Publishing Announcement: INVINCIBLE

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In an Empire beset by internal rebellion and ferocious yaomo, the elite Shenwujun stand ready to defend human civilization. Among the Shenwujun there is none finer than Ensign Zhang Tianyou, who earned the nickname Zhang the Invincible. During a mission to quash a nascent rebellion, a Shenwujun detachment discovers evidence that the Grand Union is supporting the rebels. Zhang is tasked to investigate and destroy this new threat.

But will Zhang the Invincible meet his match at the hands of the rebel called Han the Demon Sword?

I’m pleased to announce the publication of INVINCIBLE, a historical xianxia novella which won an Honorable Mention at the Q1 2017 Writers of the Future Contest. First published on Steemit, it has now been formatted into an ebook for easy reading.

INVINCIBLE can be purchased on Amazon, Smashwords and Payhip for just USD $2.99.

To enjoy a 30% discount, be sure to share my Payhip page on Facebook and/or Twitter.

Thanks for your support, and please look forward to my next story.

INVINCIBLE Part Five: Ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are these?” Lee asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Even if you lost?”

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

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

“Ah.”

“Since the duelist failed, Mojian Han went to his fallback plan: sending his henchmen to kill me.”

“Which also failed.”

“So he fled.” Zhang grunted. “Coward.”

One of the constables on duty twitched his lip.

“Seems even Han the Demon Sword won’t fight Zhang the Invincible.”

“Or maybe he is hiding what his mojian can do, and biding his time until he has the upper hand.”

“You don’t know what it can do?”

“Our intelligence on him is sketchy. What do you have on him?”

“Rumors, nothing more. Some say the sword was forged in the Underworld, giving Han supernatural powers. Others claim the sword drinks the blood of his enemies and absorbs their strength. But they all agree that Han is a fearsome swordsman.”

“It might be a magic weapon, hand-crafted and enchanted to fit the user. The Grand Union gifts them to their finest soldiers.”

“How do you know?”

“I fought someone with a similar weapon before, during the last invasion.”

“You mean the Battle of Three Rivers? Where you earned the title of Wudi?”

“Yes. The captain of the enemy vanguard had a mojian too. He cleaved through our front line as easily as lifting a hand, and shrugged off everything our sorcerers could throw at him. Very similar to what we know about Mojian Han. If the Union were supporting Mojian Han, it wouldn’t be out of the question for them to give him a magic weapon.”

“This is the first time I’ve heard of the Union supporting rebels like this.”

“Me too. Does Your Excellency have any new intelligence about the rebels for me?”

“Alas, none. There are rumors of rebels in the district, but no substance.”

Zhang frowned mightily. Lee coughed hastily.

“I mean, no reliable information. Nothing a Shenwujun like you can act on.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. Tell me what you’ve heard.”

“Rebel activity has died down in recent days. Other than the attempt on your life, they haven’t done anything at all. Farmers, hunters and herbalists claim they’ve seen armed men wandering around about in Wangzheng Valley, but the internal troops haven’t found any trace of these men.”

“Where is the valley?”

“North of here, about two hundred li. If you’re thinking of going there, be careful. It straddles the border with the Union. Wangliang raiders have infiltrated the Empire from there in the past.”

“Thank you for your advice.”

“Will you be headed there?”

Zhang shook his head.

“Not yet. I have other business to attend to.”

Zhang returned to the temple. Once again, the Zhuchi seemed to be waiting for him, and so was his aide.

“I heard about the fight outside the Plum Blossom Inn,” Lin said. “Are you well?”

Zhang nodded. “Yes. How did you know about the duel?”

“Word spreads quickly in this city.” Lin sighed. “What a waste of life.”

“Not a waste. A sacrifice.”

“What do you mean?”

“Whenever a martial artist challenges a rival school, the teacher would send the weakest student to battle him. If the student loses, he sends the next best, and so on, until either the challenger is defeated or the teacher runs out of students. In every bout, the teacher studies the challenger, identifying his strengths and weaknesses. Should he ever have to fight the challenger, he would know how to deal with him. It’s the same principle here.”

“Han sent his men to die just to learn how you fight?” Huang asked.

