Chapter 15 (Li)

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* The story is read via alternating perspectives between Zhang and Li.

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We’re running as fast as we can, footsteps muffled by the still-warm sand. At a distance, I can see an eerie bluish-grey light shining in the dark of the night, and smaller, red dots surrounding it. An ominous wind picks up, carrying with it a putrid stench and blowing up a mini-sandstorm. However, through the flying grit, I can still see that eerie beacon, and the monk’s words haunt me.

***

– Earlier in the day –

“You’re finally leaving?” he asks. While his words are tinged with sadness, he doesn’t sound at all surprised.

I nod, closing the bedroom door behind me while surreptitiously avoiding his gaze. “Thank you, for swiping some guard uniforms for us.”

“… It’s not a problem,” he says after a brief moment of silence. It’s not the first period of silence between us the last few days, but each gets more awkward than the last. “Is he okay?” he finally asks.

“Ahh,” I hesitate, tilting my head towards the closed door. “He’s exhausted. He’s still floating in and out of consciousness, but I think I’ve got the gist of his message.”

“Which was?”

I grin. “Good news from Dong Ying.”

He nods slowly. Finally, as if he can’t hold back the question, he blurts out, “Who is he?”

I shrug. “I don’t know his name, but he’s a runner from a greasy, melancholy friend of mine in Dong Ying. How he found me, I haven’t the slightest idea, but considering it’s that guy… I’m not surprised.”

“A… greasy friend?” I don’t have to look at him to know that he’s adorably wrinkling his nose like a child wrinkling his nose at the sight of his least favorite dish on the dinner table. I smile to myself and move away from the door. The wheels follow me. “I’m starting to question your taste in friends, Chunfeng.”

I laugh gently. “I sometimes question it too,” I reply lightly.

“Jiejie,” Xiaolong whines, running full speed at me in the hallway. I catch him in my arms and know what he’ll say before he even says it. “Don’t make me go.”

“Don’t worry,” I say gently, “It’ll be fine. We’ll find Qiuhuo and then come to you straightaway, okay?”

He lets out another half-hearted, protesting whine and clutches my clothes in his small hands. I look over his head to see Qingyu coming towards me with a scowl on her face.

“We’re already significantly delayed with the arrival of this messenger,” she says. “We were supposed to leave at dawn with the prison group, weren’t we? How are you planning on getting that girl out now?”

I shrug. “I’ll work something out when I get there. What about you? The desert sun is harsh at noon. You should have left according to plan.”

Qingyu narrows her eyes at me with displeasure. “If our xiaozhuzi refuses to go, we won’t go either.”

“Yeah, and of course, that means we can’t leave either,” Ganzorig adds, coming up from behind Qingyu.

I sigh. “Xiaolong…”

“I don’t wanna go!”

“Don’t throw a tantrum now,” I scold as gently as I can. “Jiedao-gege will be with you. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”

“I wanna go with you!”

I shake my head and peel the sobbing child away from me. I kneel down so that I am eye level with him and say, “This is for the best. I don’t want to be away from you either, but it’s what we need to do to make sure everyone will be safe, now and in the future. Do you understand? I need you as a User at the Portal, in case anything goes wrong with the yaoguai. You’re the only one I can count on there.”

“But, but I don’t know if I-”

“You can,” I say, gently wiping the tears from his cheek. “You’ve been practicing. I know you can.”

“But then you…”

“I’ll be fine. You know I’m a User too. Those yaoguai can come at me all day and I’ll be fine,” I say, half-jokingly.

He nods sadly. “Okay. I’ll wait for you. But if I sense anything go wrong, I’ll-”

“Stay where you are and let me handle it. Won’t you?”

“Jiejie!”

“I need you to concentrate on the task that only you can do. Okay? Promise me?”

He bites his lips and looks as though he’ll start crying again, but I wait for him patiently. Finally, he nods his head again slowly. “Okay… I promise…”

“Alright,” I say, standing up to look at Qingyu and Ganzorig. “You guys head out. Be careful out there; I doubt you’ll have much shelter, from the elements or from the enemies, so-”

“We’ll be fine,” Ganzorig interrupts impatiently. “The desert is my territory.”

“And I know where to go,” Fuxin adds. “The portal is already acting up, I can sense it.”

I look at my two newest “friends” and nod. “Okay. Head out. We’ll meet up with you before long.”

Ganzorig pounds on his chest in what I assume to be a gesture of luck, and turns to head out. Xiaolong shoots me one last longing look before scurrying after him. Qingyu looks carefully at me and says, “You needn’t worry about xiaozhuzi. He is our future leader. It goes without saying that we will do everything in our power to keep him safe.”

