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Mutants & Masterminds: StarGate Freedom - Prologue: Wei Pu and Guo Zhenglai

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November 1, 2008

Downtown Xi’an, Shaanxi Provence, People’s Republic of China

Wei Pu stared up at the monolith that had set down on the Dragon Emperor’s pyramid. It had happened in the night, but it had been out in the wilderness around Xi’an. It hadn’t been until they’d seen the ships shaped like bugs fly overhead that they had realized that something had changed. Several people had decided to go out, and Pu’s boss had told him to go with them to make sure nothing bad happened to those people.

Now, he was staring at a pyramid on top of the Dragon Emperor’s pyramid. He felt both light-headed and sick, unsure of what this meant. His hands shook, and the policeman wracked his brain, trying to determine what to do. The regulation book had never covered this.

An opening appeared in the front of the pyramid; a silver orb floated out the front. For a moment, it was blank, then a picture formed. A fearsome visage stared at them, a Middle Eastern man dressed like a king. “I am Ra. And you are the conquered.” The voice was booming and doubled, as if it spoke with two voices. “Do not resist, or you will be lost. I will wipe your people from your world. You have now my subjects, and you will obey.

“Your race was once ruled by overlords. Yours was Lord Yu. He now returns to reclaim His people.”

The man’s face faded and was replaced by a formidable Chinese image. “I am Lord Yu! I have returned to you! Bow before me!”

Wei stared at the globe with its images. All he could think about was his grandfather. He’d thought that his mother’s father was a batty old fool, his head too full of old stories to see the truth. But now, Wei realized that the man had been right. Yu was real; the Jade Emperor existed and had returned.

His legs folded, and Wei grunted as his knees hit the ground. That hadn’t been his choice. But as Yu’s eyes settled on him, Wei chose to fold himself forward and press his face to the ground. Slowly, he heard the others around him do the same. How could they not?

“You.” Wei looked up slowly. Yu was looking at him. “You are the first Taur’i to acknowledge me, and you shall be rewarded for that wisdom. What is your name?”

“Wei Pu.” Wei was shocked that the words came out of his mouth so well, without shaking or stuttering. “My lord.”

“My god,” Yu corrected.

“My god,” Wei repeated, bowing as deeply as he could. “I live to serve you.” Wei was only the first to offer his service.

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  • 1 month later...

November 1, 2008

The Temple of the Jade Maiden, atop Jade Maiden Peak, Hua Shan, Shaanxi Provence, People's Republic of China


The older a person becomes, the less they sleep. At one hundred and five years of age, Guo Zhenglai usually woke so early it made the sun itself look lazy, and today was no exception.

He and his wife of sixty-seven years, Jurong Chan, woke up while it was still dark and began to get ready for the day with the slow, careful mindfulness of extreme old age. Even so, a good half hour before the sun was due to rise, they were sitting together in their little hut in the pre-dawn time and sharing a quiet cup of tea together, their silence comfortable and intimate in the way that only those who have spent an entire lifetime together can achieve.

As the first glimmerings of the sun began to trickle in through the slats of their windows, the melodious strains of young Bat's morin khuur could be heard out in the temple courtyard. At the sound, Zhenglai set down his tea cup, patted his wife's hand, and then walked out the door, grabbing his own horse-headed fiddle and his cane on the way out. The old man made his careful way to the temple steps where the young man was playing, and just as carefully sat down beside him. Without exchanging words or greetings, Zhenglai found his place in the music and they began to play together as the sun climbed over the horizon just as slowly and carefully as any old man.

Bataar, or 'Bat', as everyone called him, had found his way to the Temple of the Jade Maiden from inner Mongolia nearly four years ago. He had come to see the holy mountain as so many others did, and he had stayed to learn taijiquan from Zhenglai and the other instructors who taught under him, as only a very few did. But he had brought the morin khuur with him, and it soon became apparent to everyone at the Temple of the Jade Maiden that he was a musical prodigy. In the years since his arrival, Zhenglai had learned that Bat had given up a brilliant career as a traditional Mongolian musician when he had decided to leave everything behind and study at the Maiden's Temple. The boy had never spoken of why he had done this, and the old man never asked.

Zhenglai had asked the boy if he would be willing to teach him how to play the morin khuur, and the boy had readily agreed, seeming almost overjoyed at having found something that he could offer the ancient grandmaster. In the years since, the two of them could often be heard playing together in the early mornings or late evenings, their strains of music echoing over the mists that surrounded the five peaks of the sacred daoist mountain. Guo Zhenglai cherished these times. After an entire lifetime spent mastering the martial arts, he had come to believe nothing in this world, aside from his wife, could hold his attention so utterly, but he had been delighted to discover the sublime joy of struggling to learn how to play even the simplest of melodies on the difficult two-stringed fiddle, along with the deep pride he felt when he finally succeeded. Though his skill at present was barely more than adequate, Zhenglai was determined to master the instrument, and once he had done that, he already had a list of other instruments to master in mind.

Back in their little hut, tucked as it was within a small stand of trees behind the temple, Jurong Chan had some morning cleaning to do, and then she also would be leaving on a journey to the mountain's southern peak, and the tourist shops that sat atop it, to stock up on certain medicinal herbs, tea, and other odds and ends the couple were running short on. Jurong Chan was herself already ninety-nine years old, and her one hundredth birthday was fast approaching, but she and Zhenglai both made the journey at least once a month. A few times a year, the two of them would even take a trip into Huayin or Xi'an, travelling on foot down the holy mountain on the path that was considered by many to be the most dangerous hiking trail in the world. They had been walking the path since 1939 however, and it had been even more dangerous back then, and so these days the trip down seemed almost boring.

As she passed by the temple gates on her way to the southern peak, Jurong Chan waved at her husband and his talented pupil and bid them farewell. Zhenglai only told her to be quiet and not distract him while he was playing in response, but he grinned at her like a young fool gazing upon the love of his life while he said it, and her eyes smiled right back at him even as she shushed him, knowing in her heart that he was hers forever.

Guo Zhenglai watched her as she picked her way along the narrow mountain path that led to the southern peak, but then he turned his attention back to the melody he and Bat were playing and focused on giving the day a proper welcome.

Not a one of them had any idea what was happening two hundred and forty kilometers to the west, in Xi'an. But they would, soon enough.

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Jurong Chan arrived at the tourist shop and picked over the available wares. She focused on the things that she knew that Zhenglai would enjoy, though in truth they had been together so long that their tastes had largely merged. Jurong Chan chatted with the clerk; both had known each other for years and they had a familiar, comfortable relationship.

Carefully, the old woman picked over her purchases, seeking the best deal in each case, making the clerk laugh as she drove her bargains with a spunk and energy not seen in women a third her age. The clerk was still chuckling as her purchases were finalized and she walked away.

Jurong Chan liked these moments alone. She loved Zhenglai and would have preferred to be with him. But if she couldn't be with him, she found that a moment of solitude was restful for the soul. She moved to the edge of the peak, staring out to the south. She enjoyed the way that the mountains met the sky - blue pierced by white teeth.

