Demi-Gods & Semi-Devils – Chapter 1
The righteous scholar travelled the perilous peak.
The dark steel blade glimmered as it caught the sunlight. The young man feigned a thrust the sword at the left shoulder of his middle-aged opponent, then he struck at the man’s right shoulder. The man parried. The swords clashed loudly and hummed audibly as the blades vibrated from the force of the impact. The swords flashed again and three rapid moves were exchanged even before the hum faded.
The older man suddenly swung his sword downwards. The young man side stepped to the right to dodge the strike, and guided his opponent’s blade with his left hand. The tip of the sword nearly pierced the thigh of the older swordsman, but he instinctively shifted his legs and retaliated immediately.
Two persons sat on the eastern boundary of the practice ring. A Daoist nun about forty years old sat ashen-faced with her lips tightly sealed. An old man in his fifties sat six paces from her. He stroked his beard, seemingly pleased with what he saw. Around twenty disciples stood behind each of them. The western boundary was lined by ten over guests. The attention of the spectators was focused on the duellists in the practice ring.
Seventy exchanges have been dealt. The moves became faster and closer to hitting the target with each exchange, but the victor had yet to be determined.
The older man suddenly misjudged the force of his strike and appeared to lose his balance. The scene was so comical that a boy chuckled. He then quickly stifled his laugh with a hand over his mouth as he realised that it was improper for him to do so.
The younger duellist struck with his palm at his opponent’s exposed back. The older man stepped forward and avoided the attack. His sword suddenly swung in a circle and he shouted, “Strike!”
The sword struck the young man’s left leg, making him stagger. He stabbed his sword into the ground and steadied himself to continue the duel. However, his opponent had sheathed his sword and smiled, “Zhu shidi1师弟 – Male junior. Both of them were under different masters but were from the same martial arts school. Shi (师) means teacher. Di (弟) means younger brother., thanks for going easy on me2This phrase expresses humility in victory and is a sign of respect to the opponent. The victor claims to have won not because he is the better but because his opponent allowed him to. This can be used to indirectly mock the opponent, especially if it is obvious that the victor’s skills is far superior.. Are you badly hurt?”
The younger man’s face turned pale upon hearing those words. He bit his lower lips and replied, “Thank you for being merciful3This is to acknowledge that the opponent did not use his full strength and spared him from being more grievously hurt, Gong shixiong4师兄 – Male senior. Both of them were under different masters but were from the same martial arts school. Shi (师) means teacher. Xiong (兄) means older brother..”
“The Eastern sect has won three matches. It appears that Jianhu Palace5剑湖宫 – Name of a place. Jianhu (剑湖) literally means Sword Lake. Sword refers to the residence being a place to learn swordsmanship. Lake refers to the presence of a lake near the palace. will house the Eastern sect for another five years. Xin shimei6师妹 – Female junior. Shi (师) means teacher. Mei (妹) means younger sister., do we still need to continue the contest?” The bearded man smiled, clearly delighted at how things have proceeded.
The nun barely suppressed her anger. “Zuo shixiong has indeed nurtured capable disciples. But I wonder if Zuo shixiong has learnt anything from the Wuliang Cliff7无量玉壁 – The actual name is Wuliang Yu Bi. Wuliang means infinite or limitless. It is the name of the mountain where the palace is built. Yu literally means jade and Bi means cliff. When combined, the compound word means a beautiful cliff. So a proper translation would be the Beautiful Cliff of Wuliang. I have chosen to simply call it Wuliang Cliff.?”
The old man stared at her and his tone became stern. “How can you forget the rules of our school, shimei?”
She snorted with displeasure and dropped the issue.
The old man was Zuo Zimu8左子穆, head of the Wuliang Sword School’s Eastern sect. The nun was Xin Shuangqing9辛双清, head of the Wuliang Sword School’s Western sect. The Wuliang Sword School10无量剑派 – Wuliang refers to Mount Wuliang, where the school is located. Wuliang means infinite or limitless. Wu (无) means no or without. Liang (量) means limit or measure. was split into the Northern, Eastern and Western sects. The Northern sect has been in the decline in the past decade, while the Eastern and Western sects flourished with talent. The Wuliang Sword School was founded in the southern Mount Wuliang during the reign of the fifth Tang Emperor. The head of the school resided in the Jianhu Palace on Mount Wuliang.
