Author's Note: Originally, I was going to make this a one-shot story for "Tales of the Lin Kuei," but I realized that in order to tell this story well, it needed to be a little longer than that, perhaps even three chapters. Also, it'll be a little darker than the other tales, so I felt it would kind of detract from the comedic tone I've tried to establish. So this will be a short, multi-chapter stand-alone story instead.
Thanks to my good friend, Overseerneversleeps, for helping me work out the kinks in my idea for this tale. I dedicate this story to him :)
Bi-han swallowed hard. The Lin Kuei only celebrated one birthday in a warrior's life – his eighteenth – and today, May 17th, was that day. The young Cryomancer was less than thrilled. Their idea of a birthday party did not involve cake, presents, or fun. Rather, their idea of celebrating was to send him on a mission to God only knew where, to fight a warrior of equal skill as him, and return with a trophy from his victory. If he lived through the exchange, he'd earn the right to pick a code name, a sign that he'd reached adulthood. If not…well, that was like separating the wheat from the chaff, then, wasn't it? So just after dawn, while everyone else ate their breakfast in the dining hall, Bi-han hunched over a sink in the community bathroom nearest to his room and stared at himself in the mirror.
"I don't want to die," he muttered aloud, perhaps as a supplication to whatever god might be listening. He wasn't particularly surprised when he received no answer.
With a heavy sigh, he straightened and examined his clothes, the traditional black robes of a Japanese ninja. Historians, he reflected as he smoothed the front of his jacket, had pieced together fragments of the Order's past and came to the conclusion that many centuries ago, the Lin Kuei traveled to Japan and taught the most promising students their ways. Those men became the first ninjas. Because of that, Bi-han always found it interesting that the Lin Kuei were adamant they weren't ninjas, that ninjas were beneath them, even though the two groups shared many of the same tactics and customs. And, as it turned out, their clothes were similar as well. He'd already examined them for the slightest flaw and repeatedly came up short, and this time was no different.
But it wasn't his clothes that bothered him, or the whole Lin Kuei versus ninja debate, Bi-han finally decided. It was this whole fight-to-the-death matter that gnawed at him. He didn't want to die, though he wasn't quite afraid to – that was a different issue entirely. Nor did he want to kill someone, especially in cold blood, just for the sake of proving he was a man. Did that really prove he was a man? He couldn't be sure, but he didn't think so. What troubled him was Kuai Liang; what would happen to his little brother if he failed to come home? What would An Zhi do to him if Bi-han wasn't there to absorb and deflect his wrath?
As he daydreamed horrible scenarios, hating himself for every single one, a wiry boy snuck up behind him without notice. "WHATCHA DOIN'?" Kuai Liang shrieked to scare him, and it worked. He jumped at least five feet in the air like a cat ready to climb the ceiling.
When he landed, Bi-han whirled around. "You little jerk!" he yelled as he punched his kid brother in the arm.
"Ow!" the boy yelped as he stumbled backwards into a laundry receptacle.
"What do you want?" the older boy growled angrily.
Kuai Liang rubbed his arm. "I missed you at breakfast. Don't you want to eat before you leave on your trip?"
"No," the other said as he turned and faced the mirror again. "I'm not hungry."
In the reflection, Bi-han saw his brother's face turn into a worried frown. "Are you nervous?" he asked.
"It's okay if you are. I'd be nervous."
"That's because you're an overly emotional little girl."
"I am not!"
"Just go away," he barked. "I don't need your daily dose of annoying to see me off."
Now a wounded expression crossed the boy's face. His head sank low and he turned to leave the bathroom. "I just came to say happy birthday," he said quietly. "Oh, and I made you something."
He pulled a pendant over his neck and handed it to his older brother. Bi-han frowned as he studied it. It was a simple metal disk on a dark leather cord. In Cantonese kanji, the words 'Bi-han, Dragon of the Ice' were carefully carved into the polished brass.
"It took me several times to get it right," the boy explained as Bi-han turned it over in his hands repeatedly. "After I screwed up the third time, Xiao-Ping wanted to do it for me, but I wouldn't let him. I was determined to get it right for you. I hope you like it."
"I do," the other said thoughtfully as he slipped it over his head. "Thank you."
"Well, I'm sorry I bothered you. I'll get out of your hair."
Kuai Liang started to walk away, and Bi-han felt shooting pangs of guilt settle uncomfortably in his stomach as he watched the scrawny boy leave. This might very well be the last time he'd see his little brother. Did he really want their last conversation to end like this?
"Kuai Liang, wait," Bi-han said. Immediately, the kid stopped and looked at him, saying nothing. "I'm sorry," he apologized, hanging his head in shame. "I guess I am a bit nervous. I shouldn't have snapped at you. I know you're just trying to help."
"That's okay," the younger boy replied. He started to leave again.
