Lin Shouxi felt like he was dreaming.
Ordinary children do not retain memories from their infancy, but he did, and they were strikingly vivid.
Recollections flooded his mind, of his master carrying him back to the sect while he was still wrapped in swaddling clothes, and the intricate calligraphy etched on the tablet at the Demon Gate’s stele pavilion which read “do good deeds and accumulate virtue” (行善积德).
He even recalled the nursemaid assigned to his care, and the experience of being weaned shortly after he was born.
But the memory that left the deepest imprint on his mind was the day his master presented him with an array of items to choose from – coins, pens and inks, an abacus, and jade ornaments, among other things.
It was as if he was drawing lots, with each item holding its own significance.
After pondering for what felt like an eternity, he finally reached out and grabbed a black scale that looked like a shell.
The onlookers were momentarily stunned, then one of them said, “When we found this child, he was clutching this thing tight in his hand and wouldn’t let go for days and nights.
And now he’s chosen it again… Could it be true? Is this child the evil dragon’s reincarnation, and that black scale his inverse scale?”
The rumor that “the evil dragon will be reborn, inhabiting a human form and bearing an inverse scale in its mouth, to bring misfortune to the common people” had been causing a stir among the members of the Demon Gate for quite some time, despite it having no basis.
Lin Shouxi’s master cast a stern glare at the people who would soon become his senior brothers and sisters, his voice cutting through the murmurs and whispers like a knife.
“These unfounded rumors must never be spoken of again,” he declared firmly.
Unbeknownst to them, Lin Shouxi understood every word they had spoken.
However, he hadn’t understood the reason for their apprehension.
The black scale, later inlaid in white bronze and hung around his neck, appeared to be an ordinary object at first glance.
Despite its hardness, it was unremarkable in every other aspect.
However, he had come across a single mention of it in ancient texts that stated, “Wearing the scale of a true dragon can grant immunity to confusion”.
This discovery had intrigued him, but over time, the scale became an afterthought in his life and he eventually forgot about it completely.
But after the incident with the black scale, Lin Shouxi became drawn to the stories and conversations of his senior brothers and sisters in the Demon Gate.
The tales of their adventures and the mysteries of the world beyond captivated him, even at the age of two.
He would sit quietly on the sidelines, absorbing every detail and every word, and they didn’t mind his presence.
In the tight-knit sect of the Demon Gate, bonds and relationships were valued above all else, and Lin Shouxi’s charming personality and good looks had quickly won them over.
His senior sisters doted on him like a younger sibling, while his senior brothers playfully teased him, referring to him as their “little junior sister”.
That said, it was during those same conversations that he first learned about Mu Shijing, a young girl in the Tao Gate who, like him, had been discovered in the City of Death.
The thought of having a counterpart in the world both intrigued and fascinated him, and he often found himself wondering about her.
By the age of three, Lin Shouxi suddenly thought he should be able to speak, and so he did.
“Master,” he began, his head slanted in a curious tilt, “we not only abstain from doing evil, but we also stand for justice, eradicate bandits and put an end to wrongdoings.
Why then are we called the Demon Gate?”
This was the first question he had ever asked.
On that day, his master’s eyes glinted with a hint of amusement as he spoke, “This demon is not that demon.”
With those enigmatic words, his master went on to explain the history behind their sect’s name.
Decades ago, the martial arts world was stagnant, with those who could traverse rooftops and crush stones with their bare hands deemed as the highest experts.
Tales of floating on water and killing with flying swords were nothing more than imaginative stories spun by storytellers.
But then, sixty years ago, those tales became a reality.
Two monsters emerged from the Yellow and Luo River regions.
One was a headless fish with a hundred whiskers and legs, while the other was a four-legged snake with a hundred eyes and scales, and each was carrying a book.
These two books, as fate would have it, were acquired by the founders of the two sects of the Demonic Path and were named after the ancient cosmological diagrams of the two rivers.
The pages of the two books held secrets that defied description, secrets that could only be unlocked through touch.
The experts who inherited these techniques soon discovered that they could breathe in a potent energy, one that coursed through their bodies and turned into a force of the unknown.
This energy empowered them to perform extraordinary feats, like killing with the mere intent of their swords, which was once thought to be nothing more than fantasy.
The martial arts world was transformed, its glory reignited, as people began to explore the limits of their newfound abilities.
They sought the source of this energy, tracing it to its densest concentration and finally arriving at an ancient city, long-since abandoned, called the City of Death.
The City of Death attracted the most powerful individuals to reside and cultivate their abilities.
But the power of true energy was a double-edged sword, bringing with it both strength and corruption.
Some cultivators, in the midst of their training, would suddenly develop black-purple veins that spread rapidly over their bodies, reducing them to rot and decay.
Amid the wild expansion of the martial arts world, the corruption seemed to be an unavoidable curse.
It only festered, growing stronger and more widespread.
But not everyone was content to let the world slide into darkness.
The founder of the Demon Gate, based in the River Luo Inscription, saw the true energy for what it was: the insidious breath of demons.
