Thor: Ragnarok and the Rejection of Myth


The rot of Marvel Comics has finally crept into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not just the rot of Social Justice — the rot of mediocrity.

On paper the movie sounds awesome. Thor, the God of Thunder, must defend Asgard and the Nine Realms from Hela, the all-powerful Goddess of Death. However, he is stranded on the planet of Sakaar on the other side of the galaxy. Surviving a brutal gladiatorial arena, Thor gathers allies and makes his way home to prevent Ragnarok, the prophesized destruction of Asgard.

In execution, it was as stale as week-old popcorn. With a basic plot, forgettable dialogue and limp characters, I struggled to remain engaged with the movie, much less care about the story. The heart of the problem lies with the movie’s poor craftsmanship and its rejection of the mythic.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Failed First Impressions

The story begins with Thor bound in chains and swinging gently from the roof of a dungeon. There he encounters Surter the fire giant. Surter, wreathed in flames and as massive as a mountain, reveals that Thor’s brother Loki has been impersonating Odin, and vows to destroy Asgard on the day of Ragnarok when his crown is reunited with the Eternal Flame that burns beneath Asgard. Surter’s speech is a powerful moment, establishing Surter as a creature of unbounded malice and cruelty, capable of restraining even the mighty Thor…

…A moment Thor ruins by interrupting Surter. Twice.

Not by smashing the giant in the face with Mjolnir. But by asking Surter to pause his speech for a moment, when Thor spins away from Surter. Twice.

This break is dead time. Thor doesn’t declare defiance, stall for time to summon his mighty hammer, or break his chains. He just drops a couple of lame remarks–and Surter politely obliges him by waiting until Thor faces him again before continuing.

The interruptions force humor where humor is unwarranted, breaking off an emotional build-up for a payoff of eye-rolls and cringes and sighs. We see the same pattern over and over again.

Returning to Asgard, Thor sees a massive, gaudy statue of Loki and goes to find his brother. Loki, disguised as Odin, is watching a play that allegedly recreates the final moments of the war against the Dark Elves. It has the actor portraying Loki making a dramatic speech to Thor, showing his innate nobility and patriotism with his dying breath–and then asking for a statue made of gold. With a helmet. And horns.

The lines are absolutely cringeworthy — but everyone applauds, hailing it as a masterpiece.

This is absurd. The play could have been a masterpiece of propaganda, depicting Loki as making a final sacrifice, and declaring that he had always been a loyal son of Asgard, and leaving it at that. That would have inspired applause. Not the eye-rollingly awful lines about the statue.

But those lines about the statue were deliberate, referencing the statue seen earlier. This is the filmmakers saying, “I know you were wondering why there’s a stature of a traitor. Here’s why — and we’ll hammer the point home so even you can get it!”

By telling exactly how and why something in-story was made and justified, the filmmakers are treating the audience like idiots who can’t put two and two together in the service of making even more lame jokes.

Later on, when Scrapper 142 is introduced, the scene begins swimmingly. The ramp of her spaceship lowers, revealing a lean, muscular woman taking a swig from a bottle. She’s a hard-drinking, no-nonsense hands-on woman, who isn’t about to let a bunch of bottom-feeding scum get between her and her prey. She descends the ramp, steeling for a fight–

And falls off.

She drank so much she couldn’t even walk straight. But she manages to control a pair of machine guns and blow away the enemy–without shooting herself by accident. And while she continues to imbibe liquor by the barrel, she is miraculously cured of all alcohol-inflicted problems. It becomes clear that Scrapper’s initial introduction was designed to force a joke when there was no opportunity for one, sapping the scene of its emotional power.

The filmmakers repeat this pattern of build-up and interruptions, again and again subverting the audience’s expectations for a pay-off in favor of a lame gotcha moment that says, “We know you were expecting something awesome, so enjoy this lame duck!”

Contrast this pattern with this scene from Cowboy Bebop:


In this scene, Faye Valentine is introduced to the series. We see her sauntering in, oozing sex appeal, ready to use her charms on the store keeper. But the conversation is interrupted. When the gunmen appear, she spots them coming, and coolly breaks out her submachine gun and opens fire. These shots establish the image of the femme fatale.

Then we see the truth. Despite the barrage of gunfire she doesn’t actually hit any of the bad guys. When they drive up with their Gatling gun, she has no response. And in the face of overwhelming firepower, she surrenders. This reveals the truth: she is a poser.

This sequence works because every scene is allowed to play out to the end, with logical if unexpected consequences. The audience has time to build their first impression, that she is a femme fatale. They see the criminals coming, setting up an expectation for a gunfight. In an action-heavy series like Cowboy Bebop the audience would expect a setpiece battle. Faye’s capture comes out of the blue. However, this moment feels like a mask being peeled off to reveal the true character underneath, because every scene flows organically to the next without pauses to wink at the audience. There are no stupid breaks to force humor into a deadly serious moment, allowing the final moment with Faye’s expression to serve as a sharp juxtaposition to the rest of the sequence and create a moment of levity.

These failed first impressions are but a harbinger of worse things yet.

Not Quite Gods


Ancient polytheistic religions, including the Old Norse religion, tend to portray the gods as extraordinarily powerful individuals who are nonetheless deeply flawed. They are magnifications of mortal quirks and foibles: strength and cowardice, love and lust, rage and fear. Thor, God of Thunder, the Protector of Mankind, slayer of giants and monsters, is not exempt.

The difference between a man with superpowers and a pagan god is magnitude. A man may dine well every day; the Thor of myth feasts on two whole oxen every night, then resurrects them from their bones with the power of Mjolner. A man who can lift four hundred pounds is incredibly strong; Thor is so strong he lifts the paw of a cat — the world-serpent Jormungandr in disguise. A man may drink heartily; Thor drank from the ocean and created the tides.

The Thor of Thor: Ragnarok is no god. He has human-sized strengths and flaws, and fails to overcome them. His feats are human-sized, and so are most of the enemies he faces. Nothing he does marks him as divine, or even as a worthy heir to the throne of Asgard.

When Thor converses with Dr Strange, Dr Strange easily discombobulates Thor with his magic — thus implying that Thor is weaker than a mere man. On Sakaar, Thor is immediately subdued by a small obedience disc — which uses electricity, the element he allegedly controls, to shock its victim into submission. Later, when Thor puts his team together, he delivers no inspiring speeches and displays no leadership: everybody is simply coming along for the ride, because reasons. After learning of Scrapper’s true identity, instead of pressing her into service as the sovereign of his realm, Thor delivers more cringe-worthy politically correct statements admiring her for being a Valkyrie and stating that having Strong Action Females is Perfectly Okay. Throughout the movie, Thor empowers no humans, demonstrates no feats worthy of a god, rules over nothing, and overcomes no impossible odds.

The Thor of the movie is barely a man who possesses some superpowers, not a being hailed as a god.

And the other heroes aren’t much better.

On Sakaar, the Hulk is hailed as the hero of the gladiatorial games, and constantly acts like a powerful but petulant child. It turns out Bruce Banner has been the Hulk for two years — and he only returns to a human after seeing a video of the Black Widow calming him down. Bruce Banner quickly becomes a quivering nervous wreck who needs to be constantly soothed and shielded from anything that remotely reminds him of the Hulk, and is afraid that if he becomes the Hulk again he can’t come back. This is a far cry from the Bruce Banner of lore, who revealed his supreme self-control by turning into the Hulk on a moment’s notice by declaring “I’m always angry” — and always coming back.

Scrapper, in turn, is a Valkyrie trying to run from her past. After Hela slaughtered the Valkyries in the backstory, Scrapper fled to Sakaar and tried to live a new life. Par the course for Hollywood-issue Strong Action Females, she displays the usual contempt towards all male characters in the movie, and the men display the expected slavish admiration of her. Thor wants her on the job anyway, and she rejects him.

By the fiat of the almighty script, they join up anyway. Bruce Banner miraculously recovers and chooses to become the Hulk to fight giant monsters, because reasons. Loki forces Scrapper to relive her past, which makes her decide to return to Asgard to fight the goddess who killed her friends, because reasons. In both instances there were opportunities for Thor to demonstrate his divinity, help these characters overcome their trauma and help them become more than they were — but the movie squanders them in favor of portraying a formerly-collected Bruce Banner as a gibbering lunatic and Scrapper as a Strong Independent Action Woman.

Thor in Thor: Ragnarok is neither god nor hero; he is simply the protagonist because the plot said so, displaying neither leadership nor divinity. He has been reduced from a god to a shadow of a superman.

So-Called Villains



Every superhero story needs supervillains. None in this movie fit the bill.

When Odin passes on, Hela escapes from her prison by the simple expedient of opening a portal to Earth a few minutes later. Why she didn’t do this earlier isn’t explained; she simply shows up out of thin air. After beating Loki and Odin, she returns to Asgard to establish her rule. The armies of Asgard objects, so she slays them all single-handedly without breaking a sweat.

Up to this point there is nothing special about her. Hela may be the Goddess of Death, but she displays no powers that display her command of death. Her action scenes are no different from a generic Dark Action Girl fighting off hordes of good guy mooks with melee weapons. When she resurrects her army, she doesn’t open a doorway from Hel to let them march forth; she uses the Eternal Flame, hinting at its true purpose.

There is nothing terrifying about Hela, nothing that demonstrates she has supernatural control over death, nothing that presents her as anything more than a daughter angry at her father and taking revenge by conquering the Nine Realms. There is nothing about Hela that shows she is a goddess. Like Thor, she is no god, only a woman with some measure of superstrength.

The second antagonist is the Grandmaster, supreme ruler of Sakaar. He organizes the gladiatorial games and rewards people who bring in fresh meat, and… little else.

His screen presence is completely flat. He executes no plots against his enemies, he displays no political sense, and his most notable trait is his insistence on seeking the right words. He is just…there, a minor character with little impact on the story. He poses no threat to the heroes at all, not even indirectly by organizing an efficient crackdown (as opposed to the disorganized ragtag affair we see in the movie) or disposing of the rebels before they become a threat. Between the flatness of his character and the lack of character development from the main cast, the entire Sakaar plotline feels like a distraction.

Special mention must be made of Skurge. When he is introduced, the audience sees him hamming it up with a pair of M16s, trying and failing to impress two women. He’s too shallow and self-absorbed to graduate to the ranks of sleazy wannabe pick-up artists, much less to play the part of a true Cassanova. When Hela invades Asgard, he is the first to bend the knee.

And for most of the movie, he does…nothing.

Skurge accompanies Hela in her scenes, mostly so she has an audience for her monologues. He doesn’t even say anything of note. Hela rewards his dedication by making him her executioner — not simply the man who kills her enemies, but the man who executes her will. His promotion further undercuts Hela’s image: by promoting Skurge, who at this point is little more than a worthless hanger-on, to such an important role, she shows that she has no idea how to pick subordinates. She is no evil goddess, just an idiot.

As executioner, Skurge prepares to execute all of one civilian when he is stopped. That is the extent of his on-screen service for Hela. Later, Skurge grabs his guns and turns on Hela’s armies. Because…reasons.

If this is supposed to be a redemption scene, I’m not buying it. Skurge simply hasn’t done anything truly evil. The audience did not see him murdering, raping, looting or pillaging anyone. The closest he got was almost but not actually executing an innocent person. While he acted like a blowhard early on, that is the extent of his sins. He has little to atone for, so his redemption moment falls flat.

If the supervillains fail to be super or villains, they have no place in a superhero story.

Just Another Non-Apocalypse



Ragnarok is the most terrifying time in Norse myth. The last of all winters descends upon the world, with starvation and madness in its wake. Brother turns on brother, family ties sunder, and all sins run amok. It is the age of the sword and the axe, the age of the wind and the wolf, the age of madness and disdain.

Yggdrasil shudders. The giants march forth to make war on the gods, Hyrm from the east with his shield and Sutr from the South with a blazing sword. Jormungandr writhes, sending mighty waves crashing ashore. Naglfar, filled with the hordes of the dead, lands on Midgard to disgorge its dreadful load. Fenrir breaks his bonds and rampages across the world.

The gods go forth to battle the invaders, and die. The einherjar ride to meet the monsters and foemen, and all fall in battle. Fenrir swallows Odin whole. Thor slays Jormungandr, but succumbs to its poison. Sutr kills Freyr. Tyr and Garmr kill each other in mutual combat. The earth sinks into the seas, the stars vanish and flames rise into the heavens. The gods die, humans die, all die.

