Chapter no 34

Heart of the Sun Warrior

Clouds hung low in the skies from the immortals riding through the heavens. A storm beckoned on the horizon, not of wind or rain but brewed with bloodshed and betrayal,

thick with ancient grudges. The Celestial Kingdom had been overthrown by one of mortal heritage, and the Cloud Wall was defending those who had cast it from its borders. The Four Seas were divided once more; old alliances broken, and new ones forged in the span of days. It was like the world had been turned over and shaken for good measure. The

Immortal Realm might never go back to what it once was, and I did not realize how much I regretted this until faced with its loss.

Liwei and I soared over the Cerulean Mountains, a jagged ridge of peaks that lay to the north of the Cloud Wall and west of the desert. Sunlight gleamed across Liwei’s gold

armor, while I wore just a dark blue robe, with my bow slung across my back. Behind us flew Shuxiao, along with my mother and father.

Wenzhi was already here with his soldiers, working to

reinforce the wards ahead of the impending confrontation. As he flew toward us, the light danced off his black armor in

glints of bronze. His great sword was strapped to his side, a green cloak swirling from his shoulders.

As his cloud drew alongside ours, he inclined his head in greeting. “We expect Wugang’s forces to strike soon.

Tomorrow, or the day after.”

“Is there any news from the other kingdoms?” Liwei asked.

“No. Perhaps they will not come,” Wenzhi replied, the corners of his mouth tightening.

In the distance, the soldiers of the Cloud Wall had

gathered, casting a shadow over the pale sands beneath.

Such terror they had struck in me before, and now I wished there were more of them. Not enough, my mind whispered. Not enough to stand against Wugang’s deadly soldiers, the vast white-and-gold army that curled like a monstrous serpent along the edge of desert and cloud.

The wind strengthened, whipping my hair across my

cheek. As I brushed it aside, I caught a brightness on the horizon. Soldiers in blue and silver armor, soaring toward us, led by Prince Yanxi. My chest caved at the memory of the last time I had seen him, bearing his brother’s body in his

arms. While Prince Yanxi’s expression was somber, he

greeted Liwei and me with warmth. However, he stiffened at the sight of Wenzhi.

“Your Majesty.” He spoke with cool formality, and it startled me to hear Wenzhi addressed so. “The Eastern Sea does not march on behalf of the Demon Realm. I am here to avenge my brother.”

Wenzhi inclined his head. “Nevertheless, we welcome your aid. We need not be friends to be allies.”

Shrill cries rang out, accompanied by the swish of air.

Soldiers in bronze armor flew across the skies, mounted upon magnificent phoenixes. Crimson sparks trailed in their wake, their plumage so bright as though coated in flame, with rainbows fluttering from their tails. In their midst soared the Celestial Empress—she would always be that to

me, whether she had a throne or not. I almost did not

recognize her, the purpose shining upon her face, devoid of her habitual malice or tension. Was this a glimpse of who she was before? Had her bitterness been born from the

disillusionment of her marriage, of having her wings clipped by life in the Celestial Kingdom? I did not like her any better, but perhaps I understood her a little more.

The empress halted by our cloud, sliding off her mount with ease. “Queen Fengjin will join our fight against the villain Wugang,” she announced with pride.

“We are grateful for her aid,” Liwei said, adding, “as we

are for yours, Mother. You must have changed her mind, for the queen did not seem inclined to support us before.”

“Wugang must be stopped.” She cast a scathing look at Wenzhi. “I did not do this for you; they do not fight for the Demons. I could not care less what happens to your

wretched kingdom.”

Wenzhi’s eyes flashed. “Neither do I care what happens to the Celestial Kingdom, for it has already fallen.”

As the empress’s red lips twisted into a snarl, Liwei cleared his throat. “There is nothing to be gained by insulting each other. We are glad for reinforcements.”

“Indeed.” A mocking smile tugged at Wenzhi’s lips. “How fortunate that while we are loathed by most of the Immortal Realm—they hate Wugang more.”

