Chapter 11: Cats and Rats
Sunan would never forget what it was like to awaken in a haze, his body aching and twinging with pain, to see his friend lying face down in a pool of blood.
Fortunately, the mustachioed man’s cohort hadn’t actually slit Sun Mai’s throat. He’d run the knife slowly over the surface of the skin, drawing some blood, but doing no fatal damage. Laughing, the mustachioed man had then ordered Sunan and Sun Mai to be beaten unconscious.
Sunan was the first to wake up. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed. It seemed like weeks or days, but was most likely hours. It may even have been minutes.
The first thing he did was crawl over to Sun Mai and pull him up off the ground.
“Sun Mai!” he cried, choking back a sob. Be alive. Please be alive!
He felt Sun Mai’s wrist, and after detecting a pulse, sighed in relief. Holding Sun Mai in his arms, Sunan struggled to his feet and then staggered out into the street. His first inclination was to find a physician, but then he realized that this late in the evening, such places would surely be closed for business, front gates barred and shut tight. It was still before the local ward curfew time, though, so Sunan was able to make it back to the inn with no incident.
A shocked staff member let them in, and then helped him carry Sun Mai up the stairs to their room. After settling him in his bed, Sunan collected some water and rags, and began to clean his friend up and examine him.
Other than the nasty cut on his throat, and some other bruises and scrapes, Sun Mai seemed to be in good condition.
At this point, it occurred to Sunan that he should examine himself, which he did, finding no evidence of any serious injury.
Finally, he leaned up against the side of Sun Mai’s bed and fell asleep.
That night he had more dreams. He saw a strange symbol that looked like an intertwined dragon and phoenix, which then began to shine with golden light. Somehow the symbol seemed familiar, although he was sure he had never seen it before.
The next morning he woke to find rays of sunlight piercing in through the window to land on his knees. He turned his head and saw Sun Mai sitting cross-legged on the bed, meditating.
Sunan likewise crossed his legs and began meditating, sending his Qi flowing through his body. He was shocked to find that after sleeping for several hours, he felt much better, almost as if nothing had happened the night before.
When he opened his eyes and re-examined his body in the same way he had last night, he realized that many of his bruises were completely gone, and even the cuts were mostly healed. He could tell that by the next day, he would be completely healed.
Shocked, he rose to his feet and looked at Sun Mai, whose eyes snapped opened.
Astonishingly, the long cut on Sun Mai’s neck was more than half healed!
“Are you as surprised as I am?” Sun Mai asked.
Sunan once again looked himself over. He stretched his neck and shook out his arms and legs. If he wasn’t sure that the events of the previous night had occurred, he might almost take them to be a hallucination.
“This is incredible!” Sunan said.
“I know,” Sun Mai replied. “I almost couldn’t believe it myself when I realized the truth.”
“How could it be? What happened? Magic?”
“I don’t think magic has anything to do with it. It’s all cats and rats!”
“It must be the Qi. In addition to making us stronger and faster, it probably heals us– wait. What did you just say? Cats?”
“Yes, it’s the cats and rats. Or maybe both. Haven’t you ever noticed that there seems to be an alarming abundance of cats in the city, whereas there are few rats? I think we all know the reason now.”
“Sun Mai, what are you talking about?”
“Sunan, I just asked you if you were as surprised as me that the Heavenly Meat Palace serves fake meat. You agreed. It’s little wonder that we can get so much meat for such a cheap price. I just realized why. Because it’s not real lamb and pork meat, of course. The city has plenty of cats, and no rats. It’s something I always wondered about throughout the years. Daolu would often fluctuate between the two. Some years the cat population booms. Then the cats vanish and the rats come. Then vice versa. It all makes sense. The main question now is what that yellow wine actually is….”
Sunan shook his head. “Sun Mai, we nearly got killed last night! Now, only a few hours later, we’ve almost completely recovered from our injuries. Don’t you find that… astonishing?”
“Oh that. Well it’s because of the Qi, obviously. Our bodies heal faster than normal, it’s not really very surprising if you ask me. In fact, based on my calculations my broken arm should be mended within the week. At most two.”
Sunan rubbed his temples and sat back down on the floor. “Well, what do we do now?”
Sun Mai rubbed his chin. “Obviously they were giving us a warning. They’ll probably expect us to take a few weeks to recover, then go back to the fighting arena and follow their rules to make them some money.”
“Right. So we can’t go out the next day as if nothing happened. What do we do, hole up in here?”
“Just what I was thinking. We can take the time to do a bit of training away from prying eyes. As luck would have it, I was preparing to suggest just such an arrangement leading up to your next match. I even made some inquiries and purchases. Look in that cabinet over there.”
Sunan opened the cabinet Sun Mai was pointing to and found a stack of bamboo scrolls, and even a few paper books. He pulled one out and read the title.
“Nine Chapters of Hand Fighting.” He picked up another. “Wrestling Techniques from the Kushen Basin.” Another, this time one of the paper books. “Suk Assassins.”
“That last one is quite rare,” Sun Mai said, “as you probably can guess, considering it’s made from paper.”
“Fighting manuals,” Sunan murmured. He sat down cross-legged and unrolled the scroll labeled Nine Chapters of Hand Fighting and began to study the contents.
