The Parable of Shuxiang Academy [Short]
A port to the East Xina Sea in Shanghae, The Eastern Nation of Xina; 1:07 pm
Shannon Grey relaxed outside a seaside restaurant, satisfied with her lunch. She was a slender girl with fair skin and sandy-blond hair styled as a tousled bob. Chopsticks and small empty bowls that once contained sweet and sour pork, scallop fried rice, and stir-fried vegetables were piled next to a receipt on a table. A few coins on top of the paper strip kept the wind from blowing it away.
Shannon’s choice of clothing had a sporty aesthetic. Her baseball cap kept the sunlight away from her thick eyelashes and gray eyes, which were busy reviewing a phrasebook on Mandarin Xinese. Her upper body wore a hoodie jacket, but she also wore a pair of dolphin shorts that let her thin but toned legs move unhindered. A pair of running shoes was her favored choice of footwear.
Taking a break from practicing her Mandarin, Shannon slipped in a pair of earbuds and played some music from her smartphone while also using the device to update her social media.
[Shannon Grey @ShannonTheGray189 · July 17
I’m in love with this nation already. #Lunch was amazing. Wish I didn’t gobble it so fast. Just gonna sit back and enjoy the ocean view while waiting for my ride. Will post more soon, but here’s to my new school life in #Xina!
#ExchangeStudent #StudyAbroad #XineseFood #Foodgasm]
She posted that update and a picture of her lunch (before and after) on her Facespace, Tweeter, and Instacam accounts. Shannon lied about her age when registering for those platforms, but she was now about a year away from reaching the minimum age.
After posting, Shannon gently played with a white cat that approached her out of curiosity. It was a stray that liked to lounge around the restaurant thanks to the many fish dishes on its menu. The staff fed it scraps every now and then.
Then, without anyone touching them, Shannon’s earbuds fell off simultaneously.
“Sorry, were we interrupting?”
A mostly polite voice called Shannon out before she could wonder how her earbuds slipped out so suddenly and forcefully. Following the voice and sounds of shoes scraping gravel, Shannon spotted two people who approached her in uniforms that had a natural fit for martial arts. They appeared to be around her age, had pale complexions, and both wore colored shadow on the outer edges of their slanted eyes.
One of them was a boy whose shaggy raven hair complimented a long braid above his nape. His uniform was a sleeveless purple hanfu gown over white inner robes and pants tied by a purple belt around his waist. His eyes were narrowed to slits.
His companion, a girl, had long black hair as smooth as silk. A fringe of her hair covered her left eye. Her hanfu gown and belt were red, while her inner robes and pants were black.
"I was just about to get lost in the good part of the song, mate. But eh, it’s easy to rewind,” Shannon spoke with a standard British accent and packed her earbuds back into their small case. She gave the cat a few more gentle strokes under its chin before waving it goodbye. “I take it you two are my chaperones to Shuxiang?”
The boy lost his straight face for an easygoing smile. “It’s obvious you’re the one we’re looking for since no one else here seems to be a foreigner. But for the sake of formality…”
Shannon’s eyes widened a little as the boy flashed a scroll from his uniform before reading its contents in a playfully firm voice.
“Let’s see here… Shannon Grey, 12 years old, born in the Union of Kingdoms (the UK), and invited to attend Shuxiang Academy by her older twin brother, Allen.”
Shannon shrugged with a smile. “Guilty as charged.”
Grinning, the boy clutched the entire scroll in one hand without even bothering to roll it back. “Then I won’t be needing this anymore.”
“《 龙的 Path of the Dragon: Scarlet Cremation 路径 》”
The strange sequence of words the boy spoke was one thing, but Shannon wouldn’t be as flabbergasted as she was if the boy’s hand didn’t erupt flames that burned the scroll into ashes. “What did you just do?!”
“A basic technique from the Dragon Path of Shuxiang kung fu,” the boy said, sounding more upbeat. “You know what it’s like to have a fever? I was trained to control the temperature in my hands at will, and raising it high enough will ignite the natural oils in my skin to ‘create’ fire.”
He intensified his flames before shaking them away. “Of course, I also had to learn how to resist that kind of heat. And now that this lesson is concluded...”
He and his female companion united their hands to form a sign as they greeted Shannon with a bow.
Shannon noted that their hand signs differed―the boy made his left fingers resemble claws that caught his right fist. His female companion had her left hand pointing straight up as her right fist rested between its palm and wrist.
“Pleased to meet you. I am Sun Liehuo of the Dragon Path,” the boy said before directing Shannon to the girl on his left. “And this is Zheng Fenghuang of the Rooster Path. She’s been quiet this whole time because she’s still practicing her English. Go easy on her, okay?”
Before Sun Liehuo knew it, Shannon had already closed in on his companion with both hands clasped behind her back. That vulnerable demeanor was enough to break the other girl out of her formal bow and make her feet momentarily lose contact with the ground.
“Hi there~,” Shannon cooed to the girl that now appeared to be taller than her.
Zheng Fenghuang’s lips twitched a little. “He-hello.”
Whether her response was due to a lack of confidence in English or because she wasn’t used to dealing with foreigners (maybe both), it left Shannon amused.
“If you need help with your English, let’s study together. I’ll teach you many things you can’t learn from a book~.”
