Liu Xiaoming paced back and forth, deliberately heavy footfalls shaking the cabin floor. The stocky youth kept his range of movement short, to remain seen by the larger warrior seated before him. “Why are you so reluctant to help me?” he demanded in a frustrated tone. “You of all people should know how painful it is to lose a loved one. Please help me save my fiancee!”
Not looking up, Shanfu sighed. “I wish I could help you, I really do. But I’m dead to the world, remember? And I need to stay that way, lest my own family be put in harm’s way again.”
“You needn’t necessarily expose your identity to help me, do you? Even without using your powers, the aid of your sword and martial arts would be greatly appreciated.”Shanfu frowned.
“Do you really think I can just decide not to use my powers, and easily hold to that in battle? It could come down to using them or dying, as before. Besides, even without revealing them, I might still be recognized.”
“We could just kill anyone who knew you, couldn’t we?”
“The world doesn’t always let you do what you intend to. I’ve already lost my wife for the sake of helping you. Must I risk the lives of my son and little sister, too?”
Xiaoming stopped walking. “They’re not in immediate danger, Shanfu!” he said desperately. “My Ling is!”
Shanfu remembered back to the battle with the evil Po Tianba, who had sought to kill Xiaoming for romancing his granddaughter Ling. “And when my Mei was in ‘immediate danger’, brother, where were you then?”
“I was getting the youngsters away,” he replied, his voice softening. “As Mei told me to.”
Shanfu bowed a head heavy with the weight of grief. “She was one brave woman, wasn’t she?”
Xiaoming placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know you miss her. I do too. She was my best friend.”
“As if you had many to chose from, you troublemaker. You were fairly close. But she was my soulmate.”
“Yes… and you know how painful it is to have that taken away from you. Now that my love’s on the line, can you really just stand by and do nothing?”
Shanfu looked into his brother’s eyes, the tears he saw there moving him against his will. “I suppose it might be possible to hide who I am, though we’d have to be extra careful.”
Xiaoming’s face lit up with hope. “You mean you’ll help me?”
“Against my better judgement. But you have to promise me one thing if I do.”
“From now on, you’ll at least try to stay out of trouble.”
Xiaoming gave him an innocent look. “What are you saying? I don’t even know who these Iron Castle thugs are.”
Shanfu responded with his coldest stare. “Xiaoming…”
“Alright, alright, fine! I’ll try to get in less trouble.”
“So these people just kidnapped your fiancee and left a note telling you to come to the Iron Castle?” Shanfu asked as they headed over low hills and fertile basins towards said fortress. He hoped the wig and fake beard he wore would suffice to conceal his identity. “Did they leave any other clues to their nature?”
“No, not that I noticed. Well, except that they broke down the door. I guess they must be pretty rude.”
“Didn’t you at least check how many of them came to take her?”
“How would I do that? I wasn’t there when they came.”
Shanfu’s expression darkened to match the clouding heavens. “By looking at their tracks, maybe? I distinctly recall our master teaching us that together.”
“Yeah, but I forgot it already. How am I supposed to remember something I never use?”
“Maybe you would have used it more,” he said with a grunt, “if you didn’t ask me to do it every time you needed to. Can you think, then, if you have any enemies who might want to harm you?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve angered some… all right, a lot of people in the past, but I don’t know who would go this far.”
They walked on, Shanfu amazed that Xiaoming too had trained under the legendary Golden Mountain Master as he continued to question him. How had he failed to learn some more sense? More baffling yet, his fighting skills were not bad at all.
The Iron Castle came into view, a gray colossus looming atop the highest hilltop for miles. Numerous tiny windows dotted its upper walls, too small for a man to enter but perfect for firing arrows out of. Lower down, Shanfu saw no windows whatsoever. Towering metal doors barred the only visible entrance. For all its imposing presence, however, the castle seemed oddly deserted.
Or not, as a deep male voice boomed across the hills. “At last you have come. Welcome to the Iron Castle.”
