Chapter no 11

Heart of the Sun Warrior

The moon shimmered like a sea of silver, my mother having completed her task. Leaving the lanterns dark would have

been a beacon for trouble, arousing the soldiers’ suspicions.

As she emerged from the forest, walking toward Shuxiao

and me, thin trails of smoke drifted from the splint of wood in her grasp.

“Mother, are you ready?” I asked quietly.

She nodded, her eyes bright with tears, yet it was not

from fear or the impending loss of our home. For as long as I could remember, it had been her nightly ritual to wander the forest, weeping for my father—the only time she allowed her grief to unravel instead of knotting tight in her chest. As a child, I had been hurt by her seeming coldness when I interrupted her during those times, realizing only later it was because she did not want me to see her cry. The urge to confess my father’s existence gripped me, a hard secret to keep when it was what she longed for most—yet I stifled the words. The bond between my father and me was new

and untried, but I had given my word; I would respect his choice. And my mother had suffered enough from their

parting. I would not revive her hopes only to have them

crushed again. Not until I found a way to restore him. Not until I found that duplicitous, backstabbing Tao.

“Make sure the soldiers see you enter, then leave through the balcony with Ping’er,” I instructed her. “Clouds have

been summoned just beyond the forest. Shuxiao and I will meet you on the shores of the Southern Sea.”

“Come as quickly as you can,” my mother reminded me, her lips pursed as they did whenever she suspected I was up to no good.

But I no longer crumbled beneath her glare, the truth tumbling out in a stammer. “We will,” I replied steadily.

She left then, the Celestial soldiers by the entrance paying her no more than a cursory glance. Their eyes darted toward me instead, cautious and assessing, before shifting

away. My gaze lingered on the luminous walls of my home, its iridescent pillars—pressing each tile and stone into my mind, just as when I had left the first time. My chest ached with suppressed grief. How I would miss this place. Yet as long as we remained alive, so would the dream of returning

… no matter how frail it seemed right now.

The wind surged, the air quivering with a rush of immortal auras. Clouds veiled the once-clear night. I locked my hands together, cold yet slicked with sweat.

“They are coming, sooner than anticipated,” Shuxiao said in a low voice.

Something hardened within me. “Then we must go.”

Sensing the soldiers’ eyes upon us, we strode with

deliberate measure into the forest, only then breaking into a run, our feet sinking into the shining soil. We halted by the glittering laurel, its leaves clinking like pieces of silver. It was beautiful, yet in that moment I had never hated

anything more. If this tree did not exist, the emperor would never have set his sights on my home, and we would not have been forced to flee.

As I raised my hand, a breeze rippled from my fingertips. It wound through the osmanthus trees at the other end of

the forest, encircling them and rattling their branches. A

decoy, to draw the soldiers’ attention, allowing my mother and Ping’er to escape unhindered. As we sensed their auras rushing away, Shuxiao and I wove delicate threads of air

coated with translucent flame, braiding them into a snare around the laurel’s trunk—to be set off with a single touch.

A heaviness crashed against my consciousness like I had slammed my head against stone. I shuddered as the wards that Liwei and I had so painstakingly constructed were ripped apart like rice paper, the roaring in my mind fading to a deep stillness, the type that plunged ice down my spine.

Tremors rippled through the ground, soil scattering over our shoes. Shuxiao’s eyes rounded as she gestured ahead. Pale tendrils streaked the night like fingers clawing at the sky, the smoky bitterness of ash entwined with the sweetness of charred cinnamon. My home … it was afire.

Flickering flames devoured the once-white walls, gray smoke spiraling high. A writhing anguish took root within me, choked gasps wrung from my throat.

Shuxiao’s hand gripped my shoulder. “Grieve later.”

Steeling myself, I nodded, turning from the hellish sight. A flash of brightness splintered the dark as a bolt of light shot past me, striking Shuxiao’s ribs. She gasped, reeling back as I grabbed her arm—my turn to steady her—as she pressed a palm to her wound, her magic streaming forth to close it.

Grasping my energy, I wove a shield over us just as another wave of malevolent light plunged forward, crashing against our barrier.

An immortal appeared, clad in the Celestial armor of white and gold, wielding a great axe in his hand. His brown eyes

gleamed, his hair slicked into a glossy topknot. Wugang, without his soldiers—an opportunity I would not waste.

His lips tilted into a mocking smile. “Still here? You’re not as clever as I thought.”

“Alone?” I shot back. “You’re not as clever as you think.”