“As they should, for Wugang is the greatest threat we have ever faced,” my father said, alighting from Shuxiao’s cloud to ours. His bow lay across his back like a crescent of silver. My mother followed him, her face pale and drawn.

“Are you well enough to be here?” I asked Shuxiao anxiously.

“Well enough and bored enough. Anything would be

better than another week of lying down and being fed vile herbal concoctions.” She shuddered, crossing her arms.

“The dragons are wise and powerful, yet their medicines are foul.”

“Bitter medicines are preferable to fatal wounds.” I examined the armies, relieved at the sight—and yet my

spirits had never been lower. How many would still stand after a battle? How many would return to their families?

There would be no mercy from Wugang or his soldiers; I did not think they were capable of it.

My gaze shifted to the swath of clouds on the other side of the mountain range, those I had avoided examining too

closely before. Wugang’s soldiers, a forest of them,

glittering like sunlight upon snow. Alongside them were the turquoise-armored troops of the Southern Sea. Queen Suihe was said to have a talent for picking the winning side, and I hoped this time her assessment was flawed. There were

other soldiers too, whom I did not recognize, clad in armor of copper and of green.

“The Northern and Western Sea will fight against us,”

Liwei observed tersely. “They were not our allies, but this is a blow. I had hoped they would steer clear of the


“Queen Suihe must have won their support for Wugang during the gathering of the Four Seas,” I said.

“Before the battle commences, we must do one thing,”

Liwei said. “We need someone familiar with the Jade Palace to rescue my father, General Jianyun, and the other

courtiers imprisoned by Wugang. Otherwise, they will be in grave danger; they will be used as hostages.”

Shuxiao bowed. “I will go. General Jianyun has been kind to me, to all of us under his command.”

“A few of our soldiers can accompany you.” Wenzhi

gestured to the immortal behind him, who stepped forward and bowed. As General Mengqi straightened, she cast a

baleful look my way, no doubt recalling how I had duped her before.

“General Mengqi, assemble a group to head to the Jade Palace,” he instructed her. “Shuxiao, previously a lieutenant of the Celestial Army, will lead them.”

The general’s lips tightened as she studied Shuxiao. “Your Majesty, is she competent? I will not risk our soldiers’ safety recklessly.”

“She is as competent as you are,” I replied with an edge in my voice. “And not so easily fooled.” A petty taunt, but I would not stand by while my friends were insulted.

Shuxiao’s eyes narrowed. “After this is over, you may test my competence with any weapon of your choice.”

For her sake, I hoped General Mengqi would not select the bow.

“Such childishness. Do not indulge such rash impulses when the lives of my soldiers are at stake.” General

Mengqi’s stare was forbidding, yet bright with speculation.

Shuxiao deliberately turned her back to the general. “Xingyin, take care.” Her words were laden with meaning as she glanced at my mother.

I clasped her hand. “As should you. I will see you when we return.”

“Till then,” she agreed. “We will share our stories over a jug of wine.”

“Are you ready or do you have more farewells to make?” General Mengqi asked brusquely.

Shuxiao’s lips parted in more of a grimace than a smile. “I’m beginning to regret this. Battling undead Celestials would be preferable.” Shaking her head, she followed

General Mengqi. They stood apart as they mounted a cloud, soaring toward the Cloud Wall soldiers.

The sun descended, a lull falling over us, riddled with

gloom and a shred of relief. There would be no confrontation this evening. Battles were for mornings, which offered the shining promise of glory, the dawn of hope. The nights were for slinking back into the shadows to lick one’s wounds, for stifled cries and fears, unbound … and those dark acts of


Wugang would come for my mother soon. With the impending battle, he would need a fresh harvest of laurel

seeds to replenish his depleted forces. Dread warred with

anticipation, not because I hungered for danger but because my nerves were strung taut. The heat from the Sacred Flame Feather seared through my pouch, surging against the barriers woven around it. I did not know how much longer I could sustain this drain on my power—a struggle to maintain this farce.

“Mother, we must get you someplace safe,” I called out for the benefit of Wugang’s spies, to whet his appetite. The Cloud Wall courtier had been dispatched to betray my mother’s location to Wugang in exchange for a favored

position. A lie concealed within a lie.

