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Chapter no 22

Heart of the Sun Warrior

Kneel before your emperor, and I might be inclined to mercy,” Wugang commanded.

My eyes flared in disbelief, taking in his pearl-encrusted headpiece, the gold dragon-shaped hairpin pinning it into place. The way the soldiers behind him bent their heads in complete subservience.

Emperor?” Liwei repeated wrathfully. “You dare much, you fraud.”

Wugang’s smile was riddled with malice. His slender fingers lifted a yellow jade ornament by his waist, so brilliant it appeared gilded over, carved with a pair of dragons

encircling the sun. Only one person carried that seal; it was death for another to take it.

“How did you get my father’s seal?” Liwei’s tone sank with dread. “What did you do to him?”

A long pause, a measured cruelty. “He’s alive, for now.

He’s still of use to me, as is his court. We must retain some semblance of order. However, the guards and attendants who remained loyal to him, who attempted to fight back, did not fare so well.” Wugang shrugged. “Fortunately, their

deaths sufficed to convince those more reluctant to concede.”

My stomach churned until I thought I would be sick. He spoke of killing so easily, just as he had taken Ping’er’s life with no more hesitation than crumpling a sheet of paper.

While I could not honestly claim to bear any respect or affection for the Celestial Emperor, those who hurt Liwei,

hurt me too. What of General Jianyun and Teacher Daoming? I assured myself they would be safe; they were high-ranking members of the court, valuable hostages. While Minyi would be safe in the kitchens. I dared not ask after them, I dared not show I cared, for he would use that against me.

How had this happened? My mind spun, the pieces falling into place: Queen Suihe’s strange words earlier, Wugang’s efforts to malign Liwei, to isolate the Celestial Emperor from his other advisors, assuming control over the Celestial Army.

I had thought he was maneuvering himself to become the emperor’s sole confidant, his chosen heir—not to usurp the throne from the Celestial Emperor whose position had

always seemed unassailable. Wugang’s carefully cultivated loyalty had blinded all to his true intent. He had

orchestrated everything, not on the emperor’s behalf, but for himself—to seize my home and the laurel … along with the power it could bestow.

Wugang had never forgiven the Celestial Emperor and the immortals for the humiliation wreaked upon him. He had waited all this time to exact his vengeance, just as he had

done with his wife and her lover. And while I could understand his pain, while I cared little for the Celestial Court—Wugang had drawn those closest to me into the vicious web of his schemes, destroying our lives with the same callousness as the immortals had ruined his.

“You are nothing but a fraud, a vile traitor, and coward.” Liwei was almost shaking from anger. “My father trusted you, he gave you everything, and this is how you repay him?”

“He trusted me because I did his bidding without

complaint. His loyal servant. He gave me all I have here

because he had taken everything else, forcing me from the Mortal Realm to this accursed place. I will never forget how he tormented me when I was at his mercy, and I have long awaited the day to repay him in full.”

“He honored you beyond any mortal,” Liwei said. “By making me immortal?” A laugh erupted from

Wugang’s throat. “Such arrogance among your kind. Not everyone wants to live forever. I was content with my lot:

my wife, family, and work—insignificant though it may seem to you. I had everything, until it was snatched away by one of your kind. Ruining our lives upon a whim, a moment’s lust. My wife was just a diversion to him, but the damage wrought was eternal—turning my loving spouse into a

despicable cheat, all my dreams into nightmares.”

His breathing came shallow and uneven. “I lost interest in everything. Consumed by despair, I even thought of ending my life. Except why should I suffer for their crimes? If I no longer cared whether I lived or died, what did it matter if I

challenged the gods themselves? I could avenge myself for this dishonor, make them pay. That would make life worth living. It was the finest moment of my life to sever his immortal head from his neck. Me, an unworthy mortal.” His fingers clenched around his flute as though he was reliving the past. “You think immortality is a gift? When you care for nothing, it’s a curse.”

