THE PATH OF CROWS
A WUXIA STORY
There was much one could tell from the changing winds. All you needed to do was listen. Sometimes the winds whispered the birth of a looming storm, destined to drown the world with its tears. Other times, the wind carried messages from spirits, rattling on old doors and seeping through keyholes until they’re heard.
Tonight the wind brought a message of warning to Zhang, a tired old man who operated a simple tea shop. The years were not good to him. His wrinkled flesh was marked with scars from old battles and his bones creaked every time it rained.
His eyesight was all but gone as was his hearing. Despite being deaf in one ear, he still had the ability to listen and listen well. Tonight, it was the wind that was speaking and its message was ominous and dark. Zhang let out a long sigh.
“So be it,” he whispered as he poured himself a steaming cup of oolong tea and sat himself down in front of his wooden table. A wrinkled hand, marked with liver spots, picked up the porcelain cup and lifted it to his lips.
Warmth and serenity filled his belly.
He set the cup down and closed his eyes and listened some more. The wind had stopped speaking. In its stead was a new voice, that of a youth, who had purpose.
“Are you Zhang?”
The old man opened his eyes. The boy’s sorrow was a mask and buried deep within his glossy eyes were the smoldering embers of anger.
Zhang pitied him almost immediately. “You’re not here for tea leaves,” Zhang stated.
The boy shook his head. “I am Wu. I ask for your help.”
“I can only help in recommending tea leaves.” Zhang gestured for Wu to sit across from him while he poured the boy some of his tea. He offered it to the boy, who took it graciously.
“Meaningful discussions should always be done over tea,” Zhang said, “For tea is the symbol of wisdom and patience.”
Wu drank from the cup and Zhang nodded with approval. “Now, tell me why you’re here.”
“I know who you are. I require your help.”
Zhang’s eyes narrowed. “I’m just a tired old man whose palate for leaves is impeccable.”
The boy shook his head. “That’s not true. You were once the master of Wing Chun School of Martial Arts, the most respected school in all the country. One night one of your students offended the Bandit King during his supper at a dumpling house, just outside the outskirts of the town by the winding river.” The boy paused to acknowledge any emotion on Zhang’s face. He found none.
Zhang simply took another sip of his tea.
“The Bandit King challenged your student to a fight, which he accepted. It was a fierce battle lasting an hour, one where your student managed to scar his opponent’s face, blinding him in one eye. However, his inexperience proved to be his downfall and the Bandit King prevailed. He slit your student’s throat after and dumped his body in the river, turning the waters red with his blood. That student was your son.”
Zhang closed his eyes and breathed steadily. Meditation was the key to controlling one’s emotions.
“However the death of your son wasn’t enough. The Bandit King was enraged by the fact that he had lost his eye. He and his disciples assaulted your school, murdering everyone inside. At the time you were away on a mission for the Emperor. You were not there to protect them.” Wu knew the tale well. “What happened next are stories destined to be told as legends. You hunted down the Bandit King, along with all of his disciples, and killed them. You avenged your students, your son, and the honor of your name and school.”
Zhang opened his eyes and saw the determination on the boy’s face.
“Ancient history,” Zhang said.
“Help me with my vengeance,” Wu said. “I seek to avenge my father from a villain, one just as vile as the Bandit King.”
“Revenge is the thief of one’s humanity and because of this I cannot help you.”
“That is cruelty,” Wu said. “Why should you be the only one allowed the gift of revenge?”
Zhang set his cup down and allowed his wisdom, accumulated over the years, to congregate on his tongue before finally speaking. “I shall tell you my story and if your desire for vengeance still burns like the sun after I’m done, then I shall help you.”
Wu nodded and the teashop owner began his tale.
It was fate that had brought me to the dumpling house that night. I was on my way home from my meeting with the emperor and felt hunger gnawing at my stomach. I arrived just in time to see the patrons of the restaurant gather around the river, like a congregation praying to the god of the four winds.
Curiosity outweighed my hunger and so I investigated. Imagine my shock when I discovered that they had gathered around the body of my son; my precious boy whom my wife had given her life to deliver into this world.
My first thought was that I wanted to join him, to drown myself in the river’s cold waters and pray that the gods of the afterlife reunited me with my family.
The water was too shallow for me to act on this plan.
