One spoken word. One battered body. One stolen life. One shattered heart.
A father's shattered heart.
Kwai Chang Caine sits on the ground, back against the cold stone wall. His arms cradle the limp, broken body of his beloved son. His hand strokes the smooth, perfect cheek. Peter's face, unmarred by injury, is as beautiful near death as in life. Caine covers Peter's icy hand, slick with blood, and squeezes gently.
His son is dying, there will be no tomorrow. Peter's life holds no more than another breath, maybe two. With so much left unsaid, Caine tries to forge the regret, the joy, the sorrow, the love...into one final word and hopes that it will pierce the shield of death that settled heavily on his son, deflecting Caine's efforts to reach him.
"Peter!" The attempt is made.
The pale lids flutter, as if dreaming, then stop. It is too late.
The tears spill from Caine's eyes; the pain crushes his chest until a choking sob wrenches free.
Like a curtain rising effortlessly on the stage of a final act, Peter's eyes glide open. Emotions pour forth from them, agony, confusion, love and....
"Father, I'm so frightened...." Peter's voice, barely a whisper, trembles from the effort.
Caine realizes that his greatest fear, Peter dying terrified and in pain, is true, so he tightens his embrace and holds his gaze steady. His decision is made.
"Do not be frightened, my sweet son. I am here, with you...as I shall always be. I love you, as I always have and always will."
Caine bends his head, kisses the cool trembling lips, and cups the beloved face in a final caress, then directs all that he is, all that he has, into his son. He joins with Peter, and they become one. They will step onto the new path, face the pain and fear, and travel this final journey, together.
Just as Caine's eyes close for the final time, he sees the soft smile curve Peter's lips.
I love you.
Ping Hai awakened with a jolt, knowing that what he experienced was not a dream, but a vision. He had seen the future if Dao was allowed to kill Peter. Caine would not let Peter die alone and would stay with his son, joining him in death.
Ping Hai would not let that happen.
He would wait.
When the time was right, he would know and would do
what must be done.
"Something disturbs you."
Ping Hai had not heard the familiar tread as the priest approached, nor felt the gentle displacement of air as the soft folds of saffron robe settled around his friend's tall frame. Kwai Chang Caine asked no question; he made a simple statement of fact. Ping Hai turned his head and observed a student perform a difficult kick. By the time the boy's leg returned to a standing position, the old priest had chosen his path.
There would be no confession; Ping Hai would not attempt to speak of the unspeakable. The vision of death, destruction and sorrow would remain where it belonged – buried in an old man's mind.
"Yes. Young Chow." Ping Hai lowered his eyes when Caine's attention snapped to the student who had just performed the kick. "His form is weak, Master Caine. He needs attention."
Caine's gaze returned to Ping Hai, slid quickly to the student to view another kick, then focused again on his old friend. "Indeed he does. I shall assist him."
Ping Hai nodded and turned to leave. A touch
on his arm stopped him immediately. He lifted his eyes and met a
strong gaze. Ping Hai had not fooled his friend, but Caine would
honor his wish not to talk.
The night was cold. Ping Hai moved silently though the woods on the outskirts of Braniff. He had made discreet inquiries, and had found the exact location of the house in which Dao had chosen to hide while formulating his evil plans. The information merely confirmed where Ping Hai's senses had already guided him, and that was good.
Nothing would be left to chance. He accepted that he would be damned for his action. For what he had planned….
What Ping Hai had planned was nothing less than playing God.
Nothing less than murder.
Undetected, Ping Hai effortlessly entered the small house located on a desolate, dead-end street. Sleeping soldiers were lined up in neat, quilted sacks on the floor. Men with trained bodies and ruthless minds. The rumors were indeed true. Dao had built up a small force. The townsmen of Braniff had turned a blind eye to the contingent of renegades living in the small, dark bungalow, bargaining with Satan himself to rid themselves of their blot of shame — the godless temple that sat on the top of the hill.
Ping Hai climbed the stairs, each step reinforcing his intention. In the hallway there were three doors. Focusing, Ping Hai determined which one held his destiny.
