Chapter 18: The Whole Bowl!
The subsequent events in Tung-on were something that Bao preferred not to think about. She and Mao Yun had expected to find a ring of constables waiting for them outside. However, once they burst out of the main door of the constabulary, smoke curling up from the edges of their singed garments, what they saw was a scene of chaos. The flames from the fire Bao had started were rapidly spreading from the constabulary to adjacent buildings.
The constable Bao had stabbed was nowhere to be seen, but the other constable was shouting orders to nearby citizens, as buckets of water were being hauled over to try to stave the spread of flames.
Mao Yun and Bao exchanged a glance and quickly slunk off into a nearby alley.
The fire continued to spread through the night. By dawn, nearly a third of the city was in flames, and the city gates to the north, east, and south were opened hours ahead of schedule to allow the populace to escape the city.
That made it every easy for Bao and the others to leave. Most of the city guard was focused on containing the fire, leaving the gates almost completely unguarded.
It was with pounding hearts the Bao, Mao Yun, Third Zhou and Li Runfa galloped away from burning, smoking Tung-on.
After reuniting with the rest of the group, they decided that the best course of action was to lay low. Therefore, they headed higher up into the foothills of Mount Dao, to a relatively isolated valley where they set up temporary camp.
After more discussion, Li Runfa agreed to head back down into the plains the following day to see the situation in Tung-on. The final decision about how to proceed would be made after that.
The next morning, Bao was sitting in her burlap tent, studying the fighting manual she had taken from the constabulary. She wasn’t sure what had inspired her to take it, but as soon as she opened it up, her heart began to pound.
The characters were small and precisely written. The introduction read as such:
The True Fighting Manual shall be bestowed only with the express permission of the King of the Pure Ones or his direct subordinates. Any who unlawfully come to possess or study the manual will be killed along with their entire family and clan.
She suddenly shivered, and almost dropped the book. She knew exactly who the King of the Pure Ones was.
The Demon Emperor! she thought.
But then a determined gleam flickered in her eyes, and she continued to read on.
It didn’t take long for her to determine exactly what this True Fighting Manual was. It was a detailed explanation regarding the basic techniques used by the elite fighters of the Demon Emperor. It was common knowledge that many Demon Emperor soldiers could fight in ways that were virtually magical in nature. Bao had seen such things with her own eyes.
There were various rumors about how such things were possible. Some people said it had to do with human sacrifices, or pacts with vile beings from the underworld of Emo-Cheng.
But as Bao studied the True Fighting Manual, it was as if she had received sudden enlightenment. The fighting abilities of the Demon Emperor had nothing to do with any agreement with ghosts or goblins.
According to the first pages, the key to power lay within nature itself. Some of the characters and words in the book were strange to her, but the overall message and ideas described therein were relatively simple. The first third of the manual or so was dedicated to the method for absorbing and cultivation the energy that apparently existed everywhere in the world, and the rest of the book went into detail about how to use that in combat.
For the time being, Bao ignored the portions of the book which talked about and described combat, and focused on the section regarding how to absorb the energy of nature. She spent a full two hours reading and re-reading those pages of the manual until she was sure she understood the general meaning. With the exception of the characters she didn’t recognize, all of it seemed relatively simple, and even the meaning of those odd characters could mostly be deciphered from the context.
It’s all about breathing and posture. Anybody could do this!
According to the book, the location where one absorbed the energy of nature was important. Certain terrain features could concentrate that energy, and would make the process much easier. Therefore, she rose to her feet and emerged from her tent into the afternoon sun.
When she told Mao Yun that she would be going for a walk into the surrounding hills, he demanded to accompany her. She protested, but he staunchly refused to back down, so in the end she agreed. They headed out of the encampment and further up Mount Dao. After hiking for about fifteen minutes, they found a place that seemed to match the description in the manual, a boulder situated in a clearing, surrounded by trees.
“I need to be alone for a little bit,” Bao said.
Mao Yun raised an eyebrow. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Look, see that boulder? I’m going to go sit there for a bit. You wait here for me, okay?”
Mao Yun shrugged his shoulders. “Suit yourself.”
“Thanks. And, I’d like a bit of privacy, okay?”
Bao headed into the clearing and then climbed up onto the boulder, where she sat down cross-legged and pulled out the manual again.
This is basically just like meditation, she thought. Meditation was not an uncommon practice in Yu Zhing, especially among the elderly. In fact, in her clan, it was common for the older clan members to meditate every morning at sunrise.
In some ways, the illustration the manual looked similar to the meditation postures Bao had seen before, and yet in other ways, different. The meditation she had seen always involved sitting cross-legged with the hands folded in the lap.
There were differences in the illustrations in the manual. Instead of the legs being crossed casually, the feet were tucked up uncomfortably onto the opposite thigh. Strangely, the index and middle finger of the right hand were to touch the spot between one’s eyebrows, whereas the middle and ring fingers of the left hand were to touch the thumb, and be held at the level of the navel.