"Don't go," the other commanded. "I want to talk to you."
Kuai Liang looked at him in something between suspicion and puzzlement. "Okay," he said slowly, probably thinking it was a trick.
"Come here," the other said, and the ten year old hesitantly obeyed. Bi-han immediately picked him up and set him on the sink counter. "If I don't come back-"
"Why wouldn't you come back?" the other interrupted, his uneasiness immediately a distant memory. He cocked his head in confusion. "You're the best fighter in the Temple. Amongst the kids, anyway."
The older Cryomancer smiled sadly and bowed his head. "I don't think so," he replied.
"Are you kidding me? You're constantly embarrassing Jiao-long, and I've seen you take on like five guys at once-"
"Kuai Liang, I'm glad you think I'm so great, but that's not the point…" he trailed off. "Look, will you just shut up and let me talk?"
"Okay, Bi-han," he replied, the worried expression on his face once more.
"Thank you," he said with a touch of annoyance in his voice. He brushed Kuai Liang's longish hair out of his eyes with his hand. "If I don't come back…" What? If he didn't come back, what? Tell his brother to run away? Tell his brother he loved him? This all felt so stupid, and yet there was something horribly tragic about it as well. Maybe the tragedy was that he was risking his life for a stupid cause. It would be one thing if he was going off to war to fight for something he believed in. But this mission was just a stupid monkey dance to prove he was a man, to earn a stupid code name so he could go on more stupid missions for a Clan he hated to begin with. After a long silence, he looked into Kuai Liang's bright eyes. "If I don't come back, I just want you to know that I'm proud of you."
The younger boy recoiled in surprise, his sapphire eyes as big as dinner plates. "You are?" he asked in shock.
"Yeah, you idiot," he chuffed.
"But I thought you hated me," the other protested.
Bi-han scoffed. "You're my baby brother, Kuai Liang," he replied as if he couldn't believe what the other had just said. "How many of those do you think I have?"
The younger of the two shrugged and looked down, clearly not sure what he was supposed to say. It was a moment that didn't require words, Bi-han decided. Immediately, he threw his arm around the kid's neck and pulled his face into his chest, hugging him tightly, blinking back tears. God, if only he could take the boy with him. He'd steal him from the Lin Kuei in a heartbeat and return him to their mother. Just the thought of escape made him cling even tighter to Kuai Liang, who hesitated to hug him back at first, but then clung to him tightly as well.
When Bi-han finally let his brother go, tears streamed down the younger boy's face. "I want to go with you," he whined.
"It's too dangerous," the other told him.
"That's exactly why I should go," he argued as he wiped his runny nose with the back of his sleeve. "What if you run into trouble? You'll need me there to get you out of it!"
Bi-han chuckled at that. If anything, it would be the other way around. But he didn't say that. Instead, he ruffled the boy's hair and said, "I guess I'll just have to stay out of trouble then, won't I?" He pulled Kuai Liang to him for another hug.
"Bi-han?" a deep voice interrupted.
He looked up and saw Sifu Halsey standing in the bathroom door, so he immediately stood at attention. Beside him, Kuai Liang slid off the sink and stood rigidly beside him. "Yes, Sifu?" he asked, noting the man's dress clothes. Rather than the usual black ninja uniform he usually donned, right now he wore a long silk robe dyed the same shade of purple as the night sky in a thunderstorm, and it was embroidered with silver swirls of water, probably a symbolic show of the power that he had over the element.
"It's time," the older man announced. "Grandmaster Oniro wants to see ya in the throne room. Everyone's waitin' for ya."
"Yes, Sifu," he said and started for the door with Kuai Liang in tow.
But Halsey stopped him before he could leave. "You're gonna be alright, ya git," he said reassuringly as he rested his hand on his shoulder. "You're a fine young warrior. And I'm proud of ya." He squeezed his shoulder and smiled.
Bi-han dropped his head. "Thank you, Sifu," he replied.
Now the man's hand left his shoulder and dropped onto Kuai Liang's hair. "And don't worry about this little wanker," he said as he gently shook the boy's head. "I'll be keeping an eye on him."
"Sifu, with all due respect, you're gonna need to keep two eyes on him," he said with a slight chuckle, feeling his spirits rise as Kuai Liang shot him a dirty look.
Halsey laughed loudly. "That's probably true," he agreed as he led the boys into the hallway. "But unfortunately, I have to divide my attention. One eye will be on him, the other will be on his partner in crime."
"Speaking of Tomas, where is the Czechoslovakian Q-tip?"
"Taking bets on whether or not you'll get killed," a familiar, ornery voice chimed beside them. A shimmering distortion cut through the air, but rapidly started to materialize. In seconds, the twelve-year-old boy with downy white hair walked beside them towards the Great Hall where the other warriors were assembling. "He's the odds-on favorite to lose. Six to one, even!"