Sun Mai hopped off the bed, walked over and sat down next to him, picking up Wrestling Techniques from the Kushen Basin. “Exactly. As was made painfully obvious last night, we know nothing about fighting. We have an advantage because of our Qi, but sometimes power and speed mean nothing when compared to skill and experience. Or lots of weapons.” Sun Mai’s eyes went wide. “Wait, that’s great material for my classic scripture!”
He immediately dropped the bamboo scroll and scrambled to another cupboard to look for writing materials.
Sunan and Sun Mai spent most of the following two weeks locked in their room, studying, meditating, and practicing.
Sunan had reached a point in his meditation where he realized he was on the verge of another breakthrough. Things were now much more clear to him than before. From the time he started building up Qi in his body, back in the Huang Mountains, all the way until his first fight in the arena, it was as if there was an empty pool inside of him that had been slowly filling with water.
Something happened after his first fight, some sort of breakthrough in which he reached a higher level. To him, there was a clear distinction in his speed, power, and other capabilities. After that, the Qi had continued to build up, and now he could tell that he was reaching yet another higher level.
After discussing the matter with Sun Mai, he realized that Sun Mai was reaching the breakthrough point in that first level.
“Qi level,” Sun Mai said one day.
Sunan opened his eyes from meditation. “Excuse me?”
“We’ll call it Qi level. After your fights, and all the sparring we’ve done during practice, it seems fairly obvious. I’m in the first Qi level and you’re in the second. By building up Qi in the body, and then using it, it’s possible to break through to higher Qi levels, which make you faster, stronger, more resilient. Right now, you need to figure out how to break through the third level.”
Sunan nodded. “I wonder if there’s a fourth level….” 1
After two weeks had passed, both Sunan and Sun Mai were firmly in the position to make breakthroughs. Both of them had absorbed various aspects of the different martial arts manuals, taking things that made sense to them and adapting them in various ways.
Sunan, being mostly concerned with remaining safe in arena matches, and yet also being able to win, focused more on molding his body into a weapon. He put much thought into the movements of his hands and legs, how to use his weight to his advantage, and how to inflict damage as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Sun Mai was more interested in exploring the mysteries of Qi and how it interacted with the human body, and in fact was quickly becoming more adept at manipulating Qi than Sunan. He was at a lower level than Sunan, and had less experience than him, but given his scholarly leanings, such use of Qi was more suited to his personality and interests.
One afternoon after a long session of meditation, Sunan suddenly found Sun Mai shaking him by the shoulders excitedly.
“Sunan, look, look! Watch that lamp!” On the table in the corner of the room was a simple oil lamp, lit.
Sun Mai took a deep breath, then placed his hand out in front of him with his index finger and middle finger extended. Then he waved his hand in a complicated gesture, during which time Sunan could sense the Qi flowing within him. Sun Mai ended with a chopping motion, whereupon a blurry light shot out from his fingers toward the lamp, instantly extinguishing it.
Sunan’s jaw dropped.
Sun Mai looked over at him with a triumphant grin.
“That was amazing!” Sunan exclaimed. “How did you do it!?”
For the rest of the evening, Sun Mai went on to instruct and guide Sunan regarding the technique he had begun to develop.
A few more days passed. It had been well over two weeks since the incident at the Heavenly Meat Palace, and Sunan was started to get frustrated and antsy. Being cooped up in one room with Sun Mai was a test unto itself. Thankfully they had plenty to occupy their time, but even still, it was getting to the point where Sunan needed to be outside, to walk the streets.
“Sun Mai, I’ve had it. No more hiding.”
“Hiding!?” replied Sun Mai indignantly. “We’re not hiding!”
“Well then what do you call it? We’re here behind closed doors, refusing to see or speak to anyone. All we do is meditate and practice, while our enemies roam the streets plotting how to either use us or kill us.”
Sun Mai rubbed his chin. “Hm, good point. Well, I still think that hiding is the wrong term. We’re just removing ourselves from the outside world, secluding ourselves so to speak. We’re spending most of our time in meditation, improving ourselves, refining ourselves. The right state of mind is essential to self-improvement, you know. So we’re secluded, in meditation. Secluded meditation! That’s what we’re doing!”
Sunan frowned. “Fine. Secluded meditation. Well I’ve had it with this secluded meditation. I want to go out. I’m ready to fight again, in fact, I’m itching to. All of these stances and moves I’ve been working on are great, but I won’t know how effective they are until I actually use them in a real fight.”
Sun Mai sighed. “But Sunan, you yourself said that you’re on the verge of a breakthrough. Don’t you think it would be better to reach that third level before you compete in the arena again?”
Sunan shrugged. “Maybe, but I don’t know how to break through. I’m stuck, stuck in the second level.”
“Why don’t you–”
Sun Mai was interrupted by a knock at the door. A message had arrived for them, a burlap envelope which was sealed shut with a crude iron awl.
When Sun Mai and Sunan saw that iron awl, their gazes met, and they could see the anxiety in each other’s eyes.
Sunan let Sun Mai open the envelope. Inside was a sheet of coarse paper with a simple message written on it, which Sun Mai read out loud.
“Your wounds should be healed. Come fight tonight. This time, win.” Sun Mai looked at Sunan. “Well, that settles it apparently.”
- To anyone reading this that is unfamiliar with Chinese web novels, it’s pretty common to directly state the “levels” of the characters in terms of their cultivation/kung fu/magic, etc. Although this might seem odd to any of you who only read Western fantasy genres, it’s definitely a standard way of doing things in modern wuxia and xianxia novels ↩