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Short Story

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Image by Jed Owen

The Dying Swordsman

by AK Lee

The swordsman was dying.


The wound in his side had festered, oozing a pale, yellow fluid through the thin crust of the scab. His own blood was poisoned with infection by now. Not even his dense and immense qi could hold the infection or poison at bay much longer. When in the past his qi channels glowed in vibrant emerald hues, now they were barely scribbles of broken dull green lines.


The sun burned his skin, or perhaps it was his own blood that made him feverish. His vision swam in and out of focus, and everything smelled sharp and metallic. His shoes scraped along the sandy path. His mouth was parched. Using his sheathed sword as a walking stick, he kept on, determined to be as far away from the site of his humiliating loss as was humanly possible.


What was it that Laozi said? A warrior should go into battle as if attending a funeral, or some philosophical nonsense like that.


Well, maybe Laozi did know what he was talking about. The swordsman was going to his own funeral, the only attendee and guest of honor, as it were.




“You want your son to wander the world with me?”


“Yes, venerable daozhang.” The peasant couple pushed the skinny boy of four, perhaps five years old forward. He could even be eight years old; the harvests around these parts had been poor for several years, and drought had finally alighted upon them. Hunger took its toll on the young and old. “We cannot feed him any longer. Already some families in the village are talking about exchanging their children.”


The Taoist priest knew what that meant. It was a cruelty borne of need, and already there were very few elders in the village. Meat was meat, and children would not be able to care for themselves.


The mother’s eyes were red-rimmed, but her gaze was resolute. “I would have him grow up,” she said quietly. “To die when old age or disease take him, not the edge of a blade.”


“I understand.” Smiling at the boy, the priest said, “We shall look for a good place to start a temple. Bid your parents farewell.”


The boy turned and hugged his father first and then his mother. Then, without a single word, he let go of them and took the priest’s hand without hesitation. He did not shed a tear as they left the village behind them.


It was the last time he saw his parents.




The temple they found had been abandoned for decades, but the roof was in good state and there was a village only half a day away. After the priest bought the rights to the land around the temple, he and the boy got to work cleaning out the rooms and the weeds in the yard.


The first year was hard, though not as hard as life back in the drought-stricken village. They set traps for birds and hares, and fished in the evening; the priest knew what were good plants to gather from the forest.


After that, their crops began to grow. Another man joined them, an ex-convict who had been in prison for stealing rice for his son. That man’s son was long dead, and so he treated the young boy as his own. With two adult men working, it was much easier to put the temple back in shape.


The boy grew up. Sweet potatoes and yams filled him out. Eggs and chickens made him strong. The ex-convict taught him ways to protect himself against the bullies in the village; the priest taught him to read and write.


The temple began to attract devotees. The priest knew a little of medicine and a lot about how people thought. He gave them what they thought they wanted, but always slyly amended it to what they truly needed.




Bandits came to the temple one day at dusk, demanding the priest to hand over the offerings given by the villagers who came there to pray. They had sharp swords and axes.


As the dozen or so bandits shouted their demands in the main hall, the ex-convict told the boy to hide behind the chicken coop and run into the forest as soon as it was dark.


The boy disobeyed him. Instead, the boy scurried back into the main building and peeked in through a tiny hole in the wall, about the height of his knee, and saw the priest with his own sword.


Then, a flurry of movement too fast for the boy to follow. Silver light flashed, followed by cries of pain and shock, and then a metallic clatter of various weapons falling to the floor.


The bandits collapsed to the floor, bleeding and cursing. All of them were clutching their knees or their shoulders. Two held their hands to their faces, covering their eyes, screaming that they could not see.


The priest was painted with glowing lines of green, like morning sun through young bamboo leaves. He wiped his sword on his long sleeve and sheathed it.


“Go to the magistrate and tell him we have the bandits from the hills,” the priest told the ex-convict. Then the priest turned and looked straight at the boy. “And you were supposed to be hiding behind the chicken coop.”


The boy ran into the main hall, ignoring the bleeding and cursing bandits. He fell to his knees and started kowtowing. “Teach me, please. I want to be strong.”


“Your mother would not want you to learn the sword,” said the priest sadly. "She did not want you to die by the blade."


The boy stared up at the priest and said, “My mother is likely dead. I am not. Learning to use a sword would keep me that way.”




Staggering as if intoxicated, he headed towards a hill. He never expected to die out in the wilderness, to be found as a skeleton with his flesh picked clean by maggots or scavengers, but even such an ignominious passing was better than bearing the humiliation of defeat at the hands of a sixteen-year-old boy.


It was late afternoon and the sun was already sinking towards the horizon. The air was growing colder as he walked on, its crispness keeping him alert to the aches and pains of his body. Geese honked overhead, flying south in a straight line; briefly, he wished he could go with them.


At least the bushes were heavy with berries that he could eat. A few birds chattered angrily at him for robbing them when he rummaged about for fistfuls of berries that were tart in the mouth and stung in his throat. Even the shy sparrows were unafraid of him.


I’m dying for a drink, he thought blearily, and had to chuckle. He was dying, with or without a drink, and he was going to die like a beast out in the open.


What use was fame? What use renown? All were but shadow and illusions. All his education with the masters he had studied under never taught him this.






The priest taught him the basics of the sword only after the boy proved himself to be a diligent pupil of the fundamentals. Two hours a day before dawn he stood in horse-stance, and then he did his chores with alacrity; two hours after dinner he would go through the basic forms, punching and kicking a straw dummy as instructed. He toughened his sinews and strengthened his muscles, while performing stretches to the point of pain to ensure flexibility.


He learned discipline and endurance; above all, he learned focus.


He picked up a bamboo sword at eleven years old, graduating to a wooden sword at thirteen, before being given a steel sword at fifteen.


“I have nothing more I can teach you,” said the priest once he saw the delight on the boy’s face on receiving the sword. “You should go to Master Chong Jian in Mount Hai and give him this letter of recommendation. He will teach you the way of the sword.”


The boy did not notice the sad tilt of the priest’s mouth, nor the reluctance in the ex-convict’s face. He thanked the two men, and left for Mount Hai.




The world of the river and the lake was vastly different from and yet similar to the world which he had grown up in.


Here was something like honor, and something like dishonor. It was also a world where the strong held power and the weak had to bow to their whims. It was a world where deception was good if the deceiver was deceiving for an honorable reason, and bad if they were doing it out of selfish greed.


Death came easily if you had a blade you did not know how to use and a mouth that did not know when to keep shut and a spine that was too rigid to bend. He learned where the loopholes were and which morals and principles he could let go of in a pinch.


When he came to Mount Hai, he was a little wiser than when he left the temple, and found Master Chong in his hut in the foothills.




“A sword is a weapon. A weapon is designed to hurt and to kill. Unless you are ready to do either, do not draw the blade.”


“Above all, a swordsman must honor his blade. That’s what differentiates a swordsman from a man with a sword.”


“Mastering the sword requires hours of practice, sometimes to the point of sacrificing everything else. The ultimate swordsman will bear no name, for the only name he will be known by is the name of his sword, the object of his devotion.”


He left Master Chong after adopting some of that single-mindedness and left with a new mastery over the simple steel sword he had arrived with.


He returned to the temple to look for the priest and the ex-convict, only to find it burned to the ground by the escaped bandits. The two men had been buried by the villagers. He first offered incense and wine, telling them what he had learnt. Then he hunted down those responsible and placed their severed heads in front of the tombs.


That had been the start of his fame.


Renown came later.




As he scanned the cloudless skies for vultures, he noticed a shadowy recess in the face of the rocky hill ahead of him. He squinted to make sure he was not hallucinating.


No, it was real. A cave, it seemed, and not too far up the hill.


Around it were gray boulders with rust red streaks, a bare gray tree hardly as tall as a man, and no sign of life otherwise. There was a path of sorts, strewn with gravel and flat, sharp-edged pebbles.


