[Author's Note: Hey, folks. This is my first upload to this site. This here's the second draft of Thousand Swords, which is itself the first episode in what will hopefully become a series of martial arts fantasy tales. It's sort of a spin on the classical form of Chinese literature known as wuxia. Please do review, as I'm more than willing to take constructive criticism and such. This is still an early draft, after all, and the story's still malleable. I look forward to seeing some feedback, and thanks in advance for reading!]

Disclaimer: This story is an original work of fiction and the property of me, Bud R. Williams, so don't swipe it! I mean, isn't it more fun to create your own, anyway...? Whatever. Contains violence, strong language, and sexual themes.


Thousand Swords:

A Tale from the Age of Fists

By Bud R. Williams II

(Second Draft)

- - -

Prologue

"A martial artist is benevolent, using his strength to aid the weak; he is loyal to his friends, terrifying to his foes; he follows his own law, and his law is rooted in the Code of our Brotherhood. Money and other worldly gains are of little importance; rather, he seeks glory and respect, and to better himself as both man and warrior. He speaks honestly and truthfully, honors his family and the Four Gods, and never breaks a promise. In summation, a martial artist is the most righteous of men, an embodiment of the spirit of our great nation, Jianghu."

- an excerpt from the written Code of the Circle of Martial Brotherhood, circa 487 A.U. (After Unification)

- - -

The highest honor in all the martial arts world was the title of "Heavenly King."

To attain such a rank, a fighter would need more than just proficiency in combat. Becoming a Heavenly King required valor uncommon even amongst the countless heroes of the Circle. Elected in groups of four every thirty years, the Heavenly Kings were the standard by which all other martial artists were judged. Throughout the sprawling nation of Jianghu's seven great provinces, every young pugilist and swordsman dreamed of one day being buried with honors in the Hall of Heavenly Kings atop the sacred Mount Shiyi, birthplace of the martial arts.

In the year 487 after the Unification of Jianghu, the Circle's elders elected their newest Heavenly Kings:

Superleg Kon, born in Silver Province as the son of a metalworking family, lost his right leg in a tragic accident during his youth. While most would have given up the martial arts after such a crippling wound, Kon was determined. He crafted a new leg from iron, and after years of effort, built an entirely new fighting style around it. Praised for his modesty and good nature, Kon was well-respected in the Circle, although he disliked violence and often spoke of early retirement. It was said that one kick from his mighty iron leg could topple an entire castle.

Devil Yuan, named for his fiery red hair and often ruthless demeanor, wielded the legendary hundred-section steel whip called Centipede with unparalleled skill. His ascension to the highest rank in the Circle was an easy choice after he defeated two of the previous generation's Heavenly Kings with relative ease. Descended from nobility, he possessed a sharp mind, a handsome face, and magnetic charm. While vicious and unrelenting in battle, he was very personable and had many friends in the Circle of Martial Brotherhood's upper ranks, to the point where he eventually found himself followed by an entire posse of admirers. His love of women and money (the facets of the Code most often ignored by its followers) was as storied as his skill in fighting.

Sword Goddess was not the first woman elected to the rank of Heavenly King (Heavenly Queen, perhaps), but was inarguably the most powerful. Swift, intelligent, and a natural talent at swordplay, she was more than a match for opponents with twice her level of experience despite being one of the youngest ever to become a Heavenly King. Always barefoot and possessing beautiful violet hair, she was the living image of the Goddess of Life, Baiten, as seen in Jianghu's most ancient temple murals. So perfect did she seem that rumors of divine origin followed her, which she resented; after all, she put herself through incredibly brutal training since childhood to attain her strength. Her sense of justice was legendary, and it was said that she was the most kind and compassionate of all martial artists.

