Xu held on to the bars and looked out the window. At this point, he couldn't see anything but dirt. The ground far below them, deep in the earth, rumbled. The prisoner in the next cell rarely came out from under his blanket, he just poked his head out from time to time, to give them various warnings. The prisoner sat up and shook out long white hair. He stroked the long strands of hair hanging from his chin.
“Hold on. Going up is worse.”
Tian held on to the bars, Shun fell forward unable to reach them, and grabbed Tian's legs. The floor shook, the walls kicked off decades-old dust everywhere. Xu put his feet against the wall, and tugged at the bars as hard as he could. The prisoner in the next cell laughed at Xu.
The pagoda roof poked out of the ground first. Another violent round of disruption shook Xu onto the floor. He jumped back up and held on to the bars.
They were above ground and rising slowly. Shorter homes and buildings were last to come bursting through. In the distance, he could see the horizon, just a sliver of orange as it disappeared slowly. Xu concentrated his Chi energy on the bar. He imagined it breaking, he hoped the shaking of the building would help.
Xu made his fist and punched the bar. His hand spasmed in pain, and he fell back onto the floor.
The other prisoner laughed as the rumbling stopped. Tian let go of the bars, and the prisoner laughed again. Xu dusted himself off, and the prisoner laughed harder. Xu looked to the next cell and the old man stroked his long white goatee, still laughing!
Xu kicked at the bars between their cells. He just wanted the man to stop laughing. The old man stopped, and stood up. He looked Xu up and down. The room became silent, for moment. The prisoner laughed again so hard, he dropped to the floor. He then covered himself in his blanket, and finally stopped laughing.
Xu looked at the the lump under the blanket and pointed.
“I know you. You were a monk. Jioa Yayi.”
Shun looked through his bag of scrolls and stopped at that name.
“Ahhh, Deadly Knuckles. The North Fist of Strength. I have heard tales of furious punches.”
Deadly Knuckles just lifted the blanket long enough to be heard.
“What happened to you?”
Shun pulled Xu back against the far wall and whispered.
“The stories tell of madness. Age has made this warrior senile.”
“Huh,” Xu looked over Shun's shoulder at the lump under the blanket. “Time is an enemy that is hard to defeat.”
Xu looked out the window. The stars shined down on the city. Merchants swept dirt off the streets. It would not be long before the city was in full swing. Xu shook the bar and looked at his hand. He made a fist. Xu walked back to the bars to the next cell.
Deadly Knuckles moved the blankets just enough to look at Xu with one eye.
“I don't answer to that name anymore.”
“Is it true? That you have created a manual with eighty-two power punches?”
“No,” Deadly knuckles lifted the blanket up. “It's eighty-three.”
Xu could hardly hear his mumbles through the thick blanket. Xu looked at Tian. She was impatient. She had paced the cell for a good portion of the day. She wanted nothing more than to get out there, and fight. Xu held his finger up, urging her to wait. Tian crossed her arms and waited.
“Well good sir, are any of those eighty-three punches strong enough to break steel?”
Xu rattled the cage.
The old man flipped the blanket off, and glided through the air to the bars.
“Perhaps several of them do.”
“Lies,” Tian shook her head.
Deadly Knuckles moved quicker than Xu could follow him. He reached through and punched at Tian's face. He stopped less than an inch from her nose. He didn't touch her but the power of the punch pushed air between his fist and Tian's head. Her head rocked back. Deadly Knuckles flipped back on to the floor and in one motion pulled the blanket over his head.
“I think you could escape, and that is why you laughed at me,” Xu said.
Xu watched, but nothing stirred under the blankets.
“I guess the stories I have heard are true.”
The blanket came down.
“Of madness...that you are delusional.”
Deadly Knuckles stood up and flipped his blanket around until it was folded. He stepped slowly towards Xu.
“I wish it were only madness. I could sleep better at night if it were just simple madness.”
“You sleep fine,” Tian said.
Deadly Knuckles pointed at her. He looked back at Xu.
“You are better off in here.”
“Why? What is out there?”
Deadly Knuckles took a deep breath and squeezed the bars.
“A great evil. Horatius is nothing. A pawn: he has a Master, a Dark Lord that existed before the seas, cursed to live only under the moon. He is using the Manchu. He will bring down dynasties.”