I grin at Qingyu’s oddly kind words. “He’ll be the one keeping us safe, I’m sure of it.”

She smiles at me before turning around and I can’t help but stare at her as she turns away. Her genuine smile is really beautiful. If only she smiled more, I think wistfully. I turn around and go in the opposite direction to gather the comrades for my part of the mission. We’re delayed enough as it is; there is no point in dragging it out any longer.

“Feng-er!” he suddenly calls out, using a name I haven’t heard in ages.

I stop.

I hear him take a deep breath, but I don’t turn to look at him. “Cheng feng ao xiang,” he says quietly.

I can’t help but smile a bit. “I’m gonna kick you when I get back,” I call over my shoulder.

“… I’m counting on it.”

I bow my head slightly and start to jog off. “Sheng li gui lai,” I think I hear him mutter.

Less than half an hour later, I am pulling the monk’s clothing tighter around me as I walk as measuredly as possible through the capital streets, neither hurrying nor loitering. Jianning, Yijian, and two other monks follow as we make our way to Teeto Quispe’s mansion. I stop before the huge doors of the mansion and wonder which route we should take but Yijian chooses for me, knocking loudly on the door. I see Jianning narrow his eyes in suspicion and I don’t blame him. I, too, do not entirely trust this man, which was precisely why I wanted him with me rather than with Xiaolong. Staring at the huge doors, I close my eyes and let out a bit of my qi, searching around the mansion. As I am doing so, the huge door opens slightly, startling me, and a doorman squints out at our group. “Who have we got here?”

“Amituofo,” Yijian intones in a voice not unlike Kong Zhenkang’s, and I have to fight back a shudder at the very thought. “We are here to offer prayers for the newcomer of the household.”

“Ah, the girl?” the doorman says, opening the door all the way. “I think she is having a meal with the master at the moment. Please, come in.”

“Thank you,” Yijian says, bowing low, and I follow suit, sneaking a glance at the large doorman while doing so. He is dark skinned, with hair done up in unfamiliar braids. His clothes are also of various vibrant colors, uncommon for a household servant. I don’t stare though, and follow the others through the large doors.

“You may stay here in the reception room while I announce your arrival to my master.”

Yijian bows again and the doorman disappears out of the room. I look around. For a reception room, the place does not seem that fancy, although the only reception room I have to compare it to is the one in the Yuwen manor – hardly a fair comparison for any other household, I suppose. Nevertheless, the two scroll paintings hung on the wall seem dreary and dark, the porcelain vases placed distastefully below them seem dull and uninspired, and even the polished wooden furniture scattered through the room seem solemn and grim.

“Clearly, this merchant doesn’t get many visitors,” Jianning whispers to me. “I think even our small inn has a more festive air than this place.”

I suppress a small laugh and look up at the sound of running footsteps. My heart leaps, and I try not to run towards that familiar sound. She bursts in through the doors and stares at us, eyes shining. I shoot her a warning look before she can take another step into the room and, although she stays right where she is, she beams joyously at us. I almost groan. She’s being too obvious.

“Y-You shouldn’t go running off like that,” a strangely accented voice pants, and I see a gangly man appear beside her, nearly doubled over from wheezing.

“I was excited to see who’d be visiting me, Teeto!” Qiuhuo exclaims.

The man, Teeto, laughs breathily and I look carefully at him. He has dark skin not unlike his doorman, but his wiry frame gives him a fragile look. He, too, is dressed in vibrant colors and in his long braided hair is the feather of an unknown fowl. “You weren’t this excited when Kong-zhuchi visited the other day,” he is saying to Qiuhuo.

“I don’t like that man,” Qiuhuo pouts. She points to Yijian. “But this brother was nice to me last time!”

“How did you know that it was going to be him?” Teeto asks quizzically.

“Qi sensing!” Qiuhuo exclaims. “I’ve told you about it.”

“Yes, yes, something like our trait sensing but with qi, right? I don’t understand you martial artists. The trait thing is already enough to drive me crazy, so I don’t understand how you can also have these other channels open while remaining sane.”

“You get used to it,” Qiuhou says dismissively. “I can go out now, with this brother, can’t I?”

“But Kong-zhuchi said you’re not to leave without him! You’re not well enough yet.”

“I’m plenty well,” Qiuhou insists. “I-”

“… Qiuhuo?” Teeto asks.

Jianning and I don’t need to ask though. We know exactly why she suddenly stopped. In the silence of her halted chattering, we hear the loud, ominous knock echo down all the way from the entrance.

