Chapter 13: Lessons Not Learned
Sunan suddenly realized that he could hear the sound of muffled weeping. He turned his head and saw, the pregnant woman who the soldier had been accosting, huddled against the wall a few meters away.
Her right arm was cradled protectively around her swelling belly, and her left hand was covering her mouth. Although her eyes were closed, tears streamed down her cheeks, and she couldn’t stifle her sobs.
Sunan walked over to the woman and squatted down onto his heels about a meter away from her.
Now that he was close up, he realized that she was young, probably not much older than he was.
“Big sis,” he said softly, “it’s over now, you’re safe.”
The woman struggled to calm herself, then brushed the tears off of her face and opened her eyes.
She looked over at the blood-soaked body of the dead soldier, shuddered, and then looked back at Sunan.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Sunan heard soft footsteps from behind him as Sun Mai joined them. “We’re friends,” Sun Mai said.
The woman nodded.
“Why did that man… want to hurt you?” Sunan asked.
The woman sniffed, then said, “He wanted money that my husband owed him. But… I don’t have any money.”
“Is your husband not in the city?” Sun Mai asked.
She looked down. “I don’t know where he is. He told me that he had a business opportunity in Nansun. That’s why he borrowed the money from Iron Awl Hu. But after he left three months ago, he’s sent no word back, and eventually Iron Awl Hu sent people for the money.”
Without even thinking, Sunan pulled a money purse out of his tunic and offered it to her.
“This isn’t much, but it should help. It’s just a few spades.”
The woman eyed the purse but didn’t reach out to take it.
“Take it, please,” Sunan said.
She hesitated for a long moment, but in the end, reached out and took the purse.
“Wait a moment,” Sun Mai said, his eyes flickering. “You said your husband borrowed money from Iron Awl Hu?”
Sun Mai’s brow furrowed, and he turned to look at the nearby corpse. “But that man was a Demon Emperor soldier.”
She nodded again. “I was surprised too.”
Sun Mai turned his head and looked at Sunan, who looked back at him for a long moment. They both nodded.
“Big sis,” Sunan said, “do you have a safe place you can stay?”
The woman made to rise to her feet, and Sunan and Sun Mai both stepped forward to help her up.
“My brother has a farm outside of the city. I can go there.”
“You should hurry,” Sun Mai said. “Once word starts to spread about this soldier, things could get dangerous.”
She nodded, then clasped hands and bowed to both of them. “Many thanks, heroes. I hope that one day I can repay your kindness.” With that, the woman hurried out of the alley, cradling her belly.
After she was gone, Sunan and Sun Mai walked back over to the corpse of the soldier. Sunan looked at it for a long moment, then crouched down and began to search the man. He quickly relieved him of a money purse, a Lions of Peace identification medallion, and a narrow wooden box, sealed with wax.
“Sunan, we should leave,” Sun Mai said, looking nervously up and down the alley. “If we get implicated in this man’s death, it could lead to serious consequences.”
Sunan nodded and rose back to his feet. Glancing once more around the alley, he hurried back in the direction of the street.
As expected, news that one of the Demon Emperor’s soldiers had been killed soon spread like wildfire through the city. That night at the Heavenly Meat Palace, Sunan and Sun Mai didn’t talk to each other at all as they ate, but instead eavesdropped on the surrounding conversations.
“Did you hear that one of the Lions of Peace was killed?”
“Good riddance! Nobody wants that damn Demon Emperor up here!”
“Supposedly, he was killed by some wandering hero! Stabbed through the eyes is what I heard.”
“You’re wrong there, friend. His head was chopped clean off. I saw it myself!”
“Do you think it will draw the attention of the Demon Emperor?”
“Probably not, he was just an ordinary soldier.”
“I heard he wasn’t just a soldier, he was actually a spy master! They say that the Demon Emperor is turning his attention to the north!”
“That’s right! He’s already struck several locations in the Northeast. We’re probably next!”
