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Xan walked quietly back to the dorm, listening to the afternoon calls of the various birds. Cho and Sue gave him some space. He was quietly simmering about his bout with Kai Jin, and they seemed to realize it. He wanted to be mad—mad at the situation, mad at them, mad at Kai Jin—but the truth was, he could only be mad at himself. He’d failed. No one else. If he was going to make it at the school long term and get vengeance for the people of his village, he would need to get stronger. And far better at sparring.

But he, Cho, and Sue regularly practiced and fought, and he’d never done so poorly in those practice sessions.Maybe they were taking it easy on me? He thought absently. His steps faltered. Or maybe it was something with Kai Jin? Is he somehow able to anticipate what I am going to do?

At the dorm, Xan excused himself and ducked into his room, just long enough to grab his bag and some of the mushroom elixir he had prepared with Mistress Bimi. He tucked the pungent mixture into his sash. That done, he left his room, locking the door behind him, and hustled for the library. He needed to get in while it was still open.

During the walk to the library, he really started to stiffen up from the fight and it hurt if he breathed too deeply. The warm afternoon sunshine, as well as the thoughts of spending some time with that scroll, kept his spirits up. In no time, he was mounting the worn stone steps of the library. The front door opened with a creak. Xan wondered why they didn’t oil it when he saw that the sound had alerted Mistress Hon, who watched him close the door.

Xan slowly walked to the desk and greeted her tightly, words edged with the torment from his ribs. “Good afternoon, Mistress Hon.”

She saw immediately that he was in pain. “My goodness Xan, are you alright?” Her face was a beacon of concern.

Xan nodded. “Just a rough day in sparing.”

“Can I get you anything?”

“Well, I don’t know if it is permitted, but could I get some water for tea?” he asked hopefully.

“I can bring you a tea set.” Her face got serious. “But no flame is permitted in the library.”

Xan smiled and nodded. “No worries there, Mistress,” he replied with a nod and a smile. “I can manage fire enough to heat the water without needing flame.”

“Excellent. Where will you be?” she inquired.

“I’m headed up,” he hooked a thumb at the door leading to the restricted section.

“Perfect. I’ll bring it up to you there.” Mistress Hon offered him a motherly smile. “Do you need help up?”

“No thank you, Mistress. I really will be fine.” Xan bowed slightly and headed for the door, leaning slightly as he walked. Kai Jin really had done a number on him. Still, even with the pain in his ribs growing with every step, he tried to hurry. He wanted to get up and out of sight before any of the other students might see him and ask questions he couldn’t answer. The stairs didn’t pose a problem and soon he was in the alcove.

He settled his bag down and was looking where the scroll was when Mistress Hon arrived with a tea set. Xan was bewildered at how quickly she was able to get up to him. Maybe the stairs took longer than I thought?

With a nerve jangling scrape of wood on stone, he pulled out the chair from the table. He looked up quickly and apologized, “I’m sorry for the noise,” he said sheepishly.

Mistress Hon just smiled. “Don’t worry, dear.” She patted his cheek. “Just let me know if you need anything.” And with that, she was gone.

Xan opened the lid of the tea pot and touched his finger into the water. He reached his awareness into his heart and kindled the fire Qi, then channeled it down to his finger. In moments the water was steaming. It was much easier to heat the water than the whole pot.

He pulled the packet out and poured the earthy contents into the pot, then put the lid back on and let it steep while he retrieved the hidden scroll. He glanced around, making sure there was no one in sight, then pulled aside the weathered tome, standing guard over the scroll. With eager fingers and a hopeful heart, he pulled it free. He needed to find something that would let him have parity with the other Seekers or sparring was going to continue to be a lesson in humility.

He sat the scroll on the table, lifted the tea pot and poured some of the aromatic liquid into a porcelain cup. He sipped the brew, making sure it wasn’t too hot. Validated, he gulped the entire cup and poured a second. He drank that one quickly, too. Xan closed his eyes and reached into his dantien for his healing Qi. With the elixir in him, he used the cleansing Qi to wash through himself. His ribs ceased aching and his breathing improved in nothing flat.

Feeling better, he reached for the scroll and unwound the ribbon tying it closed. He began reading. He wound quickly through the scroll, rolling up the top as he unrolled the bottom keeping about two hands of the contents visible, vellum crackling as he rolled it. Xan wanted to see what all was in it. He found a discussion of blending fire and water. A technique, Phoenix Spreads Wings, to gather and focus power. And a very interesting attack, Phoenix Greets the Sun. The mechanisms seemed very intricate, a blending of powering his Jin with both fire and water elements and utilizing the focused output from Phoenix Spreads Wings.

There was an admonishment that this technique was best learned under direct tutelage at the Shizong training school. There was a poem. Xan unrolled the scroll further to see the poem and heard a metallic clink and the sound of a coin rolling on the floor. He quickly set down the scroll and frantically searched for the coin. He spotted movement out of the corner of his eye and spied the coin rolling to the entrance of the alcove and towards the edge to the galley below.

With a surge of speed, he dove, arms outstretched for the fleeing object. He landed with a grunt and slid after the fugitive coin, rolling to the edge. His fingers closed around it with barely an inch to spare. Xan exhaled a sigh of relief, then gingerly got to his feet and looked about to see if anyone had noticed his antics. Thankfully, it seemed his little misadventure had gone unseen.

He examined his troublesome captive.

It was a small silver coin with the bird from his dream on one side and a strange set of characters painstakingly hand-engraved on the other. Xan wondered why this coin was tucked in the scroll and was sure there had to be some significance, though he had no idea what it was. With nimble fingers, he tucked it into his sash.

Looking at the scroll, he read the poem.

Past the Valley’s son, where the bamboo sways

Beyond the monkey’s Paw, near where Panda plays

Darkness bends Light, above the giant’s reach

Sand flows up, to where the birds teach

Below was an inscription: The words show the way.

Xan wasn’t sure what the words showed. Meaning? Insight? He shrugged. No matter what, he had some direction and his spirit felt lighter for it. He grabbed his bag and got out his brush and paper. He wanted to get the techniques copied before dinner.

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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 and to find out what is happeing in the serise, they are available over at Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/markstallings

 


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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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