Night Demons Part 6 of 6

Knife

Dozens, hundreds, thousands of minor parasites swarm all over me. They are gnats and centipedes and biting worms, landing all over my aura. They crawl and wriggle and bite and chew and tear. My skin begins to itch, and my eyes flutter involuntarily.

Easiest option is to run them through with cold steel. But there’s too many people around. If they saw me do that, they’d call the cops on me. That’s how demons fought, by turning people against each other.

Instead, I step aside, whip out my phone and pretend to stare at the map. I want to call down the Light, to burn off the things crawling over me. But that is an inefficient use of limited energy.

And there are better ways to do this.

In my mind, I reach up to the heavens.

‘Archangel Michael, please open the gate to the Light.’

A pair of gates appears in my mind’s eye. They swing open into pure dazzling light.

Addressing the entities feasting on me, I say, ‘Why are you here?’

A chorus of tinny voices reply immediately.

‘Food!’

‘Because we were forced to!’

‘Reshazak says so!’

Voices are a good sign. It meant I didn’t have to slaughter them all.

‘Do you want plenty of food?’ I ask.

‘YES!’

‘Do want to keep working for Reshazak?’

‘NO!’ a voice says.

Other voices drown it out.

‘We have to!’

‘No choice! He hurts us if he does!’

‘He sounds like a bad guy,’ I say. ‘But listen, you don’t have to work for him any more. There’s a place where you can free of him, and where you can find plenty of food.’

‘Where?’ they chime.

‘Do you see the White Light before me?’

‘Yes…’

‘Just step through.’

‘But we’re not of the Light! It burns! It hates us!’

‘That’s not true,’ I say. ‘Look inside yourselves. Do you see a light?’

The chewing stops. Finally. This time, they chatter among themselves.

‘I see it!’

‘Look, look, so bright!’

‘Is that light? Why is there light?’

‘You carry the Divine Spark,’ I say. ‘You will always be welcome in the Light. You just have to step through.’

‘But it’s scary!’

‘The Archangel Michael will help you. There is nothing to be afraid of.’

Michael steps through the portal in his full regalia He extends one arm to the gates, and another at the entities.

‘Everything will be all right,’ he says. ‘Just come to me and we’ll take care of the rest.’

A brave soul jumps off me, flying to the Light. Another, a third, then a thick scream of them. Michael whispers reassurances, gathering up a few recalcitrants in his hands, and guides the rest through the gates. As they fade into the light, I hear cries of joy.

‘Well done,’ Michael says. ‘That takes care of the lesser spirits. Now Reshazak will have to contend with you himself.’

‘Where is he?’

He points down the road at a tall structure, a quartet of obelisks reaching for the sky. The Civilian War Memorial.

‘Thanks,’ I reply.

‘Be wary. He is deploying servitors. Prepare your steel.’

Servitors were mindless beings created to serve the will of its master. In this case, they must be designed for combat.

‘Understood.’

The world darkens as I approach the War Memorial Park. Strange whispers fill the air. The streetlights illuminate crooked trees and stone benches. Black things dance in the shadows between the pools of amber light. There’s an underpass leading to the Esplanade MRT station in front of me, and I’ve no doubt there’s a camera nearby.

I didn’t have to like this. I just have to do this. At least there are no civilians nearby.

I cross the road.

The shadowy things coalesce, growing into snakes and eels. I run to the Memorial, but they slither across the ground and pounce on me. A bitter brown taste floods my mouth. Cold venom punches into my shields.

A fresh wave of energy hits me. Eleanor’s energy. I drink deep and flush my aura with pure White Light. The servitors dissolve. I pop my knife open, hold it in a reverse grip and dash for the monument.

The four columns of the Memorial looms solemnly over me. A shallow pool of water marks every corner. The benches are all occupied.

By dark humanoid spirits.

They get up and charge at me. The closest swings a right hook. I cover with my left elbow and peck at its arm. The blade passes clean through it, but dark energy stings my face. I stab at its throat, go for its thigh, and it dissipates.

A second one leaps at me. Sidestepping left, I slash down, catching its arm. I stab it in the neck, arc around and stitch down its body and it dissolves.

A pair of servitors rush me. Air whooshes past my ear, and suddenly a lion and a wolf leap over my head, pounce on the beings and tear out their throats.

‘We’ve got your back,’ Lupin says.

‘Thanks.’

My spirit guides break off, hunting down individual targets. Anther servitor runs towards me. I lunge in, thrusting the knife into its crown and power-stroking through. It bursts apart, and another jumps on my left arm. I cycle my Griptilian, shearing and tearing, until it disintegrates.

Three servitors surround Leonhard and Lupin. The spirit guides take one each. I lunge for the last and split it in half.

The air darkens. My throat dries. A huge black column blasts down from the sky, down the center of the Memorial. As I dash over, a tall dark figure descends the stairs.

