Yes, yes, I know I took a long time on this one. I apologize. This was a hard one. Like all climatic scenes I wanted it to be perfect.
Making the Cut
Reaching for the Star
It was Nearly Midnight...
There was a weird feeling going to sleep with the sun still up and getting up when it wasn't. I thought this must be a regular thing for people who work nightshifts.
Cash and I walked to the large Manor that was Valko's house. Knowing that this was without a doubt where the Masters were being held made me think of it like a prison now. Although it was not as imposing as Chor Gom Prison, the fancy manor had a sort of deceptive hostility to it now. I realized this would be my first time inside of it. I had only ever been on the porch of the building. As we walked up the steps of said porch I could remember sitting here a few days ago sweating over whether or not I'd get in.
Upon entering at the front door we were met by a high ceilinged vestibule with a staircase that lead to a landing which in turn went to the rest of the house. To the left was a large wooden door. The door was open and looking through it I saw that it lead directly into the training hall.
Instead we turned to the right where another door took us to a flight of stairs going beneath the house. We descended the dark stairs into an equally dark room. The stone floor was bare except for some discarded wooden bowls, chains that had rusted to pieces and stray smears of dirt. Clusters of candles sat here and there along the wall each lit one surrounded by several ones that had long since been used to their wick's end. The place was far from orderly, not like the rest of the house was, but if there was a room in a manor absent from the norm, my guess is it would be the underground prison. At the bottom of the stairs a hook protruded from the wall that held a ring with two keys on it.
Thank God it'll be easy/Seems rather contrived/It's just there begging to be taken
The only natural light came from a small barred window from one of the cells. Being the basement, the window was high above reach. It shed a soft stream of moon light onto a sleeping form in its cell.
My heart simultaneously leapt and sank at the sight. Shifu lay curled into a pitiful state in his cell. It was my master in a way I had never seen before. Gone was the look of eternal confidence. Gone was the nimble powerfulness.
How do I get it back?
Alongside Shifu's cell was an even worse sight.
My fictive kin looked so uncomfortable lying there on the floor. I almost couldn't watch as his chest rose and fell unsteadily in his sleep. Maybe it was my imagination, but Po looked thinner to me. If Cash hadn't been there, I'm certain I would have broken down in tears.
It took me a second to tear my attention away from Po to the rest of the cells. Despite the difference in scenery, Crane still slept balancing on one foot as he did back at the Palace. How he even summoned the mindset to do this in such a place was beyond me. Monkey was another story. He, like Crane, often slept is differing positions, most them involving balancing on his tail, but his current state was much like Po's. Tigress came after him and she was followed Monkey and Po's suit, although in a somehow more disciplined way. Finally at the other end of the room. Were two separate metal cages that were occupied by Mantis and Viper. Along with the vertical bars the cages also had horizontal bars, likely due to both of their small frames. But they were all accounted for. They were here.
They were here
Of course I had known this, but actually seeing them made it an indisputable fact now. This is where they had been the entire time.
And Montenegro and Keen Lee had caused this.
After taking in the scene, I could tell Cash expected some reaction from me in response to what were supposed to be slumbering enemies to me. I finally said "They don't look too dangerous."
Cash replied "Like I said, we haven't had any trouble with them yet."
I felt like Cash was once again trying to insinuate that he didn't need any help so I felt the need to reiterate. "Well I'm just here to be of any assistance."
Cash folded his arms. "You can stop with the act, Xanidor. I know your real reason for wanting to guard these prisoners."
How does he know?
"What do you mean?" I asked confused.
He smiled. "You wanted to come 'cause you're still trying to gain points with Montenegro."
*sigh of relief*
"Fine. You got me." I said smiling. "I figured if I could help you out and show him I'm determined, it would kinda kill two birds with one stone."
Still smiling the binturong shook his head. "You could have just told me. I get it. Although I'm not sure if Montenegro is gonna be much more impressed by it."