Compared to this Ragnarok, the movie falls flat.

There are no betrayals, no unnatural weather, no rise of the giants, no epic moments by gods or men. There is a Fenrir and there are armies of the dead, but otherwise there are no similarities to the original Ragnarok. Worse yet, the movie highlights no virtue.

Ragnarok is the grim collision of destiny and duty. The gods know they will die, and how they will die, and no matter what they do they cannot change fate. But they will fight the invaders regardless. In the movie, though the characters from Asgard know Ragnarok is upon them, there is no sense of fatalism or duty, not even an acknowledgement that their world is ending. The closest they came to acknowledging duty is to have Thor appeal to Scrapper’s sense of duty — and fail. A blatant disregard of Norse values, or indeed, the values of *any* civilisation worth living in.

The closes the movie comes to tapping the mythic is by having Thor lose an eye in the final fight against Hela — and even that is only to create some superficial similarity to Odin, and to have Thor pull a last-minute power up. This is a pale shadow of Norse myth.

Sacrifice and equivalent exchange run through Norse culture. Odin sacrificed his eye to drink from the well of Urd, gaining the knowledge of the cosmos. Tyr sacrificed his right hand to bind Fenrir, buying safety from the wolf until the end of the age. Thor makes no such sacrifice — his losing an eye was no deliberate choice, but merely the fortunes of war. No equivalent exchange occurs, no price was willingly paid, but something was gained anyway.

Above all else, Ragnarok isn’t merely the end of the world. It is the end of an age — and the beginning of another. After the death of the Aesir and the destruction of Asgard, Lif and Lifpraser shall repopulate the world, and a new pantheon of gods shall emerge. There is hope for a new world, a new beginning, a new age.

The movie offers nothing. Hela draws her power from Asgard, so to destroy her the heroes decide to destroy Asgard. They resurrect Surter, who fulfills the prophecy by destroying the entire planet. With himself still on it. (Because, well, reasons.) This Ragnarok is not the end of a cycle; it is simply an end. A great, terrible tragedy that the filmmakers just *had* to ruin with an unfunny ‘joke’.

*Thor: Ragnarok* acknowledges no morals and elevates no virtues, it elevates no gods and eschews the epic, it sacrifices the mythic in exchange for lame winks at the audience. If this is the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I want no more of it.


if you’d like a modern story that captures the mythic, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, featuring heroes that act like heroes, angels that act like angels, and demons that act like demons.



SIGNAL BOOST: Lyonesse Volume 1 by Silver Empire



I am pleased to announce that Silver Empire has published Lyonesse Volume 1, a collection of 16 short stories published through its Lyonesse service. For the low, low price of just USD $6.99 a year, Lyonesse delivers a short story every week to its subscribers’ inboxes, plus a bonus story over the holidays.

Volume 1 collects the stories published in the spring of 2017. Among these stories in this volume are Four Weddings and a Funeral by 2017 Dragon Award nominee L. Jagi Lamplighter, two stories by Dragon Award nominee Declan Finn, and We Bury Our Own by yours truly.

In my not so humble opinion, We Bury Our Own is one of the finest short stories I have ever written. Starring a trio of humans elevated into sci fi battle angels, they must make their way across a world drowned in mysterious corrosive mist to do battle with a fellow warrior who has succumbed to the sin of pride. It’s a story where blasters and behemoths, revenants and swords, and mysticism and magic collide.

The other stories in Lyonesse are amazing in their own right. Four Weddings and a Funeral features a woman who can raise the dead, and grapples with the philosophical implications of doing so. In Zombie Jamboree, one man takes on a zombie invasion of New York, while The Dragon’s Teeth is the story of a soldier who faces impossible odds as he fights for a lost cause. Readers who enjoy old-school science fiction and fantasy, stories of wonder and joy and excitement, will find much entertainment in these stories.

Lyonesse Volume 1 is available on the Amazon Kindle store here. To find out more about Lyonesse, you can check it out here.


SIGNAL BOOST: The City and the Dungeon by Matthew P. Schmidt


Writer and fellow Steemian Matthew P. Schmidt has submitted his latest novel, The City and the Dungeon, and Those who Dwell and Delve Within, to Amazon’s traditional publishing arm, Kindle Scout. If he gathers enough nominations for the next thirty days, Amazon will (presumably) buy the rights to the novel, and everyone who nominated it for publication will receive a free copy. If you would like to see his official announcement, click here.

Set in a world that runs on RPG mechanics, C&D follows the adventures of Alex Kenderman, a new immigrant to the titular City who braves the Dungeon to remit money home to the family. Along the way, Alex makes firm friends, battles terrible monsters, navigates the legal system, plans and develops his character and party build, and almost accidentally crashes the world economy. Oh, and he falls in love in a girl who is way out of his league…and unlike trashy anime or manga protagonists, actually musters the courage to speak to her.

Schmidt is in my writer’s group, and I’ve had the great fortune of beta reading the manuscript. I can wholeheartedly recommend this story to everyone who enjoys Young Adult fantasy fiction and litrpg stories. It is a clean, tightly-written story suitable for all ages, brimming with adventure and fascinating characters and intriguing detail. If it’s right up your alley, and you’ve got an Amazon Kindle account, you can nominate the story here.

Oh, and Schmidt: Good luck!

INVINCIBLE Part Seven: Zhang Wudi

invincible final

Zhang ran.

Arms pumping, chest heaving, he propelled himself down the road that led to Sujiang’s northern gate. Fire and smoke erupted in the city, rising above the walls. Bodies lay piled by the road by the dozens. Civilians streamed past him, carrying children and valuables in their arms. He kept running, brushing past everyone in his path.


Zhang halted. Five Shenwujun stood at the gate, guiding civilians through. Sergeant Ouyang waved at him. Zhang doubled over, gasping for breath.

“Ensign, you look terrible.”

Pain pulsed through his feet. His legs trembled. He breathed hard and deep, forcing fresh air into blazing lungs.

“Been worse,” Zhang muttered. “Got any water?”

Ouyang tossed him a calabash. Zhang drained it. It wasn’t much, but it helped.

“Thank you,” Zhang said. “What’s the situation?”

“We just got here ourselves. People say wangliang and rebels are inside the city. The rebels tried to capture the gates. We linked up with the guards and eliminated a dozen rebels and infernal spirits. What are your orders?”

“Hold the gate. Give me a second.”

Zhang donned his paper armor. He reached into his ring again, drew out a large circular plate, and fastened it to his chest. For open warfare, he would need the extra protection. Once ready, he trudged over to the senior gate guard.

“Sergeant, did you receive a convoy earlier carrying crates of tea with Lianzhang Tea Factory markings?”

The sergeant nodded. “Yes. First thing in the morning. What about them?”

“Did you check the crates?”

He shifted uneasily. “There were a lot of them, and…”

“They bribed you not to look inside.”

He held up his hands. “I did check the crates! I saw tea leaves, that’s all!”

“How many crates did you inspect?”

“…A couple?”

Zhang grabbed the man’s shoulders and shook him hard.

“You let rebels and wangliang into the city! This is on your head!”

“I’m sorry, Your Excellency! I didn’t—”

“Shut up! How many of people were in the convoy?”

The sergeant gulped. “Enjiu shi…fifty! It was a large group, with many armed escorts.”

Zhang released him. “This isn’t over. I will deal with you later. Shenwujun, on me!”

The Shenwujun gathered around Zhang.

“Listen up,” Zhang said. “We are facing a mixed force of rebels and wangliang. Maybe a hundred in total. They’ve infiltrated the city and are trying to take it from the inside. I think they set up their headquarters in the Lianzhang Tea Factory and are using it to summon infernal spirits. They’re hoping to seize the city and hold it until they receive reinforcements. Our objective is to head to the Factory and neutralize their sorcerers.”

Ouyang snapped his fist to his palm. “Understood!”

Zhang pointed at the guard sergeant. “You! Which way to the Lianzhang Tea Factory!”

“I…don’t know.”

“You’re useless.” Zhang raised his voice. “Guards! Who among you knows the way to the Lianzhang Tea Factory?”

A private raised his hand. “Your Excellency, I do!”

“Very good. Lead us there. We will protect you. Just stay behind us and give us directions.”

He gulped. Hard. “Yes, Your Excellency!”

The Shenwujun entered the city, the private in tow. Civilians scattered before them. Fifty paces beyond them was a quartet of infernal spirits. They were walking lizards the size of men, green and scaly, each carrying sharpened wooden spears.

“I’ll take care of this,” Ouyang said.

A massive bear burst into the world, its gray fur glittering like steel. The bear charged the lizards. They thrust at the bear, but their spears shattered against its armor. The bear laughed and tore into the creatures, each swipe taking off a limb.

Wangliang swarmed in from side streets, encircling the bear.

“Shenwujun! Five element harmony attack!”

In his mind, Hong Er screeched. Fire bloomed through Zhang’s body. Fresh qi surged through him, burning out the fatigue and the pain. Ethereal fire danced across his body.

The bear howled, bashing its way through the enemy lines, sending wangliang flying. The bear jumped on Ouyang, merging with him in a flash. Now Ouyang’s skin turned to silver, and his flesh hardened to metal. The remaining Shenwujun transformed, harmonizing with their bond-spirits.

Disregarding their casualties, the wangliang regrouped and advanced. With every step, they chanted in their native tongue, charging up their qi. As one, they flung their spears.

A Shenwujun gestured, producing a wave of fire. The spears turned to ash. Zhang pointed at the enemy. Rivers of white flame swept through the enemy formation. Lances of earth burst from the scorched earth, impaling unlucky wangliang. Metal spikes erupted from the earth lances, tearing through the formation like shrapnel. Water condensed around the metal and froze. The ice fragments gathered into a vortex of ice, smashing down everyone still standing. The ice melted, and from the ensuing lake grew powerful vines and roots, ensnaring the survivors.

“CHARGE!” Zhang called, generating a spear of pure flame.

The Shenwujun fell upon the enemy, stabbing and hacking and tearing. In a minute, they were through, leaving nothing but blood and broken bodies.

The private stared, his mouth agape.

“Come on!” Zhang yelled. “Which way to the tea factory?”

The guard scrambled over the ruins of the street, rejoining the men. The party made their way down the battered streets, the private giving them directions.

In the central market, they ran into the rebels. The rebels were beating up men on the streets, carting off food and medicines and money, dragging women into alleys. One of them saw the soldiers approaching and yelled a warning. The rebels dropped everything and gathered, but their formation was loose and disorganized, their movements hesitant and panicked.

Zhang stepped forward, planting the butt of his fiery spear into the ground.

“I am Zhang Wudi! If you wish to die, step forward now!”

His voice boomed across the square. The rebels glanced at each other, whispering and gesticulating.

“Ensign, look up!” Ouyang warned.

A half-dozen bats swooped down on the Shenwujun. Their bodies were steel, and with the claws of their feet they gripped large barrels.

Zhang extended his hand, firing a dozen flame needles. The barrels exploded, taking the bats with them.

“Anybody else?” Zhang asked.

The rebels broke. Throwing down their weapons, they scattered in every direction.

Ouyang snorted. “Cowards.”

“We have no time to waste on small vegetables,” Zhang said.

A constable limped hurriedly down the street.

“Zhang Wudi? Is that you?”

“Yes,” Zhang said. “What’s the matter?”

The man doubled over, clutching his side. Blood spilled from between his fingers. A crossbow bolt jutted from his left thigh.

“The yamen…under attack. We…need help.”

He fell, coughing blood.

“Private!” Zhang called. “Take care of him. Shenwujun, on me!”

The yamen had fallen. The guards were dead, and smoke poured forth from the buildings. There was no sound of fighting, no sign of rebels. But Zhang sensed a lone person still inside. Zhang led his men through the gate.

In the courtyard, Mojian Han stood waiting.

Han held his sword in his right hand, dripping with blood. In his left he held a decapitated head by the hair. Lee’s head. Han wore a suit of blue paper armor, spattered with blood. All around him, the government offices were afire.

Han tossed the head aside, and grinned.

“I’ve been waiting, Zhang Wudi.”

