Chapter no 23

Heart of the Sun Warrior

Light crackled from the blade into Prince Yanming’s body, the stench of scorched flesh springing into the air. Just hours earlier, I had remarked he was taller, and now … how frail he looked, with that massive guandao jutting cruelly from his chest. Blood pooled, his palm groping at the wound,

coming away a glistening red. His small body convulsed, eyes so wide there was a ring of pure white around his irises.

A guttural scream tore from Prince Yanxi’s throat as he lunged at the soldier, thrusting his sword through its gut in a single ferocious strike. The creature stiffened, its hands

clenching harder around the guandao, holding it fast.

“The blade! Get it out!” I raced toward them, nauseated by the sight of the ominous lights still flowing into Prince Yanming’s body.

Prince Yanxi clawed the soldier away, grabbing the

guandao and ripping it from his brother’s chest. The boy’s gasp, trapped between a breath and a scream, stabbed like nails driven through my skull.

As the Celestial soldiers started toward me, my mind hollowed of thought, consumed by rage. My power surged, a

storm erupting from my fingers, knocking aside those in my path. A reckless use of my energy, a waste I could ill afford

—but I no longer cared, my only thought to reach Prince Yanming.

A thunderous rush swirled through the air, the churn of water and wind. My hair flew across my face, cold droplets spraying all around as the Four Dragons sprang from the

ocean depths, covering the sky itself. Crimson and yellow, pearl and black, undulating through the heavens with

majestic grace, the monstrous press of their auras closing in as they descended to the beach. Arched gold claws sank into the white sands, billowing like mist in their wake.

Shouts broke out from behind me. A scuffle, the clang of blades, before the soldiers abruptly stilled as though turned to stone. I swung around to find Wugang bound by glowing bands of ice, Wenzhi pressing his sword to the back of his neck. Ever quick to grasp an opportunity, he must have seized Wugang amid the earlier chaos. The soldiers stared blankly at Wenzhi and their master, whom they obeyed like puppets whose strings he tugged.

I reached Prince Yanming, falling to my knees beside him, clutching his hand. Stiff and so cold, a shiver coursed

through me. His youthful glow was fading fast, like the dying embers of a flame.

My heart clenched so tight I thought it might fracture. “Why? How?” I did not know to whom I spoke, or what

answer I sought … just that this was so brutally unfair, so

very wrong. That I would give anything to set it right again. “The soldiers separated us.” Prince Yanxi’s face crumpled

as he spoke. “I should not have fought them; we should have run. Yanming should have been the only one that mattered.”

I could find no words of solace, my own guilt driving deep.

Wugang had come for us—Prince Yanming was innocent, simply caught in the fray. They had only fled here because of the turmoil we caused in the Southern Sea. They had

even tried to help us … and a part of me wished they had not. Nothing was worth this price.

Bodies crowded around, yet I could no longer distinguish friend from foe. All I saw was a small face as pale as the moon, blue eyes darkening to night. A mouth that trembled as he tried to speak.

I bent my ear lower, catching the wisp of warmth in his frail breath.

“We … did not betray you. They found us. Don’t be angry.”

His words wracked me to my core. “I know.” I tried to smile but my lips were trembling. “I’m not angry. I’ll never be angry at you.”

My fingers wrapped tight around his as I grasped my energy, unsure of what I intended. A cut, a burn—such

injuries I could tackle. Not this deathlike frost that bloomed from within, sapping the life from his veins.

Someone touched my shoulder, the warmth startling in the cold that shrouded me. Liwei knelt down, folding Prince Yanming’s hand in his.

Hope flared. Liwei’s Life magic was strong, far stronger than mine. “Help him,” I pleaded, though he had already gathered his power.

“Be careful, Liwei.” The Celestial Empress’s voice sounded like it came from far away. “Don’t exhaust yourself.”

I wanted to silence her, as much as I wanted to repeat her warning. I did not want to trade one life for another—I just wanted to save Prince Yanming.

The dragons prowled toward me, the evening sun setting the Long Dragon’s crimson scales afire, its golden claws

alight. Their amber eyes lingered upon the gleaming

remnants of the soldiers piled around us like shards of hewn marble.

What were these creatures? The Long Dragon’s tone was equal parts gentle and fierce, flowing with the crystalline

purity of a mountain spring.

“Resurrected Celestial spirits, stolen from the Divine Harmony Sky,” I replied listlessly.

The dragons reared back, their manes rippling in the wind.

A monstrous act. How is this possible?

“The laurel on the moon,” Wenzhi said.