“Where is Ling?” Xiaoming shouted, shaking his fist. “Give her back now!”
“Take her back, if you dare. She is waiting inside for you. We are all waiting for you!”
Shanfu scanned the roof and windows, but could not pinpoint the origin of the voice. “Why did you take her?” he asked. “What do you want with my br-friend?”
“And why would we tell you? We are in control, and you are not!”
“I’d like to feed this bastard his guts,” Xiaoming growled beneath his breath, “and ask him who’s in control then.”
“I wouldn’t mind if you did. But let’s concentrate on reaching him first, yes?”
“I hear your dreams,” rumbled the voice merrily, “and I approve! It is good that you have ambitions. But enough with threats.” The great doors groaned open then, revealing a vast blackness within. “Enter, and let us see if you are capable of carrying them out.”
The brothers lit torches and stepped inside. The lobby was unfurnished and stark, though not dusty as if long unused. “I wonder which way we should go,” Shanfu said. “He didn’t say anything about that.”
Xiaoming took on a thoughtful air. “Let’s try up. Don’t the villains always want a showdown atop their strongholds?”
“That’s terrible logic.”
“But he is right!” interjected the mysterious voice from somewhere above. “Perhaps he is proving to be the hero of this tale, and not you. Muhahahahaha!”
Shanfu rolled his eyes, trying not to be embarrassed at being on the wrong side of a disagreement with his brother, and went on. Soon he got a sense of eyes on his back and grew more wary. “There’s someone following us,” he whispered.
Xiaoming nodded. “Should we do something about it?”
“No. Can we even do anything now? Best not to let them know we’re aware of them until we have to.”
They had gotten halfway up the granite steps at the room’s rear when a boulder came rolling down the long stairway. Xiaoming drew his sword, charged it with his chi, and lunged. His strike blew the rock apart, but he yelped as his rush carried him through the cloud of purple fumes unexpectedly left in its wake. Upon landing, he gasped, then collapsed.
“Some hero he would be,” the mysterious voice guffawed, “if he cannot even escape the first test with his life.”
Shanfu knelt at Xiaoming’s side to find his face already turning blue. He raised him into a sitting position, then pressed palms against his back and channeled chi into him. He shook with the effort of attempting to force the poison out, as it was fierce and had already spread throughout Xiaoming’s body. Finally Xiaoming coughed, spitting out dark blood, and Shanfu sagged forward with fatigue.
“Are you all right?” he wheezed, then resumed panting for breath.
“I-I think so.” Xiaoming looked back with a scowl. “What a despicable trick that was!”
“What do you expect, for everyone to play fair? You didn’t have to fall for it so easily, you know.”
“The boulder was coming on. What else could I have done?”
“We probably could have outrun it down the stairs,” Shanfu muttered. “At least I would have saved some internal energy that way.”
“Was that what you were going to do, though?”
“I was thinking about it. So next time, think!”
The brothers reached the second floor, where the stairs did not continue up. They wandered around for a time before entering a huge chamber at the back of which waited the next staircase. A few steps in, a heavy gate crashed shut behind them and the surface underfoot began to slide apart. They hopped onto the structures revealed as the floor receded into the walls, leaving an array of scattered columns over a spike-filled pit. Standing on pillars yards apart, the brothers exchanged bewildered looks.
“How long have they been planning this?” Xiaoming asked in bug-eyed awe.
Shanfu batted aside a dart fired from the wall with his sword, then spun to deflect two more from the opposite side. Arrows growing in his sight made him duck, then he flipped up and over a wide blade flying at the back of his ankles. He jumped to another pillar to avoid a spear spat upward from the ground between his legs, and glimpsed Xiaoming performing a similar dance with various missiles. Then he heard a whoosh from above, and looked to see a spiked ball hurtling at Xiaoming’s head. He leapt high and struck it with his sword, only for it to explode.
The blast threw him back through the air, plummeting towards his doom. Xiaoming jumped after him, grabbing him in midair and bearing him to the side of a pillar. Bladed discs followed him down, but he swung around and to the other side of the column.