“Oh, I wonder who that could be,” Teeto muses, backing out the room a few steps to look down the way from which we had come. “How odd, to have so many visitors.”

I smother my qi down as low as I can and I know that Jianning is doing the same next to me. In an all-out battle, I don’t know if the two of us – three if we include Qiuhuo – will prevail… especially if we still do not know whether the monks are truly on our side.

I glance around at the gloomy reception room again to see if there’s something we can use to our advantage, but I see nothing. I sense that man getting closer and closer to our room. I hear the doorman saying something to him, but I cannot concentrate on his words, so distracted am I by worries of how we will escape. I try to regain control of my breathing but it’s difficult, so very difficult. I feel my precise control of qi slipping precariously. I can’t. I just can’t. I-

An unfamiliar hand touches mine and I jump. “Would you like to have a seat?” one of the monks asks, leading me like a child to one of the solemn chairs. From the corner of my eye, I see another monk offer the same to Jianning. I’m still looking at him when our eyes meet and, suddenly, I can breathe again. What am I doing? I berate myself.

“No, I’m fine,” I say, laying a gentle hand on the one atop mine and stopping our progress towards the chair. “Thank you.”

I turn and face the entrance to the dismal room. The approaching qi is tinged with murderous intent, and the monks around me undoubtedly sense it as well, if their fidgeting is anything to go by. Yijian is frowning in concern and as our eyes meet, I see… guilt.

“Amituofo, dear lost children,” the voice booms out. “I have come to retrieve my lost lambs.”

“Kong-zhuchi!” Teeto exclaims, rubbing his hands in an anxious matter and hurrying over to him. “Why, what a pleasant surprise! So many vis-”

“I am not here for a pleasant visit,” he says in that effortless baritone boom that rattles my bones. “I received word that some stray lambs have wandered here. Is that not so, Yijian-fashi?”

Yijian looks away from me to Kong and asks, “What becomes of lost children, Kong-zhuchi?”

“They must be punished.”

“How?” he asks quietly, taking a few steps towards the huge monk. Yijian is by no means a small man, but next to the zhuchi of the main temple, he looks no larger than a child.

“That is for me to decide when we return to the temple.”

“Will you kill them?”

“Our sect does not condone killing,” the huge monk intones. “You know that, child.”

“I sent you that letter,” Yijian confesses suddenly, “because I wanted to see what you would do.”

“Naturally, I will come to retrieve the lost-”

“Really!?” Yijian almost shouts, startling everyone in the room. He is shaking as he continues, in a much quieter voice. “I had heard so many stories about you. I admired you. So I didn’t want to believe what I’d been hearing since I got to your temple. I wanted to close my eyes, close my ears. But I can’t. What you’re doing… is the exact opposite of everything we’re supposed to stand for!”

“.. and what have you been hearing, child?”

“How can you not know?” Yijian asks, sadness seeping through every word. “I knew the moment I felt your qi here today that those were not just baseless rumors. You’re tainted. You’ve been tainted by that Demonic Portal!”

“We are the guardians of that Portal,” Kong says, spreading open his arms as if indicating everyone in attendance. “And if we need to draw upon that which we’re protecting, then we’re well within our rights!”

A blast of water shoots out towards Yijian and I dash towards him, concentrating hard on the qi component of the water. I hold out my left hand and redirect the qi right as we both get splashed with cold water. The qi imbued part of the water soars over our heads and blasts a hole in one of the hanging scrolls.

“Oh-ho,” Kong says in an amused tone. “So you can do things like that now, can’t you?”

“Jiejie!” Qiuhuo squeals, but stays where she is when I glare at her.

I stand and shake some of the water off, ruining my monk disguise in the process. I glare at Kong with all the courage I can muster and say, “It’s different from when you’re attacking us from behind, isn’t it? Or what, are you scared to actually face us head-on?”

“What. Was. That!?” Kong rumbles and I can practically feel his qi crackle in anger.

“For such a large man, you sure have the courage of a tiny coward,” I continue, shrugging and shaking my head in mock shame. Another blast of water comes speeding towards me and I drag Yijian safely out of the way. I see Jianning do the same with the other two monks. I stand again and continue, in as steady a voice as I can. “Surprise attacks obviously only work when the opponent is surprised, are you an idiot or something?”

Kong roars out in frustration and stabs the ground with the staff that he’s holding. Qiuhuo, Jianning, and I all share a glance and wait for it. The ground rumbles ominously and I anxiously clutch Yijian’s clothes a little tighter. As the ground continues to rumble, I look up at the ceiling and briefly wonder exactly how much it’d hurt to hit that.