“If they couldn’t kill me, that would be his backup plan,” Zhang replied.

Lin sighed. “Exactly as I expected of him.”

“It sounds like you know something about Han.”

Lin cleared his throat. “Han has a reputation for cruelty and barbarism. This merely reinforces our perceptions of him.”

Zhang narrowed his eyes. “I see.”

“But enough of such somber talk,” Lin said. “Surely you didn’t come here to talk about the fight.”

Zhang shook his head. “Indeed. I wish to report that Suchen Temple has been cleared.”

Lin bowed. “Thank you. And the wangliang?”

“They didn’t suffer.”

Huang frowned. Lin simply sighed.

“That was the best we could hope for,” Lin said.

“There were humans with the wangliang too.”

“Humans? Really? What were they doing?”

“They were helping the wangliang shaman to summon an infernal spirit.”

“How?”

Zhang described what he saw. Huang went pale. Lin simply frowned.

“That is troubling,” Lin said.

“Do you know of any groups who might be cooperating with wangliang? The Tiandi Lianhe Association, perhaps?”

The monks exchanged a glance.

“The temple needs to be reconsecrated,” Lin said. “You may have stopped the summoning, but the remaining evil qi will darken the minds of humans in the area, and it may allow lesser spirits to leak through from the infernal realm. We must leave at once. Will you escort us?”

The monk was avoiding the question, but in this city the walls had ears. He could revisit the question at the temple.

“I shall be pleased to escort you to the temple,” Zhang said.

Lin beamed. “Thank you, Your Excellency.”

Out of deference to the monks, Zhang hired a horse cart. At the foot of the hill, Zhang paid the driver to stay put, and led the monks to the temple. Two men in black armor stood guard at the temple gates. One of them held up his hand.

“Halt! This area is off-limits!”

Zhang produced his medallion. “Sergeant Ouyang, it’s me! Ensign Zhang Tianyou!”

Ouyang squinted and smiled. “Zhang Wudi! It’s good to see you again. What brings you here?”

Zhang led the monks to the guards.

“We are here to reconsecrate the temple,” Lin said.

Ouyang nodded. “I was wondering when that would happen. It’s a real mess in there. Zhuchi, I’m glad you’re here.”

“What’s the situation?” Zhang asked.

“I have two men on guard in the temple and two more on patrol in the forest. No sign of rebels or yaomo since you left.”

“Really? I was attacked in the city. No one came back here?”

Ouyang frowned. “Attacked? How?”

Zhang recounted the fight. Ouyang rubbed his chin.

“That is strange,” Ouyang said. “If they knew you were in the city, why weren’t they prepared for your assault on the temple?”

“Perhaps that is why they summoned the infernal spirit,” Lin offered. “It’s the only reliable way to fight a Shenwujun.”

“And in case that failed, they had men waiting for me in the city,” Zhang mused.

“So…we came all the way out here for nothing?” Ouyang asked.

Lin shook his head. “No. You protected the temple from further desecration. For this, I thank you.”

“No problem. It’s a nice break from running all over the countryside.”

Zhang followed the monks inside the temple. It was still the same as he had left it. Dried blood caked the walls, floor and ceiling. The totems leered at the men. The stench of death and rot lingered in the air. Huang gritted his teeth and clenched his fists.

“Those…animals!” Huang whispered. “They dare do this to a temple? To the Taifo?”

“Is that so?” Lin asked, and gestured at the broken statue. “Is that the Taifo? Or is that simply a statue of the Taifo?”

Huang closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Zhuchi, it is a statue of the Taifo.”

“Will destroying a statue destroy the Taifo?”

“No, Zhuchi.”

“Do we need a temple to pray to the Taifo? Or can we practice his teachings anywhere?”

“Zhuchi, we can practice anywhere.”

“Very good. Why do we pray to the Taifo?”

“To show our respect to the Taifo, to cultivate compassion for all sentient beings, and to remind ourselves to walk the Middle Way.”

“So it is. Will destroying a statue or desecrating a temple diminish our respect for the Taifo, cause us to lose compassion for all sentient beings, or make us stray from the Middle Way?”

“No, Zhuchi.”

