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?”
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. “En…jiu 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!”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
“FAN YONG FU GUANG!”
Han dropped, blood gushing from his throat.
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.”
“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?
Thanks for supporting this story! For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.