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Xan stood outside of the Earth training area. Unlike the other buildings, the bricks that made up this building look rough—unfinished somehow. The start of the cycle and curiosity warred with anxiety in his stomach like two cats in a bag. He took in a deep calming breath, in through the nose, the tip of his tongue touching the roof of his mouth, and let it out in a quick huff.

Immediately, he felt better. Waiting on the others, he reflected on how far he had come. This time last year, he was an assistant to the village herbalist and ineffectively arguing with his father against joining the Path of Peace. True, his journey had had more than a few complications and hiccups, but he was still here. Still learning and growing, despite the odds. Now he was about to learn the fifth element. He was an accomplished craftsman in several skills that would set him well above most in any village that couldn’t manipulate Qi or didn’t know the calligraphic symbols of power.

The voices of his fellow Seekers brought him out of his reverie.

The idle banter of his classmates intertwined with the sounds of a city waking up, shops opening, wagons and carts creaking their way around accompanied by the soft clop, clop of horseshoes on cobblestone.

Xan felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Sue. “You okay?” she asked with bright eyes. She was way too perky for this time of day.

“Yeah, I’m alright,” Xan replied. “With the craziness that has gone on so far, I’m a little nervous for what is going to happen here.” He shuffled his feet.

Sue squeezed his shoulder. “You will do well. You always do.” Then she turned and entered the building. A little thrill went through Xan. Sue rarely complimented him, but then, since the final Fire trial, she’d seemed to have warmed considerably toward him. Spirits buoyed, he followed her.

The interior was circular, which surprised Xan. Every other training arena was square to maximize the space. He was immediately struck with the smell of freshly turned soil. The Arena had a stone walkway along the outside of the wall bordering the wide center of the space, which held a loosely packed red dirt floor. It appeared to be meticulously raked, reminding Xan of the meditation garden Sue had shown him at Sifu’s house. And while he couldn’t actually hear it, there was a hum in the air, like bees around a flower. The students filed around the three-foot outside stone edge of the circle. No one wanted to step into the dirt.

A middle-aged woman pushed her way through the crowd of students. She wore ordinary robes, long black hair in a braid, and could have been anyone’s mother. When she got to the edge of the dirt area, she looked around at the Seekers then stepped out into the dirt, marring the pristine landscape with her shoe prints to the gasps and amazement of everyone. Everyone except Sue, Xan noticed.

“Are you afraid of the dirt?” the woman asked in a teasing tone, running a toe through the sand, marring it further. “Maybe afraid of getting dirty?” She suddenly flopped down on the ground and lay there, staring up at the ceiling, unmoving.

Xan immediately stepped out into the area, worried something was wrong. He knelt next to her. “Are you alright?” he asked her.

“Your name?” she whispered, smiling up at him.

Xan’s eyes narrowed. “Gao Xan,” he replied more than a little uncertainly. He wasn’t at all sure what was going on here.

“Well, Gao Xan, did you even think about what might happen if the instructor caught you on the practice area?” she had an impish grin now.

Xan hurriedly glanced around. The students just watched the two of them from the edges. “No. I wanted to make sure you were alright,” he said honestly.

She looked into his eyes for a moment, then she whispered, “Lay down on the ground.”

She must be the instructor, Xan thought. Uncertainty dissipating, he laid down next to her and focused on controlling his breathing.

After a couple of minutes of the quiet babbling of the Seekers watching them, the woman spoke again. “I am instructor Jichu. Why are you just watching us? Come lay down on the ground so we can get started.”

Xan relaxed even further, having his guess confirmed.

Chagrined, the other students finally shuffled onto the arena floor and lay down in the practice area.

Jichu continued speaking to the class in a loud and clear voice from where she lay, “Learning Earth is going to be different and that’s because Earth is a different element. It has unique properties and capabilities.” She sat up, casually rubbing her hands together. “I should dispel the myths about earth now. It isn’t like a story from ‘Hunter and the Monkey.’ We don’t sling stones around and drop boulders on people.” She lay back down. “As entertaining as that book is, it is fantasy.”