Xu looked into his eyes. Deadly Knuckles didn't seem so crazy right now.
“My name is Xu, I am Shaolin Temple's greatest demon slayer, from a secret sect created to combat those monsters. Shun, show him the scroll.”
Shun bowed and unrolled the imperial scroll. Deadly Knuckles smiled.
“If I get you out of here, then you'll warn the emperor.”
Deadly Knuckles looked at Tian, and then back to Xu.
“I will need a minute to direct my chi.”
Deadly Knuckles sat down and crossed his legs. Shun pulled Xu back.
“We must return to the capital immediately.”
Xu ignored the chanting and muttering coming from Deadly Knuckles. He leaned down and smiled at Tian. She was beautiful. She was not even gone, but the thought of going separate ways didn't please him. Xu felt a great loss just considering it.
“You are a great warrior. You should come with us.”
Tian shook her head.
“My family died at the hands of a great Master of Darkness. I ran because my family wanted me to return and avenge my family. I must complete my mission”
“And you think Horatius is your master of darkness?”
Tian shook her head. “Not sure, but if there is even a chance...”
“You heard Knuckles over there. He's just a pawn.”
“Horatius doesn't think so.”
“They all think they're the most important creature alive, it's just how they think. We can come back for him. You're needed.”
“By you? Or the emperor?”
Xu would have told her that he needed her. He had every intention to tell her. Deadly Knuckles stood up and sucked in a deep breath. He threw the punch. In Xu's mind, he watched it come in slow. Deadly Knuckle's palm was open. When it struck the bar that connected the two cells, everything around them shook. The bar bent in the center before it made a squealing sound and snapped into four pieces. The two in the middle flew out, and embedded themselves into the stone wall.
Deadly Knuckles shook out his hand, and twisted back to the floor. He then shook out his blanket, until it covered him. Xu snapped his fingers, and Shun was the first out of the cell. Two guards ran down the hall towards them. They only carried a sword apiece. Tian signaled Xu, and ran down the hall towards them. They screamed like warriors, and lifted their swords. Tian ran towards them, and in the last five feet, dropped and slid down the hall. Their swords swept through the air above her head and clanged against each other. Tian kicked each of their ankles. They fell over her, and she quickly knocked them back with lightning-fast punches.
Both guards hit the floor without their swords, as Tian took them out of their hands. She spun the swords, and stabbed them into their guts. Each of the swordsmen grabbed the blades and screamed in pain as blood poured out of them and onto the floor.
Shun held out an eyeball and whistled. Xu nodded his head in approval. Deadly Knuckles grunted under the blanket.
“They're not human!”
The two guards turned up their heads. They were still in pain, and they looked up at Tian with burning rage. Tian jumped back, pulling the swords free. Xu reached down, and pulled the blanket off the angry Deadly Knuckles.
“What kills them?”
The guards jumped up and flew through the air towards Tian as she spun the swords wildly.
“I don't know!” Knuckles grabbed his blanket.
Xu jumped into the hall and spun past Tian, grabbing one of the swords. In one motion he swept the sword across the first guard's neck, and bent over. Tian followed his lead and jumped on to his back. She swung down and hit the second guard's neck. The guard's head dropped off, draining blood onto Xu's back.
Xu stood up to shake the blood off, and felt something grab his leg.
“Xu!” Shun yelled from back in the cell.
Xu looked down, and jumped back. One of the headless bodies had reached out and grabbed onto his ankle. Xu pulled his leg free, and scanned the area. The body of the other headless guard reached around desperately, trying to find its own head. Tian stepped forward, and punted the head down the hall. Xu stabbed the second one with his sword. It had no vocal cords, as pieces of it were strewn around the hall, so its mouth opened in a silent scream. Xu walked over to a barred window and scraped the head off so it would fall into the courtyard.
“That is something else...have you ever seen...”
Xu turned around and Tian was gone. He barely saw her as she rounded a corner.
Shun ran up and jumped over the headless body as it reached for him. Shun stopped at Xu.
“Where is she going?”
“To kill Horatius,” Xu said, and kicked the wall in frustration. Shun started after her. Xu grabbed his arm, stopping him in place.
“No. We need to escape...and warn the emperor.”