‘Reshazak,’ I say.

‘Michael Chang,’ the demon says. His words are knives scraping against my soul. ‘I will enjoy destroying you.’

My breath comes and goes in ragged spurts. Sweat soaks my clothes. My muscles burn. No time for a protracted engagement. Have to end this fast.

‘We don’t have to do this,’ I say. ‘All you have to do is go into the Light.’

‘No.’

He dissolves into a thick dark cloud.

‘Watch out!’ Leonhard urges.

The cloud whooshes towards me. I ready myself, gauge the distance, sneak my foot forward, lunge, thrust down—

Reshazak splits in half, avoiding the blade.

Pure darkness engulfs me. Inky choking burning acid burns into my skin, my bones, my soul. Harsh guttural cries and high-pitched screams tear through my ears. I cycle my blade back and forth, but it’s like slicing air, it’s no use nothing works—

‘The light!’ Lupin yells.

‘The water!’ Leonhard shouts.

I call on the Light. The blackness parts just a little, revealing a bright yellow spot. I stagger towards it, flailing the knife about. My legs feel like they are moving through molten concrete, but it’s an illusion, I just need to go smoothly and carefully and—

My shoe drops.

Cold water splashes against my pants leg.

I take a few steps forward. More light surrounds me, burning through the dark. The water works its magic, disrupting the demon and his magic. Fires ignite across my skin, but it’s too late. A crack appears in the thing’s presence. Pure energy floods in. Again, Eleanor’s. I drink it in, compose myself, and reach for the Light.

“MICHAEL!”

White Light blasts down from the heavens, burning through Reshazak. It screams, thrashes, writhes, but between the water, the light and the White Light it doesn’t stand a chance. The murk dissolves.

What’s left of Reshazak resembles a naked, shriveled elderly man. He drags himself out of the water and onto dry concrete. I approach it, knife at the ready. This thing has harmed enough people. He damn near tried to kill me. I ought to—

‘No,’ Leonhard says.

‘It’s not worth it,’ Lupin adds.

Reshazak turns around, sitting on the ground and staring at me. He unleashes a long string of obscenities, concluding with, ‘Finish it already, damn you!’

I’m tempted to. But he’s… small. Weak. He can’t harm anyone any more, not in this state.

White lights dance before me. A warm hand touches my shoulder.

‘What do you plan to do?’ Michael asks.

I draw in a deep breath. The threat is defeated. The Law, mortal and divine, would not justify future violence. And if there is one thing I must always do, it is to stay true to the will of the Cosmos.

‘Archangel Michael, please surround this being in a bubble of Light. Carry him away, that he may be transformed.’

A great white sphere engulfs the demon. He pounds and scratches, but it’s no use. The ball floats into the sky, disappearing through a portal of White Light.

‘Well done,’ Michael says.

There are no more threats around, but I think I see a few people staring at me from across the park. I fold my knife, clip it to my pants, and wipe the sweat from my face.

‘Thanks for the assist everyone,’ I say.

The hand squeezes my shoulder. It doesn’t hurt.

‘Be well.’

The warmth vanishes. Leonhard and Lupin look expectantly at me.

‘Let’s go home,’ I say.


I walk aimlessly for the next ten minutes. When I’m sure I’m not being followed, I cab home.

I indulge in a long, cold shower, with plenty of sea salt. There’s a number of black marks on my face and arms and legs, but with Reshazak gone they rub off easily, and the salt and water takes care of the remaining negativity.

I stumble out of the shower, yawning. I’m exhausted. Drained. I had to rest, recharge, get as much sleep as I could. Only way to heal a battered soul. And it’s well past one in the morning. Well past bedtime.

But first…

I message Eleanor. Thanks for the help. Everything’s fine now.

Thank God, she says. What happened just now?

I check the time. Glance at my bed. Pat my still-wet hair. Think about Eleanor Wang, my best friend, the woman who’d quite likely carried the day for me. She’s still on the line, still waiting for a reply.

Sleep can wait a little longer.

PSX_20170918_044151

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

For a fresh take on gods and demons, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Night Demons Part 5 of 6

Knife

It’s too bright and too crowded for me to act. A hostile entity wouldn’t feel constrained by people, but if things went dynamic and if I had to perform an exorcism… I don’t need the attention.

 

I make a sharp right turn, heading down a narrow alley between a 7-Eleven and Ramen Bar Suzuki. It ends in a fork: straight ahead or to the right.

 

I go right.

 

Bikes and streetlights cram the road. There’s barely enough light to see. No people in sight, not yet. I cast a wary gaze on the doors on either side; the last thing I need was for some innocent night shift worker to step out into a fight.

 

Sprinting silently down the alley, I draw my flashlight. Place like this, I need illumination more than an edge. Behind me, I hear animalistic breathing and heavy footsteps.