I shrugged. "Well, I'm here. I might as well stay and help. Like I said, after I left my first master I felt an obligation to help out as much with my next one. I'm kinda hoping, if I do well enough... Montenegro might give a good word for me if-and-when I go back my master."
"He was really that important to you." Cash said in a half statement and half question.
"Yeah. Truthfully, I kinda miss him." I set my knapsack on the ground.
"What did you bring that for?"
I tried to nonchalantly avoid the question by rummaging through it before saying "I forgot my knife!"
"Your knife?" Cash asked.
"Yeah, I meant to grab it before we left. I wanted to have it on me incase... I needed it."
Cash said "Do you want me to run back and get it it?"
"You wouldn't mind?" I asked praying he didn't.
"'Course not. Where would it be?"
"Probably on my bed" I said followed by a look of uncertainty. "Or did I leave it in the bathroom?"
"I'll find it." Cash said. "No worries. I'll be back in a sec." He left climbing the stairs back to the above ground floor.
I couldn't believe that Cash was one of Valko's students. He was so... unlike Valko. How could he be one of the people that had partaken in the capturing of the Masters?
I patted my side where the dagger lay concealed beneath my black pants, where it had stayed throughout my days at Montenegro's estate. I waited a second more then ran to the key on the hook.
Cash was bound to be looking for 10 minutes before he would come back giving up. During that time, I'd have enough time to release the masters, then we'd escape away into the night without anyone finding out till we were gone.
And what happens when they did find out?
Was I really doing this to Cash? In just the 3 days here he had been the person to help me in every problem this school threw at me. True, it was his job to do this but still most wouldn't have been so pleasant about it. What if he got blamed? Would Montenegro resort back to his former punishments?
At the same time my head was screaming Are you really going to abandon your friends and master for some guy you just met? Are you crazy?
I pulled the ring off the hook. One of the two keys was surprisingly small compared to the other one. It hit me that it must be the key to open the small cages that Mantis and Viper were in.
I ran to Po's cell first. Resting my hands on the bars I whispered "Po."
Po mumbled in his sleep "Just put in the beets already."
"Po" I whispered louder.
He stirred more but still didn't wake up. I stuck the key in the lock and turned till I felt the releasing click, and opened the creaky door. I walked over to Po and nudged his shoulder, a task that took more strength than I remembered. "Po, wake up."
Po shook his head and sat up. As his eyes came into focus his jaw dropped.
"JO! I can't believe it's you,
I mean I can believe it.
The paper said...
I knew it."
I probably should have told him to keep his voice down, but my thoughts had been caught off guard. Just hearing him reminded me how long it had been since I had actually heard his voice. I felt elated being surrounded by its comforting familiarity. I knew this was the moment I was supposed to say something brilliant and triumphant but all I could say was "Hey, Po."
I wanted to stop and give him the biggest hug ever but I knew it would have to wait.
A similar waking shuffling came from the next cell over. Shifu began to sit up. Before he opened his eyes Po said "Master, it's Jo. He's here."
Shifu's eyes snapped open. "Jo? How did you get in here?"
"I got enrolled here. I'll give the details later, we have to go now, before someone gets back. He thinks I'm helping watch you guys." Until now, Po hadn't realized the door was open. He dashed out and I went for Shifu's cell next. As Shifu came out of his cell he said "Where is Valko?"
"I don't know," I said. "But we have to-" I stopped mid-sentence horrified at the sound of approaching footsteps and Cash's voice.
"I forgot to ask what it looked like-" Cash froze in place at the sight he saw; Two of his master's prisoners, now free, standing with his fellow student with the key still in his hand.
"What the hell is going on?"
I couldn't find a single word that would satisfy as we both stared at each other. The tension was so thick I doubted that even my knife could cut it.
after what seemed like n eternity Cash spoke. "You... you were trying to sabotage Master Montenegro's plans the whole time. What are you thinking? You swore he was your master."
Shifu firmly stepped forward. "I believe I am his master." I cringed wishing dreadfully that Shifu hadn't said that.
