Chapter 3: Benches
In the northwest corner of Daolu was the warehouse district, a place where the buildings were large, utilitarian, and filled with things like grain, cloth, even jade. Of course, there were street vendors, beggars, and the like, but generally speaking, it was a quieter area than the other parts of the cities.
One of the buildings in that area was different than the others. It looked like a warehouse, but wasn’t. Most buildings in the warehouse district were well guarded, but this one was doubly well guarded. Furthermore, there were lookouts posted on other nearby buildings who had special whistles fastened to their wrists that they would use if the wrong people approached.
Inside the main door of that building were more even more guards. Furthermore, the building had four secret entrances and at least seven secret exits.
Upon first entering the main door, you would think that you were in a packed warehouse. However, that was just a facade. Beyond the facade was a stone wall, with a tightly locked door. After the door was a staircase that led down below ground level.
When Sunan and Sun Mai knocked on the the main door of the building itself, their hearts were pounding in their chests.
The sound of the knock echoed out into the streets, and slowly faded away until everything was silent.
“Are you sure this is the place?” whispered Sunan.
“Of course I’m sure!” hissed Sun Mai. “I’ve lived in this city for years, and you just arrived! I’m a scholar for Heaven’s sake! You’re what? A vagabond at best!? I’m street smart, do you hear me? Worldly wise! Did you know that once–”
Before he could finish speaking, the door opened a crack. Faint light spilled out, making it impossible to clearly make out the features of the face that appeared.
“The word?” growled a gruff voice.
Sun Mai tilted his chin up and said, “Green elephant eating rice!”
Sunan’s eyes went wide and he stomped his foot down onto Sun Mai’s toe. “It’s sesame, you moron!”
Sun Mai grunted, cleared his throat, and then said, “Green sesame eating rice!”
Sunan’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head. “You fool! Not the elephant! The rice!”
Sun Mai slowly turned to look at Sunan, his eyes flashing. “Please! There’s no need to be so insulting!” He turned back to the shadowy face in the door. “Green sesame eating sesame!”
Sunan quickly grabbed Sun Mai by the shoulders and edged him to the side. “Hey friend,” he said to the shadowy face. “My friend has just… had a bit too much to drink. The word is ‘green elephant eating sesame.’” He chuckled. “Sorry about that.”
The shadowy face snorted and closed the door. Shuffling and clanking sounds could be heard, and then the door opened.
Sunan strode in, pulling Sun Mai along with him. They were led past the facade to a staircase lit by oil lamps, which they began to descend.
“Fan Sunan!” Sun Mai growled as they proceeded downward. “Enough with the lies!”
“I had too much to drink? I never drink until the day is over and I’m finished with all scholarly pursuits. Drinking clouds the mind. It confuses the soul! If I drank, how could I ever keep my thoughts straight?”
Sunan clenched his teeth and declined to respond. He and Sun Mai followed the staircase downward until they reached a short corridor. After another locked door that required the same password, they reached their destination.
It was a large room filled with people, a crowd that included merchants and farmers, soldiers and beggars. The din of conversation filled the air, as well as a melange of sawdust, sweat, alcohol and dried blood. In the center of the room was a raised, circular stone platform roughly five meters wide and a meter tall. Most of the people in the room milled around the platform itself, although there were others clustered in the balconies which ringed the room, or some small, private booths interspersed along the balconies.
Before Sunan and Sun Mai could even take in the whole scene, a skinny shifty-eyed man limped over and said, “You’re Fan Sunan?”
Sunan gulped and nodded. “That’s me.”
“Don’t you have something more flashy to go by? Fan Sunan sounds like the name of a farmer.”
“Just Fan Sunan.”
The man examined him suspiciously for a moment before nodding. Looking at Sun Mai, he said, “Who are you?”
“I’m Scholar Sun Mai, student of the erudite, ponderer of truth, friend to the–”
“He’s my agent,” interrupted Sunan.
The man frowned. “Very well. Fan Sunan, you come with me. ‘Agent,’ you can stand in the managers’ section over there. Tell them you’re with a fighter and that I sent you. I’m Rat-hearted Li.”
Without waiting for a response, the man began to limp off toward the raised platform.
“This is it Sunan,” Sun Mai said. “May Xian Nu Shen guide you.”
Sunan glanced over. “You believe in Xian Nu Shen?”
“Not really, but you’ll surely need some divine help up there tonight.”
“What?! You were the one who said I should do this! Fast reflexes, you said! Instincts!”
Sun Mai cleared his throat. “I see someone over in the managers’ section waving to me. Good luck!”
Shaking his head, Sunan followed Rat-hearted Li over to the platform. They came to a stop on the north side, where a set of benches were lined up. The benches were about half full; eight men were seated there, all of them rough-looking characters.
Rat-hearted Li spat onto the sawdust floor and then said, “Since you’re new, you’ll be the first fight of the night. Do you know the rules?”
“No killing?” Sunan said with a shrug.
Rat-hearted Li rolled his eyes and then proceeded into a long explanation of various rules, including which types of strikes were allowed or not, how points were awarded, grounds for disqualification, and other complicated topics.
During the several minutes it took him to explain everything, the crowd slowly grew larger, and more tough-looking men showed up and sat down on the nearby benches.
Sunan’s heart was starting to pound. The previous day, Sun Mai had somehow convinced him that they could both make a lot of money by fighting in underground martial arts matches. Sunan was now unsure of why he possibly believed Sun Mai’s rambling explanation of why it would be safe and how there was nothing to worry about.
This is foolish, he thought to himself. I learned a few silly fighting moves from a soldier, and almost got killed using them. What happened with those street thugs was just blind luck. This is ridiculous. I’m going to get myself killed here! Look at these guys! That one has only one eye! That other one has more scars than I have fingers and toes! I have to get out of here!!
