"Little Shu, how are you doing?"
A familiar raspy voice caught Shus attention as he strolled down the dimly lit corridors of the demonic fortress, deep in thought. He turned around to see a feeble eighty-year-old smiling at him.
A legend no less famous than his son Liu Tian, he was widely known for revolutionizing the power system of the cult, transforming it from a secret sect in the West into the powerhouse it is today. Before Liu Zhong, the Demonic Cult was already a powerful force even though it advocated seclusion. After Liu Zhong, however, the Demonic Cult began to expand its influence onto the Central Plains, making its name known throughout Murim.
Yet right now this legend was just a mere elderly man with deteriorating health. His thin, frail body could barely stand up straight; his ashen-grey skin hung loosely on his malnourished figure; and on his left hand was a wooden cane that he leaned on for support. He barely had teeth or hair; his head was more like a skull with skin on it. The only part that was reminiscent of the former great Flame Demon was his sunken eyes that held an unusually fierce glow.
"Yeah, Im doing well. What brings you here, gramps?" Nodding in greeting, Liu Shu replied.
"Its awfully boring in my room." Liu Zhong shrugged, "So I figured I should see my grandson more often."
"Grandpa, you visited me just yesterday." Liu Shu reminded his grandfather gently.
As the respected Elder Demon, Liu Zhong has the second-highest level of authority after the Heavenly Demon. As a result, he spends most of his time loitering around the premises of the cult wasting his time away. And one of his favorite places in the cult was Liu Shus room. More often than his grandson would like, Liu Zhong would suddenly barge into his room to see what he was doing.
This was a prime example of what the retired demon with too much time and too little work always did.
"Oh, silly me!" He put his hands to his head in an exaggerated manner.
"How did I forget? Must be old age." Knudging his grandson, he whispered stealthily, "So... what are we doing today?"
"I dissected a martial supreme this afternoon." Refusing to play along with his childish antics, Liu Shu strode into his bloody room, "This one."
"Oh ho ho ho! A Martial Supreme! Impressive indeed!" Liu Zhong scratched his head, "Uh remind me, how many realms are there again? Ive been in the Martial God realm for too long, I can remember all the weaker ones."
Liu Shu stared at his grandfather in disbelief. He knew Grandpa Zhong had a poor memory, and it seemed to be worsening recently, but he couldn believe that he would forget the most basic knowledge for a martial artist.
Grandpa Zhong is honestly built different. Liu Shu thought to himself as he sat down and started explaining.
"The path of martial arts is divided into 6 realms."
"The first realm is Martial Novice. It refers to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of martial arts."
"The second realm is Martial Practitioner. Those who have learned a whole set of martial arts and can manifest qi can be called as such."
"The third realm is Martial Master. Martial artists in this stage have mastered their martial arts and can manipulate their qi freely."
"The fourth realm is Martial King. Martial Kings take their martial arts to the next level by adapting their unique style of martial arts."
"The fifth realm is Martial Supreme. Those who have reached this stage awaken qi with a special characteristic."
"The sixth realm is Martial God. Also called the Natural Realm, they awaken heaven-defying abilities upon reaching this level."
"Every realm can also be roughly divided into early, middle, late, and peak stages depending on the martial artists mastery over their realm."
"In addition, martial artists in the peak stage can partially use the abilities of the next realm, thus it is also called the semi stage. A peak martial novice can be called a semi-practitioner, a peak martial practitioner a semi-master, and so on." Liu Shu concluded and looked at Liu Zhong for his response.
"Ha! You forgot the Transcendent Realm!" The senior slapped his thigh and chuckled, "So close, my boy."
"But there isn any evidence that the Transcendent Realm exists." Liu Shu protested.
"Well, there also isn any evidence that it doesn exist." Liu Zhong shrugged, "And your father is a peak Martial God, which is basically a semi-transcendent. Following that logic, it wouldn be unreasonable to say that the Transcendent Realm is the stage after. Who knows, you might become the first Transcendent?"
Liu Shu waved him off, "Alright, alright. You win- Wait, didn you say you forgot about the realms?"
The fossil-like elder smiled mischievously, "I just remembered."
"You-" Dumbfounded at his grandfathers immature behavior, Liu Shu could only shake his head helplessly.
"Well, do you want to see todays subject or not?"
Liu Zhong tilted his head, indicating for his grandson to continue.
"This Mongolian warrior was captured when Father encountered a troop of bandits in Gansu." The adolescent martial artist elaborated, "I think he was one of the deserters of the Mongolian army when they invaded the Zhou Dynasty."
