Night Demons Part 6 of 6

Knife

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

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

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

And there are better ways to do this.

In my mind, I reach up to the heavens.

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

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

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

A chorus of tinny voices reply immediately.

‘Food!’

‘Because we were forced to!’

‘Reshazak says so!’

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

‘Do you want plenty of food?’ I ask.

‘YES!’

‘Do want to keep working for Reshazak?’

‘NO!’ a voice says.

Other voices drown it out.

‘We have to!’

‘No choice! He hurts us if he does!’

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

‘Where?’ they chime.

‘Do you see the White Light before me?’

‘Yes…’

‘Just step through.’

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

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

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

‘I see it!’

‘Look, look, so bright!’

‘Is that light? Why is there light?’

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

‘But it’s scary!’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where is he?’

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

‘Thanks,’ I reply.

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

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

‘Understood.’

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

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

I cross the road.

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

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

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

By dark humanoid spirits.

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

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

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

‘We’ve got your back,’ Lupin says.

‘Thanks.’

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

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

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

‘Reshazak,’ I say.

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

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

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

‘No.’

He dissolves into a thick dark cloud.

‘Watch out!’ Leonhard urges.

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

Reshazak splits in half, avoiding the blade.

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

‘The light!’ Lupin yells.

‘The water!’ Leonhard shouts.

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

My shoe drops.

Cold water splashes against my pants leg.

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

“MICHAEL!”

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

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

‘No,’ Leonhard says.

‘It’s not worth it,’ Lupin adds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well done,’ Michael says.

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

‘Thanks for the assist everyone,’ I say.

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

‘Be well.’

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

‘Let’s go home,’ I say.


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

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

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

But first…

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

Thank God, she says. What happened just now?

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

Sleep can wait a little longer.

PSX_20170918_044151

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

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

Night Demons Part 5 of 6

Knife

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

 

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

 

I go right.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

No place for an ambush.

 

An incoherent roar reverberates down the alley.

 

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

 

I get my hands up.

 

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

 

Closing in, the man brings up his hands.

 

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

 

“Back off! Back off now!” I yell.

 

He roars.

 

Charges.

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Michael looks at me in the eye.

 

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

 

I nod. ‘Understood.’

 

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

 

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

 

“Hey, are you okay?” a man asks.

 

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

 

“Yeah,” I say.

 

“What happen just now?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I turn and run.

 

“Hey, wait! Where you going?”

 

I don’t look back.

 

****

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Probably not.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘Look up,’ Michael says.

 

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

 

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

 

‘Could you shut down the portal?’

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘I’m going to need help.’

 

‘Ask, and the Almighty shall provide.’

 

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

 

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

 

I sense a smile.

 

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

 

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

 

I just had to be ready.

 

Opening Whatsapp, I messaged Eleanor.

 

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

 

Her reply is instant.

 

Okay.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And a horde of unclean spirits rains down on me.

 

PSX_20170918_044151

Previous parts: 1, 2, 3, 4

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

Night Demons Part 4 of 6

Knife

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

 

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

 

Lower my head and clasp my hands.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Good luck, she says.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

His hands stop at my waist.

 

“What’s this?” he demands.

 

“My flashlight.”

 

“Show me.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The target.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cut.

 

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

 

‘This place is MINE!’

 

Not any more,’ I reply.

 

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

 

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

 

I cut again.

 

‘Shut up.’

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘Look left,’ Lupin urges.

 

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

 

His eyes lock on my face.

 

Threat.

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Previous parts: 1, 2, 3

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

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.

Night Demons (Part 1 of 6)

Stepping out the car, I sense the miasma. A black, viscous, oily fog that clings to my skin and tries to eat into my flesh, my bones, my soul. My shield holds. For now.

My Uber drives off, oblivious. A tiny bit of miasma lingers on the car. Nothing to worry about; the late afternoon sun would burn it off soon. There wasn’t any point telling the driver about the miasma either. She didn’t have the second sight. Didn’t have the trained and conditioned third eye chakra needed to see the astral world. Without it, she couldn’t see the dark energies blanketing the housing estate. Feel it, maybe, like a general sense of uneasiness, but not see it. Like most normies, she probably never would. Not in this lifetime.

Which meant I’d always have work.

Cracking my neck, I square my shoulders, shoulder my GR1 backpack, and enter the void deck. It’s a large open space that takes the place of the ground floor of just about every flat in Singapore. A concession to the tropical climes, it improves air circulation and cools the high-rise building, and doubles as a communal space.

No community here. Just a sullen-faced girl barely in her teens shuffling to a vending machine, refusing to even look at me. The letter boxes watch us silently. Concrete benches jut out from the support pillars, gray and weathered with age. A black cat with white patches hides under a bench, staring at me as I pass. Near the lift, I spot a green-tiled table with four chairs, all of them built into the bare concrete floor. This flat was old, but then, Bedok was one of the oldest housing estates in Singapore.