My mother and I flew back to the Cloud Wall palace, making our way to her room. It was elegantly furnished with mahogany furniture, the dark wood inlaid with iridescent mother-of-pearl. Bronze incense burners flanked the

entrance, and I had grown accustomed to the rich scent.

She helped me into a set of her garments, draping the white silk robe over my shoulders, tying the vermilion sash around my waist, then fastening upon it a few of her jade ornaments. Finally, she coiled my hair up, securing it with gold hairpins before sliding a red peony just above my ear.

The weight in my chest sunk lower. Was it the familiarity of her gestures that caught at me? It was like I was a child again, being dressed by her. How effortless life had seemed then, akin to gliding through a lake rather than wrestling with these turbulent waters.

“Ping’er would not have wanted this.” My mother’s eyes were bright with unshed tears. “She would not have wanted you to risk yourself this way, not even to avenge her. She

only ever wanted you to be happy and safe.”

My throat closed tight. “This isn’t just about vengeance; this is greater than us all. I want Wugang to pay for what he’s done, but more than that—I must do this. He is a tyrant, a ruthless madman, who thinks nothing of sending his armies on an endless rampage of death. He has killed so

many, and he will murder countless more if not stopped. What future will await us under his reign?”

I turned to look her full in the face. “I used to think the outside world did not matter, as long as they left us

untouched. I prided myself on not being unduly burdened by the inconveniences of honor or ambition, caring only about my home, my family and loved ones. I was wrong.” My voice broke then. “Trouble reached us, no matter how we tried to keep clear of it. Our home was taken. We were hunted. We lost those we loved.”

Evil must be struck at its roots. The Long Dragon’s words echoed through my mind.

My mother pressed her palm to my cheek and I leaned against it. She did not speak, the love shining in her face thawing a little of the ice in my heart.

A knock on the door broke the tender moment. As my father, Liwei, and Wenzhi entered, I rose to my feet and grasped the Jade Dragon Bow. It tingled with a frenetic

energy, as though sensing my intent. Had it hoped for this

all along? Had I merely been its custodian? It did not matter. This was something I should have yielded before, except I had been too selfish—relieved even, when my father had

refused it the first time. It hurt to give it up, but I did not need it where I was going, and I was glad to have finally found its true owner.

“Father, this is yours.” I bowed, raising my hands to offer him the bow.

He pushed it aside. “Keep it, Xingyin. I do not need it.” “The Jade Dragon Bow belongs to you,” I repeated. “You

must take it. Sky-fire can bring down Wugang’s soldiers. Use it to keep Mother and you safe. Be careful not to exhaust

yourself.” I stopped then, feeling a little foolish like I was trying to teach a fish how to swim. This weapon was an extension of his arm.

He made no move to take it, but perseverance was a trait we both shared. Taking his hand, I pried his fingers apart to

press the bow into his grip. The jade glittered, light rippling through the frame across our joined hands—just as when I had first touched it—my skin flushing cold, then hot. The

carved dragon writhed and shuddered, before stilling once more.

And then, it was gone—that pull I had always sensed from the bow. I let go, leaving it in my father’s grasp. An ache

pierced me, as though I had bid a dear friend farewell; I did not think I would miss it so. Wielding the bow had made me feel special. Powerful. Strong. Yet I did not need it to be those things.

“Wugang’s soldiers are on their way. We must make haste,” Wenzhi said.

As I nodded, Wenzhi drew out the scroll from his sleeve, unrolling the yellowed strips of bamboo, crammed with tiny characters. As he passed his palm over it—agleam with

power—the characters leapt off the scroll, hovering in the air like dark moths.

“This enchantment can only be performed once,” he cautioned, taking my hands firmly in his.

“What should I do?” I asked.

“Look upon your mother. Keep her face firmly in your mind,” he instructed.

I studied her slender eyes beneath delicately arched

brows. Skin of moonlight, hair of night. When I was young, I had wished to look like her, and now it might be the death of me.

