Jacko read the small parchment one last time in the dimly lit room before tucking the note away. He was eager to get started on his journey of ascension, because he worked so hard these past few months and felt he deserved the promotion. After packing the necessary items for his trip, he extinguished the nearby candle and left the inn. Outside the cold autumn air greeted him, which was both refreshing and chilly and prompted him to wrap his cloak tightly around his body to help ward off its chill. Smiling proudly, he left the town of Wistful.
By nightfall, he reached the entrance to the Saratone forest, and as he was contemplating whether or not he should make camp inside; he heard wolves howling in the distance and quickly lit a torch and entered. Traveling through the dense forest at night wasn’t his best decision, but his journey was still a few days away, and he couldn’t be late. He had hopes of clearing the forest before daybreak, but when it started raining heavy and the night swallowed up the area, he decided to rest. After hanging several pieces of hemp from low hanging branches, he lit a fire, ate, and went to sleep.
In the early-morning hours, the rain ceased altogether. Jacko ate a quick meal, gathered his belongings, and continued along his way. By mid-afternoon, the rain began falling again, but this time it was thicker and heavier and soaked his clothing within minutes. Chilled to the bone, he sought shelter in a nearby cave. Inside the cavern, he found dried wood scattered about and realized other travelers must have used this place as well. He considered it a blessing and lit a fire. After changing his clothes and placing the wet ones near the fire, he took a much-needed nap.
It took the remainder of the day for the rains to stop and when he woke it was dark outside. Already hours behind schedule, he left the safety of the cave and traveled throughout the night until he cleared the forest by daybreak. In the distance, he saw the Clard forest and grinned, because somewhere inside was where his meeting would be held. He moved with haste across the open field and slowed as he entered the woods. He found a moss-covered log and rested.
While eating some nuts and berries, he took the time to admire the changing colors of the leaves. He’d always liked this time of the year because their beauty reminded him of Aurora. From the moment he laid his eyes upon her, he’d been in love. Maybe someday he would share his feelings with her.
He turned his thoughts to his promotion and took out his note and read the instructions one last time before heading off toward the north. He arrived at a makeshift camp two hours later. The place was deserted except for bedding, a small banner of their school, and a brightly lit fire with a kettle hanging just above the flames. While surveying the area, a voice startled him from behind.
“You must be Jacko.”
Jacko turned around and faced a tall thin man in his thirties with a short black beard and a long ponytail. He wore dark green robes.
“I am. I take it you’re from our school. What is your name?”
“Just call me Teacher for now. Come make yourself at home.” Teacher stretched out his open palm and pointed to the camp. It was a modest sign of a warm friendly gesture.
Jacko bowed, entered the camp, and placed his backpack down near the fire.
“Would you enjoy some tea?” Teacher asked as he removed the cast-iron pot away from the fire.
“That would be most generous,” Jacko responded.
Teacher poured the tea into two small cups and gave one to Jacko. Together both men lifted the cups, tilted them simultaneously toward each other, and drank the hot beverage. The tea was bold yet smooth at first, then changed altogether by the time the contents slid down Jacko’s throat. He smiled in satisfaction. Teacher filled both cups again, and the men did the same ritual.
“Teacher, what’s in the tea? That was by far the best brew I’ve ever drunk.”
Teacher, delighted by Jacko’s comment, chuckled to himself. “I’ve spent most of my life developing my special tea; it has become my passion.” He paused as if he were deep in personal thoughts. “I’ll tell you what; if you beat your opponent in honorable fashion, I’ll bestow the recipe upon you.”
Jacko enjoyed tea and was delighted that he even offered. “Thank you, Teacher.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Good, I’m hungry as well. I’ll be right back. Make yourself at home.” He grabbed a spear and headed south.
It was less than an hour when he returned. With him, he carried at least a half dozen fish neatly prepared with herbs and spices and ready for the fire. After placing the fish onto a small metal rack, he suspended it above the open flame and sat back.
“Jacko,” Teacher began, “a mile north from here is where you will be tested, so let me explain the rules to you. You must defeat your opponent in non-lethal combat in order to be granted a promotion. Keep in mind that you’re not to lose control or retaliate even if he does. If you do, you might forfeit your rank and lose the promotional opportunity. Do you understand?”
“I do. What happens if he loses consciousness?”
“That’s allowed; just don’t do it intentionally.”
“What can you tell me about my opponent?”
“His name is Chow Yen, and he’ll be accompanied by two individuals who’ll judge the match and decide the winner.”
“Can you tell me about his rank and what techniques he knows?”
“No.” Teacher sternly replied. “Both of you must openly announce your rank and demonstrate your technique before the match starts. The Order decided a long time ago that if any of the combatants knew their opponent’s techniques, it might give them an unfair advantage over the other.”
Teacher took two fishes off of the rack, placed them on plates, and handed one to Jacko. By the look on his face, he knew he was worried. “Don’t be nervous. Your first test is always the most difficult—not because of your skills, because you have to handle your nerves. Just do your best and even if you fail, you have nothing to be ashamed of, because life is a lesson worth learning, and you’ll discover that the toughest hardships are much more rewarding when you endure them. After you finish, I think you should practice for a bit then get some rest.”
Jacko did as was recommended and trained for the remainder of the evening, while Teacher cleaned up and relaxed under a big redwood tree smoking his pipe. He watched the young student practice and decided that he needed improvement and would teach him the finer points of the technique. After Jacko finished, he sat alone under a tree, meditated, then fell asleep.
The smell of roasted fowl awoke Jacko from his restful slumber. Today is the day, he thought, then smiled, rose, and greeted Teacher.
“Are you hungry?” Teacher asked.
“No, not really.”
“You’d better eat, because you’ll need your energy,” Teacher stated. Jacko nodded in agreement and sat down. “I want you to return here whether you win or lose.”
Jacko nodded, and both men ate in silence.
When the meal was through, Jacko stood up. “Teacher…” Jacko paused. “I wanted to thank you for your hospitality.”