"Despite numerous external injuries, his organs were surprisingly well-preserved, leading to fruitful results." Liu Shu continued, "One of the most noticeable differences from the martial artists of the Central Plains was his taller physique and incredibly well-developed limbs."
"I believe this is due to the Mongolians fondness for archery and horseriding. In addition, bruises on the mans back and limbs imply that he was proficient in extremely close-combat martial arts such as grappling."
"As for his weapon, other than a bow, he also carried a large blade by his side. Unlike the smaller and lighter pirate cutlasses of the Eastern Seas, which were optimized for fast ship boarding and close-quarters fighting, it had a heavier tip that increased downward slashing power. I assume that it was a military weapon that every Mongolian soldier received from its simple design."
"The man had a pitiful amount of qi for a Martial Supreme. I knew the Central Plains were more advanced in qi arts, but it still was surprising nonetheless." Liu Shu took a deep breath, "So, to cover up this weakness, this person seems to have trained in a special type of body strengthening arts in exchange. It did not use rituals like the Shamans of the Southern jungles, but rather resembles the Golden Body Art of the Shaolin Temple, although less powerful."
"The injury on the hip also shows that..."
A hint of sadness washed over Grandpa Zhong as his grandson rambled on and on about his discoveries. Liu Shu was a martial fanatic, no doubt, but not because he was born with an unquenching love for martial arts; it was because of the cutthroat environment he was raised in. Unlike his ruthlessly ambitious elder sister who took after his father, Liu Shu had inherited his mothers peace-loving personality, and could not stand his siblings unending fights over the demonic seat. As a result, he became increasingly isolated from his siblings, avoiding them whenever he could. But where could he hide, with no one to rely on, in this castle of horrors? He could only suppress his raging emotions and turn his head away from the judging gaze of the maids, the scathing remarks of the elders, and his ever-bickering siblings.
Then on one fateful day, a six-year-old Liu Shu stumbled into the cults library by chance. He had never been there before: there was no point as his brothers and sisters frequented the place and he wasn of age to learn anything more than some basic fist techniques. But in his rush, he slipped through the door; and right in front of the door sat Liu Zhong, sitting on a wooden chair, rocking back and forth while leisurely flipping the pages of the Seven Lightning Palms.
The appearance of his adorable grandson delighted the martial arts veteran as he racked his brains to make the child stay with him. The first thing that came to his mind was picture books, but it was the library of the headquarters of the Demonic Cult, for heavens sake! The last book it would have was a picture book! In the end, the closest thing he could find was, in fact, the manual in his hand. So, for better or for worse, he handed the manual over to the reluctant kid, hoping the drawings of martial artists would lighten up his unnaturally stoic face. However, the response he got far exceeded his expectations.
"Grandpa, this man... won he get hurt if he hits someone like that?"
It was an innocent response that could have destroyed an adults lifetime effort. Still, Liu Zhong thought nothing about it, chuckling as he walked over and tried to explain the intricacies of martial arts to his naive grandson, "No, silly. Look, if you hit the enemy with this palm technique, theyll be forced to defend against the follow-up palm strike, so how would the person get hurt?"
"Can the enemy just headbutt the person instead of defending?"
"Headbutt? Headbutt-" Liu Zhongs eyes widened as he snatched the manual from his grandson, muttering, "No wait, this might work. By using the arms to create space, even a slight blunt attack on the dantian could cause reverse qi flow..."
Headbutting? Any martial artist would scoff at the idea, especially if it came from a five-year-old. Using one of the bodys most vulnerable parts to attack the enemy violated one of the most basic principles of martial arts. But Liu Zhong was no ordinary martial artist. As someone who was once called the Flame Demon, he could fully understand the ingenuity behind that sentence. A seemingly absurd question that only a child could think of, it actually deconstructed the foundations of the Seven Lightning Palms, creating an irreparable strike to the sole weakness of the technique - the unstable qi flow.
And to top it off, this was the first page of the technique! Who knows what more insights could he have? What more could he achieve in the future?
"A genius! A genius!" Gone was the refined manner of the old gentleman, leaving behind a grinning maniac with bloodshot eyes, "The heavens have truly blessed the cult! I must tell everyone about it right now!" Bolting off, he left a dazed Liu Shu in the dust.
The elders were delighted to hear the news - who wouldn want the next generation to be gifted? - and permitted Liu Shu priority access to the library, allowing him to study without care. Liu Shu agreed, hoping to use it to find solace from all the conflict around him. And it was very successful. He found out that, when he focused on learning, it helped to block out the squabbles of his family and calmed his restless heart. So he began to spend all his time learning and refining the cults martial arts.
He did not fail the elders expectations. In a mere 6 years, he had managed to go through all of the martial art manuals in the cult library, even raising the grade of some. However, his pursuit did not end there. He changed his target to the greatest treasure of the Demonic Cult, a peak heaven-grade martial art that only those of the direct lineage could learn - the Heavenly Demonic Art! He planned to create the perfect martial art by further developing it. Once again, the elders did not mind - he was the son of the Heavenly Demon after all - but as Liu Shu neared his 12th birthday, signaling the beginning of his transformation to manhood, they came to a sudden realization.
His qi was too low!
For 8 years, Liu Shu had barely trained his qi as he mulled over thousands of martial arts. This was devasting, as qi defined the strength of any martial artist. Any technique, no matter how powerful, would be powerless before a large amount of qi. Furthermore, many techniques needed a solid qi foundation to be used.
Realizing this, the elders quickly summoned the reclusive young demon and ordered him to start training his body. This time, the boy refused. You see, as time went on, Liu Shiu became more and more accustomed to using martial arts as a means of escaping reality. It had grown to the point where he was obsessed with only martial arts, disregarding anything else.
The elders tried everything they could. They threatened, punished, tempted, and begged the youthful practitioner to no avail. And every single time he would stubbornly refuse and return to his room to continue fueling his desire for knowledge. As the son of the cult leader, he did not fear them, and even if he wasn , his unrelenting obsession with martial arts would still push him on. So after many months of fruitless persuasion, the council of elders finally gave up and left him to his own devices.
But there was one who did not give up. The same person who first discovered the once-in-a-millennia talent, Liu Zhong visited his grandson time and time again, tirelessly coaxing him into training his qi, hoping that he would one day put his exceptional gift to use.
"Little Shu, listen to Grandpa. If you don train, you will be killed by your brothers and sisters without exception," interrupted Liu Zhong.
Liu Shu paused, looking his grandfather in the eye, "Looks like you really want me to be the Heavenly Demon, don you? If I don have enough qi, why don you find my father and make him transfer all his qi to me just like how you did for him? That way I will have enough qi to become the Heavenly Demon."
Liu Zhong sighed, "Liu Shu, don pretend you don know the rules of the sect. How could you use the qi of the Heavenly Demon to fight for the seat of the Heavenly Demon? Don be ridiculous."
"Then change the rules," smiling conceitedly, Liu Shu shrugged, "Or go and choose a person to inherit the seat. Then there would be no suffering and bloodshed. Isn that great?"
Liu Zhong furrowed his eyebrows, his patience running out, "Of course I can do that! Even if I had the power to do so, how would I face those who died due to this tradition in Heaven? This would undermine their noble sacrifices!"
"Noble sacrifice?" Liu Shu scoffed, "If thats what I am going to be, then I would rather give up my chance for the seat. Perhaps a normal life in Guangdong or Manchuria would be nice."
He curled his lips, "Don worry, gramps. Ill be sure to hide my identity and martial arts to protect myself. Youll never hear from me again."
"LIU SHU!" The wrinkled elder roared and raised his cane, trembling in anger, "Youve gone too far! How dare you even mention leaving the cult? Traitorous little bastard, I would have ended you if not for your potential!"
A stark contrast from his usually calm demeanor, the furious demon revealed his true nature - a fiery personality that was befitting of the title "Flame Demon". However, Liu Shu was not intimidated. He only stared at the raging lunatic with a cold gaze, waiting for his outburst to end. What long ago could have brought countless experts to their knees was just a mere tantrum from a powerless old man in the eyes of Liu Shu.
After a while, Liu Zhong finally calmed down. Realizing his unsightly behavior, he tried to appeal to Liu Shu in another way, "Please, dear Shu. Don waste your talent like this. Think about it, the cult needs you. Your family needs you."
"Family?" The young man snorted, "I can believe you still have the guts to say that. I don care if you hypocrites fight to the death amongst yourselves. I have no interest in things other than martial arts. Do what you want, but don tell me what to do."
He narrowed his eyes, "Same goes for my sister. Tell her Im not her slave. The agreement we have is mutual."
He swung open the door beside him, gesturing for Liu Zhong to leave "Now would you please see yourself out. If you are not here to observe the specimen, then I don have the time to entertain you."
Liu Zhong sighed, knowing that he failed in convincing the prodigy again. But he still had one more card to play. As he stepped out of the room, he turned around one last time and said, "Well, too bad. I thought you were going to at least cultivate up to the late martial master stage by the end of the year. Now I can give you this ticket to the ancestral grounds."
Waving the elaborate jade plaque in his hand, he whistled as he left.
Liu Shus eyes widened.
"You old snake!"