Instead, I wrapped a cloth around my son’s neck and cradled his body in my arms while screaming to the crowd, “Who did this? Who killed my son?”
My anger was ferocious—inhuman almost—and it took a good minute before a young server gathered up enough courage to answer my question.
“The Bandit King,” she said.
At the very mention of the fiend’s name, the crowd began to disperse and scurry away, like rats caught in a storm. All that was left was this girl with plum colored eyes, myself, and the corpse of my only son.
As a delegate of the Emperor’s Justice, I had transparency to many names and faces in the criminal underworld. The Bandit King was one I had not heard of.
She was hesitant. Fear had gripped her tongue.
I gentled my voice, changing the undertones of wrath into ones of a grieving father. “Please, he was my boy.”
Her brown eyes filled with sympathy as tears collected in their corners. “I knew your son,” she said. “He was always kind to me.”
“Then help me, please. Tell me about the Bandit King.”
“There are men in this world and then there is he, a demon concealed in human skin. One look into his dark eyes and you can see that his humanity was stripped from his bones long ago. He is cruel and he is strong. He fights as if his flesh were made of stone, impervious to pain. The only time I have ever seen him flinch was when your son wounded his left eye leaving a mark that will never heal.”
“Aside from his wounded eye, how can I tell when I’ve met him?”
“There is none taller than he and his face has been stripped of all hair. There is some western blood in him as well. One will know when they see him. The skies will change.”
“Was he alone?”
“The times I have seen him at the dumpling house, yes. But word has it that he has an army of criminals at his disposal, one that operates in shadows. Their real names are secrets, transparent to no man.”
“Why did my son engage the Bandit King in combat?”
And that was when the girl with the plum eyes began to cry. “Your son was protecting me from the Bandit King’s cruelty, when none would. If he hadn’t intervened, the Bandit King would have taken my virtue.”
The look of anguish on her face told me all. She had loved him.
As twisted as it sounds, I took comfort in knowing that I wouldn’t be grieving for my son alone. There were others lives he had touched.
The owner of the dumpling house gave me a rickety wooden cart while the girl wrapped my son in white bandages. She was gentle as she did it, as if his body had not gone cold.
Afterwards I pulled the cart, carrying my son, back into town. The weight of sorrow and rage dragged my heart down to the soil I stepped on.
From a mile away, I smelled the blood. The winds had carried the scent of viscera from my school all the way to my nose.
The Bandit King and his minions had murdered everyone inside, slaughtered them in their sleep like the cowards they were. It was a vision of horror, one seared into my memory every time I see a single drop of blood.
That same night, not only did I lose my son, but everything my ancestors and I had built. The name Zhang was synonymous with the Wing Chun School of martial arts. It was my dream that my son carried on its legacy.
But now he was gone and my school destroyed. There was nothing left for me except for the singular idea of vengeance.
I buried twenty-one bodies that night, the entire time cursing the god I once worshipped for allowing this horror to happen.
I had lived a life with an honest heart and I had taught my son and students to do the same. If a benevolent and loving god did exist, how could he have accepted this? Why did he not intervene?
When I was done burying the dead, my hands were torn and bleeding, but paled in comparison to the wound inside of me. At that time I honestly believed that the only way I could ever heal was by spilling the blood of the Bandit King and everyone he knew.
My desire for vengeance had darkened my heart.
I abandoned the god of just and righteousness and turned to the forbidden god of vengeance. I prayed to him, offering my soul for the opportunity to kill all who had wronged me.
The dark god answered my prayers in a dream.
I was standing on the bones of my students, staring at a decrepit tree that my son was bound to with chains.
“Son,” I called out to him. I so desperately wanted to reach out and hold him, to wrap my arm around his shoulder like I’ve done countless times when I transferred my wisdom to him.
“Follow the Path for Crows,” he said. His skin was cracking from where the chains ground into his flesh, blood dripping to the base of the tree and collecting in a shallow pool.
My heart broke seeing him like this. Surely this was not his fate in the afterlife, was it?
I reached out to him, my eyes blurry with sorrow.
“The Path of Crows,” he repeated. “Follow it and kill everyone on this path. They are the disciples of the Bandit King.”
I awoke with sweat on my shirt and a shortness of breath. I knew I should have wept, but it was as if my heart had gone cold. The only thing on my mind was how wonderful it would be to see the blood of my enemies paint the dirt crimson.