“Now you can’t say I’m totally useless anymore, can you?”
Stunned and struggling to clear his ringing head, Shanfu did not reply. A rumbling made him look down, to regard the spikes below rising towards them. “Get us back up right now!”
A thrust of Xiaoming’s legs sent them over floor level again, where they found the ceiling too descending to crush them. Flailing their swords to ward off the unending storm of projectiles, they looked to the stairway now an island over the pit. “That way!” Xiaoming said.
“Wait, it might be trapped. Check it first.”
“Throw your sword!”
He did, and as it crossed the foot of the stairs there was a loud hiss. Acid showered down from the ceiling and onto the sword, which dropped melting to the ground.
“My sword!” Xiaoming cried, staring in horror.
His hands full deflecting missiles alone, Shanfu grunted as a dart pierced his arm. “Forget it,” he said, dragging Xiaoming after him towards the stairs. “We have to go now!”
“Might it not still be trapped?”
It might, but the spikes and ceiling were closing in and there was no time to check. They leapt their way to the steps, more projectiles striking both in their vulnerable flight. They ran up, not stopping until through the next door. Behind them, they heard the trapped chamber slam closed on itself.
“What kind of treachery was that?” Xiaoming screamed, his face beet red with rage. Losing the precious sword bestowed to him by their master obviously did not sit well with him. “Stop playing with us, you coward! Come out and fight!”
The mysterious voice boomed into their ears, cocky as before. “You want a fight, do you? Then a fight you will have, though I fear you will not enjoy it as much as you expect!”
The brothers sank down against the nearest wall, sucking great gulps of air. “I’ll kill him,” Xiaoming spat.
“Yes, we will.” Shanfu plucked an arrow from Xiaoming’s thigh. “But calm down first, so we can do it with clear heads.”
They caught their breath and treated their wounds before moving to explore the third floor. Still Shanfu felt something following them. Eventually they came into a grand hall lined with pillars, and sensed they were about to be challenged again. Shanfu readied his weapon, a bit worried that his brother lacked his. Then Xiaoming said, “Give me the sword.”
“What? It’s my sword. Why should I give to you?”
“I saved your life,” Xiaoming reminded him.
“You saved me after I saved you. And I’m still ahead on rescues, two to one.”
“But you did tell me to throw my sword. You’re the one who made me lose it.”
Shanfu gave him an admonishing look. “That throw saved both our lives. Are you faulting me for that?”
Xiaoming hung his head. “No… but you’re better at fighting unarmed than me. I need a sword more than you.”
His brow furrowed in thought, then he shrugged. “I’m better with a sword than without, too. Let’s carry on, and we’ll see how things go from there.”
They proceeded down the long hall and two figures stepped forth to meet them. The first was a woman, over six feet tall with curly blonde hair and massive slabs of muscle over her limbs and chest. Behind her came a man, sharing her wide face and thick lips but with shorter brown hair. Despite her impressive size, he dwarfed her by a full head and near twice the mass.
“I am Big Man,” said the giant, “and this is my sister Little Man.”
“Our masters send us to test you,” Little Man added. She smirked. “And I must say, I am curious as to what your little selves can do.”
Shanfu glanced at Xiaoming. “I’ll take the big one.” He rushed, stabbing two-handed at Big Man’s breast. He struck his target full on, but the point would not penetrate. Forcefully Big Man flexed his chest, pushing Shanfu back. “Iron Skin?”
“What would you expect from disciples of the Iron Castle?” Little Man said as she battered Xiaoming around the room, and with a haymaker sent him stumbling to all fours. He recovered to jump-kick her in the chest and face, but before he could even land she smashed him away with a straight punch to the stomach. Agile though he was, he resembled a brave dog fighting a bear.
“Are you disciples of the Iron Castle?” Shanfu asked as he sidestepped a running headbutt. “I thought it was deserted for years!”
Big Man’s skull went right through the side of a thick pillar, but he seemed unfazed as he turned swiftly back around. “Did she say we were from here? She only noted that we fit.”