If he were not able to get a drink, perhaps a cool place to go to sleep forever would do. Using his sheathed sword as a walking aid, he struggled up the slope.


Despite his weakened state, the swordsman somehow found his way to the cave without slipping or falling. The tip of his sword’s sheath was scratched up badly by now, and he felt sad that his beloved weapon would turn into rust, but a small, lingering selfishness was glad that he would have its companionship even past the end of his life.




The steel sword given by the priest grew dull with use, no matter how diligently he cleaned and polished it. In the end, he had to sell it, but by then he had earned enough in bounties to pay a master swordsmith to make him a good sword fit for a swordsman.


This one he called Clear Water. It fitted his hand perfectly, and it balanced perfectly at the hilt where he liked to focus his qi; it was an extension of his arm. Every time he practiced with it, he loved it more and more. And when his qi was infused into the blade, the surface shimmered, like moonlight on the surface of a lake ruffled by the wind.


And with Clear Water he earned a reputation. The dances of Clear Water that were too unpredictable to counter, the songs of Clear Water that were too quick to defend against. First were heads of the thirty-six islands, then the chiefs of the seventy-two hills, and finally at the Grand Pugilist Meet, in his thirty-fourth year, he defeated ten masters from all over the world, to be acknowledged as a master of the sword.


No family, no friends, no lovers. Only the sword, and the way of the sword.




The floor of the cave was sandy and dry, and there was no unwelcome smell of beasts residing in its depths. It would do well enough as a tomb. With this final defeat, there was no reason for him to leave his name anywhere to be remembered. Someone might find his remains, in a far-off future. Maybe they would give him a decent burial then. Or perhaps they would make up a story about him, and how he came to be here.


The cave was deeper than it first seemed from the swordsman’s cursory examination at the entrance. A narrow channel turned to the right, and sloped downwards. He could hear water dripping hollowly, dripping into a deep pool inside.


Part of him rebelled against the idea of exerting more effort to explore the cave’s secrets. A man should be able to lie down and die in comfort after a lifetime of toil.


Thirty-five years of the sword. Thirty-five years of qi cultivation. All leading to this moment.


He was finding it darkly hilarious that he had wasted all his time on becoming stronger, when it boiled down to him, his sword, and his impending death. The boy who had defeated him could have built his reputation on killing one of the most famous pugilists of this generation. He was glad to deprive the boy of that; the boy deserved a better reputation. But given that he disappeared into the wild, there would be rumors of his death anyway.


What would they say about his disappearance? What legends would spring forth? People saw him walk away, his qi glowing strongly; they would assume he had merely decided to retreat from the world of the river and the lake. Maybe there would be stories of young men and women encountering a mysterious swordsman in the wooded hills, with qi lines that shone like emeralds in the sun. Maybe some enterprising young pugilist would find his sword and then descend from the hill with the claim of being his final pupil.


Clear Water. His beloved sword, the one thing that had been his companion for the past three decades. He considered burying it, but selfishly he wanted to hold it until his fingers could no longer exert strength.


As he sat down and put his sword across his lap, he could feel his extremities growing numb. His skin felt hot and yet he shivered. He mopped perspiration from his brow; his hand was heavy as stone.


The back of the cave exhaled a cool breeze, beckoning him. He glanced that way with bleary eyes.

Curiosity won out. He was going to die soon anyway. Why not learn a little more before he died?


Sandy ground gave way to damp grit underfoot, and the walls became slick and wet the further he ventured. He could see thick limestone stalactites and stalagmites like blunted fangs extending from the top and bottom of the cave, but he could not tell how tall the roof was, nor how much deeper the cave went. It didn’t take long before it was too dark to go another step without risking a fall. In the uncharted bowels of the cave, he could discern the sound of rushing water in the distance, echoing. The cave was far too immense for a dying man to explore.


“I may be dying, but I’m not yet seeking death,” he wheezed, and heard his words float into a vast, hungry darkness. Despite knowing that his remaining lifespan could be counted in hours, he still shivered in fear.


