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