Cash looked back and forth between me and Master Shifu. He put a foot behind him, a clear signal of a backwards retreat of distrust. "Oh I get it now. You were never serious. It was just an act, to help them." His emphasis on the last word was one of odious inquiry.
My voice turned to supplication. "Cash, listen. I-"
But Cash was already halfway to the exit and I knew running after him would be useless. Before I could think of something to finish the sentence he was up the stairs and gone.
Dear God in heaven
I broke apart the ring in my hand and handed the smaller key to Po. "Get Viper and Mantis out of their cages." I said quickly. "I'll get the rest." Po didn't hesitate a moment as I ran to Monkey, Tigress, and Crane with the other key, each a rushed wake up followed by a few quick words giving a speedy summary of the situation. It was hardly a reuniting that anyone wanted, but this pernicious case could only get worse with more time taken.
Once the Five were all free we all headed for the stairs. I took the stairs 4 steps at a time. We all emerged into the large vestibule I had entered not 10 minutes ago but know it was filled with people.
Cash was back, this time with the rest of the students behind him blocking the doorway. Valko Montenegro and Quiang stood on the stairs from the landing. I thought I had seen Valko mad before, but I had been wrong.
Valko said "So it's true then. Master Oogway chose an obese panda to be The Dragon Warrior, and then decided to add insult to injury by choosing a badger to accompany him, The Next Dragon Warrior, Keen Lee Academy's assailant." The rest of the students held shocked looks of bewilderment at his statement. Even I had no idea how he found all that out. Now all the students stared at me. Valko continued he was looking at me now too. "Thought you'd just steal away with my prisoners? Did you think it would be that easy?"
Keen Lee: You thought it was going to be that easy?
For the second time in the past 5 minutes Shifu stepped forward. "Triumph over evil is never easy, but it is inevitable."
Valko sneered. "And to think I was going to give you all one more day to live. I suppose we'll finish the deed now and add this streak-faced runt to the pile. Students attack!"
Master Shifu leapt at Valko, obviously letting loose the anger that had been restrained for the last several days. The Five jumped into action as well each of them taking on Valko's students. Po followed suit. Each of them did surprisingly well considering many of them hadn't been able to move more that 15 feet from their position in days.
The large vestibule we were in suddenly became a maelstrom of proportions I had never seen. The battle swarmed with the energy of an angry horde of bees. While I was absentmindedly watching the sight, I didn't even notice that Cash had reappeared and threw a monstrous punch at my chest throwing me off my balance. After falling over I scrambled back to my feet and faced him.
Cash glowered at me. "I can't believe... I can't believe I believed you."
"Cash, I..." Cash lunged at me before I could finish. I went to strike with a leg sweep and he dodged with a remarkable back handspring landing in a crouch position. I had never seen Cash like this in training. He attacked again with an aggressive punch I dodged and performed a spin kick striking him on the side of the head knocking him to the side. I felt a twinge of guilt but the feeling was gone in an instant.
As he got up he said "I practically helped you... All of it was a lie!"
"Not all of it." I said feeling it was a lousy excuse.
"Which part was true then!" The question was genuine but filled with anger all the same. "The part where you said you just wanted to keep me company while I stayed up half the night?" He struck with little effort and I was easily able to block it. "The part where you said you wanted to gain Master Montenegro's approval?" Another strike/block.
Finally I blurted out "The part where I said I wanted to see my Master again."
My reply seemed to shut Cash down. He stared at me strangely, almost poignantly. Before I could see a reaction though, Po stepped in and knocked Cash to the side in his classic move involving his massive gut. Obviously he thought he was protecting me which he very well may have.
Po gave me a reassuring look. I gave him one back amidst the fight that was slowly dying down, the Five having taken down many of Montenegro's students already. I looked back at Shifu who was still sparring with the dark rabbit. Their fighting was as impressive as fighting could come.
For the first time I saw fear cross the rabbit's face. By chance his eyes fell on me, and his expression changed in a way I could only think that an idea floated into his mind.