“You’re most welcome. Good luck today, and may the gods be with you.”
Jacko made a fist with his left hand, cupped it with his right, and bowed out of respect and left.
After he disappeared from view, Teacher Ma thought about Jacko’s match and wondered why the Order arranged for him to fight Chow. Chow was two ranks higher and more experienced than he was. Was this an easy contest for Chow, or did the Order think that highly of Jacko’s skills? Ma decided to find out when he returned to the Order.
Three men, all around the same age, waited for him in a small clearing as he entered the area. The person on the far left wore yellow and black clothing, the one in the center was dressed in black, and the individual on the right wore green and black clothing.
“Identify yourself,” the man on the right ordered.
“My name is Jacko. Are you Chow Yen?”
“I am,” the person in the center voiced and stepped forward. “So, you’re the one who stands in my way of a promotion,” he added with sarcasm.
“Promotion? I assumed the promotion was for me.”
“Fool, it’s for both of us.” Chow Yen’s arrogance irritated Jacko right away.
The man on the left stepped forward. “Jacko, we are here to judge the match between you and Chow Yen. He has been selected from a group of ten students who are in line for a promotion as well. I will now explain the rules to the both of you.” The judge opened a scroll. “Rule number one: The winner must defeat his or her opposition in non-lethal combat using one, or all of the techniques they were taught from the Order of White Fist. Rule number two: If one or both combatants dishonor their opponent, they will be disqualified. Rule number three: If one or both combatants use a weapon without our permission, they will be disqualified. Rule number four: If one or both combatants do not show mercy to their opponent, they will be disqualified. Rule number five: If you’re disqualified, you will not be allowed to gain a promotion and must wait one year. Rule number six: If you kill your opponent intentionally, not only will you be disqualified, but you will be removed from the Order of White Fist, and a top rated student will engage you in a fight to the death. Do you both understand the rules?”
Jacko and Chow bowed in unison to the judges.
“You may commence whenever you’re ready.”
The judges walked over to the crude seating area, which was comprised of two three-foot stumps, and waited for the match to begin.
Chow Yen faced the judges and bowed. “My name is Chow Yen. My rank is the Hawk, and I am skilled in the Iron Fist technique.”
Jacko followed his lead and bowed towards the judges. “My name is Jacko. My rank is Fledging, and I am skilled in the Three Finger Technique.”
Chow Yen and Jacko faced each other.
“Jacko your failure today will be my gain, so it’s nothing personal. The strong will advance and the weak—well let’s just say they continue that way. Shall we begin?”
“I am ready.” Jacko had only met him a few minutes ago and already despised him.
Chow was the first to display his skills and walked over to a tree and punched several times until the wood cracked. Satisfied, he stepped away. Now it was Jacko’s turn. He walked up to another tree and struck the surface until he made several indents in the bark and walked over to stand next to Chow.
“Very good. Now begin your fight,” one of the judges announced.
Chow screamed to intimidate Jacko and then ran over and threw two punches, intentionally missing his head. The attack threw the less-experienced fighter off balance and exposed his ribs to a punch that hit him with enough force to send him stumbling backward in pain. Chow paused to smile.
“This is going to be easier than I’d imagined.” Chow boasted and attacked again.
Jacko, still wincing in pain, recovered in time to block several attacks, but in doing so, he sacrificed his right arm to a direct strike and was hit with a crushing blow that caused the extremity to vibrate involuntary and blacken right away. Jacko retreated, clutching the wounded limb, unable to move it.
Chow stopped abruptly and watched him. “You’re no match for me!” he barked. “Boy! Go home before you get seriously hurt.” Chow turned his back and folded his arms in disgust.
Jacko grimaced from the pain as he tried to move his arm. Not only was he physically bruised and battered, but his mental state didn’t fare all that better; he was scared. One of the judges got up and started walking over toward Jacko to see if he indeed wanted to forfeit the match and his promotion. Jacko waved him off, clearly indicating that he was prepared to finish the contest.
“Chow Yen, we’re not finished,” he said bravely.
Chow grinned from ear to ear when he unexpectedly heard him utter those words, and as he was turning around, Jacko connected with a combination of attacks. The first attack from his arsenal was a front roundhouse kick that connected with his head, knocking him off balance. Jacko then aggressively advanced and struck him again with the Three Finger Technique in his right side that cracked his ribs.
Chow retreated, gripping his side in obvious pain. “That was dishonorable,” he barked angrily.
“Who asked you to turn your back and declare yourself the winner?” Jacko snapped back at him.
“He’s right,” agreed one of the judges. “Chow, never turn your back until we say the fight is over.”
Chow was enraged and ran after Jacko with such animosity and reckless abandonment the judges assumed the battle would end with someone getting severely injured or killed. He was about to strike what appeared to be a defenseless victim, when Jacko sidestepped him and struck him again in the same side with the Three Finger Technique. Chow’s momentum drove him past him. Jacko followed and struck him again in the side several times, cracking his ribs and sending Chow stumbling to the ground, gasping in pain. His breathing was labored.
“Do you concede?” Jacko asked.
“Never!” Chow cried and slowly stood up, gasping in short breaths.
Both men stared at each other for a couple of minutes before what they knew would be the final melee and attacked. Chow’s injuries slowed him enough that he never hit Jacko again. Instead he was hit several more times with kicks and three-finger strikes, the last of which sent him to the ground. He tried in vain to get up and continue fighting, but eventually staggered and lost consciousness.
After the battle was over, the judges walked over to Jacko.
“Well done, you won even though you weren’t able to use one of your limbs. Very impressive,” the judge wearing green and black said. “You’re now promoted to the rank of Sparrow. Return and give this scroll to your Teacher.”
Jacko accepted the parchment. “I have a question for you.”
“What is it, student?” the judge in yellow and black responded.
“Was my attack fair and honorable?”