I hardened myself against the anguish in his words. “What of those who’ve suffered at your hands? Ping’er never harmed you, and still you killed her. You are no better than those you condemn.”

Almost trembling, I whipped my bow free, drawing its string, an arrow blazing in my grasp. Soldiers surged forth to encircle Wugang—dozens of them, over a hundred or more. Despite their pallor, their steady bearing betrayed neither fear nor doubt. I squinted to get a clearer look at them,

trying to make out their faces beneath their helmets—yet the light glittered too bright against their armor, it seemed to dance upon their very skin. If I released my arrow, if they attacked us, could we flee?

“I would not.” Wugang spoke in the knowing tone of a teacher instructing a pupil, a powerful shield gleaming across his body.

Two soldiers dragged an immortal forward. Her headdress sat crooked on her head, her robe ripped on one side and streaked with dark stains. The Celestial Empress. Shock jolted me, as Liwei drew a ragged breath. As she struggled, her gold nail sheaths raked her captors—but they neither flinched nor cried out, despite the poison in those talons.

“Mother!” Liwei bolted forward, but I moved in front of him, my arrow still drawn.

“No,” I cautioned. “It’s a trap.”

“If it’s a hostage you want, I will take her place,” Liwei called out.

I swallowed my protest, keeping my arrow trained upon the soldiers. Their eyes did not follow it; not a flicker of

apprehension did they show.

“A noble son.” Wugang laughed. “I am tempted by your offer. It would ensure that she behaves herself too.” The look he shot at me was steeped in malevolence.

“Liwei, stay where you are,” the empress commanded sharply. “I am unhurt.”

“Why is my mother here?” Liwei demanded.

“She was caught trying to flee to the Phoenix Kingdom. We couldn’t have her whispering into Queen Fengjin’s ear, mustering their army in her support.” Wugang’s eyes shone like cold bronze. “It was a great favor you did me, when you refused the suit of their princess. It opened a rift I was able to exploit—between the kingdoms, within your family itself.”

I fought back a flash of guilt. Liwei did not love Princess Fengmei, and nothing I did would change that. Wugang wanted to divide us further, to sow discord, to make us

vulnerable to his manipulation. It was his greatest skill. I stared at the Celestial Empress, trapped among the soldiers. While I had little desire to rescue her, Liwei would not leave her and I would not leave him.

“My messenger informed me that you were Queen Suihe’s guests. She will learn to choose her company with greater

care.” Menace crawled in Wugang’s tone, his shift in mood sudden and unsettling. “The queen is fortunate if we do not punish her for harboring you.”

“Queen Suihe was ignorant of our situation.” I bore her little gratitude, but it was the truth.

“Her Majesty is not easily duped. You’ve grown more adept than when you were a loudmouthed girl, making crude demands of the emperor before his court.”

“As I recall you to be a devious, pandering snake.” Bold words, despite the fear that slashed me.

The tightening of his jaw yielded a burst of satisfaction,

even as I knew I would pay for my insults. He was not one to forget a slight.

His gaze slid around us. “I thank you for escaping. It saved me the tedious effort of retrieving you.”

“How did you know we would be on the beach and not below?” Shuxiao asked.

“You must be careful in whom you place your trust.” Wugang’s mouth curled as he called out, “My thanks, Your Highness, for your counsel. You have proven yourself of use.”

The soldiers parted to reveal Prince Yanxi, clasping Prince Yanming’s hand tightly. Treachery, my mind whispered, the walls of my stomach clenching. Yet Prince Yanxi need not have aided me before. And the expression on his brother’s face, the terror glazed in his wide eyes—I had seen it once in the Eastern Sea, when we had fled from the invading merfolk. Reaching out, Wugang yanked Prince Yanming from his brother’s grasp, clamping his palms upon his small shoulders. Prince Yanxi’s face twisted, frantic with fear.

They were hostages, not allies.

With a wrench, I lowered my bow. I dared not do anything that might endanger them. Ping’er’s death had taught me the meaning of loss.

