Night Demons Part 3 of 6

 

When going to war, first build an invincible defence. And I am strongest at my home.

 

Home is a studio apartment a few minutes away from the Farrer Park MRT station. Unlike most single Singaporeans my age, I live alone, well away from my parents. It’s for their safety. They’re normies, and given my lifestyle, the last thing I need is for demons to show up at the doorstep of my family home.

 

It’s happened more than once.

 

To the naked eye, it’s an open concept one-room flat. In my mind’s eye, I see multiple reinforced layers of shields, shimmering white and blue and gold, ready to repel intruders. Crystals stationed near the door and windows anchor the shields in place. The wards are intact, and there are no signs of forced entry.

 

Setting my backpack down, I don a pair of Flare Audio titanium earplugs and pick up the crystal singing bowl in the corner. It’s less a bowl and more like a cylinder, half the size of my torso. I cradle it to my hip and strike the rim with a wooden dowel.

 

A pure note fills the room with white sound. Rubbing the dowel against the outer rim, I circle my home, carrying the sound to every corner. The walls are thick enough that I don’t disturb the neighbours. The high-pitched tone sweeps through me, clearing any stray negativity I might have picked up.

 

I put the bowl aside and sit on the floor. Draw my Benchmade Griptilian from my waistband and pop it open. Closing my eyes, I open my mind’s eye and hunt for negative attachments.

 

There. A cluster of black cords extending from my crown. I swipe my knife through them, severing the connections.

 

Vanessa would have left those attachments, of course. She couldn’t help it; where intention goes, energy flows. She desires intimacy and seeks it in mere flesh. I can’t help her with her issues. Not today. All I can do is help myself.

 

Passing the knife over my body, I clear all other unhealthy attachments in my aura. It’s a staple practice in Western occult practices, but it’s not something I do for people who aren’t read into them. Singapore doesn’t have a knife culture, and the first time I brought out the knife the client freaked out there and then. Since then, I resorted to sage.

 

I didn’t make this world. I just have to live in it.

 

When I’m done, I hit the shower. Cold running water with plenty of sea salt. Can’t ever be too careful. I change into a green shirt and comfortable pants, and dump the laundry just in time to hear the doorbell.

 

I check the peephole. See a woman. Open the door.

 

Eleanor Wang stands at the doorstep. Dressed in a bright yellow dress, she carries a sling bag over her left shoulder, another bag on her right, and a smaller carrier in her left hand.

 

“Hello!” she sings.

 

“Hi,” I reply. “Just in time.”

 

I let her in. Dumping her bags next to the door, she plops herself on the sofa and hugs a cushion to her chest. Her spirit guide, a small tabby cat named Blazer, shows himself, sprawling all over her crown.

 

“So coooooooooold,” she says.

 

“Monsoon season’s starting.”

 

“Mm. Is it cold here?”

 

“I’m good.”

 

Blazer climbs down. Lupin and Leonhard reveal themselves, and the trio hold a conference in a corner of the room. As I sit next to her, she says, “How was your client today?”

 

For the next ten minutes, I recount the events at Bedok. Eleanor listens intently, chiming in with questions where appropriate.

 

“It sounds like a powerful neg,” she says.

 

“We’ve dealt with worse before,” I reply.

 

There are a handful of people in the world who know who I am and what I do. Eleanor is one of them. The first among them. We met in secondary school, and she was the only friend I retained from those days. When I stumbled upon the hidden world of gods and demons, she was the first person I confided in, and the first person who followed me down the rabbit hole. It helped that she had no small amount of talent herself.

 

“It feels like a spirit of lust,” she says. “It is attracted to carnal desires, but it feeds directly on life energy. But it’s also powerful and dangerous enough to protect itself.”

 

“Michael says he’s gunning for me now.”

 

She sigh, shaking her head. “As expected.”

 

“It’s what I do.”

 

Another sigh.

 

“I need to prepare for round two,” I say. “Can you help?”

 

“Okaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay…”

 

We reinforce my home. More shields, more wards, more blessings, concluding with a prayer for help.

 

“Archangel Michael, General of the Armies of Light, watch over and protect us from the forces of evil. Safeguard this place and ensure it remains a sanctuary from darkness. Thank you.”

 

Short and simple, as the best workings usually were. Eleanor favoured other divinities, but it’s usually best to concentrate your energies on a single celestial being than to spread them out over multiple ones. More so if they don’t get along.

 

A quarter of an hour later, we’re done. Eleanor chugs down a glass of water and declares, “Time for dinner!”

 

We have dinner twice or thrice a week. Sometimes she visits me, sometimes I go to her workplace in Toa Payoh, other times we meet somewhere in between. Her way of keeping track of me, I suppose.

 

I’d left two packets of salmon fillets and another of potatoes out to thaw. I don’t normally prepare those, but with Eleanor around I made the exception. We rummage around the fridge and produce a bunch of French beans, cherry tomatoes and peas. Together, we prepare dinner. There was so little room in the tiny kitchen we had to work hip-to-hip.

 

The kitchenette has a tiny cooking hob. Just about adequate for what the real estate agent had called ‘light cooking’. Today, that meant pan-seared salmon with helpings of assorted vegetables.

 

Laying out the food on the dining table, we lower our heads, clasp our hands and bless the meal. I draw down divine energy into the real world, into this tiny spot in space-time, and infuse it into the food, willing the energy to bring health, wealth, and good fortune. In my second sight, the edibles glow softly.