He entered the small, unfurnished room. Dao lay sleeping on a thin mat, half-covered with a thick, coarse blanket. Dao's eyes were closed, and Ping Hai could see the movement of the smoothly muscled chest as it slowly rose and fell in the rhythmic pattern of sleep.
Ping Hai crossed the room and dropped to his knees next to the helpless form. It would be over soon – one quick snap of the neck. No knowledge of what would kill him. No pain.
No chance to defend himself.
Stop it! Ping Hai ordered himself harshly. The children and priests of the temple will get little chance to save their own lives.
It was time. Ping Hai stretched his arms until his hands hovered so close he could feel Dao's warm breath tickle his palms. His lethal fingers joined, a pale noose poised ready to snuff a life. He closed his eyes and drew a sharp breath, assaulted by memories of a man who had once been his student. A man who had once been like a son. A man who had hid his true heart from his teacher and his friend.
The Tao teaches that what is to happen cannot be changed.
And Ping Hai found he was unable to walk the path he had chosen. Dao would not die by his hands.
As he brought his arms to his sides, the eyes of the younger man flew open. Dao's face came alive, animated by disgust and scorn.
"So. You could not do it, old man."
"We are all linked by our souls, Dao," Ping Hai said softly, reciting ancient words he knew Dao would remember. "To endanger one, endangers all."
"Which, of course, is what brought you here. To protect me." Dao's smile held no warmth; his eyes brimmed with hatred. "How thoughtful. I am delighted! But you, I almost pity."
Dao sat up, letting the blanket fall and settle around slim hips. Chest heaving, his breathing no longer flowed in the steady, healing rhythm of sleep.
In a voice that seethed with loathing, Dao hissed, "There will be pain and suffering like you have never before seen…and I will glory in each drop of blood and every cry of anguish. I —"
"Do not do it, Dao! The Temple is a sanctuary of peace. It is not a battle worthy of your power. There are children —"
"And one child in particular. Yes, it will be a massacre! And I will relish every moment."
Clearly, further discussion served no purpose. Ping Hai stood smoothly. "I will tell Kwai Chang Caine. He will stop you, as he did before, Dao. You will fail."
"Tell him! Let him cower and run, or prepare to fight. It is of no consequence." Dao smirked. "The Tao teaches us that what is to happen cannot be changed. Words you know well, Ping Hai."
Ping Hai struggled to hide his shock. Dao had known he was in the house the entire time. The dark Priest's powers had grown more than Ping Hai had realized. Desperation prompted him to try to make his own deal with the devil.
"Hear me, Dao. I offer you my life for theirs. Leave this town and I will go with you. I will stand by your side. We will build a glorious Temple, which you will lead. I will —"
Dao interrupted, holding up one hand, dismissing both the offer and the old priest with the gesture.
"It is a trick. And it is too little, too late. I do not require your assistance, old one."
In one fluid motion, the younger priest rose to his feet. The blanket dropped to the floor, revealing a muscular body, hard and lean – a man readied for battle. Ping Hai prepared to fight for his life.
"Over the years, you have taught me well." Dao leaned forward. Ping Hai flinched as Dao's warm, dry lips pressed against his flesh. Then Dao stepped away, flexing his arms behind his back. "Leave now, Ping Hai, before I change my mind and kill you. But take with you this certain knowledge: Kwai Chang Caine and his son will die. This is my vow. I will never rest until it comes to pass."
It was early evening, just past eight o'clock, but the small group of students and priests were already asleep in their makeshift beds. Just Ping Hai and Khan remained awake. Their goal before bedtime – to clean the entire kitchen. On their knees, both men scrubbed the old tile floor. Ping Hai guessed it would be after midnight before they would rest, but he did not mind. In the morning, they would have breakfast in a clean, warm environment.
Today had marked the first day in their new home; the seventh day since their world had been destroyed. The boys, especially, were still in shock. As they all struggled to recover from their nightmare of fire and blood, their days had been spent outdoors and in local public buildings such as the library. Nights had been spent in the gym at the local school.