Ahh. A sigh thrumming with sorrow.

Silence fell over us. The Long Dragon’s gaze shifted to my father, shining with recognition. The other dragons stilled, their jaws curving wide. As one, they lowered their heads to him, a sight that stirred me, even mired in despair. They had not known my father as a mortal; all they had heard of the

great archer Houyi were the stories told during their imprisonment.

My father bowed, returning the dragons’ respectful

greeting. “Yes,” he said quietly, answering a question for him alone. “I have returned.”

The Black Dragon’s voice rang in my mind then: I am glad to be mistaken. I am glad your father is alive.

“Your pledge to me is honored, your debt repaid in full,” my father told the dragons. “You were never meant to have been bound by the pearls. If my powers had not been weakened, I would have freed you the moment you

recovered. I’m ashamed that I grew complacent, and content with how things were.”

“A tender scene,” Wugang sneered. “The reunion of old friends, or rather, old servants with their master.”

My eyes narrowed in loathing, thoughts of vengeance a momentary salve to my grief. One thrust of Wenzhi’s sword through Wugang’s skull would end his accursed existence. We did not need him alive; the dragons could help us flee his soldiers.

My gaze flicked up to meet Wenzhi’s. Our minds rode the same dark tide as his grip tightened around the hilt of his sword. We had killed lesser monsters before in the service of the Celestial Army.

“Release me.” Wugang’s tone pulsed with sudden

urgency. Perhaps he finally realized that we would show him no mercy. “If you hurt me, my soldiers will destroy all of you here, today.”

“They are no match for the dragons,” I lied, knowing that the dragons could not kill.

Fortunately, the dragons did not betray me, the Black Dragon parting its jaws to display two rows of wickedly sharp fangs.

“My soldiers are more than a match,” Wugang said. “The dragons are creatures of water. Their magic cannot harm my army.”

“They can tear your soldiers into a dozen pieces,” I flung back.

“Kill me, and my army will be unleashed upon the

Immortal Realm.” Wugang spoke with utter solemnity. “They will spare no one: none of you here, not the former Celestial Emperor, nor any living creature in the Jade Palace, the

Celestial Kingdom, or beyond.”

“How can they do this if you’re dead?” my father demanded.

Wugang glanced at the sun, embarking on its fiery

descent. “I am not so careless as to come here without

assurance of my safe return. My soldiers have not attacked yet because their sole purpose is to safeguard my well-

being. But if you hurt me, if you continue to threaten and hold me prisoner—they will descend on you like jackals upon a fresh kill. If I do not return to the Jade Palace by nightfall, the first to die will be the former emperor.

Thousands of my soldiers will rampage throughout the kingdom, leaving no one alive.”

“You would murder everyone after your death?” My mother’s tone was wracked with horror, echoing my own.

“What do I care if the Immortal Realm burns? Don’t forget, their lives are not in my hands, but all of yours.”

My insides hollowed, but I stifled my fear. “Thousands of soldiers? You don’t have enough laurel seeds.”

“Oh, I do.” His lips stretched into a wide smile as he tilted his head toward Prince Yanming with deliberate malice. “And sometimes, just one will suffice to wreak the most harm.”

I breathed deeply, struggling against the urge to strike him. My mind sifted through my memories—the night we fled our home, the laurel seeds cascading onto the ground

He speaks the truth of his army, the Long Dragon intoned. We have sensed a disturbance in the Celestial Kingdom, the presence of a large force, its power unlike anything we had known—until we encountered it here today.

My stomach roiled at the devastation Wugang threatened

—yet how could we let him go? I glanced at Liwei, still intent upon Prince Yanming, his forehead creased in concentration as his power flowed from him.

“Empty threats,” Wenzhi said coldly to Wugang. “Even if you have the soldiers, what proof is there of your other wild claims?”

“Test me,” Wugang challenged him with slick assurance. “Would you dare to risk being wrong? Do you think I am not capable of such a thing?”

Wenzhi’s sword flashed as the edge bit into Wugang’s skin, blood staining the metal. The soldiers lurched upright as one, heads swiveling toward Wenzhi, their eyes shining with that eerie light as their guandao swung our way.

Wenzhi’s expression was grim as he eased his pressure on the blade. At once, the soldiers lowered their weapons, though their vacant gazes remained fixed on him.

“Care to try that again, Captain?” Wugang taunted.

“What do you want?” the Celestial Empress demanded. “Let me leave with my soldiers. No one will be harmed.”

As Wugang flicked an uncaring look at Prince Yanming, my hands curled into fists. “No one else, at least. Consider this carefully, for my offer is generous, and it expires at dusk.”