Wenzhi’s power pulsed from his fingers, his energy

coursing through me with the force of a storm. The black brushstrokes of the characters broke apart, encircling me

like a chain, swirling across my body, gliding over my limbs and face before stilling—a heartbeat before seeping into my skin like spilled ink. Pain seared, jagged and raw, like the words were being carved into my flesh. A hoarse gasp broke from me, sweat beading on my brow.

Wenzhi’s grip tightened around my hands. “Shall I stop?”

I shook my head, gritting my teeth. “Continue.”

The hurt swelled until each breath was a struggle. It

erupted through every pore on my body, my skin, bones, and teeth—pressed, squeezed, and scorched like I was

being made anew, shaped from clay and fired in a forge … like those soldiers Wugang had spoken of, who guarded the mortal emperor’s tomb. Just when I could bear it no more, a scream rising from my throat—the agony subsided, leaving a dull throb throughout my body and an unfamiliar tautness like the thinnest of threads stretched between Wenzhi and me.

As he released my hands, I staggered back, clutching the table. My vision blurred then sharpened once more. I lifted my fingers to my face, running them over my chin, the slender arch of my nose and cheekbones.

My eyes collided with my mother’s, hers widening with disbelief. “Your face,” she stammered.

“Did it work?” I started to hear her bell-like tones emerging from my throat.

“Yes. For as long as the enchantment holds,” Wenzhi said. “How long do I have?” I asked.

“As long as you need.” He tilted his head toward me. “You must be careful not to unleash the feather’s power while it’s within you. Keep yourself shielded from it at all times.”

“I will,” I assured him.

“Will Wugang sense your magic?” Liwei asked anxiously.

As I glanced at Wenzhi, he shook his head. “It will be masked, along with your aura.”

A powerful spell. Little wonder that his father had kept this scroll with his most treasured possessions. “Is it a strain on you?” I asked.

He smiled. “I can bear it as long as you can.” “How will you fight?” I wanted to know.

“General Mengqi will lead the army in my stead. You and I are linked through this spell; I can’t be too far from you. I will follow at a safe distance.” His brow creased, unease

flashing across his face. He did not like leaving his army in the care of others, yet some battles were not won on the field.

“What if Wugang’s soldiers sense you?” I asked him. “I will go with him,” Liwei said.

Wenzhi stiffened. “I’ll take my chances with Wugang’s soldiers.”

“I would be glad to let you,” Liwei countered. “But I will risk no disruption to the spell. For tonight, I will guard your safety as I would Xingyin’s.”

Wenzhi hesitated, before inclining his head in acceptance.

Warmth suffused my heart at this exchange; a deep sense

of peace. There were far too many reasons for them to be at odds—the Celestial Heir and the Demon King—and I was

glad to no longer be one of them.

“I will be there too,” my father said. I would be glad for his presence, that they would keep each other safe.

“How will you unleash the feather?” Liwei asked me. “Once I’m close enough to the laurel, I will undo the

enchantment which binds it. Wugang will be too distracted trying to save the laurel to prevent my escape,” I said smoothly. Only someone assured of success would speak so

… or a practiced liar.

Wenzhi’s gaze narrowed. “Have you decided where to plant the feather?”

“By its roots.” For that was how the laurel had drunk of Wugang’s blood and my mother’s tears—and that was how I would end it.

Despite my glib answers, this was no simple matter. There were far too many things that could go wrong, countless terrifying scenarios I had replayed through my mind to

better prepare myself. My greatest fear was Wugang might sense a trap, that he would see through my disguise and

destroy the feather before I had a chance to unleash it. There was just one Sacred Flame Feather left in the realm; I could not waste it. Which meant, I had to maintain my

pretense until the last possible moment … and that I would have the barest sliver of time to escape.

I glanced up to find Liwei staring at me. Perhaps he sensed the dread that thickened my blood, the anxiety tangling my insides. “Be careful, Xingyin. Once you unleash the feather, hide. Don’t take on Wugang alone. We will come the moment you need us.”

“If Wugang detects your disguise, if the link between us is severed—I will sense it at once. You won’t be alone, even if you don’t see us there,” Wenzhi assured me.

