The Parable of Shuxiang Academy [Short]
The sun was a few hours away from setting on the horizon.
Guided by distant oriental music, Shannon began her first steps around Shuxiang Island. Sun Liehuo and Zheng Fenghuang followed her, letting her discover at her pace. Eventually, Shannon found the source―a choir of Xinese musical instruments at a festive location.
“Whoa, what do we have here?”
The choir played in a district full of crowds and busy food stall vendors cooking fresh meals on the spot for their customers. Some attendees at the festival were students wearing the same black and red uniform as Zheng Fenghuang, while others dressed in casual clothes that almost looked out of place. They were Rooster Path students and the new Shuxiang Academy students they ferried to the island.
But the festival’s highlight was its paper lanterns, glowing bright even under the sun. They were everywhere and came in various shapes, sizes, and colors. Most of them resembled a ball, and plenty of them hung across long transparent lines to make them look like they were floating above everyone’s heads.
“Where are we?” Shannon asked.
Zheng Fenghuang took a few glances to the side. “Here, this should help.”
She spotted a small booth nearby. A man behind its counter saw her and, recognizing her uniform, held out a glossy sheet of paper without moving from his spot. With the crook of a finger, the Rooster Path student mentally beckoned the paper to fly out of the man’s hand and straight into Shannon’s.
“What the? Oh, thanks!”
Shannon eagerly scanned the paper’s contents but then raised an eyebrow. “It’s just a zodiac wheel.”
She recognized the big red circle divided into twelve pizza-like sectors. Each sector had a black animal symbol. Clockwise from a 12:00 position, the animals shown were a rat, pig, dog, rooster, monkey, goat, horse, snake, dragon, rabbit, tiger, and ox. The red circle’s center also showed a yin and yang symbol.
“True, but it also works as a basic map of Shuxiang Island,” Sun Liehuo said, peeking over her shoulder. “The animals are the twelve Paths and the location of their temples. And this yin-yang symbol represents Shuxiang Academy itself.”
He then pointed to what would be 6:00 on the map’s red circle. It was a line between the snake and horse symbols.
“This is where we are. Between each Path’s temple is a civilized location called a colony. We’re at Colony 6. You can figure out the rest, right?”
“Mmm-hmm… yep. I pretty much got it now, thank you very much.”
It became clear to Shannon that the colonies on the map were designated like numbers on a clock.
Her stomach growled for food as if the timing couldn’t be perfect.
“You vomited when you fell into the ocean, right?” Sun Liehuo said out of the blue.
Shannon squinted and copied his smile. “I sure did. And that’s why you now owe me a meal.”
He got in her face, his easygoing smile intact. “Don’t get so ahead of yourself,” he warned. “But very well, just this once.”
Shannon might’ve been hungry, but that conflicted with her difficulty in choosing what to eat.
The food stalls she passed had vendors selling authentic Xinese meals with hearty servings. A few examples included baozi (steamed buns), xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), cong you bing (deep-fried scallion pancakes), and char siu (barbequed pork).
She wanted the first meal in her new home to be something special, and with all the possible choices, picking one became more tedious than it should’ve been. It wasn’t much help that Sun Liehuo also told her some of the food stalls were open for business during the festival only.
“Maybe I should go for this one… or maybe this one.”
Shannon darted back and forth between two stalls. One of her choices gave off a delicious aroma while the other fed her eyes like a five-star meal. Then a third stall also caught Shannon’s attention. Other people enjoying the festival began to point looks her way since she kept going in circles, unable to make up her mind.
“Ugh, I can’t decide…” she moaned.
“Then I’ll decide for you,” Sun Liehuo took the opportunity to say. “One of my favorites, ‘Wok in Out,’ decided to set up shop here today. How about we try that?”
Shannon looked back at her three choices. “Hmm… well…”
He shot a gaze at another person. “Fenghuang.”
“No, wait!” Shannon’s feet suddenly lost contact with the ground, forcing her to float in the air through telekinesis. Her traveling case floated behind her. “C’mon now. I think I’ve finally settled on my choice!”
“You think?” Zheng Fenghuang parroted as she playfully spun Shannon around in random directions as if under zero gravity.
No matter how hard she tried to flail her limbs or swim, Shannon couldn’t escape the force carrying her. With her two companions walking to Sun Liehuo’s choice for dinner, she figured a little experiment would make the most of her situation. As soon as she stopped struggling, Shannon realized that the telekinetic force wrapped around her waist like a single loop of rope. It wasn’t wholly invisible either, as a closer look allowed her to see the “rope” as a slight blur.