Channeling chi into his blade, Shanfu attacked again. Repeated thrusts and slashes landed on Big Man’s body to no visible effect, then his opponent caught his sword in a great hand and swung him overhead into a wall. Shanfu fell, groaning, and rolled just in time to avoid a kick which put a hole in the granite. Big Man threw a huge fist as he scrambled up, and though he blocked the impact knocking him down and numbed his arms. His sword, he saw, vibrated like a magnet in his hands.
“This isn’t working!” he shouted to Xiaoming, currently being flung this way and that by Little Man’s hand in his hair. “Let’s switch, and you can whittle him down with your speed while I try to overpower her!”
“I would,” Xiaoming said between collisions with pillars and floor, “but I’m kind of busy now!”
Shanfu landed a flying kick directly into Little Man’s throat, which even then only staggered her. She did, however, release Xiaoming, who crawled away as if to meet Big Man on his hands and knees. The latter charged, steps shaking the room like an elephant’s, and Xiaoming asked, “Can I have a sword now?”
Little Man advanced as Shanfu threw the sword to him. He ducked a punch and blasted a left hook into her kidney which seemed to do… nothing. The elbow she threw in response, on the other hand, had him reeling as though struck with a cudgel. “You sure you can handle her?” Xiaoming called, his cuts glancing as off steel from Big Man’s skin.
“Of course,” he said, punching her face. Like hitting an old tree… “How could I not manage to overwhelm a woman?” But the way her return blow, even blocked, threw him from his feet seemed to belie his words.
On his back he heard the whine of twisting metal, and looked to see Big Man bending his sword into a coil around his forearm. “She is not just a woman, and I not just a man! We are strength and suffering, triumph and tragedy. We are the mighty!”
Shanfu drove a foot into Little Man’s crotch, then flipped up to snap her head back with a kick under the jaw. She only smiled.
They continued to fight, gaining little advantage from the switch in opponents. Little Man was if anything stronger than Shanfu and unbelievably durable; she would surely wear him down before the reverse could happen. Similarly, Big Man seemed completely unaffected by Xiaoming’s blows, and while Xiaoming jumped circles around him, he reacted quickly enough to swat him down at will. Soon the flustered brothers found themselves back to back, leaning against each other as they faced the two monsters.
“Maybe together?” Xiaoming whispered, eyeing Big Man.
“It’s worth a try.” They rushed as one, simultaneously dropkicking Big Man’s chest. He was knocked back a step, then rebounded with a double clothesline that might have taken off their heads. They ducked and kicked him in the back of both knees, sending him down to one. Little Man darted in, and got her head sandwiched between their roundhouse kicks. They followed up with a punch apiece to the face, and she fell.
“Sister!” Big Man yelled, catching her as she collapsed. Scooping her into his arms, he turned and dashed away.
“We beat them,” Xiaoming breathed in disbelief, sitting down heavily.
Shanfu looked after the siblings and shook his head. “No, we didn’t. Little Man wasn’t done. Maybe you couldn’t see, but from where I stood she looked very alert. She was far from out.” He sighed. “They probably could have beaten us, if things kept on going the way they were. We would hardly have been able to focus on them individually forever.”
Xiaoming stared. “Really? Then why did they run? Were they just testing us? But for what?”
“I don’t know. Notice they’ve destroyed both our swords, though. I think they might be trying to wear us down.”
“Wear us down? Why? Wouldn’t it have been more logical for them to keep fighting, if they wanted to kill or capture us?”
Maybe they wanted something else, Shanfu thought. He could not think exactly what. But as he had still sensed another presence watching during the fight, he figured neither of them was their stalker. “In any case, we’re alive and Ling’s still their prisoner. We have little choice but to go on.”
Xiaoming nodded. “Wait. Did you find Big Man’s voice familiar?”
“Yes. He’s the one who’s been taunting us.”
“That’s what I thought, too. But didn’t he say they were sent by their masters? It seems odd the servant would be the one doing the talking.”
