Jacko read the small parchment one last time in the dimly lit room before tucking the note away. He was eager to get started on his journey of ascension, because he worked so hard these past few months and felt he deserved the promotion. After packing the necessary items for his trip, he extinguished the nearby candle and left the inn. Outside the cold autumn air greeted him, which was both refreshing and chilly and prompted him to wrap his cloak tightly around his body to help ward off its chill. Smiling proudly, he left the town of Wistful.
By nightfall, he reached the entrance to the Saratone forest, and as he was contemplating whether or not he should make camp inside; he heard wolves howling in the distance and quickly lit a torch and entered. Traveling through the dense forest at night wasn’t his best decision, but his journey was still a few days away, and he couldn’t be late. He had hopes of clearing the forest before daybreak, but when it started raining heavy and the night swallowed up the area, he decided to rest. After hanging several pieces of hemp from low hanging branches, he lit a fire, ate, and went to sleep.
In the early-morning hours, the rain ceased altogether. Jacko ate a quick meal, gathered his belongings, and continued along his way. By mid-afternoon, the rain began falling again, but this time it was thicker and heavier and soaked his clothing within minutes. Chilled to the bone, he sought shelter in a nearby cave. Inside the cavern, he found dried wood scattered about and realized other travelers must have used this place as well. He considered it a blessing and lit a fire. After changing his clothes and placing the wet ones near the fire, he took a much-needed nap.
It took the remainder of the day for the rains to stop and when he woke it was dark outside. Already hours behind schedule, he left the safety of the cave and traveled throughout the night until he cleared the forest by daybreak. In the distance, he saw the Clard forest and grinned, because somewhere inside was where his meeting would be held. He moved with haste across the open field and slowed as he entered the woods. He found a moss-covered log and rested.
While eating some nuts and berries, he took the time to admire the changing colors of the leaves. He’d always liked this time of the year because their beauty reminded him of Aurora. From the moment he laid his eyes upon her, he’d been in love. Maybe someday he would share his feelings with her.
He turned his thoughts to his promotion and took out his note and read the instructions one last time before heading off toward the north. He arrived at a makeshift camp two hours later. The place was deserted except for bedding, a small banner of their school, and a brightly lit fire with a kettle hanging just above the flames. While surveying the area, a voice startled him from behind.
“You must be Jacko.”
Jacko turned around and faced a tall thin man in his thirties with a short black beard and a long ponytail. He wore dark green robes.
“I am. I take it you’re from our school. What is your name?”
“Just call me Teacher for now. Come make yourself at home.” Teacher stretched out his open palm and pointed to the camp. It was a modest sign of a warm friendly gesture.
Jacko bowed, entered the camp, and placed his backpack down near the fire.
“Would you enjoy some tea?” Teacher asked as he removed the cast-iron pot away from the fire.
“That would be most generous,” Jacko responded.
Teacher poured the tea into two small cups and gave one to Jacko. Together both men lifted the cups, tilted them simultaneously toward each other, and drank the hot beverage. The tea was bold yet smooth at first, then changed altogether by the time the contents slid down Jacko’s throat. He smiled in satisfaction. Teacher filled both cups again, and the men did the same ritual.
“Teacher, what’s in the tea? That was by far the best brew I’ve ever drunk.”
Teacher, delighted by Jacko’s comment, chuckled to himself. “I’ve spent most of my life developing my special tea; it has become my passion.” He paused as if he were deep in personal thoughts. “I’ll tell you what; if you beat your opponent in honorable fashion, I’ll bestow the recipe upon you.”
Jacko enjoyed tea and was delighted that he even offered. “Thank you, Teacher.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Good, I’m hungry as well. I’ll be right back. Make yourself at home.” He grabbed a spear and headed south.
It was less than an hour when he returned. With him, he carried at least a half dozen fish neatly prepared with herbs and spices and ready for the fire. After placing the fish onto a small metal rack, he suspended it above the open flame and sat back.
“Jacko,” Teacher began, “a mile north from here is where you will be tested, so let me explain the rules to you. You must defeat your opponent in non-lethal combat in order to be granted a promotion. Keep in mind that you’re not to lose control or retaliate even if he does. If you do, you might forfeit your rank and lose the promotional opportunity. Do you understand?”
“I do. What happens if he loses consciousness?”
“That’s allowed; just don’t do it intentionally.”
“What can you tell me about my opponent?”
“His name is Chow Yen, and he’ll be accompanied by two individuals who’ll judge the match and decide the winner.”
“Can you tell me about his rank and what techniques he knows?”
“No.” Teacher sternly replied. “Both of you must openly announce your rank and demonstrate your technique before the match starts. The Order decided a long time ago that if any of the combatants knew their opponent’s techniques, it might give them an unfair advantage over the other.”
Teacher took two fishes off of the rack, placed them on plates, and handed one to Jacko. By the look on his face, he knew he was worried. “Don’t be nervous. Your first test is always the most difficult—not because of your skills, because you have to handle your nerves. Just do your best and even if you fail, you have nothing to be ashamed of, because life is a lesson worth learning, and you’ll discover that the toughest hardships are much more rewarding when you endure them. After you finish, I think you should practice for a bit then get some rest.”
Jacko did as was recommended and trained for the remainder of the evening, while Teacher cleaned up and relaxed under a big redwood tree smoking his pipe. He watched the young student practice and decided that he needed improvement and would teach him the finer points of the technique. After Jacko finished, he sat alone under a tree, meditated, then fell asleep.
The smell of roasted fowl awoke Jacko from his restful slumber. Today is the day, he thought, then smiled, rose, and greeted Teacher.
“Are you hungry?” Teacher asked.
“No, not really.”
“You’d better eat, because you’ll need your energy,” Teacher stated. Jacko nodded in agreement and sat down. “I want you to return here whether you win or lose.”
Jacko nodded, and both men ate in silence.
When the meal was through, Jacko stood up. “Teacher…” Jacko paused. “I wanted to thank you for your hospitality.”
“You’re most welcome. Good luck today, and may the gods be with you.”
Jacko made a fist with his left hand, cupped it with his right, and bowed out of respect and left.
After he disappeared from view, Teacher Ma thought about Jacko’s match and wondered why the Order arranged for him to fight Chow. Chow was two ranks higher and more experienced than he was. Was this an easy contest for Chow, or did the Order think that highly of Jacko’s skills? Ma decided to find out when he returned to the Order.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish