Leaving the monks at the temple, Zhang donned his arms and set off again. Again he marched at a man-killing pace, consuming qi to keep himself going. But this time, every so often, he paused to massage his callused feet and check for injuries. He hadn’t healed completely from his last march, and if he pushed himself too hard he could fracture the long bones of his feet. During mealtimes, he stopped completely, making simple meals of boiled rice porridge, salted pork and nearby fruits. Even Shenwujun had their limits.
A full day and night of marching later, he arrived at Wangzheng Valley well after sunrise. After a brief stop for water, he pressed on, making for Fu Hill at top speed.
He had expected a heavily fortified camp, a makeshift village, some sign that someone was living nearby. All he saw were trees, rocks and a sluggish stream. Extending his qi sense he found...two beings. Just two.
Zhang donned his armor and ascended the hill, carefully picking his way around the isolated trees. He took cover behind a fallen boulder and saw the beings he had detected. A pair of wangliang, with shield and spear, standing guard at the entrance to a cave.
He descended the hill, out of their line of sight, then circled around to the right. He drew his crossbow, then climbed up the hill again, approaching the guards from their blind side.
Twenty-five paces away, Zhang aimed.
“Hands up!” he ordered.
The wangliang spun around. The one in the lead hesitated. The one behind uttered something, raised its shield and charged. Its buddy followed.
Zhang lowered his crossbow and pointed.
Two needles of white fire shot from his outstretched finger, blasting through shields and skulls. The wangliang toppled and rolled downhill.
Zhang sighed, stowed the crossbow, and entered the cave. The opening was a tight fit, with barely enough room to extend his arms. The passageway twisted and turned, sometimes narrowing, sometimes expanding. There were niches cut into the walls at regular intervals, each holding lit candles. Mounds of dried wax had accumulated in the little holes; the passage had been used regularly. The wax appeared relatively fresh, without the discoloration of age.
Deeper into the tunnel, he heard voices. He strained his ears. They were speaking in the wangliang tongue.
The tunnel expanded into a great cavern. The bare rock gave way to a staircase. He hid behind a stalagmite and scanned.
Here was the encampment. Conversations in strange tongues bounced off the walls. Crates were stacked high in a corner. There were no guards, no armed men, no men.
The inhabitants were all wangliang. Adults poured wild vegetables into stewpots, butchered meat or tended to other domestic tasks. Small children played games in small groups, while older ones assisted with chores. Sunlight shone down from a hole at the far end of the cavern—it had to be the exit, leading into Union lands.
He stared, transfixed. This was the first time he had seen young wangliang.
But why? Why did they bring their young here? They’d only ever sent soldiers and invaders. Why would they...?
A wangliang shrieked.
He looked down. A child ran away, pointing at him and yelling. Other children took up the cry, running for their parents. The adults scrambled, abandoning their tasks.
Zhang raced down the staircase, drawing his crossbow.
“Hong Er! Burn them down!”
Her voice rang like a bell, stopping him in his tracks.
“What?” he whispered.
No. I will not.
He aimed. The adults pushed the children away. Others formed a wall of flesh, advancing towards him.
“Come on, they are getting closer! Kill them!”
Electricity roared through him. Lava boiled in his flesh, steam in his lungs. He screamed, releasing his weapon. His nerves afire, his muscles twitched and trembled and shook.
“What are you doing?!” he demanded.
A stream of liquid fire erupted from his chest, pouring out into the world. The flames congealed into a phoenix, every feather burning bright. She beheld him with cold sapphires for eyes.
“No,” Hong Er said. “I will not burn them.”
Zhang squinted, his eyes watering just to look at her.
She gestured with a wing. “Look.”
Coughing, he looked.
The adult wangliang stopped in their tracks. None of them dared to come closer. In their hands they held butcher knives, poles, anything that came to hand, nothing that qualified as a real weapon. Past them, he saw the children peeking out from around their adults.
“Are they attacking you?” she asked.
“No,” he said.
“Then I see no cause to harm them.”
He almost agreed. Then he realized why they were unarmed. Why there were children among them.
“They are invaders. Colonists! They must be. Their soldiers came ahead of them to pave the way for the settlers to seize our lands and—”
“I do not care about mortal politics.”
“You saw what they did at the temple! Over the years we’ve worked together, you’ve seen what the wangliang did!”
“Yes. Those wangliang have committed many unspeakable crimes, crimes which we have punished. But is the entire race guilty? What crime have these wangliang committed? They may be in your land, but they have done nothing that merits death.”
“Do you not understand? They came here to settle down. To breed. Left unchecked, their children and their grandchildren will overrun—”
Hong Er screeched. The raw sound bowled everyone over, human and wangliang. She stepped in front of the wangliang and spread her wings protectively.
“Listen to yourself!” the phoenix said. “What kind of monster speaks like that?”
“I thought you were the Destroyer of Evil.”
“Yes. Behind me are beings who are fearful of an intruder in their midst. Before me is a man who wishes to kill them all merely for being wangliang in his land. Who is the evil one?”
Zhang forced in a deep breath. Let it out, taking the pain with it. He continued breathing until his mind cleared and the pain faded.
“Even you can understand the long-term security implications of letting them stay,” Zhang said.
“You need not slay everyone who trespasses against you. Even you can understand the concept of proportional punishment.”
Zhang licked his lips and got to his feet. Raising his voice, he said, “Wangliang! Who amongst you speaks this language?”
An elderly male stepped forward. “I do.”
“Who are you?”
“I am the chief of my people. My name is Batarya.”
“Why are you here?”
“It is as you said. Our Emperor ordered us to settle in your lands and conquer your nation with numbers. We are to be the first of many clans to come.”
“How did you learn to speak my language so well?”
Batarya spread his palms and raised his eyebrows. “Many humans cross the border to trade with us. They taught us your language and customs. I hear it is illegal for your people to do so, but such is life. We also trade with our human neighbors inside the Union, and their language is not so different from yours.”
“You do not deny that you are here to conquer my country?”
“We had no choice. We would like nothing more than to roam the steppes of our ancestors, but the Army rounded us up and forced us to come here.”
“Did you know what your soldiers did?”
“No. They kept us here for the past ten days, letting us leave only to forage or to hunt for food. They did not reveal their plans to us, only that we stay here until ordered to move.”
“Where are the soldiers now?”
“Half of them left five days ago, I know not where. The rest...”
“When we came here, a group of humans helped us settle in. They called themselves the Tiandi Lianhe Association. They used to stay here with us, teaching us about the land. Yesterday, they had a long discussion with the soldiers, away from my people. Then they packed the soldiers into those crates and carried them off. They told us nothing, only that we should stay here until they came for us.”
Batarya gestured at the crates lining the walls. They were all marked with the words ‘Lianzhang Tea Factory’ and ‘Sujiang’. They were so large, a wangliang could sit comfortably inside one.
“Was there a man among them who calls himself Mojian Han? Tall, thin man, long mustache, carries a black jian?”
“Yes. He was the leader of the humans who visited us, and he left with the rest of his men.”
Zhang clenched his fists. Han was still one step ahead. He had to keep moving.
After he dealt with the wangliang.
“The Tiandi Lianhe Association are rebels,” Zhang said. “They rob, rape and attack my people, and aim to overthrow my Emperor. By our laws, anyone who assists the rebels are guilty of making war on the state. The penalty is death.”
Batarya fell to his knees, touching his head to the ground.
“Your Excellency, I am the leader of my people. Their fault is mine. Take my life if you wish, but spare the women and children. They have nothing to do with this scheme.”
Zhang looked at Batarya. Looked at Hong Er. Looked at Batarya again.
“Well?” Hong Er asked. “Make your decision, Shenwujun.”
Batarya looked up, dumbfounded.
“Get up,” Zhang repeated.
The wangliang stood. Zhang pointed at the exit.
“Gather your people. Pack your things. Return to your homeland and never come back.”
Batarya bowed. “Thank you. We will remember your mercy.”
The wangliang dispersed. Zhang allowed them to take some of the empty crates to keep their belongings. Man and phoenix watched them from afar, staying until the last of them departed. When they were alone, Zhang bowed to Hong Er.
“I am sorry,” Zhang said.
“You are human. Humans always make mistakes. At least you learned from this one.”
“Thank you for your guidance.”
She chuffed. “Enough of that. We have one more battle to fight.”
“Can I still rely on you?”
Outside the cave, Zhang reported the situation to Cao.
“And you just let them go?” Cao said.
“Hong Er was...insistent.”
Cao sighed. “Well, who are we to defy a celestial spirit?”
“Indeed. We have a more pressing situation than a group of wangliang settlers.”
“Yes. It sounds like the Tiandi Lianhe Association is going to infiltrate wangliang soldiers into Sujiang, and capture it from the inside out. This may be their major assault.”
“My thoughts too. Captain, can you help?”
“I would if I could. The Xianzhang of Shanxia district said wangliang are invading his lands. The outlying villages have been plundered and burned. We’ve been ordered to assist the regular Army. Even if we leave now, it will take us three days to march to Sujiang.
“What I can do is to place the Suchen Temple detachment under your command. Link up with them outside Sujiang, then do what you must. The situation is not ideal, but...”
“I will come as soon as I can,” Cao promised. “Just do what you can until then.”
Zhang set off again. His feet protested, his calves ached, his knees throbbed. But there was no time to lose. He could not stop. He gulped down qi and water in huge amounts, maintaining his strength as best as could, healing his abused body even as he broke it down. As he moved, he called Sergeant Ouyang, coordinating their movements.
He walked through the day and into the night, pausing only once to gather wild berries. He ate them for dinner with the last of his dried pork. For the rest of his journey he sustained himself on small mouthfuls of water, going through two full calabashes.
As morning came, he looked in the direction of Sujiang, and saw pillars of smoke.
He was too late.