The Shenwujun spread out, training their weapons on Han. Zhang pointed his spear at Han.

“This is the end, Mojian Han. Surrender or die.”

Han chuckled. “We are legends. There is only one way this would end.”

“Legends? You’re dreaming. Give up now.”

“Or what? Everyone knows what happens to anyone dedicated to fan Yong fu Guang.” Han shook his head. “I don’t have any reason to give up now. No, I have a counteroffer.”

Zhang licked his lips. “What is it?”

“You are the world’s most famous practitioner of Kaimen Liujin Quan. I myself have no small knowledge of Wuxing Quan. Let’s see who is the better martial artist.”

“Nonsense,” Ouyang said. “I say we roast him and be done with it.”

“Sergeant Ouyang, take the men to the Lianzhang Tea Factory. I’ll catch up with you when I’m done.”

“Ensign, this is—”

Mojian Han is irrelevant. No matter what happens here, if you neutralize the sorcerers, we’ll knock out the rebellion. He’s just wasting our time.”



Ouyang and his men retreated, leaving Zhang and Han alone in the courtyard.

“I didn’t think you’d accept my offer,” Han said.

“You’ve got a surprise planned for us,” Zhang said. “It’s got to do with your magic sword, right?

“Oh? And what about it?”

“I bet it can neutralize any kind of magic, including a Shenwujun’s.”

“Among other things.” Han bladed himself, presenting only his right side and his sword to Zhang. “Let me show you what else it can do.”

His skin turned black. Fog roiled off his body. His aura expanded, and his qi swelled. For a moment, Zhang saw what looked like a gigantic lobster looming over Han.

He had harmonized with an infernal spirit.

Zhang charged. Han aimed his sword at Zhang’s face. A water jet spouted from the tip. Zhang evaded—

And ran into a wall of water.

Hong Er screamed in his mind. His fire extinguished in a burst of steam. His spear vanished. The pains of the day came roaring back. His muscles failed, bringing him to his knees. He tried to harmonize with her again, but the water on him smothered her flames.

Han sauntered up to him.

“It’s over, Zhang Wudi. Water conquers fire. Such is the way of the Cosmos.”

What’s the plan? Hong Er sent.

In a heartbeat, in a thought, he told her what he needed. Out loud, he said, “You bonded with a water spirit, just for me?”

Han smiled. “Consider yourself fortunate.”

The jian came down.

Zhang roared, summoning his qi. Springing up, he whipped his left arm into Han’s right, smashing it away, and swung his right palm towards Han’s face. Han blocked the shot and thrust his sword. Spinning around, Zhang slipped in and crashed his shoulder and back into Han, his crown clipping Han’s jaw.

Han backed away, wiping at his face. Gasping, Zhang drew his dao. Han shouted. Water condensed around Zhang, chilling him. Zhang gathered his qi and flung it at the magic, dispersing it.

The handle of his saber froze and shattered.

The blade clattered to the ground. Han aimed his jian at Zhang.

“You’re finished!” Han said.

Zhang didn’t have enough breath to respond. Han had tricked him, making him think he was aiming at Zhang instead of his dao.

Han smirked. “If you surrender now, I might—”

Zhang raised his fists.



Han gathered his qi and lunged. In a single step, he flew across the distance between them, jian outstretched. Zhang sidestepped, dodging the thrust. Han thrust high. Zhang ducked.

But it was a feint.

Han thrust low.

Zhang twisted aside. The jian struck the chest plate and slid off. Zhang sprung off the ground, swinging out his arms parallel to the ground. His right palm slammed into Han’s chest with a shocking thud.

Han grimaced and staggered aside. Zhang closed. Han slashed the air, keeping Zhang at bay, but he was slowing down. Zhang kept his distance, waiting for an opening.

Han lunged for another thrust. Zhang slipped aside, chopping his right arm up and left arm down.

Han’s elbow broke.

Han yelped, his arm going limp. The jian dropped. Zhang rammed his palms into Han’s face. Han’s nose crunched. Han screeched, taking a wild leap backwards and guarding his head. Zhang reached for the fallen weapon.

The handle freeze-burned his palm.

Zhang released it, leaping away.

“Only I can use my weapon!” Han boasted.

A surge of black qi passed through Han. With a series of pops, his broken bones slid back into place. Han grinned, flexing his arm and waggling his fingers.

“It’s not over yet,” Han said.

Han circled around Zhang, and Zhang followed. Han jumped in, both hands swinging for Zhang’s face. Zhang blocked. Han skipped off the ground and kicked Zhang in the crotch.

Zhang grunted, holding his ground. Han whipped his hand at Zhang’s face. Zhang crashed his forearms into Han’s arm and drove his right hand towards Han’s throat.

Han lowered his head. Zhang merely struck him in the forehead. Han stepped back and kicked. Zhang stepped off and reached the extended leg—


Han stepped back in, slapped Zhang’s right hand down and jabbed at his eyes. Zhang ducked under the arm and crashed his left shoulder into Han’s chest.

Han dropped. Rolled. And got up, jian in hand.

“Ha!” Han exclaimed.

“Hong Er!” Zhang yelled.

A screech split the air. The phoenix swooped down from the heavens, coming in from behind Han. She was a shooting star, blazing white-hot. Han spun around at the last moment and slashed.

She disappeared in blinding light and thick white smoke. Stumbling away, Zhang screamed, curling up, his hands snatching at his neck and chest. Han laughed.

“My sword can wound even celestial spirits! It’s over, Zhang Wudi! You’re not invincible!”

Zhang unfurled himself into his guard, now holding his war spear. And smiled.

“Fooled you.”

Han sank. Steam rose. Black qi dispersed from his body.

“What’s this?” Han demanded.

“Fire generates earth. Earth conquers water.”

Han looked down. He was standing in a perfect circle of glowing red lava. The molten earth sucked him in, robbing the water from his bond-spirit. As steam blasted forth, his paper armor began to crinkle and smolder. Han struggled, trying to free himself. The lobster in his aura turned visible, flailing along with Han.

“You thought she was attacking you,” Zhang said. “Too bad.”

The lobster sacrificed the last of its qi to preserve Han, vanishing in a puff of smoke. Han leapt clear of the lava and presented his guard.

“It’s not over yet,” Han said. “We’ve only begun to—”

Zhang thrust at Han. Han stepped aside, deflecting the weapon with his jian. Zhang thrust high again, and Han parried once more. A third thrust—but this was a feint. As Han moved, Zhang went low and hooked the spear’s crosspiece behind Han’s knee. Zhang yanked, and Han fell on his back.

Han tried to get up. Zhang stabbed. Han rolled over, bringing up his sword arm. Zhang hooked the jian and sheared it away.

Breathing hard, Zhang placed the spear point on Han’s throat.

“It’s over.”

Han laughed. “Well. You’ve lived up…to your name, Zhang Wudi.”

“For the crimes…of rebellion…banditry…attempted murder—”

“They will give me the death penalty. Death by a thousand cuts. Just kill me. It’s quicker.”

Zhang lifted his spear a fraction.


“Why not?”

“You’re no longer a threat.”

Han growled. Flipping around, he batted Zhang’s spear aside. He got up to a knee and drew a knife from his boot.


Han lunged.

Zhang thrust.

Han dropped, blood gushing from his throat.

Zhang sighed.

He sank to the ground. Every muscle screamed, every joint hurt, and every time he breathed, pain twitched through his insides. Staring at the body, Zhang retrieved a calabash of water and drained it in a single pull. He sat there, breathing, recovering his qi. A minute later, he pushed himself back up.

He had a war to fight.

The rebellion was over.

Ouyang and his men had swept through the Lianzhang Tea Factory, slaughtering everything in their path. By the time Zhang arrived, there was nothing left to do.

Deprived of supernatural support, the rebels melted away. The guards sealed off the city, leaving Zhang and his men free reign to hunt them. Days of bloodied spears melted into nights of singing crossbows. When Cao and the remaining Shenwujun arrived, the Shenwujun swept through Sujiang like a wildfire, burning out the last of the resistance. Altogether they took twenty-three prisoners, including eight wangliang.

“Excellent work,” Cao said. “It was a magnificent performance, even for you.”

Zhang nodded.

“Did you recover the mojian?”

Zhang reached into his ring and produced Han’s sword, wrapped in thick silk. It still burned at the touch, but the silk reduced the effect. Cao stowed the sword in his own ring.

“Well done,” Cao said. “Maybe one day we’ll be able to make our own magic weapons. And then, we’ll be invincible.”

Zhang nodded again.

“You look terrible. Are you well?” Cao asked.

“I’ve been fighting nonstop for the past…week, I guess. Just…exhausted.”

Cao handed him a calabash of water. Zhang gulped it down without pausing for breath.

“Thanks,” Zhang said. “What’s next?”

“Wangliang are still running around Shanxia. The Union is invading the frontier again. We’re headed there to assist the Army.” He paused. “You are going to escort the prisoners to the provincial yamen.”

“The local troops can do that. I’m going to Shanxia with you.”

“You sure? We’ll be returning to the battlefield again. There won’t be time to recover.”

Every inch of Zhang’s body was leaden and sore. His feet and ribs ached so deep he was sure he had fractured a few bones. His eyelids drooped, his many bruises stung, and his qi was depleted. For all that, he straightened his back and stared into Cao’s eyes.

“I am Zhang Wudi. You’ll need me at Shanxia.”

Cao met his gaze for a moment, and nodded sharply.

“Very well. Get some rest. We march at dawn.”

Zhang trudged off to the Plum Blossom Inn, leaving Cao behind.

So eager to return to the battlefield? Hong Er asked.

Of course, he replied. War is what we do. Are you with me?




Previous parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Thanks for supporting this story! For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

INVINCIBLE Part Six: Yaomo

invincible final

Leaving the monks at the temple, Zhang donned his arms and set off again. Again he marched at a man-killing pace, consuming qi to keep himself going. But this time, every so often, he paused to massage his callused feet and check for injuries. He hadn’t healed completely from his last march, and if he pushed himself too hard he could fracture the long bones of his feet. During mealtimes, he stopped completely, making simple meals of boiled rice porridge, salted pork and nearby fruits. Even Shenwujun had their limits.

A full day and night of marching later, he arrived at Wangzheng Valley well after sunrise. After a brief stop for water, he pressed on, making for Fu Hill at top speed.

He had expected a heavily fortified camp, a makeshift village, some sign that someone was living nearby. All he saw were trees, rocks and a sluggish stream. Extending his qi sense he found…two beings. Just two.

Zhang donned his armor and ascended the hill, carefully picking his way around the isolated trees. He took cover behind a fallen boulder and saw the beings he had detected. A pair of wangliang, with shield and spear, standing guard at the entrance to a cave.

He descended the hill, out of their line of sight, then circled around to the right. He drew his crossbow, then climbed up the hill again, approaching the guards from their blind side.

Twenty-five paces away, Zhang aimed.

“Hands up!” he ordered.

The wangliang spun around. The one in the lead hesitated. The one behind uttered something, raised its shield and charged. Its buddy followed.

Zhang lowered his crossbow and pointed.


Two needles of white fire shot from his outstretched finger, blasting through shields and skulls. The wangliang toppled and rolled downhill.

Zhang sighed, stowed the crossbow, and entered the cave. The opening was a tight fit, with barely enough room to extend his arms. The passageway twisted and turned, sometimes narrowing, sometimes expanding. There were niches cut into the walls at regular intervals, each holding lit candles. Mounds of dried wax had accumulated in the little holes; the passage had been used regularly. The wax appeared relatively fresh, without the discoloration of age.

Deeper into the tunnel, he heard voices. He strained his ears. They were speaking in the wangliang tongue.

The tunnel expanded into a great cavern. The bare rock gave way to a staircase. He hid behind a stalagmite and scanned.

Here was the encampment. Conversations in strange tongues bounced off the walls. Crates were stacked high in a corner. There were no guards, no armed men, no men.

The inhabitants were all wangliang. Adults poured wild vegetables into stewpots, butchered meat or tended to other domestic tasks. Small children played games in small groups, while older ones assisted with chores. Sunlight shone down from a hole at the far end of the cavern—it had to be the exit, leading into Union lands.

He stared, transfixed. This was the first time he had seen young wangliang.

But why? Why did they bring their young here? They’d only ever sent soldiers and invaders. Why would they…?