I don’t find out.

The water comes crashing up from the ground as expected and the three of us concentrate our qi at our feet to prevent the qi imbued water from getting through and ride the water like a wave. Before we can hit the ceiling though, it slides open like a door and before we know it, we’re soaring through the sky pursued by a huge wave of water.

“That way!” I yell, pointing at the desert and, using qinggong, we all race towards that direction. We hear Kong bellow angrily behind us.

“What was that!?” Qiuhuo exclaims, dragging a panting Teeto behind her as we all land safely on the sand.

“I don’t know,” I say, shaking more of that disgusting water off of me. “I was expecting to hit that ceiling with full force and just get out that way. It would have hurt, to say the least, but I couldn’t think of anything else. Here,” I hand Qiuhuo her blades, “gifts from me and Tiexin.”

“Tiexin?” Qiuhuo asks quizzically but accepting them all the same.

“Yeah,” I say dismissively, basically ignoring her question. “That monk’ll be onto us before long. We have more room to maneuver out here, but I don’t doubt that he’ll try to suppress us with sheer qi force like he did last time. We’ve improved, but if he’s calm, there’s no way we can beat him.”

“I’ll fight him,” Yijian says, standing up on shaky legs.

I shake my head. “He’ll slaughter you,” I reply. “I don’t care if you’re regretting your actions or what, but I won’t let any of my group get slaughtered here, not if I can help it.”

“He might-”

“He won’t hesitate. You know that.”

Yijian takes a deep breath and says, “I can still hold my ground. I’m a Wood User, you know.”

“So you’re the one who opened up the ceiling,” I say, crossing my arms to look him up and down. “You should have said so earlier. I was thinking it was the merchant who did that.”

“I… didn’t trust you people.”

“Well I don’t trust you either.”

“I guess you’ve got good reason not to.”

“Still,” I say, looking around. “Wood is useless in the desert.”

“That’s not true,” he says, sitting down on the sand and adopting a meditative state. “No matter how arid the land, things will still grow. I can call on those.”

The air around us quivers and I can feel cold sweat bead out. I slowly draw out two blades, Jianning readies his guai, and the monks both steady their staves. I slowly twirl the blades in my hands, testing their familiar weight and curves. “I guess we’ll buy you time,” I say, looking up at the sky.

Kong lands heavily on the sand, showering us all with the warm grit. He roars and charges towards us, qi blasting haphazardly and dangerously. Jianning rushes forward to receive the first blow and just barely manages to redirect the large monk’s path away from the meditating Yijian. The two monks attempt to stall his charge, but with the poor footing of the sand, they easily get blown away by the power of the larger monk. He roars again and turns back to look at us.

“He’s like a raging bull!” Jianning calls over the monk’s roar.

“Well, keep him raging!” I call back. “Don’t let him concentrate his qi!”

“E-Easier said than done!” Jianning calls, parrying the monk’s bare fists with his guai and barely managing to stay on his feet. I rush over and slash towards his unprotected side but from out of nowhere, his elbow speeds towards my face and I barely manage to twist out of the way as he slams into the sand, sending more grit flying. He charges towards me and I find myself so occupied with merely dodging his heavy, frenzied attacks that I don’t have any chance to look for an opening to counter. Suddenly, he stops and I’m filled with dread as he glares at me.

It’s like I’m hit with a meteor, such is the weight of the qi that suddenly crushes down on me. It pins me down onto the hot sand and I taste the grit in my mouth. I can hardly even breathe. I struggle to get up, but it’s too heavy. I feel his murderous qi coming closer and I stop struggling, stop wasting energy.

“It’s futile, Fire User!” he roars, and just the sound of his voice makes my head hurt. “Didn’t you know that water douses fire!?”

I don’t move, don’t respond, don’t give any indication that I’ve heard him. I don’t care that water douses fire. It’s all I have left to fight with, and I’m going to use it.

His approach halts and I feel the ground rumble beneath me. Seriously? He can draw out water here, in the desert? I gather the heat around me like a shield, but as I’m doing so, I feel the nudge of something else, something that shouldn’t be here. Confused, I pause to consider what it can be but before I can come to any conclusion, the weight is suddenly lifted off of me and I raise my head just in time to see Kong flying horizontally away from me, hit by what looks like a huge block of earth. Twines snake up from the ground and tightly bind his hands and feet as he struggles to right himself and regain his bearings. I think I hear screaming, roaring, yelling. And then, abruptly, the world mutes around me and all I see is red.

