Jin Yong’s A Hero Born is a fantastical generational saga and kung fu epic, filled with an extraordinary cast of characters. This Chinese classic—coming to the U.S. for the first time on September 17th as translated by Anna Holmwood for St. Martin’s Press—is a tale of fantasy and wonder, love and passion, treachery and war, betrayal and brotherhood.
Want to start reading now? Tor.com is serializing A Hero Born all summer long—you can find all the previous chapters here! And check back every morning this week for another installment of the second chapter/episode: “The Seven Freaks of the South”.
“The Seven Freaks of the South”
Scorched Wood could barely comprehend what had just happened. He left the Garden of the Eight Drunken Immortals with the Seven Freaks and together they made their way back to his temple.
“My martial brother Withered Wood sent his nephew Justice Duan and another young man to me with a letter and asked me to protect them,” he explained. “Elder Qiu is one of the Seven Masters of the Quanzhen Sect, who all trained under the great shifu Double Sun. Among them Elder Qiu is said to be the best. He may be a bit coarse, but he doesn’t seem the type of man to stir up trouble without good cause. He can bear no grudge against an old monk like me. There must have been some grave misunderstanding.”
“Let us speak with the two young men and ask them what’s going on,” Gilden Quan suggested.
“Good idea. They haven’t told me their story yet,” Scorched Wood said.
He was just about to send for Justice Duan when Ke Zhen’e spoke. “Qiu Chuji has quite the temper. He clearly doesn’t think much of us wanderers of the southern wulin. The Quanzhen Sect may command a great reputation in the north, but they can’t behave like that down here. A martial challenge, that’s the answer. We take him on, one at a time. Only the honorable need apply.”
“We should fight him together,” Zhu Cong said.
“Eight against one? Doesn’t sound very honorable to me,” Ryder Han said.
“We’re not going to kill him, only calm him enough so that he will listen to what the Venerable Monk has to say,” Gilden Quan said.
“Won’t it damage our reputation if word gets out among our friends in the wulin that Scorched Wood the Monk and the Seven Freaks fought Qiu Chuji together, eight against one?” Jade Han said.
Just then came a terrible clanging, a bell in the Great Hall.
“He’s here,” Ke Zhen’e said, jumping to his feet.
They ran toward the sound. Another clang, and then the sound of metal tearing. It was him, slamming the bronze censer against the large bell which hung from the center of the ceiling. Qiu Chuji’s whiskers stood spiky like a porcupine, his eyes fixed and round. The Seven Freaks weren’t to know this was extreme behavior for the otherwise mild Taoist. Days had passed with no sign of the traitor Justice Duan and anger had been smoldering inside him.
Qiu Chuji’s frustration was erupting.
The Seven Quanzhen Masters’ reputations only made the Seven Freaks even more determined to fight. Had Qiu Chuji been just another unknown wanderer of the wulin they might have been content to resolve the dispute by other means.
“Sister, we’ll go first!” Ryder Han cried to Jade, who was in fact his cousin on his father’s side. Ryder Han was the most impatient of the Seven Freaks. He pulled the Golden Dragon whip from his belt and performed a move known as Wind Disperses Swirling Clouds at Qiu Chuji’s hand. Jade Han drew a long sword and lunged at Qiu Chuji’s back. But the Taoist’s reactions were quick, twisting his wrist so that the whip struck the censer instead, and dipping his body to let Jade Han’s sword pass by him.
In ancient times, the two southern kingdoms of Yue and Wu were long at war. The King of Yue, Gou Qian, kept himself ready for combat at all times by sleeping on a bed of straw and drinking from a gall bladder. But the Wu army was universally acknowledged to be superior, mainly due to General Wu Zixu’s strategic prowess, learned under the master tactician Sun Tzu. One day, however, a beautiful young woman, accomplished in the art of the sword, arrived in Jiaxing, then located just inside the Yue border. One of the kingdom’s highest-ranking ministers, Fan Li, asked if she would teach them her skills so they might defeat the Wu. So it happened that Jiaxing came to be the home of this particular sword technique, passed from master to disciple, generation to generation. It was, however, designed for battle, for slicing generals and puncturing horses. When used against the masters of the wulin, it lacked the necessary agility and forcefulness. It was not until the dying years of the Tang dynasty that the repertoire came to be expanded by a swordsman familiar with the martial arts of ancient times, who added his own moves and made it faster and more complex.