 

A bend to my left. I look. A group of citizens gather around a group of tall, narrow tables, chatting and drinking. No go.

 

To my right, an opening to the main street. Two men lean against the walls, smoking and chatting.

 

No place for an ambush.

 

An incoherent roar reverberates down the alley.

 

Too late. I spin around just in time to see the threat barrelling down towards me.

 

I get my hands up.

 

“Stay back, stay back!” I shout. “I’m not looking for a fight!”

 

Closing in, the man brings up his hands.

 

I light up his face. He pauses, covering his eyes. In that light, I see dark, twisting smoke engulf his face, rearing up like a snake.

 

“Back off! Back off now!” I yell.

 

He roars.

 

Charges.

 

I step in. Snap my foot into his groin. He just keeps coming. With my light I hook his left hand down, and hack his other arm up and away with my left forearm. Closing in, I seize his skull and ram my elbow into his jaw. Something cracks. I smash my right forearm into his neck, shoving him aside. Cocking my left hand, I slam my palm into his temple, bouncing his head off against a wall.

 

He shrugs off the blow. Pushes himself off, grabs my shirt with his left hand, and cocks his right hand back.

 

 

Trapping his grabbing hand with my flashlight, I slam my forearm into his broken jaw. The blow unbalances him. Reaching around his arm, I grab the pinky side of his grabbing hand. Peel it off, torque anticlockwise and take a big step.

 

My inverted wristlock sends him crashing into another wall. Despite the damage, the sonofabitch still keeps fighting, flailing and snarling and thrashing. I extend my left leg, brace the locked arm against my thigh, and drive my right forearm against his upper arm.

 

With my entire bodyweight on him, he’s not going anywhere. He must be in terrible pain, but the demonic strength keeps him going. Glancing around, I see witnesses on their phones, gawking, filming the encounter, doing everything but helping out.

 

The great black cloud washes over me, infiltrating my nostrils and stinging my eyes. I have to finish this. Taking a deep breath, I find the essential stillness in my centre and bring it out into the world. I connect with the White Light and call it down. The possessed man pauses for a second. I begin my litany.

 

“Archangel Michael,” I whisper, “I call on you now in this time of need. Protect me and those around me from the forces of evil.”

 

A blazing blue light burns down from the heavens, clearing away the darkness. An inhuman howl escapes the man’s lips. A glowing yellow poker skewers my ears and brain. I grit my teeth and carry on.

 

“Free this man from the darkness. Surround the evil being in a bubble of White Light, that it may harm none, and carry it off to be transformed.”

 

A glowing masculine hand touches the back of the man’s head. I look up and see Archangel Michael with his glowing blue armour and burning sword. A large white bubble grows from Michael’s hand, encapsulating the possessed man’s skull. Michael lifts his hand away, taking the bubble with him. Inside the bubble there is a angry black cloud.

 

Michael looks at me in the eye.

 

‘This is only a small part of Reshazak. It’s not over yet.’

 

I nod. ‘Understood.’

 

A rectangle of light opens behind him. He steps back, and the portal swallows him and the captured spirit. I blink, and there is no longer any trace of the astral.

 

The formerly-possessed man goes limp. Gently, I set him on the ground and roll him into the recovery position.

 

“Hey, are you okay?” a man asks.

 

I check him out in my peripheral vision. The passers-by have stopped gawking, and now one of them is babbling into her phone.

 

“Yeah,” I say.

 

“What happen just now?”

 

I shrug, clipping my flashlight, still looking away from him.

 

“Dunno. This guy just started chasing me out of the blue. I tried to run, but he caught up and attacked me.”

 

“We call the police now. Just rest here, okay?”

 

Police. Damn it. I still have my knife on me. If they found that, there’d be too many uncomfortable questions. They’d accuse me of carrying a weapon and I wouldn’t have a good answer. In the eyes of the law, that was automatically proof of guilt.

 

I turn and run.

 

“Hey, wait! Where you going?”

 

I don’t look back.

 

****

 

A couple of minutes later, I’m clear of the alleys. Slowing down, I breathe hard through my nose and make my way towards the waterfront.

 

Fatigue sinks in. The adrenaline dump has passed. My limbs turn rubbery and my eyelids begin to droop. A dull cold ache sinks into my body, and darkness slips across my eyes.

 

Must have picked up some of the crap from the threat. I flush my aura with White Light and reinforce my shields. It helps, a little. But there is still a lingering, sticky, greasy sensation that clings to my hands and thighs and face. I pat myself down. No blood. But the gunk is still there, and I’d have to wash it off later.

 

I think about the formerly possessed man I’d fought. Christ, that was a screw-up and then some. The ambush hadn’t worked. More than that, I had to whale into him, pound him, break him. I’d hurt him. Bad. But he wasn’t acting of his own free will. Did he deserve so much punishment?