A cloud drifted before the sun, granting a moment’s

respite from its glare. I examined the soldiers—the gilded scales of their armor so familiar to me, except for the helmets which obscured their faces. And yet … Celestial soldiers they were not. Their skin was not just pale but a translucent mottled white, like patches of ice half-thawed. Their features were indistinct, shifting shadows—faint imprints that quivered like reflections on the water.

Luminous veins streaked from their necks, across their

cheeks and temples, disappearing into their helmets. Two hollows were dug below their brows, from which gleamed pale orbs ringed by an intense glow. Eyes, I had thought them, yet they bore no sign of sight or thought—vacant, unblinking, terrifying. Most disconcerting was the energy that emanated from them, which I only grew aware of now, overlooked in the earlier turmoil. While each immortal’s

aura was as different as the waves in the sea, those of the soldiers were identical, like bricks cast from the same mold.

My gaze fell upon a jade disc set into the scales of their armor, right where their hearts should be—if such a thing beat in their chests. A single character was carved upon it:

. Eternity. One of the first words my mother had taught me to write. The greatest mortal dream, though a nightmare for Wugang.

He tucked the flute into his sash. It had been a monstrous axe the last time I saw it, and it gave me little comfort that he no longer deemed a weapon necessary. Gone were those gloves he used to wear to cover his scars. Maybe he no longer feared the scorn of others.

He gestured at his soldiers. “Are they not beautiful? The perfect army: Strong. Loyal. Obedient.”

What are they?” The answer darted at the edge of my mind.

“Look closer. Don’t you recognize any?” His tone lifted in invitation, his triumph barely contained.

I searched their faces—strangers, all of them. What did Wugang mean? Just then my gaze fell upon one in the

crowd, a faint recognition grazing my awareness—of a soldier who had accompanied Liwei and me to the Eternal

Spring Forest. Ten had gone, none returned. No … this could not be him, despite that elusive prickle of familiarity. There was not the faintest glimmer of consciousness in his face,

caught somewhere between the living and the dead. “How dare you.” Liwei’s voice cracked with revulsion.

“Fallen Celestials are laid to rest in the Divine Harmony Sky, a place of peace for their immortal spirits to rest. Only then can they achieve true tranquility, to become one with our realm.”

“It is believed to be a curse to disturb the slumber of the dead, to desecrate the sanctity of this place.” Wenzhi’s eyes narrowed in disgust.

“Those already cursed have no fear of such things,” I said slowly. Wugang’s heart was barren. Because he cared for nothing, he feared nothing—and such a thing made him more dangerous by far.

The light emanating from the soldiers’ eyes stirred something in me, their pale glow akin to that of—“The laurel seeds,” I said aloud, recoiling in horror. “Its power was of

regeneration and healing, and yet somehow you’ve bent it into this.”

“Is not the destiny of immortals to live forever instead of languishing in a grave?” Wugang taunted. “Resurrection is the greatest healing power of all. Truly, the gift of eternity.”

I studied their blank faces, my insides writhing like a nest of snakes. “You’re a monster. This is no life you’ve given them.”

He slanted his head to one side. “Oh, I didn’t do this alone.”

“What do you mean?” I demanded.

He fell silent, weighing his reply; he rarely spoke without calculation. “In the Mortal Realm, there once lived a king,” he said at last. “A great conqueror, a shrewd politician, a

brave warrior—who was afraid of nothing in the world but his death. After he had vanquished all his enemies, he spent the rest of his days seeking the Elixir of Immortality.”

He spoke with the rhythmic cadences of a storyteller,

drawing me in against my will. “This king, so courageous, was so terrified of death that he built an army to protect him in the afterlife. For decades, countless workers toiled to craft thousands of clay soldiers. Each was molded and shaped

from yellow clay, carved with their own distinct features,

fired in the kilns, then painted and glazed. The perfect army, who would awaken to defend their monarch against all

enemies, even in the afterlife.”