"That's not funny, Tomas," Kuai Liang said defensively, shoving his best friend towards the wall as Bi-han glared at the newcomer.
"Hey, what are you getting so worked up about?" the other retorted as he steadied himself and joined the older Cryomancer's side. "My money's on Bi-han. He doesn't know the meaning of the word 'defeat.'"
"Thanks," Bi-han drily remarked.
"But then again," Tomas continued, "he doesn't know the meaning of a lot of words."
As Bi-han frogged him with a grunt, it was Halsey's turn to speak. "Tomas, I'd like to know somethin'. Are ya always this stupid, or are ya just makin' an extra special effort today?"
The Czech boy grinned from ear to ear. "Sifu, would you turn your head the other way, please? Your breath is bleaching my hair."
Bi-han and Kuai Liang both tried – unsuccessfully that is – to stifle their snorts of laughter, but they immediately stepped aside so they'd be out of range when Sifu took a swing at Tomas. But to the older Cryomancer's surprise, Halsey grinned, narrowed his eyes in determination, and stared intently at the boy.
"Ya know, I'd ask ya how old ya are, ya git, but I don't reckon ya can count that high," he retorted. Bi-han burst out laughing, and then Kuai Liang did too.
Tomas, evidently understanding that a battle of wits had begun, snickered and said, "Sit down, Sifu, and give your mind a rest. It obviously needs it."
"Oh, very clever," Halsey acknowledged sarcastically as the two Cryomancers laughed harder. "Your verbosity is only exceeded by your stupidity."
Tomas chuckled. "I like you, Sifu. People say I have no taste, but I like you!"
"You're a smart-arse, ya know that?"
"Better than being a dumb-arse."
"You're such a smart-arse that I bet ya could sit on a tub of ice cream and tell me what flavor it is."
"Well, in that case, can I borrow your face for a few days because my arse is going on vacation to an ice cream parlor."
Halsey burst out laughing. "That was pretty good," he said, smiling. "Ya got me."
"Ha!" Tomas cried triumphantly as he threw a fist into the air. "I am victorious!"
"Sure ya are, ya git," he rolled his eyes and then glanced at Bi-han with a smile. "Ya wankers are gonna be the death of me." He winked at the oldest boy as they arrived at the Great Hall and went in.
Bi-han's face immediately became smooth and expressionless like the Grandmaster and his father undoubtedly expected – like flipping a switch – but inside he felt better. Usually, Sifu Halsey would not have tolerated such sass from Tomas, but he suspected that he made an exception today just to cheer the nervous Cryomancer up. So as he wound through the crowd of people organizing in the Hall, he inwardly grinned.
A loud gong reverberated through the room, instantly dividing Lin Kuei assassins into neat groups. At the front, on either side of Oniro's ornate throne, the Masters, including An Zhi, stood in a perfect line in their dress robes. In contrast to Halsey's purple ones, his father wore dark blue ones embroidered with silver dragons. The man stared at Bi-han expectantly, but sudden defiance welled up inside of the teenager, and he abruptly looked away to see the Elite Warriors lined up in front of the elevated dais wearing their formal uniforms. Amongst them was Jiao-long who'd already passed his test two months prior, and who'd chosen the code-name Sektor when he returned from his mission. His uniform was red because he believed that color was the most powerful color in the spectrum. When Bi-han saw him, the Grandmaster's son sneered arrogantly and chuckled under his breath. The Cryomancer shook his head, narrowed his eyes, and glared evilly at him, but then he continued looking around. Behind them, the boys still in training stood at rigid attention in neat rows that organized them from youngest to oldest. Kuai Liang and Tomas stood together in the middle, not surprisingly, and they both grinned at him encouragingly. And Bi-han couldn't help but softly snort in laughter when Tomas, ever the clown, blew him a kiss and waved. He rolled his eyes as a grin spread on his face, but then another chime of the gong rang out, and he immediately whirled around to face the front again, his expression bland and non-existent.
Oniro hobbled into view with his advisors in tow, all of them dressed in long red robes that scratched the floor. The Grandmaster might be the only man on the planet that Bi-han hated more than An Zhi, but he strained to contain the look of disdain that he felt welling up in his eyes. He inhaled deeply through his nose and out through his mouth, but didn't dare look at the floor lest everyone think him afraid, so he emotionlessly watched the aging man take his seat on his throne.
When he was at last situated, Oniro looked him up and down with narrow eyes. "Well, Bi-han," he began in broken Cantonese. It was not his native language, and even though it was the first language of the Lin Kuei, he did not speak it well. Occasionally, some Japanese words crept into his dialect. "It would seem that in spite of my thoughts to the contrary, you actually made it to this test. How do you feel about that?"
Bi-han knew the question was a test in and of itself. Oniro didn't want him to have any feelings on the matter. "I have no opinion, Grandmaster," he said in an almost robotic voice.