They were finally, and anonymously, offered the free use of an old, two-story house on the outskirts of town. It seemed that amid the hatred and fear lurked secret sympathy. The small house had been abandoned, was filthy and in severe disrepair. But it also had a full tank of heating oil, two months' paid utilities and some old furnishings. A cache of groceries, cleaning supplies and blankets had been left the front steps. Dirt could be cleaned; leaky roofs, patched.
If only the same could be said about broken hearts.
The home would give them time to regroup and reassess. Used as a teen hangout, there was dirt and trash strewn though out the house. They worked hard, side by side, from noon until dusk, scrubbing bathrooms and walls, vacuuming carpets and wiping windows. Finally, Ping Hai noticed the muffled yawns and drooping eyes. He had sent them all to baths and bed.
A small sound interrupted his thoughts. Ping Hai looked up to see Khan wiping tears from his face. He placed a hand on a shaking shoulder.
"This has been hard for you, Master Khan."
"Not as hard as for others."
The older priest knew to whom Khan referred. "Young Caine. Has he not spoken yet?" Since the day the boy had vowed to avenge his father's death, he had not uttered a word nor shed a tear.
"Not one word. And he never cries. The nightmares, they're getting worse."
Ping Hai began to answer when he felt it. Pain. Sharp, but not severe. Not at first.
Ping Hai felt coolness at his temples. A dampened cloth against his forehead. The worried face of Master Khan drifted slowly into view. Then pain…
…it was fire and ice. It burned his flesh yet numbed him. Frozen, he could not move. He struggled desperately, he had to douse the flames or die…but the pain overwhelmed him….
"Master Hai! Don't fight me, let me help you!"
Using all his strength, Ping Hai focused his ch'i. The flames were not real, and the pain -- it did not come from within….
He heard the sharp knock at the door.
Kwai Chang Caine.
Caine had returned. The agony of the priest's grief had been what thrust Ping Hai into a living hell.
How will he survive? What have I done?
"Master Khan," Ping Hai forced himself to stand up. "Go upstairs to Peter's room. Stay outside the door. If you hear footsteps on the stairs, or if Peter wakens, take him outside though the window. Go into the woods. Wait there until I find you."
"But, Master —"
Ping Hai had no choice. The blow was swift and sharp, jerking Khan's head and turning the tear-streaked cheek a fiery red. "Do not question me! Go, now!"
Khan bowed. "Forgive me, Master." The young priest turned and bounded up the steps.
Ping Hai summoned every scrap of strength he possessed. He opened the door.
And gasped in shock at the figure before him. His hand flew to his mouth.
Deep, brown circles framed black eyes -- burning embers gleaming bright with tears of pain. His cheeks were hollow, his lips dry and chapped.
"I cannot…go on." Caine stumbled into room. Ping Hai closed the door, and Caine leaned back against it. He dropped his bag and slowly, he slid to the floor. Ping Hai knelt next to him.
"I feel him all the time…I can hear him, see him! Master…in my mind, in my heart, it is if he lives." Caine turned his head and closed his eyes. His face pulled tight as tears spilled.
"I tried to continue my journey, but the farther I walked, the stronger the anguish grew." Caine's voice choked, and he paused until he could speak again. Then he turned and looked straight into the old Shaolin's eyes. "I have been pulled back here by a force stronger than I can control. Perhaps…that night I was truly meant to cross over with him." He reached out and grabbed Ping Hai's hand. "Please, can you help me?"
His old friend asked him for permission to die. Ping Hai drew a deep breath. "Kwai Chang Caine, I grieve with you. But you can not stay here! You put us all in danger."
Caine's face turned deathly white.
"Dao…he is still in hiding. We have heard his injuries are serious, and he struggles to recover. But his men…they thirst for revenge. They do not quite believe you are dead. They watch us. When they find you here, they will kill us all."
Caine closed his eyes, defeated, but he did not move. Ping Hai grasped his other hand and pulled him up.