Shanfu shrugged and started ahead. “It is puzzling, but we won’t get any answers sitting around speculating. Let’s go.”
They found the stairs at the end of the hall. Their fourth floor test pitted them against an enormous blobby creature which stretched across the width of the room containing the next stair. As its flesh flowed back together like liquid whenever disrupted, they could not seem to do any lasting damage. The multitude of acid-dripping tendrils it flailed at them, however, threatened to melt them to nothing.
“Use your powers!” Xiaoming said. “Otherwise we’ll never be able to kill it.”
“We don’t have to kill it,” Shanfu replied, “just get past it. It may be blocking off the room, but look at how thinly it’s spread. We can break through it.”
They joined hands then, and enveloped in an aura of chi powered right through the gelatinous mass. The hole they made began instantly to seal itself, but they had already gotten clear and fled past reaching pseudopods upstairs. Finally they made it to the roof, where they came into view of Ling tied to a flagpole at its edge.
“Ling!” Xiaoming cried, and leaped for her. As if grabbed by the leg and pulled down, his ascent reversed and he was slammed to the floor with brutal force. Screaming in agony, he clutched the joint of his thigh and hip. “Ah, my leg, my leg! I-I think it’s pulled clean out of the socket…”
The hulking form of Big Man materialized over Xiaoming, and Shanfu’s eyes narrowed. “Of all people, you have an invisibility skill?”
“We are full of surprises, my sister and I, are we not?”
“Didn’t you say your masters sent you? Why are you the one up here?”
“I could say that I am my own master, and my sister hers.”
“What do you want?” Xiaoming wailed, sounding close to tears. “What in the world do you want?!”
“I want you to fight me,” Big Man said, looking at Shanfu with a grin. “I want to see your best!”
Suddenly Xiaoming lashed out with his good leg, surprising Big Man with a kick to the gut. “Go save Ling! I’ll hold him off.”
Big Man stomped on his injured thigh, causing him to writhe shrieking in pain. “Who are you going to hold off, with one leg?”
Shanfu sprinted forward, ducking past the giant’s reaching hands. Big Man made to pursue, but Xiaoming lunged up and hugged his thick waist in a death grip. “No,” Ling said as Shanfu reached her, “forget about me! Save him first!”
He looked back. “Watch out!” Xiaoming gasped, coughing blood as Big Man’s fist crashed down on the back of his neck. “That’s not Ling!”
“That’s not the real Li-” Big Man’s fist pounded down again, silencing him.
Though unsure how Xiaoming could tell, and fearful he might now be dead, Shanfu decided to trust his brother’s judgement. As he felt Ling reaching for him from behind, he slid free the long knife concealed in his sleeve and stabbed backwards. The point should have stopped against Little Man’s Iron Skin, but perhaps that was inactive in her disguised state. It pierced between her ribs, and blood gurgled from her mouth.
Even so, she looped an arm about Shanfu’s throat as if to strangle him. “Hit him, brother!” she choked out, now in normal form and drooling blood onto his shoulder and neck. “Hit him now!”
Big Man aimed a running kick at Shanfu’s head. He twisted the blade inside Little Man’s body and wrenched out of her grasp. Her brother’s boot wound up smashing into her skull like a battering ram, and she pitched off the roof without a sound.
“You gnat!” Big Man roared, spinning to backhand him away. Shanfu sprawled on the ground, seconds before a kick snapped two of his ribs. The giant lifted him by the back of his shirt, punched his stomach nearly hard enough to drive his spine out his back. Flung him against the wall around the roof. Barely holding onto consciousness, Shanfu considered his options. Would he have to use his powers? But even now, he worried over the other presence watching them.
Big Man thrust both hands out, sending forth a stream of chi. On his knees, Shanfu threw up a shield of the same to defend himself. As small as he needed it to be, it was densely concentrated enough to withstand the attack. The energies canceled out, and he realized his solution.
“What?!” Big Man growled, eyes wide. “I’m much stronger than you. How can you resist my power?”