A tinny roar broke the serenity of the morning and Jurong Chan looked up, startled. A phlanax of jets tore through the air overhead, moving fast enough to make the old woman twist to watch their movements. She frowned, trying to remember the last time that the modern world had invaded like this. With a sigh and a groan at her aching knees, she turned and started for the path home. She had things to do, and she didn't want to dwell on the jets any longer. But the jets had upset her, and she wanted some tea and the company of her husband.

Zhenglai and Bat found their playing interrupted as the jets tore overhead. Like Jurong Chan, they didn't let it stop their day but were similarly unsettled. They played for a bit longer but found that they weren't in the mood. Had Zhenglai known what would come, he might have made time to play a bit longer with his music teacher.

Instead, they agreed to play again tomorrow, and the two parted ways. Zhenglai heard Jurong Chan's voice and turned to see her coming up the path, smiling at him. He offered her his arm and they walked up to the house together. They didn't talk; there was no need to say anything. Zhenglai was more solicitous of her as he sensed her unease, and Jurong Chan was a bit more doting on him.

They had a light lunch, taking time to savor it and the tea that Jurong Chan lovingly made. Zhenglai stood slowly as his wife cleared the dishes, preparing to go outside for training. That was when they heard the strange noises outside. Together the went outside, to see the strange golden ships settling into the open area before the temple. Strange young men dressed in black armor, all Chinese, climbed out of the craft and stood, waiting for someone to approach them.

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By the time the ancient couple made it out of the temple gates, the younger monks and students at the temple were already forming a small crowd, all of them staring and gawking at the strange flying craft, and the equally strange occupants who had emerged from within. Just as Zhenglai and Jurong Chan were arriving at the gate, old Daozhang* Bi Tanmao came hobbling along, accompanied by the young Daozhang Shi Ainu. Daozhang Bi, also known affectionately as 'Lao* Bi', was the head priest of the Temple of the Jade Maiden, and at one hundred and one years old was only five years younger than Guo Zhenglai himself, while Shi was one of the younger monks and one of Zhenglai's most advanced students.

"What's all the ruckus about?", Lao Bi asked Jurong Chan, who was closer to he and Shi than Zhenglai. "We don't know, Daozhangzi*", she responded, "we were just coming to see for ourselves."

Lao Bi nodded, and gestured with his cane for Zhenglai and his wife to go through the gates first. The three elders stepped out and took in the strange sight before them with a speed that would have surprised the gathered youths, had they not been too preoccupied to notice. Zhenglai and Jurong Chan caught each other's eye and then turned to look at Bi Tanmao; understanding passed between them in an instant.

Lao Bi turned to the gathering monks and students and raised his weathered voice, "Alright, that's enough gawking, you pack of monkeys! Don't you know it is impolite to stare at guests like this? You'll bring shame on your ancestors behaving this way! Now, get back inside!"

The younger monks voiced a few half-hearted complaints, but obeyed their elder without any real protest. Zhenglai's and Jurong Chan's students only needed to take one look in their sifus' eyes to know that Bi's instructions applied to them as well. Zhenglai stepped close to Daozhang Shi as the younger men milled about them and said, "Shi, go in with the rest of them and let Sifu Wu Zhihuan know that he will need to start classes without us, alright?" Shi nodded once and then was off to fulfill his instructions. Though he was young, Shi Ainu was an exceptional monk and student, with a wise head on his shoulders and he had grasped his elders' minds immediately.

Taoist teachings had a great many things to say about a great many things, including how to deal with strangers, strange circumstances, and potential dangers. But what it all boiled down to was this: the wise man (or woman) should not be overly concerned about any of these things. The plow that works in one field will work in one thousand other fields just as well, and even the longest journeys are taken one step at a time. Therefore, the sage meets the strange and new the same way he meets the everyday and the mundane: with an open heart and a mind free of concerns or expectations.

These were not easy truths to grasp, but Guo Zhenglai, Guo Jurong Chan, and Bi Tanmao had more than three centuries of practice between them, and were just starting to get it. No matter who these strange young men in their black armor were, or why they had come, there simply was no reason yet not to continue fulfilling their obligations for the day, nor was there any reason not to welcome their guests as anything other than just that: guests.

As the last of the youths disappeared back inside of the temple, Zhenglai looked to his wife. "Xiao Hu*", he said, "would you mind putting on another pot of tea, and perhaps preparing some rice as well, in case these young men are hungry?" Jurong Chan did not quite manage to keep the concern out of her eyes, but she said nothing and only nodded her head in acquiescence before turning to follow the others back into the temple.

All alone out on the narrow top of Hua Shan's Middle Peak, two thousand meters up in the air, Guo Zhenglai and Daozhang Bi Tanmao made their slow, unhurried way to the waiting visitors, each man's cane tapping out a steady rhythm on the rock face of the mountain. They both smiled as they drew near, and did not stop or hesitate until they were quite close to the young man who seemed most likely to be the one in charge. Still smiling, Lao Bi spoke with earnest sincerity in his voice and said, "Welcome to the Temple of the Jade Maiden, honored guests. I am Daozhang Bi Tanmao, the head priest here, and this is Zongshi* Guo Zhenglai, an esteemed master of wushu*, and a Yishi* of no small repute as well."

Zhenglai stepped forward and grinned at the stony-faced young men, reaching towards them with one hand, while reaching behind himself with the other and indicating the path back to the temple. "Please", he said, "the outer courtyard is no place for honored guests such as yourselves. Come in, and honor us by taking tea and refreshments in our company."

The two old men stood their ground and waited, with as humble and friendly a countenance as each could muster, and waited to see how the strangers would react.


'Daozhang' is the Chinese word for a Taoist monk.

'Lao' means old.

'Daozhangzi': '-zi' is a suffix that indicates the subject is considered a wise elder - a term of respect.

'Xiao Hu' means 'little tiger', and is a nickname given to Jurong Chan while she was still in her twenties, Her extraordinary skill and fierceness in martial combat was so great that people began to liken her to a tiger, and the nickname stuck. Zhenglai still uses it as a term of endearment for her to this day.

'Zongshi' technically refers to the founder of a given martial arts style, but is more generally used to indicate a grandmaster who is above other masters in a given style.

'Wushu' is the general term for Chinese martial arts.

'Yishi' means 'medical master' and is a formal term for a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine.))

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  • 2 weeks later...

The stone faces relaxed a touch, and the two old men were given slight bows - just bending the head, not really enough respect for boys only twenty or so to be giving their elders. It told the elders how the three strangers viewed them. "Thank you for your generous hospitality," the leader said, his accent strangely archaic. He spoke like a someone who had learned Chinese from old texts. "We are honored by your giving." Again, honored, not humbled; these children thought quite highly of themselves. "Please guide us."

Zhenglai and Bi Tanmao turned and led the boys inside, their canes still tapping on the stones. They led the guests into their receiving area, a quiet, sheltered alcove open to the lovingly tended gardens. The five men settled themselves, the guests resting on their knees, as if they were ready to bounce to their feet at any moment. Their black staffs were placed on the ground, within easy reaching distance.