A wangliang shrieked.

He looked down. A child ran away, pointing at him and yelling. Other children took up the cry, running for their parents. The adults scrambled, abandoning their tasks.

Zhang raced down the staircase, drawing his crossbow.

“Hong Er! Burn them down!”


Her voice rang like a bell, stopping him in his tracks.

“What?” he whispered.

No. I will not.

He aimed. The adults pushed the children away. Others formed a wall of flesh, advancing towards him.

“Come on, they are getting closer! Kill them!”


Electricity roared through him. Lava boiled in his flesh, steam in his lungs. He screamed, releasing his weapon. His nerves afire, his muscles twitched and trembled and shook.

“What are you doing?!” he demanded.

A stream of liquid fire erupted from his chest, pouring out into the world. The flames congealed into a phoenix, every feather burning bright. She beheld him with cold sapphires for eyes.

“No,” Hong Er said. “I will not burn them.”

Zhang squinted, his eyes watering just to look at her.

“Why not?!”

She gestured with a wing. “Look.”

Coughing, he looked.

The adult wangliang stopped in their tracks. None of them dared to come closer. In their hands they held butcher knives, poles, anything that came to hand, nothing that qualified as a real weapon. Past them, he saw the children peeking out from around their adults.

“Are they attacking you?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

“Then I see no cause to harm them.”

He almost agreed. Then he realized why they were unarmed. Why there were children among them.

“They are invaders. Colonists! They must be. Their soldiers came ahead of them to pave the way for the settlers to seize our lands and—”

“I do not care about mortal politics.”

“You saw what they did at the temple! Over the years we’ve worked together, you’ve seen what the wangliang did!”

“Yes. Those wangliang have committed many unspeakable crimes, crimes which we have punished. But is the entire race guilty? What crime have these wangliang committed? They may be in your land, but they have done nothing that merits death.”

“Do you not understand? They came here to settle down. To breed. Left unchecked, their children and their grandchildren will overrun—”

Hong Er screeched. The raw sound bowled everyone over, human and wangliang. She stepped in front of the wangliang and spread her wings protectively.

“Listen to yourself!” the phoenix said. “What kind of monster speaks like that?”

“I thought you were the Destroyer of Evil.”

“Yes. Behind me are beings who are fearful of an intruder in their midst. Before me is a man who wishes to kill them all merely for being wangliang in his land. Who is the evil one?”

Zhang forced in a deep breath. Let it out, taking the pain with it. He continued breathing until his mind cleared and the pain faded.

“Even you can understand the long-term security implications of letting them stay,” Zhang said.

“You need not slay everyone who trespasses against you. Even you can understand the concept of proportional punishment.”

Zhang licked his lips and got to his feet. Raising his voice, he said, “Wangliang! Who amongst you speaks this language?”

An elderly male stepped forward. “I do.”

“Who are you?”

“I am the chief of my people. My name is Batarya.”

“Why are you here?”

“It is as you said. Our Emperor ordered us to settle in your lands and conquer your nation with numbers. We are to be the first of many clans to come.”

“How did you learn to speak my language so well?”

Batarya spread his palms and raised his eyebrows. “Many humans cross the border to trade with us. They taught us your language and customs. I hear it is illegal for your people to do so, but such is life. We also trade with our human neighbors inside the Union, and their language is not so different from yours.”

“You do not deny that you are here to conquer my country?”

“We had no choice. We would like nothing more than to roam the steppes of our ancestors, but the Army rounded us up and forced us to come here.”

“Did you know what your soldiers did?”

“No. They kept us here for the past ten days, letting us leave only to forage or to hunt for food. They did not reveal their plans to us, only that we stay here until ordered to move.”

“Where are the soldiers now?”

“Half of them left five days ago, I know not where. The rest…”

“Go on.”

“When we came here, a group of humans helped us settle in. They called themselves the Tiandi Lianhe Association. They used to stay here with us, teaching us about the land. Yesterday, they had a long discussion with the soldiers, away from my people. Then they packed the soldiers into those crates and carried them off. They told us nothing, only that we should stay here until they came for us.”

Batarya gestured at the crates lining the walls. They were all marked with the words ‘Lianzhang Tea Factory’ and ‘Sujiang’. They were so large, a wangliang could sit comfortably inside one.

“Was there a man among them who calls himself Mojian Han? Tall, thin man, long mustache, carries a black jian?”

“Yes. He was the leader of the humans who visited us, and he left with the rest of his men.”

Zhang clenched his fists. Han was still one step ahead. He had to keep moving.

After he dealt with the wangliang.

“The Tiandi Lianhe Association are rebels,” Zhang said. “They rob, rape and attack my people, and aim to overthrow my Emperor. By our laws, anyone who assists the rebels are guilty of making war on the state. The penalty is death.”

Batarya fell to his knees, touching his head to the ground.

“Your Excellency, I am the leader of my people. Their fault is mine. Take my life if you wish, but spare the women and children. They have nothing to do with this scheme.”

Zhang looked at Batarya. Looked at Hong Er. Looked at Batarya again.

“Well?” Hong Er asked. “Make your decision, Shenwujun.”

Zhang sighed.

“Get up.”

Batarya looked up, dumbfounded.

“Get up,” Zhang repeated.

The wangliang stood. Zhang pointed at the exit.

“Gather your people. Pack your things. Return to your homeland and never come back.”

Batarya bowed. “Thank you. We will remember your mercy.”

The wangliang dispersed. Zhang allowed them to take some of the empty crates to keep their belongings. Man and phoenix watched them from afar, staying until the last of them departed. When they were alone, Zhang bowed to Hong Er.

“I am sorry,” Zhang said.

“You are human. Humans always make mistakes. At least you learned from this one.”

“Thank you for your guidance.”

She chuffed. “Enough of that. We have one more battle to fight.”

“Can I still rely on you?”


Outside the cave, Zhang reported the situation to Cao.

“And you just let them go?” Cao said.

“Hong Er was…insistent.”

Cao sighed. “Well, who are we to defy a celestial spirit?”

“Indeed. We have a more pressing situation than a group of wangliang settlers.”

“Yes. It sounds like the Tiandi Lianhe Association is going to infiltrate wangliang soldiers into Sujiang, and capture it from the inside out. This may be their major assault.”

“My thoughts too. Captain, can you help?”

Another sigh.

“I would if I could. The Xianzhang of Shanxia district said wangliang are invading his lands. The outlying villages have been plundered and burned. We’ve been ordered to assist the regular Army. Even if we leave now, it will take us three days to march to Sujiang.

“What I can do is to place the Suchen Temple detachment under your command. Link up with them outside Sujiang, then do what you must. The situation is not ideal, but…”

“We’ll manage.”

“I will come as soon as I can,” Cao promised. “Just do what you can until then.”


Zhang set off again. His feet protested, his calves ached, his knees throbbed. But there was no time to lose. He could not stop. He gulped down qi and water in huge amounts, maintaining his strength as best as could, healing his abused body even as he broke it down. As he moved, he called Sergeant Ouyang, coordinating their movements.

He walked through the day and into the night, pausing only once to gather wild berries. He ate them for dinner with the last of his dried pork. For the rest of his journey he sustained himself on small mouthfuls of water, going through two full calabashes.

As morning came, he looked in the direction of Sujiang, and saw pillars of smoke.

He was too late.


Previous parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out the Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

INVINCIBLE Part Five: Ritual

invincible final

Lee beheld Zhang with eyes aflame, and when he spoke he struggled to keep the anger leaking from his voice.

“Ensign Zhang, you dueled a martial artist on the street, killing him. This provoked his friends, who attacked you, forcing you to kill them all. Is that correct?”

“It was an assassination attempt. Mojian Han himself was on the scene.”

“An assassin would just walk up to you and challenge you to a duel? This isn’t a xiake story, and my men found no sign of Mojian Han.”

“Han threw a smoke bomb and fled.” Zhang glanced at the constable next to him. “Sergeant, please show the Xianzhang what you found at the scene.”

The constable held a cloth-wrapped bundle in his hand. He placed it in his palm and carefully unwrapped it, revealing five smooth white pebbles. Lee leaned in, squinting at them.

“What are these?” Lee asked.

“They are called ruyi pearls. These are anqi, weapons for assassination. The pearls are held between the fingers, and launched by clenching your hand into a fist. Excellent at distracting your enemy long enough to land a killing blow. Launched with enough force, they can penetrate throats, eyes and skulls. The challenger had five of these in each hand, and flung them at me in the opening stage of the confrontation.

“This was not a duel. It was an assassination disguised as a duel. If I had walked away, he would have struck me in the back.”

Lee pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes. His voice turned cold.

“And why would someone do something like this?” Lee asked.

“A duel between martial artists would not invite official retaliation from the Shenwujun.”

“Even if you lost?”

“Our code of conduct is extremely strict. Any Shenwujun idiotic enough to engage in pointless duels automatically ceases to be one.”

That was the official stance, of course. No Shenwujun would ever count on another Shenwujun who would not avenge him.


“Since the duelist failed, Mojian Han went to his fallback plan: sending his henchmen to kill me.”

“Which also failed.”

“So he fled.” Zhang grunted. “Coward.”

One of the constables on duty twitched his lip.

“Seems even Han the Demon Sword won’t fight Zhang the Invincible.”

“Or maybe he is hiding what his mojian can do, and biding his time until he has the upper hand.”

“You don’t know what it can do?”

“Our intelligence on him is sketchy. What do you have on him?”

“Rumors, nothing more. Some say the sword was forged in the Underworld, giving Han supernatural powers. Others claim the sword drinks the blood of his enemies and absorbs their strength. But they all agree that Han is a fearsome swordsman.”

“It might be a magic weapon, hand-crafted and enchanted to fit the user. The Grand Union gifts them to their finest soldiers.”

“How do you know?”

“I fought someone with a similar weapon before, during the last invasion.”

“You mean the Battle of Three Rivers? Where you earned the title of Wudi?”

“Yes. The captain of the enemy vanguard had a mojian too. He cleaved through our front line as easily as lifting a hand, and shrugged off everything our sorcerers could throw at him. Very similar to what we know about Mojian Han. If the Union were supporting Mojian Han, it wouldn’t be out of the question for them to give him a magic weapon.”

“This is the first time I’ve heard of the Union supporting rebels like this.”

“Me too. Does Your Excellency have any new intelligence about the rebels for me?”

“Alas, none. There are rumors of rebels in the district, but no substance.”

Zhang frowned mightily. Lee coughed hastily.

“I mean, no reliable information. Nothing a Shenwujun like you can act on.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. Tell me what you’ve heard.”

“Rebel activity has died down in recent days. Other than the attempt on your life, they haven’t done anything at all. Farmers, hunters and herbalists claim they’ve seen armed men wandering around about in Wangzheng Valley, but the internal troops haven’t found any trace of these men.”

“Where is the valley?”

“North of here, about two hundred li. If you’re thinking of going there, be careful. It straddles the border with the Union. Wangliang raiders have infiltrated the Empire from there in the past.”

“Thank you for your advice.”

“Will you be headed there?”

Zhang shook his head.

“Not yet. I have other business to attend to.”

Zhang returned to the temple. Once again, the Zhuchi seemed to be waiting for him, and so was his aide.

“I heard about the fight outside the Plum Blossom Inn,” Lin said. “Are you well?”

Zhang nodded. “Yes. How did you know about the duel?”

“Word spreads quickly in this city.” Lin sighed. “What a waste of life.”

“Not a waste. A sacrifice.”

“What do you mean?”

“Whenever a martial artist challenges a rival school, the teacher would send the weakest student to battle him. If the student loses, he sends the next best, and so on, until either the challenger is defeated or the teacher runs out of students. In every bout, the teacher studies the challenger, identifying his strengths and weaknesses. Should he ever have to fight the challenger, he would know how to deal with him. It’s the same principle here.”

“Han sent his men to die just to learn how you fight?” Huang asked.

“If they couldn’t kill me, that would be his backup plan,” Zhang replied.

Lin sighed. “Exactly as I expected of him.”

“It sounds like you know something about Han.”

Lin cleared his throat. “Han has a reputation for cruelty and barbarism. This merely reinforces our perceptions of him.”

Zhang narrowed his eyes. “I see.”

“But enough of such somber talk,” Lin said. “Surely you didn’t come here to talk about the fight.”