He believed that to stop the spread of corruption, the ancient city must be sealed, the River Luo Inscription destroyed, and all cultivation ceased.
In stark contrast stood the Tao Gate.
They saw cultivation as a divine gift, and humans as merely too weak to control the raw energy of the universe.
But with each passing generation, they would grow stronger and more capable.
To them, destroying the book was tantamount to self-castration, an act of sacrilege against the gods that must not be done.
They saw the Demon Gate as misguided heretics, blinded by fear and ignorance.
The two sides clashed, each with its own staunch followers.
The Tao Gate, with its overwhelming might, denounced the other side as the “Demon Gate”.
“We have fought for many years, with the Tao Gate always holding the upper hand.
If it weren’t for the sudden disaster that struck the ancient city three years ago, killing all the Taoist experts who stayed there, our Demon Gate may have already been destroyed,” his master said.
“Cultivation is such a dangerous thing,” said Lin Shouxi, his voice tinged with emotion.
“Yes,” his master answered with a heavy breath.
“True energy is like a curse, a means for demons to infect the world.
Sadly, the Tao Gate refuses to see the truth.”
Lin Shouxi furrowed his brows.
“And yet, we still cultivate it, despite knowing its true nature?”
“It’s the only way we can defeat the Tao Gate and secure the River Luo Inscription,” his master said, determination in his voice.
“We must harness true energy if we are to defeat our enemies.”
Lin Shouxi was filled with uncertainty.
“Will I become contaminated?”
“You are special,” his master declared with conviction.
“You will not fall to the demons’ influence.”
Lin Shouxi nodded hesitantly, his uncertainty still lingering.
“So if the Tao Gate dubbed us as the ‘Demon Gate’, what was our original name?” he inquired.
“The Joyous Union and Harmony of Heaven and Earth and Yin and Yang Sect,” his master replied in a commanding voice.
“…Demon Gate also sounds pretty good,” Lin Shouxi said bluntly, in the way only a child still wet behind the ears could.
At four, Lin Shouxi was gifted with the touch of the River Luo Inscription, granting him the ability to absorb true energy and embark on the journey of practicing the Demon Gate’s core method.
By seven, he had mastered all of the sect’s martial arts techniques, but his curiosity and longing for the sect’s history lingered.
“Master, will we still pass on the secret arts of the past?” Lin Shouxi asked.
The leader of the Demon Gate shook his head, “No, those techniques are incompatible with our way of drawing in true energy.
Our sect once lived in accord with the world, simply striving for happiness.
But after our ancestors stumbled upon the fish’s and snake’s books, our purpose shifted.
We had to relinquish our former existence in order to combat the encroaching miasma of the demon’s breath.”
A tinge of remorse laced Lin Shouxi’s sigh, but his master jolted him back to reality.
“Beginning tomorrow, you must unlearn all the spells you’ve acquired over the past three years,” his master ordered.
Lin Shouxi’s preoccupied mind caused him to miss the latter and most crucial part of his master’s statement.
Noticing his pupil’s absentmindedness, the master regarded Lin Shouxi with a glint of curiosity in his eyes.
“Do you not wish to inquire as to why?” he inquired.
“Why?” the youth replied, his voice laced with confusion.
“Simply put,” his master replied enigmatically, “the various techniques you have acquired will coalesce into the ultimate sword technique of the Demon Gate – the revered White Pupil Black Phoenix Sword Scripture.” With a swift motion of his sleeve, he turned on his heel and departed.
The statue of the White Pupil Black Phoenix loomed tall before the mountain gate, a symbol of reverence and worship for the Demon Gate.
The statue, black as a flame and proud as a bird of prey, never lost its ferocity, even as the winds of time blew past it.
Its white pupils shone bright, as if they could peer into the very depths of the universe.
His master recounted forth a legend, passed down through the generations of their sect.
It was said that the founder had beheld a dream where the Black Phoenix, a deity revered and worshiped, had made its presence known.
In this mystical vision, the deity gifted the founder with a sword scripture, a set of nine levels, seemingly elementary yet enigmatic.
Despite the centuries that had transpired, no one had ever succeeded in unlocking its complete and utter might.
“Dragons reign over a hundred scales, and phoenixes rule over ten thousand birds.
Endowed with a scale and bestowed with this sword scripture, you shall undoubtedly become unrivaled in the world.”
On the first day of Lin Shouxi’s sword cultivation, his master encouraged him with these words.
But Lin Shouxi was aware of the journey ahead.
“The higher the technique, the longer the road…” he told his master.
To this, his master replied with a twinkle in his eye, “That’s a saying of the Tao Gate.
Ours is quite the opposite.
Besides, there’s another saying that states that what is short in length may be long in width.”
Lin Shouxi inclined his head in a measured manner, allowing the wisdom imparted to take root within him.
With a blazing resolve, he continued his journey along the path of cultivation.
Because Lin Shouxi was gifted with a rare aptitude, he did not disappoint his master’s belief in him.
