Junjie hesitated. He’d only practiced tiger clawing oranges out of straw men’s chests before. He’d never tiger clawed out an actual organ. He curled his fingers forward, took a deep breath, then burst into action.
“Waaaahhhhhhhhhh!” Thonk. Thonk. Thonk. He became a brain yanking, gray matter smashing whirlwind. Mei-Ling caught on quickly and soon she too was yanking out brains and destroying them.
Meanwhile, Dragonhand picked up the Staff of Ages. The ruby flickered out.
“Oh no,” Dragonhand said to the staff as his hand caught fire. “You don’t get to deny me.”
The flames grew stronger. The fiend used the staff to harness his fire, then pointed it at Junjie and Mei-Ling and unleashed it upon them.
“Mei-Ling!” Junjie shouted as he jumped on his love and knocked her down just in time to avoid the blast. The fire consumed a few of the zombies that had been attacking the heroes, but that mattered little to Dragonhand. Everyone was expendable in his eyes.
As Junjie stood, he felt a hand grab his shoulder, as well as the cold steel of a sword against his neck.
“Move,” Bohai said. Junjie complied, as did Mei-Ling, who feared her love would be harmed if she didn’t.
“Master,” Bohai said he approached Dragonhand with his hostages. “I present an offering.”
Zombified warriors seized the duo and held them tightly, putting their hands over their mouthes to prevent them from speaking.
“Ahh,” Dragonhand said. “The two you bested in the competition for the Staff of Ages.”
“Yes,” Bohai said. “And if I could have my staff now…”
The fiend laughed. “Surely, you jest.”
“You said if I helped you that the Clan of the Sacred Yet Inscrutable Tiger Claw would be mine.”
“And it is yours,” Dragonhand said. “Look around you.”
Bohai looked around. Burnt out piles of rubble that had once been buildings. Dead bodies everywhere.”
“All of this is yours,” Dragonhand said.
“Even so,” Bohai replied. “The Infallible Master of this clan always carries the Staff of Ages.”
“Is that a rule?” Dragonhand asked.
“It is,” Bohai replied.
“Rules are meant to be broken,” Dragonhand said as he clutched the staff. “I need this more than you do.”
“Do you wish to challenge me for it?” Dragonhand asked.
Bohai looked down. “No master.”
Dragonhand rested the staff’s ruby on Bohai’s shoulder. The gem did not glow. “I name you the Twentieth Infallible Master of the Clan of the Sacred Yet Inscrutable Tiger Claw. March with me to the Emperor’s Palace and I will allow you to take as much wealth as you can carry to rebuild this sanctuary and raise a new clan as you see fit.”
“Yes, master,” Bohai said.
“But do not forget you will always be in service to me,” Dragonhand said. “When I call, you will come.”
“Of course, master,” Bohai said.
Dragonhand noticed Bohai’s face was gray. The fiend looked at the cocky warrior’s chest wound.
“You have died,” Dragonhand said.
“I’m still here,” Bohai replied.
“Bohai’s body is here,” Dragonhand said. “Bohai’s soul dwells within Diyu now. Soon, the Yama Kings will concoct many punishments for him.”
Junjie wiggled his head out of his zombified captor’s hand. “Most deserved!” he shouted before the zombie clasped his hand around the handsome hero’s mouth again.
“Silence, dog!” the being who had once been Bohai shouted.
“Rage Dog,” Dragonhand said.
“What?” Bohai asked.
“I was once Longwei,” Dragonhand said. “Longwei now burns in Diyu until his sins are purged. You were once Bohai. Bohai has joined Longwei. Rage Dog remains, for you are angry and also, my pet.”
“As you wish, master,” Rage Dog replied.
Dragonhand smiled at Mei-Ling and sniffed her hair. “Mmm…female brain.”
The fiend slathered his tongue all over Mei-Ling’s head, matting her hair with his saliva.
“This is a feisty one,” Dragonhand said. “Rage Dog, you let a woman kill you?”
“She is tougher than she looks,” Rage Dog said.
Dragonhand licked his female hostage again. “Ah…we’ve met before.”
Mei-Ling attempted to look away but a zombified hand kept her head pointed at the fiend.
“You were but a little girl when I invaded your village,” Dragonhand said. “Poor thing. Had I known you were hiding and watching as I devoured your parents’ brains I would have devoured yours so you could have joined them.”
Dragonhand took one more lick. “I left you speechless. I have that effect on women.”
Junjie wrestled his way out of the zombies’ hands. “Leave her alone!”
The fiend seized the handsome hero and licked his head.
“It’s a thing he likes to do,” Rage Dog said. “Just go with it.”
“Your father left you at this clan’s gate when you were so young you could barely walk,” Dragonhand said. “You remember little about him and you never knew your mother. This makes you feel weak, less than, like you aren’t good enough because if you had been he would have kept you.”