Crimson King was the oldest of the four Heavenly Kings, but his flawless win record reflected his incredible fighting ability. He wielded Purgatory, a white-bladed weapon whose name was feared by evil men across Jianghu. His nickname was given to him based on his perennial blood-colored robes and stately demeanor. His elegant beard was admired as widely as his martial arts talent, and he never lost his cool in battle, no matter how badly the odds might be stacked against him. Crimson King's past was a complete mystery, as he kept to himself and traveled the country alone, causing countless rumors to circulate amongst the Circle of Martial Brotherhood regarding his personal life.

- - -

It was the last of these Heavenly Kings that the "Ghost Fang," Ah Sou, had challenged on this occasion.

He was in his early thirties, handsome and rugged, with silvery hair that hung wild to his shoulders. His fighting tunic was lined with fur, and he had a cool, confident aura about him.

In his right hand, Ah Sou gripped the shaft of his namesake spear. The Ghost Fang itself was an impressive sight, a polearm seven feet in length, with a broad, triangular spearhead collared by a tuft of long, gray wolf fur. That spear won Ah Sou many duels, bringing him a small amount of fame in the Circle of Martial Brotherhood, and he whole-heartedly believed that today, it would skyrocket him to a new level of acclaim.

It was a misty day, less than an hour after daybreak. Early birds and crickets chirped noisily in the distance, and the sunlight barely peeked through the blanket of clouds overhead.

Ah Sou stood in a clearing before a truly phenomenal sight: a colossal statue of the philosopher-god Meiranh, the central figure of one of Jianghu's most prevalent religions. The statue was carved out of the side of a mountain that overlooked the misty clearing, and had taken two centuries to complete. It was one of countless giant Meiranh statues scattered throughout Jianghu, but its sight was no less impressive than its peers.

The notion of meeting for a duel at the feet of Meiranh was rather ironic, and this was not lost on Ah Sou, who sneered up at the statue's stony, serene face. The philosopher-god had taught that violence was never the answer, and held those who used strength to accomplish their goals in the lowest esteem. Then again, he was a martial artist too, wasn't he? Ah Sou remembered studying Meiranh's scriptures in his younger days, and had found little to believe in there. Fighting's in the blood of us people of Jianghu. I wonder what made him change his mind?

The figure of the great philosopher was built in a crossed-leg seated position, its stony hands cupped in its lap. Atop those hands, a large platform had been constructed, upon which a small shrine stood. The platform was something of an observation deck, lined by little stone benches and decorated with stone lanterns.

Ah Sou's gray eyes peered up at that observation deck, and a smile crossed his rugged features as he spotted the figure that stood there, peering back at him.

-

Resting on the railing upon the observation deck was a beautiful woman named Ah Wai-Yin. Her warm eyes and rosy cheeks lit up her features, and her elegant hair was tied up fancily, decorated with freshly-picked flowers. Colorful gowns draped smoothly over her swelled, pregnant form. She had been carrying Ah Sou's child for five months now, but her beauty was well apparent despite the extra baggage.

Wai-Yin gazed lovingly down at Ah Sou, waving at him. She smiled as the rugged spearman returned her gesture with a thumbs-up. Wai-Yin sighed and rested her chin in her palms as she leaned against the railing. Her husband looked so strong today, so confident.

"Mom, have they started yet?" a young voice rang out, breaking the silence. Wai-Yin frowned and turned to meet its origin.

A seven-year-old boy stood before her, staring up with bright, expectant eyes. His name was Ah Fei, and Wai-Yin put her hands on her hips as she stared down at him.

"Do you really think I'd let them start without telling you?" When the boy didn't answer, she huffed and continued. "No, Fei. Daddy's still waiting on the other man to get here."

She started to turn her gaze back to Ah Sou, but suddenly realized that something was missing.

Her eyes snapped wide with alarm. "Fei, where's your brother?!"

Ah Fei glanced around, shrugging. "Uh…" he started.

Wai-Yin hobbled over to him, awkwardly kneeling down and setting her hands on her son's shoulders, staring into the boy's eyes. "You're supposed to be watching him," she stated, her tone grim.