Jade Han had studied the technique to such a level as to earn her the nickname Maiden of the Yue Sword.
It took no more than a few moves, however, for Qiu Chuji to assess the extent of her skills. All he needed to defeat her was speed; she was fast, but he could be faster. With the censer in his right hand, he blocked Ryder Han’s Golden Dragon whip and with his left palm he struck Jade Han, seizing her sword. Within seconds she had been beaten back, taking shelter behind a statue of the Buddha.
Woodcutter Nan and Zhang Asheng rushed forward. Qiu Chuji’s left palm shot out at Zhang Asheng’s face. Zhang bent backward, but the move was a diversion. Qiu Chuji’s foot struck Zhang’s wrist, sending a sharp pain up his arm and forcing him to drop his knife. Zhang was better with his bare fists, however. Balancing on his left foot, he faked a right, roared, and punched with his left with all his strength.
“Beautiful!” Qiu Chuji said as he dodged to the side. “Such a shame!”
“What do you mean?”
“You are so accomplished and yet insist upon associating with that evil monk and living in thrall to the Jin.”
“You are the most brazen of traitors,” Zhang cried. “You’re the thrall!” He struck three times at Qiu Chuji, each blow dodged or blocked with use of the censer. Two of Zhang’s punches clanged squarely against the bronze vessel.
The Seven Freaks were losing, despite their four-to-one advantage. Zhu Cong gestured at Gilden Quan and together they launched themselves at the Taoist. Gilden Quan always carried a large steel balance, the arm of which could be used as a spear or club, the hook as a flying claw, and the weight as a hammer on a chain. One scale, therefore, became three weapons. Zhu Cong, in turn, preferred to strike the metal frame of his broken oilpaper fan against his opponent’s pressure points, while dodging dancing weapons.
Qiu Chuji spun the censer, angling it in front of him like a shield. Using his free hand, he chopped and grabbed, slipping punches through the weaknesses in the Freaks’ defenses. The weight of the vessel may have slowed his movements, but it also made it almost impossible for the Seven Freaks to land a blow, which gradually drained their strength.
Scorched Wood looked on, growing ever more anxious his friends might get hurt. “Stop, everyone!” he cried. “Listen to me, please!”
But men of the wulin do not stop midfight.
“You good-for-nothing!” Qiu Chuji shouted back. “No one wants to listen to your prattle. Watch this instead!” Alternating at speed between punches and slaps, in a move known as the Flying Mountain, Qiu Chuji chopped at Zhang Asheng.
“Your Reverence, please stop!” Scorched Wood cried.
But with two more fighters yet to join in, Qiu Chuji was in fact growing tired and afraid; he had no desire to die in this crumbling temple deep in the swampy south. Yet now he understood his opponents’ weaknesses he had to push on.
Zhang Asheng was specially trained in Iron Shirt kung fu, by which he had toughened his skin to withstand the sharpest weapons. He was used to wrestling bulls bare-chested in the slaughterhouse, so his muscles were as hard as if covered in a thick layer of hide. Gathering the qi to his shoulders, he prepared himself for Qiu Chuji’s attack. “Go on!”
Qiu Chuji’s palm struck his shoulder, and with a crack! the bone in Zhang’s upper arm snapped.
Zhu Cong tapped his metal fan at Qiu Chuji’s Jade Pivot pressure point just below the collarbone, trying to break the flow of the attack.
But Qiu Chuji was energized by his small victory and made a grab at the weapons aimed at him.