“Jacko, what is fair? Would an animal wait for its prey to turn around? Remember this: Always be prepared for your contest, never turn your attention away from the contest, and fight honorably. Chow was experienced enough to know that.” The judge looked over at the unconscious Chow. “Well, maybe not. Now go and make our Order proud.”
The judges congratulated him anew and sent him on his way.
Jacko returned to the camp shortly after midday and found the Teacher sitting under a tree smoking his pipe.
“Welcome back, my friend. Come join me,” Ma said and took another long puff on his pipe. Jacko did as he was asked and sat next to him. “How did you fare in the contest?”
“I defeated him but injured my arm pretty bad.” Jacko sighed in exhaustion and produced the scroll. “The judges wanted you to have this.”
Teacher accepted the parchment and began studying it. He was halfway through the note when he heard a faint snoring. He paused, looked over and chuckled, then resumed.
Several hours later, Jacko woke up to the pleasant smell of rabbit cooking. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep and was surprised to find himself lying on a makeshift bed.
“Good, you’re awake,” Teacher said and approached. “I mended your arm, so try not to move it. By tomorrow we’ll know the extent of the injury.”
“Thanks for taking care of me,” Jacko said in appreciation and sat up. His arm was bandaged so tightly he could barely move it.
“No problem, that’s what we do for each other in our Order. We help when needed and without being asked. You may call me Teacher Ma,” he said and proceeded to remove the rabbit from the spit and carved it up. When he was finished, Teacher Ma handed him some food. “I finished reading the letter and wanted to know how you thought you did.”
“Chow was a good fighter. Very arrogant, but a good fighter. I was fortunate to have beaten him.”
“Yes you were, because he’s one of our most promising students. I guess his arrogance finally caught up to him.”
Jacko acknowledged his comments with a nod and a disappointing smile.
“Jacko, I’m not taking anything away from you or your abilities. I admire the fact that even though you were injured, you didn’t give up and fought bravely. You won fairly and honorably, and you deserve this promotion.”
Jacko felt better after hearing his words. “Teacher Ma, I must admit the Iron Fist technique is very impressive.”
“Both the Iron Fist and the Three Finger technique have their strengths and weaknesses. I favor the three-finger style myself because the technique, when used with their finger knives, can have the ability to strike an opponent in a specific area and flip them backward, thus giving you the upper hand in a fight. I recommend that you study a couple of the techniques during your lifetime and master them. I’ve always lived by the motto, ‘It’s better to be a master of a few techniques then to be a student of many.” Jacko nodded. “Plus, our Order doesn’t have enough skilled teachers in any one technique.”
Jacko listened intently to the wise words of Teacher Ma and was pleased that the Order sent him.
After they finished their meal, they walked around the encampment for the better part of the day, which turned out to be a pleasant experience. The temperature was mildly cool, and the smell of the wildflowers put both men in a euphoric state.
“Jacko,” the teacher began, “in a day or so you’ll begin your training, and you must choose what path is right for you.”
“What are my options?”
“I will continue your education in the Three Finger technique and teach you either the Iron Fist or the blocking style.”
“Which one do you recommend?”
“I am not permitted to sway your decision in any shape or form, but I can test your skills when you’re well enough and give you my honest evaluation.”
“I would appreciate that.”
“Good. After you are healed, we’ll begin.”
They returned to camp after their walk, and Jacko prepared a stew made from leftover rabbit and potatoes, while Teacher Ma gathered herbs necessary to make his special tea. A few hours later both men sat and enjoyed their meal. The conversation was light and when they finished, Teacher Ma tended to his wounds again before meditating and going to sleep. Sleep came slowly to Jacko; he was excited about training.
In the early morning hours, Teacher Ma awoke to the sound of distress coming from Jacko and raced over to find him unconscious, shaking, and having a high temperature. The first thing he noticed was the wounded arm was puffy and turning a deep color of purple just beyond the bandage. He removed the wrapping and studied the wound intently. The arm was infected, and it was spreading fast. Ma knew that if he didn’t act quickly, Jacko would lose the limb. He grabbed a blade and cut into the infected area, then pushed with the palm of his hand, causing white fluid to flow freely. After the fluid turned to blood, he applied another herbal remedy specifically designed to fight infections and to clot wounds.
It would take the better part of two days before Jacko regained consciousness. As soon as he realized that he was tied up, he panicked and tried to wiggle free from the ropes that bound him to the ground with heavy spikes.
“Try not to move,” Teacher Ma ordered and walked over with a kettle of tea.
“Why am I tied up?”
“For your own protection. “You’ve been very sick with an infection for the past two days.” Teacher Ma poured a cup of tea and lifted Jacko’s head. “Drink this and try not to move. You’re going to need plenty of rest.”
Jacko, still groggy, swallowed the dark foul-smelling liquid and fell asleep a few minutes.
The infection festered throughout the night, obliging Teacher Ma to drain the wound, apply more ointment, and force more dark tea down his throat. It was in the early hours of the morning when the infection subsided, and Jacko’s temperature returned to normal. When he finally woke, Ma untied him from his restraints.
“What happened?” Jacko asked, feeling weak from his ordeal.
“The infection almost claimed you again; you should be fine in the next day or so.”
“I don’t know how to thank you.”
Ma smiled. “You will someday. Now get well because I am getting bored.”
Over the next two days, Jacko made a full recovery and was ready for his evaluation. Teacher Ma and Jacko walked to an open area and faced each other.
“I want you to attack me with the Three Finger technique.”
Jacko did as instructed and Ma easily brushed aside his attempt.
“Attack me like you mean it this time,” Ma commanded.
Jacko tried again, and each time Ma blocked them as if they came from a small child.
“Stop!” said Ma. “Either you aren’t trying very hard, or I’m that good. I can’t see the latter because I’m not even trying.”
The truth of the matter was Jacko felt a bond to him, and it was hard for him to strike him with intent.
“Attack me again,” Ma ordered.