"But you didn't say-" Fei began, but his mother's expression quickly convinced him not to argue. He gulped hard, choking down his frustration. "I'll go find him."

"Good." Wai-Yin's expression softened. She ruffled Fei's hair a little before struggling back to her feet. "Hurry back. You don't want to miss your Daddy's big day."

Ah Fei grumbled under his breath before trotting off to find his brother. Wai-Yin sighed and resumed her spot at the railing, rubbing her pregnant belly. I hope you're a girl this time, she mused. Those boys are such trouble…

-

Ah Sou grew restless as the minutes passed without any sign of his opponent. He knew better than to assume that his challenge had been rejected; such would be unheard of for a Heavenly King. Nevertheless, punctuality was to be expected from such a respected martial artist.

He tapped the Ghost Fang against his shoulder, grumbling under his breath. Ridiculous, he thought. A Heavenly King, keeping me waiting like this…

Something quickly silenced him. His eyes narrowed as he stared into the mist before him. He felt something there- a presence…

A shape formed somewhere deep in the mist, which seemed to part itself in fear of its approach. Though distant and obscured, the figure's identity was clear to Ah Sou, who grinned, cracking his knuckles. Finally, he thought. His grip on the Ghost Fang spear tightened in anticipation.

Crimson King stepped forth from the mist. He was surprisingly tall, and his long, magnificent beard lived up to its reputation. His facial features were sharp and hawklike; flame-like red designs were tattooed onto his face, curling from the corners of his eyes like wisps of fire. His long, black hair was pulled back into a tight queue that hung almost to the ground, and he was clad in the trademark crimson robes that he'd been named for. He looked truly powerful, communicating his incredible strength through his mere presence.

More frightening than the fighter was the weapon he wielded. Purgatory was somewhere between a sword and a polearm, with a hilt at least three times longer than a normal broadsword. Its pommel was large and ring-shaped, broad enough to put one's hand through. The blade, too, was oversized, and constructed from moon-white steel. It was shaped almost like a tongue of flame, and it seemed to emit an eerie, murderous intent.

So that's Purgatory, Ah Sou thought. His Ghost Fang seemed suddenly mundane compared against it, and yet Ah Sou looked decidedly unimpressed.

Crimson King said nothing as he took his place across the clearing from the spearman. He gripped the hilt of Purgatory in both hands and lowered himself into a fighting stance, his eyes piercing and clear, his expression unreadable.

Ah Sou chuckled under his breath. "All business, huh?" He pointed his spear toward his foe. Crimson King appeared unmoved by the gesture, but Ah Sou wasn't done yet. The spearman grinned arrogantly and waved the Ghost Fang toward the statue of Meiranh. "See that beautiful lady up there?"

Crimson King followed his gesture to the observation deck, where Ah Wai-Yin stood. She was truly stunning, even from such a distance.

"That's my wife," Ah Sou continued. "If you think I'm gonna let you beat me in front of her and my sons, you're dumber than you look."

No smile crossed the face of Crimson King, but he nevertheless responded, his tone aloof and unimpressed. "You've brought your family to watch you die?"

Ah Sou snorted. Arrogant old bastard, he thought. He kicked the Ghost Fang with his heel, spinning it around his arm in a showy maneuver before taking his own fighting stance. After a brief moment of silence between them, Ah Sou's face contorted in a rage as he bellowed a guttural battle-cry and charged.

-

A tiny, spotted lizard scampered into the safety of a patch of tall grass. The young boy who had chased it there stumbled, falling to his knees. He ignored the accident altogether and began sifting through the foliage, searching with wide eyes for his "prey."

The boy was barely four years old, and already quite precocious. After a moment of searching for the lost lizard with little luck, the boy heard a voice calling for him, and his head darted up from the grass.