In a mere handful of seasons, he had scaled to the pinnacle of the eighth level, outpacing even the most prodigious of his fellow disciple-brothers and sisters.
However, life was not akin to cultivation, and his exceptional talent would not ensure a lifetime of smooth sailing.
The year he turned fourteen, his master passed away, felled by the fatal disease of true energy erosion.
On his deathbed, his master summoned Lin Shouxi to his room and showed him his wrist, where a black and purple stripe, like a leech, clung to his once-strong skin.
“Death has come for me,” his master said calmly.
“Can I do anything?” Lin Shouxi asked, heartbroken.
“Shouxi, you are the disciple I have invested the most effort into, and I called you here today to teach you one final thing,” his master looked at him, speaking gravely and with great emotion.
Lin Shouxi thought that his master was going to teach him some hidden technique, but no, his master simply stood before him, letting him watch as the true energy slowly eroded his body, consuming him before his very eyes.
Lin Shouxi fell to his knees, eyes wide with shock and terror, as he gazed upon his master.
His figure was now a twisted and distorted visage, his skin marred by writhing purplish veins, his bones melted away into grotesque contortions.
The demon of corruption had been awakened within him, devouring him limb by limb, a voracious beast consuming its host.
Lin Shouxi, for the first time, comprehended the full measure of his master’s advanced years.
He reached for his sword, intent on delivering the final mercy, but his master, wracked with suffering, shook his head and emitted a pained moan.
The putrefying flesh, rife with rot and foul sores, was a torment beyond comprehension.
Still, the old man persevered, enduring unspeakable agony, until the sky was cast in shadow and there was a sharp snap, the sound of his eyes tumbling from their sockets and smashing on the ground.
A final, haunting scream sundered the air.
Tears streamed down Lin Shouxi’s face as he clutched his own face in sorrow.
He grasped the sword of his fallen master, “Death’s Proof”, a weapon passed from generation to generation of the Demon Gate’s leaders.
Its ominous name was a testament to their unwavering resolve to meet their end with dignity.
He ran the sword across the palm of his hand.
“The evil dragon will be reborn, inhabiting a human form and bearing an inverse scale in its mouth, to bring misfortune to the common people… Master, you always believed in me, and I shall not let you down,” Lin Shouxi vowed, his eyes fixed on the bloody scar on his hand.
“I will vanquish all wickedness and usher in a new era of prosperity for the world.”
Amidst the raging storm, Mu Shijing silently watched Lin Shouxi labor to his feet, nearly stumbling several times before finally attaining steadiness.
As he went to retrieve his rain-pelted sword from the ground, utilizing the White Pupil Black Phoenix Sword Technique to infuse his limbs with energy and dull the pain of his wounds, her gaze never broke.
Even as he girded himself for battle and began to walk towards the demon, with the tip of his sword leaving a trail of water in its wake, her eyes followed.
Ignoring her persistent gaze, Lin Shouxi raised his head to the demon.
“You are the source of all filth…”
When he suddenly started laughing, Mu Shijing’s voice rose from behind him.
“What are you doing?” she asked him coldly.
Lin Shouxi paused to face her.
“Is this one of the deities you worship?” he asked back, his eyes accusatory.
Mu Shijing’s heart was in chaos.
This was the City of Death, the nexus of all true energy, yet this horrible demon was burning with it.
It shouldn’t have been possible.
How could a deity be such a thing?!
Struggling to come to terms with what she was seeing, Mu Shijing finally spoke up.
“That… that thing is no deity of mine,” she declared, her voice quivering.
“It is a demon! A creature of chaos and destruction that has defiled the pure and unblemished energy granted to us by the gods beyond recognition.”
“A demon…?” Lin Shouxi chuckled softly, as if mocking the idea that gods and demons were distinct entities.
Without another word, he pivoted on his heel and faced the demon head-on.
Blood gushed from his eyes, cascading down his ashen cheeks.
He dashed towards the monster, defying the howling winds, and with a fierce swing of his sword, he vaulted into the air, striking at the demon with all his might.
The blade shimmered like a broken moon, casting a frigid light upon the tumultuous scene.
The moment seemed to still, as the only peer she had in this world was about to be killed.
Mu Shijing felt a pang of loneliness, and the cold laughter of the one whose back was turned to her echoed piercingly in her ears, as an understanding blossomed within.
Mu Shijing lifted her sword from the ground, its blade reflecting her porcelain face like a mirror.
“It’s a demon,” she said.
“My sect has been committed to exterminating these creatures for the past three centuries.
And now that one is right before me, how can I turn a blind eye?”
Her voice was tender and had a touch of sadness and determination in it.
The Tao Gate’s core method began to circulate again.
Pushing down her inner despair and fear, she tightened the grip on her sword and swooped into the pouring rain.
The demon was in front of her, and the girl, like a silverfish desperately spreading its fins, made a leap towards the empty sky.
In this moment, the heirs of the Tao and Demon sects moved as one, their swords pointing in the same direction, glinting like celestial bodies streaking across the heavens.
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