“You may have more energy to draw from, but the strength of each attack matters more. If I can focus my power narrowly enough, I can match—and beat—you!” Saying so, he shaped his chi into a needle-thin ray and fired it with a pointed finger at Big Man’s face.
Big Man leaned aside, the beam leaving a glancing cut along his cheek. With a curious expression, he wiped blood from his face. “You’ve defeated my Iron Skin. Very impressive. Sister! It’s time for us to reunite.”
For a moment Shanfu thought he meant to die, then he gaped as Little Man climbed back onto the roof and ran to her brother’s side. She must have hung on to the edge; even with her deep stab wound, she seemed far from dead. The siblings linked arms, and the air trembled with their power. A translucent wall of hazy chi barred Shanfu’s way towards them—and his brother. Little Man looked coolly at Xiaoming.
“Your friend needs help. Can you overcome our Double-Iron Reinforcement to save him?”
He could not, Shanfu knew, not with his own power alone. The bolt with which he’d scratched Big Man’s face had taken all his remaining strength. With great reluctance he closed his eyes and went deep inside himself, throwing open the conduit to a celestial power hidden within him. When his eyes opened again they blazed white, and an outline of identically colored heavenly flame surrounded his body. The sensation of empowerment was euphoric. He spread his arms like mighty wings and flapped them forward, blowing a wave of staggering force at the siblings. He would annihilate them, sweep them from existence. Then Big Man smiled, and a figure streaked before them.
Shanfu watched the old man throw his arms wide, laughing madly. He soon recognized Po Wudi, the brother of his old enemy. Had all this been in the name of revenge? No, he saw as his attack slammed into Wudi, there was more to it. For now the man screamed, “At last, the power is mine! I am invincible! Peerless under heaven! A god on earth!”
Weakening as his euphoria faded, Shanfu concluded Wudi really was sucking the otherworldly energy out of him. He must have mastered the Vampiric Chi draining art… Shanfu fell to his knees, his eyelids drooping. But he noticed Wudi shaking, as though it took a great effort to control the process. What if he was limited as to the rate of absorption he could handle? Too weak to move, Shanfu took the only risk he could. He gave Wudi everything he had.
His guess proved correct. Wudi’s eyes bulged as he realized his plight, then he exploded in a blinding white flash.
Toppling to his side, Shanfu fought for breath. Big Man and Little Man nodded at each other, then began to clap in unison.
“What are you… celebrating?” Shanfu rasped, crawling to check on Xiaoming. Thankfully, he was still alive. “Isn’t your master dead?”
Little Man smirked. “Him, our master? More like an old fool, and a pawn with whom to test you.”
“Then what was all this… about? Are you… going to kill us now?”
“Kill you?” Big Man laughed. “Why would we do that? As for whatthis was about, isn’t it obvious? We were testing you.”
“Testing you, Liu Shanfu!”
Of course. They knew, they had always known and had kidnapped his brother’s lover just to lure him out. “Testing me… for what?”
“To see if you were all they said you were, of course. You passed admirably, if you must know.”
“Is that all?”
Little Man placed hands on her hips and looked skyward. “Of course not. There’ll be more. We’ll see you at the World’s Martial Tournament in six months; hopefully you’ll come on your own, and not force us to make you come.” The siblings turned, and started away.
“Wait!” Shanfu said. “Where is Ling?”
Big Man looked back. “Your brother will find her at home, if he lives. He should, as I did hold back.
“In exchange for that favor, I suggest you listen to my sister and come to our contest. We are still looking forward to test our Double-Iron Reinforcement against your Divine Phoenix.”
They departed then, leaving Shanfu to rest beside his wounded brother. He was furious at being manipulated as he had, and there were still very many things he did not understand.
But he would come to the tournament, and do his best to learn.
Billy Wong is an avid fan of heroic fantasy, with a special love for hardcore warriors of the fairer sex. His fiction has appeared in many venues including Sorcerous Signals, Big Pulp, and Robots Beyond anthology. A full list of his published works can be found here: http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=58445