"Tian!" shouted Ah Fei, who appeared from behind some nearby shrubbery. The older boy cupped his hand to his mouth and cried out again, not having spotted his quarry yet. "Ah Tiaaaan!"

Ah Fei spotted his younger brother, growling as he stomped over to Ah Tian's side. "Why'd you run off?! Mom railed on me 'cause of you!"

The younger boy simply pointed into the grass, blinking. "Lizard," he croaked after a moment.

Ah Fei angrily shook his head before grabbing his brother's hand and pulling him to his feet. Ah Tian cried out in objection, banging futilely on Fei's shoulder as he was dragged away from the tall grass. That lizard had gotten lucky this time.

-

The Ghost Fang ripped through the air again and again, each time narrowly missing the Crimson King with its razor-sharp head. The elder warrior brought his Purgatory up, using its powerful blade to brush every stroke of Ah Sou's spear away from his body at the last second. The weapons clanged together loudly, sparks flying as metal grinded against metal.

Both fighters made their incredible skill and speed clear as Ah Sou pressed his offensive against Crimson King. The shaft of the Ghost Fang was not only sturdy, but flexible, far from a typical polearm. It bent and warped with each sweep and thrust, the trajectory of its deadly attack constantly changing- and yet, somehow, Crimson King remained ever just out of its way.

Crimson King twirled Purgatory around, pushing the Ghost Fang up and away from him. Ah Sou suddenly rushed in low, sliding across the damp ground on his heels for a moment before swinging one leg inwards in an attempt at a foot sweep. Crimson King swiftly hopped over the spearman's kick, barely getting Purgatory back up in time to deflect the immediate follow-up thrust of the Ghost Fang.

Ah Soh pitched forward and rolled, swinging Ghost Fang around his body as he moved in a wide arc, forcing Crimson King to give ground. The Heavenly King nevertheless covered every possible gate of attack by whirling his own weapon about, its white steel blade forming an impenetrable cage around him.

There followed a brief lull in their attacks as both fighters circled each other, their eyes locked. Neither dared show a moment's weakness. Every attack carried killing intent, their very lives hinging on their defense.

Again, Ah Sou made the first move. He knew that Crimson King wouldn't tire before him. If he wanted to win this battle, he had to end things quickly. He bellowed in rage and leapt into the air, spinning Ghost Fang overhead before sweeping it downward, its deadly spearhead plummeting toward Crimson King like a meteorite.

In the eyes of Ah Sou, time seemed to slow to a crawl. He saw Crimson King calmly raising Purgatory into the path of his attack, aiming to block- and he grinned. Ghost Fang would meet Purgatory low on its shaft, and its body would bend inward, striking Crimson King on the back of his skull- certainly opening a bloody, demoralizing, and possibly fatal wound.

And yet, that was not what happened. Crimson King's blade did not meet Ghost Fang head-on as Ah Sou had foreseen. Instead, it rose up alongside the spear and guided it away and to the side even as Crimson King side-stepped with incredible, nearly inhuman speed. Ah Sou's upper body and head were left completely open- and the rugged fighter barely spun himself out of the way of Crimson King's counterstroke. White steel flashed past him, and Ah Sou instinctively rolled backward, handspringing back to his feet.

He felt warm blood running down his body and realized that his shoulder had been sliced open by Purgatory. The blade itself hadn't even made contact- and yet, its wake had easily parted his flesh. He gritted his teeth as he clutched at the wound. For the first time in Ah Sou's career as a professional fighter, his opponent had drawn first blood.

Crimson King stared coolly at his opponent, looking every bit as fresh as the moment the duel had begun. "That was your only warning," he said, retaking his fighting stance.

Ah Sou spat, charging back in at his opponent with a roar of hatred and frustration.

High above, Wai-Yin's brow furrowed with anxiety as she watched her husband lose his advantage in the duel. Her knuckles turned white as she dug her nails into the stone railing.