Zhang shook his head. “Indeed. I wish to report that Suchen Temple has been cleared.”

Lin bowed. “Thank you. And the wangliang?”

“They didn’t suffer.”

Huang frowned. Lin simply sighed.

“That was the best we could hope for,” Lin said.

“There were humans with the wangliang too.”

“Humans? Really? What were they doing?”

“They were helping the wangliang shaman to summon an infernal spirit.”


Zhang described what he saw. Huang went pale. Lin simply frowned.

“That is troubling,” Lin said.

“Do you know of any groups who might be cooperating with wangliang? The Tiandi Lianhe Association, perhaps?”

The monks exchanged a glance.

“The temple needs to be reconsecrated,” Lin said. “You may have stopped the summoning, but the remaining evil qi will darken the minds of humans in the area, and it may allow lesser spirits to leak through from the infernal realm. We must leave at once. Will you escort us?”

The monk was avoiding the question, but in this city the walls had ears. He could revisit the question at the temple.

“I shall be pleased to escort you to the temple,” Zhang said.

Lin beamed. “Thank you, Your Excellency.”

Out of deference to the monks, Zhang hired a horse cart. At the foot of the hill, Zhang paid the driver to stay put, and led the monks to the temple. Two men in black armor stood guard at the temple gates. One of them held up his hand.

“Halt! This area is off-limits!”

Zhang produced his medallion. “Sergeant Ouyang, it’s me! Ensign Zhang Tianyou!”

Ouyang squinted and smiled. “Zhang Wudi! It’s good to see you again. What brings you here?”

Zhang led the monks to the guards.

“We are here to reconsecrate the temple,” Lin said.

Ouyang nodded. “I was wondering when that would happen. It’s a real mess in there. Zhuchi, I’m glad you’re here.”

“What’s the situation?” Zhang asked.

“I have two men on guard in the temple and two more on patrol in the forest. No sign of rebels or yaomo since you left.”

“Really? I was attacked in the city. No one came back here?”

Ouyang frowned. “Attacked? How?”

Zhang recounted the fight. Ouyang rubbed his chin.

“That is strange,” Ouyang said. “If they knew you were in the city, why weren’t they prepared for your assault on the temple?”

“Perhaps that is why they summoned the infernal spirit,” Lin offered. “It’s the only reliable way to fight a Shenwujun.”

“And in case that failed, they had men waiting for me in the city,” Zhang mused.

“So…we came all the way out here for nothing?” Ouyang asked.

Lin shook his head. “No. You protected the temple from further desecration. For this, I thank you.”

“No problem. It’s a nice break from running all over the countryside.”

Zhang followed the monks inside the temple. It was still the same as he had left it. Dried blood caked the walls, floor and ceiling. The totems leered at the men. The stench of death and rot lingered in the air. Huang gritted his teeth and clenched his fists.

“Those…animals!” Huang whispered. “They dare do this to a temple? To the Taifo?”

“Is that so?” Lin asked, and gestured at the broken statue. “Is that the Taifo? Or is that simply a statue of the Taifo?”

Huang closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Zhuchi, it is a statue of the Taifo.”

“Will destroying a statue destroy the Taifo?”

“No, Zhuchi.”

“Do we need a temple to pray to the Taifo? Or can we practice his teachings anywhere?”

“Zhuchi, we can practice anywhere.”

“Very good. Why do we pray to the Taifo?”

“To show our respect to the Taifo, to cultivate compassion for all sentient beings, and to remind ourselves to walk the Middle Way.”

“So it is. Will destroying a statue or desecrating a temple diminish our respect for the Taifo, cause us to lose compassion for all sentient beings, or make us stray from the Middle Way?”

“No, Zhuchi.”

Lin beamed. “Why, there is no need for anger then, is there?”

Huang smiled gently. “No, Zhuchi.”

“Excellent.” Lin clapped his hands. “Come! We have work to do.”

Zhang had helped the monks store their equipment in his interspatial ring. They retrieved bundles of incense sticks, a lamp, a brazier, a pair of vases filled with flowers, and a bell. Together, they cleaned up the altar, removed the offending totems, and placed the lamp, brazier and flowers in front of the statue. Zhang lit the lamp, and Huang ignited the incense sticks.

“You may pray with us if you like,” Lin said, “but please remain silent.”

Zhang accepted a bunch of incense sticks and stood well clear of the monks.

Lin rang the bell three times. The monks bowed to the defaced statue. Lin set the bell on the altar, and Huang passed him a few sticks. For a moment, there was silence. Then Lin spoke.

“Sentient beings who have passed away in this place, we have come to honor you. May you be free from sorrow and the causes of sorrow. May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find peace and be the cause of peace.

“May the Taifo guide you to the Pure Land, where you may find enlightenment and be liberated from the Wheel of Life. Should you be reborn into an impure land or a lower order of being, may you quickly accumulate sufficient merit to rise above your suffering.

“Away! Away! Be at peace!”

The monks bowed again. One by one, the men placed three sticks of incense in the brazier. Huang and Zhang returned to their positions, while Lin took up the bell. The bell chimed once, and the monks began chanting, invoking the name of the Taifo and a host of other enlightened and divine beings.

Their voices reverberated in the temple, transitioning into a series of sutras. Lin rang the bell at regular intervals, keeping time. Hot ash fell on Zhang’s hand. He blew it off and remained silent. The air grew lighter, the world brighter. A cool breeze blew, carrying away the worst of the odor. The incense covered up the rest. The oppressive qi dissipated, leaving only the natural qi of the world.

“Away! Away! Be awakened!”

A final chime. The monks bowed once more, and the men inserted their remaining incense sticks into the brazier.

“There is much work to do,” Lin said. “We must hire artisans and laborers to repair the damage. Xiao Huang, please inspect the exterior of the temple and record any damage you find. I will take care of the interior.”

“Yes, Zhuchi.”

The younger monk left. The elder bowed to Zhang.

“Thank you for indulging an old man’s whims.”

“It is no trouble at all, Zhuchi.”

“Now we may speak freely. I imagine you want to know more about the Tiandi Lianhe Association.”

Zhang nodded. “What do you know about them?”

“We are right across the border from the Union. Yaomo and bandits roamed the land, preying on farmers, merchants and isolated villages. The people formed a self-defense group to protect themselves. But over time…its purpose changed.”


“Ten years ago, a man named Han Wenguang joined the Association and rose to the top. He said that we’ve been warring with the Union for over a hundred years, with no end in sight. Instead of fighting them, we should make peace with them. But his idea of ‘peace’ was fan Yong fu Guang. He thought that a restored Guang dynasty would be more willing to make peace with the Union. His ideas were met with widespread support.”

“Why did the people support him?”

“This is the frontier. Parents regularly send their sons to die along the border. Many bloodlines have ended at the point of a Union spear. Taxes are high, and three-tenths of the grain harvest goes to the military. The people have precious little left, and are desperate enough that they will turn to banditry to support themselves and their families.”

“What did the bureaucracy do?”

“Nothing. The people have been urging changes in imperial policy for years, but…”

Lin shrugged. To say any more in the presence of a Shenwujun was to risk an automatic death sentence.

Zhang nodded. “And what did Han do?”

“Everything a man shouldn’t. He eliminated all dissent inside the Association, then turned it into a rebel group. He raided Army units for their weapons and supplies, robbed traders and innocent travelers, attacked government officials… But you know all this by now, don’t you?”

“Yes, but how did you know all this?”

“I was part of the Tiandi Lianhe Association, back when it was only a self-defense force. Almost every able-bodied man was. I rose to the rank of corporal. Then Han sent us out on missions to attack tax collectors and people who criticized the Association. The last straw came when Han proposed a partnership with the frontier wangliang. He said they gifted him a magic sword, and they promised to teach us magic. It was a betrayal of everything we stood for. I exchanged my spear for the robes and never looked back.”

“He let you leave?”

“Even Han wouldn’t dare anger the Taifo.” He sighed. “At least, until recently.”

“The wangliang must have finally taught him how to summon infernal spirits.”

“And so, he has discarded the last of his humanity. Such is the fate of those who bargain with infernal spirits.” Lin shook his head. “He must be stopped.”

“Where can I find him?”

Lin raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know anything about them now. With all your encounters with the Tiandi Lianhe Association, have you not had the opportunity to take one alive?”

“I didn’t have a choice.”

“I suppose you truly have no living enemies, Zhang Wudi.”

“My bond-spirit grants me her power only so long as I destroy evil.”

“Yes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean destroying lives, does it?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Evil intent paired with ability gives rise to evil deeds. Eliminate this evil intent, or take away the ability to act, and you destroy evil. You don’t have always have to resort to violence and killing.”

“I…” Zhang frowned. “I guess I haven’t thought about it that way. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’m sorry I couldn’t be of much help.”

“Perhaps you still might. Yaomo and bandits were reported in the Wangzheng valley. Are you familiar with it?”

Lin pursed his lips. “In my time, we discovered a cave network in Fu Hill. It led through the hill into Union territory. Smugglers and infiltrators used the caves regularly. We built an outpost there to intercept them. The outpost was supposed to have been handed over to the local garrison five years ago, but…”

“The rebels have pushed the troops out of the valley,” Zhang finished. “Do you think the Tiandi Lianhe Association might have taken it back?”

“Perhaps. It explains how so many wangliang were able to enter the Empire so easily and so stealthily.”

“And the wangliang might have rewarded Han by teaching him how to summon infernal spirits,” Zhang said.

“That might be so.”

Zhang bowed. “Thank you for your advice. I must leave.”

“May the Taifo watch over you.”

“And you also.”


Previous parts: Part 1, 2, 3 and 4.

If you would like to see more of my long-form fiction, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons on Amazon.

INVINCIBLE Part Four: Beat the Grass to Scare the Snake

invincible final

Zhang spent the rest of the night cleaning up. After retrieving his weapons, Zhang inspected his chest. The armor had absorbed the brunt of the blow, leaving only a painful bruise. He grabbed a bottle of medicinal oil from his ring and rubbed the oil into the bruise. The battered muscle warmed up rapidly; a few more applications and it would heal completely.

He gathered the wangliang corpses in a corner of the courtyard and placed the human remains in another corner. Then he sifted through them, looking for information.

The wangliang shaman was heavily tattooed. Black and green lines and symbols swirled across its entire body. The human sorcerers had similar tattoos over their chest and arms, forming symbols and words in a language Zhang didn’t understand.

The sorcerers also had interspatial rings, but with their users dead, they might as well be sealed forever. Zhang found nothing useful on the wangliang: no currency, no documents, just weapons and lumps of dried meat that were probably rations.

From his interspatial ring, Zhang drew out a bright jade tablet. One side was plain; on the other was carved an intricate series of trigrams and geometrical shapes, forming a gigantic wheel. Small names were engraved on some spokes of the wheel; the others were blank. Zhang touched the center of the wheel and traced the spoke bearing Cao’s name.

The name glowed. The tablet grew hot in his hands.

He sat and waited.

The wheel grew bright, as though illuminated from a fire within. Captain Cao’s voice floated through the night.

“Ensign Zhang, report.”

Zhang recounted everything he did in painstaking detail, from his arrival at Sujiang to the battle at the temple and what he found there.

“It sounds like someone in the Empire is supplying the wangliang with human weapons, and the wangliang in turn are teaching the humans their magic,” Cao said.

“Could it be the Tiandi Lianhe Association?”

“Possible, but we can’t confirm a link. There were no survivors to interrogate.”

Cao’s tone was mildly accusatory.

“I’d rather not see another infernal spirit enter the world and march on Sujiang,” Zhang said.

“Same here.”

“Any luck on your side?”

“We’re still chasing ghosts. No sign of the enemy since the raid on the camp. We’ll keep patrolling and speaking to the locals, but unless we get lucky, we’re counting on you to find the rebels. And the wangliang with them.”

“I’m fresh out of leads.”

“If you’re giving up now, the Emperor would be very disappointed in you.”

Zhang snorted. “Captain, how many men can you spare?”


“This can’t be the entire enemy force. The sorcerers’ friends are going to notice that they are missing. The first place they will check is the temple. And I can’t stay here for long. If we station men here, they might intercept more rebels.”

“What are you planning to do?”

“Beat the grass to scare the snake.”

