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.
“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.”
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?”
“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?”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.