Ah Sou and Crimson King had become a living tornado of steel, their weapons slicing through the air with such ferocity that their strokes gouged trenches into the moist soil beneath them. The air whipped into a vortex as they spiraled around each other and into the air, and with every explosive clash of their mighty weapons, chunks of earthen debris were hurled skyward.

In mid-air, Purgatory slammed down atop Ghost Fang with such force that Ah Sou was pulled downward with it. With his free hand, Crimson King reared back, channeling his inner power, his qi, and struck. His fist streaked down through the air unopposed, colliding with Ah Soh's forehead with a single extended second knuckle. The power of the blow was so great that the flesh of Ah Sou's face seemed to briefly twist around the point of impact before a shockwave blew through him, sending the spearman hurtling to the ground like a comet.

From her vantage point on the observation deck, Wai-Yin gasped, averting her gaze. Never in all of Ah Sou's many battles had he taken such a grievous blow before her.

The spearman groggily pushed himself up on his elbows, shaking his head, trying to clear the daze. He raised himself to a seated position, but his grip on the Ghost Fang was tenuous. His forehead had turned a deep purple, blood dribbling from the wound. Ah Sou's vision blurred, and he came to the sickening realization that, for all his skill, he was woefully outclassed against Crimson King.

There was only one chance left for victory. He glanced up at his wife, high above in the lap of Meiranh.

Wai-Yin caught his gaze and immediately understood what her husband desired. She nodded, and slowly reached up. The golden pin that had kept her dark brown hair tied up was pulled free, leaving her locks to tumble freely about her shoulders.

She swallowed, her eyes narrowing. So, she thought, it's come to this. She clenched her jaw tightly, fighting off any reluctance she might have had before. Wai-Yin took the golden hairpin with two fingers and focused her sights on Crimson King.

Ah Sou struggled, groaning under the strain. His body resisted, but finally he managed to get to his feet, taking Ghost Fang in hand and resuming his fighting stance.

Crimson King calmly regarded him for a moment before dropping his stance altogether, letting Purgatory dangle harmlessly at his side. "It's over." His voice was low and unfaltering. "I won't kill you before your family."

Ah Sou's eyes widened. "What?!"

"You fought well, but the difference between us is clear," Crimson King continued. After a moment of silence, he turned his back to the spearman and began walking away.

For a few moments, Ah Sou simply stared, his lips quivering. That hesitation quickly turned into blistering rage, and Ah Sou felt his strength return to him, his injuries swept away by anger. He snarled, leaping at Crimson King, thrusting the Ghost Fang at his back.

The wizened old warrior quickly twisted himself out of the way of the attack, whirling around to face Ah Sou again. Ghost Fang streaked in again and again as its wielder desperately pressed his attack, but Crimson King merely deflected each stroke as easily as if it had been launched by a child. He made no attempt to counterattack; in his mind, the battle had already ended.

Ah Sou quickly changed his strategy, sweeping the spear in low at Crimson King's legs. He thrust the Ghost Fang rapidly, its tip shearing chunks of earth into the air, but the Heavenly King simply danced around the attacks, stepping just out of the path of every thrust.

It was a desperate tactic, and it showed. With a quick calculation, Crimson King raised one foot into the air and stomped down on the Ghost Fang just below its head as Ah Sou stabbed at him again, pinning it to the ground. The spearman's eyebrows raised in surprise as he realized that with only one foot, Crimson King was preventing him from budging the Ghost Fang, and no amount of struggling was going to change that.

The Heavenly King's strength and skill were far beyond his. There was no other choice. Ah Sou looked up at the statue of Meiranh and nodded frantically.

-

Wai-Yin pursed her lips, hesitating for only a brief moment before darting the golden hairpin toward her husband's foe with a sweep of her hand.

The razor-sharp pin sliced cleanly and silently through the air. Her aim was perfect. The hairpin- in truth a deadly assassin's dagger- streaked toward Crimson King's head.