Lin beamed. “Why, there is no need for anger then, is there?”

Huang smiled gently. “No, Zhuchi.”

“Excellent.” Lin clapped his hands. “Come! We have work to do.”

Zhang had helped the monks store their equipment in his interspatial ring. They retrieved bundles of incense sticks, a lamp, a brazier, a pair of vases filled with flowers, and a bell. Together, they cleaned up the altar, removed the offending totems, and placed the lamp, brazier and flowers in front of the statue. Zhang lit the lamp, and Huang ignited the incense sticks.

“You may pray with us if you like,” Lin said, “but please remain silent.”

Zhang accepted a bunch of incense sticks and stood well clear of the monks.

Lin rang the bell three times. The monks bowed to the defaced statue. Lin set the bell on the altar, and Huang passed him a few sticks. For a moment, there was silence. Then Lin spoke.

“Sentient beings who have passed away in this place, we have come to honor you. May you be free from sorrow and the causes of sorrow. May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find peace and be the cause of peace.

“May the Taifo guide you to the Pure Land, where you may find enlightenment and be liberated from the Wheel of Life. Should you be reborn into an impure land or a lower order of being, may you quickly accumulate sufficient merit to rise above your suffering.

“Away! Away! Be at peace!”

The monks bowed again. One by one, the men placed three sticks of incense in the brazier. Huang and Zhang returned to their positions, while Lin took up the bell. The bell chimed once, and the monks began chanting, invoking the name of the Taifo and a host of other enlightened and divine beings.

Their voices reverberated in the temple, transitioning into a series of sutras. Lin rang the bell at regular intervals, keeping time. Hot ash fell on Zhang’s hand. He blew it off and remained silent. The air grew lighter, the world brighter. A cool breeze blew, carrying away the worst of the odor. The incense covered up the rest. The oppressive qi dissipated, leaving only the natural qi of the world.

“Away! Away! Be awakened!”

A final chime. The monks bowed once more, and the men inserted their remaining incense sticks into the brazier.

“There is much work to do,” Lin said. “We must hire artisans and laborers to repair the damage. Xiao Huang, please inspect the exterior of the temple and record any damage you find. I will take care of the interior.”

“Yes, Zhuchi.”

The younger monk left. The elder bowed to Zhang.

“Thank you for indulging an old man’s whims.”

“It is no trouble at all, Zhuchi.”

“Now we may speak freely. I imagine you want to know more about the Tiandi Lianhe Association.”

Zhang nodded. “What do you know about them?”

“We are right across the border from the Union. Yaomo and bandits roamed the land, preying on farmers, merchants and isolated villages. The people formed a self-defense group to protect themselves. But over time…its purpose changed.”

“How?”

“Ten years ago, a man named Han Wenguang joined the Association and rose to the top. He said that we’ve been warring with the Union for over a hundred years, with no end in sight. Instead of fighting them, we should make peace with them. But his idea of ‘peace’ was fan Yong fu Guang. He thought that a restored Guang dynasty would be more willing to make peace with the Union. His ideas were met with widespread support.”

“Why did the people support him?”

“This is the frontier. Parents regularly send their sons to die along the border. Many bloodlines have ended at the point of a Union spear. Taxes are high, and three-tenths of the grain harvest goes to the military. The people have precious little left, and are desperate enough that they will turn to banditry to support themselves and their families.”

“What did the bureaucracy do?”

“Nothing. The people have been urging changes in imperial policy for years, but…”

Lin shrugged. To say any more in the presence of a Shenwujun was to risk an automatic death sentence.

Zhang nodded. “And what did Han do?”

“Everything a man shouldn’t. He eliminated all dissent inside the Association, then turned it into a rebel group. He raided Army units for their weapons and supplies, robbed traders and innocent travelers, attacked government officials… But you know all this by now, don’t you?”

“Yes, but how did you know all this?”

“I was part of the Tiandi Lianhe Association, back when it was only a self-defense force. Almost every able-bodied man was. I rose to the rank of corporal. Then Han sent us out on missions to attack tax collectors and people who criticized the Association. The last straw came when Han proposed a partnership with the frontier wangliang. He said they gifted him a magic sword, and they promised to teach us magic. It was a betrayal of everything we stood for. I exchanged my spear for the robes and never looked back.”