Her offer left Zheng Fenghuang too flustered to accept or decline.
“So you’re the type who’s not afraid to act casual so soon,” Sun Liehuo interjected, much to Zheng Fenghuang’s relief. “I’ll admit that’s very refreshing, but keep in mind that most of us Xinese are the conservative type. Your approach might work against you one of these days.”
Shannon turned to him for a moment before walking away to get her traveling case on wheels. “Yep, I really am in another nation.”
With their introductions complete, Sun Liehuo and Zheng Fenghuang led Shannon to a boat meant to serve as their transport to Shuxiang Academy. For some reason, it never moved away from where it was parked despite the ocean waves flowing around it. Sun Liehuo mentioned it to be special, and Shannon got what he meant when she saw it.
…Or so she thought.
“Quick question,” Shannon deadpanned. “How did you two manage to get here with that?!”
The boat was cloudy-white and large enough to carry more than three people. Other than those, it was simple in design. So simple that it lacked a motor… or sails… even oars to row it was nowhere to be found.
“How about we find out together?” Sun Liehuo stepped aside to let Zheng Fenghuang board the boat before inviting Shannon to go next.
Once the three of them settled down, Sun Liehuo, stationing himself on the boat’s rear end, clenched a hand into a fist before dipping it into the ocean water. Zheng Fenghuang sat cross-legged on the opposite end of the boat with one hand raised in a prayer gesture.
It started slow, but it wasn’t long before the boat began gliding across the water with enough speed to let its passenger enjoy a light breeze of drag wind on their faces and hair.
“This is easier said than done,” Sun Liehuo began. “But I’m trapping and compressing a handful of air before releasing it underwater to propel us forward. I could do better if I used both hands, but one is good enough for this.”
Shannon jolted. “Wait, it’s actually possible to do something like that?”
“Just like how I can play with fire, it is, thanks to the training and conditioning I went through in Shuxiang Academy. There’s no guarantee that you would want to go down the same Path as mine, though.”
“Well I’ll be…” Shannon wondered what other unimaginable techniques she might see soon. “Does this technique have a name too?”
Sun Liehuo nodded. “I named it, Path of the Dragon: Tempest Thunderclap. Care for a closer look?”
Without hesitation, light footsteps rocked the boat as Shannon moved over and crouched over to Sun Liehuo’s side. Theoretical sparkles glinted in her eyes as she marveled at the water’s surface, where a cone of bubbles fanned outward from the boy’s hand, streaming until all the air he gathered was released.
“That’s pretty brill,” she said. “I haven’t been this excited to go to school since, well, never!”
Sun Liehuo smirked. “There will be many things for you to discover soon, if you do make it to the Academy, that is.”
The boat stopped.
Before Shannon could go, “huh?” the sharp tip of an elbow slammed into her face. Dazed and sent recoiling from the stinging blow, Shannon cradled her numb face while thrashing about in pain.
Her hands felt warmth and wetness. She looked at them and saw bloodstains.
“You tosser… that was no accident!” She shot a fiery glare toward Sun Liehuo, who rose and loomed over her, completely aloof.
“Listen well, Shannon Grey. You should expect the unexpected from here on,” he said, still wearing his easygoing smile. “This is Shuxiang Academy’s unwritten golden rule. It’s nothing new in general, but it’s never spoken literally within school grounds. Most of us were taught this the hard way and often taught too late. In other words, I just gave you a free advantage over the majority. You’re welco―”
He swayed away, unfazed. Only a few locks of his hair got grazed by the roundhouse kick Shannon attempted for revenge.
“Close. But not close enough.”
Shannon wiped away the tears in her eyes and snorted out the blood in her nose. “What is the meaning of this?!” she growled.
Sun Liehuo just palmed a hand to his face. “Did you not realize? We may not have arrived at Shuxiang Academy yet, but your fated trials there have already begun.”
He waved two fingers that told Shannon to look around. Chills ran down her spine as she realized that their surroundings had become cloudy enough to dim the sunlight.
Fog?! In the ocean during summer? That just doesn’t happen, does it?
“We’re far enough from the port in Xina but not close enough to Shuxiang Island,” Sun Liehuo continued. “It’s the perfect time to dump the evidence to sea should you fail. If your brother asks Fenghuang or me what happened, we can just say you never showed up… or you changed your mind and fled.”
Hearing that made Shannon’s eyes burn.
“Don’t you dare…” she said, cracking her knuckles.
Sun Liehuo remained unshaken by her bravado. “Oh, this is nothing compared to what’s waiting ahead. If I’m honest, I’m actually offering you a less terrible fate worse than death.”
He no longer needed to taunt her after seeing how his words inspired Shannon to raise her fists and shift her weight into one leg. She slid into a fighting stance he recognized from a previous opponent.
“Oh? Very well then,” Sun Liehuo chortled. “We’ll proceed ahead, but only if you win.”
As he slid into his own fighting stance, the surrounding air grew denser.
Within the confines of the fog, Shannon’s heart sped up its beat. The consequences of failing ran through her mind as her opponent’s easygoing smile intimidated her into thinking she had little to no chance. She tensed while keeping a steady watch on Sun Liehuo for any sudden moves.
Sun Liehuo looked over his shoulder toward the other girl on the boat. “Fenghuang―”
That’s when another kick went for his head.
This time, it connected.
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