Jurong Chan entered but a moment later with hot water and tea. She set the tray down and began to pour cups. Quietly, the strangers waited, their eyes fixed on the tea. It was only after she passed them their cups did the leader speak. "I am Mingyu," the leader informed them, "Dragon in service to the Emperor of Heaven. We come to tell you that you will open your temple to training Dragons in your style of combat. Such is the pleasure of the Emperor of Heaven."

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Silence reigned in the receiving alcove for several seconds, and more than just one or two tense looks were exchanged between the three elders. Zhenglai was very glad that none of the younger monks or his students had been allowed to attend this meeting. There was no telling how they might have reacted to the stranger's words, or whether he or Lao Bi would have been able to maintain proper control of the situation if any of them had reacted poorly. It was all Zhenglai could do not to 'react poorly' himself, and he could see that Bi Tanmao and Jurong Chan were struggling as well.

To Zhenglai's attentive eye, it was apparent that Daozhang Bi could barely contain himself and was struggling not to explode at this young man's preposterousness. By contrast, Jurong Chan seemed almost perfectly composed outwardly, as though nothing unusual had happened yet, but Zhenglai knew from many decades of experience that this meant she was actually struggling as much as Bi Tanmao. She had not earned the nickname 'the Little Tiger' for nothing, after all; like the tiger, the quieter and less obtrusive Jurong Chan became, the more likely she was to pounce on some unsuspecting victim at any minute.

Zhenglai himself was feeling overwhelmed by a sense of foreboding over this entire encounter, and his heart was beating much more quickly than was healthy for a man of his age because of the potent mix of emotions that he felt at being told by strange visitors who came in floating vessels that the chief deity of the Taoist pantheon wished for him to train his warriors for battle. On the one hand, it was so completely unbelievable - Zhenglai had never attended any famous universities as a young man, but he was nonetheless highly educated when it came to Chinese history and philosophy, so he knew precisely the history mixed with legends and myth that had led to the modern-day beliefs in the 'August Personage of Jade', and had never taken them seriously himself. On the other hand, he was a devout follower of The Way, and there was some historical fact mixed in with the legends...

Jurong Chan was the first to break the silence by saying, "You see, husband? This what we get for hiding at the top of a mountain year after year. The Emperor of Heaven himself returns, and we hear nothing of it!" She said this with such perfect poise that it was impossible for anyone - even Zhenglai - to tell from appearances alone if she were actually serious, or making sarcastic remarks at the young men's expense. Her husband did not need to rely on outward appearances though; he knew perfectly well what her game was. Even as a he gave her a look of strained forbearance, Zhenglai could not help but feel some pride at how well she handled herself, even after all these years. Age had not diminished her mind!

Zhenglai turned back to the leader of their strange visitors and bowed, much lower and more respectfully than the boy had bowed to him, saying, "This temple has always been open to all those willing to travel here and commit themselves to learning what we have to teach. However, we are greatly humbled that the August Personage has deemed this simple place of devotion worthy of his notice. Moreover, that the Jade Emperor would allow such a lowborn and unworthy old man as myself to undertake the training of his heavenly warriors is a far greater honor than one such as I deserves." Zhenglai bowed low a second time and, head still bowed, finished by saying, "I am, and always have been, a humble servant of the true Emperor of Heaven."

Guo Zhenglai felt that familiar sense of uncertainty that let him know he was no Sage of the Way. Still, he was doing his best. He did not yet know how this situation would play out, but he knew that every word he had just spoken was still true. He was the servant of the true Emperor of Heaven. Whether these men represented that August Personage or not, or whether they were all madmen, remained to be seen. And until Zhenglai knew the answers to these questions, he would remain humble, honest, and upright, cultivating virtue within himself and not turning away anyone - not even these strange, haughty young men. The sage treated all men alike, both good and not good, trustworthy and untrustworthy, and thereby he demonstrated his own goodness and trustworthiness. Zhenglai could only strive to do likewise.

Zhenglai remained as he was, with his head bowed in humbleness, and waited to see how it would all turn out.

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The leader inclined his head again. "Excellent, Zongshi," the leader said. "The Jade Emperor will be most pleased to hear of your humble service. His servant, the Emperor of China, will see to your reward for such humility."

"China's... Emperor?" Daozhang Bi asked sharply before he could stop himself. "China doesn't have an emperor."

"Yes, that shameful lack has been rectified," Mingyu said, remaining easily balanced on his knees. His physical fitness was evident in the ease with which he remained still and balanced. "China once again is ruled by an Emperor."

"We are so isolated up here," Jurong Chan said, her tone perfect for a woman kept from more exciting places by the demands of family. "Please tell us what you know of the new emperor!"

"Emperor Wei Pu was granted that honor among the Taur'i," Mingyu said. He was still the only one to speak, as the others were busying themselves with tea. "There are rewards for becoming the first to recognize the power of the Emperor of Heaven."

Mingyu paused to drink some tea before asking, "How many students can you accommodate? And when can those currently enrolled be assessed for service to the Jade Emperor?"

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This was getting out of hand. Zhenglai could barely keep up with the pace of events on this strange day, and he knew his wife and the Daozhangzi must be struggling every bit as much. As he so frequently did these days, Zhenglai fell back on the teachings of the Tao to help guide him through this situation.

The sage lives within nature.

Zhenglai sat up straight again, and also paused to take a few sips of tea before he answered the younger man. "As many as you choose to send here will be welcomed", he said, adding after a pregnant pause, "but as you have seen for yourself, this temple is both isolated and not large, and I am only one old man. Send too many, and the majority will wind up sleeping outside the walls, exposed to the elements on the bare top of Huashan, and the instruction they receive - both those inside the walls and without - will be the poorer for it."

The sage thinks within the deep.

The ancient Zongshi paused once again and took some tea, relishing each sip as it trickled over his tongue. "Send me a handful of your very best", he said after he had carefully set his teacup down with hands that were surprisingly steady for one so old, "Perhaps half a dozen. More, if your best number greater than six, but not more than ten."

Guo Zhenglai smiled confidently at the leader of Yu's dragons as the young man asked with a touch of impatience in his voice, "Why so few?"

The sage gives within impartiality.

The old man answered, "It is clear to me, young man, that the August Personage, in his infinite wisdom, would desire to cultivate the Sword of the Son of Heaven first, the Sword of the Feudal Lord second, and the sword of the common man last, don't you think?" He did not wait for the leader to answer before continuing, "The Lord of Heaven cultivates the Sword of the Son of Heaven himself, as is fitting. He has already found its tip in the newly appointed Emperor of China, and now he seeks to cultivate its edge here at Huashan - and doubtless at other esteemed places of learning throughout his exalted empire as well. He has already begun doling out his divine rewards and, I would imagine, punishments also, thus displaying his ability to wield such a weapon. This is all as it should be, but now it falls to his humble servants to cultivate the Sword of the Feudal Lord."

For the first time, the young leader of the so-called 'dragons' began to look uncertain. "Pardon me, Zongshi, but I am not sure I follow you. The 'Sword of the Son of Heaven'?"

The sage speaks within trust.

