“An iron chain crafted by the First Infallible Master and fortified by the magic of the Staff of Ages,” the master said. “It has kept this beast in line for countless millennia.”
“Even worse,” Shaoshang said as he drummed his claws against the loops that dangled down from his neck. “It clashes with everything. I can’t do a thing with it.”
The monster paced back and forth, dragging the chain along the floor as it moved. The length continued to a plate in the wall, secured with two heavy screws.
“You’re looking well,” the master said.
Shaoshang flashed a toothy grin. “Looks have always been my strong suit, old man. Patience, on the other hand, not so much. Why do you waste my time?”
“Does it matter that much to you?” the master asked. “You have so much of it, after all.”
“Yes,” Shaoshang said. “But when you came in, you wrested me out of a splendid slumber. Oh, I was having the most magnificent dream.”
“It brought you joy, I presume?” the master asked.
“Oh yes,” Shaoshang said as he paced about. “You were there, burning alive, although I guess that’s out of the question. My word, Yaozu, if this Dragonhand fellow really got the best of you then I would very much like to shake his hand.”
“The two of you would get along well,” the master said.
“Anyway,” Shaoshang said. “Before I was so rudely interrupted, in my dream I was free and sitting upon the Dragon Throne. It was soaked in the blood of my enemies, many of which were either charred to cinders or separated from their heads. Oh how I enjoy putting heads on pikes.”
The beast reached out his hand and lightly traced a claw down the side of Junjie’s cheek. The hero winced.
“Speaking of heads,” Shaoshang said. “What a lovely ripe squash you have there.”
“Know your place, creature,” the master said.
“Come now, jailer,” Shaoshang said. “Surely there’s no harm in a little fun.”
“There is in your version of fun,” the master said.
A hot puff of steam popped out of Shaoshang’s nose. The monster’s nostrils flared and his eyes grew brighter as he shouted, “Then why have you disturbed me?!”
Junjie’s heart pounded.
“We need your brain,” the master said.
Shaoshang stepped back. “My…brain?”
“You’re not using it for anything productive,” the master said. “Give it to my disciple.”
“Yaozu you crazy old fool,” Shaoshang said. “Surely you jest.”
“No,” the master said.
“You really thought you and this pup would walk right into my prison and walk out with my brain?” Shaoshang asked.
“Why not?” the master asked. “It will bring you nothing but torment and misery for as long as you are trapped down here. You will dwell on your past. You will think about what you have missed out on, would could have been or should have been. You will yearn to be free but as long as that chain remains around your neck, you never will be. Many years from now, the bones of everyone alive today will be dust, as will be the bones of their children and children’s children. All will have moved on. You will still be here…alone.”
“Hmm,” Shaoshang said. “When you put it like that…”
“My disciple will soon challenge a gruesome foe,” the master said. “Dragonhand has consumed the brain of every kung fu master, including mine.”
“All fat and gristle I’d wager,” Shaoshang said.
“You have lived a long time,” the master said.
“Too long,” Shaoshang lamented.
“In your long life, you also mastered every devastating move in kung fu,” the master said.
“I had to do something with my time and masturbation grew old after the first thousand years,” Shaoshang said.
“Give my disciple your brain,” the master said. “He will grow strong with your knowledge. Meanwhile, you will die and return to Diyu.”
“Not exactly a selling point, old man,” Shaoshang said. “I don’t miss that heat. Or the torture. Another demon can take a turn pushing boulders and getting poked in the ass with a sharp stick, thank you very much.”
“You escaped before,” the master said. “You could do it again.”
Shaoshang stroked his chin. “Odd. You’d risk giving me another chance to take the Dragon Throne?”
“I know you can be defeated,” the master said. “It’s Dragonhand that I am not sure about.”
“Pbbbht,” Shaoshang said as he blew a raspberry. “As if this ‘Dragonhand’ could ever compare to me.”
“Maybe he can,” the master said. “Maybe he can’t. You’ll never know when you’re rotting away down here while he sits on the Dragon Throne, will you?”
Shaoshang snorted. “Damn you, Yaozu.”
“The same throne you have coveted for so long,” the master said.
“Damn you, Yaozu!” the beast repeated, louder this time.
“Think quickly,” the master said. “You have a chance to die and escape this imprisonment. Refuse and another offer will never be made again.”
“Bah,” Shaoshang grumbled.
“You will remain in captivity until the world crumbles and begins again anew,” the master said.
Shaoshang nodded. “You’ve talked me into it.”
“Good,” the master said. “Now hold still while my disciple claws out your brain.”
“Not so fast,” Shaoshang said. “Did you really think I’d give up my thinker without a fight?”
“I hoped so,” the master said. “If you win, you’ll remain in this hole forever.”
“Ahh,” Shaoshang said. “But if I win, I will have defeated an Infallible Master. That juicy victory will nourish me until the end of time.”
“Very well,” the master said. “My disciple will fight you.”
“Wait,” Junjie said. “What?”
“You will fight this vile demon and devour his brain,” the master said.
“Ahem,” Junjie said as he coughed into his hand. “Master, a word?”
“Excuse us,” the master said as he and Junjie walked into the darkness.
“Oh don’t worry about me,” Shaoshang said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Master,” Junjie said once he was away from the monster. “You didn’t think I was able to defeat Dragonhand, but now you think I stand a chance against that…thing?”
“He is chained,” the master said. “He is at a great disadvantage.”
Junjie paused for a moment before continuing. “And you’d have me eat his brain? Won’t that turn me into a brain fiend?”
“It is possible,” the master said. “But I do believe you are one of a handful of people in the world who are able to eat a brain and not succumb to temptation. The Staff of Ages would not have chosen you otherwise.”
Shaoshang’s voice traveled into the darkness. “What’s it going to be?”
“You’ll need his strength if you are to get Mei-Ling back,” the master said.
Junjie exhaled. “Fine.”