“He let you leave?”

“Even Han wouldn’t dare anger the Taifo.” He sighed. “At least, until recently.”

“The wangliang must have finally taught him how to summon infernal spirits.”

“And so, he has discarded the last of his humanity. Such is the fate of those who bargain with infernal spirits.” Lin shook his head. “He must be stopped.”

“Where can I find him?”

Lin raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know anything about them now. With all your encounters with the Tiandi Lianhe Association, have you not had the opportunity to take one alive?”

“I didn’t have a choice.”

“I suppose you truly have no living enemies, Zhang Wudi.”

“My bond-spirit grants me her power only so long as I destroy evil.”

“Yes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean destroying lives, does it?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Evil intent paired with ability gives rise to evil deeds. Eliminate this evil intent, or take away the ability to act, and you destroy evil. You don’t have always have to resort to violence and killing.”

“I…” Zhang frowned. “I guess I haven’t thought about it that way. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’m sorry I couldn’t be of much help.”

“Perhaps you still might. Yaomo and bandits were reported in the Wangzheng valley. Are you familiar with it?”

Lin pursed his lips. “In my time, we discovered a cave network in Fu Hill. It led through the hill into Union territory. Smugglers and infiltrators used the caves regularly. We built an outpost there to intercept them. The outpost was supposed to have been handed over to the local garrison five years ago, but…”

“The rebels have pushed the troops out of the valley,” Zhang finished. “Do you think the Tiandi Lianhe Association might have taken it back?”

“Perhaps. It explains how so many wangliang were able to enter the Empire so easily and so stealthily.”

“And the wangliang might have rewarded Han by teaching him how to summon infernal spirits,” Zhang said.

“That might be so.”

Zhang bowed. “Thank you for your advice. I must leave.”

“May the Taifo watch over you.”

“And you also.”


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Previous parts: Part 1, 2, 3 and 4.

If you would like to see more of my long-form fiction, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons on Amazon.

INVINCIBLE Part Three: The Destroyer of Evil

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Zhang marched overland, timing himself to arrive at the forest after dark. When he arrived, he donned his suit of black paper armor and drew his crossbow. Short of an enemy army, he was ready for anything.

Suchen Temple lay at the summit of a steep hill. It was an intimidating climb for most people. The monks had thoughtfully cleared a path, a rough dirt trail marked by stone lanterns. Zhang walked parallel to the trail—if the wangliang were still around, they would have left traps aplenty.

As he climbed he amplified his senses. Crickets chirped all around him. A gentle wind disturbed the bush. A lonely owl hooted in the distance. Navigating by moonlight, he moved cautiously and stealthily, planting his boots on bare grass or stone, keeping to the shadows.

The forest was abundant in qi. It flowed into and around him, pregnant with promise. He absorbed enough to keep himself going, but not to supercharge his body. That kind of qi draw would be noticed. And, indeed, in the distance he felt a void, an emptiness in the flow of qi, as though something were hungrily sucking it down.

A sudden silence fell. There was no sound now, not even the cries of insects. It was the silence of prey in the presence of predators.

Onwards he climbed. Strange voices carried through the night, speaking in alien tongues. As he approached the top, he made out individual words. They were loose and liquid, repeated over and over like a warped mantra.

It was the language of the frontier wangliang.

The trees grew sparser and thinner at the top. He came to the edge of the forest, and saw a head-high stone wall. It surrounded a taller building with a sharply arched roof. At the corners of the roof, there where stumps where guardian figures once stood. At the gate, illuminated by a pair of torches, two child-sized figures stood watch.

Wangliang.

The wangliang were dressed in rough rags, just enough for protection against the elements. In their left hands they held wooden circular shields; in their right short spears. For headgear they had leather skullcaps.

The creatures shifted back and forth, exchanging brief comments in their guttural language. They hadn’t spotted him, and the chanting masked the sound of Zhang’s approach.

Closing his eyes, Zhang extended the reach of his senses, feeling for qi. The wangliang guards had hot, noxious auras, carrying the weight of murder. Zhang sensed thirty more in the temple. The qi around him grew dark and heavy and twisted, concentrating at a single point.

