Bohai released Mei-Ling. All four fighters fell into a line and bowed before the master.
“Bohai,” the master said. “You would dare use the Sacred Yet Inscrutable Tiger Claw so recklessly against a member of your own clan?”
“What of it?” Bohai asked. “No rules were specified for this test.”
“Do not play dumb,” the master said. “Our signature move is inscrutable, for it takes years of practice to master. It is sacred because it must only be used as a last resort.”
“There was no other option,” Bohai said.
“Indeed, there was,” the master said. “You could have continued the fight without using our most severe move, or better yet, you could have recognized Mei-Ling’s skill and yielded.”
Bohai blew a raspberry in the master’s general direction. “Pbbht. Yielding power will never be an option for me…especially to a woman.”
The master sighed. “Then I fear I have failed you, my son, for surely you must realize that no one, not even the worst enemy imaginable, deserves to see one of his internal organs ripped out by the mighty tiger claw and displayed before him as the last sight he sees before he dies. If you abuse the tiger claw, you will surely be judged harshly by the Yama Kings when your time to cross over to Diyu comes.”
Bohai rolled his eyes. “Spare me the fairy tales, old man. Give me my staff.”
“You have yet to be chosen,” the master said as he rested the ruby end of the Staff of Ages on the cocky fighter’s shoulder. The ruby stayed dim. “And thank goodness, you will not be.”
“What?” Bohai asked.
“You have much to learn, my son,” the master said before moving on to Niu.
“Perhaps the fates will find the third time to be the charm,” Niu said.
The master smiled as he pressed the ruby against the big man’s shoulder. It remained dark.
“Perhaps not,” Niu said.
“My son,” the master said as he looked up at Niu’s face. “Your devotion to fatalist dogma has clearly given you a sense of peace and tranquility that I wish would exist in all of my disciples. However, a master must make his own fate in the world.”
“I understand, master,” Niu said. “But I believe I am destined to not agree.”
The master patted Niu’s shoulder. “Chin up, for there is another role I will soon discuss with you, one you are better suited for.”
Mei-Ling stood quietly as the master pressed the ruby against her shoulder. No change.
“My daughter,” the master said. “You fought bravely and boldly. You saw an opportunity and you took it. Most importantly, you used your mind as well as your fists.”
The master peered at the dark ruby. “Unfortunately, a master cannot command a clan effectively if she refuses to use her voice.”
Junjie stood at attention as the master pressed the ruby against his shoulder. It lit up brightly, filling the room with red light.
“Master?” an astonished Junjie asked.
“Behold,” the master said. “The Twentieth Infallible Master of the Clan of the Sacred Yet Inscrutable Tiger Claw.”
Without hesitation, Niu and Mei-Ling dropped to their knees and kowtowed to their next leader.
“What?” Junjie asked. “Master, no…”
“Yes,” the master replied.
“But I don’t want this,” Junjie said.
“Which is why you must accept it,” the master said.
A tiny, nearly shredded sliver of respect for the master was all that kept Bohai from turning into a ball of fury and lashing out with his fists at everyone in the room.
“That…staff…is…mine,” Bohai said through gritted teeth.
“The staff disagrees,” the master said. “Who am I to tell the Staff of Ages that it has made the wrong decision?”
“Do you take me for a fool?” Bohai asked.
“You saw the ruby glow when it touched your brother,” the master said.
“A cheap parlor trick,” Bohai said. “You’ve rigged it. There’s a button or something somewhere. I’m sure of it.”
“A thousand years ago I was a hundred years old when the Eighteenth Infallible Master called upon me to fight with the three greatest disciples of the clan at the time,” the master said. “At the conclusion of the bout, the ruby glowed for me, as it did for the previous masters and as it does for Junjie now.”
Bohai spat at Junjie’s feet. “I will never kowtow to you.”
“I don’t want you to, brother,” Junjie said.
“I cornered Mei-Ling,” Bohai said to the master. “I was within seconds of defeating her when you interfered, old man. I won that staff.”
“The purpose of the fight was not to win or lose,” the master said. “It was to show the staff who you are…”
The master took the staff away from Junjie and pointed at Bohai. The ruby went dark.
“…and the staff did not like what it saw in you.”
Bohai turned his back on the master and started to walk away.
“Bohai!” the master shouted.
The young fighter stopped.
“There is no need for you to leave,” the master said. “We all make mistakes. Be ashamed of your behavior today. Begin to learn from it tomorrow.”
“I will not be a member of a clan that refuses to recognize that I am its rightful leader,” Bohai said.
“It pains me to say this, but I fear you are walking down the same dark path a former student of mine took long ago,” the master said. “His name was Longwei, and like you, he was a gifted fighter, but he was ruled by petty feelings of jealousy and anger, as well as an unquenchable thirst for power”
Bohai turned around to face the master.
“Do you know what happened to him?” the master asked.
“I don’t know,” Bohai replied. “Did he quit when he couldn’t stand to listen to an old man’s bullshit any longer?”
“No,” the master said. “He renounced our clan, took the name Dragonhand, formed his own clan and has been on a bloody rampage throughout the countryside for the past twenty years.”
Bohai shook his head. “Another fairy tale.”
The master put his hand on his student’s shoulder. “A true tale.”
Bohai shook the master’s hand off. “I am a man. ‘Be a good boy or you’ll end up like Dragonhand’ may have worked on me when I was a child, but you’ll have to do better than boogeyman stories now.”
The master sighed. “If you wish to go, I will not stop you.”
“I will leave in the morning,” Bohai said as he walked away. “And not a second too soon.”
As soon as Bohai left, the master’s remaining students rallied around him.
“Should I talk to him, master?” Junjie asked.
“I fear that will only make things worse,” the master said.
“Do not worry, master,” Niu said. “If Bohai is meant to stay, then he will stay.”
The master exhaled loudly. “Niu, that is the first thing you have ever said to me that makes any sense.”