I drew my sword—not the bow, as its light would draw every Celestial from the skies. Yet he did not move to

defend himself, letting his axe blade rest upon the ground as he leaned upon its handle.

“Why do you hate us?” The question burst from me, one I had longed to ask before. “We did nothing to you.”

He shrugged. “My dear girl, I don’t hate you in the least.

Call it a misalignment of fates; you stand in the way of what I want.”

Rage seared me at his callousness, his indifference as

venomous as malice. My fingers tightened around the hilt of my sword. Make this quick, my mind urged, the part not incapacitated by terror, sickened by this needless

destruction of my home. What did it matter if he refused to fight?

I lunged at him, my weapon thrust out as he swung his axe high. Our blades collided in a shrill scrape, my wrist throbbing from the force. Shuxiao leapt up, slashing at

Wugang from the side, his body curving inward to evade the blow. Shoving his full weight against his axe, he flung me off, a bright flare of his magic streaking toward us. At once I pushed Shuxiao to safety, spinning aside to avoid his attack.

Wugang raised his palms, alight with power, a shield gliding over him. “I was right to doubt your loyalties,


“You did nothing to earn them,” Shuxiao retorted. “Disloyal. Disobedient. Untalented. It’s time to purge the

Celestial Army of such worthless recruits.”

Anger throbbed as I swung at him again. Shuxiao’s sword flew beside mine, swift and ruthless—yet Wugang moved with startling deftness. He dodged Shuxiao’s next blow, spinning around to slam his foot into her gut. She went sprawling but scrambled up at once, flinging a bolt of ice into his shoulder. As Wugang staggered back with a gasp, I dove forward, driving my sword into his chest. The metal tip ground against the scales of his armor, yet his shield held

fast. Grasping the hilt of my sword with both hands, I threw all my force against it, magic sliding from my palms to sheathe the blade. Wugang’s shield fractured, my sword sinking deeper to penetrate his flesh—

A cry jolted me, ringing between my ears. My mother’s

voice. Why was she still here? As I froze, Wugang shoved my sword aside, springing out of reach. I started after him at

once, but Celestial soldiers spilled from the trees like rivers of gold. My heart sank as Feimao dragged my mother forward, while another soldier built like an ox held Ping’er fast.

“They found us,” my mother whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Drop your weapons,” Wugang commanded, a slick smile upon his face—when barely a moment earlier, my sword had been pressed to his chest. “Any foolishness on your

part, and your mother will pay the price.”

Feimao shoved the edge of his blade to the back of my mother’s neck. One upward thrust, and it would sever the

core of her lifeforce. I searched his face, hoping for a flash of doubt, a sign of assurance—yet his expression remained


Fury burned within me, enmeshed with the ice of fear. The temptation surged to unleash a gale upon them, sweeping Wugang to the ground … yet I forced myself to release my

power, letting my sword fall from my grasp. How I hated this feeling of helplessness; these binds of futility.

Wugang inclined his head to my mother with unexpected courtesy, as though he were the genial Master Gang once more. “Chang’e. It saddens me to repay your hospitality in this manner.”

“You could release us and spare yourself the grief,” I bit out.

“That is out of my hands.” His voice was tinged with regret.

My mother glared at him. “What do you want with us?”

“You should not have attempted to defy His Celestial

Majesty’s orders. You were commanded to remain here to await his justice. Disregarding his edict is a grave offense,

as is attacking the emperor’s chosen general,” Wugang said solemnly.

“Justice?” I repeated with scorn. “Should we have waited here to be imprisoned?”

“It is not I who passes judgment,” he replied. “I am but a servant to His Celestial Majesty.”

“False pride does not suit you.” I jerked my head toward the laurel. “You told the emperor of this place. You turned his gaze here and poisoned him against us.”

He did not deny my claims, addressing my mother instead. “Those who rebel will face worse punishment. Rest assured that I will beseech the emperor for clemency on

your behalf. However, your daughter possesses a rebellious streak that must be quelled.”

“I need no favors from you,” my mother said in glacial tones. “Especially those that will harm my kin.”

Wugang spread his hands wide. “Come, Chang’e. Let us not be at odds. There are not many of us in existence— mortals who ascended to the skies. Who else might we trust if not each other?”

A strange note rang in his voice: Cajoling. Almost hopeful. I did not think it was lust; he did not look at my mother with desire. Did he feel a connection with her because of her mortal heritage? Was he lonely? After all, he had little

reason to think well of immortals, his sole company in all these centuries. And everyone he had cared for in the world below had died.