Since the splitting of the school into three sect during the Song Empire, these sects held a duelling contest in the practice arena of Jianhu Palace every five years. The winning sect would reside in the palace for the next five years. When the sixth year comes, the sects would meet again to compete for the right of residence in the next five years. The winner is the best of five rounds.
During the five years between the contests, the defeated sects would train hard in hope of erasing the shame of their previous loss in the next contest. Likewise, the winners did not dare to become complacent.
The Northern sect won forty years ago but was evicted from the palace after their defeat five years later. The furious head of the Northern sect led his subordinates to the western face of the mountain, ending their participation in the contest and cutting all communications with the other sects.
In the thirty-five years since the exodus of the Northern sect, the remaining sects had their share of victories and defeats. The Eastern sect was the champion of four contests, while the Western sect had two wins to their name.
The duel between Gong and Zuo was the fourth match. Gong’s victory gave the Eastern sect three wins. Thus, a fifth bout was unnecessary.
Guests from other schools were seated along the western boundary of the practice ring. Some of the visitors were witnesses invited by the heads of the Wuliang sects, while the others came to watch the competition. They were notable individuals from the martial arts scene in Yun’nan. The exception was an unknown youngster dressed in cyan sitting at one end of the boundary. It was him who laughed when Zuo appeared to lose his footing during the duel.
The youth arrived in the company of the elderly wushi11Wushi (武师) refers to a person practicing martial arts and is involved in the matters of the martial arts scene., Mawu De, from Pu’er, southern Dian12 Pu’er (普洱) is a city in the southern part of Yun’nan (云南). Dian (滇) is another name for Yun’nan.. As a successful tea trader, Mawu was rich and influential. He was known for his hospitality and his easy-going nature. When any wushi in the jianghu13Jianghu (江湖) is the world of the martial arts. It is akin to the underworld of the mafia and triads. Another way to translate it is the martial arts scene. is in dire straits, they can count on his unrestrained assistance. This made him very popular. However, his martial arts skills were mediocre.
When Zuo Zimu welcomed Mawu De14马五德, the latter introduced the youth with the family name Duan. That was the royal family’s name of the Dali Kingdom. Countless individuals bear the Duan family name within the boundaries of the kingdom. Hence, Zuo did not think much of the boy and assumed that he was probably Mawu’s disciple. Since Mawu’s martial arts skills were average, his apprentice would be no better. Zuo did not bother to say “I’ve long admired you”15This is a courtesy phrase used when meeting someone for the first time. The literal translation is “long admired”., but simply raised his hands with his left palm over his right fist in greeting before leading them into the guest seats. Zuo did not expect the youth to have the nerve to mock when his favoured disciple feigned a move to create an opening.
“The four disciples fielded by Xin shimei this year made impressive advancements in their swordsmanship. Especially in the fourth match, which we were lucky to win. Zhu shizhi16Disciple of one’s senior or junior. In this case, Zhu was the disciple of Xin, who was Zuo’s shimei. Shi (师) means teacher. Zhi (侄) means nephew or niece. is young but has made such progress in his training. With such potential, his future is bright indeed. Perhaps the Eastern and Western sects will have to swap places.” Zuo let out a hearty laugh, before abruptly turning to stare at Duan. “Brother Duan seems to disapprove when my second-rate disciple used the Staggering Step feign to win. Could Brother Duan please step into the ring and give my disciple a pointer or two? Brother Mawu has a resounding reputation in southern Dian. As the saying goes, there is no weak soldier under the command of a strong general. Brother Duan must be highly skilled.”
Mawu De flushed as he hurriedly said, “Brother Duan is not my disciple. How can I take in a disciple with my superficial skills? Please don’t tease me, younger brother Zuo. Brother Duan came to my humble abode in Pu’er and discovered that I was going to Mount Wuliang. He has heard of the peaceful and scenic Mount Wuliang, hence he came along to enjoy the sights.”