He had not been elected as a Heavenly King for nothing. Before his mind could even process the threat, Crimson King's body detected the incoming projectile and the killing intent behind it, and his near hand shot up into the air, catching the hairpin dagger between two fingers.

All at once, the reality of what had just happened hit Crimson King. His cool demeanor broke for the first time since the battle had begun- for the first time in years- and his eyes shot furiously up at the statue of Meiranh, then at Ah Sou.

"You filthy…!" Crimson King began, enraged by the dishonor, but before he could finish, Ah Sou saw his chance.

In that instant, the Heavenly King's concentration lapsed, and Ah Sou was able to rip his spear out from beneath his foe's heel. He whirled around, twisting his body, and thrust the Ghost Fang full-on at Crimson King's heart.

Purgatory spun around in a flash. The head of Ghost Fang passed through the ring-shaped pommel of the weapon, and in a single quick maneuver, the spear was trapped. Crimson King jerked Purgatory down, pulling Ghost Fang along with it, and twisted, forcing the shimmering white blade of his legendary weapon up and around as Ah Sou staggered forward, defenseless.

The blade slashed clean and unopposed through the spearman's chest.

Ah Sou's mouth dropped open, and for a second, he and Crimson King just stared into each other's eyes, a silent acknowledgement passing between them. His body spasmed and tore itself away from Purgatory, and Ah Sou pitched violently to the ground. His torso had been cut nearly in two.

The Ghost Fang fell from his grip and splashed down onto the wet ground, its tuft of wolf fur tumbling disheveled into the mud.

-

Ah Wai-Yin stared down, disbelieving. Not like this.

Her face turned death-pale as she watched her husband's destroyed form finally go still. In a single instant of sudden, terrible carnage, the man she loved had been reduced to a shattered corpse.

It took a few moments for everything to sink in. When it did, Wai-Yin could think only to scream- but no sound escaped her trembling lips.

-

Crimson King sighed deeply as he stared down at the ruined form of Ah Sou. He shook his head, flinging the golden hairpin to the ground at the corpse's side.

He was a strong opponent. Why had he chosen such a dishonorable path? What a waste, Crimson King thought.

His eyes were drawn to the Ghost Fang spear, lying alone and filthy in the mud several feet away. It was a magnificent weapon, too good for a man such as Ah Sou. Truly, he mused, what a waste.

Crimson King took a bit of his robe in one hand and began to clean the blood off of Purgatory's noble blade. Bittersweet victories like this had a way of ruining his mood. He turned and stalked away, consumed by the mist.

-

Ah Fei and Ah Tian finally made their way back onto the observation deck. It had not been easy for Fei to pull his kid brother away from the countless little distractions along the way. Every passing bug and bird had brought about a struggle to keep Tian in hand.

"Butterfly!" Tian shouted, again nearly tearing himself from Fei's grip. Fei cringed, casting an annoyed glance over at the railing where his mother would certainly be awaiting them.

But she was not there. Fei finally wrestled Tian back to his side and glanced around. Wai-Yin was nowhere to be found. "Where is she?" Indeed, the deck was completely empty. Fei let his brother's hand drop and rushed to the edge of the deck, where his mother had been standing when he'd left her. "Mom?"

- - -

Some six hours passed.

In the nearby township of Pangyan, Crimson King sat beneath the wooden roof of a little roadside pavilion, sipping his noodle soup as a steady downpour of rain beat down above him.

This was one of Crimson King's favorite places to come and relax after a battle. The owner of the noodle stand beneath the pavilion was an old friend, and he always made time for small talk with the warrior.

Across the street, beneath another pavilion, an elderly man sat, playing a soothing, solemn tune on his harp-like instrument. The music brought peace to Crimson King's soul, washing away the violence of that morning duel.

He tuned out for a moment, the steady drum of the rain and the beautiful strumming of the old man's tune overwhelming his senses. He finally snapped to, realizing that he'd inadvertently ignored a question from his friend.

