Malao raced through the moonlit treetops, nervous energy driving him deeper and deeper into the forest.
He had to put as much distance between himself and Cangzhen Temple as possible. Ying had returned–
and was more dangerous than ever.
Malao leaped off the gnarled arm of an ancient oak and soared through the night sky.
He landed on the limb of a young maple and paused. He was lucky to be alive, let alone to have escaped uninjured. The same was true for his brothers Fu, Seh, Hok, and Long. Cangzhen Temple was in ruins,
and its warrior monks--Malao's older brothers and teachers--were all dead.
Malao began to tremble. The thunder he had heard was a devastating new weapon called a qiang. With the twitch of a single finger, a soldier with no training at all could now kill a kung fu master. Ying carried a qiang, and with it the power of a dragon. Still, that hadn't been enough for Ying. He had carved his face and filled the grooves with green pigment. He had forked his tongue and ground his teeth and nails into sharp points. Ying now looked like a dragon. A crazy, vengeful sixteen-year-old dragon.
Malao shuddered and grabbed hold of a thick vine. He pushed off the slender maple and swung feetfirst toward a large elm.
"Scatter into the four winds and uncover Ying's secrets, as well as your own," Grandmaster had told them.
"Uncover the past, for it is your future."
Malao released the vine and somersaulted onto one of the elm's upper limbs. Why did Grandmaster hide only us five? he wondered. What makes us so special?
Grandmaster had provided only one clue. He'd said that Malao and his four brothers were linked to each other, and to Ying. Malao guessed it had something to do with the fact that all of them, including Ying,
were orphans. Still, that didn't explain much. It wasn't like any of them could have had the same parents.
They were all too different.
Malao glanced down at his small, dark hands. He was a monkey-style kung fu master, nothing at all like
Fu, the oversized, over-aggressive twelve-year-old "tiger," or Seh, the tall, secretive twelve-year-old
"snake." He differed even more from Hok, the pale-skinned, logical twelve-year-old "crane," and Long, the wise, muscular thirteen-year-old "dragon."
Malao sighed. He missed them already.
A twig snapped and Malao froze. He glanced around but couldn't see anything from high in the tree.
Cautiously, he swung down to the elm's lowest limb for a closer look. He peeked through a clump of new foliage and his heart skipped a beat. This part of the forest looked awfully familiar. His plan had been to travel in a straight line away from the temple, but he'd always been really bad with directions--
Another twig snapped.
Malao crouched low on the large limb and held his breath. A moment later, he saw a soldier on patrol. One of Ying's soldiers.
Malao shivered. He'd run in a big circle, and now he was right back where he'd started, near Cangzhen!
The soldier was headed in Malao's direction. Malao watched him closely. Heavy armor covered the man's body, and he carried a short wooden stick about as long as Malao's arm. Malao got a good look at the stick as the soldier passed through a pool of moonlight. The stick was nearly as big around as a monk's staff and was made from a very light-colored wood, white waxwood. The entire surface was decorated with intricate carvings that had been colored brown with a hot piece of metal. The soldier was still some distance away, but Malao knew exactly what those carvings were.
Malao's upper lip curled back.
The warrior monks of Cangzhen Temple--or any temple, for that matter--were not allowed to have personal possessions. Personal possessions meant a tie to the greedy world of men, so the monks owned nothing and shared everything. However, within Cangzhen, weapons were an exception. Though they weren't supposed to favor any one more than another, Cangzhen's warrior monks almost always did. Malao's favorite was called a short stick, and the specific stick he preferred was now in that soldier's right hand.
Malao hugged his knees tight and began to rock back and forth. That soldier had helped slaughter Malao's friends and family and burn down the only home Malao had ever known. And now the soldier planned to walk away with a souvenir. Malao wasn't about to let that happen.
As the soldier passed under his tree, Malao focused on the rhythm of the soldier's strides. When the soldier's right arm went backward and his weight shifted to his left leg, Malao dropped from the tree like an anvil.
Malao's feet smashed into the back of the soldier's left knee and the knee buckled, slamming to the ground. Malao grabbed the stick and flipped forward, twisting it out of the soldier's hand and leaping onto a low-lying branch. He grinned at the soldier and waved the stick.
"Get down here, you little monkey!" the soldier said, staggering to his feet.
Malao shook his head and scurried to a higher branch.
"Don't play games with me, monk. I see your orange robe. You better not make me climb up there after you."
Malao turned to leap to another tree when the soldier raised his voice. "I said get down here!"
Malao stopped. If the soldier raised his voice any louder, reinforcements might come. Malao had no interest in fighting an entire garrison of soldiers. He needed to do something, fast. He zipped to the opposite side of the tree so that he was directly behind the soldier, facing the same direction as the man,
and jumped straight down. He landed with one small foot on each of the soldier's shoulders.
The surprised soldier tilted his head up and grabbed on to Malao's robe.
From the Hardcover edition.