“Hai!” Gilden Quan cried as Qiu Chuji seized one end of his scales. With a tug, Qiu Chuji pulled him closer. Blocking Woodcutter Nan and Zhu Cong with the spinning censer, he then struck Gilden Quan on the crown of the head.
At this point Ryder Han and Jade leaped in, aiming at Qiu Chuji’s chest with their weapons. Qiu Chuji was forced to dodge to the side, letting go of Quan. Quan was dripping with sweat, but before he could get clear he felt a sharp kick to his side. He fell to the ground and was unable to get up again.
Scorched Wood the Monk had not wished to fight the Taoist and somehow had hoped to calm him with words. But he could not stand by as his friends were being hurt, not when they had come to his aid. Rolling up his sleeves, he picked up a piece of charred firewood and sprang at Qiu Chuji’s armpit.
But Qiu Chuji sensed the move. He’s going for my vital points, he realized, focusing.
Judging from the cries and moans, Ke Zhen’e, meanwhile, understood that two of his martial brothers had been badly hurt. He took up his metal staff and was about to join the fray when Gilden Quan called out, “Brother, your iron devilnuts, one in the direction of the Prospering and another toward the Small Surpassing!” Before he could finish, Ke had already fired the two metal projectiles, one between Qiu Chuji’s eyebrows and the other at his right hip bone.
Qiu Chuji deflected them with the spinning censer, but he was surprised by their weight and the accuracy of Ke Zhen’e’s aim. These weapons were unique to Ke Zhen’e, with points shaped like bat wings, only sharper, and quite unlike the round water chestnuts that grew in his hometown around South Lake. Ke had learned to use them before he was blinded.
The other Freaks had cleared the way. Gilden Quan continued shouting instructions, using points of the wheel from the I’Ching to denote directions. “Toward the Inner Truth, and the Radiance. Good. Now he’s at the Darkening Light.” After so many years of practice, it was as if the martial brothers were seeing with the same pair of eyes. Gilden Quan was the only one of the Freaks who could guide him in this way.
Within seconds Ke Zhen’e had fired a dozen iron devilnuts, forcing Qiu Chuji back as he fended them off. But still the Taoist was unharmed.
He can hear Brother Quan’s instructions as well as I can and can prepare, it suddenly occurred to Ke Zhen’e. No wonder I’m not hitting him. Gilden Quan’s voice was fading, and in between calls Ke could hear his brother moaning from the pain. He had not heard anything from Brother Zhang in a while. He could not even be sure he was still alive.
“The Fellowship… Aim…”
But instead Ke Zhen’e threw four devilnuts at once, two at the Self-Restraint and the Diminishing to the right of the Fellowship, and the other two at the Abundance and Radiance positions on the left.
Qiu Chuji stepped to the left in anticipation of Gilden Quan’s instructions.
At that moment, two yelps.
One of the devilnuts struck Qiu Chuji’s right shoulder. Ke Zhen’e fired another in the direction of the Diminishing and instead hit Jade Han in the back.
The blow did not hurt exactly, but Qiu Chuji started to feel numb in his upper arm. Poison! he realized in surprise. A chill spread to Qiu Chuji’s heart, but rather than surrender, he drew all his last strength and launched himself at Woodcutter Nan.
Woodcutter Nan saw the attack coming, planted his feet firmly, and taking up his carrying pole blocked the Taoist with a Lock Across the River. But rather than withdraw his attack, Qiu Chuji struck the center of the pole with a hai! Vibrations shot through Nan, tearing the skin between his thumb and forefinger on both hands. Blood spurted everywhere and the pole fell to the ground with a loud clatter. The punch caused Nan serious internal injuries, his legs shook and spots flickered before his eyes. A sweet, metallic taste gurgled in his throat, and scarlet spit stained his clothes as he coughed.
Qiu Chuji was losing sensation in his shoulder and was struggling to keep the censer aloft. Once again gathering his qi, he performed a sweeping kick, which Ryder Han jumped.
“Where are you going?” Qiu Chuji cried, tipping the censer over. Ryder Han tried to backflip in midair, but it came straight for him. He wrapped his head in his arms and curled into a ball. The censer crashed onto the floor, trapping him inside.