 

Probably not.

 

I sigh. I have to get better at this martial arts stuff. If I have to fight possessed people again, I really didn’t want to break them.

 

But first, I had to get home. Whipping out my iPhone, I check my map. Closest MRT station was Raffles Place, but the police would check it out later. I’d have to make distance, get far away from the fight, before I could think about faster forms of transport. Just had to…

 

Motes of bright blue and white light sparkle before my eyes. The passers-by don’t notice them. Archangel Michael is near.

 

‘Look up,’ Michael says.

 

I do. Dark energies swirl and gather in the air above me, shredding the clouds to form a black vortex. It’s a portal, bridging this world to wherever the demon came from.

 

‘You made Reshazak angry,’ the archangel continues. ‘He’s coming for you.’

 

‘Could you shut down the portal?’

 

‘Ye, but it won’t keep him out forever.’

 

‘What should I do? Take the fight to him?’

 

‘No. He is strongest in his home plane… but comparatively weak here. When he crosses over, finish him.’

 

‘I’m not exactly fit for combat right now.’

 

‘Stand and fight. You started this, now you must end it.’

 

‘I’m going to need help.’

 

‘Ask, and the Almighty shall provide.’

 

I draw myself to my full height, and suck in a deep breath.

 

‘Archangel Michael, we go forth to battle evil. Please help me stay strong and win through. Protect me from harm, and together, we shall restore light and goodness to this world.’

 

I sense a smile.

 

‘Very well. To arms, Michael Chang. This night is not yet done.’

 

The lights vanish. Bitter cold sears into my flesh where I’d touched the man. A curse. And it would give Reshazak a chance to find me.

 

I just had to be ready.

 

Opening Whatsapp, I messaged Eleanor.

 

Need help. Send healing energy and shield up. Rough night ahead.

 

Her reply is instant.

 

Okay.

 

A soft, gentle warmth descends on me. Her energy. I drink it in and direct it into the corrosive energy, taking off the edge, preventing it from sinking deeper, and cross Cavenagh Bridge. The running water acts as a natural barrier, disrupting any hostile spells or negative spirits still around me. The curse falters, fading into a background ache.

 

Past the river, I draw my Benchmade Griptilian and hold it by my leg in a reverse grip. Nobody notices.

 

I need room and privacy for the final showdown. I didn’t know how or where it was going to come for me; I had to pick a spot where I could see possessed humans or other creatures coming for me. A place where I could deploy light and steel without being interrupted.

 

I head north to Esplanade Park. The streets are deserted. The only people I see are clustered near the solitary bus stop. Their spirit guides watch me as I approach, and shrink away. They do not betray me to their humans and I return the favour.

 

Darkness crowds the world around me. Living shadows sneak across the ground, latching on to me. My shields hold, but already I feel a chill creeping across my body. I call down the White Light, burning it through, replenishing myself with Eleanor’s donated energy.

 

Glancing up at the dark whirling mass of malevolence, I send a thought.

 

‘You’re going to have to do better than that.’

 

Sinister laughter fills my mind. The vortex flattens into a flat circle of pure darkness, becoming a portal into an alien realm. A realm of near complete darkness, broken by swarms of iridescent lights tearing through the deeps. The lights grow larger, brighter, and race for the mouth of the portal.

 

And a horde of unclean spirits rains down on me.

 

PSX_20170918_044151

Previous parts: 1, 2, 3, 4

For a fresh take on gods and demons, check out my Hugo and Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Night Demons Part 4 of 6

Knife

When fighting the forces of darkness, it pays to have bright powers on your side.

 

At dawn, I dress in bright, clean and comfortable clothing. I ring my singing bowl and clear out the remaining negativity. Light three sticks of incense and place them in a brazier on my work table.

 

Lower my head and clasp my hands.

 

“Gods and buddhas and angels and friendly spirits, I am under attack by an evil spirit. Grant me the strength to protect myself, my friends, and my clients. Please enjoy this offering of incense, and come to my aid when I call on you.”

 

I was raised a Buddhist, was exposed to Christianity in school, and studied world religions throughout my childhood. My faith is more eclectic and universal than most people, but I received no complaints so far. None from the only ones who matter.

 

I spend an hour training. Empty hand, knife, flashlight. Footwork and strikes and cuts and kicks and grappling, taken from Pekiti Tirsia Kali. I maneuver around my bed and furniture, adapting my moves to take advantage of the surfaces around me. I finish with breathwork and wash up with cold water and salt.

 

For breakfast I boil four eggs. As I wait, I repair my wards and pile on my shields. This time, I throw on a cloak of shadowy energy over my shield, rendering me effectively invisible to hostile entities. Then I fire up Google Earth and zoom to Clarke Quay. Astral tracking was a two-way street. The creature might have found me by following my energies, but I could do the same to it.