It’s not as though I’ve never seen bloodshed. In the slums, it is almost a daily occurrence, and half of the time, I am probably a cause of it, either directly or indirectly. However, the sheer violence of this strike that comes from nowhere shocks me dumb and I watch, almost in slow motion, as the knife rips through the monk’s muscular chest and deep down into his heart. I see the monk’s stunned expression as thick, red blood sputters out and the body hits the ground in a shower of grit, shielding the rest of the scene from my sight.

Someone screams again and, although some part of my brain recognizes the voice as Qiuhuo’s, I can’t seem to react to it. I don’t quite understand why she is screaming; it’s not her first time seeing bloodshed either. I struggle up onto my forearms, coughing the grit out of my mouth. Suddenly, someone slams into my side and I fall over again with a groan.

“Jiejie!” whines a voice that I, a mere few hours ago, had specifically told to not come search me out. I sigh and raise my hand to rub his head comfortingly. “Jiejie!”

I cough again before I say hoarsely, “What are you doing here, Xiaolong?”

“Coincidence, if you can believe it,” Jiedao’s disembodied voice says from somewhere above me. “We were heading off any yaoguai when we came across your battle.”

I roll around a bit on the sand until Xiaolong gets my message and finally lets me sit up. I look blearily around the gradually darkening desert to see Yijian and another new monk helping the two dazed monks. Jianning is slowly dragging an unconscious Teeto over to us with Qiuhuo staggering behind them. I frown. “What’s wrong with them?”

“I think the dark guy passed out around the same time as when Qingyu’s strike landed,” Jiedao remarks. “Maybe he was just shocked? I’m not sure what’s wrong with Qiuhuo though.”

Same time? Something that I had heard before tries to force its way into the forefront of my consciousness but I can’t quite grasp it.

“And, so?” I ask, turning back to Xiaolong and Jiedao. “What’s with the yaoguai?”

“We ran across a lot of them, so we split into two groups; we take care of the yaoguai and the other group continues to the portal. We’ll join back up when we’re done.”

I take a deep breath, sensing the growing evil in the air. “I don’t think we’d be done for a very long time, considering the stench in the air. ”

“Yeah,” Jiedao responds grimly. “It’s weird though. Earlier, Xiaolong and the monk said that the yaoguai were just kinda running wild but then gradually, they seemed to concentrate over here. That’s how we came across you guys.”

“Then they must be attracted to something here,” I say thoughtfully, looking around and just now noticing the random dark patches, indicative of vanquished yaoguai, further away on the barren sands. I must have been so distracted by my own fight that I had not noticed their fight, which was not too far away from us. The darkness of night slowly smothers down onto us as Jianning and Qiuhuo finally get to us and Qiuhuo all but falls into my arms.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, running a comfortingly hand over her messy hair. She opts to merely shake her head wearily instead of answering me. “Well, we should head over to the Portal. Have you guys seen any signs from the others?”

I see the faint dark outline of Jiedao shake his head as he responds, “No, no signals from anyone. Hopefully, no news is good news.”

“Hm…” I muse. “Do you think you can walk?” Qiuhuo shakes her head without a word. “I can have Jianning take you back-”

“No,” she says quietly. “I need to go. I’m involved in this too.”

“I’m going to send the monks back with the body,” Yijian announces to the party at large. “I’ll be responsible for showing you the way to the Portal.”

“You?” I ask skeptically.

“It’ll be fine,” Qiuhuo whispers. “I’ll know.”

“Well, can your monks bring the merchant-”

“He needs to come too,” Qiuhuo whispers.

“Why?” I ask, completely bewildered.

“Please.”

I sigh and gently remove Qiuhuo from my lap. “Alright. The three monks should clean off the body and bring it back to the temple. No matter what he’s done, he’s still the head monk in name and no one needs to know the evils he’s committed. The rest of us will head to the Portal and look out for yaoguai along the way. I’ll-”

“The yaoguai will be coming towards us,” Qiuhuo interrupts quietly. “They are attracted to trait-holders and those with high levels of neigong.”

I look at Qiuhuo sitting next to me quietly and don’t ask how she knows this information. If she wants to tell me, she can tell me later. “As I was saying, I’ll carry Qiuhuo; Jianning, if you can carry the merchant?”

The shadow that is Jianning nods in the darkness and I turn around to let Qiuhuo piggyback onto me, which she surprisingly does without protest. We set off in the dark, following Yijian’s lead. Occasionally, the moon peeks out through the clouds, allowing us to see the eerie, quiet desert around us. Despite Qiuhuo’s warning, no yaoguai approach.

