The Infallible Master released the staff, but it did not fall. Instead, it floated slowly – up, up, up towards the top of the tower. The quartet watched as the coveted symbol of power hovered past the stone figure of Longwei, the clan’s founder and first master. Longwei’s humble nature, as evidenced by his wide grin and thoughtful eyes, had served as a source of inspiration for countless generations of disciples.
The staff continued its ascent, passing a different stone preserved master along the way. The seventh master, the eighth master, the ninth master. Good men but all three presided over the clan during times of peace. Peace makes for happiness but provides little in the way of interesting stories.
Aiguo, the Tenth Infallible Master, was a particularly angry and foul mouthed leader. His scornful, contemptuous visage masked a deep love of his country and emperor. He wasn’t remembered for being very kind, but was revered for the role he played in aiding the Emperor with the resolution a bloody civil conflict.
Eleven, twelve, thirteen…the staff finally rested near Cheng, the Eighteenth Infallible Master and Yaozu’s immediate predecessor. Due to his buck teeth and crossed-eyes, Cheng was also considered the ugliest of the Infallible Masters Past, but he was still very much beloved all the same.
“Life and death,” Yaozu said. “These are the diametrically opposed forces that the Staff of Ages bends to its will. Just as it extended the life of so many masters, so too did it extend my existence well beyond my natural lifespan, thus allowing me to share my wisdom with the clan for many centuries.”
The Infallible Master basked in the sunlight peaking in through the window in the ceiling. “When I expire, a new level will constructed. The next master will use the staff to preserve my remains in stone so that I will be able to join our ancestral leaders in watching over the clan.”
“A well-deserved honor, master,” Junjie said.
The master shrugged his shoulders. “Meh. It’s kind of creepy if you ask me. Personally, I’d rather my carcass be burned but what are you going to do?”
“Very good, master,” Bohai said. “But enough with the song and dance. Let’s get my staff down here so I can stone you up and start running this place.”
The master chuckled. “I’m not dead yet, my son. The staff will still be mine for as long as it chooses to keep me alive. Maybe a few days, maybe a year, maybe a decade. I do not know. All I know is the staff demands a successor and therefore, I deduce that it has selected the day upon which my mortality will no longer benefit from its protection.”
Bohai rolled his eyes, then began to walk away. “Yeesh. Thanks for wasting my time then. Call me when you start to feel sick.”
The master stomped his foot and shouted, “Bohai!”
The cocky fighter stopped in his tracks and turned around to face his leader.
“What makes you so sure that you will be chosen as the Twentieth Infallible Master?”
Bohai snickered. “Why wouldn’t you choose the best?”
“Are you the best?” the master inquired.
Bohai’s head looked as though it might explode with rage. In his mind, he was so clearly the right choice that he could not comprehend the master’s inability to see it.
“Is it not obvious?” Bohai asked. “I train the most. I study the most. I know the most.”
“You are formidable,” the master said. “But no more than your contemporaries based upon my observations.”
“Bah,” Bohai scoffed as he looked away.
The master stepped towards the brash young man and looked him in the eye. “You make a mistake…”
“The only mistake I made was staying in this clan for so long,” Bohai said. “Surely there are other clans that would recognize my accomplishments.”
The master’s face filled with sadness. “There aren’t as many clans as there used to be thanks to Dragonhand, young one. Be thankful you have found a home here filled with people who care for you, despite your best efforts to exasperate them.”
“The Clan of the Mystifying Monkey Slap would be happy to have me,” Bohai said.
The master openly guffawed. “Oh young one. We masters differ in our teaching methods. Whereas I prefer to allow my students to make their mistakes so they may learn from them, the Vengeful Master would have cut out your insolent tongue and monkey slapped you with it by now.”
Junjie butted into the conversation with an “Ouch.” Niu followed it up with, “The fates would almost certainly cause that to hurt.”
As usual, Mei-Ling said nothing.
The Infallible Master paced about the floor. “Now Bohai, before I was so rudely interrupted, I was about to tell you that you make a mistake in assuming that I choose the next owner of the Staff of Ages.”
“Who chooses then?” Bohai asked.
The master pointed a finger toward the high ceiling underneath which the staff was hovering. The ruby was glowing red once more.
“Why, the staff itself, of course.”
The students looked at one another. The master clapped his hands.
“Have at it,” the old man said.