Zhang stood watch until noon, when a quintet of Shenwujun arrived to relieve him. He stayed long enough to watch an earth Shenwujun bury the dead with his powers, then headed to Sujiang at double time.

Mud and blood caked his black armor and clothes, the tears and battle damage left unrepaired. His dao swung freely at his side. The stench of war and the road clung to him. His legs trembled and his feet ached, but his eyes burned with an inner flame. The gate guards had recoiled at his approach; only the medallion convinced them to let him through. As he marched through the city streets, commoners scurried out of his way and whispered behind his back. At the yamen, the constables on duty glanced at his armor and his medallion, and immediately stepped aside.

Inside the Xianzhang’s hall, Zhang bowed deeply and formally.

“Lee Xianzhang, I have slain thirty wangliang occupying the Suchen Temple,” he announced. “The area is now free of yaomo.”

The Xianzhang stared at him, dumbstruck. Zhang stood at parade rest and waited.

“Did you say thirty?” Lee asked.


“How did you…?”

“I am a Shenwujun,” Zhang said simply.

“Even for Shenwujun, that’s incredible. I… Do you have proof?”

“The dead are buried half a li north of the temple. The spot is marked with stakes. You may send men there to verify.”

“There’s no need for that.” Lee shook his head slowly. “Thirty wangliang. Heavens above, you really are invincible.”

Zhang nodded. “I will take that as a compliment. But something troubles me.”

“What is it?”

“The wangliang were using human weapons, and I killed two human sorcerers alongside the wangliang.”

Lee bolted upright. The constables stared at Zhang.

“Humans and wangliang working together?” Lee said. “Impossible!”

“And yet I found the sorcerers helping the wangliang summon an infernal spirit,” Zhang said. “Is the Tiandi Lianhe Association involved?”

At the mention of the name, the Xianzhang shook his head sharply. A constable stared strangely at Zhang, all expression fleeing his face.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of the Tiandi Lianhe Association working with yaomo. They say humans should live in peace with yaomo, but they’ve never openly collaborated with yaomo before, much less wangliang.”

“What have they done so far?” Zhang asked.

“The usual things bandits do. Robbing merchants, demanding ‘protection fees’, attacking Imperial tax collectors, raiding villages. They justify this by saying they want to overthrow the Yong dynasty and restore the Guang dynasty, but aside from propaganda they haven’t made any political moves.”

“Why do they want to overthrow the Emperor?”

“We’ve been fighting the Union ever since the founding of the Yong dynasty. The rebels say that they are tired of constant war. They want to bring back the days of the Guang emperors, who made peace with the Union.”

“By ceding much of the frontier to the Union, until it became clear that the Union only desired to conquer the entire continent,” Zhang said. “It took a revolution to install an Emperor who understood the true threat the Union posed.”

“Indeed. The rebels are deluded. There can be no peace with yaomo and the Union.”

Zhang sharpened his tone. “Deluded or not, they are still running loose in the province, and they have been especially active in your district.”

“I have deployed constables to investigate rebel activity in the city and surrounding villages. If we find any rebels, you will be the first to know.”

Zhang eyed the Xianzhang for a moment. In his peripheral vision, he studied the two constables at the other end of the room. One was looking at him, the other at Lee.

Calling them constables was a stretch. Everywhere in the Empire, the bureaucracy hired criminals to catch criminals. If the Tiandi Lianhe Association had ears among the constabulary, they would hear about this conversation soon.

“Very well. I will continue to ask around for signs of yaomo activity and conduct my own investigation into the rebels.”

“Are you still staying at the Plum Blossom Inn?”

“Yes. If you need me, you can leave a message there.”

“Don’t you Shenwujun carry jade tablets for long-range communication?”

“Mine can only reach my superiors,” Zhang lied. “Outsiders cannot tap in.”

“Pity, but we will work with what we have. I shall send a runner if we uncover more information.”

“Thank you, Your Excellency. I hope we can resolve this matter swiftly.”

Zhang left the yamen and walked the streets. At the inn he washed his clothes and hung them up to dry. Changing into a fresh uniform, he restocked his supplies at the market. Everywhere he went, the people bowed and scraped and treated him with deference, and he in turn grilled them about everything they knew about the rebels. By nightfall, the entire city would have heard of his return. And, no doubt, the Tiandi Lianhe Association.

Exactly as planned.

The Tiandi Lianhe Association acted faster than he thought.

Zhang spent the night in the inn, his first real sleep in a real bed for days. The combined toll of forced marches and prolonged combat finally caught up with him, knocking him out surer than any blow he had endured. The sun was high in the sky by the time he awoke. He dragged his aching body off the mattress, washed himself, applied medicinal oil to every sore muscle, and dressed himself in a fresh uniform and dao. After a quick breakfast, he left the inn.

Across the road, at a tea house, four men stood from their table. As one, they approached, fanning out to cut him off. They looked at him like wolves sizing up their prey. The leader swaggered over with a massive grin. His hands were low by his side, his fingers held slightly apart.

Wei! Are you Zhang Wudi?” the leader called.

“Who’s asking?”

“You must be Zhang Wudi, right? We heard many stories about you. We know you learned Kaimen Liujin Quan from your father, Zhang the Divine Spear. We were wondering if you could show us some of the techniques from your school.”

Zhang held up his medallion. “If you know me, then you must also know I am a Shenwujun. If you raise your hand against a Shenwujun, you raise your hand against the Emperor.”

“I don’t have any hostile intent. I was just thinking of a friendly exchange. People say even gods and demons fear Kaimen Liujin Quan. I want to see it for myself.”

“My gongfu is not for show,” Zhang said evenly.

Zhang looked around. The street was suddenly empty. Passers-by gave the men a wide berth, either hurrying past or gawking from a safe distance. The men took the opportunity to advance.

“Stay right there,” Zhang said. “Don’t come closer.”

The challengers halted, but continued sneering at him.

“What’s the matter? Did your father raise you to run away from fights? Is that why people call you Wudi? Because you don’t dare to fight any enemies?”

It was a deliberate provocation. The leader continued to keep his arms unnaturally still. His gongfu was not for public entertainment or to stroke his ego, but if Zhang walked away now, he would be giving the men his back.

“Do you practice gongfu?” Zhang asked.

The leader puffed his chest out. “Wuxing Quan. The finest gongfu in the world. Unlike yours.”

“We shall see. If you know gongfu, then you know I have no intention of holding back.”

He grinned. “Perfect.”

“Very well. Come at me however you like.”

Five paces away, the man took up a fighting position, right side forward, his lead arm extended. Both fists were clenched loosely. Zhang remained passive. The challenger sucked in qi with a deep breath.


His shoulders whirled. His left fist darted towards Zhang, well out of range. Qi shot down his arm. Zhang dodged. Something whooshed past his ear.

The challenger stepped in and fired his other fist. Zhang met the blow with an axe hand, smashing the offending arm out of the way. Small objects bounced off Zhang’s foot. Zhang kept turning, crashing his left palm against the man’s crown.

Bright white light flared from his skull, reinforcing the bone. Zhang felt like he had just slapped granite.

Zhang raked his fingers across the man’s face. The challenged screamed, turning his face from Zhang. Drawing his arm across his torso, Zhang rammed his elbow into the man’s chest. The bone-shattering blow bowled him over. Zhang kicked him over on his back and stomped him in the throat. He shuddered and went still.

The remaining men stared at Zhang, mouths agape.

“Are we done?” Zhang asked.

A man stepped out from the crowd, joining them. He had a tall, powerful build, with a long drooping mustache and an even longer beard. Reaching into his interspatial ring, he drew out a long straight sword. It was made of a substance as dark as midnight, engraved with strange words. Pointing the jian at Zhang, he yelled, “Fan Yong fu Guang!”

“FAN YONG FU GUAN!” the remaining men echoed.

Qi surged through them. The air twisted about with preternatural energies. They stooped, reaching for small hudiedao concealed in their boots. Zhang pointed at them.


Hong Er’s thoughts entered his head.

Self-defense? Very well.

A wave of white flame engulfed the men. They expended their qi, trying to quench the fires, but Zhang added his own qi and overwhelmed them.


The fires dispersed. Three charred bodies dropped to the street. The last man was still standing, completely unscathed, his jian still aimed at Zhang. The weapon’s blade glowed a dull red in his hand.

“Are you Mojian Han?” Zhang asked.

He grinned. “Of course. And you must be Zhang Wudi. Impressive. The stories do you justice.”

Zhang drew his dao. “Mojian Han, you are under arrest for rebellion, banditry, murder—”

Han laughed and flicked his left sleeve. A blinding flash, a thunderous explosion, and a wall of smoke shrouded the street.

“Mojian Han! Stop!” Zhang yelled.

No response. Zhang probed for qi. Nothing.

People fled in every direction. Through the smoke he sensed nothing. He looked all around him, but saw no sign of Han. The smoke dispersed, leaving no trace behind.

The man had…vanished.

Cries and clappers split the air. A group of constables ran towards Zhang, their weapons at the ready. Zhang produced his medallion.

“Take me to Lee Xianzhang,” he said.


Previous chapters: 1, 2 and 3.

If you’re interested in my long-form fiction, do check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

INVINCIBLE Part Three: The Destroyer of Evil

invincible final

Zhang marched overland, timing himself to arrive at the forest after dark. When he arrived, he donned his suit of black paper armor and drew his crossbow. Short of an enemy army, he was ready for anything.

Suchen Temple lay at the summit of a steep hill. It was an intimidating climb for most people. The monks had thoughtfully cleared a path, a rough dirt trail marked by stone lanterns. Zhang walked parallel to the trail—if the wangliang were still around, they would have left traps aplenty.

As he climbed he amplified his senses. Crickets chirped all around him. A gentle wind disturbed the bush. A lonely owl hooted in the distance. Navigating by moonlight, he moved cautiously and stealthily, planting his boots on bare grass or stone, keeping to the shadows.

The forest was abundant in qi. It flowed into and around him, pregnant with promise. He absorbed enough to keep himself going, but not to supercharge his body. That kind of qi draw would be noticed. And, indeed, in the distance he felt a void, an emptiness in the flow of qi, as though something were hungrily sucking it down.

A sudden silence fell. There was no sound now, not even the cries of insects. It was the silence of prey in the presence of predators.

Onwards he climbed. Strange voices carried through the night, speaking in alien tongues. As he approached the top, he made out individual words. They were loose and liquid, repeated over and over like a warped mantra.

It was the language of the frontier wangliang.

The trees grew sparser and thinner at the top. He came to the edge of the forest, and saw a head-high stone wall. It surrounded a taller building with a sharply arched roof. At the corners of the roof, there where stumps where guardian figures once stood. At the gate, illuminated by a pair of torches, two child-sized figures stood watch.


The wangliang were dressed in rough rags, just enough for protection against the elements. In their left hands they held wooden circular shields; in their right short spears. For headgear they had leather skullcaps.

The creatures shifted back and forth, exchanging brief comments in their guttural language. They hadn’t spotted him, and the chanting masked the sound of Zhang’s approach.

Closing his eyes, Zhang extended the reach of his senses, feeling for qi. The wangliang guards had hot, noxious auras, carrying the weight of murder. Zhang sensed thirty more in the temple. The qi around him grew dark and heavy and twisted, concentrating at a single point.

In areas of abundant qi, it was far easier to contact supernatural beings. It must be why the wangliang had taken the temple. They were summoning an infernal spirit. A mighty one, almost equal to a god.

In a sane world, Zhang would have backed off and called in his colleagues. But reality was warping with every passing breath. By the time they got here, the ritual would be complete. There was only one thing he could do.

Live up to the name of Zhang the Invincible.

Zhang absorbed some qi from the world and blended it into his own, reducing his qi presence. Creeping to the eastern wall of the temple, he took a deep breath, sending qi to his legs. Another. Then he ran up the wall.

One, two, three steps and he hauled himself over the top. Sitting on the wall, he drew his crossbow and aimed.

Thwock. Thwock.

A bolt sprouted from each wangliang’s head. They dropped face-down, their weapons clattering into the dirt. Zhang climbed down and inspected the corpses.

Which picked themselves up.

The creatures moaned, feeling about their heads. They grabbed on the bolts and tugged, trying to pry them loose. Zhang dropped the crossbow and ran towards them.