 

I think of the demonic assault, replaying it in my head. I skip through the opening sequence and pause at the moment the creature unmasked itself. I study its aura. Deep brown shot through with filthy blacks, red sparks dancing through it. I knew what it truly looked like. I could find it.

 

With my second sight, I scan the area, using the digital map as an anchor for my psychic senses. In my mind’s eye, I see streams of energy rushing down roads, solid blocks that indicated long-established buildings, pillars where high-energy events occurred, blank spaces where no one lived or worked. They come in a rush of colours and textures: smooth royal purples, deep wet blues, springy reds, prickly browns.

 

Brown. Similar to the demon’s energy. I redouble my efforts, slowing down and zooming in. A huge brown cloud blooms over a building. Brown with black, with sparks of red. The demon.

 

I look up the address. A nightclub called Blackout. Figures. Pubs and bars and clubs were the feasting grounds of negs. Lots of easy prey, plenty of opportunities to jump on to a fresh target. Small wonder the demon had chosen it as a base of operations.

 

After breakfast I tend to more mundane affairs. Life won’t wait just because you have a feud with an unclean spirit. I finish up my freelance work—an article about the benefits of enterprise planning software—and send it off. I hit the crypto markets, sell some Litecoin, place a couple of limit orders on Bitcoin, and buy a bit of Dash. I plan my next blog post on Steemit. I arrange a couple of appointments—in-person tarot readings, easy yet rewarding—and answer some queries.

 

With work done, I can get back to my real job. On Blackout’s website, I study the photos, note the dress code, and prepare my clothing. Long-sleeved white shirt, smart pants, thick-soled shoes. I clean my earplugs, slip them into my breast pocket, and prep the rest of my gear. Finally, I message Eleanor and tell her what I plan to do.

 

Good luck, she says.

 

She wasn’t a fighter. Never would be one. But at least she had my back.

 

Dinner is light. Chicken and assorted vegetables wrapped in lettuce. Nutritious, but not so rich that it would slow me down. I spend an hour meditating, waiting for the night life to really get underway. Then, I hit the street.

 

Taking the train to Clarke Quay, I emerge at Hong Lim Park. This is the site of Singapore’s famous Speakers’ Corner, which is probably why there is a police post nearby and the Attorney-General’s Chambers are right across the street.

 

I head in the opposite direction, towards the Singapore River. Here, at South Bridge Road, I see the surviving fragments of Singapore’s past. Shophouses and low-rise office buildings flank the road, rebuilt with modern materials while retaining their old-time designs. The daytime businesses are closed, and the night-time companies are coming to life. Hostesses in skimpy clothing and high heels linger outside lounges and discos and bars, smoking and chatting with patrons and passers-by. Every time a door opens I hear frenetic music blast forth. A tiny 7-Eleven stands near the bus stop, the sole bridge between the day and night worlds.

 

My kit digs uncomfortably into my flesh. My tongue registers hard bitter curves. Annoying, but I’ll have to live with it. Can’t go empty-handed against a demon.

 

Down the street, I cut into Circular Road. Now the night world hits me with full force. Old-school rock and roll, slow and melodic, plays from a nearby eatery. It is packed with young adults, chatting loudly to be heard over the background noise. I seek temporary relief at the building across the road, closed for the night, but it lasts only until I reach the Indian-themed pub next door. Past that was a cake decoration store, painted an incongruous pink, utterly out of place here.

 

Sticking to the narrow sidewalk, I keep walking. I pass by the Quarters Hostel and sidestep around a couple of tourists emerging from the front door. Then I weave my way around the patrons and staff of more pubs.

 

The further I go down the road, the narrower the street becomes. Furniture spills out into the sidewalk, forcing me to squeeze past narrow walkways to chance walking the road. The denizens of the night form static knots and slow-moving clumps. A river of cars roll down the one-way street, narrowly avoiding the vehicles parked alongside the road. Lights flash and music blares, but I only have eyes and ears for traffic and warning signs. There was so much motion, so much sound, so much everything I have to shut down and focus.

 

Once, a Thai hostess makes the mistake of tugging at my sleeve. My hand flies to hers and peels it off. She gasps, withdrawing. I wag my finger and her and slide through the night.

 

Finally—finally—I reach my destination. A small shophouse with ‘BLACKOUT’ in thin bold white words plastered across an all-black signboard. There is a small queue outside, with a heavyset bouncer at the door. Donning my earplugs, I join the queue.

 

When it’s my turn, the bouncer says, “Show me your IC please.”

 

Great thing about Flare Audio’s earplugs, they cut out unwanted sound while leaving you the ability to hear conversations around you. All the same, I read his lips to verify what I hear.