Outside my window sat a crow, cawing like a rooster would to the dawn. As I approached it, the black bird flew away. I should have let him go right then and there, but I was compelled to follow those dark ominous wings.
I followed the crow for what seemed like hours—out of the town, beyond the rolling green hills, past the bamboo forest, until it stopped on an old dirt path. A dozen of his brethren lined the sides of it, eyes all fixated on me.
The Path of Crows.
I clenched my fists and my mouth almost twisted into a smile. My vengeance would come.
For five days I traversed the path in pensive solitude, stopping only to fish in nearby rivers and rest when the stars illuminated the sky like tiny precious stones. Whenever I came to a fork in the road, it was the crows that acted like my compass.
I surrendered my faith to these winged omens. They were always around, perched in nearby trees or circling the skies above me, their black eyes continuously watching.
Eventually they led me to my first encounter.
He was covered in silk of crimson red and his inky hair was long and slick like oil. His eyes were filled with malevolence as he approached me like one would a feral dog.
“It looks like fate has brought us together,” the crimson man said.
“Who speaks to me?”
“I am the Red Gambler. Yourself?”
There was a moment of terse silence between us, before the Red Gambler unleashed a war cry and came at me with furious palm strikes. I recognized his stance: the Palm of Eternal Bad Luck. His Kung Fu was one developed by the pirates of the seas.
Only a criminal could have learned such a technique.
I countered his attacks blow for blow, not allowing a single strike to land. It was known that the Palm of Eternal Bad Luck would cause one’s flesh to burst and veins to disintegrate.
It was twilight when our fight began and it carried on throughout the night. By the fourth hour of combat, my muscles were screaming for rest but I did not relent. My son must be avenged.
It wasn’t until dawn peaked over the horizon when I managed to counter his Twisted Centipede kick and land a hard elbow to his jaw, shattering it completely.
I followed up quickly with a series of jabs that hit three vital pressure points, incapacitating him.
He fell to his knees and looked at me with tired eyes.
I wanted him to beg for mercy, but he never did. He only looked at me with hatred and said, “Do it you coward.”
I channelled all my Qi into one single punch, causing his head to explode, staining the path red with his blood.
At that moment, more crows joined the flock, their black eyes all focused on me as I cleaned the blood off my hands.
When I was ready to continue my journey, I turned to the dark birds and said “Take me where I need to be.”
Six long years I walked that path with only the company of birds and my enemies. Every time I came across someone on this path, I killed them. You may have already heard tales of these fights through the whispers of common folk.
I fought the Iron Claw on a muddy river bank, when the sun was at its peak. His spiked gauntlets, known for tearing flesh off the bone, were terrifying and the speed of his movements was unparalleled. A few times, I nearly met my fate as metal blades fell inches away from tearing apart my face. It was an act of the universe that I managed to best this formidable opponent.
The sun had taken pity on my quest and sent a ray of light down to earth, reflecting it off the metal of The Iron Claw’s gauntlets. It momentarily blinded him.
Three seconds was all I required to land the killing blow, a forceful knee to his head that snapped his neck all the way back.
A month later I met the Jade Scorpion, with his whip of blades. I still have the scars on my body to show for that encounter.
His whip was like a tentacle with a mind of its own, determined to seek the softest part of my neck and tear my head completely off. If we weren’t so close to the bamboo forest, I would have surely died that day.
Inside the dense thickets of bamboo, his whip had a hard time tracking me. With his weapon rendered useless, we took to a battle of hands and feet that lasted for hours. Eventually, I managed to impale him on a broken piece of bamboo.
The next day, the Brass Foot found me. My body had yet to recover from my last battle, and this one I found absolutely grueling. His right foot was like hardened stone and obliterated anything it came in contact with. At one point, he managed to land a blow, one that broke my ribs. In my weakened state I was all but finished. It was the god of vengeance who intervened, sending one of his crows to peck at the Brass Foot’s eyes.
It was only seconds after that I managed to break both his legs and smash his head repeatedly against a large stone.
Drunken Cobra, Tiger of the Woods, Xei Feng of Yun Chin school, the Forsaken Monk, Li Bao of Han Wing school, and the Broken Widow—they all died by my bare hands.
None had admitted to killing my son and students which infuriated me more.
All men should die with honor and the truths on their tongue. None of these men did though. They were liars, murderers, and thieves.