Charging his qi, Zhang whipped his right arm around, bringing his palm crashing into the closer one’s crown. The wangliang’s spinal column collapsed in liquid pops.

The other one reached across its body, going for a dao. Zhang crashed his elbow into its face. Unbalanced, it staggered away. Zhang caught the wangliang’s chin with his right hand and spun, lifting it into the air and slamming its head against the ground. Just to be sure, he stomped it in the throat.

Zhang looked around. No wangliang came streaming out to investigate. The chanting had covered the sound of combat.

He examined the bodies. What appeared to be leather skullcaps were, in fact, paper helmets. The same paper his own armor was made of. With alternating layers of paper and cotton, sewn with silk thread, the armor was proof against nearly everything in the Empire’s arsenal. The bolts would have given the wangliang nothing more serious than a headache.

And wangliang did not have the technology to make paper armor.

Zhang scrutinized their equipment. The shields they carried were made of rattan. But the lands of the Union were too cold to grow rattan. It must have come from the tropics of the south of the Empire.

The spears the wangliang wielded were of a generic design, but the dao they carried were not. They had broad, chopping blades and strong hatchet points, with heavy brass handguards and crossguards that ended in hooks. Hudiedao, an exclusively human design from the Empire.

Zhang frowned. The Union used steel and leather in their armor, including their human vassals. Paper and rattan offered equal performance in a lighter package. These wangliang enjoyed greater mobility without sacrificing protection. And hudiedao were superior alternatives to the crude axes or knives most wangliang infantry carried.

Someone was equipping the wangliang with human weapons and armor. But why?

Hong Er, I wish to draw on your power.

Amusement touched her voice. What do you have planned?

He sent his plans to her in a single thought.

You are crazy, she said.

I am Zhang the Invincible. You are Hong Er, the Destroyer of Evil. Between us, a horde of wangliang is nothing.

A human-like chuckle flooded his mind. Very well. Let’s do this.

He positioned in front of the temple and drew out his spear, placing it by his right. He reloaded his crossbow and rested the butt against his pelvis.

“Hong Er, I am ready.”

With a flash of dazzling light, Hong Er stepped out into the human realm. Spreading her wings, she threw her head back and issued a cry of challenge. Fire poured from her open mouth, streaming through the temple windows. The chanting dissolved into a chorus of screams and pained cries.

The doors burst open. Wangliang swarmed out in a howling storm of sinewy muscle, clattering shields and glittering steel.

Hong Er greeted them with her fiery breath, engulfing the horde. Flaming feathers blasted wangliang who tried to escape. Placing his crossbow above the phoenix’s head, Zhang pumped away, sending a storm of bolts downrange. Hong Er skillfully controlled her flames, leaving the bolts intact.

Zhang loosed his last bolt. Tossing the weapon aside, he picked up his spear and stood by Hong Er’s side. The last of the wangliang warriors burst out, and the doors swung shut. Dark qi crackled across the door, sealing it off.

“Hong Er! Breach the door!” he called.

The phoenix cawed. Glowing blindingly bright, she took to the air and swooped down, flying through the remaining wangliang. Everything she touched—rattan, steel, flesh, bone—turned to ash. Shrieking, she slammed into the seal. Phoenix and seal disappeared in an enormous blast, flinging the doors open.

I am out of qi. I must retire. Good luck.

Zhang grunted a response. Three wangliang remained, rolling and hopping and patting at their burning clothes. Zhang moved among them, ending them with well-aimed thrusts.

The last one emitted a burst of qi, instantly extinguishing its burning shield. It saw Zhang coming, growled, and hid behind its shield. Its arm whirled. A sharp pain slammed into Zhang’s left breast. He winced, rocking with the blow, but remained upright. He looked down. A spear was embedded in his armor.

The wangliang reached for its hudiedao. Zhang lunged. It raised its shield, blocking the strike. Zhang hooked the top of the shield with his spear’s crosspiece and sheared it away. The wangliang tripped, dropping the shield. Zhang roared, thrusting for its face, and the spear punched clean through its skull.

Discarding his spear, he wrenched the wangliang spear from his armor, looped his right hand around the lanyard of his dao and drew the saber. He gathered his qi and entered the temple.

Skeletons hung on hooks from the ceiling, the flesh stripped clean. Blood splashed across the walls in unholy patterns. On the altar, a statue of the Taifo was smashed, its face and hands and feet and belly broken off. Wooden totems flanked the Taifo, blackened wood stacked together in strange configurations, topped with laurels of bloody skulls.

A great black sphere floated in front of the Taifo. Unearthly laughter issued forth. With every passing moment, it grew larger. In front of the sphere, a wangliang knelt, its hands raised high, chanting desperately.

And on either side of the wangliang, human sorcerers chanted with it.

A voice bellowed from the sphere. “Intruder! Kill him!”

The wangliang continued its fervent prayers. The humans broke off, turning to the intruder.

Zhang was already in motion. A single fluid stroke, and the closer human’s head went flying. The other one spoke a word. A wave of black qi slammed into Zhang, dispersing his qi and pushing him back. The sorcerer drew a dao and slashed at Zhang. Zhang backed up. The sorcerer cut again. Zhang swept the dao aside with the back of his blade and slashed through his throat.

The wangliang shaman continued chanting, desperation filling its voice. Within the void, Zhang made out form and motion. A huge multi-armed thing was trying to force its way through.

Zhang pounced on the shaman, cutting him from shoulder to hip. A great roar shook the temple, deafening Zhang. The sphere shrank rapidly. Tentacles reached out, trying to enter the world. Zhang cut at them, forcing them to retreat. In moments, the portal closed.

Zhang checked for more threats, found none, and allowed himself a deep breath.

Setting the bloodstained sword down, he faced the defaced statue and pressed his palms together.

“Taifo, I apologize for spilling blood inside the temple. It was the only way I had to stop the yaomo from causing more harm. I beg for your understanding and forgiveness. One day, I will come back and make things right.”

From the celestial realm, Hong Er sent him a message.

A promise is a promise. You’ll have to live up to that.

Zhang nodded. I will.

He bowed to the statue and picked up his saber.

Now, the hard work would begin.



Previous chapters: Part 1 and 2.

If you would to support my long-form fiction, check out my Dragon Award-nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

The Whisper Campaign Against SFF Author Jon Del Arroz

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Jon Del Arroz, a Dragon Award nominated science fiction and fantasy author, is facing a whisper campaign of blackballing, harassment, threats and ostracism. His crime: exposing the institutional sexism of the SFF short fiction field.

On 8 September, Del Arroz published a blog post highlighting the rampant misandry within the premier SFF magazines. He discovered that nearly every magazine was biased against men. 2.8% of female submissions were published — but only 0.8% of male submissions were given the nod.

Cat Rambo, the President of the Science Fiction Writers of America, decried the report as ‘alt numbers’ and turned on him. Previously, she was on cordial terms with Del Arroz, but after he published the article, she immediately turned hostile. In a clear violation of SFWA rules, she used SFWA’s Twitter account to tag Jon to discredit the post.

“I of course messaged SFWA and they did not care,” Del Arroz said in an online interview.

A week later, Jon offered to host her on a YouTube show to patch things up. Instead, Rambo threatened to sue him for ‘harassment’ if he ever contacted her again.

To Del Arroz, it was the last straw.

“That being a war declared, I started memeing about her / mean girls,” Del Arroz said. “She started Facebook messaging calling me a harasser — as if I attacked her — and stirring up industry professionals against me.”

Messages started pouring in across social media, calling him a “harasser”, with some originating from “people who get published in the big mags like Analog”. These are the same magazines whose sexist practices he exposed. A former editor of Clarkesworld took things one step further, calling Del Arroz on Facetime to berate him and his writing.

“Very bizarre,” Del Arroz remarked. “I don’t know him.”

The harassment campaign continued to escalate. A troll posted on his website with information about his children, while others did the same on Twitter.

“[Rambo] never disavowed that,” Del Arroz said.

Del Arroz has since deleted the offending comment, and Twitter has suspended the doxxers.

Throughout this ordeal, Del Arroz has received messages demanding he should make a public apology. As the whisper campaign continued, former friends distanced themselves from Del Arroz, unfriending and blocking him on Facebook. Among them are industry professionals and editors, including those who work at Baen — previously the only major SFF publishing house that strives to remain apolitical in its publication decisions.

Del Arroz believes Social Justice Warriors applied pressure on them to isolate him.

“A person who has worked for Baen told me he received messages warning him about being my friend,” Del Arroz said.

A whisper campaign of this magnitude is deliberately designed to isolate and pressure the target into admitting defeat, and threaten everyone who supports him. For an independent author like Jon Del Arroz, who depends heavily on social media to sell and market his books, this campaign is a threat to his writing career.

Jon Del Arroz is not a troll. While his communication style is upfront and direct, he has always comported himself in a sincere and friendly manner. Whenever he comes into conflict with someone, his first reaction is to attempt to bury the hatchet. In addition to his offer to Rambo, Del Arroz also entered into a spat with SFF author John Scalzi. Del Arroz publicly offered to have dinner with Scalzi, and later to watch a baseball game together, in an attempt to reconcile their differences. Scalzi ignored both offers.

The SFF community was once a big tent where people of all backgrounds could come together to celebrate a shared love for wonder and adventure. Now, a den of vipers has infested the tent, driving out everyone who disagrees with them. Jon Del Arroz is merely their latest target. The moment you question the narrative, they will turn on you and everyone you know. These harpies and backbiters will stop at nothing to destroy your reputation, your friendships and you.

Cat Rambo’s silence is deafening. The behaviour of the SJWs driving this mob is damning. By word and deed, by silence and treachery, they have shown that they are not interested in civilised conduct. All they want is to hang on to their crumbling empire as the seas of change relentlessly batter their strongholds, and to drive off everyone who isn’t one of them. The response to such behaviour is simple.

We will replace them.

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If you want to support Jon Del Arroz through this trying time, you can pick up a copy of his Amazon Top 10 bestselling novel Star Realms: Rescue Run, his Dragon Award nominated novel For Steam and Country, and new novella Gravity of the Game.


Current serial fiction: INVINCIBLE Part 1 and 2

INVINCIBLE Part Two: Sujiang

invincible final

The Shenwujun labored through most of the night, picking through the remains of the rebel camp. In the fullness of time, the internal troops regrouped and returned, but by then there was nothing more for them to do. The Shenwujun made camp upriver of the rebel camp, and bedded down for the few hours to dawn.

After breakfast, Captain Cao gathered the men around him. It was a small group, only thirty of them, but Shenwujun rarely gathered in larger numbers.

“Gentlemen, good work last night. You took on a rebel group three times your number and won. Impressive work, even by our standards. Well done.”

Regular soldiers might have cheered. The Shenwujun simply smiled and nodded approvingly. They were still in the field. Still at war.

“Now the bad news,” Cao said. “Our target, Mojian Han, was not among the dead. We found no trace of him or his infamous sword.”

Regular soldiers might have groaned. The Shenwujun simply remained silent.

“Our campaign continues. But there’s been a new development.

“We ran into spirit warriors last night. The rebels have the knowledge and the means to bond with infernal spirits. They are better-trained and better-equipped than we thought.

“Worse, the summoning circle they used was based on blood magic. Wangliang blood magic. The words written in the circle come from the language of the frontier wangliang tribes. And that means the Grand Union is involved.”

Now the men whispered among themselves. North of the Empire, the Grand Union claimed it was a land where all races could live together in peace. Zhang knew the truth: the Union’s Immortals subjugated every living being in the Union under their rule, and used wangliang and humans as spear fodder in their countless wars with the Empire.

But this was the first time the Union was supporting an internal rebellion like this.

“We cannot overlook this, but neither do we have manpower to spare,” Cao continued. “So long as Mojian Han lives, our campaign against the Tiandi Lianhe Association continues. We must continue to support the regular Army. At the same time, we must see if the Tiandi Lianhe Association were truly cooperating with wangliang, and if so, whether the Union is involved. Higher command cannot spare any more men to assist us. We must conduct the investigation ourselves. Ensign Zhang?”

“Captain,” Zhang replied.

“I’m dispatching you to investigate the situation.”

Zhang blinked.

“Just me?”

“Yes. I need everybody else to hunt the rebels. It’s a tough assignment, but if anyone can do it, it’s Zhang Wudi.”