‘This case is more complex than it seems.’

The voice is in my mind, but the caress against my right leg feels almost real.
Leonhard sits next to me, his head coming up to my elbow. He is a huge scarlet lion, his thick, bushy mane tickling my arm. He watches his cousin, still hiding under the bench, flapping his tail back and forth in wry amusement.

‘Of course it is,’ a new voice says. ‘We warned him, didn’t we?’

Lupin materializes on my left, brushing against my knee. He is a sleek gray wolf, restless and eager, circling round and round the concrete floor.

The duo were my spirit guides. Beings assigned to help me through this life. When I took the case they’d warned me that it wasn’t a typical request for healing. I’d packed my bag accordingly.

‘Thanks for the advice,’ I say. ‘Let’s do this.’

Most people can’t see them, of course. With bodies of pure energy, they can pass through solid matter and manifest as they please. Like the miasma, they are invisible to those without the second sight. It makes prolonged conversation in public a complex affair. As far as the girl was concerned, I was simply reading a nearby notice board.

We head up to the sixth floor. Leaving the lift, I check the signs and head to my client’s home. Right off the bat I see signs of corruption. Dark energies ooze from under her front door and dark-tinted windows. A black cloud gathers around the security grille, forming a metaphysical barrier. There was so much negativity here, the sun couldn’t put much of a dent in it. I had doubled up my usual shields today, reinforcing them with a dark amethyst necklace under my shirt. Even so, a tingling runs up my neck.

‘Be wary,’ Leonhard says. ‘I sense the presence of unholy forces.’

Like attracts like. Negative energy attracts negative beings. At the low end, they are parasites that suck life energy from people, plants and animals all around them, as intelligent as your average housefly. Most negs belong in that category. The older and more powerful among them have power over the real world, to manipulate people’s emotions and perceptions. And at the far end of the spectrum, there are creatures the world faiths call demons.

Lupin chuffs. ‘Nothing we can’t handle.’

‘Let’s do this,’ I say.

I press the doorbell.

Noxious miasma gushes out from under the undercut and swirls up into a barrier. The peephole darkens a fraction. Moments later, the front door unlocks with a heavy metal clunk, revealing a woman in a black shirt and knee-length red skirt.

“Hi. Are you Mr. Chang?” she asked.

“Yes. Vanessa?”

She nods. “Thank you so much for coming.”

Three days ago, Vanessa Lum emailed me, claiming she needed my help to ‘break a curse’. Her words. The miasma obscures the state of her aura. I’d have to read her inside.

She unlocks the front grille with a painful SNAP and lets me in. The rest of the Lums are waiting in the living room. The father is a balding man with a moderate paunch, dressed in a red short-sleeved shirt with dark pants. The mother wears a large pink one-piece dress with an awfully bright floral print. Behind them, tall teenager in a red shirt and blue jeans leans against a wall, staring sullenly at me. Vanessa’s brother?

The parents greet me with posed smiles and cold eyes.

“You look really young,” the mother says.

I nod. “Thank you.”

All the people I’ve known in this line of work tend to fall into two categories. Hardened middle-aged individuals affiliated with a religious institution, veterans of dozens, even hundreds, of exorcisms; or idealistic idiots with their heads in the clouds and feet floating somewhere off the ground and utterly, with little experience with the darker side of reality and even less desire to acknowledge it. Dressed in a sharp white shirt, blue pants and frameless spectacles, I don’t fit the stereotype.

“Would you like a drink?” Mrs Lum asks.

I shake my head. “No thanks.”

“Are you sure? We have tea, water, Coke—”

I set down my GR1 and point at the Klean Kanteen secured to its side. “I have my own.”

I didn’t know what the Lums drank, and if I asked for water I might get ordinary tap water. Not ideal for a job. The air is heavy with dark energies; I didn’t want to poison myself.

The dining table is next to the door. We pull out two chairs, each facing the other. I take the chair facing the door, Vanessa has the other. My spirit guides flank me protectively, ready to respond to unseen threats.

“I understand you need help with a curse,” I say. “Please explain your situation.”

She folds her hands on her lap, covering her right wrist with her left hand.

“Um, well, it all started a month ago. Suddenly I was losing my things. My earrings, my jewellery, my handphone. Then it got worse. I started falling sick all the time. Flu, fever, and then last week I had food poisoning. I never get sick so often.”