 

I show the bouncer my identity card. He nods and pats me down. I endure the feel of foreign flesh against me, flaring my shield so his energies slide off.

 

His hands stop at my waist.

 

“What’s this?” he demands.

 

“My flashlight.”

 

“Show me.”

 

Slowly and carefully, I withdraw it from my waistband. It’s a Nitecore MT2A. In the low light it’s hard to tell it’s a mil-grade light.

 

He nods and carries down. He moves down my legs and ankles, and stands up.

 

“Okay, boss. You can come in,” he says.

 

I stow the flashlight and pay the cover charge. Fifteen dollars. He hands me a ticket and I enter the club.

 

Light and sound assault me. Iridescent lasers slash across my eyes. Ever-changing spotlights slide across the walls and floors, barely illuminating the dark. A synthesized techno beat screams through the crowded room, so loud my earplugs barely reduce it to tolerable levels. People dance all around me, flinging their arms and shaking their bodies to the beat. I keep my hands close to my chest, ready to ward off dancers who get too close.

 

Underneath the mad, frenetic energy, something lurks in a lower realm. Something brown and dark and predatory.

 

The target.

 

The ticket entitles me to a free drink at the bar. Browsing the menu, I select a cranberry juice. I’m not here to party. I’m here to work. The fruit juice is ice cold when it arrives, and goes down as a shock of white. Good. I need to clear my head.

 

I lumber to the upper floor, staying well clear of the dancers. Keeping to the walls, I scan the crowds, looking for something, anything out of place. Someone lingering too long in a corner and watching the crowd, someone moving aggressively on a vulnerable person and sucking in energy, someone slipping drugs into an unattended drink, male or female, doesn’t matter.

 

No signs of predators here. Nobody takes any interest in me either. With drink in hand, stuffy clothes and a guardedly neutral expression, nobody will.

 

I finish my drink and head down the ground floor toilet. In the cubicle, I do my business, then pop off my left shoe and pull out my knife. I’d been walking on my Benchmade Griptilian for the whole evening, and it dug uncomfortably into my sole with every step.

 

At least that unpleasantness was over now. Sitting on the toilet bowl, I slowly and silently open the blade and close my eyes.

 

In my second sight, I assess the dark mass I’d seen. Reshazak, or a significant fraction of it. Long, thick ropes of negative energy anchor it to the world. Through these anchors, it feeds off the energy of everyone here and assesses patrons as prey. Unfortunately for it, my cloak is still intact.

 

I reach out with my mind. Gather the ropes into a thick, squirming bundle before me.

 

Cut.

 

Energy rushes through the air. Something howls in my head, cutting through the deafening music. Malevolence radiates from the dark mass, and now I feel the full weight of its attention.

 

‘This place is MINE!’

 

Not any more,’ I reply.

 

I imagine the creature floating before me, a writhing, seething mass of naked evil. I cut the image, and through the image I transmit the space-ripping force of cold steel.

 

How dare you!’ it screams. ‘You will pay for this! I will eat your soul! I will feed on everyone you—’

 

I cut again.

 

‘Shut up.’

 

I cut and cut and cut, dividing it into ever-smaller pieces. It grows tentacles and lashes out at me, but most of them slide off my shield. I cut off those that don’t and continue slashing away at the being. It continues screaming, promising to exact vengeance over a thousand lifetimes, eternal torture in its domain, utter annihilation.

 

I’d heard it all before. I didn’t care. Make war on me and pay the price.

 

One last thrust. Light flashes through the world. For a moment, there’s a brief sense of dislocation. Then Reshazak is gone.

 

I close the blade, put it away and leave. Once outside the nightclub, I stow my earbuds and yawn. It’s been a long, long night. I have no idea how normies can stand so much noise and touching, and really, I don’t care. They can keep to their world, and I’ll stay in mine. Just like it’s always been.

 

Heading down the street, I dodge a few more passers-by, scanning the world like I always do. I breathe through my fatigue, forcing myself to stay alert. The night isn’t over yet. Not until I’m home.

 

Belatedly I realize I’m going the wrong way. Doesn’t matter, I can always turn around, and anyway the Raffles Place MRT station is nearby. I keep going anyway, keeping an eye for—

 

‘Look left,’ Lupin urges.

 

I do. Out the corner of my eye, a gangly Chinese man rounds a bend. By the amber street light I see long, thick, unkempt hair and a rounded back. A huge black cloud of negative energy looms over him. Reshazak’s energy.

 

His eyes lock on my face.

 

Threat.

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Previous parts: 1, 2, 3

For a different take on gods and demons, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

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

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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 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.

“Burn.”

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!”

NO.

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!”

NO.

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?”

“Always.”

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.”

“Understood.”

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.


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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

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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.

“Ah.”

“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.”

“How?”

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.”

“How?”

“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.”


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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?”