Zhenglai, already beginning to warm to the familiar task of teacher, scowled and answered, "Of course! The Sword of the Son of Heaven symbolizes the highest form of martial skill in all the universe, and is the chief weapon of the Emperor of Heaven. I am shocked that you do not already know this! It symbolizes his mastery over the laws governing Nature itself. 'It is held fast in the spring and summer; it is put in action in the autumn and winter. When it is thrust forward, there is nothing in front of it; when lifted up, there is nothing above it; when laid down, there is nothing below it; when wheeled round, there is nothing left on any side of it; above, it cleaves the floating clouds; and below, it penetrates to every division of the earth. Let this sword be once used, and the princes are all reformed, and the whole kingdom submits. This is the sword of the Son of Heaven.'" Zhenglai smiled, and reached once again for his cup of tea. "Or so say the sages", he concluded, before putting the cup to his lips.

The young leader nodded reluctantly, clearly not understanding everything Zhenglai had just said, but not wanting to acknowledge as much. "Very well", he said finally, "and the Sword of the Feudal Lord?"

The sage governs within order.

"Yes", answered Zhenglai, "the Sword of the Feudal Lord. The wise use of this sword will fall chiefly on the able shoulders of our new Earthly Emperor, but it this humble teacher's honor and duty to aid him in this by cultivating this sword for him. Already, this sword finds its tip in the wise and brave warriors of heaven, such as yourselves". Zhenglai indicated the gathered 'dragons' with a brief but respectful dip of his head, "but it next will need pure and impartial warriors, such as I will train for you here, for its edge. These men will be well-equipped for the training of the loyal and honorable warriors that will be needed to form the back of the Emperor's martial capabilities. When we have finished in this honorable work, then let this weapon be used once and within the four borders there will be none who would not respectfully submit, and obey the orders of the ruler. This is the sword of the feudal lord."

The eyes of the young leader still looked a little uncertain, but there was a light of fervor behind his eyes that Zhenglai was not entirely comfortable with. Still, it was clear that his words were having their desired effect.

The young man nodded again, this time with an obvious touch of enthusiasm, as he asked, "And the Sword of the common man?"

The sage crafts within ability.

Zhenglai nodded gravely and set his teacup down with much seriousness before looking each of the gathered strangers in turn as he spoke. "The sword of the common man", the ancient teacher answered, "is wielded by those who set their faces like unyielding stone, and go about in hard, dark armor, thinking only of the next battle and personal glory. They sit stiffly on their knees, like weather-beaten trees, dry and unyielding with age, and they bow their heads poorly when speaking to their elders, like an old man whose bones have fused together. This sword strikes above, and the neck is severed, below, and the belly is laid open and the lungs are scooped out. Used once, and a common man dies, as likely the wielder as the intended target. This is the sword of the common man."

The sage acts within opportunity.

Zhenglai stared hard at the young leader for a moment, considering as he did the obvious pride these young men took in their martial ability. In their physical strength and power; in their finely crafted weapons and armor; in their positions of power and authority.

He stared hard, he considered, and then he continued, choosing his words carefully. "Those who use it may die on any given morning, and are of no use in the successful governing of the Heavenly State. His August Personage sits upon the throne of the Son of Heaven, and you, young man, have been given authority by him in the training and disposition of his heavenly warriors. That you should think so highly of such common swordsmanship, is unworthy, as I venture to think, of ones such as yourselves."

The dragons, and especially their leader, grew very red in the face and their was much swallowing and working of jaws all around. Clearly, the leader was struggling with his emotions. Finally, and with obvious difficulty, he bowed his head - much more respectfully than at any point previously - and said, "I... thank you for sharing your wisdom with us, Zongshi, and I am... humbled that you would think so highly of me. Of us."

The sage does not contend, therefore none can contend against him.

"Quite the contrary", rejoined Zhenglai, "it is I who am humbled to have been graced by the Lord of Heaven with such an honor as the training of his divine warriors, and I am further edified to see that those he already has are such apt and able students of the Way. If those you send to me for training are such as yourselves, then the Sword of the Feudal Lord that we shall craft here will be a mighty thing indeed!"

"Now", he said, after waiting for the requisite smile and nod of agreement from the strange messengers, "as to the young men already here. I will see to their assessments with all possible speed, rest assured. However, most of them are hardly out of their second decade, and will likely require at least another winter of training before they would be worthy of service to the Jade Emperor himself. I will not see the weapons of divine and earthly government corrupted by the inclusion of men or materials of inferior quality."

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"Perhaps First Prime Osho would like to come?" one man suggested.

Mingyu turned to him and snapped, "First Prime Osho does not need such training! He is the greatest of us all!" His pride made the elders chuckle inside. Either Osho was a true master and wouldn't appreciate being lauded so or he was no master.

"He would be welcome," Bi Tanmao said, "if the Jade Emperor so wishes it."

"As I said, he doesn't need your training," Mingyu said haughtily. The humbling that Zhenglai had given him had not transferred itself to his leader, this First Prime. Bi Tanmao swallowed an angry retort but the room remained tense. After a moment, Mingyu said, "The Emperor will wish a report of this place. I will need to be shown the grounds, and assess the students before I leave." He stared at the old men, his 'request' on behalf of the Emperor made.

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Guo Zhenglai himself struggled to keep from speaking in anger at Mingyu's haughty attitude. The boy had much to learn, and that was a fact. But Zhenglai bit his tongue and kept his peace; Mingyu was not one of his students and it was unlikely he would be among those warriors whom the Emperor placed under his tutelage, so it was not his place to correct the younger man.

Instead Zhenglai simply said, "No one is saying that this First Prime Osho does need any training, my boy, only that he would be welcome here, should he or the Emperor desire that he come here for a visit."

His gaze met Mingyu's stare frankly and unflinchingly as he continued, "Now come, allow us the honor of showing you and your esteemed associates our humble temple grounds. I'm afraid that there isn't much to see, space being at a premium here, on top of Huashan."

Zhenglai got to his feet, and while it was obviously not as easy for him as it was for Mingyu or his fellows, it did not seem half as difficult for him as one would expect, considering his age. Lao Bi, by contrast, required the aid of both Zhenglai and Jurong Chan to return to his feet, whereupon he leaned heavily on his weathered cane.

Once the three oldsters had successfully regained their feet, Zhenglai looked to the darkly-clad strangers again and, indicating a nearby passageway (not the same one as they had entered by), he said, "Ready when you are."

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The young men followed Zhenglai and the elders down the new hallway into the rest of the temple. It took some time, but the stranger's haughty attitude faded away before the simple grandeur of the temple. The meditation areas were made of a simple, dark wood, much of it painstakingly hoisted up the side of the mountain. Once they had passed through the temple, they were to the training grounds. The boys and young men were already in their morning classes; the arrival of the masters and the strangers disrupted most of them, causing no end of confusion. Finally, the instructor stopped the general practice and had them pair off one by one to spar.

The strangers followed this with great interest, watching the boys fight each other. Bo started with the younger students and worked up to the older, more skilled students. Toward the last few students, the strangers were visibly impressed. When the last students went back to their seats, Mingyu said, "Masters, may we show you what the warriors of the Jade Emperor can do?"

A murmur ran through the students. Zhenglai nodded slowly. "Yes, if you would honor us so."