In areas of abundant qi, it was far easier to contact supernatural beings. It must be why the wangliang had taken the temple. They were summoning an infernal spirit. A mighty one, almost equal to a god.

In a sane world, Zhang would have backed off and called in his colleagues. But reality was warping with every passing breath. By the time they got here, the ritual would be complete. There was only one thing he could do.

Live up to the name of Zhang the Invincible.

Zhang absorbed some qi from the world and blended it into his own, reducing his qi presence. Creeping to the eastern wall of the temple, he took a deep breath, sending qi to his legs. Another. Then he ran up the wall.

One, two, three steps and he hauled himself over the top. Sitting on the wall, he drew his crossbow and aimed.

Thwock. Thwock.

A bolt sprouted from each wangliang’s head. They dropped face-down, their weapons clattering into the dirt. Zhang climbed down and inspected the corpses.

Which picked themselves up.

The creatures moaned, feeling about their heads. They grabbed on the bolts and tugged, trying to pry them loose. Zhang dropped the crossbow and ran towards them.

Charging his qi, Zhang whipped his right arm around, bringing his palm crashing into the closer one’s crown. The wangliang’s spinal column collapsed in liquid pops.

The other one reached across its body, going for a dao. Zhang crashed his elbow into its face. Unbalanced, it staggered away. Zhang caught the wangliang’s chin with his right hand and spun, lifting it into the air and slamming its head against the ground. Just to be sure, he stomped it in the throat.

Zhang looked around. No wangliang came streaming out to investigate. The chanting had covered the sound of combat.

He examined the bodies. What appeared to be leather skullcaps were, in fact, paper helmets. The same paper his own armor was made of. With alternating layers of paper and cotton, sewn with silk thread, the armor was proof against nearly everything in the Empire’s arsenal. The bolts would have given the wangliang nothing more serious than a headache.

And wangliang did not have the technology to make paper armor.

Zhang scrutinized their equipment. The shields they carried were made of rattan. But the lands of the Union were too cold to grow rattan. It must have come from the tropics of the south of the Empire.

The spears the wangliang wielded were of a generic design, but the dao they carried were not. They had broad, chopping blades and strong hatchet points, with heavy brass handguards and crossguards that ended in hooks. Hudiedao, an exclusively human design from the Empire.

Zhang frowned. The Union used steel and leather in their armor, including their human vassals. Paper and rattan offered equal performance in a lighter package. These wangliang enjoyed greater mobility without sacrificing protection. And hudiedao were superior alternatives to the crude axes or knives most wangliang infantry carried.

Someone was equipping the wangliang with human weapons and armor. But why?

Hong Er, I wish to draw on your power.

Amusement touched her voice. What do you have planned?

He sent his plans to her in a single thought.

You are crazy, she said.

I am Zhang the Invincible. You are Hong Er, the Destroyer of Evil. Between us, a horde of wangliang is nothing.

A human-like chuckle flooded his mind. Very well. Let’s do this.

He positioned in front of the temple and drew out his spear, placing it by his right. He reloaded his crossbow and rested the butt against his pelvis.

“Hong Er, I am ready.”

With a flash of dazzling light, Hong Er stepped out into the human realm. Spreading her wings, she threw her head back and issued a cry of challenge. Fire poured from her open mouth, streaming through the temple windows. The chanting dissolved into a chorus of screams and pained cries.

The doors burst open. Wangliang swarmed out in a howling storm of sinewy muscle, clattering shields and glittering steel.

Hong Er greeted them with her fiery breath, engulfing the horde. Flaming feathers blasted wangliang who tried to escape. Placing his crossbow above the phoenix’s head, Zhang pumped away, sending a storm of bolts downrange. Hong Er skillfully controlled her flames, leaving the bolts intact.

Zhang loosed his last bolt. Tossing the weapon aside, he picked up his spear and stood by Hong Er’s side. The last of the wangliang warriors burst out, and the doors swung shut. Dark qi crackled across the door, sealing it off.

“Hong Er! Breach the door!” he called.

