"Clay, I challenge you to a Xiaolin Showdown!"
There was no immediate reply. Instead, Clay stared at the glowing object he had just braved thousands of stinging pine needles for. Then he looked down at his friends. "What's this 'un do again?"
"Da Hippa Hoppa," Dojo said, poking his head out from under Omi's warm beanie hat, "lets the user speak in rhymes."
Jack, who opted for the option that wasn't climbing up a startlingly large pine tree, hovered in the air. "C'mon, cowboy, I don't have all day! I'm wagering the Reversing Mirror."
Clay didn't even bother to give Jack Spicer, evil boy genius, a glance. His face went through a few deliberative expressions before he said, teeth chattering slightly, "I reckon we could pro'lly let this 'un go."
The reaction was immediate on both sides.
"What? You think you're too good for me?!" Jack exploded, landing on Clay's branch looking as offended as he could and pressing a gloved finger into Clay's forehead.
"Clay, dude, do you really wanna be the first guy to turn down a Showdown?"
"Granted, that would make my life easier…"
"Besides, it's just Jack. He's a total pushover."
"Yeah, I – hey!"
"At the tip of this, having the Reversing Mirror back would be most helpful."
"On top of that," Clay corrected automatically.
"Stop talking like you've already won," Jack whined. Now that the monks were all Wudai Warriors (and one Shoku Warrior), what made Jack difficult to deal with weren't his robots anymore. Nor was it his cunning plans to sneak into their safe to clean all the Wu out. No, what made Jack so difficult was his whining. His voice crawled up Clay's spine and fried his brain stem and left his ear drums fizzling.
The Texan sighed. "Let's get this over with. I guess I'll wager…th' Sun Chi Lantern?"
If asked, Clay would have said that the reason he brought the Sun Chi Lantern was because it was possible that combining all chi – just the elemental bits – in one Warrior might get the same results as when Omi absorbed all the elemental Wu's powers – which was destructive, yes, but could prove to be useful if you could control when to turn that power on and off.
The real reason was because he had hoped that it would keep him warm in Canada, which was colder'n a –
"The game's Red Light Green Light," Jack interrupted, obviously holding back another whine about how he wasn't taking this seriously at all. "First to the end wins. Let's go!"
The tall pine trees, so tall that they could block out the sun, grew even taller and parted to make a path. The snow, to Clay's consternation, got heavier, rising to his waist now. A frozen lake rose from nowhere and a weather-beaten lighthouse erupted from tough-dirt-turned-scraggly-cliffs. Da Hippa Hoppa flew up and took its place as the light. The Dragons who weren't participating found themselves elevated over the midpoint, where forest path met lake.
"Gong Yi Tanpai!" shouted Jack enthusiastically.
Clay, feeling even colder in his uniform, only managed a grunt before he started pushing forward. Jack, of course, was above wading through the snow, at least while he had a heli-pack, and so he flew ahead.
"See ya at the end, cowpoke! Or should I say, slowpoke!" Jack crowed. Off in the distance, Clay could see his friends shouting faint encouragements at him, but he couldn't help but get distracted by the snow in his boots. Oh, and also Jack was very clearly winning. That was distracting too, if only because the pasty snake took every opportunity to revel in it.
At least until the light turned red.
For Clay, stopping was easy. There was already waist-deep snow in the way, thicker than the air on a humid July morn. For Jack, the only thing between him and the lighthouse was air and time, neither of them very concrete. Even when he stopped flying forward, there was the tiny matter of inertia, which he had forgotten.
Although Clay couldn't turn his head and watch the entire journey, he took great pleasure in seeing Jack smack face-first into a tree that had sprouted instantaneously in order to push him all the way back to the start.
Jack slid down into the snow that he now realized he would have to walk in, then popped up again, shouting, "Jackbots, attack!"
Clay didn't take great pleasure in that at all as he stared at the red light ahead, willing desperately for it to turn green as he heard running engines, whirring blades, somewhere behind his back and getting closer…
The light turned green.
To the background of distant whoops and cheers, Clay immediately backflipped and kicked one Jackbot to the ground. The cowboy stumbled in the restrictive snow, which gave a second robot the opportunity to tackle him. Unfortunately for it, it got within arm's length. Clay grasped the cold, cold robot by the head and swung it straight at a third Jackbot that tried to fire at him and the two exploded pathetically. It was slightly strange that there were only three, but Clay didn't have time to think about that because Jack had taken the chance to catch up, and so he plowed forward.