“Trust?” My mother’s chin tilted up. “When you attacked my family, lied to us, and seized our home?”

He stiffened, his fingers tightening around the bamboo handle in his grip. Was this the same axe he had stolen from the immortal? The one stained with his wife’s blood?

“Why do you use the flute for the handle?” While my

question stemmed from curiosity and the urge to divert his attention from my mother, I wanted to glean some insight into his mind. The surest way to defeat an enemy was to learn how they moved, their innermost thoughts and fears.

“It was a gift from someone unworthy. A reminder to never place my trust in another again.” Bitterness thickened his

voice, along with something else—a tinge of regret?

“You said your wife liked to hear you play. She gave you the flute … and you killed her with it,” I said slowly, my stomach roiling with revulsion.

Wugang’s lips pulled into a taut smile. “You seem curious about my weapon.”

“I heard you spent a long time chopping a tree with it.” I spoke with deliberate insult, trying to goad him into rashness.

“How would someone like you hear of such things?” “The tales are told far and wide, sung in the mortal

teahouses even,” I lied. “How they must pity you.” “They would not dare!” His face twisted before it

smoothed over, a mask slipping back into place. “Do you know, the mortals tell their own stories of the Moon Goddess? How she stole the elixir won by the noble Houyi, out of selfish desire to become a goddess. Some said she broke her pact with him to share the elixir, taking it all for herself. The entire one grants immortality, yet half of it would have bestowed them a long life beyond the mortal span. I would not have imagined such a ruthless heart to beat beneath this gentle exterior. How I applaud your

choice, to disdain love.” His smile was sharp with malice. Repayment tenfold for her hostility.

“You know nothing of me, nothing of love.” My mother’s voice was hard and cold. I had never seen this side of her before, radiating ice and snow—the goddess the mortals knelt to worship.

“Love is worthless,” Wugang sneered. “Fleeting, inconstant, and shifting like the wind. All it yields is sorrow in the end, whether through indifference, betrayal, or spite. Those truly powerful have no need for love—a weakness, as it brought you all down today.”

His taunt seared. “Perhaps you’ve never truly been loved. Perhaps you’ve never really loved another.” A low blow as I wielded his pain as a weapon.

He laughed, though there was no joy in it. “What is love to eternal life?”

“Is that why you serve the Celestial Emperor even after he treated you so?” A part of me still hoped to sway him from the emperor’s side. To make him question his allegiance.

“Those of you who are born immortal take death for

granted. You can’t comprehend the dread of an inevitable

end, whether emperor or slave. That’s why your mother was banished instead of lauded, until you—her conniving offspring—tricked His Celestial Majesty into making a bad

bargain. You were fortunate not to have died that day, a mistake that will be thoroughly remedied this time.”

“Not by you.” I fought for calm. Oh, he was skilled at deflecting my attacks, turning them upon me instead.

“His Celestial Majesty has been most generous to me.

Immortality is the greatest honor any mortal could wish for. Worth any price, any insult, any betrayal—is it not,

Chang’e?” His lips twisted into a cruel smirk.

An urge gripped me to lunge at Wugang, to attack him with my fists if need be. But my mother’s face contorted with fury as she rammed her elbow into Feimao’s gut. He released her, stumbling back—though he was a seasoned

soldier and should not have been so easily overcome. As his eyes met mine, a flash of knowing in them, I dipped my head in silent thanks.

As Shuxiao and I rushed toward my mother, a soldier leapt into our path. Another swung her spear at my mother, slashing her arm. A deep gash split her skin, crimson blood

oozing from it. My scream erupted just as Wugang shouted a furious reprimand. At once, the soldier lowered her weapon, seizing my mother’s arm. As she struggled, more blood spilled from her cut, scattering over the laurel’s undulating roots. A drawn-out sigh rustled from the tree,

wistful and filled with longing—if such a thing were possible. The tree quivered, flinging its branches wide like a fan, its seeds showering upon the ground like rain.

I sucked in a ragged breath as I stared at them, nestled in the grass like luminous pearls of ice. Hundreds. Thousands, perhaps, yet countless more clung to the branches.

“Bind them,” Wugang barked at his soldiers, his eyes alight with sudden avarice.

Before I could move, glowing coils shot out from the Celestials’ palms, snaring my mother, Shuxiao, and me.