Qiu Chuji drew his sword. With a tap of the foot, he shot straight up and sliced through the rope attaching the giant bell to the ceiling. It must have weighed over one thousand jin, but Qiu Chuji guided it with the gentlest of pushes. The room shook as it landed on top of the censer. There was no way Ryder Han could escape now.
Qiu Chuji was a little sore after these exertions, and beads of sweat the size of soybeans clung to his forehead.
“Throw down your sword!” Ke Zhen’e cried. “Or you won’t leave here alive.”
But the evil monk Scorched Wood was colluding with the Jin and keeping women hidden in his temple, and Qiu Chuji was inclined to believe the Seven Freaks were not much better. Not everyone could be deserving of their reputation. Qiu Chuji would rather die than bow before these traitors and surrender. He held his sword high.
Only Ke Zhen’e and Zhu Cong were still capable of fighting. Using his staff, Ke Zhen’e blocked the exit.
Qiu Chuji was determined to get out. He thrust his sword at Ke Zhen’e’s face, but Flying Bat Ke sensed the whoosh! of air as the sword approached. Sword and staff interlocked, and to his surprise, Qiu Chuji nearly lost his weapon. Is the blind man’s inner strength more powerful than mine? He withdrew his sword and tried once more, and was met yet again with the staff. Only now did he realize how much power he had lost in his right shoulder; it was not that Ke was particularly strong, but rather that he, Qiu Chuji, was growing weaker. He swapped his sword to his left hand and performed a move he had learned as a young student but had never before used in combat: the Sword of Mutual Demise. With a flash of the blade, he struck simultaneously at Ke Zhen’e, Zhu Cong, and Scorched Wood’s vital points.
The move was a tacit acknowledgment of relative weakness, and involved aiming at an enemy’s acupressure points. It took great skill, but nevertheless utilized the same essential techniques as common street scraps between bandits and hooligans. Many years previously, the Quanzhen Sect faced a particularly fierce adversary who had lived many years in the untamed west. Only their shifu could have defeated him, but he had long since passed away. The Seven Masters knew this man alone could destroy their sect and they feared his return to the Middle Kingdom. They did have one move against him, the Plow Formation, but it required all seven Masters at once to be effective. The Sword of Mutual Demise was designed for lone combat against precisely this great master of kung fu. The strategy was to ensure his death through one’s own, as a sacrifice to protect one’s brothers. Qiu Chuji would not normally need to use such an extreme move on the Seven Freaks, but he was growing weaker from the poison. It was time to make use of his Master’s greatest lesson.
Ten moves into the sequence, Ke Zhen’e was hit in the leg.
“Brother Ke, Brother Zhu, why not let the Taoist go?” Scorched Wood cried, distracting Ke Zhen’e long enough for Qiu to strike him in the ribs. Ke fell, screaming in pain.
Qiu Chuji was struggling to keep his balance. The whites of Zhu Cong’s eyes were shot through with blood, but he continued to fight, shouting and insulting Qiu Chuji as he circled him. Ke Zhen’e could not place the sound made by the Taoist’s sword, and he was caught again, this time in the right leg. Ke Zhen’e toppled forward with a thud.
“You dog, you dirty Taoist!” Zhu Cong shouted. “The poison will soon reach your heart. You’ll see.”
Qiu Chuji’s brow scrunched with rage and he stumbled at Zhu Cong, clutching his sword in his left hand. But Zhu Cong was trained in lightness kung fu. He took off, flying around the Great Hall, bouncing off the many statues of the Buddha dotted around it.
Qiu Chuji stopped, panting. His strength was waning, his vision becoming blurred. His focus turned to finding an escape route.
Then, a thud.
One of Zhu Cong’s cloth shoes hit him with considerable force in the back.
Qiu Chuji swayed, and a blanket of mist clouded his eyes. He was losing consciousness.