Jacko did again, and this time with each block Ma struck him with force. Jacko’s limits were tested again and again until he lost control and attacked with reckless abandonment. Teacher Ma either blocked or sidestepped his attacks and finally stopped his newest student with a wave of his hand. “You were rash with your last attacks and lost control. I could’ve killed you fairly easily if this were a real fight. Never lose control, because it doesn’t serve any purpose. After you regain your composure, we’ll evaluate your blocking skill.”
When he was ready, Teacher Ma attacked him with kicks and punches. Out of ten movements, Jacko managed to block the first six and ended up on the ground as a result of the others.
“Get up,” Ma instructed.
As soon as Jacko was on his feet, Ma attacked again, this time with more skillful punches and kicks. The flurry of attacks hit Jacko seven out of ten times and sent him sprawling to the ground. Teacher Ma continued with his lesson until he was satisfied.
“We’re done for today. In an hour, I’ll give you my recommendations.”
Jacko slumped to the ground, exhausted.
Teacher Ma left and came back an hour later. As soon as Jacko saw him, he stood up.
“Jacko, your Three Finger technique is promising, but requires a lot of work, so I recommend you continue to develop that style. Now as far as your blocking technique, it’s horrible, and desperately needs work. If you expect to survive in any fight, especially against a more skillful fighter, then you need to know how to defend yourself better. I’ll be meditating in a small clearing a few yards to the west; come over when you’ve made your decision.”
Jacko was disappointed about his evaluation. He really didn’t think he was as bad as Teacher Ma said because he won his fight with Chow. After much thought, he decided to learn the blocking technique instead of the Iron Fist. He told Teacher Ma about his decision.
“You made the right choice. I am pleased.”
“Let’s just say you showed me the light,” Jacko said with a smirking smile.
“First, you must understand that this technique is very grueling and broken bones might result from the training. Do you willingly accept, and understand, what I just said?”
“When do we begin?” Jacko asked eagerly.
“I must meditate for an hour first. I urge you do the same.”
Jacko bowed and thanked him again. When they were finished meditating, Teacher Ma led his student around to talk further.
“Jacko, by the time we are finished training your skill in the Three Finger technique will improve drastically, and the knowledge gained in the blocking technique will be more than adequate enough to help you defend yourself against multiple opponents. Train hard and the rewards will always be there. Are you ready to learn?” Jacko nodded in acknowledgement. “Good, we’ll start off by discussing the philosophy behind the technique. I also want you to understand that even though the blocking technique is relatively boring, it serves as the base for which all other techniques are mastered.”
During the next four hours, Teacher Ma talked in great detail about the technique. He explained when to use a particular block against certain attacks, how to countermove after an opponent strikes, and what makes one defensive maneuver more efficient over the other ones. Jacko listened intently to every word, taking notes on a small piece of parchment. He was surprised how everything started making sense. After the session was through, Jacko gathered wood while Teacher Ma, an excellent trapper, caught and killed two rabbits.
A cool breezed ushered in nightfall as both men enjoyed the warmth of the fire and perfectly cooked food. Jacko wanted to learn more about Teacher Ma, and in an unusual way, felt closer to him like he was some sort of father figure.
“Teacher?” he began. “How long have you been in the Order?”
“Let me ask you something first. How much history do you know about our Order?”
“I’m afraid not much.”
Teacher Ma knew by his answer and expression that he was embarrassed. “Before we go any further, I’d like to give you a brief history lesson first. Our Order was originally called the Order of the Open Palm, and dates back some three hundred and fifty years. Three childhood friends started it: Master Tung, Master Somon, and Master Guil. They grew up poor, so they wanted to develop a fighting style that didn’t require weapons or armor, but only hands and feet. The three masters prospered over the next fifty years and our school began growing in numbers, so much that some of the other Orders became jealous. One Order, in particular, challenged our school to a tournament to see who was better.”
“What was the Order’s name?”
“They called themselves the Order of the Falchion.”
“I’ve never heard of them.”
“There’s a reason why, and I’ll get to that later. The masters accepted their challenge because they felt it was a good opportunity to build interest in our art and gain more students. The rules were simple: Six students from each school would fight each other until one of the students gave up. Armor was banned, and only wooden weapons were allowed. The contest took place a few weeks later with several other schools in attendance, and when it was over, our school won four of the six fights, declaring us the winner. More importantly, no one was seriously hurt. Thinking they got cheated somehow, the Order of the Falchion decided to pay us an unannounced visit two weeks afterward. Ten fully armored men showed up at our school demanding a contest. This time with real weapons. Masters Tung and Guil tried to discourage them, but they didn’t want to hear what they had to say and attacked. When the fight was over, only two of the armored knights escaped and their version of what happened would set in motion a chain of events that changed our school forever.
“Angered by the death of their students and the lie, their men said the Order of the Falchion held an audience with several other Orders and told them how our school attacked their men and murdered them unfairly. The Orders banned together and demanded we disband and stop practicing our art, or else face the consequences. Our masters refused and three months later our monastery was attacked. The fight was long and bloody, and by the time it was over, only a hundred of our students escaped. The masters and teachers perished.” Ma paused. “After the school fell, a student named Jin Tang took charge and led twenty-five other students to the east and hid them deep within the mountains. There, they found a valley protected on all sides and accessible only by foot. Over the next year, the other students were relentlessly hunted down until they were captured and killed. Thinking they put an end to our Order, the other Orders stopped searching for us and went back to their daily routines. Jin Tang, and the other students remained in the mountains and constructed a network of buildings to eat, sleep, and train. When they were finished, they named the monastery the Order of the White Fist and called themselves the Twenty-Five Deadly Strikes. They chose the title because someday they wanted to invoke fear into the hearts of their enemies. With a place to live and the threat of attack removed, they focused on their future and the path of vengeance each student vowed to take. A couple of things were also decided. The Order needed a Master, and old techniques had to be replaced with new ones.”
“How was a master selected?”
“They would have two contests a year for six years, and the student with the most wins would be crowned Master of Flowers, and as you know, it’s the highest achievement we have in our Order.”
