While the others headed off to the pottery project section of the library, Xan slipped away from his friends and quickly headed back to the restricted section.
He had searched through another two shelves since he started. He pulled a tome off the shelf titled ‘Krout Rituals.’ Thumbing through the book, he wasn’t really sure what a Krout was or if any of these rituals worked. When he went to put the book back, he noticed something wedged back behind everything. Xan moved several of the books and found a scroll had fallen, becoming lodged between this set of shelves and the ones behind it. After a couple of minutes of prying, he finally wiggled it loose.
He sat at the reading chair and unrolled the scroll. It was ancient, so he opened it carefully. The tile read ‘Forms of the Phoenix Style.’ Xan wasn't sure what that was. He tried to think through all the animal styles and he didn’t remember a phoenix style. He shrugged and kept reading. It was a treatise on the Phoenix animal style. Xan got excited when it described blending fire and water for greater effects. This was it! The path Sifu must have wanted Xan to know about! But Sifu couldn't have known about this scroll or that Xan would accidentally come across it. Could he?
Xan heard the swish of robes and brush of cotton soles on the marble floor. In a panic, he quickly rolled the scroll up and put it back behind the tomes. He had pulled the next book off the shelf when Mistress Hon came to the opening of the alcove.
“Oh, there you are, Xan. Your friends were asking about you,” she told him.
“Oh! I completely lost track of time.” Xan slid the book back into place, carefully noting where the scroll was hidden, and gathered his notes. “I’ll go join them.” He followed Mistress Hon back to the spiral staircase.
Once on the ground floor, he followed the sounds of conversation to the pottery projects section. There, a number of students were going through the little booklets. Xan found Sue and Cho over to one side, talking quietly. They looked up as he approached.
“Xan. Where did you wander off to?” Cho asked, concern touching his expression and coloring his tone.
“Um, I wasn't feeling well, so I was in the bathroom,” Xan lied. He really didn’t like deceiving his best friend, but Sifu had been pretty explicit. Besides, Xan didn’t have anything to tell Cho. Not yet, anyway. “Did you pick a project?” Xan asked, changing the topic.
Cho seemed to know something was up, but he didn’t press Xan on it—for which Xan was grateful. Instead, they talked about the various projects. So far nothing had leapt out, but he was sure they would find something, eventually. The dinner bell chimed, the sound a clarion call, so they packed up their stuff and headed to the front. Xan glanced up toward stack fourteen. An ember of hope burned in his chest. He would be back.
As they walked, Sue picked up on Xan’s positive change in mood. “You must be feeling better, Xan,” she said with a soft smile.
“Oh yes. Much better.” He replied, genuinely meaning it. For the first time since he attuned to fire, Xan was truly excited.
Instructor Jichu stood in the center of the arena. “With the trials coming up, we are going to step up the sparring.” She stomped her food and, with a rumble, a circle appeared in the dirt around her about twelve feet in diameter. “Here are the rules. First, the opponents will spar in this ring. A solid hit on an opponent is a point. Knocking an opponent down is one point. Knocking them out of the ring is a point. First to three points wins the match.”
She looked around at the students, surveying their faces with hard eyes. “Any questions?” she barked. No one had any. She stomped her foot again and a line drew down the center of the arena, dividing it in half. She pointed to where one end of the line was. “Left versus right. You two go first.” Jichu moved out of the circle to watch the matchup.
Cho stepped up to the circle. San Shun was opposite him. They both stepped into the circle. Jichu yelled, “Begin!”
Cho immediately powered his Jin with earth on his legs and Metal on his hands. He shot forward—Xan could almost hear a sucking sound as Cho moved while being rooted. His hands glowed with a white nimbus.
Shun powered up his Jin, thick, ropy green bands surrounding his arms like engorged vines.
Cho plowed into him with a series of blade handed strikes. Verdant sparks showered up and out with each strike at Shun. Shun shifted back and a loud pop stopped the fight. They both stepped back and looked at Instructor Jichu.
“Point Cho. Shun stepped out of the ring. Reset!” she said.
The two moved back and once more squared off. This time Cho powered his hands with Earth.