They seared against my skin, biting deeper as I writhed

against them, welts forming across my wrists. Fighting for

calm, I channeled a burst of energy to break the restraints— yet more ropes whipped out, twining around my arms and legs.

My mother kicked out hard. Her head flew back, slamming into a soldier’s face. He swore but did not loosen his hold. I wrestled with the shimmering cords, a task made harder through my swelling panic. Sparks flared from Wugang’s hand, scattering over my mother. Her limbs went slack as her eyes rolled back, her body crumpling onto the ground, where her skirts pooled like water.

Terror jolted me at the sight of her so lifeless and limp.

She’s alive, my mind cried, trying to rouse me from my stupor. She breathes; her aura shines.

Wugang crouched down beside her, his fingers clenching harder around his axe. As he raised it above her, fear shot through my veins, magic flaring from my skin, dissolving the cords that bound me. Rolling to my feet, I rushed toward Wugang—just as Ping’er threw herself forward, covering my mother’s body with her own. Wugang cursed, flinging a

blazing bolt at Ping’er’s head—the force of his blow hurling her against a tree, osmanthus petals cascading over her like a shroud.


My scream shattered the silence. I raced to Ping’er’s side, wrapping my arms around her, her body spasming in a

broken rhythm like a puppet wielded by a novice. A warm wetness spilled over my palms, her blood streaming from the wound at the base of her head. At once I channeled my energy into it, sealing it as well as I could, though a thin trail of blood still trickled forth, her aura shuddering uncertainly.

My mother stirred then, blinking wildly as she pushed herself up. As her head swung toward us, the color drained from her face. “Ping’er! What happened?”

I could not speak, raising my hate-filled glare to Wugang. He showed no remorse, gesturing impatiently to the guards who closed around us. Rage spiraled unbound, loosening something deep inside me as I grasped my magic—a gale surging from my palms, crashing into the nearest soldiers. More rushed forward, but my caution had disintegrated,

violence burning unquenched within. I whipped my bow free, releasing a bolt of Sky-fire at Wugang—even as his shield flared between us, my arrow fracturing into shining shards.

Wugang thrust his hand out, streaks of blazing light lashing forth. I ducked low, his attack searing the emptiness above me, crackling with malevolent heat. As I swung back up, Wugang was already moving toward me, the shadow of the laurel falling over his face.

An idea struck. “Run, Shuxiao! Take them with you,” I called to her, slanting my head at the laurel.

She nodded once, spinning to my mother, who lay

crouched over Ping’er. As Shuxiao pulled her away, casting a breeze to bear Ping’er along—I drew the cord of my bow, a

bolt of Sky-fire blazing between my fingers. Wugang’s

expression tensed as his shield shimmered brighter, bracing

for my attack—yet I aimed at the laurel instead, letting the arrow fly.

White light hurtled into the tree, coiling around its trunk like glowing chains—scorching the pale bark, hissing with smoke … yet the marks were already fading, the golden sap spilling across the wood once more.

As Wugang’s lips stretched wide, my pulse quickened in anticipation. He thought he had the upper hand, that he alone knew nothing could destroy the laurel. He was mistaken; that was not our intent. As I bolted after the

others, a sharp snap ruptured the stillness—the snare triggered. Waves of translucent fire cascaded down, showering those beneath in a torrent of agony. Celestials screamed, casting gleaming shields that arced over them— as Wugang raced to safety, his instinct for survival ever


As I ran, the air stirred, pulsing with power. Streaks of flame and ice shot past, narrowly missing me. Breathing heavily, I grasped my energy to weave a shield—yet one glided over me, its powerful energy cool and familiar.

Unwelcome, even as a small part of me was undeniably relieved.

Wenzhi stalked from the trees ahead, his black robes swirling, his eyes churning like the storm-lashed sea. With a flick of his wrist, spears of ice plunged toward my attackers. As they struck their mark, cries broke out behind me, some falling to the ground.

Clouds descended from the sky, the Celestials running toward them—if mounted, they would catch us. Stumbling to a halt, I channeled my energy into a fierce wind that swept around the soldiers, halting their advance. Beside me, Wenzhi’s magic flowed, summoning a blizzard of hail, the jagged shards riding upon my gale, striking down those in

pursuit. We moved as seamlessly as we used to, when we had fought together in the Celestial Army—when I had

believed him honorable and trusted him with my life.

“The traitorous Captain Wenzhi,” Wugang called out in a gloating lilt from where he stood, a distance away. “No surprise, that you’d keep such treasonous company. The

emperor will be most pleased at this proof of your treachery. Those who consort with the Demon Realm are our enemies too.”