My hatred had reached a pinnacle. It was all I had in both heart and mind. Gone was any room for love or happiness and because of this, I forgot what my lovely wife looked like. To this day my memories fail to paint the portrait of the woman whom I loved above all else.
Finally on the sixth day of the sixth month of the sixth year, the Path ended in front of an old home, built of wood and straw.
The collection of crows that had gathered along the path all ascended into the sky and landed on the house’s rooftop.
So this was it, the home of the Bandit King. At long last, my quest was finally at an end. I would face my mortal enemy and break every bone in his body before granting him the mercy of death.
I stood outside the hut, screaming his name, challenging him to a fight to the death.
He never came.
When the door finally opened, a young girl came out of the house, no older than ten. I was stunned. Why had the Path of Crows led me to the house of a little girl?
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am the daughter of the one you call the Bandit King,” she replied softly. It was then I noticed she had the blood of foreigners mixed in her.
I looked at her long and hard, wondering what I should do. Had my heart grown so cold that I’d kill a man in front of his daughter?
All it took was the image of my dead son—bound in chains to the damned tree, begging me to avenge him—to make my decision.
I would not kill the girl, but her father had to atone for his transgressions.
“Bring your father out and then leave this place, forever.”
The girl shook her head. “But that’s impossible.”
“Has he turned coward?”
“No. He had died of pneumonia two years ago.”
At first, I failed to believe her. My reaction was that the notoriety of my actions had reached his ear and he was scared to confront me. It wasn’t until she led me to the garden behind her house and showed me the mound of dirt and a faded headstone that I began to believe her. The girl’s tears at the site of the grave all but confirmed the truth.
The shock of this revelation caused me to drop to the ground and crush hard dirt in between the palms of my hands. I cursed the heavens for robbing me of my revenge.
“Why do you hate my father?” the girl asked, when my rage had finally settled.
“The Bandit King—”
“Feng,” the girl corrected me. “My father’s name was Feng.”
I refused to call him by his real name. It humanized a man who in actuality was the devil. “Your father was a cruel and callous man. He murdered my son.”
The girl pursed her lips. “I’ve heard stories but I fail to believe any of them. To me, my father was always a loving man, who folded paper cranes with me and held me to sleep when I was ill.”
She was telling the truth. The eyes never lied—she loved him with all her heart.
I rose from the ground and dusted the soil of my clothes.
“Do you wish to kill me?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I have no desire to hurt children.”
“Then you can come inside and have some tea.”
It was in this little girl’s house that I grew such an appreciation for tea. The smell of jasmine and its warmth as I drank it soothed my body. It was good to finally sit.
She wanted to hear the stories of my battles. At first I resisted, telling her that tales of violence served no purpose for a ten year old girl.
It was then she rose from her seat and broke a thick piece of firewood with a single touch. She had been trained.
“Tell me your stories,” she repeated. “It’s the price you pay for my tea.”
So I did. I told her the tales of how I bested and killed all ten of the Bandit King’s disciples. All the while, she listened intently.
It wasn’t until I finished speaking that she revealed a second piece of shocking information.
“You say you killed ten men along the Path of Crows,” she began.
“Yet my father only had two disciples: the Bronze Foot and the Iron Claw.”
That revelation haunts me to this day. I fled the house immediately, disgusted by what the girl had implied. I was greeted by the nightmare of a thousand crows standing before me, making a hideous sound. It took me a while to realize that they were all laughing; as if the corruption of my humanity was a twisted joke.
The god of vengeance had fooled me into murdering innocent men—good men—and in my quest for revenge, I lost both my honor and my soul.
Zhang drew a long breath as he allowed the consequences of his tale to sink into Wu’s heart and mind. He took another sip of his tea. It had gone cold.
He set down the cup. “I often wonder how long it is before someone walks along another path, paved by the god of vengeance; a path that leads straight back to me? That is the Path of Crows. When one path ends, another begins.” He looked at Wu, whose eyes were pooling with tears. “And this brings me back to you. You’ve come under false pretence.”
“Yes,” Wu answered, wiping the wetness from his cheeks with the back of his hand.
“I will not ask you to spare my life. I deserve no such mercy. But tell me, what path has he led you down?”
Wu replied with sadness in his voice. “My path is filled with the tears of ghosts and decaying tea leaves.”
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