Neither one tried to attack the other. The snow just got in the way, and attacking would only waste time. Instead, Jack kept his eyes focused on the lighthouse. Clay divided his attention between the lighthouse and Jack, so he was able to notice two things. First, just as he was getting close to the frozen lake, the lighthouse started to turn red. He froze. (Metaphorically, of course. Literally speaking, he had been freezing for the past few hours.) Second, right before Jack obeyed the red light, he pressed a button on his watch.
So that's where the other 'bots were.
Not confined to the rules of the game, the Jackbots were free to move at will – Jack's will, to be precise. "Aw heck," Clay said, or at least he was sorely tempted to, but instead he gritted his teeth as the robots fired mercilessly at his back, his legs, his arms.
All he did was stand his ground, even as his skin started smellin' like a slab of pork on Daddy's grill in the heat of the summer. As the barrage continued, he shuddered inside, screamed and twisted; outside, he only dug his heels in. Slightly behind him, Jack was probably grinning like a madman. Clay thought some choice words at him.
Above, the tone of his friends changed and he could actually hear what they were saying. Dojo was giving Clay's choice words a voice, and then some, because when you live as long as Dojo, you learn some especially colorful language. Kimiko was alternating between acting as a chorus to back Dojo up and shouting at him, "Stop it, Clay! That's enough! You don't have to do this!"
Omi was silent. Even though things had dropped down to relatively normal after the whole parallel-universe-time-travel adventure, even when Omi joked and laughed like the rest of them, everybody knew that something changed for the youngest monk. Everybody was afraid to bring it up. Clay only figured out what was going on because Dojo had taken on damage from the trip as well and they had a therapeutic talk together. He didn't mention it to anybody else, as much as he wanted to, because you just don't air out someone else's laundry out in the open. Not without their permission.
Raimundo was shouting down at him, sounding angry but looking hurt. "Clay! It's not worth it! Get outta there!"
Green green green green green, Clay thought, but the lighthouse did not cooperate and his skin was blistering and he was too hot and too cold and he finally couldn't take it anymore this was way too much trouble for a magical rhyming dictionary.
One robot stopped shooting Clay because he turned around and pulled off its gun. He managed to smack off the head of another. Then a giant hand made of snow rose, plowing through the rest of the Jackbots, and grabbed Clay and his tender back and pulled him to the start.
But not before Clay got out a lasso and tripped Jack onto his smug face.
"Ugh, why'd you have to go and do that?" Jack huffed as though he hadn't ordered robots to shoot Clay's back into singed paste. Clay only stumbled when he was on his feet again and the light turned green.
The good news was that he already had a nice path paved through the snow. The bad news was that so did Jack, who had the distinct advantage of being uninjured. Jack ran full-tilt. Clay managed a quarter-tilt. The lake, which had been so close before, was now so far that it made his knees wobble even more and the tone of his friends did not rise to encouraging but stayed level at worriment.
With a fixed goal in mind, Clay started speeding up. He needed to get closer. Jack was already pushing the rest of his way onto the lake, but he couldn't focus on that. As he ran, approaching half-tilt, he held up his wagered Wu.
"Sun Chi Lan'ern!" he slurred. The bright light threw wild shadows and blinded his friends. Clay managed a relieved grin as he saw their chi get drawn towards him and he took a deep, steady breath. His wounds did not heal, but the pain seemed so far away with his now four-fold strength and the air thrummed around him and he felt light. Which was a first, he had to admit.
Jack was now on the ice and gaining considerable speed since his boots apparently had built-in ice skates. Which was kind of weird, but certainly gave him a further advantage now that he was in his own element. Clay leaned forward and ran at full-tilt-and-a-half, the Lantern shining and swinging at his waist.
The wind tugged at his clothes, capricious, egging him forward. The ground beneath pushed at his feet. The snow seemed to fly away from him. And best of all, he felt warm.
Halfway across the ice, Jack turned and saw Clay charging right at him, a scene that didn't exactly come straight from his nightmares, but it was close. He didn't panic – well, not much, anyways. Instead, his eyes drawn to the shining Lantern, he spun neatly on his skates (a move that Clay couldn't help but admire) and pulled out his own wager.
