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