Throughout the course of the night, Sunan and Sun Mai learned little helpful information.
Later, as they prepared to sleep, Sun Mai said, “You know what I was thinking?”
Bracing himself for another bizarre conversation, Sunan replied, “What’s that?”
“What was a Demon Emperor soldier doing debt collecting for Iron Awl Hu?”
The sheer normality of the conversation topic set Sunan aback. After blinking a few times, he took a deep breath and said, “It seems pretty obvious to me. Iron Awl Hu must be working for the Demon Emperor.”
“That’s what I was thinking. Hmm….” Sun Mai fell into silence.
A few minutes passed, during which Sunan’s eyes slowly began to close. Just when he was about to drift into sleep, Sun Mai suddenly sat up loudly. “Righteousness and social order.”
Sunan’s eyes fluttered open. “What?”
“Righteousness and social order are among the key tenets of Dehua. Kong Zhi told us that the righteous man who sees wrongdoing, but does nothing to stop it, is no righteous man!”
“Are you sure that was Kong Zhi?” Sunan asked sleepily. “I think I heard that in a street opera before.”
It was dark, so Sunan couldn’t see the dark look that flashed across Sun Mai’s face.
“Of course it was Kong Zhi. And of course it is true. Sunan, getting rich in the platform tournaments is not inherently wrong, but we have been blessed with a great power. What Iron Awl Hu is doing is wrong. If he’s selling out the city to the Demon Emperor, we, as righteous men, have a duty to stop him!”
Sunan was rapidly being dragged back from the brink of sleep into being fully awake. Slowly sitting up in bed, he rubbed his eyes and said, “Sun Mai, what are you talking about? Selling out the city to the Demon Emperor? You have no proof of that! For all you know, that soldier was making extra money on the side by working for Iron Awl Hu.”
“Well, that’s… I mean….” Sun Mai spluttered a bit, but couldn’t come up with anything to say in response at first. After a bit of incoherent muttering, he finally said, “Well, they’re both bad guys!”
Sunan shook his head. “Bad guys? Perhaps so, but that still doesn’t mean Iron Awl Hu is involved in some conspiracy to sell the city to the Demon Emperor.”
Sun Mai sighed, placed his elbow on his knee, and then rested his chin on his hand. “I guess you’re right. My judgement wasn’t really clear I suppose. Wait. Judgement. Clarity. Perfection. Dehua.” He suddenly leaped out of the bed. “Sunan, you’re a genius! This is just what I need for my classic scripture!”
With that, he began banging around in the dark to prepare writing utensils and paper, then started muttering and taking notes.
Sunan rolled his eyes and tried to sleep.
The following day after eating breakfast, Sun Mai resumed the conversation from the night before. “Sunan, after that bit of enlightenment last night, I wrote down many ideas. Unfortunately, it was so dark that not much of my notes make sense. However, one thing I wrote down was completely eye-opening. Zhui zhen qiu shi!”
Sunan stared blankly. “What?”
“Oh, right, that’s Classical Fei, which you don’t understand. You should really start studying it, you know. Hm, how to translate it. I guess the best translation would be, ‘Seek the truth, pursue the actual!’”
Sunan shrugged. “Sounds… profound?”
“Yes, you were right last night. We can’t accuse Iron Awl Hu of working for the Demon Emperor unless we have proof. And that’s why starting today, we’re going to get that proof. We will investigate this matter and get to the bottom of it! As righteous men, we will seek the truth, and pursue the actual! We will determine what is really going on in Daolu!”
Sunan’s face twisted into a grimace. “Sun Mai, isn’t that the job of the Sheriff and the city constables?”
Sun Mai guffawed. “Constables? Everybody knows that they all report back to Iron Awl Hu himself! No, my friend, we have been blessed by Xian Nu Shen herself with the power of Qi, and we will use it to carry out justice!”