The two strangers who had yet to name themselves rose and faced one another. They shared bows, then fell into an odd stance. Zhenglai could see the similarities to several Earth arts; if he was right, the strangers would be swift and punishing.

He was right about that; he didn't realize how brutal it would be. Both men fought fanatically, trying to win. Blood was drawn; muscles were strained. Victory was decided by a wicked roundhouse kick that had moved so fast few really saw it. These men were not just warriors; they were weapons.

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Guo Zhenglai watched the demonstration from Mingyu's men with interest. He was impressed by what he saw, but also somewhat concerned. His gathered students were staring with wide-eyed awe at the two bloodied warriors, some with looks of fear or disgust in their eyes, but others with the light of envy or admiration. These warriors placed far too much emphasis on physical strength and brutality, and he did not want his students doing the same. Physical strength inevitably faded with age, and brutality was an unfortunate waste of one's resources.

Zhenglai walked over and offered a helping hand to the loser of the competition who was still sprawled on his back nursing a bloodied nose. The younger man stared at his outstretched hand with surprise, but then tentatively reached for it. As the man regained his feet, Zhenglai looked back and forth between him and the winner and spoke.

"Most impressive", said Zhenglai, "Most impressive. Truly, both of you are warriors of great strength and skill. And your speed", he said as he pointed to the victor, "was exceptional."

The two young warriors both bowed in thanks and Zhenglai's gathered students all murmured in approval, and a few even clapped.

"However", continued the old master with hardly a pause, slipping seamlessly into the roll of Trustworthy Instructor and speaking mostly to the loser of the contest, as though advising him on how he might defeat his opponent more easily when next they faced each other, "Your methodologies placed too much emphasis on muscle and tendon strength, which grow weak with age or disuse, and not enough emphasis on the internal strength of the mind and spirit which do not fade, but only grow stronger with age and practice." He smiled at the younger man and asked, "How will you fight when you are old and frail like me?"

To Zhenglai's suprise, the warrior gave him a strange look and answered, "We are Jaffa! Our strength is given to us by the gods themselves, and does not fade with age!"

Zhenglai did not know what to make of this answer at all, though it was obvious that the young man was utterly sincere in his belief of the claim he'd just made. The old master kept his uncertainty to himself however, and after a considerate pause he answered back, "Perhaps so, but I would wager that your strength does not increase with old age either, does it?"

To this, neither the winner nor the loser had an answer.

Zhenglai nodded thoughtfully, as though to himself, and then continued, "Therefore I encourage you both to utilize not only the strength in your bodies, but in your minds and in your spirits as well. By doing so, your martial strength can only increase with time, not diminish - or even remain at a constant - and so too will your ability to properly serve your emperor as warriors."

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"Lord Yu is my strength of spirit," Mingyu said softly, bouncing to his feet. "My service to him is my strength of mind. I understand your words, Teacher and I heed them. I make them my bulwark against the things that would weaken me." Oh, he heard what Zhenglai had said, but he didn't understand that he shouldn't put his strength in another. Zhenglai wondered if anything would shake his zealotry.

With a bow, Mingyu asked, "May I show my Lord's power?" He straightened and faced Zhenglai, his stance relaxed, but ready.

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On the one hand, Zhenglai was growing tired of these warriors' brutality and prideful delight in violence, but on the other hand this would provide yet another opportunity for him to gauge the methods of fighting used by these strange men. He was also somewhat concerned about the impact their capabilities might have on the impressionable minds of his students, but he would deal with that matter if and when it became necessary.

Guo Zhenglai stepped to one side of the training area, following Mingyu's two associates and taking a place between them along the training area's edge. Once the area was clear of everyone but Mingyu, Zhenglai bowed formally to him and said, "Please, begin when you are ready."

Click to reveal..
While Mingyu is doing... whatever it is he's about to do, Zhenglai will make an Assessment check on him.

Sense Motive check for Assessment feat: (20:15:27) ChatBot: (Centimane) rolls 1d20 and gets 16. Sense Motive (15) + 16 = 31

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Mingyu approached the training dummy, his movements fluid and graceful. There was more than a little of the showman in him as he settled into that strange-yet-familiar fighting stance again. Drawing a deep breath, he released it - and then moved.

Again, it was power, but Mingyu had speed and precision as well. His hands, arms, feet and legs pummeled the dummy. He rained blow after blow on it. Zhenglai was not surprised to hear the wood strain, then crack under the tremendous blows. A shard broke loose; one of the 'arms' went flying.

The finale was impressive. The stranger drew up his ki, and with a single blow, sundered the training dummy with a blow from his fist. It split in half, revealing the paler wood, untouched by stain or oil from human hands. The students gaped. It wasn't easy to destroy one of those pillars of wood.

Turning, Mingyu bowed to Zhenglai. The old man had two singular impressions: that Mingyu had used no tricks beyond the brutal strength in his body, and that he had done it with utter poise and calm. Zhenglai had seen other fanatics with those demeanors before.

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Guo Zhenglai watched as Mingyu destroyed the practice dummy. These men possessed little self-restraint, from what he could see, and he found himself less and less impressed with their beliefs, even as he became more worried about the implications for himself and those he was responsible for here at the temple. He did not like to think about what might be happening throughout the rest of China right now.

A part of Zhenglai's mind wanted to believe that these men truly were just lunatics imposing themselves on their lives, but the rest of him knew better. These men had arrived in an impressive vehicle that flew with no visible means of propulsion that he could understand, they were clothed in well-made armor that was clearly designed to be functional in combat and not just for show, and they had just finished demonstrating to him their martial skills (which were impressive in the extreme). No, these men were not merely delusional lunatics spouting madness. Something was happening in the world at large, and it had found its way even here, to the top of what the Chinese people fondly referred to as 'The Number One Steepest Mountain in the World'.

Zhenglai did not know what the source of all this seeming madness truly was, nor did he understand what it all meant. He knew only what was before him now: a group of prideful and violently-natured young men who claimed to serve the Emperor of Heaven, and yet seemed to have no knowledge of the Way. That much he knew, and while he did not like it, he could at least understand it and react to it.

The old master stood unmoving at the edge training area after Mingyu finished his demonstration and gazed at him calmly. He barely acknowledged the splintered wood of the dummy standing next to the young man. Instead, he gave Mingyu a slight smile and a nod of his head and said, "Very good. Very good indeed. However, I believe you misunderstood my meaning when I said that one should utilize the strength of the mind and spirit rather than that of the body. I was not speaking metaphorically, but literally."

Looking somewhat put-out, but showing a willingness to listen that Zhenglai was pleased by, Mingyu bowed his head slightly and answered, "My humblest apologies if this was so, Master." Then he added, "Perhaps you would honor us by demonstrating what you meant?"

The old Zongshi had expected this response, in truth, and simply nodded his head in a confident and off-handed manner in return. Wordlessly, he handed his cane over to a nearby student, and then proceeded to shuffle over to one of the still-intact dummies. He stood next to it in a deceptively casual, and yet extremely well-balanced stance, and placed one palm flat against the wood.