He addressed the Celestial Empress. “You don’t have much time left, unless you wish your husband to meet an untimely end and the kingdom to fall into ruin. Or do you secretly wish for his downfall for the hurt he has caused you?”

The empress drew herself up tall. “Not all of us believe death to be a fitting sentence for infidelity.”

A gurgling rasp snared my attention. My eyes snapped back to Prince Yanming, my heart splintering with dread.

“I’m sorry, Xingyin,” Liwei said in a low voice, “His lifeforce is extinguished. Nothing can restore it.”

“He’s still alive. Do something. Anything.” I was hateful in my despair.

“What’s left of his energy sustains him for now, but it will fade soon.” He left unspoken the words: he will die.

An unbearable thought, a vicious reality. Prince Yanming had barely scraped the surface of a mortal’s lifespan. Such anguish sank over me, that wracking futility I had felt when Ping’er died.

Prince Yanxi cupped his brother’s cheek. “Hold on, Little Brother. I will bring you home. You will be well soon.” He smiled warmly, though I heard the lie in the crack of his


Prince Yanming’s lips curved. “Home. To Mother.” He drew a shuddering breath. “Don’t let her be too sad.”

I folded over, feeling like a fist had been driven into my gut. He knew he was dying; there was no comfort we could offer—neither hollow lies nor promises. Closing my eyes, I

reached out tentatively with my power. I trusted Liwei, yet I had to try. I plunged my consciousness into Prince Yanming’s body, searching the dullness of his blood, now devoid of an immortal’s radiance. His lifeforce, tucked deep in his mind, was no longer dazzling bright but murky and dim. I threw my energy at it, willing it to catch fire as a spark to tinder.

Again and again, but nothing took root, my power sliding from him as waves crashing over a rock. My breaths came

heavier, my nerves strained from fatigue. My mother’s soft cries drifted into my ears—how long had she wept?

I could not save him. No one could.

I fell back, wanting to sink into the sand. To close my eyes and let the numbness take me, a respite from this relentless agony. And I … let go. I had failed Ping’er. I had failed Prince Yanming. I was no hero.

As Prince Yanxi embraced his brother, muttering soft

words I could not hear, my father gestured to me. “We must decide what to do with Wugang.”

I yanked my mind from the grasp of sorrow, for we were still in the gravest of danger. Grief was an indulgence I could not afford. My heart cried out for Wugang’s death in

retribution for those he had taken, but I could not form the words, the better part of me seeking restraint, to save those we could.

“Is there any question? Let him go!” the Celestial Empress snarled. “He will kill—”

“Your Celestial Majesty,” Wenzhi drawled from where he stood. “I doubt many of us here would mourn the loss of your husband. He has not made many friends of late.” He

prodded Wugang with his sword. “Offer us something else, something of real value—start by disbanding your army.”

Liwei’s hands clenched as he rose, but I tugged his sleeve in warning. Wenzhi was skilled at piercing an opponent without a weapon, honing a scrap of truth into a blade, unearthing an enemy’s weakness to force them to relent.

Wugang laughed. “Do not take me for a fool. The Celestial Prince certainly cares about his father’s fate, and because he does, so would the daughter of the Moon Goddess.” His mouth curled into a smirk. “While you will not move against her wishes.”

Heat flushed my face at his insinuation, while Wenzhi’s expression remained inscrutable. “You forget what I’m

capable of; I do not lose my head for my heart. What does it

matter to me if the emperor dies? I care less for him than I do for his son.”

His cold words pricked me. But it was nothing I had not known, and I would be a gullible fool to ever believe

anything else of him.

“I know what you were capable of,” Wugang said

cryptically. “Be warned that the army will heed no one but me. Nor will they stop at the Celestial Kingdom, they will

engulf the entire Immortal Realm, even your lands, and that of the mortals.”

Wenzhi’s jaw clenched. “End your vile ambitions, return the spirits you have stolen, and we will let you go. We will not seek retribution. You will be free to build a new life, to earn a second chance to make it worthwhile—even though you do not deserve it.”

“I will not.” Wugang’s eyes were chips of muddied ice. “I would rather die knowing my ambition is fulfilled, my

vengeance complete, than to start over with nothing. Let the realms wither to dust if I cannot rule them. You can’t frighten me. I have lived through my worst nightmares and come out on the other side.”

His gaze lifted toward the darkening sky. “Sundown is

almost upon us. Will you let me go or risk everyone? Some of you might survive. Certainly, not all. Not to mention the innocents dwelling in the realms above and below, whose blood will stain your hands.”