 

We make small talk over dinner. She does most of the talking, complaining about the latest round of office politicking, venting about the people she had to deal with, commiserating about the stresses of the job. Her voice, a sweet, melodious mix of green and yellow and indigo, makes listening to the litany barely tolerable.

 

In the grand tradition of countless Singaporeans before her, she’d joined the civil service after graduating from university. It paid much better than what I did, as she liked to remind me, but I wasn’t sure if the job was worth my soul.

 

I suppose we who are called to serve the Divine have different priorities.

 

“How are you doing these days?” she asks. “Can you still cope?”

 

“Sure. I’m making enough to get by.”

 

“How much do you save a month?”

 

I shrug. “Five, six hundred.”

 

“Only?”

 

“Still a lot more than you.”

 

She chuckles. Much of her income went to servicing her education loans. Most of mine went to paying the bills. We all have our crosses to bear.

 

“Is your magic business working out?” she asks.

 

I nod. “I can cover the utilities.”

 

I offer a multitude services. Tarot, palm reading and graphology are my most successful offerings, and those I’m obliged to charge for. I have to, to keep myself afloat. Healing, only if the client can afford it. Exorcism is a donations-only endeavour. It’s not a money-making business; in a good month I can cover my expenses, in a bad month there’s nothing to do but dip into my savings. But this job isn’t about the money – and if I needed cash, there were other ways.

 

“And cryptocurrency leh?

 

Now I grin.

 

“I made fifteen hundred dollars off trading Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dash and Litecoin this month.”

 

She smiles too. “That’s awesome.”

 

Okay, I exaggerate. A little. Most of those were paper gains. I’d jumped on the Bitcoin bandwagon early in the game, early enough that when I finally remembered I had a Bitcoin wallet I realized I was sitting on a small fortune.

 

I wasn’t a millionaire. Not by a long shot. But I could afford to stay here for ten years, if I made my trades carefully and if the crypto market continued to remain favourable.

 

Of course, the main problem was ensuring my bank account had real money in it. Singapore still ran on fiat, and most of my savings were locked up in crypto. I supplement my income with freelancing and other mundane work—but talking about that would bore the both of us.

 

We keep conversation light over the rest of dinner. It’d been a long day and I didn’t have much energy for anything else. We put away the dishes and she stays a little longer, sitting next to me on my sofabed. We’re so close our shoulders touch. She is soft and warm and it only took me a full year—the entirety of my last year in secondary school—to acclimatize myself to this much contact.

 

A pleasant hour passes in conversation, tarot reading, and meditation. At least, she tries to meditate.

 

“I can’t really meditate as long as you do,” she complains.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Can’t sit still lah.

 

I nudge her side. Lightly. The sensory recoil sends shockwaves through my body.

 

“Maybe I should tie you up.”

 

WHAT?!

 

“I read somewhere that people do that to keep their minds and bodies still…”

 

“No! Pervert!”

 

But she giggles. And she keeps her tone light.

 

“Well, if you’re ever interested—”

 

“Go away! I don’t know you!”

 

And again she laughs, lightly shoving me away.

 

We turn to less sensitive topics for a few more minutes. Then she breaks out a tube of cream and squirts out a small amount on her palm, as large as a twenty-cent coin. Rubbing her hands together, she runs them down her face, her neck, her arms, her legs.

 

Her skin is a battered wasteland of dry flakes and dull red patches. Full-body eczema, co-morbid with lichen amyloidosis. With a careful diet and rigorous skincare regime, she’s kept it under control for the past decade and a half. Despite my best efforts I haven’t found a way to help her. But I’m not giving up.

 

As she speaks, she gushes about her latest skin care products and skin-friendly makeup. Most of it flies over my head—all I comprehend is a daily infusion of aloe vera—but I smile and nod anyway. It’s the best I can do for her. At least, for now.

 

She stays for another half hour, and then it’s time to go. Donning my knife and flashlight, I escort her to the MRT station. She’d long ago given up any hope of persuading me to disarm myself, but she lives in a different world. Cold iron and white light are the most effective tools against spirits, second only to blessed and enchanted holy objects.

 

I have also been reliably informed that knives and flashlights tend to useful against human threats. Not that I plan to use mine on humans, of course. After all, as every law-abiding citizen can tell you, weapons are illegal in Singapore, and self-defence is no excuse to carry one.

 

I return home and stifle a yawn. All the socialising had sapped my energy reserves. No point doing any more work tonight. I wash the dishes and brush my teeth. Fire up my laptop, check my Exodus wallet and my accounts on various cryptocurrency exchanges, record my income, and spend the next half hour relaxing with videos and some light reading.

 

When I can’t keep my eyes open any longer, I unfold my sofa into a bed, stash my flashlight and knife under my pillow, turn off the lights and dive under the covers.

 

It is warm and soft and clean and comfortable and soothing. After so many hours of sensory contact with other humans it was just the thing to recover. It’s a weekend too; I could sleep in if I wanted to, not that it was going to happen, I had work to do and work never ended. I close my eyes and turn on my side and sink into the mattress.

 

There is a new pressure next to me. Soft and warm and human. I sit up and Eleanor is lying next to me, smiling an invitation, peeling off the blanket to reveal an expanse of smooth fresh skin and in her right hand is a coil of rope and the rope unfurls into a hangman’s noose and she is smiling like a tigress and she crawls over with noose in hand and that is not Eleanor’s skin that is not Eleanor wake up wake up WAKE UP!