“That’s it? Beat your fellow students to become the master?”
“Your ignorance is amusing. Jacko, how would you describe Master Shoo?”
“A humble, fair, and honorable man.”
“Exactly, and that is what the new master had to possess as well.”
“Who created the new techniques? The master?”
“No. Before the master was even selected, each student was required to develop one style on their own and practice it for ten years. After the ten years, they gathered and displayed their new styles. Of the twenty-five offered, only fifteen were worthy enough to be selected; those students were then allowed to participate in the contest with the winner being granted to learn another technique of his choosing.”
“Who won the first contest?” Jacko interrupted.
“A skilled individual named San Yan. He developed the blocking technique and was so good that he won every fight that day without ever being struck once.”
“I find that hard to believe he didn’t get hit once.”
Teacher Ma chuckled. “Me too.”
“What happened next?”
“San Yan went on to win the next six contests and only knew defeat three times. He humbly retired after that. Do you know why?”
“Because he felt he had an unfair advantage against his fellow students, and he was the only one learning the other styles. He saw the bigger picture and wanted the Order to have other teachers mastering the other styles in case something was to happen to him unexpectedly. You see, San Yan was what everyone strived to be and that is why his peers unanimously awarded him the title Master of the Feathers.”
“What ever happened to the Order of the Falchion?”
“Revenge gave way to mercy and a few years later our Order decided to give them just that. Instead of killing their leader like an assassin would, Master Yan and several students paid them a visit and challenged them to a contest. The winner’s Order would be allowed to exist while the other would have to disband forever. They agreed, thinking that even if they lost they would gather the other Orders and attack us again just like they did before. What they didn’t know until the day of the contest was that Master Yan also invited several other Orders to witness the tournament just in case they thought they didn’t like the results.” Ma grinned.
“I’m guessing we won and that’s why they don’t exist any longer?”
“We sure did, and there was nothing they could do about it, otherwise the other Orders would hunt each student down. Word of our victory spread and drew interest in our Order, so as the years passed, hundreds of potential students flocked to our school. The teachers began interviewing them to see if they were worthy to join the Order. Each potential student had to have honor, empathy, and a caring attitude toward life in general. The process took many months to complete and only yielded fifty prospects; some of those rejected took the news well and said they would be back in a few years, while others displayed anger and violence and tried to bring physical harm to the school. The latter individuals were dealt with swiftly and asked never to step on the premises again or face death. The fifty candidates were then tested to see if they possessed the necessary skills to succeed in the Order, which are physical, mental, and the most coveted one of all, spiritual.”
“How were they tested?”
“Physically, they were tested on strength, endurance, and flexibility. Mentally, they were tested on concentration, attention to detail, and endurance over many days and nights. Spiritual, they needed to pray uninterrupted for several days and believe in our way of life. Of the fifty prospects, only seven were allowed to join. Six were human and one was from the Fox race.” Ma paused to take a few bites of food, moaned in delight after each mouthful, and continued. “The following years produced a few more students worthy enough to join. Numbers were too low, even if the school was ever going to recover from the attacks. Master Yan had an idea and spoke to the other teachers. He wanted to accept children and teenagers into the Order, no matter if they were male or female or from another race. He felt they would be easier to teach. The other teachers eventually warmed to the idea, and it turned out it was the right choice because during Yan’s lifetime, the Order flourished and our numbers swelled. In fact, it was such a success, we needed to build additional schools throughout the area and in time, we established ourselves as a force to be reckoned with.” Ma sat back, smiled, and lit his pipe. “That’s the history of our Order.”
“Thank you for the history lesson, Teacher.” Jacko was proud of his school and decided to learn more about the Order when he returned to the monastery.
“You’re most welcome. Now to answer your question. My father brought me to the Order when I was nine because he wanted me to take over the family business someday.” Ma paused. “Wow, that was fifteen years ago.” His statement sounded surprising to himself. “His plans were for me to train for ten years and then become one of his bodyguards and learn the business.”
“So what happened after year ten?” Jacko asked.
“Like I said, that was my father’s agenda. I didn’t realize what I wanted to do with my life until my seventh year. I knew that I wanted to stay and become a teacher.”
“What did your father do?”
“To this day, he doesn’t speak with me.”
“Don’t be. I’m not.”
“What’s your rank?”
“My rank is sixth and is known as the Griffin. I...”He paused when he saw a strange look on his student’s face. “Jacko, what’s wrong?”
“You’ve been in the Order for so many years and…”
Ma knew what he was going to say. “Jacko, don’t expect to advance too quickly. The skills are extremely tough to master. For instance, even though I’ve been learning the Three Finger Technique for ten years now, I still haven’t mastered it yet.” Jacko shook his head in acknowledgement, and Ma continued. “In addition to Three Finger Technique, I am also skilled in blocking and my favorite style, the deadly Iron Palm.” Ma held up his right hand, with his fingers curled slightly and palm extended upward. “The technique is quite deadly once mastered.” Jacko smiled in excitement. “However, it’s only available to students of the Eagle ranking or higher.” Ma grinned when his expression turned from excitement to disappointment. “Jacko, I want you to remember one thing: As you take this journey in life, take your time and enjoy the experiences. I guarantee your life will be more fulfilling. And remember, as you progress through the ranks, it’s not the quantity of techniques you learn, because in reality, you’ll never master more than five in your lifetime.”
“I’ll remember that.”
Ma yawned. “It’s getting late.”
The next day Teacher Ma continued to educate Jacko in the philosophy of both techniques and life; by the end of the session, he was pleased to announce that his student was ready to begin training. That evening, Jacko had a difficult time eating and sleeping because he was so excited and anxious for the new day to begin.
By morning of the third day, both teacher and student discussed the vigorous training schedule as they ate. When they were finished Jacko finally asked the one question that had been on his mind since he returned from the competition.
“Teacher,” he began, “was I supposed to win my contest?”
“Do you think you weren’t?”
“He was two ranks higher and much more skilled than I am.”