“Teeto told me what I am and what the kingdom wants with people like me,” Qiuhuo murmurs into my ear so that, despite the silence of the desert, only I can hear. “The other two trait-holders were sent to find the last one, but Teeto told me he thinks they aren’t planning on coming back. Pao Qiqiang is an evil man and he plans to open the gate to flood the human world with demons. There’s even a rumor that he’s got demon blood in him. Teeto was staying here to make sure Tiexin doesn’t lose his conscience, and to convince that monk back there to stop this madness. He was once good, Teeto said. But he also said it’s the purest that fall the hardest.

“Also, not all of the trait-holders have to be present to open or seal the portal. There are other ways to do it, although none of them are proven and all of them are dangerous. I don’t know what those ways are. Teeto was trying to research it, but I think that monk almost found him out, so Teeto got too scared to do anything else. I told him that you’ll come for me so he won’t have to be scared anymore, but he didn’t believe me. I’m so glad- Ah!”

Qiuhuo’s sudden exclamation startles the entire group into stillness as everyone turns to look at her. I feel her arms tremble around my neck and her breath quickens by my ear.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

Someone groans and I turn to see that Teeto has regained consciousness. He looks confusedly at everyone and, though I cannot be sure due to the dim lighting provided by the moon, seems terrified.

“W-Why?” he wheezes.

Qiuhuo responds with a little whine and tightens her arms around my neck in an attempt to stop their trembling. It does little to help, though, and her breathing quickens even more. Suddenly, a horrifying feeling descends upon me and Yijian whispers, “I think the Portal’s been opened…”

***

– Present time –

Qingyu slows down and says quietly, “We need to approach with caution.” She tilts her head over to one side, indicating that we’re changing course. The rest of us follow her as we avoid the majority of the torches and slowly make our way towards the dark figures. As we approach, we hear the eerie shrieks of the yaoguai grow louder and louder. Some of them even turn and run towards us, but Yijian waves his staff silently and twines snake out of the ground, strangling and destroying them. Surely they shriek as their bodies dissolve, but we can’t differentiate those shrieks from the ones in the crowd. In this manner, we get behind the mixed group of soldiers and yaoguai and look in to see what they are surrounding.

It comes as no real surprise to me that they’re surrounding Ganzorig and the others. They’re panting in exhaustion and Fuxin seems to be holding the scores of yaoguai at bay with some incantation, as yaoguai jump at him only to hiss and jump backwards again. I count the surrounded figures and frown.

“Answer me! I say answer me!” someone is yelling to our right and I look over, barely stifling a gasp at the gruesome scene that meets my eyes. One of Qingyu’s mercenary friends is lying prone on the ground surrounded by more yaoguai and soldiers, his head slowly being gnawed on by a huge yaoguai. Qiuhuo screams and almost falls off my back as she hurtles a blade at the yaoguai. I don’t even have the heart to quiet her as I stare at the blade slicing through the yaoguai, which lets out a piercing shriek of its own before disintegrating into a puddle of black. The mercenary does not move from his prone position on the ground and Qiuhuo whimpers quietly behind me as what looks like dark blood mixes into the sand.

“Why. Doesn’t. It. Shatter!?” that same person screams in frustration, kicking at Qiuhuo’s thrown blade and sending it flying with dark sand and glinting shards. If it weren’t for the situation, the fall of those particles would have been a mesmerizingly beautiful sight. As it stands, however, I do not have time to enjoy the pseudo starfall. With that man’s reaction to Qiuhuo’s blade and the presence of those glinting shards, I quickly conclude that he must be the Metal Breaker, one of the two Users that Tiexin had mentioned during our ride to the capital. Still, my first goal is to free my comrades, and focusing my qi, I direct my flames to destroy the yaoguai surrounding Fuxin and the others.

“Pinpoint precision,” hisses a breathy voice that barely sounds human. “How boring. When you burn, you’re supposed to burn everything!”

Pillars of fire suddenly shoot up all around us, sending the remaining yaoguai and even the soldiers scattering across the sand and turning the night into high noon with its light. No pillars shoot up beneath our group or Ganzorig’s, although I sense Xiaolong’s earthen barrier weakening below us. I drop Qiuhuo to the ground to concentrate, struggling to rip control of the flames away from the other Fire User. Flames dance haphazardly around the sands as the others all engage in their respective battles.