I smothered my instinctive protest, the violent urge to make Wugang suffer. I had never felt any true satisfaction in killing before, but I could have slain him now without hesitation, relishing the Sky-fire crackling over his face, twisting with the bone-deep torment I knew so well. Yet it would yield just a futile relief, a bandage to a festering wound without its cure.

My eyes searched for Shuxiao where she lay on the

ground, alert though quiet, her eyes ringed in purple like they were bruised. There was no real choice here; the stakes

were too high. We were outnumbered, weakened,

vulnerable. Even if we escaped with the dragons’ aid … I could not bear the burden of the lives lost in the Celestial Kingdom and beyond. Even that of the emperor, even if it were not for Liwei.

I had lost. No, I reminded myself. It was not over. And if winning meant countless innocents would perish—that was no victory.

“Call off your soldiers and leave this place. You will let us go safely and not give chase,” I said slowly.

“For now,” Wugang agreed. “A day’s respite.”

“Forever,” I demanded. “We want nothing more to do with you.”

“I will never agree to that,” he said with resolute finality. “Why not?” I ground out. “What more do you want of us?”

He said nothing, merely looking at me with those pale eyes. He would not relent, nor would he tell us more.

“A week,” I countered. Another idea dawned, small

recompense though it was. “You will also leave the Eastern

Sea in peace. You will not hold this encounter against them.” “Very well. Their offense has been repaid in blood. I will

not demand more unless they move against me.” Wugang’s head tipped toward the sun. “Are we in accord?”

“How do I know you will keep your word?” A lesson I had learned from the Celestial Empress.

“I swear this upon the honor of my parents. The ones who gave me life, whom I cherish though they are long gone.”

He pressed a fist to his chest. “If I break this oath, may their spirits never find peace, may they haunt me for eternity.”

I believed him. How I hated this, but Wugang’s death would not bring back those lost, and at least we had salvaged a temporary reprieve. As Wenzhi’s sword lifted

from his neck and his binds vanished, Wugang strode to the safety of his soldiers. They surrounded him at once, their heads cocked for his command, their guandao clutched tight. For a moment, I feared treachery—except there was

still a sliver of honor in him despite his mockery of the

virtue. As clouds swooped down to the beach, he leapt upon one, his army taking flight after him.

Prince Yanming coughed, a gurgling sound. I fell to my knees beside him. Words tumbled from my lips, terror seizing me that time was running out. “I’m sorry, I promised to keep you safe.”

“You did.” His tongue darted over his lips, so cracked and pale. His breathing came hoarser than before, each labored rattle a stab to my chest. “The dragons. I never asked you what they were like.”

Could he not see them? Had death begun to glaze his

vision, sheathing it in night? We could not save him … yet perhaps we might bring him one last glimmer of joy.

I turned to the dragons and bowed low. “Please. The boy needs you.”

The dragons prowled closer, their great bodies blocking the red curve of the sun. Sand scattered over us as their tails lashed the air. Prince Yanming tugged his hand from mine with a sudden eagerness, stretching it out to them. His mouth opened, no words emerging—yet such yearning shone from his eyes as they lingered upon the magnificent

creatures. The Pearl Dragon with its luminous scales of moonlight, the Long Dragon ablaze like flame, the dragon of deepest night, and the one as golden as the summer sun.

“Can you save him?” Despair choked Prince Yanxi’s voice as he fell to his knees in reverence.

This is beyond our power. Infinite sorrow thrummed in those words.

The Long Dragon bent its head to Prince Yanming’s brow gently, crimson scales against ashen skin. A shiver rippled through the boy’s body—of delight—I sensed. He pulled his other hand from his brother’s grip, wrapping his arms

around the dragon’s neck without a trace of fear.

“You are real,” Prince Yanming whispered, pressing his cheek against the dragon’s jaw as the others drew closer,

forming a circle around us. A tear slid from the corner of his eye, vanishing into the sand.

Do not be afraid, child, the Long Dragon said to him, yet in its mercy, allowed us to hear. We will watch over your spirit.

You will have a place with us for as long as you wish, or become one with the sea whenever you choose to.

The dragons leaned toward the boy, their amber eyes

aglow, their jaws parted in a gentle smile. An answering one spread across Prince Yanming’s face, so warm and beautiful that a wild hope bloomed in me. But then his eyelids sank shut, his arms falling limp by his sides. A wisp of breath slid from his lips, his aura winking out like a candle flame at the end of its wick. And there was nothing left but the stillness and this devouring pain in my heart.

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