Chapter 5: Crunch
Suddenly, blood began to rush into Sunan’s head, and he could almost feel the veins popping in his eyes, causing them to become murderously bloodshot. He had read about something called “killing intent” before, but had never experienced it. Village life had always been idyllic and enjoyable. Even the times he had gotten in “fights” with other young boys, it had really been little more than spirited wrestling.
However, the moment Wang Li mentioned his mother, Sunan suddenly understood what killing intent was. His heart began to pound so hard it felt like it would burst out of his chest. His ears rang with soundless thunder. His cheeks were hot, his eyes burned, and his hands clenched so hard into fists that he felt blood welling up around his fingernails.
Images of his mother and his sisters flashed through his mind, and they were not the happy images of his childhood. He had not been the type of boy to argue with his sisters, nor the type of son to harry his mother. Tragically, the images which welled up in his mind were that of their blood-stained and ravaged forms lying bent, broken, and burning among the wreckage of his village.
He had never experienced rage like this before, and the way it burned within him seemed to give him access to a power he had been unaware of before. This was not the power of Qi, nor some other magical ability. It was something that existed in all people, a fuel of rage that could burn beyond control.
As of this moment, Sunan could think of nothing else but killing the person in front of him. He forgot who Wang Li was. He forgot about Iron Awl Hu. He even forgot who he himself was.
Without thinking about it, he circulated his Qi and then, he did more. He summoned the Qi which had built up in his body during his time in the Huang Mountains, not just to his fist, but to his eyes, and to his feet.
Somehow, the killing intent raging inside of him also burned his mind into a state of clarity. In some ways, he had lost control, but in other ways, he was more in control than ever. His observations of the fights earlier coalesced subconsciously, and he moved his left foot slightly forward. He shifted his weight and twisted his shoulders.
Based on the back-and-forth from earlier, he was highly confident that he could predict the speed, direction, and angle that Wang Li would attack from.
And that he did.
The Qi in his feet allowed him to take three steps to the left, faster than he normally could have had he been running. The Qi in his eyes made everything seem to slow down. He could see Wang Li’s angles and momentum, and it was as easy to see where he was moving as it would be to watch a stream of honey flow off of a spoon.
This time, he timed his movement carefully. Even before Wang Li’s blow sailed past his face, Sunan clenched fist began to move. He poured every scrap of Qi he could into that fist, into the fingers, and especially the knuckles. He braced his arm, his muscles, his bones and his flesh, imbuing them all in a way that would both protect them, and endow them with iron-like power.
A crunching sound could be heard as his knuckles made contact with the side of Wang Li’s face. One knuckle hit a cheekbone, another hit the temple. In the end, it didn’t matter. Sunan’s fist was like an iron cudgel, and Wang Li’s face was like a pumpkin.
Bone shattered. Flesh was ripped. Blood sprayed.
Teeth flew through the air.
Other grotesque and even nauseating things occurred.
Sunan’s single blow shattered half of Wang Li’s head, and sent his body spinning several times through the air before it landed on the edge of the platform. Wang Li still wasn’t dead yet, and his lone remaining eye stared in shock and Sunan. He reached out shakily as if he wished to steady himself, made a gurgling sound, then died. His body toppled backward off of the platform, leaving behind a streak of blood and gore.
The rage and fire in Sunan’s heart slowly began to subside. For some reason, he looked out into the crowd and found himself staring into the eyes of the mustachioed man. Sunan held his gaze for a moment while he wiped the spatters of blood off of his face, then looked down at the crumpled body laying down below.
This time, the crowd did not erupt into wild cheering. Everyone was deathly silent. No applause burst forth from Sun Mai.
The only sound to be heard were the drops of blood plopping down from Sunan’s fist onto the stone platform beneath his feet.
Sunan and Sun Mai sat across from each other, separated by a huge pile of grilled meats and vegetables, none of it touched yet, but still steaming in the night air.
Sun Mai raised a bowl of yellow wine up into the air, as did Sunan. Then he looked up at the moon, his expression somber.
“A bowl of wine, a table of meat,” he said poetically.
“And a friend like a brother with which to dine,
“I raise my bowl to the moon up high–” He looked down at the grilled meat.
“And this poor sheep, which makes us three.
“But the moon won’t drink
“And our shadows–”
Before he could continue with his poetry, Sunan interrupted, “Alright, alright! Enough already. To you!”
“No!” Sun Mai replied. “To you.”
“To us,” Sunan conceded.
They downed the bowl of yellow wine and then began to eat and drink voraciously. After a few minutes passed, Sun Mai belched loudly and then said, “Sunan?”
“That. Was. INCREDIBLE!” He slammed his palm down onto the table, causing all of the meat to hop up into the air and then plop back down loudly. “I’ve never seen anything like it! What happened?”
Sunan shrugged. “He said something insulting. And I hit him as hard as I could. That’s all.”
“But didn’t you hit that other guy as hard as you could? You didn’t… you know….” He held his balled fist up in front of his face and then opened his fingers wide. “Poosh!”
Sunan grimaced and shrugged again. “I’m stronger than before. I’m not sure how it happened, but… it’s almost like a reached a higher level than before, a second level that I didn’t even know existed.”