“Jacko, I must confess that I too was puzzled as well after I discovered whom you were fighting. There might be two reasons why you were so mismatched: Either they wanted Chow Yen to win easily, or they thought very highly of your skills.”
“Which do you believe?” Jacko asked, but in his heart, he actually didn’t want to know.
“It doesn’t matter what I, or anyone else, believes. You won and deserve this promotion. Did you learn anything from your fight?”
“Never underestimate your opponent and don’t turn your back on him until the contest is over.”
“Good. Make sure you keep that in mind when the time comes, and you face an opponent with lesser skills.”
“What would have happened if I’d lost?”
“I would only be allowed to train you in your current style.”
“Did you ever lose?”
“Me? Not only did I fail two promotions in a row, I lost my confidence as well. I was so distraught that if it wasn’t for a dear friend of mine, I might not be in the Order today. She taught me that there is no shame in losing as long as you learn from your mistakes.”
It was around mid-morning when they were ready to begin. Ma led him to an area surrounded by whipping trees and faced his student.
“Jacko, once again I’ll reiterate. This technique is tedious at times, but don’t be discouraged—it separates the talented students from the rest. It still amazes me that some of our students ignore this skill altogether and rely on styles that are mainly attack-driven.” Ma paused. “We should get started; we have long days ahead of us.”
Jacko was first taught the art of shifting his body so that he appeared to be in place in one minute and then in another the next. Even though the move was fairly simple in theory, he found out soon enough that his legs were far too weak to do this for any long period, and he would need to strengthen them. As the morning wore on, he was taught many more forms and stances to the point he was having a hard time following Teacher Ma’s instructions. When Ma noticed his frustration, he slowed and kept the moves simple. Around noon, they took a break for lunch and restarted shortly thereafter. Jacko did better than Ma expected and by nightfall, he ended their training session.
The next day Jacko’s legs were sore, but he never said anything to his teacher and continued on with the same routine as yesterday. By the afternoon, Teacher Ma wanted to give him a taste of the more advanced stuff and told him to take a break before they begin.
“Jacko, I’m sure your legs are extremely tired by now, so I want to teach you something different.”
Ma grinned. “Okay, let me see. Squat into the horse stance and hold it there until I tell you to stop.”
Jacko obeyed, and Ma left him there until his legs gave out a few minutes later, and he fell down.
“I told you. Now get up and don’t be bullheaded,” said Ma. “There are two parts to this drill. You’re going to learn how to deflect attacks away and what to do in order to minimize the damage by moving your body in the same direction as the strike so that your opponent’s energy gets displaced. Are you ready?”
Ma demonstrated how he wanted him to move, then instructed Jacko to attack with intention so that he could show him how the technique worked.
Jacko was very impressed, because even though he landed several good strikes, Teacher Ma moved his body with them and didn’t really feel them at all. Jacko took over at Ma’s command.
By the time they were finished, it was nightfall. Jacko’s legs were weak and his arms were badly bruised; he had a hard time walking and lifting them to eat. They shared little conversation that night, and Jacko fell asleep almost instantly once he lay down.
The following morning, Jacko awoke to the smell of food cooking.
“Good morning. Did you sleep well?” Ma asked from a few feet away.
He got up and could feel the soreness in his muscles right away. “Yes. My legs hurt.”
“They should be.” Teacher Ma paused and smiled in gratification. “Today is the day we apply what you have learned.”
Jacko rubbed his arms and chest, hoping today’s lesson wouldn’t be as painful. “The style is tough. I’d never thought it would be.”
“You’ve performed very well so far, and I must compliment you on your ability to learn quickly.”
“Thank you, Teacher.” Jacko constantly prided himself on being a quick study and was happy the teacher recognized it.
When they were ready, they returned to the place they trained the day before.
“Are you prepared?” Teacher Ma asked and stopped, unexpectedly facing his student.
“Then let’s begin. I need you to start off by blocking my punches.”
Ma must have thrown a couple hundred punches. At first, they were slow and directed at specific areas; then, when Ma felt Jacko was blocking them fairly easily, he picked up the tempo and used a complex combination of speed and misdirection to throw his timing off. As a result, Jacko was struck in various places.
“Good,” Teacher Ma said after he abruptly halted. “Now let’s see how you do against my kicks.”
Once again, Ma trained him in the same manner as he did with the punches, and Jacko reacted even better this time. The drill continued over the next four hours with Teacher Ma using his notable skills to improve Jacko’s technique. When he was satisfied with his progress, he stopped.
“Very good; let’s take a break, and then we’ll continue.”
Teacher Ma walked away, thinking he was right behind him, then he heard the crisp sound of Jacko’s clothing in motion, indicating he was still practicing. Ma smiled proudly and left without turning around.
While Jacko trained, Ma constructed various exercises to strengthen his fingers for the next part of his session. He found a hollowed out wooden stump and packed it down hard with dirt. Next, he hung a thick branch several feet in the air between two trees. Finally, he produced a strange-looking round rock, known as Hollow Stone, from his bag. Despite its small size and light weight, the surface was virtually impossible to crack. Ma thought back to his first teacher and when he told him if he trained every day, he would be able to crack the surface eventually. The old man’s lie served a purpose, though, because after many years hitting it, his fingers became so strong he could puncture many other surfaces. When he was ready, he brought Jacko over to the area and guided him to the stump.
“The next part of your training will be devoted to strengthening your finger. The first exercise I want you to practice is plunging your fingers into the dirt. Keep at it until I tell you to stop.” Teacher Ma walked away and sat under a tree to smoke his pipe.
Jacko complied until Ma thought that it was long enough and then walked him over to the hanging branch.
“Now, I want you to hang from the branch by just your fingers and pull yourself up until you pass the branch with your chin. Repeat this until I tell you to stop. You won’t be able to do many, so stop if you need to.”
Jacko did as he was instructed and rested several times during the exercise. Eventually, Teacher Ma put down his pipe and escorted him over to the third and hardest exercise, known only as the Rock.