I wonder if this will work.
She got her hands on the “rope” and tried to tear it apart, only for Zheng Fenghuang to gasp and clench her hand closer to becoming a fist. The “rope” tightened and squeezed Shannon out of breath for a moment but loosened afterward. She stopped trying to escape but was left smirking, having learned something interesting about the Rooster Path’s specialized technique. That was good enough for her.
Sun Liehuo led his two companions to a food cart, whose last set of satisfied customers had just left. Its owner and chef was an athletic man in his mid-twenties with short messy hair. He wore a black and tan chef’s uniform.
「Hey, Shen. How’s business going? 」
「Hmm? Oh, wow, definitely not as bad as you look, Liehuo. 」 The chef held nothing back regarding his bloody nose and uniform. 「Still, it’s nice to see you outside the usual place. I could still use a warm-up for the dinner rush later. 」
「I’ll take your word on it, 」 Sun Liehuo said with a glance to the side. 「Here. We have a friend you’ll have to serve at the same time. Don’t blame me if you overdo it and hand yourself another scar. 」
With a slight wave of her hand, Zheng Fenghuang set Shannon down on one of the stools by the food cart as she and Sun Liehuo took seats of their own.
「A new student, eh?」 the chef deduced upon first glance at the blond girl’s clothes. 「I am Gao Shen. What’s your name, and how’s your Mandarin Xinese? 」
「Uh… my name is Shannon Grey, and I’m still learning the language. I’ve been studying it for a year,」she stuttered due to pressure from the question.
「That’s fine. Keep practicing. 」 Gao Shen nodded. “But if you feel stuck, don’t worry too much, I can speak English too. Shuxiang Academy is an international school, in case you didn’t know.”
Shannon brightened up. “That’s… great to hear.”
“Now then, what do you three feel like eating?”
Contrasting his small food cart, Gao Shen had an expansive menu. It was very wordy because there were English translations for every item. Shannon was stumped again on what to order, but the chef recognized her plight and narrowed her choices to a few recommendations.
As soon as his three customers gave their orders, Gao Shen whipped out a bandana and tied it around his forehead, casting a slight shadow above his eyes. For a chef, he looked like he was ready for a brawl. His scarred hands shot around his kitchen, quickly grabbing several tools and ingredients. Shannon had a difficult time keeping her eyes peeled with the chef’s movements as he prepared three dishes at the same time.
With a cleaver in hand, he minced leeks, shallots, and other vegetables into fine pieces. He also boiled noodles, cracked a few eggs with one hand, and sliced a block of tofu into tiny cubes. For the final touch, he stir-fried almost every ingredient in three cast iron cooking pots called a wok. He worked with such speed and precision that Shannon clenched her tongue, enjoying the show but also worried he’d accidentally cut or burn himself.
The cooking process was a spectacle for the eyes and nose as Gao Shen multitasked between dishes without losing momentum. Ingredients were tossed and juggled around, but everything fell into place without making a mess. Everything was also cooked over a pillar of fire from his stove, which looked like he was cooking with a jet engine in Shannon’s eyes.
“Order up,” Gao Shen announced as he tossed what he cooked into three bowls. “Chow Mein noodles for Liehuo, Mapo tofu for Fenghuang, and Yangzhou fried rice for Shannon.”
Shannon had to clap her hands as the chef presented their meals. Aromatic smoke wafted from the three bowls of food as they were laid on the front counter. They got ready with wooden chopsticks or spoons.
“Oh, hang on!” Shannon alerted her companions before they could dig in. “Let me take pictures of our food for my social media!”
“Social… media?” Gao Shen said, staring at the blond girl’s smartphone.
After she took a handful of pictures, they began eating.
Shannon didn’t need to speak after her first bite. Her clenched eyes and hushed moaning made it clear that watching the food get cooked wasn’t the only part she enjoyed. She also savored every moment of flavor harmony that danced on her tongue.
“I hope this means you’d like to try something else from me soon.” Gao Shen said as he cleaned his hands with a wet towel. “I’m usually stationed at Colony 8, so stop by again sometime if you ever come around.”
Shannon gave him two thumbs up before helping herself to another heaping of fried rice.
“By the way, where will I be staying?” she asked after taking the last grain from her bowl.
“There’s an inn in this colony,” Sun Liehuo revealed after a slurp of noodles. “It’s usually meant for outsiders, but new students are the main priority on days like this.”
“Great, let’s go!”