If Duan were Mawu’s disciple, Zuo would have gone easy on the former out of respect for the latter. Since Duan was just an ordinary guest, there was no need for Zuo to be tactful. It would be humiliating for Zuo if he did not teach Duan a lesson for ridiculing the gongfu of Wuliang Sword School’s Eastern sect. Zuo sneered, “How do I address you, Brother Duan? Which master are you learning from?”
“My name is a simply Yu. I have never learnt any kind of martial arts. I saw someone trip. Regardless of whether it was real or feigned, I can’t help but laugh,” Duan smiled.
His tone was devoid of any respect, infuriating Zuo Zimu. “What’s there to laugh at?”
Duan Yu17段誉 gently fanned himself with his folding fan and casually explained, “There’s nothing to laugh at if a person is sitting down. There’s also nothing to laugh at if he’s lying in bed. However, it is very funny if he’s lying on the ground. The only exception is if he’s a three year old baby.”
His tone was increasingly disrespectful. Zuo Zimu was bursting with anger. “Brother Mawu, is Brother Duan your good friend?”
Mawu De and Duan Yu were new acquaintances and knew nothing about each other. Mawu was an amicable person. Therefore, when Duan Yu wanted follow him to Mount Wuliang, he did not refuse and brought him along. Sensing frustration in Zuo Zimu’s tone, Mawu knew that he would hurt Duan Yu if they were to duel. Duan Yu was a pleasant young man and Mawu did not want him to be harmed. “Although Brother Duan and I do not have a profound friendship, we came here together. Brother Duan seems like a refined gentleman. I doubt he knows any gongfu. His laughter earlier must be unintentional. Come on, I’m hungry. Please prepare the feast, Brother Zuo. We’ll drink three toasts to you.18This is usually as a sign of respect or apology. It’s an auspicious day today, let’s not ruin it by arguing with a junior.”
“Since Brother Duan is not a good friend of Brother Mawu, Brother Mawu’s reputation will not be tarnished if I offend you in anyway. He was mocking you, Guangjie. Step into the ring and spar with him to get some pointers.”19He was pretending to be polite by asking his disciple to learn from Duan Yu, when he actually mean it as getting his disciple to teach Duan Yu a lesson.
Gong Guangjie20龚光杰 had been eagerly waiting for his shifu21Master or teacher from whom one is learning martial arts. Shi (师) means teacher. Fu (父) means father. to say that. He drew his sword instantly and made his way to the centre of the ring. Holding the sword backwards, he raised his hands with his left palm over his right fist to salute Duan Yu. “Duan Yu, my friend. After you.”
“Very good. You go ahead and practice. I’m watching.” Duan Yu remained in his seat.
Gong Guangjie’s face turned purple with rage immediately. “What… what did you say?”
“You are swinging a sword in your hand. I assumed you wanted to practice your swordplay. So, go ahead. I’ve always disliked watching others duel. However, since I came all the way here, I should try to enjoy. There’s no harm watching anyway.”
“My shifu wants you to enter the ring as well and duel with me, brat!” Gong Guangjie yelled.
Duan Yu gently fanned himself and shook his head. “Your shifu is your shifu. Your shifu isn’t my shifu. Your shifu can order you around, but your shifu can’t order me. Your shifu wants you to duel and you did. Your shifu wants me to duel with you. I don’t know swordplay. And I’m afraid of losing, afraid of pain, and afraid of death. Therefore, we don’t need to duel. I don’t want to duel, hence we don’t duel.”
His switching between “your shifu” and “my shifu” sounded like a tongue twister, making many people in the arena break out in helpless laughter. Wuliang Sword School’s Western sect had an even split of male and female disciples. Several of the female disciples let out girlish giggles. The tensed atmosphere in the practice arena disappeared instantly.
Gong Guangjie strode across the practice ring and pointed his sword at Duan Yu’s chest. “Do you really have no knowledge of swordplay or are you just feigning it?”
“I really don’t know, of course. What’s so fun in pretending to be stupid?” The sword was mere inches from Duan Yu. A slight thrust would send the sword deep into his chest. Despite that, he did not panic.