He turned back to face Mingyu and the others (he was speaking as much to his own students as he was to the newcomers) and said, "When you strike with the strength of your own muscles, you are limiting yourself. The strength of the body withers from the effects of time, age, disease or poison, and most of all from a weakened or fragile spirit. Moreover, the strength of the arms depends on leverage while the that of the legs on posture and balance. But spiritual strength depends on none of these things, only a calm and centered mind; it does not even require the movement of one's body."

He turned to face the dummy once again, addressing those observing him without actually looking at them anymore. "When your inner mind is calm and untroubled by external factors, when you do not contend with the Way and allow it to flow freely through you, you come to understand that this pillar of wood's strength is also its greatest weakness. It is hard, while I am soft; it is stiff, but I am supple; it cannot bend, therefore I will break it."

And with the word 'break', the hand and arm that Zhenglai had placed against the wooden dummy flexed, almost imperceptibly, and immediately there was a loud *SNAP*! as a wide vertical crack immediately appeared up and down the length of the wood.

"Furthermore", continued the old master, still without looking at any of his rapt audience, "this pillar is sturdy and rooted in one place, while I am as rootless as a water-lily and my movements cannot be hindered." So saying, Zhenglai pulled his hand away from the dummy and drew it close to his chest as he seemed to gather himself up from somewhere within, and then he stepped forward in one smooth motion and did not exactly strike the dummy, but rather he seemed to push it with great speed and force.

In response, the entire wooden pillar cracked near its base and then bent backwards under Zhenglai's hand, finally coming to rest at a nearly forty-five degree angle.

The old man pulled back from the pillar with a careful slowness that reminded all those watching just how old he truly was. Then Zhenglai turned back towards Mingyu and his students and began shuffling back to them, taking his cane as the student he'd handed it to offered it back to him. Behind him, the pillar creaked and groaned and then, slowly at first, it began to fall the rest of the way to the paving stones of the temple's training area, finally crashing noisily to the ground.

"What we call Strength is an illusion", Zhenglai said, "Instead, be like Fate. It does not attack and yet all things are conquered by it. It does not ask, yet all things must answer to it. It does not seek out and yet all things are laid out before it, and though it does not plan, yet all things are determined by it. Be like the Great Way of Heaven, in which all things find their source, but which has its source in Nothing. And having no beginning, it has no end. Be like the sage, who does not contend, and so none can contend against him."

Having said so much, the ancient master seemed content to stand silently, watching his guests serenely.

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Everyone was impressed, even the strangers from so far away. Zhenglai had not done it for their pleasure, but as a matter of instruction. As always, it was hard to tell if the lesson had been received or not. Even his students seemed caught up in the impressive power of his feat rather than the value of its lesson.

It wasn't long after that the strangers left, with promises to return with the selected students who would return. Zhenglai promised to be eagerly ready for them. Jurong Chan and Bi Tanmao stood with him, watching with their own kind of awe as the three golden ships lifted into the air and quickly disappeared.

For a moment, the three teachers stood quietly, digesting what what happened. The other two were shaken, but only Zhenglai could see. To the students huddled behind them, trying to watch without being seen watching, the three were an oasis of calm in a suddenly frightening world.

Finally, Jurong Chan turned. "I will go make dinner," she said, just loudly enough to be heard. The students scattered, pretending they hadn't been huddled in the door. She ignored them, acting as if everything was exactly the same as it was yesterday.

That left Zhenglai and Bi Tanmao to talk alone, if they wished.

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"What a day", muttered Zhenglai once they were alone.

"Yes", agreed Daozhangzi Bi Tanmao, "two of those training dummies destroyed in one day. Those things are expensive and difficult to replace, you know. When they come back with your 'students', you should demand that they replace them - see how deep this Emperor's pockets are." Bi's delivery was entirely deadpan, but Zhenglai knew it was his way of coping with the turmoil the old priest's mind and heart must be experiencing.

After a moment Bi asked almost hesitantly, "Do you think it's all true?"

Zhenglai snorted and asked him right back, "Do you?"

Bi shook his head thoughtfully, "No", he answered, "but a part of me would like to. To see the August Personage of Jade returned to this earth before I die would be a marvelous thing. But the way those young men behaved..."

"Yes", agreed Zhenglai, "Too much pride - and no understanding of the Tao at all. Their miraculous floating ships, their bearing and raiment, and of course their skills: all these things give credence to their claims that they represent some new power in the land, but their actions and attitudes were not the actions or attitudes of Heaven."

"Mm. Which makes it all the more important that you be given the opportunity to train their 'Dragons', doesn't it?"

"Ah", said Zhenglai as he breathed an internal sigh of relief, "I wasn't sure if you understood why I agreed so readily or not. It gladdens me to find that we are of one mind on this matter."

"Of course!", exclaimed the ancient priest, "We would be fools to turn away the devil that comes to us asking that we train his sons in the ways of Heaven!"

"Just so", Zhenglai said with a smile, thankful that here in this isolated temple on top of a mountain he should be lucky enough to have such wise souls as Bi Tanmao and his own wife. It would make the days to come that much easier to bear.

After a moment of silence between them, Zhenglai began to haul himself back to his feet. "Well", he said, "I should go and help Jurong Chan with dinner, I suppose. And I think you had better go and speak with the youngsters - I expect that they have more than a few questions they are dying to ask us."

"Hey, hey!", exclaimed Bi with mock-dismay, "why is it you get the easy job?"

Zhenglai grinned at him sarcastically and joked, "It's the privileges of age, young man!"

"Oh ho!", interjected Bi with a laugh.

"Yes, that's right! When you get to be my age, you can take it easy too. But until then, get to work, youngster! And as for me, I've a wife to attend to."

"Yes, yes", muttered Bi Tanmao good-naturedly as he waved Zhenglai off with an aged and wrinkled hand. "Off with you then. Us 'youngsters' will be gossiping amongst ourselves in the eating hall, should your enlightened and immortal self wish to find us", he remarked sarcastically.

The two old men departed each others' company with smiling faces, grateful for the solace that finely-aged friendship can provide after such a stressful day. Soon enough, they would have to face some harsh realities, but for now at least the temple could return to a semblance of its former peace and serenity. Or so they hoped, at least.

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There were three days of peace in the temple - or rather, relative peace. The students were overly excited, wondering who their new peers were going to be. More than one teacher had to sharply remind students that they had tasks to attend to other than gossiping. It didn't stop the boys at all.

On the third day, a strange thrumming sound filled the air. Zhenglai had hoped that the Jade Emperor would decide not to grace him with warriors, and the sound was an unwelcome signal that his hopes were for naught. Rising, he stepped outside to see a large ship hovering over the temple. It was roughly fifty meters across and somewhat oval shaped. Zhenglai could see that it was taller above than below.

