Danny Leong tried to pull himself together, stumbling away from his foe. He thought that maybe two of his ribs had broken after hitting the car. He needed to retreat and regroup so that he could work up a strategy. Brute force was useless, and to continue in this way would result in his death.
The hatchet man walked forward, his stride as mechanically perfect as Danny’s own. His face was a mask for the metallic green eyes staring passively at the younger man. “Shall we finish this?” he said.
Danny backed up. He flexed his hands as his chi excited the air. He had dreamed of finding his father’s murderer and breaking him with his control he had learned, and now he had found the man who’d taken the Dummy’s contract on Victor Leong’s life. But he had never thought that the killer would be better than him. He had never thought he would be the one fighting for his life.
Dragonmage leaped on top of the damaged car as green lightning slashed the air in front of a pressure wave. The car rocked as the wave leaped after Danny, who had bounced to a store sign. The invisible killer followed as the student ran up the wall to the roof of the building.
Danny started across the roofs, looking for an opportunity to turn the tables. The hatchet man moved with him, trying to corral his target and destroy him. Pieces of debris became improvised javelins as the two fought across the city.
Dragonmage came up with a desperate plan as he jumped over a clothesline that had become a buzz-saw in the hands of his opponent. He needed to buy enough time to try another approach without the assassin suspecting he was alive, or at the very least following him to ground.
He weaved back and forth as the rope sliced into the concrete roof with near misses. Shards ripped at the Law’s Legionnaire as he worked his way to the edge of the building facing the street. He waited for the right moment, letting his chi coalesce around his fist as he sidestepped the whirling whip.
The assassin stabbed with the rope, using it as an elongated spear. Danny swung his fist, hoping he had gauged things right. The green chi shredded the end of the cord. Threads became fiery shrapnel. The hatchet man ducked under the lethal spray, rolling to avoid an offensive move that should have followed the burning cloud.
But Danny was gone.
The shredded rope had given him a second to make his escape off the roof. The assassin knew that a second was all his prey needed with the type of training they had both undergone. The assassin laughed as he turned to retrace his steps back to Chinatown. Why chase his foe when the man would return to face him again? Then he could carry out the contract he had taken.
It had been a long time since he had faced a foe of quality. He had lost all interest in the hunt before this, but now it was revived at facing another student of the One.
Billie Gunn opened the door to her apartment, pistol in hand. She paused when she saw Danny Leong pulling a small roll of tape around his right arm. Little cuts dotted his upper body from the shredded rope where he had ripped it up with his chi. “You look like you ran into a meat grinder,” she said.
“I ran into someone faster than me,” said Danny. “Someone with the same training as I have.”
“The guys in the gang units will love to hear that,” said Billie, placing her pistol in a concealed holster at the small of her back.
“He doesn’t belong to the gang,” said Danny. “Li Jiane called him in to deal with me. I got the impression he was an assassin.”
“So what do we do about it?” asked Billie. “Call in the Law’s Legionnaires or the Justice Society?”
“Not yet,” said Danny, inspecting the rest of the cuts on his chest. “I hope to talk to my teacher. Hopefully he will be able to show me how to jump up my own training so that I can stand toe to toe with this guy.”
“Do you think he can do that?” asked Billie. “Is this guy really that fast?”
“Phenomenally,” said Danny, grabbing his shirt off the back of a wooden chair.
“Hold on,” said Billie. “You can have one of mine. I got some men’s shirts around here.”
Danny rolled the torn shirt up for future repair. He took the flannel shirt offered him and put it on, rolling the sleeves back over his muscular arms.
“Where do we look for this teacher of yours?” Billie asked.
Danny rented a car to drive. He only had a basic idea where his teacher would be at the moment. The man moved around without direction. Fortunately, he walked wherever he went. That cut down on the search radius once he had a starting point for his search.
“How did you find this guy the first time?” Billie asked. She had refused to be left out of whatever came next. So she had retrieved her pistols, a baseball cap, and a jacket and hitched with him. She was too dangerous to be left alone. She might try to do something that would get her killed, so Danny let her tag along with him.
“It’s hard to explain,” said Danny. “By the time I met the Vigilante, I’d only had some martial arts training from a man named Richard Dragon, who was an old friend of my dad’s. He was an old World War I pilot who had mastered martial arts while traveling the Far East in the 1920s — an American man of European descent, strangely enough — but by the time I met him in the early ’70s, he was very old, with white hair and a beard. My father signed me up for lessons at his Manhattan dojo despite my protests. Sensei Dragon was good, even by Asian standards, and I had to admit at the time that the martial arts skills I’d learned came in handy later as the Vigilante’s sidekick.
“We had a few adventures together in the early 1970s, whenever Uncle Greg wasn’t shooting episodes of his old TV show, McCaliber. But after working alongside the Vigilante for a while, I began to feel inferior to the super-powered types we often came across. I still held a lot of anger over my father’s murder and wanted to learn more, to become more than I was, so when I was older I started training with more unusual teachers wherever and whenever I could. When I began my serious training, I began hearing legends that said a man could train himself to do the impossible. I dismissed them as fables meant to encourage beginners to fully master whatever art they had chosen.”
“But something changed your mind,” Billie prompted, looking at the passing skyline.
“The One appeared during a class,” said Danny. “He said he wanted to watch our practice out of respect for Master Tsui, my sensei at the time. Master Tsui invited him to show us what he had mastered. That demonstration changed my outlook, cooling my thirst for revenge.”
“What happened?” asked Billie.
“He caught a fired clip of bullets,” said Danny, “and made them disappear.”