“What use is an army of clay against death?” A shudder ran through me as I imagined all that suffering to satisfy one man’s boundless arrogance and futile fear.

Wugang tucked his chin between his fingers. “Ah, you speak as a lofty immortal who never had to dread such things.”

“I have faced death.” Our eyes locked, an itch crawling across the scars on my chest. After all, it was he who had incited the emperor to attack me.

“Not the same way. All mortals—peasant, warrior, or king

—are born knowing a single, inexorable truth. That no matter how glorious or pathetic their existence, they will die. Whether through illness, war, or accident is of no

consequence, for the end is the same.”

He continued in that condescending manner as though this were a lesson, one I had not asked for. I let him speak. Wugang was so closemouthed; this was a rare opportunity

to unpick the twisted workings of his mind, to uncover any weakness we might exploit.

“For your kind, death is not inevitable. It’s a choice, a

gamble, the path you set on. I thank the mortal king for his vision. For inspiring … this.” His arms spread wide to

encompass the soldiers. “There were darker rumors, too, that the emperor’s own soldiers were entombed alive within those shells of clay. Who would ever know? The tomb is long lost. I am no monster. I sought not the living to build my

army, but the spirits of the deceased.” An avid light shone in his eyes. “A pity you did not yield the dragons’ pearls to the former Celestial Emperor. They would have made a

remarkable addition to my army, after they met their end in his service.”

I went cold inside. My hand involuntarily strayed to my pouch, to the Long Dragon’s scale, but I pulled it back. I would not expose the dragons to Wugang’s sinister schemes.

Liwei’s hands were clenched, his mouth set into a hard line. “You have violated every principle of honor. The dead should be left in peace, a rule as old as our realm itself.”

“Honor?” The word burst from Wugang’s lips. “What of my wife making a mockery of our union? The craven immortal

bedding her behind my back? When I finally avenged my honor—was it fair of your father to play that cruel trick upon me, turning me into the laughingstock of his court?” He held up his scarred palms. “I have long learned that honor is not worth the having. Nor is love, for that matter.”

Despite his seeming indifference, his voice broke—was it with grief? I would feel no pity for him. Whatever had

befallen him, he alone had made the choices that came

after. He had killed Ping’er, destroyed my home, enslaved immortal spirits to create an army of the dead. His suffering was no excuse for the evil he had spawned.

“Why do this?” I asked as steadily as I could. “You have had your vengeance; your wife and her lover are dead. Why

not build a new life instead of destroying everything?”

“They are not dead,” he muttered, as though speaking to himself. “Their cries ring through my mind. They will not leave me in peace. How shameful, that I loved someone so unworthy. Who thought me so great a fool, so worthless, that I would accept the crumbs of her affection as she stamped my pride into the ground.”

I was no stranger to the agonies of heartache, the

bitterness that lurked, eager to flourish. “Love is a privilege, not a possession. We can’t control our own feelings, much less those of others. Sometimes love means letting go—for yourself, if not for them.”

“The answer of a fool.” Wugang’s laugh rang hollow. “I am the Celestial Emperor now. All will kneel to me, and none will dare scorn me again.”

I shuddered from the ferocity in his expression. He was mad, I thought. And if not, he was on the cusp of it. There was nothing left to anchor him, to sway him from ruin. Even when the lines across his face smoothed away, calm coating him like glaze over porcelain—it was a thin veneer, liable to crack under the slightest pressure.

Wugang’s gaze shifted to someone behind me. “Houyi, the Slayer of the Suns. It gladdens me to see you.”

My father glanced at the soldiers surrounding us. “I cannot say the same for you.”

Wugang’s lips twitched into the semblance of a smile. “A chance to alter the course of the future lies before us. Don’t you want vengeance on those who schemed against you?

Acknowledge me as emperor, swear to me your fealty and that of your family—and I will grant you dominion over the Four Seas.” His voice softened, growing intimate. “Us of the realm below must cleave together. Who else might we trust?

