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Mei nodded. “Okay. Let me know when you are ready,” she said, mirroring his stance.

Xan closed his eyes and reached out with his awareness downward into the earth. It took a bit, as if putting his face in water, before he could ‘see’ the movement of the people near him. At first it was overwhelming. Too much input, like thirty people shouting in a small room. But, ever so slowly, he drew his senses back, tuning out the white noise until he could see Mei clearly. Or rather, he could sense where Mei’s feet touched the ground—the rest of the class a murmur in the background.

“Okay, I’m ready,” he told her.

Mei lifted her left leg. Xan could sense the foot leave the dirt. He stepped back as her left toe touched the ground and reappeared to his senses, only closer to him. This was amazing. He could see without his eyes. It was incomplete sight, but he had never thought to use Qi awareness in this manner. He wondered what he could do with the other elements.

Mei coughed politely, pulling him back to the moment and reminding him it was his turn. He lifted his foot and could sense her lift her left leg in time to his movement. He focused intently on the interaction and marveled in what he sensed. They continued this dance until Jichu called for them to stop.

“Alright. That will be enough for today. Practice your meditation. Tomorrow we will continue with the sensitivity drill. Dismissed.” The Instructor bowed slightly and turned to the far side of the arena. Xan noticed a stone door bricked in the wall. With a light rush in his mind, the door opened as Jichu approached. He could make out an office on the other side and guessed that must be her study. It was hidden in the corner of the building. I knew it was square on the outside, Xan thought. He glanced where the other corners were and wondered what they might contain. Xan shrugged and walked to where his friends waited.

“How did it go?” Xan asked Cho.

“This is pretty amazing.” Cho said. “I really like how you can focus and narrow down what you sense.”

“I had issues holding back all the noise,” Xan confessed, running a hand through his hair.

Cho clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t sweat it, brother. You’re doing well.”

They joined Sue and headed back to the dorms.

“So, how was class?” Xan asked Sue.

“It was alright,” she replied, a smile flickering on her face.

“You knew who she was didn’t you?” Xan accused her, teasingly.

“Yes. She’s one of grandmother’s closest friends. I was warned not to react. Apparently she does that to all of the first-years to varying degrees of reaction. One year, a student fled to the infirmary. Only, no one knew until Grandmother brought them back into the arena.” Sue smiled at the story. Xan liked how it made her face soften.

#

The next day they once again did meditation laying down, then pushed right into the sensitivity drill. After the lunch break, Jichu called for them to take their places around the arena. “How are you feeling with the sensitivity drill?” she asked the class in earnest. “Anyone need more time?” The students looked around, but no one spoke up. “Okay. Let’s start into what makes this difficult, the martial aspect of Earth. You”—she pointed to Sue—“come on up here.”

Sue stepped up to the front of the class and bowed. Instructor Jichu returned the honorific then addressed the class as she took a stance.

“Now, Sue is going to attack slowly with a punch on the left side.” She motioned for Sue to attack. “Earth blends defense and offence into the same move. I will begin parrying by pushing through the center line at mouth level.” Her right hand came up the center of her chest and speared forward, fist palm up. “As you can see, it projects over Sue’s attack. The first half is to block by pushing down and forward.” Matching Sue’s speed, Jichu countered Sue’s punch with her fist sliding along the top of Sue’s arm. “The second half is a strike which glides along the arm right into their face.”

She halted the punch just before it touched Sue’s nose.

“Once again, at speed.”

This time, Sue threw a normal speed punch and Instructor parried with ease, before driving her own attack into Sue’s unprotected face. Though once again, she showed supreme ability and restraint by stopping less than a finger’s-width from impact. She bowed to Sue, then turned back to the class. “Pair up and practice this slowly.” She stomped the earth, which gave a pop about as loud as a firm hand clap.

Today, Xan paired up with Sue, which was nice.

“You attack first,” she told him, dropping into the earthen stance as though she’d already done so a hundred times before. They worked at slow speed, first block striking with the right, then switching to the left. At the end of the session, they were picking up speed.

“Aaaaahhh!” The loud exultation startled Xan. He and Sue stopped what they were working on and looked to find the source. On the far side, Kai Jin was in a fountain of yellow energy welling up out of the practice ground. It boiled up around him, eventually settling onto him then disappearing. Kai Jin sported a Cheshire-cat like grin, ear-to-ear.