“You must be tired of living to come to Wuliang Sword School’s Jianhu Palace and behave so atrociously. Under whom are you training? Who instigated you to do this? Don’t blame me for being ruthless if you don’t tell reveal the truth,” Gong Guangjie stated.
“Why are you so unreasonable? I’ve always disliked watching others fight. Your school is called Wuliang Sword School and lives on Mount Wuliang. The Buddhist Sutra says that there are four infinities22Wuliang means infinite or limitless. The brahmavihara in Buddhism, are called wuliang (无量) in Chinese.: kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. All of you knows the meaning these four infinities. Wish that all sentient beings be happy. Wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering. The wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of all sentient beings. Not to distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal. Amitayus23Buddha of Infinite Life (无量寿佛) which is Wuliang Shou Buddha in Chinese, amitabha24Buddha of Infinite Light (阿弥陀佛).. Amitabha, amitabha…”
As he continued to ramble on about the Buddhist Sutra, Gong Guangjie sheathed his sword. Then he suddenly swung his hand and gave Duan Yu a solid slap. Duan Yu tilted his head to dodge but Gong had already retracted his hand. The slap mark was very obvious on his pale skin. His handsome face was immediately swollen.
Everyone was stunned. They expected him to be a skilled fighter since he appeared unconcerned by the threats, and he was full of nonsense as he teased his opponent. He could not even dodge a casual slap by Gong Guangjie. It appeared that he really did not know any gongfu. It was very common for highly skilled martial artists to act dumb to toy with their opponents. However, a person who had no knowledge gongfu would never be so bold and reckless.
Gong Guangjie was also shocked that he struck true. He then grabbed Duan Yu by the upper torso and lifted him off the ground. “I was wondering what kind of a formidable figure you were. I didn’t expect you are just a useless fool.”
He slammed Duan Yu onto the ground. The latter rolled and loudly struck the foot of the table with his head.
Mawu De could not bear watching and rushed over to help him up. “You really don’t know any gongfu, my brother. Then why did you come here?”
Duan Yu rubbed his temple. “I came for sightseeing initially. How would I know they would be fighting? What’s so nice to watch them hack and slash at each other? It’s more interesting to watch a monkey show. Goodbye, sir Mawu. I must take my leave.”
A young disciple leapt from Zuo Zimu’s side to block Duan Yu. “Since you don’t know any gongfu, if you want to flee with your tail between your legs, it’s fine. Why did you say that watching us duel is worse than watching a monkey show? That’s just too much. I’ll give you two choices. Either you duel with me so that I can teach you about swordplay that’s no better than a monkey show, or you kowtow eight times to my shifu and say three times that you were talking nonsense.”
“You farted25The Chinese words for “talking nonsense” and “farting” are homonyms (放屁).? It’s not that smelly!” Duan Yu laughed.
The disciple was furious. He threw a forceful punch at Duan Yu’s face. He was about to leave Duan Yu with a swollen eye when something flew in the air and wrapped around the youth’s wrist. It was cold and slippery. Once it wrapped around the wrist, it started slithering.
The young disciple was shocked and retracted his arm hastily. It was a red and green snake that was more than a foot long. He shrieked and shook his arm forcefully, but the snake could not be flung. Suddenly, Gong Guangjie shouted, “Snake! Snake!”
His face paled as he reached into his collar to search his back. His hands could not reach whatever he was trying to get. Panicking, he hopped around as he frantically removed his shirt.
These sudden turn of events left everyone in a daze. A laugh sounded overhead. Everyone looked up to see a young girl sitting on the beam of the roof with both hands full of snakes.
The girl was around sixteen years old. She was dressed in black and her smiling face was beautiful. She held around ten snakes snakes in her hands. Some of the snakes were green, some had coloured patches. Their triangular heads indicated that they were poisonous. Yet the girl held them as though they were toys and showed no hint of fear.
Hearing Gong Guangjie and his shidi screaming and shouting in dismay, the crowd”s attention was drawn back to them. Only Duan Yu continued to look at the girl, watching her swing her legs as though it was very fun to sit on the beam. “Are you the one who saved me, miss?”
“Why didn’t you fight back when the wicked man hit you?” she asked. Duan Yu shook his head. “I don’t know how to fight back…”