“Let me stop you right here,” Gao Shen interrupted. “I delivered to that place about an hour ago, and I learned all rooms have already been booked. If Shannon wasn’t one of them…”
“All one-hundred rooms?” Zheng Fenghuang raised her voice slightly.
“I think they should start considering an expansion.”
“Aww… bollocks.” Shannon slumped on the counter. “Ever since I came here, it’s been one setback after another.”
“Get used to it,” Sun Liehuo chimed before crossing his arms in thought. "But maybe this time, there is an easy solution. Even though you haven’t chosen a Path yet, I think Fenghuang and I can arrange to loan you a room for at least one night at either the Rooster or Dragon Path temples.”
“Really?!” The British blonde sprang back to life, enthusiastic about the idea. “Then it looks like you and I can spend some time getting to know each other, Fenghuang~.”
“Sorry, but no.” The raven-haired girl yawned and excused herself, much to Shannon’s disappointment. “The Rooster temple is too far from here. It’s between Colonies 2 and 3. Go with Liehuo to the Dragon temple instead.”
“Wha?! You gonna leave me with this hooligan?”
Sun Liehuo frowned. “What does that word even mean?”
“I will see you two tomorrow. Goodnight.”
Through telekinesis, Zheng Fenghuang took to the air and blitzed out of sight, creating a small sonic boom in the sky. Some people at the festival applauded the showcase.
Shannon momentarily froze, surprised how the other girl could fly and vanish that fast. “Why didn’t she just carry me with her?”
“Maybe because she might accidentally drop you midflight,” Sun Liehuo guessed, earning a scornful glare from her. “How should I know? I don’t walk the Rooster Path.”
Heaving a sigh, Shannon thanked Gao Shen for the meal before preparing to leave with Sun Liehuo, disappointed that she'd have to spend more time alone with her least favorite chaperone.
At least she had fun taking phone pictures of almost everything at the festival.
Built atop one of the twelve great mountains that circled the entire island, the Dragon Path temple was a massive structure that served as a place to train and sleep for its students. Although it appeared to be only four stories high, more than half of the temple was built underground into the mountain, making the entire place more like a tower if it were unearthed. The temples of the other eleven Paths were built the same way.
“Dammit, how much further do we have to go?”
“Hmm… not much longer. Maybe.”
“Every student goes through this?”
“And if I miss the Gathering of the Twelve Paths tomorrow… I’d have to visit every temple like this?”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but I’ve never heard of anyone switching Paths once they’ve made their choice.”
“Then I definitely can’t afford to be late.”
Shannon followed Sun Liehuo to the Dragon Path temple after dinner, which meant passing Colony 7 and climbing countless stairs to the mountain’s peak. Shannon hardly broke a sweat despite the burning stress in her chest and legs. However, the trail ahead only got colder and foggier with every step they took, and it wasn’t long before the fog became too dense to see ahead. There were only more stairs, causing Shannon some anxiety about how much further they had to go.
“Would you like to kill time by talking about something else?” Sun Liehuo asked.
“Well, better than just climbing with no end in sight. Let’s do it.”
“When we fought on the boat, I also observed your forms. You punch like a boxer, kick like you’ve been trained in taekwondo, and I’m guessing the way you took me down… came from wrestling?”
“Huh, you got all of them right.” Shannon’s eyebrows furrowed. “Too right, to be honest. Were you really guessing?”
“Let’s just say I recognized them from previous fights.” His head jerked a bit. “Now that I think about it, those fighting styles are also combat sports in the Olympics. Am I piecing a connection here?”
Shannon sighed. “It’s because of my brother. He spent his free time in classes for every Olympic sport. I was dragged along, but I guess it was worth it since all that training got me this far, at least. Come to think of it, one of the last things Allen told me before he left was that he wanted to win an Olympic gold medal someday.”
Sun Liehuo stifled a laugh. “Unless he has rivals also from Shuxiang, any Olympic gold he wins will be a trivial matter by the time he’s old enough to enter. As far as I’m concerned, that gold might as well be worthless.”
“Ooh, does that mean training in Shuxiang Academy can turn anyone superhuman or something? Then again, you and Fenghuang can do some rather unbelievable things, so…”
“We’re here,” Sun Liehuo chirped right after, taking his first steps on flat grounds.
After losing track of time with all the stairs she had to climb, Shannon was almost shocked she no longer needed to elevate her feet. Suppose she had to describe how the whole trip felt; it was like losing her soul and ascending to Heaven. That sort of came true as the Dragon Path temple loomed over her.