The phoenix cawed. Glowing blindingly bright, she took to the air and swooped down, flying through the remaining wangliang. Everything she touched—rattan, steel, flesh, bone—turned to ash. Shrieking, she slammed into the seal. Phoenix and seal disappeared in an enormous blast, flinging the doors open.

I am out of qi. I must retire. Good luck.

Zhang grunted a response. Three wangliang remained, rolling and hopping and patting at their burning clothes. Zhang moved among them, ending them with well-aimed thrusts.

The last one emitted a burst of qi, instantly extinguishing its burning shield. It saw Zhang coming, growled, and hid behind its shield. Its arm whirled. A sharp pain slammed into Zhang’s left breast. He winced, rocking with the blow, but remained upright. He looked down. A spear was embedded in his armor.

The wangliang reached for its hudiedao. Zhang lunged. It raised its shield, blocking the strike. Zhang hooked the top of the shield with his spear’s crosspiece and sheared it away. The wangliang tripped, dropping the shield. Zhang roared, thrusting for its face, and the spear punched clean through its skull.

Discarding his spear, he wrenched the wangliang spear from his armor, looped his right hand around the lanyard of his dao and drew the saber. He gathered his qi and entered the temple.

Skeletons hung on hooks from the ceiling, the flesh stripped clean. Blood splashed across the walls in unholy patterns. On the altar, a statue of the Taifo was smashed, its face and hands and feet and belly broken off. Wooden totems flanked the Taifo, blackened wood stacked together in strange configurations, topped with laurels of bloody skulls.

A great black sphere floated in front of the Taifo. Unearthly laughter issued forth. With every passing moment, it grew larger. In front of the sphere, a wangliang knelt, its hands raised high, chanting desperately.

And on either side of the wangliang, human sorcerers chanted with it.

A voice bellowed from the sphere. “Intruder! Kill him!”

The wangliang continued its fervent prayers. The humans broke off, turning to the intruder.

Zhang was already in motion. A single fluid stroke, and the closer human’s head went flying. The other one spoke a word. A wave of black qi slammed into Zhang, dispersing his qi and pushing him back. The sorcerer drew a dao and slashed at Zhang. Zhang backed up. The sorcerer cut again. Zhang swept the dao aside with the back of his blade and slashed through his throat.

The wangliang shaman continued chanting, desperation filling its voice. Within the void, Zhang made out form and motion. A huge multi-armed thing was trying to force its way through.

Zhang pounced on the shaman, cutting him from shoulder to hip. A great roar shook the temple, deafening Zhang. The sphere shrank rapidly. Tentacles reached out, trying to enter the world. Zhang cut at them, forcing them to retreat. In moments, the portal closed.

Zhang checked for more threats, found none, and allowed himself a deep breath.

Setting the bloodstained sword down, he faced the defaced statue and pressed his palms together.

“Taifo, I apologize for spilling blood inside the temple. It was the only way I had to stop the yaomo from causing more harm. I beg for your understanding and forgiveness. One day, I will come back and make things right.”

From the celestial realm, Hong Er sent him a message.

A promise is a promise. You’ll have to live up to that.

Zhang nodded. I will.

He bowed to the statue and picked up his saber.

Now, the hard work would begin.

****

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Previous chapters: Part 1 and 2.

If you would to support my long-form fiction, check out my Dragon Award-nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

INVINCIBLE Part Two: Sujiang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain,” Zhang replied.

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

Zhang blinked.

“Just me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

And dead men told no tales.

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

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

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

“May the gods watch over you.”

“We are Shenwujun. They always do.”

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

Zhang walked.

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

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

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

The guard commander did not.

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

Zhang reached into his ring and drew a brass medallion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One fen a night.”

“And a bath?”

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

“Very well.”

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

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

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

She beamed.

“Thank you, Your Excellency!”

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

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

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

“Thank you, laoban niang.”

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

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

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

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

The men exchanged looks.

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

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

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

“Go.”

The guard retreated inside. A minute later, he reappeared.

“Your Excellency, please follow this one.”

The guards escorted him into the main courtyard, where a functionary met him. Zhang rang the gong, formally announcing his presence, and entered the main hall.