Certainly not those who treated us as playthings for their entertainment, blessing or cursing us upon a whim.”

When my father said nothing, Wugang continued, “Are you not grateful that I reunited you with your wife?”

Beside me, my mother stiffened. “You sent the note?”

Wugang nodded somberly. “It gave me much satisfaction to play a part in your reunion.”

“You did it to further your own ends, to cast my mother into disfavor so you could seize our home,” I seethed, half-fearing that Wugang’s words might resonate with my father

—mortal until yesterday, decades of resentment roiling in his gut for being played false by the Celestial Emperor. But even if my father were inclined to form an alliance with Wugang … the woodcutter would remain my eternal enemy.

“I will not join you. I do not care for your methods,” my father said bluntly. “Attacking my wife and daughter.

Murdering their beloved friend. Desecrating the resting

place of the deceased. Some boundaries should never be crossed.”

“You disappoint me.” Venom slicked Wugang’s tone. “I believed you a great man from the legends—ambitious,

ruthless, sharp. A true blade, honed to perfection. And now, I find you blunted and dulled. As pitiful as those mortals you lived among, burdened by false morality and useless

emotion. Once you wielded the power of the dragons—you could have crushed your enemies, challenged the Celestial Emperor, seized the reins of the realm. Except you chose a life in isolation, leaving yourself vulnerable. No wonder

greatness eluded you then. No wonder it eludes you still.

Your name might be known, but do you wield any real power? Love has made you weak.”

Anger seared my veins. I would have lunged forward, but my father’s touch on my arm halted me.

“I fight my own battles.” He faced Wugang, his back pulled straight. “We each choose the path we walk. For

myself, I choose my family instead of those mindless troops you surround yourself with. No honest soldier will follow you, for you have the heart of a coward—striking in the dark,

afraid of dissent, craving obedience when you did nothing to earn it. You created this army because you cannot win the

allegiance of the living. While they will never betray you, neither will they ever respect, honor, or love you.”

Wugang’s lip curled. “Spoken like a mortal in the winter of his life, a retired soldier ready to hang up his sword. Your wife and child are your burden to bear. Fortunately, I have none to weaken me. If you will not join me, you must

surrender. If you are not my ally, you are my enemy.”

I glanced at my father, his stony resolve mirroring my

own. Behind him, Liwei and Shuxiao shook their heads, as did Wenzhi. No, we would not surrender. Yet as I studied the horde of soldiers before us, fear slunk into my heart for myself and those I loved, all who stood upon these shores

today. Because if we did not surrender, we would fight—and I did not know if we could win.

A slight movement caught my eye—Prince Yanxi tilting his head toward Wugang. He was desperate to free his brother, as was I. While Prince Yanming was in Wugang’s grasp, we could not attack.

“Stop lying to yourself, Wugang.” I spoke with deliberate rudeness, using the name he disdained. Something flickered in his eyes before it was abruptly doused. I had thought he hated his name for reminding him of his mortal roots, but

perhaps it reminded him of what he had lost: his parents, his family, his murdered wife.

“You say you’re glad to be free of love, except you envy those who have it,” I said slowly. “You killed the one you most loved, your family and friends are deceased. And now, you will be alone for eternity.”

My words were merciless, intended to edge Wugang into rashness—yet they were shameful nonetheless. As his fingers dug deeper into Prince Yanming’s shoulders, a soft gasp slipped from the boy before he bit down on his lip.

Rage flared, dangerously high. “Strike me if you dare. Or do you prefer to hide behind a child, even when you’re surrounded by your own troops?”

A snarl erupted from Wugang’s throat. With a rough shove, he sent Prince Yanming sprawling to the ground. Waves of azure light erupted from Prince Yanxi’s palms,

knocking aside the soldiers guarding him, as he snatched up his brother, racing toward us.

I swept up my bow, yet my father’s arrow was already streaking toward Wugang. He spun aside, the bolt of ice plunging into the soldier behind—only to shatter into

fragments like it had struck stone. The soldier did not flinch, not a single cry did it utter.