“It is almost time,” my father said. Now that our path was set, he would show no doubt. Half the battle was won in the mind.

I glanced out the window, concealing my face. Dusk had fallen, a veil of violet splendor—elusive and fragrant, with mystery and promise. Yet a hollow numbness sheathed me as I clasped my hands together to hide their shaking. One breath, and then another—until finally my heart calmed.

Only then did I dare to look at them, pressing each of their beloved faces into my mind. Precious remembrances to sustain me through the hell ahead.

“You should go, before Wugang’s soldiers arrive.” I did not know how much longer I could sustain this mask of calm.

My mother embraced me, her arms tight around my neck and shoulders. I swallowed hard, inhaling the faint sweetness of her scent, trying to ignore the tears which fell from her eyes onto my robe. She released me, hurrying from the room. Liwei and Wenzhi bowed to me then, their faces solemn as they straightened. I bent my head to them in turn, my throat crammed with unsaid words, my heart heavy with suppressed emotion as they left. In a moment, my father would be gone too.

“Father, wait.” An involuntary cry I could not prevent. I had faced dire situations before, been dragged to the brink of death—yet there was a difference to this one. The burden was almost crushing, for the stakes were greater by far: not

just my life and those of my loved ones, but of every mortal and immortal in the realms above and below. I could not fail; I dared not. And yet … could I prevail?

My father came toward me. “Daughter, what is it?”

“How did you feel when you faced the sunbirds?” A halting question.

“Afraid,” he said bluntly.

His answer comforted me, soothing my fraught nerves. “Why did you do it?”

Grief shadowed his face. He looked older in that moment, an echo of the mortal I had first met, stooped with the cares of time. “I did not want to. I knew I would pay a heavy price, for they were beloved by the gods. Yet if I did not, all whom I loved would perish.”

“I don’t want to do this.” My words fell out in a low cry. “I am not courageous; I am afraid. I am no hero.” I did not shy from sharing these thoughts with him. More than anyone, he knew the price that must be paid, the hard choices that had to be made.

“You are,” he said with feeling. “For the fools do not fear the odds, the reckless do not care—and only the truly brave proceed regardless.” He placed a hand on my shoulder, steady and warm. “It was either the sunbirds or the world.

And along with the world, my wife, you—my unborn child— my friends, and every other living creature. There is nothing more worth fighting for.”

He reached out and hugged me, his palm stroking the

back of my head. “I am proud of you, my daughter, whether you do this or not. If you cannot, there is no shame. Say it now, and we will find another way.”

There was no other way.

“Houyi, is Xingyin all right?” My mother appeared at the entrance, looking anxiously at me.

“Thank you, Father.” It was a relief to have said all this aloud, to confront the inner demons that plagued me. And

even though the impossible task lay before me still, I did not feel so alone anymore.

He released me. “Remember, my child, if you believe in yourself, in what you’re doing—no one can take that from you.”

He left then. All of them gone, each carrying away a piece of me. As the doors slid shut, their footsteps faded, the silence deepening with foreboding.

I stared at the mirror, my mother’s face looking back at me. Reaching into my pouch, I pulled out the translucent

orb containing the feather. It shivered like a living creature, each barb ablaze, shining golden bright. It warmed to my touch, straining against the restraints that bound it. Drawing a ragged breath, I released my magic inward, plunging it into the core of my lifeforce as I had done once before, the

day I released the dragons. I clawed it apart, the glittering pool spilling free, incandescent with the light of the heavens. I did not hesitate, not allowing myself to think as I pressed the orb against my forehead, shut my eyes, and let my magic sweep over it. The feather seared as it sank

through my skin and flesh, like a pebble pressed into damp sand—giving way as it slid into the core of my lifeforce. The heat scorched, startling in its intensity—and at once I wove a shield around it, tightening the barriers until not a pinprick slipped through.

It was done. My head throbbed like a hammer was

pounding it from within. How had King Wenming borne this? It would suffice to drive anyone to madness. A shudder rippled through my body as I sank upon the bed, a sob

wrenched from my chest before I buried it—for at the very moment my life was illuminated by love, it had never seemed so dark.

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