“Ensign Zhang Tianyou of the Shenwujun!” the minor bureaucrat proclaimed.

The Xianzhang sat at a high table at the far end of the room. He was dressed in a rich emerald robe of fine silk. His table was covered by a vivid green tablecloth, and by his right hand was a teapot and a set of cups. The functionary seated himself at a smaller table at the great man’s side and took up a pen; it appeared he was the Xianzhang’s scribe. At every corner in the room, the constables on duty stared at the Shenwujun.

Zhang marched up to the Xianzhang and bowed deeply.

“Xianzhang, thank you for seeing me on such short notice. I deeply apologize for the inconvenience.”

“It is no trouble at all. It is my great honor to host the great Zhang Wudi.”

Zhang snapped his head up. “You’ve heard of me?”

“Everyone in the frontier has heard of your exploits. You are a living legend.”

“Thank you. But if anyone deserves the title of Wudi, it is my father.”

“True, but a tiger of a father does not beget a dog of a son.”

“Your Excellency is too kind. May I know your honored name?”

“I am Lee Deyao.”

“Lee Xianzhang, I am here on a mission of vital importance to the state, and I request your assistance.”

“Of course. Come, sit, have some tea. Please tell us why you have come today. Is this about the rebels?”

As if by magic, slaves appeared, carrying a chair and a cup of steaming tea. Zhang sat and sipped at the brew. It was superb, better than the tea he was issued.

“Your Excellency I am here to chase yaomo,” Zhang said. “Wangliang, to be specific.”

Lee’s face fell. “I thought rebellion takes a higher priority than yaomo.”

“When the sandpiper and the clam fight, the fisherman benefits. The Grand Union had designs on the frontier for centuries, and they deploy wangliang as vanguards and saboteurs.”

“Then I’m glad you’re here. The provincial yamen told me a group of Shenwujun would be operating in the area. Are you with them?”

“I have no knowledge of their present activities,” Zhang said truthfully. “I am on an independent assignment.”

“Ah. Did the provincial yamen send you?”

“No.”

Lee stared expectantly at Zhang. Zhang simply sipped at his tea and said nothing. A moment later, Lee broke the silence.

“I…see. Last I heard from the provincial yamen, they said they would send a runner to a regiment in the field. I thought the runner must have caught up with the Army.”

“I heard from my comrades that they found signs of yaomo operating in your district. I was sent to investigate. Before I left, we have not received any reports from the provincial yamen.”

“Then it must be Heaven’s will that you are here. Three days ago, a group of wangliang attacked and occupied Suchen Temple. I would have sent the local garrison, but they are away hunting the Tiandi Lianhe Association.”

“I can take care of the problem for you.”

“Just one man?”

Zhang raised an eyebrow.

“Ah, my apologies,” Lee said. “I forgot who I am speaking to.”

“No offense taken. What can you tell me about the attack?”

“Speak to the monks at the temple in our city. They reported the incident to me. They can give you the full details.”

“Very well.” Zhang finished his tea. “Thank you for your tea. I must leave now, but if you have any additional information, either about yaomo or rebels, you can leave a message for me at the Plum Blossom Inn.”

As Zhang stood, Lee did also.

“Ensign Zhang, may Heaven watch over you.”

“I’m a Shenwujun. Heaven is always looking after us.”

The temple sat in an isolated corner of the city. The monks busied themselves with their daily chores: gardening, laundry, general cleaning. He found a monk and requested to see the Zhuchi. The monk led Zhang to a small chamber that served as the Zhuchi’s office.

The Zhuchi, dressed in a simple saffron robe, sat at a plain wooden table. Papers and scrolls lay stacked neatly in a corner. Another monk worked at a smaller table, painstakingly examining a book. As Zhang entered, both monks stood and bowed, pressing their hands together.

“Good morning, Your Excellency,” the Zhuchi said. “To what do we owe the honor of hosting such a powerful Shenwujun today?”

Zhang blinked. “You know I’m one?”

The Zhuchi smiled beatifically. “Aside from your black uniform? It is plain as day in your aura. You have contracted with a powerful celestial spirit.”