Until right now, Xan hadn’t made the association. That was one of the books he used to read. Stories of caravan guards and travelers visiting faraway places and solving problems. In that book, they ran into wizards who used the elements.

“This is the last cycle before your finals,” Jichu said after a pause. “As such it falls on me to deliver the gravest of news.”

Xan heard the sharp inhale as the assembled students collectively held their breath in anticipation.

“There will be a formal dance at the end of the cycle, before the final trial,” she said with mock seriousness—the tension undercut by the melodious timbre to her voice. Xan was enchanted. “But, in all seriousness, between now and the end of the cycle, you will need to focus on your teams for preparation of the Finals. The finals will encompass everything you have learned from all the elements. I cannot emphasize enough, if you fail the Finals, and survive, you will be put out of the school.” That sobered Xan like a bucket of cold water. “But more than a few previous students have failed to survive at all.”

“Now, with that bit of news out of the way, let us focus our minds on the present and on the world all around us. Earth is a subtle element. It is both the easiest and hardest element to learn.” Jichu patted the ground next to her. “You might be wondering why we are laying on the ground?” Her question echoed Xan’s thoughts. “The best way to reach for earth is to get connected to it. Close your eyes. Feel where your body connects with the ground. That is where you will find earth.”

Xan closed his eyes and pushed his awareness along his back.

“As you feel the earth,” Instructor Jichu continued, “you will become aware of it. You will sense interactions on it. Like the person shaking their foot.”

“Sorry Instructor,” one of the students muttered.

Xan breathed in and pictured the ground like a pool. He pushed his awareness into the pool. In his mind’s eye, he saw all the students laying on the arena floor. He saw their heartbeats, but he didn’t feel it so much as visualized the beats like raindrops on the surface of a pond as each one caused a ripple in the surrounding ground. He sensed each of the students breathe in, then out. With a shock, he realized all the students were breathing in unison.

“Once you see it, pull some earth into your Qi. If it helps, bend your knees and put your feet flat on the ground,” Jichu told them softly. Xan did as she suggested. “Imagine the earth flowing up your feet—your connection to the ground—and blending with your Qi.”

Xan felt the earth power his Jin. He felt strong, centered and clear of thought. She had said it would be different.

“For today, we are going to do our meditation here,” she told them. “I want you to feel. Relax. But don’t go to sleep. Pull some earth into you, that will wake you up.” She trailed off, leaving them in the silence of breath and meditation.

After a while, Xan heard Instructor Jichu get up. He opened his eyes to find out what she was doing. “You all can get up now. We are going to apply what you’ve learned.”

Slowly, as though waking after a long night’s slumber, everyone gained their feet. Amazingly, they didn’t have to brush themselves off after laying in the dirt. Xan was stupefied. It was like the ground had simply decided to stay off of them.

“When you first started learning Qi, Instructor Wu taught you a sensitivity drill, yes?” Instructor Jichi looked around and, at the nods from the Seekers, she continued. “We are going to do that here, but with a twist.” Her lips quirked into a smile.

“Pair up,” Jichu said.

Everyone did as she asked, moving with the practiced rhythm of students who had nearly a year of training under their belts. Xan was paired up with Li Mei. She smiled at him. They had been practicing together for the better part of the school year and were very comfortable working together.

“Now, here’s the twist,” Instructor Jichu said, a mischievous ring in her words. “Close. Your. Eyes. I want you to touch earth. Feel your partner as they step. Feel their Yi, their intent. But do so without ever seeing them at all—at least with your physical senses. Begin!” She punctuated it with a foot stomp that reverberated through the dirt like a stone thrown into a smooth pond.

“Do you want to go first?” Xan asked Mei as he got into a stance, feet square, shoulder width apart.

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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: 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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