"Surely you must," he prodded. "I know your brother will undoubtedly be terrified like a girl when and if he stands before me." His remark earned several low chuckles from the warriors and some of the Masters.
Bi-han felt immediate anger, and with great difficulty he forced the ice in his soul to chill the sudden fire. Oniro knew the only thing that really caused him outward expressions of emotion was someone hurting or insulting his little brother. "Kuai Liang is still a child," he said calmly, and then inhaling deeply through his nose. "I'm sure that when he stands before you, he'll be what you expect him to be. Grandmaster." Dammit. He couldn't help the sarcasm oozing from his voice.
Slight murmuring whipped through the crowd, but the old Japanese man held up his hand, abruptly silencing them all. "We shall see," he said coldly. "But this is not about him. This is about you. It is customary for the candidates to request permission to undergo this rite of passage. Ask it, Bi-han."
The teenaged Cryomancer couldn't contain his scowl. Jiao-long hadn't been forced to ask to go on this stupid mission. The defiance crept back into his heart. "I ask permission of no one," he replied emphatically, holding his held up high. There. That ought to do it. Maybe they wouldn't let him go on this fool's errand now.
Now the murmurs from the crowd became deafening as An Zhi's face became tomato-red with fury. Oh well. The bewildered look on Oniro's face would be worth the beating for his disrespect. But then, behind him he heard Kuai Liang cry, "Bi-han, what are you doing?" and he remembered that the Master Cryomancer would probably take his anger at his son's rebelliousness out on the little boy as well. Bi-han inwardly kicked himself for letting himself slip up like that. But dammit, he was not going to grovel for the right to go kill someone for no other reason than to prove he was a man.
"You've got quite the smart mouth," the Grandmaster growled at him after he'd silenced the warriors' hushed conversations once more. "It's going to get you hurt someday."
"And when it does, I'm sure you'll be there to point and laugh at me." What was he doing? It was like his mouth had a mind of its own. He glanced over at Sifu Halsey, who was worriedly shaking his head for him to stop it. He swallowed hard but returned his gaze to Oniro.
The elderly man inhaled deeply and leaned back in his throne. "I see what you're doing, Bi-han, but it won't work. You're going on your mission whether you like it or not."
Bi-han bit his lip in frustration. So much for wishful thinking. "Yes, Grandmaster," he agreed, his tone more respectful now than it was a few seconds ago.
"Your task is far from easy. You are to go to Shaoshi, to the Shaolin temple. There, you will find a young monk who is approximately eleven or twelve years old. His name is Liu Kang."
Bi-han recoiled in disgust. "You want me to attack a little boy?" he asked, unable to contain his annoyance now.
"This child is unlike any other boy in the world," Oniro said, ignoring Bi-han's disrespect. "I want you to kill him."
"Let me get this straight," he began. "To prove I'm a man, you want me to kill a boy who's much younger than me, who's about the same age as my brother?"
"Is there a problem with that?"
"Yeah, there is," he snapped. "There's no honor in that. No challenge."
"You will do it, or I will kill your brother," the Grandmaster threatened. On the left side of the dais, Sifu Halsey stiffened considerably.
"Fine," he grumbled.
"I knew you'd see things my way."
"What will happen to Kuai Liang if I'm not able to kill him?" he asked.
"Are you thinking of shirking your responsibilities?"
"No, Grandmaster, I'm thinking that a boy of that age will not be far from the grown Shaolin monks," he hissed. "I'm confident I could successfully ward off some of them, but not all of them. So I want to know what will happen to my brother if I fail."
"I suppose you better not fail," he wickedly grinned.
"Grandmaster," Sifu Halsey interrupted, "forgive me, but Bi-han makes a good point. This child will undoubtedly be protected. I suggest that if he's unable to kill the boy as you've ordered, you should give him an alternate task to fulfill."
Oniro looked at the Master for a long moment, contemplating his words. "Very well, Halsey. What would you suggest he do?"
The man didn't even have to think about it. "I've been studyin' the intelligence we've collected on this Liu Kang, and I've noticed from the reports that he has a set of prayer beads that he always wears on his wrist. He never takes it off because it's a gift from Raiden, his mentor. I suggest that Bi-han retrieves it if he finds that he can't win the fight."
"Interesting," the elderly man replied. "But what's to stop Bi-han from cheating the test and bringing us back a random set of beads?"
"It's got a very specific inscription on it that I will not say out loud in front of everyone here, though I will tell you in private if you wish it, Grandmaster," he said.
"Very well." Oniro looked back at Bi-han. "If, and only if, you find yourself in trouble, Bi-han, you are to retrieve Liu Kang's prayer beads."
"And ya better not pull any funny stuff, ya git, or else I'll know it," Halsey warned him.
"Yes, Sifu," he said. "Yes, Grandmaster," he added as an afterthought.