Junjie fought but Dragonhand’s flunkies kept the captive under control.
Another lick. “Your mind is that of a frightened kitten. Filled with fear, self-loathing and dread. You’re right to feel you let your father down. He spared himself tremendous disappointment by abandoning you. He missed absolutely nothing.”
Lick. “You love the mute girl. Pathetic yet I understand. I too have longed for a woman that won’t talk back. Perhaps I’ll take her for myself.”
Junjie struggled but wasn’t able to avoid getting his head licked again.
“You loved Bohai as a brother,” Dragonhand said. “Even now you fear for him.”
“There is no Bohai,” Rage Dog said. “There is only Rage Dog.”
Lick. “And the Infallible Master was the only father figure you knew. You don’t know how you will get by without him. You want to kill me for killing him.”
“I do!” Junjie said.
“Get in line,” Dragonhand said as he tossed Junjie to the ground.
“If you love the Infallible Master so much, perhaps you’d like to see his body memorialized in stone for all eternity,” Dragonhand said.
Junjie stood and looked at the master’s body. The old man’s face and skull had been torn apart, little more than a mush filled with pieces of flesh and bone.
“No,” Junjie said. “Not like that.”
“Oh,” Dragonhand said. “Would you rather take his place?”
Dragonhand’s hand bursted into flame. He channeled his magic into the Staff of Ages until the staff’s jade went from green to black. The ruby turned purple.
Mei-Ling stopped on the foot of one of her captors, elbowed the other one, then tiger clawed out their brains and smashed them. Rage Dog chased after her but the female warrior knocked him back with a roundhouse kick.
Dragonhand pointed the staff at Junjie. A black cloud emanated out of the ruby. It swirled and danced then made a line toward the handsome hero.
Junjie faked to the left…to the right…it didn’t matter. The cloud followed. Just when he thought he was doomed, he heard Mei-Ling’s voice for the first time.
“Junjie! Look out!”
Mei-Ling jumped in front of the cloud. It encircled her, ensnared her, enveloped her. When the cloud dissipated, all that remained was Mei-Ling’s body, encased in stone. One foot was down, the other was up in a running pose. Her lips were stuck in a shout. Her arms were crossed in front of her face, a failed attempt at a block.
“Nooo!” Junjie shouted. He ran at Dragonhand but was instantly smacked away.
“I’ve toyed with you enough,” Dragonhand said. “Time to join your bitch in Diyu.”
Junjie formed a tiger claw with his trembling hand.
“My son,” came the Infallible Master’s voice into Junjie’s ears. “Stand down.”
“What?” Junjie asked.
“Kowtow!” the Infallible Master ordered. “Beg for your life!”
Junjie obeyed. He dropped to the ground, raised his hands, then brought them and his head down to the ground in a sign of praise to Dragonhand.
“Is this a joke?” Dragonhand asked.
“Please don’t kill me,” Junjie said.
“Hear my words,” the Infallible Master said to Junjie. “And repeat them.”
Junjie heard them and repeated them. “Oh Mighty Dragonhand! Spare me so that I might tell the world of your glory! I shall walk from village to village, telling all who will hear that I, a man once named the next Infallible Master of the Clan of the Sacred Yet Inscrutable Tiger Claw, was bested by you and all should worship you and do your bidding.”
“Hmm,” Dragonhand said. “Pathetic…but I like it.”
“Master,” Rage Dog said. “I want him dead.”
“No,” Dragonhand said as he held the staff up toward the sky. The clouds grew heavy, there was a thunder clap and then a bolt of lighting shot its way down into the staff, causing it to glow blindingly white once more.
“This worm is right,” Dragonhand said. “He must spread news of my greatness throughout the countryside.”
“That isn’t a sufficient punishment,” Rage Dog said.
“No,” Dragonhand said. “But this is.”
All throughout the sanctuary, the remaining members of the tiger claw clan battled the zombie marauders. Kung fu fights were underway on the walls, amidst the rubble, and throughout the courtyard.
The fiend raised the staff, shot the lightning bolt into the air and it came down, only to separate into multiple bolts that struck each tiger claw clan member dead.
Junjie screamed in an apoplectic fit. “Why?!”
“Because I can,” Dragonhand said. “Now you will always remember that your woman was turned to stone because you were not man enough to defeat me. Now you will always remember that your clan died because you were too weak to stop me. That is punishment enough.”
Dragonhand raised the staff. “Victory is ours!”
The zombies cheered and followed their leader out the gate. Rage Dog stopped to look at Junjie.
“Lick a brain,” Rage Dog said. “It will change your world.”
And with that, Rage Dog followed his clan out of the sanctuary.
Junjie cried. “Why, master?” he said between tears. “Why didn’t you let me stop him?”
The air above Junjie grew thick as the Infallible Master’s ghost appeared and looked down at the young man.
“Because you couldn’t have,” the Infallible Master said.