The Metal Breaker charges through a sudden opening in the fire pillar, eyes intent on Qiuhuo. Jiedao steps in barely in time, and I see him swing his blade towards the Metal Breaker’s bare hand. For a brief moment, I think that maybe everything will work out, but the blade suddenly shatters much to Jiedao’s dismay and I hear the Metal Breaker’s roar of triumph. “All I need to do is be closer to it, idiot!”

“Don’t you dare look away,” the breathy voice hisses, and I jump back just as a blade slices by in front of my chest. I can feel the heat of the enchantment as it burns through the outer layer of what remains of my monk’s disguise. I quickly discard the ruined scrap of clothing and turn to face the Fire User. I try to shelve my worries and shut out the other battles as I focus on my own.

I am faced with a skinny, pale, and short man with such bad hygiene that even I, from the slums, have to briefly wonder what it will take to get this man clean again. Yaoguai crowd us, and with each breathy snigger from the Fire User, the pillars grow stronger, causing the yaoguai to scamper around and hiss at us like irritated spectators. Below us, I feel Xiaolong’s qi further solidifying the foundation beneath the sand in an attempt to stop the Fire User from bringing up more magma. I take a deep breath and feel the currents of flames all around me, letting my qi flow out freer than it has ever flowed before. Slowly, portion by portion, section by section, I nudge the flames little by little to do my bidding, destroying the easy-to-target yaoguai and leaving the soldiers to my competent comrades. All the while, I dodge, parry, feint, and counter the fire-enchanted physical attacks of the Fire User, who seems oblivious to what is happening with his flames. Once I become accustomed to the Fire User’s less-than-skilled attack patterns, dodging, parrying, feinting, and even countering become almost second nature so I take a brief glance around to take stock of the situation.

Sometime during the chaos, Zhang and Tiexin had mixed into the fighting. Tiexin is saying something to the Metal Breaker and Zhang, with Wei, An, and some man, is helping clear soldiers from Fuxin’s way so that he can keep the incoming stream of yaoguai at bay with his incantations. But if this is a war of attrition, we will surely lose, I think to myself as I dodge another clumsy attack from the Fire User. It would be all too easy to defeat the Fire User, but, whether he’s aware of it or not, I am borrowing his qi to help me control the yaoguai on the battlefield. He is not my main concern. Far from it. We need to do something about the Portal.

As if reading my mind, I see Qingyu sneaking away from the fighting and heading up towards the figure before the Portal – undoubtedly Pao. I can’t help but admire her stealth as I duck another fiery slash and direct more flames to eliminate a fresh stream of yaoguai pouring from the Portal. I watch her figure make her way around the battlefield and, as subtly as I can, I direct my flames in such a way to clear her a path for her.

“Stop running!” the Fire User wheezes. The flames closest to us flare up and I wince from a combination of the brightness and the heat. I lose sight of Qingyu in that moment, but it doesn’t matter. I am sure that she will find a way to stop Pao and close the Portal.

“I’m not running,” I reply back with a nonchalant shrug. “I’m just enjoying my little dance with you.”

The Fire User lets out a hideous hissing sound and his eyes glow brightly. Suddenly, though, a skull-rattling metallic scraping sound brings us both to our knees and some of the flames die down as we both groan. “What the-” he mutters, looking around disoriented.

“Tiexin?” I ask, ears ringing painfully. I look around and spot him panting amidst a shower of glittering dust. Across from him stands the other Metal Breaker, mouth agape in dumb surprise. Strewn all around him are swords and knives, obtained from Heaven knows where. I pat my spare blades reflexively as if to check that they’re still unbroken on me and they are.

“Look!” Jiedao, who is standing by Tiexin, suddenly cries out, pointing to the Portal and both the Fire User and I turn to look. We gasp at the sight of the Chengxiang’s throat, slit by Qingyu’s knife, blood still pouring out onto the sand as the man drops down to his knees. However, it’s the look on Qingyu’s face that startles me more than anything. She takes a step back from the kneeling man, almost into the glowing blue-grey Portal.

Behind her, a huge yaoguai materializes, and she whips around, just in time to block a heavy swing from its club-like arm, but it sends her crashing into the kneeling man. I summon flames to eliminate the yaoguai, but it is as if there is a force field around the area, dissipating my flames before they can reach the yaoguai. Qingyu tries to scramble to her feet, but to everyone’s surprise, she is suddenly thrown back down and looming over her is the man with his throat cut, blood still pouring out, although now onto Qingyu’s face and clothes.

