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A tap on the table next to him startled Xan out of the history book he had been reading. He looked up and found Lee Bo standing over him with an amused expression.

“How are you doing Xan?” Bo pulled out a chair and sat at the table. Xan thought the blue of the Adept candidate robes looked good on his friend.

“I’m okay,” he replied with a shrug and a small yawn. He’d been hitting the reading harder than ever—just like every other aspect of his training. “Just trying to do some research. There are a lot of history books here and not all of it is very clear.” Xan pushed the book away. “This here is an account of a farmer down south talking about unusually heavy rainfall.” He grimaced and focused on Lee Bo. To call the reading dull was a colossal understatement. But there were still important things he could gleam. “How about you?” he asked, shifting the topic. “What brings you to the library?” Xan asked.

Bo sat up a little and leaned his elbows on the table. “Believe it or not, but I was looking for you.” The way he said it made Xan curious.

“Oh?” Xan asked. “Is everything alright?”

Lee Bo smiled at him. “I wanted to see how things were progressing for the finals. They are coming up, no?” He narrowed his eyes. “How are you holding up? Seriously.” Xan could tell he was concerned.

“Honestly, I’m nervous,” Xan admitted. He glanced around to see if there was anyone near. “I don’t know what to do about the trial. I don’t know if our team is strong enough.” He took a deep breath, then forged ahead. “I don’t know if I’m strong enough.”

Bo smiled sympathetically. “I’ve been right where you are. But the truth is, the three of you are stronger than you think. Especially if you work together. Lean on each other. The trials change year to year, but I can tell you this…” He looked Xan square in the eyes. “You are the only one who can prevent you from succeeding. Don’t be your own worst enemy.”

Xan barked a laugh. “Wise words, but unfortunately I don’t know how to get out of my own way.” The admission seemed to remove some of the burden Xan had been carrying. Bo was right. The more he thought on that, the less it seemed the world was leaning in on him.

“You’ll do fine,” Bo replied, clapping him on the shoulder. “How about more pleasant events? Like the dance.” He waggled his eyebrows at Xan. “Are you all set? Have a date?” Lee Bo asked. The question took a bit for Xan to process.

When Xan did his eyes flew wide and he shot up. “The Dance!” Xan exclaimed. “Oh no. I haven’t put any thought into it. I’ve been occupied with class and pottery and Earth elemental training and practice and research here in the library. What am I going to do?” Xan groaned, running a hand through his hair.

“I figured as much. That’s why I came to find you.” Lee Bo stood up. “Let’s go find Cho and see about getting you ready, huh?”

Xan nodded gratefully. Once again, Bo was rescuing him. Xan hurriedly put his notes into his bag. He grabbed the book. “I need to put this back. Do you want to meet me in front?” he asked.

Lee Bo shook his head. “I’ll walk with you.” He followed Xan into the stack. When they got to the restricted area, Bo raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“I got permission to do research,” Xan said by way of explanation.

From there, the two walked to the dorms. Students called greetings to Lee Bo as they strolled in the sunshine, soaking up the warmth and beauty of the day. Xan had to admit, the leisurely pace in the sunshine, the warm breeze blowing and the birds singing helped to ease his burdens. Finally, after a bit, Xan opened up. “I’ve been looking into the people that attacked my village.”

Bo stole a sidelong glance at him. “Is that how you got access to the restricted section?” he asked.

Xan shook his head, “No…” he lowered his voice. “Sifu wanted me to do some research after I attuned to Fire.” He looked around, but no one was near.

“Well, have you found anything?” Bo asked quietly.

Xan was pretty sure he was asking about the water-fire problem, but Xan decided he needed to keep that a secret for now. “Not as much as I was hoping for. But, I’ve found an amazing amount on the Dark Ruler and the Eight.” Xan said. “You were there when Sifu told us that Golden Spear’s troops attacked my village. Since then, what I’ve found is that they have been attacking villages along the south for years.”

Lee Bo nodded. “Yeah, we hear things trickling in. There was a lot of talk amongst the elders at the last Martial Festival.” His face was somber. “Best to be careful when you talk about this stuff, though. Not everyone knows. And some of those who do would prefer those secrets remain secret.”

He trailed off as they arrived at the dorm, which was busy with the hustle and bustle of students. They made their way to Cho’s room and, after several knocks, he opened the door.

“Lee Bo? And Xan? How are you both?” Cho asked.

“I came to save our friend here from the library,” Bo said with a smile.

Xan jumped in, “Save is a strong word.”

“No, I think it’s exactly right,” Bo replied.

Xan sighed. “Truth is, I completely forgot about the dance and haven’t made any preparations. I didn’t ask anyone to go to it either. Cho, did you want to go together?” Xan asked in a breathless rush.

The tumble of words caught Cho off-guard. “Slow down a bit, Xan,” Cho said, working through the rush of information. “Well, I would go with you, but I’ve already asked someone,” he said sheepishly then grinned suddenly. “I can see if she has a friend?”

Xan held up his hands and made a face. “No thank you,” he said ruefully. The last time Xan had gone out with a ‘friend’ it hadn’t ended well. Not at all.

Lee Bo coughed. “What are you two wearing to the dance?” he asked. Xan and Cho both stared at him uncomprehendingly. “You haven’t thought that far, have you?” Bo chuckled. “You two really are county lads to the core.”

Cho looked chagrined and Xan stood pole-axed. “What are we going to do?” Cho asked in earnest.

Lee Bo laughed at them. “Take it easy. Let’s go to a shop I know of and we can get you both outfitted.”

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A note from MarkStallings

Thank you for taking the 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


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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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