The men smiled and jeered good-naturedly. Zhang simply nodded. He had long ago given up any notion of persuading his comrades to stop calling him Zhang the Invincible.

“Aren’t investigations the responsibility of the Censorate?” Zhang asked.

“Criminal investigations. This concerns national security, making it our business.”

“Very well,” Zhang said. “Do we have any leads?”

“None. We were unable to recover any intelligence materials from the rebel camp.”

And dead men told no tales.

“Then we have to do this the hard way.”

“Indeed. Head to the city of Sujiang. It’s the district capital. The local Xianzhang should be able to assist you. Keep me updated.”

“Very well. By your leave, I shall depart.”

“May the gods watch over you.”

“We are Shenwujun. They always do.”

Sujiang was a hundred and sixty li away, through wending forest roads and rugged hill trails. Most men would need a horse to travel that distance in a day.

Zhang walked.

With every step, every breath, he inhaled qi into his dantian. On the exhale, he expelled toxins and waste qi into the air, returning it to the cosmos. Energy filled every fiber of his being, keeping him going long after a lesser man would have needed to rest. His step lightened, his gait loosened, his muscles relaxed. He walked from sunup to sundown and sunup again. For sustenance, he sipped at a calabash of water and chewed dried strips of oversalted pork. It was the only time he allowed himself to stop—the doctors said eating while walking interfered with digestion.

A man wandering the frontier alone was looking to die alone. But Zhang had left on the black uniform of the Shenwujun and wore his dao at his hip. Neither man nor beast dared to disturb him.

Half a li from his destination, he saw the first sign of civilization: a long line of carriages snaking down the road. Merchants and travelers from the rest of the Empire. He headed for the front of the queue. The people complained, then went silent when they saw who he was.

The guard commander did not.

“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Get back in line like everyone else.”

Zhang reached into his ring and drew a brass medallion.

“I am a Shenwujun on Imperial business. Let me through.”

Any other day and he would have waited patiently for his turn. But every hour he spent doing nothing was an hour the rebels gained. And despite his mastery of qigong, a deep ache sank into his calloused feet.

The guard’s lips moved as he pretended to read the words embossed on the medallion’s face. Finally, he nodded sharply and gestured at his men. Zhang passed through without even a perfunctory inspection and headed for the first inn he saw. The signboard said it was the Plum Blossom Inn.

An aged woman waited at the counter. She greeted him with a smile and a bow.

“Good morning, honored Shenwujun. Would you be staying with us?”

Zhang nodded. “What are your rates for a basic room?”

“One fen a night.”

“And a bath?”

“We don’t have one. You can find the public bath next to the market.”

“Very well.”

From his interspatial ring, Zhang produced a silver ingot and handed it to the woman. She goggled.

“It’s too much!” she protested. “I can’t accept this!”

“I’ll be staying in the city for a while. Consider it a deposit. You can give me the change when I check out.”

She beamed.

“Thank you, Your Excellency!”

She handed him a worn key. It called out to him, promising rest and relief. It would be so easy to just take a bath, head for his room, strip off his clothes and fall into bed.

Instead, he asked, “How do I get to the yamen from here?”

“Go down the road to the marketplace. Turn left at the cobbler’s, then make a right at the clinic. You should see the yamen down the street.”

“Thank you, laoban niang.”

At the public bath, Zhang washed off the dust and grime from the road. Breakfast was a pair of steamed buns at the market. Then it was off to the yamen, a walled complex where the local government officers lived and worked. A pair of stern-faced constables stood watch at the gate with repeating crossbows.

“I’m here to see the Xianzhang,” Zhang declared, holding up his medallion.

“What’s the purpose of your visit?” the senior guard asked.

“It is for the Xianzhang’s ears only.”

The men exchanged looks.

“The Xianzhang is currently engaged. We must ask you to wait.”

Zhang folded his arms. “To keep me waiting is to keep the Emperor waiting.”

The guard cleared his throat. “Please allow this one to arrange an appointment with the Xianzhang.”


The guard retreated inside. A minute later, he reappeared.

“Your Excellency, please follow this one.”

The guards escorted him into the main courtyard, where a functionary met him. Zhang rang the gong, formally announcing his presence, and entered the main hall.

“Ensign Zhang Tianyou of the Shenwujun!” the minor bureaucrat proclaimed.

The Xianzhang sat at a high table at the far end of the room. He was dressed in a rich emerald robe of fine silk. His table was covered by a vivid green tablecloth, and by his right hand was a teapot and a set of cups. The functionary seated himself at a smaller table at the great man’s side and took up a pen; it appeared he was the Xianzhang’s scribe. At every corner in the room, the constables on duty stared at the Shenwujun.

Zhang marched up to the Xianzhang and bowed deeply.

“Xianzhang, thank you for seeing me on such short notice. I deeply apologize for the inconvenience.”

“It is no trouble at all. It is my great honor to host the great Zhang Wudi.”

Zhang snapped his head up. “You’ve heard of me?”

“Everyone in the frontier has heard of your exploits. You are a living legend.”

“Thank you. But if anyone deserves the title of Wudi, it is my father.”

“True, but a tiger of a father does not beget a dog of a son.”

“Your Excellency is too kind. May I know your honored name?”

“I am Lee Deyao.”

“Lee Xianzhang, I am here on a mission of vital importance to the state, and I request your assistance.”

“Of course. Come, sit, have some tea. Please tell us why you have come today. Is this about the rebels?”

As if by magic, slaves appeared, carrying a chair and a cup of steaming tea. Zhang sat and sipped at the brew. It was superb, better than the tea he was issued.

“Your Excellency I am here to chase yaomo,” Zhang said. “Wangliang, to be specific.”

Lee’s face fell. “I thought rebellion takes a higher priority than yaomo.”

“When the sandpiper and the clam fight, the fisherman benefits. The Grand Union had designs on the frontier for centuries, and they deploy wangliang as vanguards and saboteurs.”

“Then I’m glad you’re here. The provincial yamen told me a group of Shenwujun would be operating in the area. Are you with them?”

“I have no knowledge of their present activities,” Zhang said truthfully. “I am on an independent assignment.”

“Ah. Did the provincial yamen send you?”


Lee stared expectantly at Zhang. Zhang simply sipped at his tea and said nothing. A moment later, Lee broke the silence.

“I…see. Last I heard from the provincial yamen, they said they would send a runner to a regiment in the field. I thought the runner must have caught up with the Army.”

“I heard from my comrades that they found signs of yaomo operating in your district. I was sent to investigate. Before I left, we have not received any reports from the provincial yamen.”

“Then it must be Heaven’s will that you are here. Three days ago, a group of wangliang attacked and occupied Suchen Temple. I would have sent the local garrison, but they are away hunting the Tiandi Lianhe Association.”

“I can take care of the problem for you.”

“Just one man?”

Zhang raised an eyebrow.

“Ah, my apologies,” Lee said. “I forgot who I am speaking to.”

“No offense taken. What can you tell me about the attack?”

“Speak to the monks at the temple in our city. They reported the incident to me. They can give you the full details.”

“Very well.” Zhang finished his tea. “Thank you for your tea. I must leave now, but if you have any additional information, either about yaomo or rebels, you can leave a message for me at the Plum Blossom Inn.”

As Zhang stood, Lee did also.

“Ensign Zhang, may Heaven watch over you.”

“I’m a Shenwujun. Heaven is always looking after us.”

The temple sat in an isolated corner of the city. The monks busied themselves with their daily chores: gardening, laundry, general cleaning. He found a monk and requested to see the Zhuchi. The monk led Zhang to a small chamber that served as the Zhuchi’s office.

The Zhuchi, dressed in a simple saffron robe, sat at a plain wooden table. Papers and scrolls lay stacked neatly in a corner. Another monk worked at a smaller table, painstakingly examining a book. As Zhang entered, both monks stood and bowed, pressing their hands together.

“Good morning, Your Excellency,” the Zhuchi said. “To what do we owe the honor of hosting such a powerful Shenwujun today?”

Zhang blinked. “You know I’m one?”

The Zhuchi smiled beatifically. “Aside from your black uniform? It is plain as day in your aura. You have contracted with a powerful celestial spirit.”

Auras were invisible to the naked eye; people needed special training or celestial assistance to see them. The monks here were the real deal. The meditation and qi exercises that empowered Shenwujun came from various holy orders, and Zhang had no doubt that the monks had concealed their most secret teachings from the state.

“Yes, indeed,” Zhang admitted. “How may I address you?”

“I am Lin Guo An. And yourself?”

“Zhang Tianyou.”

The aide laid out cups of tea for everyone. Zhang accepted the beverage gladly; the long march had left him parched, and he hadn’t had a chance to refill his calabashes.

“What can I do for you today?” the Zhuchi asked.

“I am here to track down yaomo in the region. Lee Xianzhang told me about a wangliang attack on Suchen Temple, and referred me to you.”

“Well, you’re in luck.” Lee gestured at his aide. “This is Huang Qingjian from Suchen Temple. He personally witnessed the attack. He’s been helping me ever since he arrived here.”

“Your Excellency,” Huang said, bowing. “How may this one help?”

“Please tell me what happened during the attack,” Zhang said.

“Late at night, I rose from bed with a stomachache. The latrine was outside the temple grounds. After I finished my business, I saw a group of men approaching the temple entrance. I was still in the forest then, hidden from view. I wanted to call out to them, then saw that they were holding torches. They weren’t men. They were wangliang.”

“Please describe the wangliang.”

“They were short, about chest height. Long black hair, claws for fingers and toes. They wore rough scraps for clothes, but their weapons were bright and sharp.”

“How many wangliang were there?”

“About thirty.”

“And what kind of weapons did they have?”

“Shields and spears.”

Which was the hallmark of the Union’s wangliang foot infantry.

“What did you do?” Zhang asked.

He looked down. “I…I hid behind a tree. I was too afraid to move. I’m…sorry.”

“It was a wise choice. You’re alive now, yes?”


“Sometimes, hiding is the only thing we can do.”

Huang looked up and nodded.

“What happened after the wangliang arrived?” Zhang asked.

“They surrounded the temple. A team gathered in front of the gate. They chanted something, and the gate exploded. The wangliang charged in. Moments later, I… My brothers… They screamed and screamed and…”

His voice broke. The Zhuchi patted the man’s shoulder.

“Peace. Breathe and relax. It’s over now.”

Huang obeyed. “I couldn’t stay. I stumbled out the forest and ran. Next thing I knew, I was at the city gates.”

“Thank you,” Zhang said. “Did you see what kind of magic they used?”

“No. I just saw a flash of light, then a loud explosion.”

“Very well. Do you know the current situation at the temple?”

“The Xianzhang has declared the area off-limits,” Lin said. “With the local garrison hunting rebels, the Xianzhang felt it best to wait for the Shenwujun to come. We don’t know if the wangliang are still there.”

“I’m here now,” Zhang said. “I can take care of the problem.”

Lin’s face fell. “Yes. I’m sure you can.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Your Excellency, do you consider yourself a follower of the Taifo’s teachings?”

“No celestial spirit would bond with a Shenwujun who will not.”

“So it is. Yet the nature of your work violates the First Precept: refraining from killing living beings, both humans and non-humans. By providing you information about the wangliang, we are knowingly contributing to the death of living beings. It is a violation of the oaths we swore as monks.”

“You speak as if there will be bloodshed.”

Lin raised an eyebrow. “Of course. In the celestial hierarchy, your phoenix is styled a destroyer of evil. She will not bond with anyone who is not aligned with her essential nature.”

Zhang blinked. “You can see her?”

“Of course.”

Zhang shook his head. Most people, even Shenwujun, couldn’t see bond-spirits unless they manifested in the human realm.

“Then you must know that her existence is fully in accordance with the will of Heaven,” Zhang said. “Wangliang are brutal yaomo who prey on humans at every opportunity. Your brothers at Suchen Temple learned that great cost. To stop them from doing more harm, it may well be necessary to kill them.”

“Yet in doing so you will also shoulder the karma of killing, and the suffering that comes with it.”

“So be it. I cannot stand by and allow the wangliang to go unpunished.”

“Then we shall pray for you. And us.”



Part 1 can be found here.

For more long form fiction by Hugo and Dragon Award nominated writer Kai Wai Cheah, check out NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.