"And there is something else…."
Caine's eyes flew open. Releasing Ping Hai's hand, Caine gripped the doorknob, as if to brace himself.
"There is talk…that you fled. To save your own life."
Ping Hai watched as the man he knew died before his very eyes. Caine nodded once, then looked around the room.
"Peter is here, but his spirit does not rest.
I will take him with me, and find a place…a place that holds his essence.
When I find it, then we will both will find peace."
For long moments after Caine left, Ping Hai could not move. He ached, and this time, the pain he felt belonged to him. All week he had been sure he had acted correctly. He had proceeded confidently with his plans, certain that separating father and son, though traumatic, was the right thing to do. The only thing to do, both saving their lives and fulfilling his destiny.
Now he feared he had sentenced his old friend to long and lonely death.
"Peter!" he said aloud. He hurried up the steps. The door to Peter's room was open, but neither Peter nor Khan were there.
He grit his teeth as tremors of fear pulsed through his body. He moved down the hall toward the bathroom. When he opened the door, he was hit by a blast of frigid air. Khan stood by the open window, staring at the white knuckles that gripped the sill. The owner of the hand sat outside in the cold night air, perched carefully on the roof of the small garage that adjoined the house.
"Master, I can't get him to come in."
Khan moved out of his way as Ping Hai approached the window. The old priest covered the cold, thin hand. He positioned himself so he could see Peter. Long legs bent, the boy sat facing the woods in back of the house. Clearly frightened, dressed only in his thin robe, Peter's lean body shivered from the cold. His lips trembled, and his wide eyes brimmed with unshed tears. Visibly shaking, his free hand clung desperately to torn piece of shingle.
"I thought…that maybe there was a mistake. That my father did get out. That he might be hurt, and…not know where we were. All week, I used all my energy trying to reach him. To let him know where he could find us."
Peter turned his face toward the window but kept his eyes lowered. "Tonight, I had a dream. Not a nightmare. It was good. I saw him so clearly."
The boy sighed.
"So I…came out here. To watch. I knew that when he came, he'd come through the woods. And I'd be here, waiting for him. I wouldn't be afraid; I'd jump right down." A ghost of a smile played at Peter's lips. "Surprise him. He'd be so proud."
Peter looked up. Questioning eyes searched the priest's face. Tears fell, spilling down the smooth cheek. "It's my fault. That this all happened. He's been so disappointed, so worried about me, that he couldn't protect us. Do you think…that's why he decided not to come back?"
Ping Hai heard the laughter of the devil.
The Shaolin knew he had to get the child in the house. He knew he had to talk to Peter. Looking at Khan, who was staring at him, he issued a silent plea. Khan tilted his head, then nodded.
"Peter." Khan's voice was gentle. Ping Hai moved aside. The younger Shaolin quickly covered Peter's hand. "It's time to come inside."
Ping Hai stepped back until he stood in the doorway. This time, Peter allowed Khan to help him squeeze through the window. Once inside, Khan pulled Peter into a fierce hug.
"Peter, you had nothing to do with what happened. Your father loved you. He was very proud of you. But you need to accept that…" Khan glanced at Ping Hai then quickly looked away. "…that your father isn't coming back."
In the kitchen, Ping Hai knelt on the hard tile. The residue of Caine's grief was almost tangible, and, like a thick fog, it settled heavily upon Ping Hai, chilling him to the bone. The brush scraped across the floor, back and forth, making a soft, swooshing sound. Sighing, Ping Hai paused and let the thought take form.
If he stays here, Peter will never accept that his father is gone. Caine will return.
Dipping his hand in the bucket, he made himself face another brutal fact. I can no longer look in young Caine's eyes and tell him that his father is dead.
Tomorrow, he would start making arrangements.
Grabbing the brush with both hands, Ping Hai pushed it over the same spot, again and again, his hot tears falling to the floor, mixing with soapy water that had long grown cold.
I will do what I must, he thought, in rhythm
with his blind strokes. I will do what I must.