 

My physical body is frozen. My soul is not. I visualize a pentragram. Five blazing white lines burn into existence, forming a barrier between me and not-her. She hisses and her face warps into an malformed spotted thing.

 

“I banish you! By the most holy names of God—Yahweh, Agla, Adonai, Ehyeh Asher Ahyeh—I banish you and command you never to return!”

 

The pentagram burns white, drowning out the world.

 

I shoot up into a standing position. Hot electricity crackles through every fiber of my being. To my right, just past the bed, I see a large brown blob the shape and size of a man. It scowls at me, growing massive fangs and a pair of clawed arms.

 

Reaching under my pillow, I grab the first thing I can find. Heavy, plastic, textured. Knife. I snap the knife open and pounce on the entity.

 

“MICHAEL!” I scream.

 

Angel lights flash into existence. The knife punches clean through astral matter. A demonic howl fills my head. The lights frame and illuminate the neg, holding it in place, burning off the darkness. I slash and thrust and cut and stab and the spirit is gone.

 

I turn on the lights.

 

All clear.

 

My heart pounds in my chest. Sweat spills down my skin. My steel is steady in my hand. And there are no more threats.

 

It is just after three in the morning. There are great, gaping holes over the windows and door. I’d have to repair them later. I put my Benchmade away. Wipe the sweat from my face. Sit. Breathe.

 

Lupin and Leonhard materialize before me. Their bodies are covered in scratches. The angel lights flit over them, concentrating at their wounds.

 

‘Are you okay?’ Leonhard asks.

 

I nod. ‘I should ask you that.’

 

Lupin growls. ‘Reshazak brought many friends. They tore down your shields and created an opening for him. Sorry we couldn’t hold them off.’

 

‘We won. That’s all that matters. Michael?’

 

‘Here I am,’ the archangel says, his voice emanating from the lights. As he speaks, the guides’ wounds close over.

 

‘Thanks for the assist.’

 

I’d rather not fight at all, but winning was second-best.

 

‘You’re most welcome. Reshazak read your mind and exploited your weaknesses. You did well to detect his presence and drive him off, but he will come back. His pride demands it. And if he can’t reach you, he’ll target Eleanor.’

 

I exhale sharply. I’d expect nothing less of a demon. There’s only one thing we could do.

 

‘We’ll hunt him first,’ I declare.

 

 

Previous parts: 1 and 2.

 

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

Night Demons Part 2 of 6

 

I glance around the room. The miasma redoubles in strength. The Lums’ spirit guides are fleeing to different realms for cover. But there is no overt sign of the evil spirit.

 

I’d have to flush it out.

 

“Vanessa, please let me see your hand,” I say.

 

She holds out her arm. Examining the streaks, I peer beyond the material realm. Every black line is a deep cut in her aura, filled with dark festering energy, consuming her life energy.

 

“Do the marks feel odd? Are they warm, cold, numb…?”

 

“A bit cold, actually.”

 

The curse was devouring her life force to fuel itself.

 

“Have you washed the marks?”

 

“Yes. With soap and water. I keep scrubbing them, but no matter what, they don’t go away.”

 

The boy snorts. I ignore him, listening instead to Leonhard and Lupin. The spirit guides whisper into my mind’s ear, and I repeat them.

 

“This is a powerful curse,” I say. “It is eating away at your life energy and your luck. I think there is a negative spirit possessing the man you described, and you were unfortunate enough to run into it. But don’t worry: I can handle this.”

 

“What do you need to do?”

 

“Are you ready to be healed?” I ask formally.

 

No healing, magic or other working can be performed without a patient’s consent. It was an ironclad rule in this business, one to be broken at your peril.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Excellent. Please wait here a moment. I’m going to cleanse your home.”

 

“‘Cleanse’?” the boy asks.

 

“Yes,” I reply. “I will cleanse the home of negative energies and create a sacred space. It is the first step of the working.”

 

The black ball of negativity whirls round and round his head. “It’s really going to work meh?”

 

This is how negs work their will in the real world, through pawns and useful idiots. John’s trying to provoke me into an outburst, or to convince the family to throw me out. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he doesn’t exist.

 

“I won’t guarantee results,” I say slowly, “only that I will do my best.”

 

“So you can’t do anything lah!

 

“John!” the mother snaps. “Don’t talk to Mr Chang like that!”

 

Aiyah, what can he do?” he says. “He’s not a doctor, he’s not some sort of priest or what, he’s just a quack lah. Why you even listen to him?”

 

Leonhard chuckles and whispers a single sentence into my mind.

 

“How is your ankle?” I ask.

 

“My what?”

 

I point. “Your left ankle. It’s an old injury. Does it still hurt?”

 

There is a throbbing brown ball in his ankle. Electric streaks of red pain radiate through his foot and leg. He’s leaning against the wall because his injured foot can’t take his weight. The neg orbiting his head is probably interfering with the healing process too.

 

He blinks. “How did you… Someone must have told you, right? Who?”

 

“I never told him anything about you,” Vanessa insisted.

 

“Then? How did you know?” John demanded.

 

I smile.

 

“John, as I said, I will do my best. You may observe, but do not interrupt.”

 

Lupin growls at the neg dancing about John’s face. It shrinks away and melts into the miasma.

 

“Can you help him?” Vanessa asks.

 

I turn to John. “Do you want to be healed?”

 

He crosses his arms. “We’ll see how first.”

 

I unzip my bag and lay it flat on the floor, revealing several smaller ziploc bags. I retrieve the one containing a bundle of white sage smudge sticks and grab a lighter.

