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“Are you okay?” Cho asked Xan after he had broken his stance for the fourth time in a row doing Push Hands. The other practitioners were working various techniques in their little area.

Xan listened to the burbling of the fountain. You should tell him, it seemed to whisper to him. Instead, he shook his head and focused on Cho. “After the beating I took yesterday, I’m just not into it tonight. I think I’ll just do some Qigong and work on getting my mind and body coordinated.”

Cho grimaced. “Yeah, you did get beaten like a naughty child,” he replied with the ghost of a smile.

“I think it was closer to beaten like a thieving dog,” Sue’s sweet voice floated up from behind him. Xan turned to see her laughing at him.

“You too?” Xan adopted a mock-wounded expression. “Can’t you see I’m too hurt to function?”

“Ha,” she barked a laugh. “Get to meditating. You heal better than anyone,” she continued, then grinned. “And need it more than anyone.” She winked at him. “Cho, would you care to do push hands while our injured friend licks his wounds?”

Xan choked at the onslaught, but neither of them bought it. “Fine, I’ll be over there.” He was glad his friends cared about him and felt guilty for having to deceive them.

He began the Qigong. Its calming and repetitive motion helped to direct his thoughts on the Phoenix techniques.

One by one, the other Seekers moved off for bed until it was just Sue, Cho, and Xan. After a time, they approached him. “Are you feeling better?” they asked.

He stopped what he was doing, letting his concentration waiver for the first time in hours. The Qi exercise had washed away the last of the bruising from sparing.

“I do,” he said. “I’m just going to work on the last little bit, so you don’t need to wait up for me.”

Cho just shrugged, though Sue didn’t look entirely convinced. If she had doubts, though, she kept them firmly to herself. The pair nodded and said their good nights, then headed off in separate directions. Xan watched them leave, then shook out his hands. He was both nervous and excited to try the first technique. He positioned himself with Phoenix Spreads Wings. One arm up and bent forward, the other down and forward. Both Palms out. He reached out with fire and water Qi, pushing energy into his hands. The elemental Qi formed and flowed… Only to fizzle a moment later. His water was more powerful than his fire.

He walked in a circle. The movement aiding in mulling through the problem. He came to a conclusion, then once more stepped into Phoenix Spreads Wings. He pulled hard from fire, then sent that and water Qi together in front of him.

The detonation threw Xan against the wall with a painful thump. The ground jumped at him. Apparently, that was what happened if you used too much fire. Noted. After a while the crickets resumed their chirping and the water trickled an accusatory I told you so, at him. Xan pushed his awareness through his body. Other than his pride, nothing was broken. “Well, now I understand the warning to train under supervision,” he mumbled, pushing himself upright, then brushing the grass and dirt from his clothes.

Deciding he had had enough punishment for one night, he left the garden area, the fountain splash-laughing at his retreating back.

#

Morning meditation went well and Instructor Jichu dismissed the class for an early lunch. Outside of the arena, a group of Seekers had gathered to discuss animal styles. The last of the students had attuned in the morning. Now everyone had two elements and were looking with eager anticipation toward the following school year.

Xan could hear them talking as he exited the building. The discussion was all about which animal forms they were most interested in. Of course, they had positioned themselves where Xan had to pass through them to leave. This gave Kai Jin an opportunity to call him out.

“Hey Xan, have you picked an animal style?” He said, earning a round of snide laughter from his henchmen. “Let’s see, what could Xan specialize in?” Jin pondered, tapping at his chin with one finger.

“A wingless bird?” Shun posed. The others laughed.

Xan smiled at them. “That was good. I like the wingless bird. How about the one-armed Monkey?” He asked in a self-deprecating way, curling an arm to scratch his armpit and making noises. Old Xan would have run off with his tail between his legs. Today, he felt no need. With the complete lack of the reaction he had been hoping for, Kai Jin’s look soured and Xan felt a surge of satisfaction at the minor victory. Rob a bully of their power and they move on. “Anything else?” Xan asked. No one responded, so he moved on through with a satisfied smile.

Sue caught up with him. “How are you doing today?” She asked, eyeing him and expecting a different reaction.

“I’m great, actually. The earth sensitivity stuff is really starting to click,” Xan said calmly. “How about you?” After a moment of silence, he looked at her. Really saw her. She was peering intently at him. “What?” He asked.

“Aren’t you bothered by what Kai Jin said?” Sue asked.

He smiled at her, then focused forward. “Not in the least.”

“I’m impressed with your calm,” she replied sincerely.