Her voice is a pale violet, her words arriving in slow-motion staccatos. As she speaks, I scan her aura. The outermost layer is a light fluffy pink. Under that is a verdant green and shimmering yellow. Or should have been. Clouds of grey mush swim through her, penetrating her deepest level. Her eyes are wide but hard, as though artificially expanded and frozen in place. She’d known many men, and with every contact they had left part of themselves behind.
And there was a black patch over her right wrist.

“Did something touch your right wrist?’ I ask.

Her eyes widen. “Yah. How did you know?”

I smile faintly. “It’s my job. May I see your wrist, please?”

She hesitates a moment. Then she rolls up her right sleeve, revealing four long black streaks across her forearm, and a smaller one on the underside. In my second sight, they seethe with corrosive energies.

“What happened to your wrist?” I ask.

“About four, five weeks ago, out of the blue, this man grabbed me. He said he wanted to be with me. I pulled away from him and ran. But when I came home I saw these black marks on my arm. They didn’t go away. After that, those things start to happen.”

“Aiya, you never wash properly, is it?” the boy remarks.

“I got wash!” Vanessa insists.

I glance at the boy. His aura burns a dull red. Resentment, anger, and a degree of unhealthy materialism. His crown chakra is dull and murky. Limited to no connection with the divine. A small dark blob hovers about his face, no doubt whispering denials of the metaphysical. His spirit guide, a worn-out rabbit, appears by his foot and hops over to Lupin.

‘Be gentle with the kid,’ the wolf says. ‘He’s got a lot of growing up to do.’

“You are free to observe,” I reply, ‘but please do not interrupt.”

The boy snorts but says nothing.

“Let’s go back to the beginning,” I say to Vanessa. “Where were you when the man touched you?”

She drops her eyes and looks away. “I… I don’t remember much.”

A twitch runs through me. A lie.

“Please try to recall,” I say. “Every detail is important.”

“Why?”

She had to be hiding something. I breathe through a twinge of irritation.

“The more information I have, the better I’ll be able to understand what, exactly, happened.”

She sighs and looks past my shoulder. “I was out jalan-jalan with my friends. Then that man suddenly appear and call out to us. I told him I wasn’t interested in him, but he kept coming. We told him to… to go away. He just grabbed me and told me to go with him. I pulled away, my friend pushed him off, and we ran.”

Negative entities—human or otherwise—don’t usually randomly attack a group of people when they’re out walking. There’s more to the story here.

“Where did you run into the man?” I ask.
She covers her wrist. “I’m not sure…”

“Please try to remember.”

“Is it one of your clubs?” the brother asks.

“No!” Vanessa says.

“So, where was it?” I ask.

“Around Clarke Quay.”

Famous for its night life. Including clubs.

“Where in Clarke Quay?”

“I don’t know lah, we were going all over the place.”

“What time of the day was it?”

“In the evening.”

“You mean night time.”

“It was so long ago, how to remember?”

Out the corner of my eye, I see her parents staring at us with poker faces and narrowed eyes. I think the entire family knows Vanessa trawls the night. They may even suspect what she really does when they’re not around. There’s a lot more she isn’t telling me. A lot more she won’t tell me. Not with her parents around.

On the other hand, I’m a magician.

In my mind’s eye, I draw a sword. A European longsword, blazing white and blue. The sword of the Archangel Michael, the sword of Truth.

“How many friends were you with?” I ask.

“Why is that important?”

“What you experienced was highly unusual,” I say. “Bad guys don’t usually target groups of people. They prefer individuals on their own. If you want me to help, I need to know what happened.”

Her body tenses. “Well… I was with a guy and a girl.”

As she speaks, the sword glows. But when she says ‘girl’, the sword turns dark. A lie.

“Just two people?”

I feed a little more energy into the sword, empowering it to reveal the truth.

She nods. “Yeah.”

Guy and girl counts as two people—even if she’s the girl in question.

“Have you ever seen the man who touched you before?”

“No.”

The sword turns bright again. Truth.

“Describe him for me.”

“It was dark. Couldn’t tell much. I know he had really long and dirty hair, up to his shoulder. He was… Chinese, I think, he had this very strong cheena accent. Oh, and he stinks. He had bad breath and even worse BO.”

Truth.

“Did he say anything to you?”

She shifts uncomfortably.

“He was… talking dirty. Saying how I should go with him, how he’s better than other men, that sort of thing.”

“He xiao is it?” the elder Mr Lum offers.

I don’t bother with a response. I’ve everything I needed to know. Now I just have to…

The world darkens. The miasma thickens. In my mind’s ear, I hear a dark, bitter hissing. The humans miss it. The rabbit hops for cover. Lupin and Leonhard arch their backs and bare their teeth.

‘The enemy is here,’ Leonhard says.

For more long-form fiction by Dragon Award nominated writer Kai Wai Cheah, check out No Gods, Only Daimons on Amazon.

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.