 

Igniting a smudge stick, I hold it high and let the purifying smoke rise into the ceiling.

 

“The smell is pretty powerful,” I say. “If you have breathing difficulties, please stay clear.”

 

With even, measured steps, I walk throughout the house, filling it with smoke. The scent is thick and herbal, like burning tobacco but brighter and cleaner. The miasma retreats before it, pouring out of the doors and windows.

 

Smudging is a Native American practice, but most Singaporeans are familiar with burning incense or other offerings. They are conceptually similar enough that people don’t ask me questions about it. I swirl the smoke in the corners of every room, letting it clear out the miasma.

 

There is a tiny altar mounted in the kitchen near the ceiling. It is the only overt sign of religiosity in the household. John’s bedroom is humming with tense, conflicted energies. The energies of a teenager undergoing puberty. The parents’ room is flat and empty, mostly devoid of life.

 

Vanessa’s room swam with a toxic brew. Most of the energy here was hers, but there was much stagnant foreign energy too, no doubt the traces of strange men. The miasma was thickest here, and I spent extra time clearing it out.

 

The Lums weren’t particularly religious, much less spiritual. They would have been easy targets for a malevolent entity.

 

Returning to the kitchen, I extinguish the stick and settle in my chair. Half-closing my eyes, I take a series of deep, full breaths. On the inhale, I direct a glittering golden stream of life energy into my second chakra, two fingers below the navel. On the exhale, I discharge a cloud of waste energy into the universe to be renewed.

 

Opening my eyes, I see.

 

A swarm of beings crawl all over her. Some are as tiny as gnats, others are the size of my fist. Some are parasites, others are lost souls swept up in their wake. Underneath the mass of creatures, I see something larger swimming through her aura, like a shark among a school of lesser fish.

 

The chief of the negs.

 

“Archangel Michael, please come to us in our hour of need. Bless this space and open a gate to the Light.”

 

Above our heads, an astral gate opens. White light, pure and holy, floods the dining room, burning off the last of the miasma. The world brightens immediately. Framed in the portal, I see a man in sky-blue armour with a blazing sword in his right hand, spreading brilliant white wings from his back. My namesake.

 

Swooping down, he lands next to me. My spirit guides bow to him, and he bows also. I nod, and continue the ritual.

 

“We are now in the presence of the Light. Beings who wish to pass on, you are free to leave. Michael, please watch over them.”

 

A rainbow stream of souls unwind from her, ascending into the Light. As they depart, they flash through human forms—an elderly man, a little girl, a young woman—and vanish from sight.

 

“Do you see sparkling?” Mr Lum asks.

 

“Where?” John asks.

 

I ignore them.

 

“Beings who wish to harm Vanessa, know that your time here is done. You are free to pass into the Light. You are also free to leave. But you cannot stay.”

 

A gentle warmth radiates from the burning blade. Smaller entities leap off her and join the souls heading up. The horde thins out immediately, and in that gap something dark and ugly surfaces in her aura. It glares at me. I stare back.

 

‘This one is tough,’ Lupin says. ‘You gotta burn out its attachments.’

 

“Here we go,” I say.

 

I take her arm. It is smooth and cool and springy. A strange feeling passes through my kin, like the sensation of rubbing milk with your fingers crossed with clutching a lightning bolt. Cream white flashes across my eyes.

 

Breathing through the sensory intrusion, I touch the fingers of my right hand to the black thumb-sized streak and channel energy from the Universe. A river of hot, clean energy surges through me, down my crown, through my arm and fingers, and into her wound.

 

“Tell me if you feel anything,” I say.

 

The cosmic energy floods into the auric wound, transmuting into White Light, burning away the festering energy, leaving a gap behind. The energy turns into a golden liquid, filling up the hole and sealing it off. The being growls.

 

“It’s getting hot,” she whispers.

 

“It’s working,” I say.

 

More energy. More power. More heat. I step out of the way and allow the Universe work through me. First comes a stream of Light, burning away the last of the curse. Then a stream of life energy, filling out and sewing up the wound.

 

The creature shrieks.

 

“I think… I hear a voice,” Vanessa says.

 

The neg is now perched over her face, resembling an overlay of an ugly old man scowling at me.

 

“I want you to take a deep breath.”

 

She does.

 

“That is the being who cursed you,” I say.

 

“What? Really? I—”

 

“Shh. Breathe.”

 

She does. The deep breaths keep her from panicking.

 

“Can you hear what the being is saying?” I ask.

 

“Yes.”

 

“I’m going to talk to him now, but I want you to tell me what he says. Can you do that?”

 

By listening and speaking, she will regain control of her sovereign body.

 

“I… I don’t know…”

 

Smiling, Michael steps behind her and lays his hand on her shoulder. Her expression relaxes immediately.

 

“There is nothing to be afraid of,” I say reassuringly. “We are in the presence of the divine. It cannot hurt you.”

 

She nods. “I’ll try.”

 

“Okay. What is your name?”

 

“I don’t have a name.”

 

I shake my head. “All sentient beings have a name. What is yours?”

 

“I won’t tell you.”

 

“I ask you for your name, that I may address you with respect.”

 

“I’m not going to tell you.”

 

Michael looks at me. ‘His name is Reshazak.’

 

The archangel’s voice is a deep, commanding blue, rounded off with a melodic gentleness.