There was light again, but a focused beam rather than an encompassing glow, and it didn't keep sustained. It sped to the Sun Chi Lantern and then seemed to suck the light right out. And then, with a force that mere light didn't have, the Sun Chi Lantern expelled its contents violently, causing even the monks on their perch to fall over.
Jack anchored himself with his skates while Clay slid backwards, the pain from his injuries surging back like old friends who wanted to sleep on his couch. He managed to stop by digging his heels in the ice, then fell to his knees, trying not to shudder.
The light turned red.
Jack was facing him, looking pretty confident that he would win. And Clay knew that he definitely would, unless he could think of a plan.
He was out on the ice. This wasn't a particularly good place for him to be. And Jack, on his skates, could probably rocket all the way to the end. But only if there was ice to skate on…
Clay knew his way around fissures, and although it was mostly fissures in the earth, fissures in ice couldn't be too much different. It was less structurally sound, maybe, so cracks wouldn't just form in a straight line but branch off a bit. Maybe even break up into tiny chunks, stranding Jack in the middle of a bunch of small pieces of moving ice. Let's see his fancy footwork get out of that…
Clay suddenly realized that the ice underneath him seemed to be shifting. He reluctantly withdrew from his thoughts and found to his immense confusion (and displeasure) that the ice he had been on had broken off from the rest in the form of a perfect circle.
This was not a particularly good place for him to be.
The ice flipped over, and as a result flipped him over. Clay only managed a yelp before he went under, submerged in cold, cold, cold water.
The light turned green at some point. He didn't know when. The only thing he was painfully aware of was that he hadn't had enough time to take in a deep breath.
It was dark under the ice. But it was only dark because Clay instinctively shut his eyes. He wasn't sure he could bring himself to open them. Meaning he wasn't sure which way was up anymore.
Kicking around revealed nothing. Neither did flailing. He was going to drown. His hat drifted off somewhere. He reached for it and his fingers brushed something solid. He was going to drown. He tried to push up but it wouldn't budge. Where was that circle? He was going to drown.
Jack won the Showdown. Clay knew this because he suddenly was not drowning, instead he was back in his winter clothes, curled up in the snow, dripping wet, colder than anything he could describe.
Jack flew away with taunts and a little more self-esteem, but nobody paid attention to him because there were more important things going on.
"Clay!" Kimiko reached him first, already reaching her PDA and looking for symptoms of hypothermia. A master of one-handed typing, she used her free hand to ease the large Texan into a sitting position. Kimiko's hands always seemed warm in comparison to everybody else's. This time, however, Clay barely felt her touch.
Dojo jumped on him next, having curled around Kimiko's shoulder for a free ride. "Clay! Speak to me, ol' buddy, ol' pal! How many fingers am I holding up? D'ya need fire? I can do fire!"
"No," Kimiko snapped. "He needs to warm up gradually or he could die of thermal shock. Clay, are you conscious? Do you feel cold?"
"Unforshun'ly," he said through chattering teeth.
"We must take him back to the temple at once," Omi insisted. His eyes looked like they were misting over. Raimundo was already picking Clay up by the arm while Dojo grew to flying size, his tail coiling wretchedly around the trees. "You're gonna be okay," said the dragon, more to convince himself than anybody else.
Clay's response was to groan, reminding everybody about his other injuries.
"We need to take him to a hospital," Kimiko corrected. "We can't move him around too much. Flying's too dangerous."
"Then what do we do?" Raimundo held Clay gingerly, not sure if he was supposed to put him down again. His guilt about what he had said in the beginning boiled from self-loathing to outright rage. "How did that even happen? That ice was solid! Jack musta cheated somehow!"
Kimiko took Clay's other arm and started to guide him over to Dojo's back. "Dojo, you think you could be a sled?" The dragon's response was to make himself a little flatter.
Omi, unnerved by Clay's silence, started pelting him with words. Clay only responded with grunts, but that was enough to keep his fears at bay. Raimundo was still fuming at himself.
"The next time I see Spicer, I swear I'll kill him," he spat, punctuating this announcement with a kick at the ground.
The earth responded, rising with his indignation. Raimundo froze in post-kick. Kimiko, Omi, and Dojo went silent. They all forgot Clay for a second.
But only for a second.