A hatch opened in the bottom and a round device was lowered carefully to the ground. The raised platform appeared to be made of black stone, carved with a wide ring. Several of the students made to approach, but the instructors waved them back. A moment later, their caution was rewarded when the 'carved' ring popped into the air. There was another one under it, and another, until six hovered in the air, roughly a foot apart. A blinding white light filled the enclosed area; when it faded, there were four men standing there. The rings lowered themselves and the men cleared the pad. As they stared around, the rings reengaged again, bringing another group of four. These were more varied in age; the oldest was in his late teens and the youngest appeared little more than twelve. The young boys wore black tunics decorated with small embodied dragons; the grown men wore the black armor over their tunics. They also carried the black staffs in their hands. They made a fearsome image as they fell into a straight line, looking at the students and teachers without expression.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Any doubts about whether or not Mingyu and his men had been anything other than a small band of lunatics vanished as Guo Zhenglai watched the eight young men appear in flashes of light before his old eyes. It seemed that if you lived long enough, you really did see everything.

The ancient zongshi made his slow, careful way towards the gathered newcomers until he stood before them. He looked each of them over carefully, peering at them through the lenses of his glasses, until he arrived at the last fully grown man in the line, with his black armor and equally black staff.

"Starting with you", Zhenglai said, indicating the one upon whom his gaze had stopped, "please tell me your names. Then I will lead you all inside, where your abilities will be assessed."

He paused for a single breath and then said, "Begin."

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As they spoke, long years as a teacher let Zhenglai see the cues that would tell him what he needed to know about them. He'd been a bit worried that the cues would not translate, but found these as easy to read as any other Chinese student. "I am Li," the first man said, standing tell and straight. He felt like a mountain in his bearing - sure and steady. He would be a hard worker, but the most stubborn.

The next student was of medium statue; mostly unremarkable. But Zhenglai sensed that he'd go the distance - any distance he felt he should go. He would need moral guidance, perhaps more than any other of the eight. "Kang, Master." He followed it with a bow.

"I am called Tian, Master," the third said, a hit of a smile on his face. There was a sense of deeply-hidden playfulness, and Zhenglai knew he had the group's prankster - there was always one.

"Peng, Master." The fourth man met Zhenglai's eyes only when he spoke to him, but that brief connection made the man's anger clear. Zhenglai wasn't sure if he had a natural rage or was angry at something. Likely, he would need discipline to control his emotions better.

"I am Liang," the next said. He seemed calm and deep-flowing - not impenetrable like Li, but possessed of a natural serenity. However, he knew his own peace, and likely would feel that Zhenglai only had martial arts to teach him - the arrogance of the young.

"Master, Cai," the sixth said, his manner nervous. He struck Zhenglai as someone like a deer - always ready to dart away. Zhenglai decided that fear held him here, rather than desire. Sometimes, boys came because their fathers or villages wanted them to succeed, not because they wanted to succeed.

The next man bowed to Zhenglai and the teacher knew he'd have the least problems with this student. He was the most inclined to do as he was instructed, but he needed his own initiative. "My name is Miao, Master."

The two children were left, and Zhenglai knew them to be twins immediately. "I am Neng," one said, and the other said, "And I am Shi, Master." Of all the new students, they seemed to be the most naturally curious and eager to learn. They would be the easiest to mold; no other teacher had put deep stamps on them yet.

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Zhenglai observed each of the students carefully as they bowed and made their introductions, his wise old mind making the necessary connections and coming to a decision about each of his new wards almost before they had finished speaking. He had decided the day before that each of the new arrivals would be paired off with another of his existing students. Officially, these partners would only be "sparring partners", assigned to help each other during practice sessions and the like, but Zhenglai intended to get more use out of the system than just that. More often than not, each pair would also be sharing cleaning duties, cooking duties, and other such chores around the Temple with each other.

Pairing them off with Zhenglai's existing students meant that the 'Dragons' would not be able to simply "stick together" or take comfort from the familiar, thus forcing them to adapt to the ways of the Jade Maiden Temple, rather than the Temple adapting to them. It would also serve to give them the greatest exposure to the regular students, thus increasing the likelihood of friendships (and rivalries) forming between them, and such connections were of paramount importance if Zhenglai was to accomplish anything with them. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, by pairing each of them off with the correct student from his own current flock, Zhenglai could offset any personal or cultural limitations they might have, thus giving them the greatest opportunity to grow and develop to their fullest potential.

Li would be paired off with Roman Petrov, his one and only Russian student. Roman was the largest and strongest of his students, and one of the oldest as well. Out of all the students, he was also the closest to becoming an instructor under Wu Zhihuan. Like Li, Roman was very stubborn and strong-willed, but he balanced it with his big heart and fierce loyalty towards all of his fellow students. Since he was being accepted as one of his new students, Zhenglai knew that Roman would accept Li without reserve, but just as importantly, he would be neither intimidated nor deterred by any stubbornness on Li's part. In fact, Zhenglai thought it would do them both good to butt heads with each other for a while - he could be mistaken, but the old master had a feeling the two hulking young men would soon enough become the sort of friends who constantly push each other to do better and accomplish more. Which was precisely what Zhenglai wanted for them both.

Zhenglai knew immediately that the one called Kang would be paired with Shi Ainu, and he hoped the boy would soon realize what an honor had been given him in this. Daozhang Shi was perhaps the most promising youth currently living at the temple. Already having attained to the title of Shi-xiong under Wu Zhihuan (a word that roughly translated to 'Teacher-Senior-Brother'), Shi Ainu was also one of Daozhang Bi's most trusted priests. Though the youth's physical presence was not very impressive, he possessed surprising strength, his reflexes were remarkable, and he was as resilient as a stone Buddha (a smiling stone Buddha, no less). More importantly for someone like Kang, Shi Ainu possessed a wisdom far in excess of his years, and if there was anyone at the temple that Zhenglai could trust to provide the boy with the moral guidance he seemed to need (aside from Bi or his own wife, of course) it would be Shi.

The prankster, Tian, presented more of a conundrum. Pranksters could be harmless, but they could also be a source of many problems. Zhenglai would have preferred to pair the boy off with Shi Ainu and found himself wishing there was more than one of him. But if he and his fellow elders had a single brick for every time they'd wished for more than one Shi, they'd have had more than enough bricks to build an entire new temple with extra left over for a wall. In the end, there was only one other choice: Bataar. The Mongolian young man took a genuine pleasure out of his life, and his sense of play would mean that he would likely be more amused than appalled at anything Tian might try. At the same time, the same self-discipline and self-control that had allowed Bat to become the musical prodigy that he was would (Zhenglai hoped) help to temper his new partner's wilder urges.

Peng... The anger in Peng's eyes concerned Zhenglai, but it made the choice of who to assign as his new partner that much easier. Deshaun Williams was his immediate choice. The African-American boy was good looking, charismatic, and one of the most physically gifted boys that Zhenglai had ever seen. Back home he had been a high school football star, and he had passed up scholarships to any number of colleges in favor of traveling thousands of miles to the Jade Maiden Temple to learn kung fu from Zhenglai and his wife. As talented and skilled as the young man was however, Zhenglai knew that his greatest gift, and the reason for which he was to be paired with Peng, was his irrepressible enthusiasm for life and his genuine desire to share it with everyone around him. Deshaun was also an incredibly hard worker, so if nothing else, perhaps he would keep Peng too busy to put much focus on his anger.