 

‘Thanks,’ I reply. Out loud, I say, “I hear your name is Reshazak. It shall be so. Reshazak, your time here is done. You are free to go—”

 

“No! The girl is mine!” Vanessa blinks and shivers. “I didn’t mean to—”

 

“It’s okay,” I say, feeding her more energy. “We know who said it. We’ll carry on. Reshazak, you may leave with our respect and gratitude.”

 

“No! She will always be a part of me!”

 

Michael rests his sword on her crowd. An agonised shriek fills my mind.

 

“Reshazak, it hurts, doesn’t it?” I say.

 

“Huh?”

 

“You are in the presence of Michael the archangel. You stand now exposed to the Light. You are suffering, aren’t you?”

 

“So?”

 

“Reshazak, if you stay and continue to harm Vanessa, you will suffer even more. But you can end it. All you have to do is leave.”

 

Her voice grows harsh. “You leave! You are a fake! You cannot do this—”

 

“No. I am staying. So is Archangel Michael. Your time in Vanessa’s body is done. If you continue to stay, you will suffer even more and receive even greater punishment.”

 

“Fuck off you piece of shit!”

 

The Lums recoil. Vanessa quickly shakes her head. “No, I didn’t mean to—”

 

“It’s fine. You’re just the messenger,” I say soothingly.

 

Ethereal flame leaps off the sword, pouring through her aura.

 

“He’s screaming,” she says. “He’s screaming and telling you to… well, you know.”

 

I nod. “Reshazak, you can stop the pain. All you have to do is leave.”

 

Vanessa tilts her head back and opens her mouth. An unearthly sigh fills the world. A male sigh.

 

And Reshazak is gone.

 

She slumps over. Releasing Vanessa, I take a deep breath and recharge myself. The portal closes. The miasma is gone. Michael steps aside, grins, and gives me a thumbs-up.

 

“Did you hear that?” John asks.

 

“That was the being departing,” I reply. “It won’t harm anyone again.”

 

Vanessa looks up at me. Her aura is free of negs. “Thank you.”

 

I dispense my usual post-exorcism advice. For the next seven days, shower with salt, preferably sea salt. Scatter more salt on the corners and at the windows and door. If the being comes back, if something else happens, let me know.

 

Vanessa shakes my hand. “Thank you so much.”

 

Her touch lingers longer than expected, her warmth burning and corrosive. Her eyes widen, a pair of black holes threatening to swallow me whole. It was the same behaviour that got her into this mess.

 

I slide my hand away as politely as I can. “You’re welcome.”

 

Her aura is still a mess, still polluted with the remains of who knew how many men. I honestly don’t know if I can clear them out, but I’m not going to compound the problem.

 

‘You did what you could,’ Leonhard says.

 

‘Now she must save herself,’ Michael adds.

 

You can’t win them all, I suppose.

 

Mrs Lum presents me with a red packet. I don’t charge a fee for higher-end magical services, but I do request a donation. I slide it into my breast pocket and pick up my backpack.

 

“Um, can you help me with my injury?” John asks.

 

“I could, but I have a policy of treating one client at a time,” I say. “Drop me an email and we can arrange for another appointment.”

 

“Okay,” he says.

 

At my feet, Lupin and the rabbit converse earnestly, no doubt plotting how to nudge John to contact me later.

 

I leave the flat. At the lift, I open the red packet and find two fifty-dollar notes. Not too bad for an hour’s work. I’d been paid much more before, but I’ve also received much less. Looking up, I see the archangel staring intensely at me.

 

‘Michael, this job isn’t over,’ he says.

 

‘What do you mean?’ I ask.

 

‘You’ve only dealt with a small portion of Reshazak. It was not taken into the Light; it fled to reintegrate itself with the whole. He knows now what you are capable of. He is a being of immense malevolence, and beings like that are not the forgiving type. You are his next target.’

 

Stand against the dwellers of the dark long enough and they will start hunting you. It’s the nature of the game.

 

Still, I grin.

 

‘I’ll be his last.’

Part 1 can be found here.

For more fiction by yours truly, check out the Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

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

C&D.jpeg

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

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

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

Oh, and Schmidt: Good luck!

INVINCIBLE Part Seven: Zhang Wudi

invincible final

Zhang ran.

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

“Ensign!”

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

“Ensign, you look terrible.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hold the gate. Give me a second.”

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

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

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

“Did you check the crates?”

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

“They bribed you not to look inside.”

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

“How many crates did you inspect?”

“…A couple?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shenwujun gathered around Zhang.

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

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

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

“I…don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wangliang swarmed in from side streets, encircling the bear.

“Shenwujun! Five element harmony attack!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The private stared, his mouth agape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ensign, look up!” Ouyang warned.

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

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

“Anybody else?” Zhang asked.

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

Ouyang snorted. “Cowards.”

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

A constable limped hurriedly down the street.

“Zhang Wudi? Is that you?”

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

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

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

He fell, coughing blood.

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

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

In the courtyard, Mojian Han stood waiting.

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

Han tossed the head aside, and grinned.

“I’ve been waiting, Zhang Wudi.”

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

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

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

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

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

Zhang licked his lips. “What is it?”

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

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

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

“Ensign, this is—”

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

“But—”

“Go!”

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

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

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

“Oh? And what about it?”

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

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

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

He had harmonized with an infernal spirit.

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

And ran into a wall of water.

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

Han sauntered up to him.

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

What’s the plan? Hong Er sent.

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

Han smiled. “Consider yourself fortunate.”

The jian came down.