Carefully tracing his steps, he was about to go back to the comfort of the sandy cave entrance when a low, sinuous voice whispered by his left ear, “What if I can keep you from dying?”




The young man was not old enough to have a formal name or to even shave, but he showed up at the Western Pugilist Meet to challenge for a seat.


His air of utter confidence was aggravating. The fact that he beat several of the older, established heads of different sects and schools was even more aggravating.


“I’ll be honored to take the new leader of the Western Pugilists’ Circle, if everyone is being so generous to me,” the boy had said. His smile was sincere, his tone courteous, but there was something about his gaze that reeked of condescension.


The swordsman was present as a guest of someone he considered a friendly acquaintance; that person was now seated on the grass circulating her qi to keep herself from passing out. She nodded at the swordsman, who then took Clear Water and walked into the challenge circle.


“I do not want the seat,” said the swordsman, “for my duty is to my sword alone, not to anyone present. But you have a sword too, young man, and that means I must test my blade against yours.”




“What if I can keep you from dying?”


The swordsman unsheathed his sword reflexively, and then collapsed to the ground in an ungainly heap as his muscles spasmed.


No one. There was no one.


The swordsman’s pulse slowed as he calmed down, a weak little moth fluttering in the bone cage of his ribs. He kept his white-knuckled grip on his sword though, despite his trembling and cramping muscles. His sword was his life. He was not going to let go. Adrenaline gave just enough life to his muscles and bones to get back to his feet to clamber out of the darkness.


As he fought to breathe, he felt a presence wrap like a scarf around his neck. He clutched at his throat and touched his own clammy skin. It had to be his own imagination. It had to be. His infection was causing him to hear things.


That same voice that had spoken in the darkness was now by his right ear. “I can save you.”


“What are you? Who are you?”


“Tell me first: are you afraid to die?” The voice was neither male nor female, neither high-pitched nor low, but the swordsman somehow knew it was ancient. Ancient, like the cave.


He made himself smile. “I knew from the moment I entered the river and the lake, I was a dead man.”


The voice laughed, a strange hissing exhalation of nothing. “A quick death by the sword is not the same as a slow death by blood poisoning. You have but a fever now; you will feel cold as ice soon. You will struggle for every breath. You will feel your heart try to flee your chest. You will soil yourself with vomit and shit, and you will not have the strength to move away from your own filth. You will feel the agony of needles tearing apart your flesh and bones. Your heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, even your very marrow will be pierced with unimaginable pain. You will die a madman, forgetting even your own name.”


With every description, the swordsman trembled. His right hand clenched more tightly around Clear Water, the one real thing in the world he knew existed.


“If what you say is true,” he managed to croak out after a while, “then all I have to do is to kill myself now to spare myself that suffering.”


The invisible entity laughed its unearthly, hollow laugh again. “If you had the guts to kill yourself, you wouldn’t have dragged yourself all the way here to die in a cave, hidden from the world’s judgment.”


“I’m not hiding from anyone.” The swordsman shuddered and sank to his knees, fighting down the urge to vomit. He tugged open his tunic and stared at the sickly yellow-green fluid staining his clothes. His vision was blurring even more every time he blinked. “I am not a coward. I faced everyone who challenged me.”


“And yet, here you are, about to die alone, with nothing and no one to mourn you.”




The song Clear Water carved through the air was lovelier than any it had ever sung; the dance Clear Water shared with the boy’s sword was more intricate and challenging than any it had performed.


The swordsman wanted to teach the boy a lesson, but realized that, unlike himself who had slogged and toiled to attain what skill he had, the boy was a prodigy. The only weaknesses the latter had was in the density and control of his qi, which he managed to mask with superb skill with the blade, and his lack of experience.


And so, when the chance came, the swordsman feinted left, drawing the boy’s blade too far to the right, creating an opening, and struck the boy in the right shoulder with just enough qi to dislocate the joint. The swordsman did not expect the boy to rotate the sword at the very last possible moment to slice into the former’s side.