“Better a Demon in name than one by nature. Striking the innocent, preying on the weak.” I did not deny his false

accusations; it would do no good.

“Those who get in my way only have themselves to

blame,” Wugang taunted. “A lesson you would do well to remember, as should your unfortunate attendant.”

A vicious darkness engulfed me, seething with hate.

Perhaps this beast existed in us all, roused once we were

driven to its depths. One thought blazed clear, that Wugang would pay for what he had done. As I grasped my magic, stalking toward him—Wenzhi caught my arm, his fingers searing like frost.

“Let’s go,” he commanded, in the voice that countless soldiers had obeyed unquestioningly.

“No. He hurt Ping’er,” I bit out.

“And he will hurt you. He wants you to retaliate; it’s a trap.” Wenzhi nodded toward the Celestials who were

already stumbling to their feet. Too many for us to fight.

Swallowing my rage, I wrenched free of his hold, racing

away from the soldiers until my calves burned. Wenzhi kept pace beside me as we barreled through the trees, ducking beneath the low-hanging branches. Outside the forest, my

mother and Shuxiao were waiting upon a cloud, Ping’er lying beside them. As Wenzhi and I leapt upon it, Shuxiao cast a swift wind to bear us along. A dark mist flowed from

Wenzhi’s palms, thickening as it closed behind us, concealing our path.

A low groan broke from Ping’er’s throat. I fell to my knees beside her, clasping her hand, so ashen and cold. More

blood leaked from the wound at the base of her skull, my throat tightening at the sight of the torn flesh.

Closing my eyes, I released my power into her, just as

Liwei had done for me before—letting it surge unbound, not halting even when a weariness sank into my limbs, darkness toying at the edge of my consciousness. She could not die; I would not let her. But there was no echoing warmth, the lights fading from her blood until it grew mortal-dull. I

gathered more of my magic, hurling it into her—again and again—even as something pierced my daze, the sound of my name repeated in an endless refrain, each time more urgent than the last.

“Xingyin, stop! Don’t drain yourself.” Wenzhi’s voice rang out. Had he been calling me all this time?

“I can’t let her die.” Such anguish wracked me that I would fail, that there was nothing I could do to save her. Wenzhi’s hand clasped mine, and I had not the strength to tear myself away—numbed from exhaustion, from the

agony that burrowed a hole through my chest.

“Let me try.” He released me to press his fingers to her brow. His eyes narrowed, as a bleakness settled over his face. “The wound is fatal; her lifeforce is destroyed. No matter how much of your energy you give her, it is hopeless.”

He spoke gently, yet each word hit me like a blow. As my mother’s sobs stabbed my ears, I took Ping’er’s hand again, refusing to yield.

Her eyes opened wide, startlingly bright like they were lit by some inner fire. Her chest convulsed, her lips parting, a labored breath slipping out. I leaned closer, placing my ear just above her mouth.

“Little Star, no more. I am tired.”

Fear was a dagger plunged deep through my heart, and twisted once to tear it anew. A hopeless wish wound through my mind: That this was not real, that I had not failed her, that she was not dying.

She reached for my mother with a shaking hand.

“Mistress, it was my greatest honor to have served you. My honor and my joy.”

My mother clasped Ping’er, tears sliding down her pale cheeks. “The honor was mine, my dearest friend.”

Ping’er’s mouth worked as though she had more to say, though not the strength to voice it. She squinted like she

could not see, darkness beginning to cloak her vision. As her grip tightened around mine, I squeezed back with all the love in my heart … but then she broke free to fumble at her neck, unlatching something that she pressed into my palm— the pearl I had seen once before. It had been warm then,

yet was now glazed with a wintry chill.

“The daughter I never had. The light of my days.” Her words rang clear, a radiant smile upon her face. “Would you bring me home?”

I nodded violently, eager to do anything to lighten her

cares. Hope burst in me at this show of strength, dissipating abruptly when she fell back down, as though she had struggled against the shackles of her broken body and could fight no more.

“The sea,” she rasped. “It is beautiful there.” Her body shuddered, eyelids fluttering in a frantic rhythm before going still.

Soft cries punctured the silence, those of my mother’s, as I stifled the screams that surged up my throat. I crumpled

over Ping’er, clasping her tight—as she had held and rocked me in her arms when I was small enough to fit in them. But she was no more, forever gone … taking along with her a

part of me.

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