Auras were invisible to the naked eye; people needed special training or celestial assistance to see them. The monks here were the real deal. The meditation and qi exercises that empowered Shenwujun came from various holy orders, and Zhang had no doubt that the monks had concealed their most secret teachings from the state.

“Yes, indeed,” Zhang admitted. “How may I address you?”

“I am Lin Guo An. And yourself?”

“Zhang Tianyou.”

The aide laid out cups of tea for everyone. Zhang accepted the beverage gladly; the long march had left him parched, and he hadn’t had a chance to refill his calabashes.

“What can I do for you today?” the Zhuchi asked.

“I am here to track down yaomo in the region. Lee Xianzhang told me about a wangliang attack on Suchen Temple, and referred me to you.”

“Well, you’re in luck.” Lee gestured at his aide. “This is Huang Qingjian from Suchen Temple. He personally witnessed the attack. He’s been helping me ever since he arrived here.”

“Your Excellency,” Huang said, bowing. “How may this one help?”

“Please tell me what happened during the attack,” Zhang said.

“Late at night, I rose from bed with a stomachache. The latrine was outside the temple grounds. After I finished my business, I saw a group of men approaching the temple entrance. I was still in the forest then, hidden from view. I wanted to call out to them, then saw that they were holding torches. They weren’t men. They were wangliang.”

“Please describe the wangliang.”

“They were short, about chest height. Long black hair, claws for fingers and toes. They wore rough scraps for clothes, but their weapons were bright and sharp.”

“How many wangliang were there?”

“About thirty.”

“And what kind of weapons did they have?”

“Shields and spears.”

Which was the hallmark of the Union’s wangliang foot infantry.

“What did you do?” Zhang asked.

He looked down. “I…I hid behind a tree. I was too afraid to move. I’m…sorry.”

“It was a wise choice. You’re alive now, yes?”

“…Yes.”

“Sometimes, hiding is the only thing we can do.”

Huang looked up and nodded.

“What happened after the wangliang arrived?” Zhang asked.

“They surrounded the temple. A team gathered in front of the gate. They chanted something, and the gate exploded. The wangliang charged in. Moments later, I… My brothers… They screamed and screamed and…”

His voice broke. The Zhuchi patted the man’s shoulder.

“Peace. Breathe and relax. It’s over now.”

Huang obeyed. “I couldn’t stay. I stumbled out the forest and ran. Next thing I knew, I was at the city gates.”

“Thank you,” Zhang said. “Did you see what kind of magic they used?”

“No. I just saw a flash of light, then a loud explosion.”

“Very well. Do you know the current situation at the temple?”

“The Xianzhang has declared the area off-limits,” Lin said. “With the local garrison hunting rebels, the Xianzhang felt it best to wait for the Shenwujun to come. We don’t know if the wangliang are still there.”

“I’m here now,” Zhang said. “I can take care of the problem.”

Lin’s face fell. “Yes. I’m sure you can.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Your Excellency, do you consider yourself a follower of the Taifo’s teachings?”

“No celestial spirit would bond with a Shenwujun who will not.”

“So it is. Yet the nature of your work violates the First Precept: refraining from killing living beings, both humans and non-humans. By providing you information about the wangliang, we are knowingly contributing to the death of living beings. It is a violation of the oaths we swore as monks.”

“You speak as if there will be bloodshed.”

Lin raised an eyebrow. “Of course. In the celestial hierarchy, your phoenix is styled a destroyer of evil. She will not bond with anyone who is not aligned with her essential nature.”

Zhang blinked. “You can see her?”

“Of course.”

Zhang shook his head. Most people, even Shenwujun, couldn’t see bond-spirits unless they manifested in the human realm.

“Then you must know that her existence is fully in accordance with the will of Heaven,” Zhang said. “Wangliang are brutal yaomo who prey on humans at every opportunity. Your brothers at Suchen Temple learned that great cost. To stop them from doing more harm, it may well be necessary to kill them.”

“Yet in doing so you will also shoulder the karma of killing, and the suffering that comes with it.”

“So be it. I cannot stand by and allow the wangliang to go unpunished.”

“Then we shall pray for you. And us.”

****

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Part 1 can be found here.

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