“A second level, huh.” Sun Mai held another bowl of yellow wine up into the air. “Come on, let’s drink,” he said. They downed another bowl together. “You know, even after they fined you for killing ‘the killer,’ we’re still completely rich. And you rose even higher in the ranks! Now you’re only two ranks below the Golden Immortal. Did you see those golden robes he was wearing? I’m telling you, we need to get you some clothes with dragons on them.
“Do you know where the legends of dragons come from? You might be surprised. I was reading one of the classics the other day and–”
Sunan tuned Sun Mai out as he ate and drank. Time passed.
At some point, Sunan suddenly realized that everything had suddenly become very quiet. He looked up from a spicy prawn to find Sun Mai staring at him with eyes as wide as the moon. Sunan frowned, and Sun Mai mouthed a word which he couldn’t quite make out.
“What did you just say?” he asked.
Sunan cocked his ear. “Huh?”
“Sp-sp-spear!” Sun Mai choked out.
It was at this point that Sunan felt something cold pressing lightly in the side of his neck. The tip of a spear. His heart suddenly began to thud, and a cold rage began to well up in his heart.
A voice spoke out, oily and vicious. “What. Were. You. THINKING?”
Even before the owner of the voice strolled into view, Sunan knew exactly who it was. It was the mustachioed man from the fighting platform tournaments. He walked into Sunan’s field of vision, but remained a distance of at least three or four meters away from the table.
“I told you to throw the fight, and you said you understood? Did you? Did you really understand? Apparently not. Not only did you not throw the fight, you defeated your opponent. And not only did you defeat him, you killed him! Splattered his brains all over the platform. Impressive. Very impressive.”
Sunan looked over at Sun Mai, who was staring directly into his eyes. Oh so slightly, Sun Mai’s lips moved, forming a single word. Fight.
Sunan nodded almost imperceptibly, and began to circulate the Qi in his body, sending it into his arms.
“Iron Awl Hu isn’t happy,” the mustachioed man continued. “In fact, ‘not happy’ doesn’t even begin to describe how he feels. I think that he–”
In the middle of the man’s sentence, Sunan suddenly jerked to the side, twisted, and batted the spear away from him. The man holding the spear was a thuggish fellow, burly, with hands the size of small cats.
Without the slightest pause, Sunan clenched his hand into a fist and poured all of his Qi into it. He bent his knees and cocked his fist, then lunged forward, aiming what he knew was deadly blow directly toward the man’s face. It wouldn’t matter if his fist strike hit the man’s jaw, temple, nose, or any other place. The resulting damage would be mortal, beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Die you bastard!
Sunan’s anger, fury, and humiliation burned like fire, fueling his lunge. He let out a shout as he flew through the air… and then suddenly found himself airborn, his fist having connected with nothing. His punch had completely missed the target.
The thug was burly but quick. He easily dodged Sunan’s wild blow, and at the same time, swung his spear in a full circle, slamming the haft in the Sunan’s torso.
Sunan slammed down onto the hard-packed dirt floor. The wind was instantly knocked out of his lungs, and the Qi inside of him was sent into chaos.
Before he could force air back into his lungs, before he could struggle to his feet, before he could do anything, he felt six or seven spearheads pressing into his back and legs and arms. He felt the razor-sharp tips piercing into his skin, pinning him down. Moments later, hands gripped him, vice-like and iron-hard.
He heard a sudden shriek, and his eyes swiveled to the right. He saw Sun Mai, both arms held tight by thugs, a knife pressed up against his throat.
Sunan suddenly felt his hair being grabbed. His head was then jerked up, and he was looking into the eyes of the mustachioed man.
The man chuckled. “I’ve seen people like you before, you know. People always come along with some special move, some special weapon, some special poison. It’s nothing new. YOU’RE nothing new.
“And now, you’re going to do what they all do. You’re going to listen to me. From now on, you work for Iron Awl Hu. When he says fight, you fight. When he says lose, you lose. Got it?
“You think you’re special? You think you’ve … ‘got what it takes’ to be your own man?” He laughed and slowly pulled a thin, razor-sharp knife out of his sleeve, which he slowly ran down the side of Sunan’s jaw. “Think again, boy. And don’t forget, you might be able to take a punch, or a cut, or a stab… but not everyone can.”
Sunan’s head was suddenly jerked to face Sun Mai. One of the men holding Sun Mai looked Sunan in the eye, grinned, and then twisted Sun Mai’s arm. Even Sunan could hear the cracking sound as Sun Mai’s arm was broken.
Sun Mai screamed in anguish, and then began to sob.
“If hurting your friends, won’t work, there’s more we can do,” the mustachioed man continued. “So let me say this one more time. You do what WE say. You think you’re fast? You think you’re strong? We will always have people who are faster. And stronger. And better. So fall in line, you pitiful bastard. Otherwise….”
The mustachioed man held Sunan’s hair tightly, forcing him to look in Sun Mai’s direction as the other man holding him slowly drew his own wicked-looking knife out from his belt and then slowly pressed the blade against Sun Mai’s throat. Then he pulled Sun Mai’s head back hard, holding it there until the veins and arteries in his neck began to bulge. Sun Mai gurgled and whimpered.
Then, the man slowly began to draw the knife across Sun Mai’s throat.