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

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

The handle of his saber froze and shattered.

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

“You’re finished!” Han said.

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

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

Zhang raised his fists.

“No.”

“Pity.”

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

But it was a feint.

Han thrust low.

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

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

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

Han’s elbow broke.

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

The handle freeze-burned his palm.

Zhang released it, leaping away.

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

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

“It’s not over yet,” Han said.

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

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

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

Missed.

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

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

“Ha!” Han exclaimed.

“Hong Er!” Zhang yelled.

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

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

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

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

“Fooled you.”

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

“What’s this?” Han demanded.

“Fire generates earth. Earth conquers water.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s over.”

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

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

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

Zhang lifted his spear a fraction.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“You’re no longer a threat.”

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

FAN YONG FU GUANG!

Han lunged.

Zhang thrust.

Han dropped, blood gushing from his throat.

Zhang sighed.

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

He had a war to fight.

The rebellion was over.

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

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

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

Zhang nodded.

“Did you recover the mojian?”

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

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

Zhang nodded again.

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

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

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

“Thanks,” Zhang said. “What’s next?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always.


 

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

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

INVINCIBLE Part Six: Yaomo

invincible final

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

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

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

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

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

Twenty-five paces away, Zhang aimed.

“Hands up!” he ordered.

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

Zhang lowered his crossbow and pointed.

“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

invincible final

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are these?” Lee asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Even if you lost?”

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

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

“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

invincible final

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain,” Zhang replied.

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

Zhang blinked.

“Just me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

And dead men told no tales.

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

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

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

“May the gods watch over you.”

“We are Shenwujun. They always do.”

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

Zhang walked.

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

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

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

The guard commander did not.

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

Zhang reached into his ring and drew a brass medallion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One fen a night.”

“And a bath?”

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

“Very well.”

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

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

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

She beamed.

“Thank you, Your Excellency!”

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

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

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

“Thank you, laoban niang.”

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

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

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

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

The men exchanged looks.

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

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

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

“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.

INVINCIBLE Part One: Blood and Fire

invincible final

Zhang Tianyou hated working with internal troops. The Shenwujun did all the hard work, while they claimed all the glory.

Shenwujun like him.

Zhang lowered to a knee, steadying himself against a hardy tree. By the light of the crescent moon, he saw the rebel encampment, two li away, situated by a burbling river. Defended by a thick wooden palisade, it boasted four guard towers and a gun pit at either entrance. A tough nut to crack, for the internal troops.

For Shenwujun, it was nothing.

Ten Shenwujun gathered silently around Zhang. Their leader tapped Zhang’s shoulder. Zhang nodded. Lowering himself to the ground, Zhang began the long crawl downhill and towards the southern gun pit.

Grass tickled his cheeks and brushed against his jet-black armor. The scent of soil filled his nostrils. Zhang moved carefully, his fingers probing the earth ahead. Whenever he found a rock, a twig, anything that might betray his presence, he gently set it aside. If it were too large, he crawled around it. Every so often, he lifted his head above the grass, just enough to check his bearings.

He immersed himself into the rhythm—right hand, left hand, right knee, left knee—going as fast as he dared while maintaining stealth. The enemy guards showed no sign of detecting his approach. He continued crawling. Right hand, left hand, left knee—

A cry of alarm.

He snapped his head up. Had he been detected?

No. Worse.

The internal troops had arrived. Two columns of men spilled out of the forest and wheeled towards the camp. One headed for the southern entrance, the other to the north.
The fools had attacked too early.

Rebels cried in alarm. Drummers pounded out a call to arms. The internal troops picked up the pace, but they were still too far away.

No more time for subtlety.

“Hong Er!” he whispered. “Lend me your strength!”

A warm female voice filled his mind. Who will you burn today?

“Rebels. Murderers, robbers and rapists, all of them.”

Very well.

His skin crackled. Invisible fire coursed through him, radiating from his crown and flowing to his hands and feet. Auras appeared in his vision, betraying the enemies’ presence.

In the gun pit, the rebels scrambled into action. There were three of them: the gunner, the loader, the powder-man. Together they crewed the wall-gun. It was six miniature cannons, braced by a thick wooden shield. The loader stuffed a shot into the breech of a gun, then moved to the next. The powder-man poured a measure of gunpowder into the loaded barrel. The gunner readied his matchbook, checked the load and aimed the gun.

None of them saw him coming.

He sucked in a breath, absorbing the qi in the air, and transmuted it to fire. His dantian, three thumbs below his belly, turned warm. He pointed at his target. A stream of red light pulsed through his arm. Downrange, a tongue of flame caressed the gun-pit’s powder store.

A bright flash split the night. Fragments of men and metal flew in every direction, whizzing past his ears.

The other gun pit exploded. Zhang looked up at the guard towers. Dry snaps rippled from the timber. The wood warped and flexed and broke. All at once, the towers collapsed.

The Shenwujun behind Zhang caught up, unhooking hand bombs from their belts. They lit the fuses and tossed the iron spheres over the palisade. The bombs erupted in fire and sprays of metal, producing thick clouds of smoke. Men cried in pain and alarm. Commanders yelled hasty orders. The drummers went silent.

“Hong Er! Let’s finish this!” he called.

The fire withdrew from his body. Before him, fresh crimson flames appeared, forming four trigrams arranged in a cross. The three solid lines of Heaven, the two solid and single broken line of Wind, solid-broken-solid of Fire, and broken-broken-solid of Thunder. Together they represented Hong Er’s essence. In the center of the formation, he caught sight of a complex geometric shape—her true name, not the nickname he had given her. The symbols converged, colliding in a burst of light.