Instructor Jichu congratulated him, “Kai Jin, you are the first to attune to earth.” She looked around the room. “Who else only has one attunement so far?”

Cho, Li Mei, and twenty-six other students raised their hands. Jichu nodded, “Fair enough. The most likely is that you will attune to earth. However,” she admonished, “occasionally, people will attune to something else, it just depends on what destiny has in store for you.” She looked around at the first-years. “This is probably a good stopping point. During your library time, I encourage you all to look at the earth tomes. You might find some things that are helpful.” She stomped her foot—the accompanying crack was resounding. “Dismissed.”

Outside the building, Kai Jin was holding court. “This means I will become turtle, one of the special styles.” Xan saw that Kai Jin focused on him and took a deep breath, preparing for what was to come. “Oh, look! It’s Xan, the boy with no animal.” Jin laughed and his cronies chortled right along with him. The others in the group either looked embarrassed or smiled long.

Xan felt his face flush and quickened his pace to get out of range of the heckling. He really didn’t need to be reminded of the cruel joke fate had played on him. Xan sighed heavily, feeling defeated. After a couple of moments, Xan heard hurried steps and glanced over his shoulder to find Cho and Sue jogging to catch up with him.

“You headed to the library?” Cho asked as he fell into step next to Xan. Sue took a position on Xan’s other side.

The presence of his friends helped Xan’s mood. Maybe he wouldn’t have an animal, as Kai Jin suggested, but he resolved to find the path that Sifu had hinted at. There was a way forward for him, even if it was wildly unconventional. Two fingers dipped into his sash and he felt the token that was his pass to the knowledge he sought. He longed to tell Cho and Sue about it, but remembered Sifu’s admonishment.

When they finally reached the library, they went upstairs to the elements section where they had been spending most of their time. There were a few of the other students already studying away. Cho and Sue each grabbed a book and moved over to their usual spot at the tables. Xan waited until both were engrossed in their reading material, then made his way back to the front desk where Mistress Hon sat.

She looked up at him with a smile, “Hello Gao Xan. How are you today?” she asked.

“I’m okay today. I need your help with something.” Xan pulled out the token and slid it across the counter to her.

She looked at the token and looked back at Xan, eyebrows raised with an unspoken question.

Xan shrugged. “Sifu wanted me to find an answer.”

“Well”—Mistress Hon took the token and put it into her sash—“we have plenty of answers. But do you know the question?” She smiled when Xan shook his head. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out. The section you want is opposite the hall from where the elements are.” She pointed away from where Sue and Cho were sitting. Xan followed her finger. As the second floor of the library was divided in half by the open space and vaulted central ceiling, Xan was unsure how to get over there.

Almost reading his mind, Mistress Hon pointed to a door tucked away in the back corner. “You take the spiral staircase behind that door.” She cocked her head at him. “Now, the rules for the restricted section. You can look and take notes, but you are not to remove any of the materials. I would suggest starting in the 14th stack.” She smiled at his confusion, then, wordlessly dismissing him, went back to whatever she had been working on when he came up.

Xan threaded his way across the library and opened the door, which let out onto a spiral staircase, twisting up. Xan closed the door behind him and quickly mounted the stairs, his hand instinctively following along the brass handrail. He exited out onto the floor for this side of the library.

Unlike the other side, this was packed even tighter with books. Each alcove floor to ceiling with bookshelves. A small ladder attached to a rail along the top by wheels was in front of each case. A stained-glass window provided light and each alcove held a reading table. Xan started stepping past the stacks. Each had symbols on the dark wood of the frame describing what was on that shelf.

He made it to the 14th stack, History of Magix. This looked promising. He glanced over his shoulder to see if any of his classmates could see him. No one was in view, so he stepped into the alcove, eyes skipping over title after title. Looking for anything that jump out at him. All too soon, it was time to leave the library.

On their walk back, Cho asked Xan, “Where did you disappear to?”

Xan shrugged, “I just got lost in browsing books.” He barely made it through one shelf. Searching was going to take a while.

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Thank you for taking time to read my story. If you would like early access to whole chapters, art, and other things, 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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