Although he didn’t look a day over a hundred years of age, legend has it that Yaozu, the Nineteenth Infallible Master of the Clan of the Sacred Yet Inscrutable Tiger Claw, was approaching his one-thousandth year when he called upon his four most impressive disciples to assemble in the Tower of Masters Past.
“Wonderful,” the perpetually well-groomed Bohai said. “Just wonderful. How many more afternoons must we waste listening to that insufferable old fool babble on?”
Junjie brushed one of his long, black locks out of his eyes, then glared at his fellow student. “Show some respect.”
“Me?” Bohai asked as he clutched his chest in an overdramatic effort to feign surprise. “What about my precious time? Where is the master’s respect for that?
At the end of the line stood Niu, a big bald beast of a man who spoke in a booming baritone. “We are where we are meant to be. If we weren’t meant to be here at this very moment, then we wouldn’t be here.”
“Oh spare me your fatalist nonsense,” Bohai said.
“If you are meant to be spared then you will be,” Niu replied.
Bohai sighed. “I’m surrounded by imbeciles.”
Junjie leaned forward and craned his neck to the right, thus allowing himself a brief glimpse of the beautiful young woman standing between Bohai and Niu. Alas, the handsome hero only caught a quick peak at Mei-Ling’s enchanting eyes before his field of vision was blocked by Bohai’s pompous puss.
“Oggling our sister-in arms when we are supposed to be waiting for the master’s wisdom? Tsk, tsk, Junjie. Where is YOUR respect?”
In that moment, Bohai’s smarmy mug looked so punchable, but Junjie knew the master would not approve. So he used his words instead.
“It’s up your ass,” Junjie said.
Bohai’s face contorted with anger. He sputtered. He stammered. His mouth puckered as if it had just tasted a sour lemon. He was about to give Junjie a vigorous tongue lashing when he was interrupted by a gruff, gravelly voice.
“That’s the last place I would expect to find respect.”
The four thoroughly shocked disciples turned around to find the master had been standing behind them for quite some time. They balled their right hands into fists, punched their left hands, then bowed. The master did the same.
The Infallible Master wore a flowing white robe to match his long white hair and beard. He walked slowly with his back hunched over and rested his weight on a finely crafted cane, the length of which was constructed out of shimmering jade. A red ruby at the top served as a grip for the master to hold on to.
“Master,” Bohai said as his face turned crimson. “Why, I was just extolling your virtues but these three refused to hear of it…”
The master grinned and rested a boney hand on Bohai’s shoulder. “It’s all right, my son. I too was once a young man who considered all old men to be fools. Just know that old fools have ears that work better than you might think.”
The old man surveyed his students.
“Junjie,” the master said. “So gallant. So brave. And yet, I sense much self-doubt in you. Why you do not believe in yourself, I do not know, for your skills are formidable.”
“I doubt I have the intelligence to figure out why I am so doubtful,” Junjie replied.
The master flashed Junjie a deadpan glare until the young fighter said, “Oh right. I’ll work on it.”
The master moved on. “Bohai.”
“No master can lead efficiently if he is surrounded by sycophants who only tell him what he wants to hear,” the master said. “You are a contrarian prick who would argue the sky is orange if I were to say it is blue, but I would not have it any other way.”
“Funny you mention that,” Bohai said as he wagged a finger at the master, “Because as it so happens, there are a few changes I’d like to make around here…”
“Not now, assface,” the master said as he moved on.
The master gazed at the most alluring member of the quartet. “Darling Mei-Ling. Your beauty and grace are matched only by your determination.”
“I can only imagine what horrors you saw as a child when Dragonhand destroyed your village.”
Mei-Ling nodded again.
“But it is my hope that one day you may learn to live with a past that cannot be undone, for only then will you feel comfortable enough to speak again.”
“Find your voice,” the master said as he gripped Mei-Ling’s shoulder. “For I know you have much to say and the world will benefit greatly to hear it.”
Mei-Ling smiled sheepishly.
The master stood before the fourth disciple. “Niu. You are big as an ox and twice as loyal.”
“If that is what I am, then that is what I am,” Niu replied.
“Yes,” the master said. “And while I applaud your ability to accept the twists and turns that fate inevitably throws our way, I hope in time you will realize that fate merely sets up the words on a page. How we arrange those words is up to us.”
“If I am to figure that out then I will, master,” Niu said.
The master took a step back and looked at the entire group.
“Like all of this clan’s disciples since time immemorial, the four of you were brought to this sanctuary as orphans. Some of you were unwanted and unloved. Others were wanted and very much loved by parents who left this world too soon. Time is as fast as a leopard and twice as cunning, for sooner or later, it sneaks up on everyone, even your master. I recall when you were all mere babes and now you stand before me, having learned all I am able to teach you.”
The master’s face turned grave. His eyes looked weary.
“And though I have been blessed with an entire millennium,” the master said as he tapped the end of his staff on the floor. “I have learned that my fire will soon grow dim and burn out.”
A single tear rolled down Junjie’s cheek. “Master, what are you saying?”
The master took his hand off the top of his staff, gripped it by the mid-section, and raised it high into the air. In doing so, the group was fascinated to see that the ruby was glowing bright red.
“The Staff of Ages has indicated to me that the time to select the Twentieth Master of the Clan of the Sacred Yet Inscrutable Tiger Claw has come.”