“This exercise is by far the toughest exercise. You have to hit the surface with intent like you want to crack it. You shouldn’t be able to right now, so do your best and try not to break your fingers.”
Jacko hit the surface until he was told to stop. His fingers were black and blue but despite the excruciating pain, he didn’t say a word, which pleased his teacher.
Ma escorted Jacko back to their camp and had him lean against a tree to soak his fingers in a bowl filled with reddish liquid. When he looked up again, his student was already asleep. About an hour later, Ma removed Jacko’s hands from the bowl, coated a greenish ointment over his fingers, and then wrapped them tightly in cloth to help heal them.
Over the next four days, Jacko continued his training in both the Three Finger and the blocking techniques, and was pleased with his progress. Teacher Ma was equally impressed, and gave him a set of finger knives and proudly showed him how to employ them properly. Jacko was taught how to stab objects simultaneously and then use leverage to throw it sideways, backward, and over his head. Ma couldn’t remember another student he’d taught who achieved this level of skill in this short amount of time.
Around midday on the ninth day, a tall, heavy set stranger dressed in black garb entered the camp, interrupting their afternoon meal. Teacher Ma recognized him at once, stood up, and greeted him with a slight bow.
“Jacko, I need to talk to this gentleman in private. Continue your training and I’ll return shortly,” Ma said and walked away.
After they left, Jacko did as he was told and went back to the training area and continued practicing.
Several hours later, Teacher Ma returned alone, and Jacko could see that something was wrong. He tried to talk to him, but Ma kept the communication light, and wouldn’t elaborate on who or what the man wanted. Jacko took the hint and left him undisturbed for the remainder of the day. During dinner, both men exchanged very little dialogue, and Ma left immediately after he was finished. Jacko knew there was something on his mind, and realized that he wasn’t going to share it with him anytime soon. He meditated and walked around the perimeter of their camp until he became tired enough to sleep.
When morning arrived, Teacher Ma was talkative once again, and trained Jacko even more intensely than before. Jacko learned advanced blocking and Three Finger techniques, and everything appeared to be back to normal until the same stranger appeared again. When Teacher Ma saw him, he excused himself from the session, and both men left for another private meeting.
Twenty minutes later, curiosity finally got the better of him, and Jacko decided to follow them in hopes of discovering what was going on. Cautiously, he followed the path north, and found them a half mile up the road where both men were conversing animatedly. Jacko crouched down and crept closer until he could hear their discussion.
“…he owes them,” the stranger was saying.
“That was a long time ago,” Ma countered, clearly agitated.
“It doesn’t matter; they still want retribution for his actions,” the stranger pleaded. “Just meet with them and I am sure everything will work out.”
“Meet with them? That’s a joke. Give them a message for me.” Ma’s tone was firm and was backed with anger. “Tell them they took their payment three years ago, and I or my family will not be strong-armed.”
“Are you certain about this?” The stranger sounded concerned.
“I am,” Ma asserted. Jacko could see the rage in his eyes.
“Very well. I’ll give them your message, but I don’t think they’ll like it.”
“I don’t care anymore,” Ma spat in disgust.
The stranger bowed and parted company. Ma sat down on an old log and placed his head into his hands. Jacko quietly returned to the clearing and waited.
A few hours later when Teacher Ma didn’t return, Jacko walked back to the meeting area and found the place deserted. He walked around, searching for clues, and accidentally stumbled upon a light trail of blood leading toward the west. His facial expression changed from worry to fear, then determination when he decided to follow the trail. Preoccupied with the task, he only realized that a crossbow bolt narrowly missed his head when he heard it strike a nearby tree.
Instinctively, he dropped to the ground just as more bolts pelted the surrounding trees. Jacko crawled behind a big oak several feet away as he was heard grunts of frustration from the attackers followed by their heavy footfalls coming in his direction. Nervously, he rose up and cautiously peered out from behind the tree and saw five humanoids, wearing red and black tunics with the cowls pulled tightly around their faces to disguise their features. They carried crude short swords in their right hands, and a unique crossbow strapped to their left arm. The weapon, though he’d never seen it before, was clearly used for close range attacks. Franticly, he placed the finger knives securely around his fingers, and turned around, pressing his back against the tree.
“Give yourself up,” one of the creatures hissed, then snorted like a pig.
Jacko could tell from the sound of his raspy voice that he was a Chatar, half-man and half-boar, and was directly on the other side of the tree.
Jacko was about to move to another tree when he saw an extended arm with a loaded crossbow suddenly appear on his right. Jacko immediately grabbed the limb with his left hand and pulled violently forward, knocking his assailant off balance and into his waiting finger knives. Jacko shoved his knives under the attacker’s chin and pushed his head upward. Blood gushed out of the wound and poured down Jacko’s arm. Behind him, a branch snapped in two.
Instead of running or turning around, Jacko dropped into a crouch just in time, as a bolt whizzed by his head and struck the falling Chatar. He quickly turned around and rolled toward his new foe as he was in the process of reloading his crossbow, and stabbed him repeatedly in the stomach, tearing through his armor and splitting his flesh apart, spilling his innards onto the ground. The creature squealed loudly before dying, which Jacko was sure alerted his other companions to his location.
Without waiting, Jacko scurried behind another tree and almost ran into another Chatar. Both were equally surprised, but the Chatar was the first to react and swung his blade at his foe. Jacko countered by shifting his body backward, resulting in his clothing taking the brunt of the slice. The creature pressed his assault by swinging his weapon continuously at Jacko; however, the kung fu artist was quicker and evaded several attacks, creating false openings, until his arm was exposed and received a quick slice by Jacko. The Chatar dropped his weapon, reached for his dagger, but before he could remove it, Jacko stepped in and plunged both sets of knives into his chest, in one motion pushing his arms upward and falling backward, flipping the Chatar over his body.