This time it hit him against the back of the head: a wooden fish, one of the percussive instruments the monks used while chanting the scriptures. Zhu Cong had found it by one of the Buddhas. Such a powerful blow to the head would have killed most people, but Qiu Chuji had spent years training his inner strength. But this time his vision went black. This is it, he said to himself. Master Eternal Spring has today met his fate at the hands of these shameless villains! His legs buckled, and he collapsed to the floor.
Zhu Cong approached Qiu Chuji and stretched his fan to tap the pressure point in the center of his chest. At that moment, Qiu Chuji’s left hand twitched. Zhu Cong knew he was in trouble. He blocked his heart with his right arm, but felt a force in his abdomen that sent him backward, blood spraying from his mouth. He landed with a crash.
Qiu Chuji could barely move.
The other monks of Fahua Temple were not practiced in kung fu and had been ignorant of their Abbot’s skills, choosing to flee rather than take part. But since silence had descended upon the Great Hall, the bravest among them ventured to peek inside, only to see the floor strewn with bodies and the hall painted in blood. Horrified, they ran to find Justice Duan.
Justice Duan was still hiding in the cellar. That the fight had turned out to be so bloody only pleased him, and he sent one of the monks back to check if the Taoist was among the injured, or perhaps even dead. Only once the monk had returned to report that Qiu Chuji was lying motionless, his eyes shut, did Duan feel safe enough to emerge with Lily Li.
He approached Qiu Chuji and prodded him with his foot. The Taoist replied with an almost imperceptible moan. He was still alive. Duan pulled the dagger from his belt and leaned in. “You filthy Taoist!” he snarled. “You’ve chased and harassed me. Today I take my revenge. Prepare to join your friends in the next world.”
“You mustn’t hurt him,” Scorched Wood called from where he lay.
“He’s a good man. Just a little short-tempered,” Scorched Wood said. “There was a misunderstanding.”
Justice Duan scoffed and aimed his dagger at Qiu Chuji’s face. Qiu Chuji’s eyes remained closed, but unbeknownst to Duan, he was gathering his qi. With a sudden movement he struck at Duan’s shoulder, cracking the bones with a deafening crunch. Duan’s dagger spun across the floor.
Scorched Wood summoned the last of his strength and threw the piece of burned wood in his hand at Duan. Duan tried to duck, but he was too slow, and the lump of wood struck him in the corner of the mouth, knocking three teeth clean out of his gums. The pain was intense and Duan was furious. He snatched the dagger from the floor, and ran at the Abbot, aiming the blade at his head. One of the younger monks grabbed him by the arm and another around the neck. Enraged, Duan turned the knife on them.
Qiu Chuji, Scorched Wood, and the Seven Freaks were too badly injured to do anything other than watch.
Just then, a howl.
“You filthy villain!” It was Lily Li. “Stop!” She had been waiting all this time to get her revenge. Now her captor was about to kill yet more righteous men, she could wait no longer. She ran and jumped up onto his back and wrestled with all her strength. With one broken arm, Duan could not put up much of a fight.
She was dressed in an army uniform, so the others had assumed her to be part of Duan’s retinue. Her attack took them all by surprise. But it was Ke Zhen’e who first realized this young man was in fact a woman, just from her voice. “Venerable Monk Scorched Wood,” he said, turning to the Abbot, “you’ve misled us and put us in grave danger. You had a woman hiding in your temple all along!”
Scorched Wood realized at once what had happened. This one small oversight had not only caused injury to himself, but also great harm to his friends. He planted his fist on the floor and, pushing himself to his feet, spread his hands and rushed at Justice Duan. Again Duan managed to dive out of the way, but Scorched Wood’s approach was clumsy and he ran headfirst into one of the temple columns and was killed instantly.
Justice Duan was terror-stricken. He could stay not a moment longer. Grabbing Lily Li, he ran.
“Help! No! He’s kidnapping me!”
Lily Li’s shouts faded into the distance.
Excerpted from A Hero Born, copyright © 2019 by Jin Yong.