"Everything all right, Lei Sung?" the noodle shop owner asked, casting a concerned glance at the warrior.

Crimson King smiled and shook his head. "I'm fine. Sorry, what were you saying?"

"I asked you if that sounded outrageous," the shop owner repeated. "They're charging me ten Taels a bag for this stuff. It's not even a genuine import from Bangkomt!"

"Spice is spice. Anyway, your soup still tastes as good as ever."

"In the noodle business, spice is everything, Lei Sung!" The old shop owner exaggerated his frustration, waving his fists in the air.

Crimson King chuckled, but the shop owner's constant mentioning of his real name disturbed him. "Please, stop calling me that. There are still people wandering around out here, you know."

The shop owner's eyes widened as he realized his mistake. He politely saluted, clasping his hands together and bowing his head as an apology. "Sorry, sorry." The true name of a Heavenly King was supposed to be a solemnly guarded secret, revealed only to the most trusted friends of the warrior.

He could not get too angry. He had so few friends that he could not afford to be too picky with the ones he did have. He nodded in acknowledgement of his friend's apology and sipped down the last of his soup.

The shop owner was moments away from offering Crimson King another bowl, free of charge, when something alarming caught his eye. His eyebrows raised and his jaw slacked, drawing Crimson King's attention. The Heavenly King looked back over his shoulder, wondering what had caused his friend such a shock.

His eyes widened at the sight. He got to his feet, his jaw clenching tightly.

The Ghost Fang was caked in filth as it was dragged through the muddy street. Its tip had carved a line into the distance as it was pulled along.

Ah Fei lurched forward, groaning in exertion with every step. He dragged the Ghost Fang with one hand, gripping his younger brother's hand with the other. Both boys were drenched to the bone and every bit as filthy as their father's spear.

Four Gods, Crimson King thought. Though he had never laid eyes upon these boys before, he knew by the spear they carried who they were.

Ah Fei's young eyes burned with hatred. His gaze was cast directly on Crimson King, staring daggers into the elder warrior's heart. His body trembled, both from the cold and from anger, his young form overcome with emotion.

The boy already knew just who Crimson King was. The Heavenly King's expression sobered as he realized why the child had dragged the Ghost Fang all this way. He silently cursed the bastards that directed the boy to him. No doubt the guilty party was one of his many bitter rivals, hoping the sight of the poor children would shatter his icy resolve.

Ah Fei suddenly thrust his younger brother aside. Ah Tian yelped in surprise as he tumbled down into the mud.

The older brother snarled in exertion, gripping the Ghost Fang with both hands, struggling to lift it. As hard as he tried, his young body simply wasn't up to the task.

Crimson King spoke, low and clear through the drumming of the rain. "Don't try it, boy," he uttered, trying to sound as unthreatening as possible. "There's no way you can lift that spear."

Fei screamed in frustration, finally dropping the spear and charging toward Crimson King. He flung himself at the wizened master, flailing at him with his tiny arms, grabbing at his robes.

Crimson King stared down at the boy, sorrow overcoming him. "Enough."

Ah Fei ceased his attack and fell to his knees. The boy sobbed, staring at the ground, completely helpless. Crimson King stooped down, putting a hand on the boy's shoulder.

Why am I trying to reassure him? Crimson King asked himself. He only sees me as the man who murdered his father. Nothing I say will have any meaning.

And yet, he had to try. The child's sobbing was tearing at his soul. "Boy…" he started, biting his lip as he failed to find words. "Go home… go home to your mother."

Ah Fei just kept sobbing for nearly a minute. Crimson King shook his head, unsure of what to do.

"I can't…" the boy whimpered. "Mom…" He looked up at Crimson King, tears pouring down his reddened face. His lips quivered, but finally, he managed to choke back his agony long enough to finish. "My mom… she killed herself…"

The old noodle shop owner gasped. Crimson King looked away from the boy, considering the situation. Ah Sou's wife had committed suicide?