Jacko heard more footsteps coming and hid behind another tree and peered around. Two more Chatar appeared and stopped when they saw their dead comrades. One began reloading his crossbow while the other bent down to check his friend’s pulse. If Jacko was going to get the jump on them, now was the time to do so. He emerged from behind the tree and when he was positioned directly behind the one reloading his weapon, he charged him. The Chatar heard him, turned, and fumbled with his weapon. Jacko kicked him in the stomach to double him over, grabbed the back of his neck, and kneed him in the face, knocking him out. Meanwhile, the other Chatar prematurely fired his weapon and missed. In the next instant, Jacko was on him. As he was in the process of unsheathing his backup sword, Jacko sliced him across the throat, severing his artery. He wanted answers, so he unarmed the unconscious Chatar, tied him to a tree with his own rope, and began slapping him across the face until he woke up. The beast carefully opened his eyes and snorted several times.
“Who are you?” Jacko commanded. The creature just stared at his captor. “I said who are you?!” Jacko grew impatient and placed his daggered fingers against the prisoner’s throat in an aggressive manor. “Talk.”
After a few more moments of silence, the captive finally spoke. “My name is Tunk from the Tusk tribe.”
“What are you doing in this area? Your kind usually stays to the north.”
The creature went silent again and Jacko pressed the sharp knives against his throat harder, drawing a small bead of blood in the process. Tunk flinched in discomfort, snorted, then spoke.
“We were hired to capture your human companion and bring him to our camp.”
“Who hired you?” Jacko pressed.
“They’re known only to us as the Three Lords.” The Chatar stared defiantly at Jacko.
“I don’t know. We were just told to get him.”
“Where are they?” Jacko demanded.
“You’ll find them farther to the west, but I don’t think you should go there if you want to live.” Behind his back, Tunk produced a short blade from within his sleeve and began cutting through his restraints without the Jacko’s knowledge.
“How many are in this camp?”
“Twenty, not including the Three Lords. Human, they will hunt you down and make you pay for what you did to my comrades and me.”
Jacko stood up and smiled. “They won’t have to hunt for me, because I’m going to them. Will you attack me if I untie you?”
“No, I promise.”
“Hmm, maybe you can help me free my friend instead. How does that sound?”
Tunk nodded. “How?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
Tunk knew that he couldn’t do what this human was asking. They would kill him on the spot. He continued cutting through the ropes.
Jacko picked up a crossbow handgun. “Is this weapon hard to master?”
“No, I can teach you if you untie me.”
Jacko strapped the weapon to his right wrist. “I like this. Where did you get it?”
Just as Jacko was in the process of loading the weapon, Tunk finished cutting through the rope and charged him. If it weren’t for his quick reaction and sidestepping the much bigger foe, Jacko would’ve ended up on his back and pinned to the ground, but instead, he used the Chatar’s weight against him and tripped him to the ground.
Before he could get up, Jacko was top of him, trying to press the finger knives against his throat while the Chatar held his arm, trying to prevent the blades from getting near the source of his lifeblood. They both struggled against the other, neither getting the edge.
“If I let you get up, will you attack me again?” Jacko asked.
“No. I’ll leave.”
Jacko stared into his eyes. “Are you sure?”
Tunk nodded rapidly.
Jacko relaxed his arm and as soon as the Chatar loosened his grip, he pushed the knives into his throat until he choked on his blood and died. He knew he couldn’t trust him; if Tunk got another opportunity, he didn’t think he would’ve been lucky a second time. Jacko rested for a few minutes before loading a quiver with a dozen bolts and taking off west in search of Teacher Ma.
It was nearing nightfall when he came upon a brightly lit camp and the sound of drinking and carousing. He paused to make sure there weren’t guards in the area and continued on, cautiously using trees and shrubbery for cover. He passed a few small groups of Chatars, but they were drunk and laughing so loud they didn’t see or hear him. A little further in, he came upon three figures bathed in the glow of their private fire engaged in conversation. They were strangely comprised of a human dressed in leather, a fox with an eye patch over his left eye dressed in banded mail, and a Hurnol—half-goat and half-human—dressed in chainmail.
This is a night full of surprises, he thought. First, the Chatar creatures from the north and now three different races sitting together when normally they despise each other.
Jacko continued to scan the camp and suddenly spotted Teacher Ma at the far end. He was blindfolded, tied to a tree, and his face and clothes were covered in blood. The sight of his teacher angered him to the point that he stood up, and just as he was about to rush into the camp, he was hit in the back of his head and knocked unconscious.
“Humans are so pathetic; no wonder why their days are numbered.”
“Curb your tongue, Fraon, or I’ll show you just how wretched we really are,” the human opposed the goat hybrid.
Jacko woke up during their heated argument, opened his eyes slightly, and remained motionless.
“Will the both of you quit your bickering? I’m growing weary of it,” the fox chimed in.
“What do we do with him?” Fraon asked, pointing to Teacher Ma.
“We hold him until Grayson arrives,” the human responded.
“Can we torture him some more?” the fox creature asked slyly.
“Sure, as long as we don’t kill him,” the human answered, then laughed heartily.
“What about the other one?”
“I haven’t ruled yet. Fraon, go wake him and let’s ascertain what he’s doing sneaking around our camp.”
The goat walked over and placed one hand securely around Jacko’s throat, slapping him with the other. Jacko resisted one agonizing whack from him, then acted like he just woke up.
“Good,” he snarled, “you’re awake.” Fraon walked away, and the human took his place.
During this time, Ma continued to work on his restraints while the others were preoccupied with Jacko, and even though he was a specialist in the art of escape, his stomach wound painfully hindered his progress.
“Let me introduce myself and my associates. My name is Norco, the Hurnol goes by the name of Fraon, and the fox is called Slyantom. What are you doing here, boy?”
Jacko looked deep into the man’s eyes. “I have come for Teacher Ma.”
“Who, him?” Norco glanced at Ma. “What did you think you would do, come in here and take on not one, but all three of us? That’s a good one.” He smirked. “Did you hear this guy? He says he came here to rescu
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