Wenzhi’s pupils gleamed silver bright. As a glittering wave of his power coursed toward the soldiers, a look of revulsion crossed his face. “They have no minds to confound, no hearts to strike fear into. Nothing to confuse or put to sleep.

Nor can I infiltrate Wugang’s thoughts. He is shielded; he came prepared.”

More soldiers closed around Wugang, the rest stalking toward us. Their guandao flashed—curved silver blades with a jagged edge, welded to long poles of polished jade. They moved like the wind, as swift as a sandstorm. An army of

death.

My fingers were stiff with terror, but I forced them to bend, releasing an arrow that hurtled into the shoulder of the nearest soldier. Sky-fire blazed down its arm, a crack forming all around as the arm fell off with a clunk. No blood spilled, though the soldier’s flesh glistened with a translucent wetness. The creature did not pause, seemingly indifferent to its missing limb, impervious to pain or fear.

The Celestial Empress wrenched free of her captors,

crimson flames surging from her palms. Those scorched, halted in their stride—the empress running toward us. As a soldier gave chase, I let fly an arrow that plunged into its thigh. The creature shuddered as it fell down, twitching as light crackled around it.

Liwei raced to his mother, flames rippling along the length of his blade. As a soldier leapt before him, raising its

guandao, my arrow struck the carved disc on its armor. The jade fractured as Liwei’s sword plunged through it, flames coursing into the creature’s body, its pale skin melting like wax. Dazzling light erupted from the soldier’s chest, the

luminous glow of a laurel seed nestled where a heart should beat. Had Wugang planted it there? Was that the source of the creatures’ power? The soldier lurched upright then, the first sign of distress I had seen. The mottled patches upon its body thickened—like ice hardening on a lake—as the soldier collapsed into a quivering pile, the glow in its eye sockets waning. Spirals of gold dust slipped from the cavern of its throat, coiling into the air, soon lost amid the

streaming sunlight. How I wished the Celestial spirit

wrenched from its peace might find it again … even as relief surged through my veins.

These soldiers were not invulnerable; they could be destroyed.

“Break the jade discs to get at the laurel seeds within,” I

called out to the others. “They are vulnerable to heat, to fire and lightning—use what you can.”

I tossed the Jade Dragon Bow to my father—his weapon was of no use here, for the laurel’s nature was cold. He

caught it deftly, his fingers closing around it with practiced ease. The bow settled in his grip as I had only ever seen it

do for me. As my father drew back the cord, Sky-fire flashed between his fingers, already hurtling toward the enemy. I

grasped my magic to shield my parents and myself, as the rest did the same. Drawing my sword, I ran a finger along its blade, my power gliding across it until it blazed with

vermilion fire.

We formed a tight circle—Liwei and Prince Yanxi on my right, Wenzhi on my left. My father took up the other side, with Shuxiao and the Celestial Empress beside him. My mother was tucked in the center, along with Prince Yanming, while the soldiers wound around us like a monstrous serpent, trapping us in its coils. The air rippled with the

force of their energy slamming against our shields—holding fast—yet it felt like being kicked in the gut.

It was a clumsy, hacking, brutal battle. Streams of fire shot from Liwei and me, lightning from my father, while Wenzhi and Prince Yanxi deflected the blows that rained upon us. Each wound we inflicted was hard-won, like wood scraping at stone. Still, the soldiers advanced, missing limbs, skin smoking—until my gut cramped with horror.

“Watch out!”

I spun around just as Wenzhi’s blade plunged into the soldier before me, striking the disc on its armor. Its tip scraped the jade as Wenzhi’s knuckles whitened around the hilt. I gripped his hand, channeling my power into his weapon, flames surging along the metal into the soldier’s

chest. Cracks streaked across the jade disc, breaking apart with a clink, as Wenzhi’s sword drove clean through its body.

