door. “Good night Gao Xan.”

A note from MarkStallings

Thank you for taking time to read my story. If you would like early access to whole chapters, they are available over at Patreon:

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About the author


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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