Another small victory. Xan felt like the frost was melting and her concern was genuine.

#

With the test looming over them, Xan pushed himself harder than ever. He spent every waking hour not in class or sleeping in the library trying to find more information on the Phoenix school, this mysterious Shizong training school, or anything at all on the General that had destroyed the village.

Late on the third day, Xan’s efforts paid off and he hit pay dirt. He found a book on the merchant travels of the Silk Road as written by a caravaneer. The traveler mentioned ‘The Evil Ruler’ and how he had turned eight legendary generals—corrupting them and establishing the dark land of Heian Damen to the South. Not a lot to go on, but it was a lead. He had never heard of any of this and furiously took notes. This was exactly the kind of information they needed to find this guy and avenge their families.

Xan looked up at the stack where he found the book. He was still on the fifth shelf. There were eight more shelves just on this side of the alcove. There had to be a better way to look for this stuff. Xan decided to go ask Mistress Hon.

She looked up as he came out the door near her desk. “How is it going Xan?”

“Mistress, I have a question for you. It is taking me forever to get through the books.” He gestured up toward the restricted section. “There is so much information that I am going to be here most of my adult life reading. Is there an easier way to find what I am looking for?”

“Sure, there is,” she said simply with a smile.

Xan stood with his mouth agape. “There is? Why would you let me look the hard way?” he asked. Feeling more than a little indignant.

“Simple,” she replied with no malice. “You don’t know what you don’t know—and you never will until you learn to ask for help. This is a wisdom you must learn for yourself, which is why Sifu forbids us from offering it preemptively,” she explained. “You must ask, for it is only in the asking that the meaning will be clear.”

Xan hoped she would explain since he was having trouble following her cryptic reply.

She tuned and grabbed a large tome. “Let me show you.” She put the volume with its spine on the table. “Clear your mind, focus on the information you want—be specific and let your awareness, and some Qi, flow into the book then let it fall open.” Xan heard the gentle flow of Qi in his mind and she let the book go. It fell open to a page on goldenseal. “I was thinking about this herb and the fates turn the pages.” She smiled. “Sometimes the fates are kind.”

“May I try it?” Xan asked.

She nodded and handed him the book. It was Shennong’s Materia Medica. He thought of an herb, let the Qi flow and let go of the book. It opened to Goldenseal. “Ah, it didn’t seem to work. I was thinking of Echinacea.”

Mistress Hon laughed a light silvery laugh. She reached out and turned the page. There was Echinacea. “It sometimes is very specific. Sometimes you have to search around. Either way, this technique will speed up your searching.”

Grateful, Xan bowed. “Thank you so much, mistress.”

“You are welcome.” Mistress Hon put the tome back to the side shelf and resumed whatever she had been working on, dismissing Xan to continue his search in the ancient works.

#

That night, the practice area was empty except for a quartet of crickets. After a hard day in class, many of the students must have decided to rest. Xan sat on a pine bench and pulled out his notes from the scroll. The form Phoenix Spreads Wings was supposed to be a convergence of fire and water. The last time he tried it, the convergence of energy had pummeled him. Xan put the pages back in his bag, took a deep breath, and pulled in Qi. Gently, he projected both of the elements into a tight stream, merging the flows. Trying to braid them together into one. Like before, water cancelled fire.

Frustrated, he cut the flows.

Sitting on the bench, he watched the fountain, mesmerized by the splash of water on the rocks.

Watching the rush of water gave Xan the glimmer of an idea.

What if, instead of trying to merge the flows, he fed fire into the water? Xan stood up. The cricket’s chirps cheered him on in his efforts. He projected water. Then he pulled hard on fire and shoved it into the water. The eruption of energy knocked Xan flat on his back, breathless. His cheerleaders went silent. After several minutes of listening to the quiet burble, the crickets slowly resumed their encouragement. “Well, at least I didn’t fly into a wall this time,” he croaked out.

Still, he wasn’t sure if that was a victory or not.

Xan rolled over onto his knees and slowly stood up. He reached out a hand to the nearby bench as the blood rushed from his head. The thump of his heart tapped in his ears and blackness gnawed at the edges of his vision. Light-headed, he took a tentative step towards his bag. As the blood returned, he moved with more and more assurance. Xan pulled out his notes. I am missing something, but what? He sat for a bit, then fished out his ink and brush, determined to write down what didn’t work. There had to be a pattern, even if he didn’t see it yet. He figured enough experimentation would lead him to the correct path.

If it doesn’t kill me in the process.

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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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