We did not relent, arrows of lightning and waves of fire surging forth. Slowly, more soldiers fell back, the light winking from their eyes, their bodies shattering like glass— until the beach was strewn with those glittering shards, the air shimmering with gold dust.

Yet how long could we keep this up? Our movements were growing sluggish, a numbness sinking into my limbs. Our formation had long fallen apart—we were scattered into a thin line, wedged between the sea and Wugang’s soldiers.

There was no concerted strategy, no planned attack. We were a brawling, graceless mess—a hasty stab here, a quick strike there. General Jianyun would have thrown a book at us had he witnessed our haphazard assault. But all we could do in this moment was to fight to draw another breath.

My mother gasped. I whirled to find her standing alone, unprotected, as two soldiers bore down upon my father. A

glint caught my attention, a guandao thrust toward her with unerring accuracy. I lunged forward, a scream forming in my throat—but then, the blade stilled. The soldier’s eyes

glowed brighter, cocking its head as though listening to something only it could hear.

Abruptly, it turned away, slashing at Wenzhi instead.

Wenzhi’s sword swung up to deflect the blow, his face taut with strain. As more soldiers rushed forward, our shields wavered against the relentless horde. Fear reared high, yet I forced it back down. Each soldier struck down was one less to fight.

Wenzhi staggered back a step, his breathing roughened. “They’ve broken the shield,” he warned. As his energy

gathered, forming it anew—a guandao plunged through to sink into Shuxiao’s shoulder. White light crackled along the blade as I dove at her, gripping the pole to tear it away. It slid from her flesh with a wet sound, the metal dripping with blood, a gaping slit left in its wake. Spinning around, I drove my sword through the soldier’s chest, bearing down until the jade disc shattered, rivulets of fire pouring into the wound. The creature quivered before going limp, falling to the ground.

Shuxiao’s body jerked as she sucked in a gust of air. I pressed her hand, flinching from the chill. “Are you all right?”

She nodded, though her forehead was wrinkled with

discomfort. Liwei crouched beside her, his hand gliding over the wound. The blood flow staunched, though she remained ashen.

“Be careful,” Liwei cautioned. “Their weapons possess a strange magic, weakening us. It’s fortunate you got it out when you did. It spreads like a contagion, a mortal illness— except it affects our powers instead of our bodies. If unhealed, it will drain her energy, consuming her lifeforce.”

“Can you cure her?” My voice trembled.

He frowned. “I can’t do it here. I’ve contained it for now, but it won’t hold for long.”

Shuxiao’s eyes were glassy, her breathing labored. My

grip tightened around her hand. “Don’t tire yourself. Rest. I

won’t let anything happen to you.”

Despite my words, despair seeped through me. This was a battle we could not win. We had to escape, but how? The

dragons, my mind whispered. They could not fight these

creatures, but they could help us flee. While I was reluctant to expose them to Wugang, I would not let Shuxiao die.

Fumbling in my pouch, my fingers brushed the paper dragon Prince Yanming had given me before closing around something flat and cool. The scale from the Long Dragon.

Immerse this in liquid to call us, it had told me.

My fingers curled around it, pressing against its fine edge

—stinging—as it sliced my skin. Blood trickled forth, slippery and warm, as I rubbed it against the scale.

A thin shout rang out a distance away. Prince Yanming? I glanced up to find him and his brother encircled by soldiers. In the tumult, I had not realized they had been separated from us. Terror clawed me at the sight of a soldier moving silently behind Prince Yanxi. Flames arced from my hand, the creature dipping back to evade them. With a smooth

twist of its arm, the soldier swung its guandao toward Prince Yanxi—my cry of warning morphing into a howl, my insides shriveling like burnt paper as someone hurled himself in

front of the blade, small arms clutched tight around Prince Yanxi’s waist. How warm and soft they had felt around my own. Weapons crashed all around, shouts erupting—yet I

heard nothing except that sick, wet squelch as the guandao slid through Prince Yanming’s chest, scattering his blood like rain upon the sand.

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