His vision cleared. Before him stood a phoenix blazing in brilliant scarlet.

“What needs burning?” she asked.

“The whole camp and every rebel in it.”

“Very well.”

She spread her wings and took flight. Orbiting the camp, she shrieked, releasing a shower of feathers. Each feather turned into a flaming arrow, raining from the sky. She was a celestial spirit; she would never miss. Every single fire feather would find a target, and every target would die.

Bellowing war cries, the internal troops charged. They were poorly-trained and ill-disciplined, their formation widening and falling apart. The men didn’t even have firearms, just spears and crossbows. Zhang prayed that the other unit at least had the sense to take up blocking positions at the other entrance, well out of their comrades’ line of fire.

All the same, he positioned himself on the right side of the camp’s entrance and touched the interspatial ring he wore around his neck. A wealth of images flooded his mind. He focused his intention on one, and held out the black jade ring in his left palm. A small black sphere opened above the ring. Reaching in, he pulled out a repeating crossbow and rested the butt of the weapon against his belly.

“Form up on me!” Zhang yelled. “Crossbows out!”

The Shenwujun obeyed, forming two ranks of five men. The front rank knelt, the rear stood. They readied their repeating crossbows, preparing to intercept anyone trying to flee.

Beware! Hong Er spoke in Zhang’s head. The enemy has—

FAN YONG FU GUANG!

Black spikes tore up from the ground, ripping the column of internal troops apart. Men tripped and fell over each other. Others fled from the hostile magic.

Twenty rebels burst out of the camp, yelling a war cry. Black qi danced around them, staining their auras.

spirit warriors, she finished belatedly.

Even as she spoke, she danced in the air, dodging dark spikes and arrows. These rebels had the same powers of Shenwujun, but granted by infernal spirits.

They were the top priority.

“CONTINUOUS VOLLEY, SHOOT!” Zhang ordered.

He punched the firing lever down. The crossbow jerked, loosing a bolt. He pumped the handle as fast as he could, throwing bolts downrange, faster than a musket could hope to match.

A hail of bolts slammed into the rebels. A few staggered, dropped, fell. The survivors screamed, turning towards the Shenwujun. Some had bolts sticking out of their bodies, but they continued running like men possessed. Dark qi flared around them. Supernatural wind yanked bolts from the air. Black flames wreathed men like shields, burning up missiles.

“COMBAT MAGIC, LOOSE!” Zhang called.

Around him, the Shenwujun loosed their powers, and the rebels countered. Clods of earth broke away, levitated, and fell back to the ground. Bolts spiraled away at impossible angles, or shattered against flesh as hard as metal. Hong Er flung a fireball at a rebel. Flames coated him for a moment, then disappeared in a blast of steam. The rebel shouted in triumph—then sank to his knees, his chest and face peppered with bolts.

Only ten enemies remained on their feet. They were just thirty paces away. His crossbow was empty. No time to reload.

“DRAW SPEARS!” Zhang ordered, dropping his crossbow.

Reaching into his interspatial ring, he pulled, and pulled, and pulled. Out came a war spear, over twice his height. Wielding it in both hands, he took up his guard.

“CHARGE!” he ordered.

“KILL!” the Shenwujun roared, their voices booming across the land.

As one, the Shenwujun charged the scattered rebels, keeping their formation tight. Zhang engaged a rebel armed with a spear. The enemy aimed his spear at him and hesitated.

Zhang did not.

Reeling his spear outward, he batted the offending spear aside. He stepped in, thrusting at the man’s throat. The point touched his skin, then bounced off as though it had struck steel. The rebel stepped forward—and collided into his spear’s crosspiece. As the rebel stumbled, Zhang yelled, focusing his qi into the spear, and thrust again. A moment of resistance, a flash of golden light, and the spear pierced deep and true. The man fell, gurgling, clutching his neck. Zhang stabbed him once more, and the rebel went silent.

Zhang scanned for more threats. His comrades had made short work of the remaining spirit warriors. But the internal troops continued to flee.

“Cowards!” a Shenwujun called. “Come back here! The enemy is—”

A monstrous roar cut off his words.

Illuminated by burning tents, a giant shambled towards the Shenwujun. Fur covered its entire body, sparkling and glittering in the firelight. Easily twice the height of Zhang’s spear, every footfall caused the earth to tremble. As it lumbered towards the Shenwujun, it raised a spiked club in his right hand.

“Scatter!” Zhang called.

The giant brought the club down. The men fled just in time. The world quaked, dust rose, and a fresh crater marked the point of impact.

It was a powerful creature. It would give even Shenwujun pause. But it was a being of the metal element. And fire melts metal.

“Hong Er!” Zhang yelled. “Harmonize!”

Spreading her wings, Hong Er dove to him. Dropping his weapon, Zhang spread his arms to receive her. She flew into his chest, merging into him. Holy fire coursed through him, renewing his strength. His body ignited in ethereal flames, as bright as a furnace. He opened his hands and focused. Fire gathered in his palms, expanding and solidifying, transforming into a spear.

“I’ll deal with this one!” Zhang called. “Complete the mission!”

The Shenwujun sprinted around the giant, heading into the camp. The giant ignored them, turning to Zhang. Raising its weapon, it stepped into range.