“I thought you didn’t believe in Xian Nu Shen….”
“Ahem. Well, I was speaking figuratively, of course. Anyway, what do you think? Don’t you agree? We need to start investigating right away!”
Sunan rubbed his chin. What Sun Mai said made sense, but Sunan wasn’t sure that was the path for him. He had seen what the Demon Emperor’s soldiers could do, both in his hometown, and in that alley the day before. They were clearly trained in how to use Qi to fight, and with that in the picture, it changed everything.
I don’t want to be a hero, he thought. I just want to…. Well. Hmm. What do I want?
It was a question he had never considered. In the Huang Mountains, he had been focused on survival and healing. After coming to Daolu, events had proceeded along so quickly he had allowed himself to be swept up, and had never thought about a purpose or goal in life.
He looked up to find Sun Mai waiting expectantly, clearly expecting an answer, eyes burning with passion.
This seems stupid. Dangerous! We could get ourselves killed!! But… Sun Mai is right. We can’t just let the Demon Emperor take over every corner of the entire world, and not do anything about it! One day, I’m going to make him pay for what he did to my family and my friends.
He nodded decisively. “Yes, I agree. We will seek the truth and pursue the actual! Where do we start!?”
Meanwhile, somewhere near the north gate of the city was one of the most luxurious mansions in all of Daolu. Within that mansion was a courtyard with a fish pond and willow trees. Two men occupied the courtyard. One of them wore golden-colored robes, and sat in a pavilion sipping tea.
The other man was a few meters away in a portion of the courtyard paved with wide stone slabs. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and was currently shirtless, revealing a powerfully muscled upper torso. In his left hand he held a metal spike with a knob at the end, roughly a third of a meter long in total.
The bare-chested man was none other than one of the most powerful men in Daolu, if not the most powerful, Iron Awl Hu.
The man in the golden robes was, of course, the Golden Immortal, the most famous fighter in the underground platform tournaments.
Lined up in front of Iron Awl Hu were several dummies crafted from bamboo and straw, that bore the rough semblance of men.
Iron Awl Hu hefted his awl for a moment, then suddenly let out a powerful shout, spinning through the air and then hurling the awl at one of the dummies.
The awl screamed through the air and then plunged into the chest of the first dummy.
A cloud of wood chips and straw flew into the air as the awl crashed through the dummy’s chest and then continued on to the next dummy.
The awl smashed through the second dummy’s chest, and flew toward the third.
Finally, the awl embedded itself into the third dummy, all the way to the knob.
Iron Awl Hu grunted and then walked over to the pavilion, where he sat down next to the Golden Immortal and accepted a cup of tea.
“Still not perfect,” he said.
“When it is,” the Golden Immortal said, “it will be formidable.”
Iron Awl Hu noded. “The final version should be able to pierce through at least three men in one blow. I just need to think of a good name for it.”
Suddenly, a servant appeared, who wound his way through the courtyard and then prostrated himself in front of Iron Awl Hu, holding aloft a sealed message. Iron Awl Hu took it and dismissed the servant, then opened the message and read it.
“Trouble?” asked the Golden Immortal.
“Perhaps. One of the Lions of Peace was killed in an alley yesterday. Blood everywhere.”
The Golden Immortal frowned. “The officer?”
“No, one of the weaker ones. Even still, only someone with… abilities like ours could do something like this. Perhaps…”
The Golden Immortal nodded. “The boy from the platform tournaments? Didn’t you send some men to teach him a lesson?”
“I did, but perhaps the lesson didn’t sink in.”
“Shall I handle it?”
“Yes, but wait for a bit, until the commotion of the soldier’s death dies down. No more lessons this time. If it was him, put an end to him. I would do it myself, but I’m very close to a breakthrough.”
The Golden Immortal smiled. “Very well. Shall I make it painful or quick?”
Iron Awl Hu’s lips twisted into a grim smile. “Painful.”