Nestled above a sea of clouds, the temple had an ornate design. It mostly flaunted the colors purple and white like the uniforms of its students, several of whom were scattered outside. Some lounged around and relaxed with the cool weather, while others were doing extra training in preparation for the next day. A few paid attention to Shannon since she was the only person not wearing a Dragon Path uniform.
One of the students was a bully who laughed with his two friends after shooting a jolt of electricity at a younger student’s rear. After a feeble yelp, the younger student stomped a foot on the ground. Somehow, a pillar of rock emerged from below and struck the bully between his legs with an audible crack. He fell to his knees, writhing in pain with crossed eyes.
Amused and impressed, Shannon flashed the younger student a thumbs up and a wink as she passed by. He also fell to his knees, but for a completely different reason.
Shannon and Sun Liehuo then approached a serpentine statue of a Xinese dragon on a pedestal. It stood between a forked flight of stairs to the temple. Fortunately, the number of those steps could be counted.
“See? All that stair climbing wasn’t so bad now, was it?” Sun Liehuo playfully congratulated as he and Shannon got off the last step to the temple’s entrance.
“Yeah, quite the workout!” she forced out a grin, aware that Sun Liehuo had been blatantly ignoring the traveling case she dragged through the whole trip.
“I'm glad you had fun. You’ll be doing that almost everyday.”
As soon as he stopped looking her way, her face reared its true feelings.
I better work hard to somehow catch up to both you and my brother. When the time comes, Liehuo, I wanna fight you again, no-holds-barred.
As promised, Shannon was loaned a vacant room to stay in temporarily after her companion did some negotiating. It was located on one of the bottom floor corridors of the temple, which Sun Liehuo revealed was a standard procedure for new students as he pulled back her room’s sliding door.
“Not too shabby,” Shannon remarked after a quick overview.
The room had plain white walls and a tiled floor. Each piece of wooden furniture inside boasted carved patterns of overlapping squares for a Xinese aesthetic. The furniture included a small bed with a nightstand, a square table with short legs, a closet with a few drawers, and a full-body mirror on one of the walls. There was also a window, wide enough for the sunlight to brighten the entire room. Apparently, it was carved out of the mountain.
Sun Liehuo left afterward, giving Shannon the privacy to get settled. She changed out of her ocean-scented clothes for a cropped sweater and a pair of striped jogging pants. They were the best sleepwear choices she had for the mountaintop’s cold weather.
Humming a tune, she took her smartphone out of her traveling case and sat cross-legged by her room table.
Hey, big bro. How much have you changed since then? Guess I’ll find out very soon. Love you.
She gazed fondly at her phone’s wallpaper―a picture of her and Allen as eight-year-old kids. Both wore bright smiles and had one arm on each other’s shoulder. It was the last picture taken of the twins before Allen left for Shuxiang Academy.
Shannon then scrolled through all the pictures she had taken since her arrival on the island. With the time she had left, she figured she’d use it to update her social media with snippets of her new school life before going to bed.
“Huh… that’s odd. My mobile data’s not working here,” she said to herself.
Her phone wasn’t detecting any signals either. However, Shannon remained optimistic and assumed she was just in a bad spot. She stepped outside her room, where a Dragon Path student was passing by the corridor after a trip to the boy’s bathroom.
「Uh, yes, hi. Do you know where the Wi-Fi is around here?」Shannon asked as soon as he looked her way, only to be met back with a blank stare that momentarily went down.
The boy’s response rattled her a bit, but Shannon guessed it was just a language miscommunication. She nodded but with a nervous smile. 「That’s right. Wi-Fi. So my phone can connect to the internet.」
She held her smartphone to the boy’s face, but that barely affected his expression. He then knocked on the door behind him. A female student emerged from her room with an arm rubbing her eyes.
「Wha? What do you want? I was just about to sleep,」 she slurred.
The boy quickly apologized and directed her to Shannon.「Excuse me, but can you help her? She’s looking for something called ‘Wi-Fi.’ 」
The girl slowly blinked twice at them and said,「…Wi-Fi? Never heard of it, 」 before sliding her door shut.
As soon as Shannon processed their exchange, one of her eyes began twitching as her hands slowly lost their sense of touch.
The boy shrugged with a sigh.「Sorry, we weren’t much help. I guess Wi-Fi is something that only exists in your nation. By the way, what do you call that rectangular object in your hand again―oh, you dropped it. Was it made of glass?」
Countless birds living near the Dragon and the neighboring Rabbit and Snake Path temples suddenly scattered into the sky and formed a makeshift cloud above Shuxiang Island.
Apparently, they were frightened out of their homes by a scream that sounded like the end of the world.