In the eyes of the assembly, the swordsman had won the duel. The swordsman and the boy both knew the truth.


“Don’t aim too high while you’re still so young,” the swordsman told the boy who was clutching his shoulder. “You have a long way to go. Some humility would keep you alive.”


The swordsman left without speaking to anyone else. He must not let the final dance of Clear Water be remembered as a defeat.




The swordsman’s face twitched, trying to keep from snarling at the voice determined to make his last few moments a misery.


“There is always a taller mountain,” he replied at last. “Also, I don’t need mourning. When I die, I die.”


“But you’ll die, knowing you lost.” The voice seemed closer, almost as if it was hovering right in front of his face. “Or is your presence here an indication that you know, deep inside your heart, you can’t beat him?”


The swordsman glared, seeing nothing but the smooth cave wall facing him. Beads of perspiration rolled down his brow. “I did defeat him. I dislocated his shoulder… I beat him. He knows.”


He swallowed, but nothing could have kept down the bile that surged up his throat and past his lips. Gagging, he fell on his side and rolled away from his own sick. “I won. I just… It was that one move, I wasn’t fast enough. I didn’t think of it.”


“That isn’t the truth. You know the truth.”


Yes, the truth.


If the boy had been more ruthless, he could have stabbed his sword right through the swordsman with that final move.


The boy knew this. The swordsman knew this.


The boy let the swordsman win.


The boy let the swordsman go.


The voice sounded almost sympathetic when it said, “He showed you mercy, didn’t he?”


“I didn’t want it!” the swordsman spat. He shut his eyes, willing death to take him then. “I never wanted it.”


“It would have been kinder to kill you.”


Yes, it would have been. The swordsman did not say so aloud. He should have slit his own throat then, at the moment of his loss.


“The currents of love and hate run deep and swift in the river and the lake.” A soft weight settled smoothly on his chest, like a heavy length of thick rope. “If you die, you lose everything. You won’t be able to avenge yourself.”


“I already lost.”


“But you can challenge him to another duel. And this time, I can help you.” The voice was almost pleading with him now.


The swordsman wanted to laugh, but laughing would take too much from him. Already his limbs were cold, and the handle of Clear Water fell from numb fingers.


“I’ve heard…” he began, and was surprised that he could still speak, though his voice was barely a whisper, “of people wandering into caves and emerging as peerless fighters after a few months of practice.”


The invisible entity laughed again, that huff of emptiness. “A few months would not change a person that much, no matter how strong they were before that.”


“So they were changed by you, or by things like you.”


“You’re very clever.” There was a sensation of something caressing his cheek, though it was neither a warm nor cool touch. “Are you sure you don’t want me to save you? I still can. And you can have your revenge.”


The very first stones that built his reputation had been hewn from revenge. Sixteen bandits, for the crime of killing two kind men and burning down their home.


The swordsman’s skin was itching madly. He wanted to peel it off. Perhaps that was how snakes and lizards felt when they were shedding: an unbearable itch to be rid of the skin constraining them.


“If I say yes,” he breathed out, “will I still be me? Or will you be the one wearing my body, doing what you want?”


The voice dropped to his ear and murmured, sweet as a lover, gentle as a mother, “You will always be present, I promise.”


The swordsman exhaled.




Spring exploded with new life. The bare tree at the entrance of the cave was exuberantly green.


The swordsman inhaled, and stood up from his meditation. He gathered his qi in his dantian, cycling it throughout his body, marveling its intensity and depth. His qi lines glowed a rich, brilliant gold, as if he was filled with molten light. He prodded the scar on his side in mild curiosity, and his gaze fell upon the sword on the ground.


A sword without a name.


Picking it up and drawing it from its sheathe, he marveled at its balance. When he allowed his qi to flow into it, its blade glimmered, like sunlight on the rippling surface of a lake.


A beautiful thing, made to kill.


Made to subdue enemies.


Made to conquer the world.

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