“Why?”

“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.

“Yes.”

“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.

“HA!”

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.

“Burn.”

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.

“MU!”

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.

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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 Two: Sujiang

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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.”

“Go.”

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?”

“No.”

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?”

“…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.”

****

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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.

I Remember

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I remember a dream of an airplane, falling sharply through the sky. I remember carts barrelling down the aisles and the floor falling sharply beneath me. I remember the screaming.

It was the night of 10 September 2001.

The following night, I understood what the dream meant.

I remember the phone call from a friend that night, claiming a plane had struck the World Trade Center. I remember turning on the television to see the Twin Towers burning, the news casters frantic rehashing of events halfway across the globe, repeating them every few minutes. I remember the face of Satan in the smoke.

I remember the fall.

I remember the smiles, the laughter and the cheers of many people who had seen the collapse of the towers. This was my first brush with naked evil, and my first encounter with those who wish nothing more than to watch the world burn.

It’s been 16 years since then. A lifetime. There is an entire generation of children who have never seen the Towers fall, but have lived with the consequences. A decade and a half of war, fathers and mothers leaving home for war and returning crippled or in coffins, regular reminders of terrorism and national security threats, the steady erosion of necessary liberties for temporary security.

To the generation after theirs, 9/11 would be something they read in history books or learn from their parents. They will never experience the consequences of that day, only the second- and third- and fourth-order effects. When the day comes, what should I tell my children?

I was born in the shadow of a nuclear apocalypse. The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a generations-long cold war, every word and gesture backed with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over. A few years later, the Soviet Union suddenly ceased to exist.

My generation was promised a brave new world and the end of history. We merely enjoyed a brief respite before the war of our generation crashed into every television, every computer and every radio in the world.

While a War on Terror beats nuclear annihilation, it demands a new way of living, a new way of thinking, and the recognition that things never become better all by themselves — we must make them so, or hurtle into the abyss.

Being born in Singapore, I was sheltered from the shock. 9/11 was a tragedy, but not a personal one. None who died were my countrymen, much less people I know. We never had to go to war—though we were, and still are, targeted by terrorists. I could have been born in America and experienced far greater loss; I could have been born in Afghanistan, and forced to choose between the Taliban and the West.

There but for the grace of God go I.

The psychic wounds have healed over, faded to shallow scars. The rage, the grief, the horror, they have bled out long ago, leaving little more than a cyst of sorrow. Now that I am a man, I have shouldered greater responsibilities, and prepare myself for greater ones still.

Now, not so long after 9/11, there are new challenges. The never-ending War on Terror. The culture war between the social justice warriors and those who would face them. The Control-Left versus the Alt-Right. The clash of civilizations—not just between Islam and the West, but between everybody and everybody else. Corporations who arrogate to themselves the power to decide what speech is acceptable on social media. Governments who use all number of excuses to shore up their own power and take away everybody else’s rights. I have no doubt that my children will face challenges of their own.

What shall I teach them?

I will teach them of the boundless resilience of the human spirit and the breadth of the human heart. That sovereigns come and go, but ethics endures through the ages. That kith and kin matter more than the political fads of the day. That evil must be met with courage and righteousness and that all lies are sundered by the truth. That rulers and bandwagons must always be watched with a suspicious eye. That the triumph of evil comes simply from silence, but the triumph of good demands unbending virtue lived day after day. That they are the latest link in an unbroken chain stretching into the mists of antiquity, each generation building upon the achievements of the last, that for civilization to endure they themselves must be ready and able to bow their backs to the task and lay the groundwork for the glories of the next age.

Most of all, I will teach them to remember.

Cover image by Chris Schiffner.

TWO LIVES: Part 5 of 5

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Two scenes in a row. That was intense. I wiped the sweat from my brow—and then I realized I was mimicking the upwards parry Akira had used. My heart thumped in my chest. Blood pumped to my fists and feet.

I had to get a grip. That battle was long in the past. I had to leave it there.

At the shrine, I saw a large golden maneki neko. Gathered around the statue was a collection of smaller cats, their left paws raised. Legend held that keeping a maneki neko at a place of business was sure to bring good fortune. Which, no doubt, explained their popularity in Singapore and Japan.

There was a plaque nearby. It read: A manner of joining hands in prayer. Relax, join hands in front of your chest and close your eyes. Raise your left hand to the height of your left ear and mew. Your prayers will be answered.

I smiled. The Japanese sure had some strange customs. Then again, in Singapore, Chinese Buddhists pray by grasping burning incense sticks at chest height and bowing deep and often, sometimes punctuating it by waving their hands up and down in exaggerated motions. What would a Japanese think if he saw that?

Nevertheless, I clasped my hands together and nodded. Japan was a land of kami, and in that sense little different from the branch of Buddhism I had grown up with.