Suddenly forgetting about his fight with Shifu, he flew in my direction with a flying kick. Before I could even take in a breath I was knocked through the doorway into the training hall, with him following directly behind me.
The large wooden doors slammed shut and a cross bar fell in place locking it.
If I had thought the training hall had been imposing, it was much more imposing at night. The high ceilings filled up with darkness. The the shurkins and katana that hung on the wall gleamed in the sheds of candlelight that had been mistakenly left burning.
Their were several reverberating pounds coming from the door. Shifu and the rest were undoubtedly trying to break their way in. Yet somehow the sounds didn't register in my mind the way it normally would have. My mind was too focused on Montenegro, the room seemed as quiet as a tomb.
The dark rabbit stared daggers at me. I suddenly felt I was back in Keen Lee's private quarters. "I let you into my sanctum." He breathed out the sentence in a heavy exhale. "You cost me my vengeance."
I said "Revenge may kill the person it's acted upon but it'll slowly kill the one who carries it out." I had no idea how I came up with that. I wouldn't have been surprised if Oogway had directly tapped into my mind.
Valko remained firm. "At least I'll have company then." He thrusted his fist at me. I had anticipated this and blocked. My block was placed right but my strength wasn't. His fist easily pushed past my block and was only stopped by my left eye.
Cal Grentow: Go to your damn room and stay there!
My face throbbed but I was forced to ignore it. I immediately lashed back but he deflected my counterattack with adroitness. I went to side kick him but it turned into a shove with my foot against his stomach. It did a decent enough job, knocking him back several feet. He collided against the wall knocking down the several shurikens and the katana. Without hesitation or further thought he picked up the katana and unsheathed it revealing it's shimmering blade. He threw the scabbard behind him in an act of angry haste.
"Did your precious master ever teach you to fight against a sword?" Montenegro jeered knowing he hadn't.
It was only then that I was reminded that I had a blade of my own. I drew my obsidian dagger out of the hidden sheath. Even though it seeming like my source of power on this entire journey, now it seemed remarkably diminutive compared to the katana which had a blade that was easily 3 times the length. Montenegro gave a disparaging scoff at the sight of it and truthfully I couldn't blame him.
Like the punch, he swung first, the katana's blade slicing through the air before I blocked it with the knife. I saw no chip fly off this time but I wasn't really paying attention this time. I thrusted forward with the dagger but as he swung it back around the blunt side of the blade struck against my hand knocking the dagger several feet away.
Montenegro said "Nice knife. How is Saxon doing?"
As if to cut me off from my non-existent reply, he swung again. I leapt to the side but a second later I realized it wasn't enough. I collided with an instantaneous surge of pain. His katana sliced into the fleshy part of my right calf. I collapsed onto wooden floor as pain ripped through every vein in my leg. I immediately went to stand and found the slightest bit of pressure on my leg was an excruciating travail and I collapsed again.
"You're nothing with out your master." Montenegro derided.
I could do nothing but lie there. I could barely drag myself across the wooden rough floor and that was hardly any help against what he could do. I pulled my self up into a sitting position as much as I could.
God, help me
He walked around me slowly, feeling he could now take his precious time now that I was nearly incapacitated. He glanced at the ground strewn with shurikens that had fallen to the floor. A glint appeared in his eyes like black lightning. He carefully picked up a shuriken on the ground about 15 feet away from where I lay. I cringed at the sight of its size, nearly the size of a small plate. He looked it over maleficial as if deciding if it was good before he glanced back at me.
"Quiang told me you are 'adept in the use of shurikens.'" He laughed before his lineament turned vindictive again. "You don't even know the first thing about kung fu!"
With that he hurled the saucer-sized shuriken right at me.
I recognized his throw. He was accurate and I knew there wasn't a chance of it veering off or missing its target; me.
With out thinking, in a state of daze and exhaustion, I reached up and my thumb and forefinger closed on the spinning star stopping it nearly a foot from my face.
Montenegro looked utterly stunned, his hand still forward from the throw.