“Chengxiang!” the Fire User calls out, astonishment clear in his wheezy voice. I don’t know if that man hears him as he moves his mouth, saying something to Qingyu, who is struggling frantically. I see Zhang and Ganzorig run towards them from different sides of the Portal only to be rejected from the area by an invisible field, probably the same one that rejected my flames. My mind is racing. I hear Xiaolong, undoubtedly also trying to penetrate that field, desperately crying out Qingyu’s name over and over. Fighting on the battlefield seems to halt as all, including the yaoguai, stare at the horrifying scene on display in front of the Portal.

Yaoguai after yaoguai, each larger and more grotesque than the last, appear from the Portal in rapid succession. They crowd the small area inside of the invisible field and nearly block from my sight Pao, who has begun to close his filthy hands around Qingyu’s neck. I close my eyes in despair. Heavens, what do I do?

Suddenly, someone – Zhang, I think – starts singing and my eyes snap open in shock. A few more voices join in, first tentatively, then a little louder, and soon, there is a small chorus of people singing something with vaguely familiar lyrics. Pao releases Qingyu and puts his hands up to his ears as if trying to drown out the song. The huge yaoguai are looking around dumbly and the yaoguai still left on the battlefield start screeching wildly and running amok. I glance at the dumbfounded Fire User and take the chance to fully seize control over all of the flames on the field, using them to blast away the remaining yaoguai before they can escape to the capital. Still, the song continues, and the soldiers all drop their weapons in confusion.

“Throw them into the Portal!” Ganzorig suddenly yells out.

How? I wonder, still pushing futilely at the invisible barrier with the flames. Frustrated, I draw out one of the blades Tiexin has enchanted for me and hurtle it towards the deranged man, adding an enchantment of my own as I do so. Fuxin, one of the singers, stops singing to chant something else, causing my blade to glow pearly white. A thin wall of earth rises along the flight path of the blade, pushing along before the blade. Twines crawl up the invisible barrier as if trying to break it open for the blade to pass through. I push with my flames to get through with brute force, hoping against hope that something will give.

“Sing! Everyone, sing!” Teeto urges, wandering among the soldiers and some of them, presumably recognizing Teeto as one of the capital’s favored merchants, hesitantly start singing.

Break, break, come on, something, please break, I pray silently.

And something does.

I don’t know when Qiuhuo made her way up to the front, but she is there, reaching out through the invisible barrier towards Pao. She picks up the abandoned relic from its discarded location behind Pao and suddenly, something breaks.

As if sensing that someone else has laid hands on the relic, Pao rears around with a bloody, inhuman snarl but it is at this exact moment that the blade flies through the temporarily weakened barrier and hits him in the face, knocking him back into the yaoguai. The barrier completely shatters and a huge block of earth immediately rises protectively around Qingyu. I trap the huge yaoguai and Pao with my flames as I watch Ganzorig, Zhang, and Teeto all rush up to Qiuhuo, each yelling something at the confused girl.

Teeto and Qiuhuo grip the relic tightly as Zhang runs over to check on Qingyu.

“Throw him in!” Ganzorig yells at me, readying an arrow which I vaguely recollect seeing him agitate over a couple of nights ago.

I breathe out slowly to lower the temperature of the flames a little and use them to gradually force the yaoguai and Pao back towards the Portal from which they came. Their roars are nearly deafening, but they don’t amount to anything as they cannot escape the circle of fire. Each time they try, the limb that touches the flames smolders and burns away to ashes.

“Wait!” a wheezy voice says and the Fire User attempts to grab at me only to fall over as he’s hit in the back of the neck. I look up to see Choejor, who nods at me in silent recognition.

“Xiaolong!” I call out.

“Yes!” he replies, and immediately mixes his earth into my flames, making them less lethal to the yaoguai.

“On three!” I call.

“One!”

“Two!”

“Three!” and we both shove the yaoguai and Pao into the Portal. Ganzorig lets fly his arrow, which disappears into the Portal after them. There then comes a blinding flash of light and a rush of wind from where Qiuhuo and Teeto stand, blowing everything – qi, sand, dust, shards – away.

It takes a long time for everything to settle and for me to be able to see again. When I can finally open my eyes, all that is left of the Portal is a tiny floating blue-grey orb with a white SEAL character written on it. I blink again and stare, as if I cannot quite believe my eyes. The world gradually brightens around me and the blue-grey orb blends into the background, invisible to all but those who would seek it out. I let out a long breath and sit heavily down, joining most everyone else on the ground. We, enemies fighting to the death only minutes ago, sit next to each other quietly, watching the rise of another sun.

» Next: Parting of Ways (Zhang bonus scene) or Epilogue (Zhang)

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