A strange thought popped into my head. Is there anything you want?

I’d experienced too much to dismiss it as a random thought. Instead, I smiled. How did Akira’s story end?

Here.


I was a ronin again.

Hattori was true to his word. He paid me for the job and erased my name from official mentions. The dead bandits were explained away as ‘self-defence’. The bandit chief himself was reported to have ‘died from his wounds’. I couldn’t think of a better outcome.

With the bandits eliminated, the merchant no longer needed yojimbo. With Hana dead, I had nothing tying me down to the city. I tried to stay, but I was surrounded by ghosts. Her smile in the moonlight near the river we had met, the tinkle of her laughter, the way she tugged at my sleeve when she wanted my attention.

I’d never known what she saw in a ronin like me. Perhaps I never would.

Summer surrendered to autumn. I continued teaching at the temple, but already I felt restless. The city felt a strange place, an alien world of noise and colour and strange customs. There was no place here for ronin like me. It was time for a new city, a new life.

After the final class of the season, I gathered my worldly belongings and prepared to leave. It wasn’t much: the clothes on my back, my weapons, my purse, a small sack holding travel essentials. Everything else I bequeathed to the temple.

I left Hiro with the monks. They could take care of it better than me. The road was no place for a cat used to life in the city. All I had left to remember Hana was the omamori I had never returned.

I headed north. I resumed the discipline of the road easily enough. Walk until tired, rest until ready, keep on walking. Sleep under the stars on dry nights, under trees during the rains, inside inns and temples if they were available and if I had the funds. For sustenance I had tea leaves and rice, and I harvested wild fruits and tubers where available.

I passed through an assortment of villages and towns, taking odd jobs for pay, but never staying for too long. I found no reason to stay, so I kept walking.

As winter approached, the days shortened and the air cooled. Falling ill now was dangerous. A man could freeze to death by the road and no one would notice. Or care. I quickened my pace, heading to the next city. I would shelter there for the winter. After that, well, who knows?

I pushed on, going further and further without rest. The first snows fell, dusting the world in white. I wrapped my haori tightly around myself and endured the cold. My destination was in sight, a black dot in the distance, past a sward of dried and yellowing grass.

I reached the gates in the evening. I pleaded with the sole watchman to let me in, and eventually he relented. At least he showed me the way to the nearest temple.

The snow grew thicker, occasionally slipping under my kimono and freezing my flesh. My geta sank deeper and deeper, barely keeping my feet clear of the layer of white. People retreated indoors, where they could find light and warmth. I doubted I could afford a room at an inn. But monks would never turn away a man like me.

Past the torii, I had to climb a series of stairs to reach the temple. Cold sweat clung to my flesh. I sneezed, wiping my nose against my sleeve. I planted my feet carefully, retaining my balance on the slippery stone.

The stairs fed into the sando, the narrow road that approached the temple. Two lines of toro lit the way. In the distance I just about made out the silhouette of the worship hall. There was another building on my right. Light beckoned from the windows. Perhaps I could find the monks there.

But first, I had one more thing to do.

To my left was a small pavilion. A temizuya. I checked the chozubachi; the stone water vessel was full. Rolling up my sleeve, I took a dipper and poured water on my left hand. The water shocked my skin and numbed my fingers. I rinsed my right hand and mouth, then dipped the handle into the water.

Now ritually pure, I wiped my hands on my hakama and my mouth on my sleeve, and headed for the lit building. By the light of the toro I saw a petite woman approach.

A woman?

She wore no makeup, but her long hair was tied into a neat bun. She wore a haori dyed a pure white, and a hakama the colour of blood.

She was not a nun. She was a miko.

This was not a Buddhist temple. This was a Shinto shrine.

She studied me as she approached. She saw the swords at my side and bowed, deep and low.

“Good evening,” she said.

I returned her bow. “Good evening.”

“May I help you?” she asked.

“I need a place to stay for the winter.”

She smiled broadly, fire dancing in her eyes.

“Come inside. We’d be pleased to have a guest.”


Is that everything? I wondered.

It is enough.

Another life. Another city. Another chance to try again. I hoped it was enough for Akira. For me.

I bowed, and walked away.

Here I was, living a life utterly different from, yet eerily similar to, the one Akira had led. We were ronin who had studied the sword. We were thinkers, not talkers. Buddhism had shaped us. We had lovers named for flowers. He had lost Hana. Mine was still around.

A quiet voice, deep and calm, flooded my mind.

You have one more chance with her. Don’t waste it.

Akira’s voice. My voice, reaching across the centuries.

I won’t.

In the evening, in my hotel, I brought out my laptop. My lover was online. I opened Facebook Messenger and touched my fingers to the keys.

Something funny happened earlier today…


The places and performances described at Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura are as I have experienced them in July 2016.

Earlier chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4.

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