I looked at the large shuriken that I held. It's weight was unfamiliar in my hand although I felt strangely in my zone. Its shiny surface created a steely mirror image. I looked back at him.
Valko Montenegro: You don't know the first thing about kung fu!
I shouted back. "Why don't you say that to your own reflection!" I flung the shuriken back at him with all my might.
I saw his eyes follow the flying star till they were crossed. There was a spritz of blood as the star stuck between the eyes and buried the 2 inches of one point into his forehead. His eyes remained unmoved. He fell to his knees. From there, the rest of his body dropped to the ground in a lifeless mass. His head was forced into a tilt on it's side due to the star protruding from his head which scratched a mark in the wood floor.
He was still.
My attention was drawn back to the pain in my leg. I almost fainted at the sight of the puddle of blood that had formed from the few seconds I had lied there. Suddenly the the feeling of passing out actualized as I began to grow more dizzy. I lied back on the ground and I began to drift in and out of the dark room.
The last thing I heard was the breaking of wood.
The last thing I thought;
Cash, Forgive me/Thank you, God
For a split second I thought it was Quiang then I realized it was only Crane staring at me.
I was still lying down but I was no longer on the ground. I was lying on some elevated bed or other padded surface of some kind. The room was well lit but rather bare walls that lacked any hint as to where I was. I spotted on a nearby table, some small tools that were hard to identify with my newly awoken eyes.
Crane smiled and said "I was hoping you'd wake up soon."
"Where am I?" I asked.
"We're at a clinic in one of the nearby villages."
As the haziness of one of my eyes faded, the other still felt weird. Then I remembered the fight. My left eye felt swollen shut. I lightly touched it feeling the bump it raised.
Crane said "They just said the swelling will go down in a few days. Other than that, are you holding up well?"
"Am I dead?" I asked.
Crane looked at me strangely. "No."
I shrugged. "Then I guess I'm fine." I glanced around the room realizing Crane was the only one here. "Where's Po and everyone else?"
"They're on their way." Crane said. "We broke down the door too the other room when we saw you lying on the ground. We were able to stop the bleeding but we knew you had to be treated quickly. Master Shifu instructed me to fly you to one of the villages to find a doctor to mend the cut. It took some time but I eventually found this clinic. The doctor was able to mend the cut."
I looked down at my leg. Most of the blood had been washed away. The cut held some blackened blood in it's crevasses. The cut was being held together by painful-looking stitches in my leg. The black thread wove in and out of my flesh for 4 inches across my calf. I was suddenly very grateful that I hadn't been awake for the procedure.
"I imagine they might be a while." Crane went on. "They were taking that other crane into custody."
"What about Montenegro?" I asked.
Crane answered calmly "He's dead. We found him not far from you in the room. That throwing star... did you... ?"
I closed my eyes, sighed and nodded. The mention of it replayed the images of his body suddenly losing what ever gave his body life and dropping to the ground.
I massaged my forehead. "This just feels weird."
Crane said "Jo. You're safe. You have nothing to worry about."
I said "That's just it. That's what feels weird. I've done nothing but worry the last week and for the first time I'm not required to worry." In an almost half laugh I said "What am I supposed to do now?"
"Why don't you rest for now, Jo." Crane said. "I'm sure the rest will be back the next time you wake up. Oh, I almost forgot" Picking it off the small table that was right next to the bed, he handed me my dagger. "I figure you'd want this."
"Thanks" I said being reacquainted with my only companion on this journey. I took hold of it feeling it's smooth surface in my hand. Once again, there wasn't a single nick, dent or any other blemish on it from the fight. I stuck it in its sheath and placed it beside me, as I tried to make myself comfortable (as comfortable as one can be with a hurt leg and black eye) to go back to sleep. As I lay my head back down I heard Crane say "And Jo..."
I lifted my head back up and Crane said "Thank you."
Man, that was hard one. I hope it was a good one too.
Well, it won't be much longer now
You know what'd be good right about now?