Zhang aimed at its head, focused his flames on the tip of the spear, and unleashed a firebolt. The creature stumbled away, covering its wounded face. Zhang drove forward, plunging his spear into the giant’s thigh. Steam and gray fluid gushed forth. He withdrew the weapon and the giant swung down at him.

Zhang pointed his weapon to the sky, ran between the giant’s legs, and carved through its lower torso. It howled in pain. Zhang swung around, slicing through the back of its other leg.

The giant toppled like a dead oak. Howling in pain, it crashed face-first into the ground. As it struggled to get up, Zhang thrust through its skull. It abruptly went limp. Its flesh rippled and bubbled, and the creature dissolved into a metallic lake.

Zhang dashed into the camp. The Shenwujun had harmonized with their bond-spirits, wreaking havoc among the enemy. Whips of fire lashed through the rebels. Tents and barricades rotted and crumbled. Earth lances and water jets tore men and structures apart. Some rebels fled to the other exit, where the remaining Shenwujun destroyed them.

In the middle of the camp, he saw a summoning circle. It was drawn in blood, surrounded by inscriptions in a strange language. At the four directions, a totem stood, each spattered with blood and decorated with skulls and bones.

It was currently inactive, but nobody wanted to take any chances. The Shenwujun attacked the totems with everything they had. Wood blackened and crumbled with supernatural rot. Metal axes materialized and hacked away. Zhang extended his palm towards the nearest totem and unleashed a fireball. In moments, the totems were obliterated, and the circle neutralized.

Zhang rejoined his men, scouring the camp. The rebels had been slaughtered to a man. One by one, the Shenwujun’s commanders sounded the all clear.

Now, it was over.

“Hong Er, thank you for your help. I release you.”

The fire faded. Fatigue flooded his body. His mouth dried in an instant. His head throbbed, his heart pounded in his chest, and his skin was hot and dry.

He sat, drew out a calabash of water, and drank. Drank and drank and drank until there was nothing left. He was still thirsty, but his temperature was dropping to more human levels. He grabbed another calabash and sipped at it more slowly. Humans were never supposed to house the full power of a celestial spirit; there was always a price to pay for harmonizing with one. Around him, other Shenwujun sat also, and tended to their bodies.

As he drank, he stared at the blackened spot where the totem once was.

Hong Er’s voice filled his mind. I’ve never seen humans use blood magic like that before. Isn’t this the trademark of the wangliang race?

Zhang nodded. And wangliang and humans don’t get along in the Empire.

It seems your life will become more…interesting.

Zhang snorted. He finished his water and got up. His muscles were sore, his joints stiff, but he still had work to do.

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

Signal Boost: WAR DEMONS by Russell Newquist

War Demons.jpg

After five years of war in Afghanistan, Michael Alexander returns home a broken man, haunted by the ghosts of war. Returning to Georgia, he tries to start a new life. But something evil followed him from the mountains of Afghanistan, it’s tearing up everything in its path, and Michael is squarely in its sights.

To survive, Michael has to rely on his military and martial arts training; forge an unlikely alliance with his friends, a homeless prophet and the family members of a lost love; and take the fight to the relentless demon.

But the demon is merely the first of many monsters to come.

(Full disclosure: I received an advance copy in exchange for a blurb.)

WAR DEMONS by Russell Newquist is hands-down the finest urban fantasy thriller I’ve read this year by an indie author. The first book of the Prodigal Son series, WAR DEMONS features a battered veteran struggling with inner and outer demons, a taut mystery intertwined with an ever-escalating conflict, outstanding action set pieces, and all-too-human characters battling with the forces of evil.

Newquist has long championed the Superversive movement, and it shines through in WAR DEMONS. This is an unabashedly Christian work, built on a Christian sense of ethics and populated with Christian characters. But the story refrains from preaching about the faith, instead letting Christianity inform the characters’ actions. They aren’t saints–Michael least of all–but when the chips are down they strive to do the right thing. They may not always succeed, but in doing so they ennoble themselves and inspire everyone around them.

This moral characterization paints them in stark contrast to the villains of the story. While we don’t see their perspective as often as the protagonists, every time they appear they exude an aura of evil and malice. Everything they do reeks of depravity and corruption. They are the agents of pure, elemental Evil, and with their dark powers they seem nigh-unstoppable.

The heroes are sympathetic and the villains utterly vicious. Through this sharp moral delineation, you can fully appreciate the titanic clash of good versus evil. Every victory is hard-won, every defeat stings, every reveal is believable, every act of valor or kindness both simultaneously in character and edifying.

WAR DEMONS begins as a psychological thriller. A strange creature is stalking Michael, and he must find out what it is and why it’s hunting him. At the same time, he battles his own demons of post-traumatic stress. As the story progresses, the veil is lifted, and what follows is a chain of high-octane action sequences and well-timed revelations that inexorably build up to a climactic finale.

Russell Newquist is a fourth degree black belt in Shin Nagare Karate, an eclectic martial art that combines karate, kickboxing and jujitsu. His martial arts sequences are a beauty to behold. They aren’t just technically accurate; they capture the chaos, tension, and sheer rush of combat. Likewise, the firefights are a slick combination of realism and awesomeness, constantly driving the story onward.

In an industry filled with boring message fiction, ugliness and perversion, WAR DEMONS is a breath of fresh air. For readers who love Jim Butcher and Larry Correia, this novel is a must-read.

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If WAR DEMONS sounds like it’s right up your alley, you’re sure to enjoy my Dragon nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, rated 4.5 stars out of 5 on Amazon.