It all felt very strange to Bao, but she assumed the posture. It took a few tries before she could get it right, and also manage to sit still.
Next was the breathing technique, which required her to breathe in for a certain length of time, hold the breath, then breathe out. After remaining perfectly still for a set time, the cycle repeated.
Shockingly, when Bao began the second cycle of breathing, she suddenly felt something hot entering her nose, causing her to jerk in shock. The movement disrupted the posture and the breathing, and she almost fell off of the boulder.
However, that brief moment of success caused her eyes to light up.
Taking a deep breath, she continued to practice.
By the time the sun set, Bao had mastered the basics of the meditation and breathing exercises. To her shock, she found that there really was some strange energy that could be breathed in and even stored inside her body.
At the moment, only a small amount existed within her, but she could sense that if she continued to breathe and meditate in this way for a long period of time, she could build up even more of that energy. Right now, it was like a spoonful of water placed into a bowl.
She wanted the whole bowl!
She and Mao Yun headed back to camp. After dinner, before the sun set, she was back in her tent, where she began to study the fighting techniques described later in the book.
What she found was that most of the section on fighting was actually a list of prescribed movements and poses, that could then be used when fighting. Furthermore, it was possible to draw upon that reserve internal energy to make those moves faster and stronger, or even unleash fantastic abilities. However, the more she studied the poses and movements, the more she felt that they weren’t appropriate for her.
Back in Yu Zhing when she had studied the clan soldiers during their training, and in subsequent months practicing and training with Mao Yun, she had already developed ways of attacking and defending that seemed more appropriate to herself.
Closing the manual, she looked up, and her eyes flickered with understanding.
Screw the Demon Emperor’s stupid fighting techniques. I’ll make my own!
Although no smoke could be seen in the air above Tung-on, the entire city smelled like a fire pit.
More than half of the city had burned before the fire was brought under control. Only two soldiers and one constable died, and no civilians. Although that might seem miraculous, it had more to do with the fact that Tung-on had nearly burned to the ground twice in the past several decades, first during the Demon Emperor’s initial siege, and once again later in a rebellion.
Apparently the citizens were used to such things.
The Tung-on yamen had been spared from the fire, and currently, a very important meeting was underway there. Early morning sunlight streamed into the main hall, where the city magistrate was not sitting where he normally would in the seat of honor. That position was occupied by a hulking figure wearing bone armor, who was of course none other than the Bone General.
The city magistrate was sitting to his right, opposite of whom was the local Inspector, who led the city’s military force. Next to the Inspector was the Sheriff, who led the constables.
“The son of Minister Mao?” the Bone General said in his deep, accented voice.
The Sheriff quickly nodded. “Yes, your excellency. One of my constables was the son of one of Minister Mao’s bodyguards, and as such, recognized Minister Mao’s son, Mao Yun.”
The Bone General’s eyes flickered. “And there was a girl?”
“Yes. A young girl came to the constabulary and….” he cleared his throat. “Well, she poisoned the constables and then managed to free Minister Mao’s son. In the process, they instigated local rebels into lighting the city aflame.”
“I see. Poisoned…. Where are those constables now?”
“Your excellency, that vile young woman used hellebore poison. Neither lived, and in fact, their corpses were lost in the fire. That is one reason I would like to request special compensation to give to their families. They were brave men after all, cut down in the line of duty by murderous rebels.”
“Where there any others helping the son of Minister Mao and the girl?”
“No, your excellency. They appear to have been acting alone.”
“Their current location?”
“Unknown, your excellency. According to reports, they were last seen heading south to Fan.”
“I see. So a young girl, a prostitute for all you know, outwitted and killed two of your constables, set fire to the city, and escaped both law enforcement and military forces, to vanish into the wind?”
The Sheriff and the Inspector shared a glance. The Sheriff cleared his throat and said, “Well, er… yes, but to be fair, sir, what actually happened was–”
“Silence.” The Bone General closed his eyes and sat there completely motionless.
The Sheriff, Inspector, and city magistrate looked at each other nervously, but didn’t dare to speak any further. Minutes passed, although to the city officials, it seemed like hours.
All of a sudden, the Bone General’s eyes snapped open.
“Nightfall,” he said, turning to stare at the Sheriff.
The Sheriff gulped. “Your excellency…?”
“Sheriff Wu, how much of a fool do you take me for?”
“Your excellency, I would never–”
“You have until nightfall to give me a full report. I’m not interested in the pack of lies you just spewed. Conduct an investigation like a man of your office should. I want to know how many individuals were in the group of supposed rebels who rescued the son of Minister Mao. Find out why they were here in Tung-on, what they did, and where they left to. If I don’t have satisfactory answers by nightfall, I’ll help you to become more familiar with how I came to be called the Bone General.”