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.”
“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.
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.”
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.”
“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?”
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?”
“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?”
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.