He took a deep breath and was just about to turn and leave when he realized that at some point, Rat-hearted Li had left his side, and was now standing on the fighting platform.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome!” he cried out. “This week’s fighting platform tournament will begin now!” His words were met with a few cheers and a spattering of applause. “The first fight will feature a returning champion from last week, Chen Zhisheng, the, er… Blood-stained Murderous Bear!”
More applause could be heard as a man shouldered his way past Sunan and then leaped up onto the platform. He was stocky, with a patchy beard and glaring eyes. He beat his chest a few times and roared as he stalked back and forth on the platform.
Sunan’s heart sank down into his chest. What am I DOING?! I should get out of here!
“His adversary will be… the, er… new guy… Fan Sunan.” Rat-faced Li’s somewhat anti-climactic conclusion was met with the sound of one person applauding. Sunan looked over to see Sun Mai clapping his hands and nodding enthusiastically.
Swallowing again, Sunan shook his head, walked over, and vaulted up onto the platform.
Rat-faced Li climbed off of the platform, walking over to stand behind a wide desk located off to the side. Perched on the desk was an incense burner and a candle, stacked next to which was a large pile of incense, each stick carefully cut in half. He took out one of the incense sticks and placed it carefully into the incense burner, and then said, “Begin!”
At the same time, he lit the incense stick with the candle.
Before Sunan even knew what was happening, Chen Zhisheng let out a bellowing roar and rushed toward him. The fighting platform was only five meters wide, so in virtually the blink of an eye, the man’s fist was flying through the air directly toward Sunan’s face.
He instinctively ducked back, and could almost feel the hairs on the man’s knuckles brushing against his chin.
As he stepped back, he watched as Chen Zhisheng staggered a few steps to the left, thrown off balance by his own wild swing.
Sunan clenched his jaw and thought back to the very few things he had learned about fighting. Chen Zhisheng settled back into a fighting stance, clenching his fists and roaring again.
I need to focus, thought Sunan. Clear my mind. Observe his movements.
For some reason, he thought to utilize the mind-clearing techniques that he had practiced so often while meditating. Even as Chen Zhisheng began to charge him again, he flushed his mind of all extraneous thought.
Everything became clearer. He saw Chen Zhisheng’s right shoulder twisting back, and knew that the man was going to swing just as wildly as before, with his right hand.
At first, Sunan’s hands began to curl into fists, but then he remembered something his Master had taught him. Oftentimes, the best way to end a fight wasn’t to use your own power to defeat the opponent, it was to use the opponent’s own power against them. His hands opened back into palms.
As Chen Zhisheng closed in, something else happened.
Sunan was so used to manipulating that spark of energy inside of him, that it happened again, without him even intending to do so. The energy flared to life deep within him, and then, because his thoughts were focused on his left palm, it surged through the passageways in his body.
As Chen Zhisheng’s fist began to swing through the air, Sunan leaned slightly to the side and then reached out with his left palm. Bolstered by the energy, his palm moved faster than he expected, and with even more force than he had intended.
He originally meant to simply use Chen Zhisheng’s momentum to knock him to the ground. Instead, what happened was that as the wild fist swung through the air past Sunan, an explosive slap landed onto the man’s shoulder. A miserable shriek could be heard as he was knocked violently off of his feet. He flew off of the platform, spinning through the air to land into the benches next to the platform.
A crash could be heard, as well as several bellows of rage as a handful of the rough-looking characters were all sent into a heap of arms and legs by the spinning Chen Zhiseng.
The entire underground warehouse chamber filled with silence for the space of about four seconds. Then it erupted into a huge commotion.
Rat-hearted Li suddenly leaped up onto the platform, which Sunan would have found surprising considering the man’s previous limp. However, he was so stunned that he could do nothing more than look down at his own open palm.
“A stunning knock-off by Fan Sunan!” yelled Rat-hearted Li. “He’s a powerhouse! A warrior! A… a dragon amongst men! Fan Sunan the Dragon! SUNAN THE DRAGON!!”
The following minutes were a blur.
Sunan was hustled off of the platform and through a series of formalities that he forgot. He barely noticed what was happening around them. Instead, he was reviewing what had happened during the fight. He thought about the mental state he had been in, and how he had directed the Qi to his hand. He remembered the movement, the weight of his feet, the angle of his arms and legs.
Before he realized it, he and Sun Mai were back out on the street, and Sun Mai was pulling him along by the arm at a virtual run.
“What’s going on?” Sunan asked. “Where are we going?”
Sun Mai looked over his shoulder and smiled. “We’re going to a feast!”
Note: The world of Legends of Ogre Gate is a reflection of Han Dynasty China, which ended in around 200 AD. Although not every single detail is completely accurate, overall, an attempt is being made to paint the scene in the most historically correct fashion. For example, in this scene, Rat-Hearted Li stands behind the desk because sitting in chairs was not common in China at that time. Instead, people sat at ground level. Another historically relevant point is that the incense stick is lit with a candle because matches had not been invented yet, whereas candles had. In fact, the earliest surviving candles originated in Han Dynasty China.
In circumstances in which historical inaccuracies appear, I’ll mention it in footnotes. For example, the fighting platform described here was not common in China until the Song Dynasty, several hundred years after the fall of the Han Dynasty. Although some references claim that fighting platforms were used in the Qin Dynasty, the dynasty before the Han, I couldn’t find much definitive information to corroborate that in English or Chinese.
Again, this is not historical fiction, so I can’t promise that every single aspect of the story is accurate in terms of historicity, but overall, you should be able to get a rough depiction of life in the Han Dynasty.