Liang would be assigned to Wu Zhihuan himself as an assistant. This meant he would likely spend more time performing menial tasks, chores, and administrative activities than any of the other boys, but it would also put him in close proximity to the one man who knew better than anyone else that there was more than just kung fu to be learned here at the Jade Maiden. Next to Jurong Chan, Wu Zhihuan was Zhenglai's most trusted associate. Zhihuan would reveal any foolishness in whatever Liang thought he knew, strengthen whatever wisdom the boy already possessed, and give him tantalizing glimpses of things he had never even considered before. Of course, Zhihuan would do this with all of his students, but Liang's exposure to it would be much more thorough.

Cai was another difficult choice for the ancient master, but after a moment's consideration he felt he had an answer. Dai Ming had come to them from Heibei province a few years previous. He came from a wealthy family, and was somewhat proud by nature, but he was also utterly fearless and the strength of his convictions was like an iron rod that held him upright when his pampered upbringing or personal pride might otherwise have brought him low. Dai Ming still needed much direction, but his strong will and fearlessness would lead Cai where he would otherwise fear to go, and most of the instruction that one would need would serve the other just as well.

Miao would be paired with Wu Ji Shen. Ji Shen, like Shi Ainu, was a young priest training under Bi Tanmao, as well as a student under Guo Zhenglai. He had a thoughtful, patient, generous, but also meticulous nature, and was very sincere in his beliefs. The importance of this, when dealing with someone like Miao who lacked personal initiative, was that Ji Shen knew not only what he wanted to do with his life, but why also. Zhenglai hoped that the example would not be lost on Miao. Ji Shen was also known as "the Gardener" by the others at the temple, as he was a practitioner of the ancient art of bonzai tree growing, and perhaps the combination of subtle art, religious dedication, and the self-discipline leading to martial excellence that were all present in the young acolyte would awaken in Miao the desire to choose a course of his own.

And lastly, there were the twins, Neng and Shi. Zhenglai could not help smiling as they bowed to him. The twins would not be separated. He would instruct Wu Zhihuan to keep a careful eye on them, but would allow them to continue training as a pair. They would be the youngest students here and they would need each other's strength in this place that, to them, would seem so strange and alien.

Once all introductions had been made, Zhenglai ushered his new arrivals into the Temple to begin the assessment of their actual martial skill.

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Zhenglai had them pair off and partner with their new mentors. Because their mentors had been doing this for a while, Zhenglai thought that there'd be no chance of an accident. He was mostly right.

Li's fighting style seemed to naturally follow his personalty; his strikes were slow but methodically placed. Roman landed several light punches with minimal effect, but each one that Li released was precise and hard. It was within the acceptable force allowed for sparring, but Zhenglai knew that Roman would likely be sore later. True to Roman's nature, he took the beating with good grace, showing no signs of backing down.

Shi Ainu and Kang seemed well-matched; but more importantly, they seemed to enjoy their match. Zhenglai could tell that Kang was impressed by the skill of the man matched against him, and Shi Ainu made his curiosity about Kang clear. Kang took it as a compliment, and Zhenglai saw that they were barely refraining from talking as the rest of the men showed their skills.

Tian and Bat's encounter was more somber than Zhenglai had expected, but Tian seemed to take fighting seriously. He laughed at everything else, and while he was behaved for now, Zhenglai could see the ideas forming already. For an alien, he was very much like any other student prone to rowdiness, and Zhenglai wondered how different their people really were. So far, his students had been very easy to predict.

It was Peng who proved him wrong about someone being hurt. The man wasn't really sparring as he took the mat with Deshaun, and his first blow knocked the bigger man off his feet, and off the mat. "You look like one of Apophis' dogs, and you fight no better," he snarled as Deshaun came to his feet, his dark skin darkening further in anger and pain. But the American's training held; he looked to Zhenglai rather than giving into his rage and striking back at Peng.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Guo Zhenglai arose and limped onto the training mat, moving to stand in between the two boys. Looking to Deshaun he said, "I hope that you now see why we teach the students here to always be ready for the unexpected, Deshaun." He patted the muscular youth's shoulder and gently reprimanded him, "Don't be too angry. Peng's blow may have been much more forceful - and painful - than you expected, but it was fairly delivered with both skill and precision. So long as you use it as an opportunity to learn, there is no shame in it."

Turning to Peng, Zhenglai spoke to him, saying, "Congratulations, young man, you have amply demonstrated your ability to strike a blow against someone who is not expecting it, and to hurl insults with exceptional vehemence.

"Both of these are useful skills to have in a fight, to be sure", he said, nodding his head, "However, right now I am attempting to assess your skills in the martial arts, not your physical strength, your talent for deception, or your ability to injure another man. All of these will come in time. For now, limit your efforts towards displaying your martial skill and not your physical ability. Am I understood?"

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Peng scowled in comparison to Deshaun's humble bow at his chiding. But Zhenglai expected no less of this angry young man. Like a young rooster, he strutted around spitting anger and arrogance. Perhaps he would always be a rooster, but Zhenglai was hoping that he could teach him otherwise. For a long moment, the two men stared at one another - the young brute and the calm ancient. "Yes, I understand," Peng said without respect or a bow. Deshaun scowled at him, but didn't argue with him as they faced one another again.

The match went much smoother after that. Peng showed his skills and he fought much as Zhenglai expected - with a lot of barely suppressed rage. Deshaun was ready for it this time, and wasn't staggered by the still-hard blows. He accounted for himself well, making Zhenglai sure he'd made the right choice.

Liang was eager to show what he knew, and his skill wasn't unimpressive. But Wu Zhihuan was no slouch, and the foreigner soon saw that and stopped really trying. Instead, he began to attempt to learn what Wu Zhihuan was doing - an admirable trait save that it wasn't what he was supposed to be doing. It was his ego talking; he could do as he wished because he was sure he was right.

The next bit of trouble came indirectly from Dai Ming. Cai hesitated, and Dai Meng did not, using the moment to kick Cai off the mat. It made Cai look bad before his comrades and Zhenglai felt their disdain. However, the watching humans relaxed; for the first time, one of the aliens wasn't displaying pure aggression or complete confidence. The moment made them more comfortable with all the aliens, which was something good. Zhenglai just wished it hadn't come at the expense of Cai's self-confidence.

Ji Shen and Miao proved to be very well matched on the mat. Miao was younger than the other by maybe five years, but on the mat they were a pair. The fight went back and forth with neither having clear victory; Ji Shen's superior martial skill was met with Miao's enhanced physical skill. When Zhenglai had seen enough and bade them to stop, he still wasn't sure who would have won in time. Perhaps Ji Shen, had he managed to conserve his energy; perhaps Miao would have been victorious had he been able to apply his greater strength in a lucky blow.

The twins didn't so much display their martial skill as their lack of it. They had fierceness; when Zhenglai gave them the go ahead, they pounced on each other like hungry tigers. In seconds, they were locked in a mutual vice, each seeking to overcome the other. After a moment, Zhenglai called them off. They had spirit but little formal training. He suspected that they'd be the easiest to teach - less to unlearn. But the interesting thing to Zheng was that the boys weren't any stronger or physically adept than any other boy their age. Save from their odd accents, they could have been human.

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