Then the boys are… he thought, his eyes narrowing. Gods, how selfish. To leave these children alone in this world…

He felt his fist clenching in anger. Even as he cast the blame on Ah Sou and his wife for their irresponsibility, it was he who had started it all. Had he spared his opponent on this occasion, as he usually did, these boys would never have had to suffer such horror…

Ah Tian managed to pick himself up out of the mud and crawled over to the pavilion. The younger boy seemed upset at being soaking wet and covered in muck, but Crimson King was shocked to find that his eyes did not share the intense hatred that his older brother was burdened with. His youth had spared him the understanding of the weight of his situation.

Tian stared up at the warrior, locking eyes with Crimson King. "Beardy…" he muttered, fascinated by the appearance of the Heavenly King. Crimson King blinked, confused, before realizing that the other boy needed his attention more urgently.

"Listen, boy." Crimson King looked down into Ah Fei's eyes, facing the sorrow and hatred that stared back at him. "You're not wrong for wanting me dead. It is the duty of a son to avenge a murdered father." He turned his gaze to the fallen Ghost Fang, and Ah Fei followed his line of sight. "But… you're still far too young. You're not strong enough to accomplish your goal."

Ah Fei looked back at him, overwhelmed. He was so confused, so unprepared for all of this. He was just a child, and already bearing such a burden, already faced with so much loss. Crimson King swallowed hard and continued. "Do you still want to kill me?"

The boy sniffled and nodded.

"That's fine," Crimson King answered. "But in order to do that, you'll need to grow strong… so I want you to find someone to teach you to fight. Study the martial arts, grow strong, take your father's spear, and…" He paused, shaking his head. It sounded so crazy, so wrong, even as the words escaped his lips. "And when you're strong enough, I'll be waiting to accept your challenge. Do you understand?"

Ah Fei stared up at him. He was a smart boy, wise beyond his years, but this was a lot to ask of him. "Who… who's gonna teach me?" Ah Fei asked after a moment.

Crimson King shook his head. "I don't know, boy. It's up to you to find a teacher. The road to strength is long and difficult, and…"

"Will you?"

Crimson King's eyes widened and he got to his feet, inadvertently taking a step back from the boy. Ah Fei got back to his feet, but his eyes had changed. The emotions in them were fading, as if he had suddenly begun to harness them. "Please," Ah Fei pleaded, "I don't… I don't know anybody else…"

The old warrior shook his head. The request was ridiculous.

"Please. Teach me to be strong…" Ah Fei continued.

Ah Tian had begun crawling around at Crimson King's feet, wiping his face off on the warrior's robes. He seemed to be perfectly happy, playing hide-and-seek with invisible friends, ducking his head under the long folds of crimson cloth.

"Take me and my brother with you." Ah Fei stared up at Crimson King, his eyes utterly clear and determined. His tears had dried.

Crimson King blinked, gazing upon the two boys. He stroked his beard, thinking hard on the matter. Something was brewing in his sharp warrior's mind.

The old shop keeper glanced back and forth between his longtime friend and the two children. This entire situation was far beyond his realm of understanding. "Er… ah… Lei- uh- Crimson King, I…" he stammered, trying to find something to offer.

It wasn't necessary. Crimson King suddenly broke into a laugh, his voice thundering. Both Ah Fei and the old noodle shop owner were stunned by his reaction.

Crimson King finally managed to get ahold of himself, shaking his head in disbelief at his own decision. He peered down into Ah Fei's eyes, and after a moment, Ah Tian joined his brother in meeting the Heavenly King's gaze.

The elder warrior lowered himself to one knee, setting one hand on each boy's heads. He looked back and forth at each of them, a smile crossing his wizened features.

"Very well," he said at last, "my disciples."


[Closer: Well, whaddaya think? With any luck, Chapter One will be up within the next day or two. Please read n' review.]