Danny drove through the night, pausing occasionally for gas and food. The rental car hummed quietly along. Billie slept off and on as they drove west out of the state. She read the local newspapers as they worked their way toward Iowa. An article about a mysterious man saving lives in a fire caught her attention, and she pointed it out to Danny. He nodded as he pointed his car on the way to the Quad Cities. He headed west from Moline, thinking that his teacher would continue to head west in a straight line. He hoped that the man would stick to the local highway and not head across the country. A little bit of luck was what he needed right now.
He kept an eye on the sides of the road as he drove, then saw the man walking mechanically on the shoulder. A duffel bag hung over his shoulder as he turned metallic green eyes on the slowing car.
“Hello, Daniel,” the man said, his clear voice cutting through the air.
“Hello, Master,” said Danny. “I need to talk to you.”
Billie Gunn sat in the seat facing the front door of the roadside diner they had found at the next exit off the highway. She didn’t say anything about the way they moved, the metallic green eyes that seemed to catch the light from the overhead chandelier, the blankness of their faces. They could almost be related in the ways they resembled each other.
The three ate silently, sizing each other up quietly. Danny’s teacher wore old but well-maintained shirt and pants and a fedora he had put in the seat next to him on top of his bag. Red hair, grayed in long patches on the side of his head, was swept back from his forehead in a casual gesture, but his true age was impossible to guess. The master’s true name was unknown, but he was called by names such as the One and the O-Sensei, which had been the title of his own teacher many years ago. As for Dragonmage, he had his own suspicions about the man’s true identity. He realized that he may have known the One all his life, despite outward appearances to the contrary, but he kept those suspicions to himself.
The waitress cleared the table, allowing them to pause over their drinks so that they could finally talk.
“What brings you out this way, Daniel?” said the master. “I had heard you were in Texas with your guardian.”
“I have begun looking into my father’s death,” Danny said. “I encountered another of your students. He confessed to slaying my father for a man named Li Jiane, on contract from the Dummy, but forced me to retreat.”
“I do not see how I can help you,” said the master. “This student of mine seems to have progressed in his training beyond what you have. I cannot fight a duel for you.”
“I was hoping that you had a method I could use to speed up my reactions,” Danny said. “Otherwise, I won’t be able to match his moves.”
The master sipped his water quietly in thought.
Danny Leong wore the green-on-green fighting suit he used as Dragonmage. He had asked Billie Gunn to take the rental back and to wait until he returned to the city before doing anything. He knew she wouldn’t directly confront Li Jiane, but he doubted she would leave the matter completely alone. Hopefully, she wouldn’t kill anyone.
The One approached, wearing a red tunic and yellow breeches. He had wrapped his wrists with red cloth. A small, claw-shaped jade talisman on a necklace glinted in the early morning light.
“I want you to attack me,” said the master. “That way I can judge your progress since you left.”
Dragonmage nodded. They had picked an empty warehouse on the river so they wouldn’t have to worry about others. Danny’s feet silently slipped over the dusty floor, his open hand slicing the air with a loud snap. The master redirected the lightning blow with a simple push of his hand.
“A little faster,” said the One.
Dragonmage’s next blow seemed to disappear before it crossed the intervening space. His hand split the space to the left of the master’s head. The Law’s Legionnaire tried to follow through and take his teacher by surprise with his other hand, but the master’s hand pushed him into the ground, and he rolled to avoid a hard impact.
“A little faster,” said the One.
Danny spent the next few weeks working and relearning basic steps in his training. The nights were spent in meditation as he tried to control and extend his mastery of his chi. He had always had a rudimentary control at best.
His dragon punch was the single most powerful thing he had created since he had graduated from his apprenticeship. But it was nothing compared to the One’s mastery.
After another long day of work, Danny sat down in the circle of candles he had arranged to help him think. He closed his eyes, reaching for the calm state inside his mind. He slowly relaxed, his mind playing memories on the back of his eyelids.
Things drifted through his mind — hearing his father tell him stories about the Seven Soldiers of Victory over dinner, learning martial arts as a boy from old Richard Dragon, seeing his father hanging dead from a rope with a note from the Dummy pinned on his chest, at the same time finally meeting his Uncle Greg for the first time, shortly after the Vigilante was rescued by the Justice Society. He had stood at the open grave, his adopted uncle at his side.
Anger walked with those memories. It was an old surge that he suppressed while he was walking among others, as well as other emotions that would interfere with his ability. That led to the blank mask the students of this art wore for their faces.
He had thought he had pushed that anger away. He realized finally that it was hanging on like a lover that couldn’t understand the affair was over.
Danny and the One faced off in the warehouse again. They wore the same expression as they pushed the air around them with invisible blows. The younger man had improved his speed with his retraining.
He didn’t know if he was faster than the One’s other student. He didn’t know if he had gained any appreciable edge. He did know that he couldn’t train forever or be too scared to face his enemy again. It was time for him to get back on the horse, as Uncle Greg would have told him.
The two fighters met, arms blocking off attacks as they tried to force each other off balance. The One suddenly vanished in front of Danny, and the younger man staggered for a second before readjusting and blocking a blow to his face.
“I think that is enough,” said the One. “You are as ready as you can be. I wish you luck in your pursuit.”
Danny nodded. In the morning he would take a flight back to Manhattan. Then he would exorcize his ghosts, once and for all. Now he would meditate and try to plan for the confrontation ahead. He was as ready as he could be.
When Danny had finished packing, he went to say his farewells. But the One had already departed on his travels. “Goodbye,” Danny whispered, “Sensei Dragon.”