“Begin!” Jichu shouted.
Shun roared and charged Cho, throwing a flurry of blazing fast attacks.
Cho executed a perfect parry and counter strike, landing a devastating fist right on Shun’s chin. Normally it would have barely contacted, but Shun had inadvertently blundered forward and into the earth Jin powered punch. With a meaty thunk and a shower of yellow sparks, Shun was knocked to his back.
“Point Cho. Res—” a shout from Cho interrupted her.
Arms wide, a golden fountain of energy erupted out of the ground, swallowing Cho in blinding light. He called out in jubilation as the motes settled on him. His eyes blazed yellow, almost golden. He had attuned to earth.
Shun lay still on the ground.
“Congratulations on attuning to earth Tang Cho. It looks like you might have knocked out Shun in the process. Can someone get a bucket of water, please?”
Once the seekers had settled down and finished congratulating Cho, Instructor Jichu called for the next pair to take to the earthen ring.
Xan’s heart sank when Kai Jin stepped into the ring opposite him. Of course it had to be Kai Jin. How could he have expected anything different?
“Ready?” Jichu asked.
Kai Jin powered up his hands with fire Jin. Xan did the same, feeling the strength and speed flood his limbs in a torrent.
“Begin!” she yelled, slashing one hand through the air.
Unlike Cho—who stormed straight into battle—Xan moved cautiously, feeling out his opponent. Kai Jin shifted left, seeming to savor the matchup. Xan moved to match. With a burst of speed, Kai Jin jumped right and lashed out with a kick at Xan’s side. He was barely able to get his arm and elbow down to block the kick. Crimson sparks erupted at the contact, which momentarily distracted Xan from the right Tiger Palm that landed square on his chest.
“Point Jin!” Jichu called.
Xan moved back into position, trying to avoid rubbing his chest where he was sure a palm print was bruised into his flesh. He shifted to water Jin and felt the cool calm strength of a deep river flow out from his core to strengthen his arms and legs. The burning on his chest faded as the water Qi healed the spot, instantly sapping away the tenderness. Xan saw Jin sneer at the Azure energy suffusing his hands.
“Begin!” She shouted.
Xan flowed forward toward Jin, this time going on the offense early.
Just as Xan threw a strike, Kai Jin’s aura flashed yellow. Too late, Xan realized Kai Jin had powered with Earth as the double fists parried his blow and in a spray of gold and cobalt sparks, Xan was laid out onto his back.
“Point Jin!” Jichu called. Xan rolled onto his knees and back upright. He moved over to the ready position.
“Begin!” the instructor yelled for the third time.
Xan threw a ball of water at Kai Jin.
The unorthodox attack seemed to surprise him, allowing Xan to get close and launch a series of punches. Jin blocked each of the strikes and tried to bring the rhythm of Earth back into play. But this time, Xan anticipated Kai Jin’s earth form parry and, as Kai Jin was committed to the double fist strike, Xan replaced water with the fire Jin he had stored up. The blaze enervated his arm with the strength to pull the parry. The look of surprise on Kai Jin’s face fueled Xan’s confidence, and he shifted to take advantage.
Focused as he was on his fiery punches, Xan didn’t realize he had left himself wide open until Kai Jin’s knee connected with Xan’s left side, expelling his breath in a gurgly whoosh. Xan dropped to a knee from the pain, one arm raised to block a follow up punch. Xan was completely open when Kai Jin twisted and delivered a wheel kick with the same leg he just threw the knee strike with. The hollow thump of the foot into his ribs threw Xan over the boundary of the ring.
“Match!” Jichu yelled.
Kai Jin leaned over and said in a terse whisper, “Earth controls water by damning or absorbing it, idiot.” A smug look tattooed on his face, he headed back to where Chao and Shun stood and the three laughed at something Kai Jin said.
Xan got to his feet and staggered over to the side where Cho and Sue waited. “That could have gone better,” he croaked, holding his side.
“Excellent job everyone,” Instructor Jichu said. “Remember to practice your sensitivity and enjoy your rest day.” She gently tapped her foot and the circle and diving line disappeared and the dirt arena was smooth again.
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- Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA
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.