Power is survival. Power is necessity. Those who seek power must first take it; where it does not exist, they must create it.
--Unknown, Classic of Gods and Demons
Elantian Age, Cycle 12
The Northern Steppes
The ruins rose before him like a graveyard, blackened bones jutting from the ground and gaping at a storm-gray sky.
Xan Temurezen drew to a stop. The steady crunch of his sheepskin boots against snow fell away, and silence swept in, broken only by the distant keening of the wind and his own heartbeat. Around him: a landscape shrouded in white as far as the eye could see. The color of mourning. It was as though the earth itself grieved the day a people and a civilization had died, their last moments now buried beneath the passage of time, the turns of cycles.
Zen held his breath as he knelt by the remains of a charred stone wall. All the ancient tomes and scraps of maps he had studied had pointed to this place, where the great Mansorian clan’s palace had once stood--and where he, Xan Temurezen, its heir, had come to reclaim it.
He brushed away a mound of snow, revealing an engraved stone plaque. He immediately recognized the swirly, linear writing as Mansorian, standing in sharp contrast to the neat, boxlike Hin characters. Some clans, like the Mansorians, had cultures so distinct that they had their own writing systems, different from the standardized Hin language the Imperial Court had forced all to adopt.
Zen’s memory of the Mansorian script had faded, but he could read enough to understand.
Palace of Eternal Peace
His hand gave a tremor; his heart tumbled in his chest. This was it: the lost palace of his ancestors. The place from which Xan Tolurigin, the Nightslayer, had ruled until the end of his civilization. The starting point of Zen’s revolution.
Zen had been born two generations after the fall of the once-mighty Mansorian clan, following the war waged by his great-grandfather Xan Tolurigin against the Imperial Army of the Middle Kingdom. Zen’s grandfather, then a boy, had escaped with a small faction of Mansorians and retreated deep into the unforgiving plains of the Northern Steppes, where they’d built a nomadic life hidden from the iron rule of the Dragon Emperor, Yan’long. That was the life Zen had known until, thirteen cycles ago, the Imperial Army had slaughtered what was left of his clan . . . and then, twelve cycles ago, when the conqueror had been conquered and the Hin had fallen to the rule of the Elantians.
I have returned, he vowed silently to the unquiet souls who slumbered beneath the snow. I will raise an army, and I will bring our clan back.
The snow stirred and the night pressed a little closer. And then came a rattling whisper, like the scrape of a knife against the bone of his spine: Army? You would call thirty or so half-fledged children an army?
It was the voice he had come to dread: the voice of his Demon God, the being that made him powerful beyond all measure, and the creature that embodied his shame. In the world of practitioning, demonic practitioning was dangerous and forbidden; the masters at his school who had raised him had taught him why.
Zen had betrayed everything he knew and loved in order to gain the power of the Black Tortoise.
Pushing those thoughts away, Zen turned to the small caravan of people following him. They, too, had stopped and stood huddled together in the cold, their long, pale robes made for the temperate winters of the south, not for the harsh northern climate. These were disciples of what had once been the School of the White Pines, the last-standing ancient Hin school of practitioning, where Zen had grown up. Less than one moon ago, it had fallen in an all-out battle against the Elantian Army and its powerful Royal Magicians.
The school’s disciples had evacuated first, escaping to safety over hidden mountain trails and through forests that led away from the east, where Elantian occupation held strong. It hadn’t been difficult to track them down. That night, as Zen had been prepared to flee from Where the Rivers Flow and the Skies End once and for all, he’d picked up on their qi. He’d sensed their grief, their absolute terror at having lost their home and their entire way of life.
It had struck a chord, a memory buried deep.
A boy, not eleven cycles old, wading through the burnt feathergrasses of his homeland, weeping and alone.
When Zen had found the disciples, he’d made them an offer: pledge their allegiance and join his rebellion in exchange for his protection.
With all but two of their masters killed and their former home destroyed, all the disciples, just children and teens, had agreed. Even two former masters--Nur of the Light Arts and the Nameless Master of Assassins--had followed.
Zen wasn’t certain why he’d made the offer. It would have been foolish of him to believe that a group of so few practitioners, most only half-trained, would be the army to take down the Elantian Empire.
No, Zen thought, turning back to the ruins of the Palace of Eternal Peace: the army he sought lay buried somewhere deep inside, along with the bones and magic of his people.
Growing up, he’d heard whispers, among those of his clan who were left, of a fearsome army of riders Xan Tolurigin had led, who were powerful beyond imagination--and summoned by magic. It was said the Nightslayer had led these riders to defeat entire clans, to conquer whole territories and shape the Mansorians into one of the most powerful clans in history, second only to the imperial family. Zen remembered late nights curled up in wools inside his yurt, the firelight outside flickering against the walls and outlining the shadows of the adults who sat around the fire, whispering in half awe, half fear. The faithful riders of Xan Tolurigin still existed, they murmured, and could be awakened with a certain magic, one so dangerous and powerful that only Xan Tolurigin had been able to use it with the help of his Demon God.
Now Zen had inherited his great-grandfather’s Demon God; he would find and raise this legendary army and declare war against the Elantians. And if there were any traces of the secrets and old magic Xan Tolurigin had used to summon his army, they would be found within the collective tomb of his people and his heritage.
Zen had thought it through: he would target the Royal Magicians first. The strategy was an old Mansorian war proverb: The viper is only as venomous as its fangs. The Elantians were only as powerful as their magicians. Take them out, and the entire army would be crippled.
Zen cast his gaze about the group of disciples, knowing that, no matter how many times he searched, he would not find the only face he sought. Pebble-bright eyes, curved in mischief; smile-tinged lips like flower petals; chin-length hair like black silk that shifted when she turned to gaze at him.
Pain cut across his chest, followed by the torrent of memories and crushing grief that came with any thought of her. The black-glass lake, swallowing the light of the stars. Lan, standing on the same shore yet a thousand lǐ away in that moment, betrayal filling her eyes when she learned of his bargain with the Black Tortoise.
Please, Zen, don’t choose this.
And he’d uttered the words that cleaved their path in two, once and for all: If you are not with me, then you are against me.
Zen ground his nails into his palms, dragging himself back to the present. “Shan’jun.” His voice cut through the whistling wind. At the front of the line, a disciple turned to him, a young man around the same age as Zen. His slim face, once smooth as river water, was now ragged with exhaustion, his long black hair unkempt where it had once fallen like a sheet of ink. His lips were chapped, the cleft on the upper lip crusted with dried blood. Shan’jun’s gentle eyes had once gazed upon Zen with warmth; now the spark in them flickered and died as he lowered his head.
“Yes, Temurezen.” His voice was calm. Cool, with a tight undercurrent of caution. He had taken to calling Zen by his full name in front of the others.
Zen and Shan’jun might have been friends once--but that was when Zen had only been Zen, practitioner and disciple at the School of the White Pines.
Now he was Xan Temurezen, sole surviving heir to the Mansorian clan and great-grandson of former clan leader and rebel Xan Tolurigin.
He had no friends. Only allies.
“Stay here until I send word. The place is filled with yin,” Zen said brusquely, then turned and strode through the yawning gates.
Debris and remnants of stone foundations littered what must have once been a magnificent courtyard. As he did with most new places, he turned his focus to the qi flowing within. Qi--the energy in the makeup of all things in this world, both physical and metaphysical--was bifurcated into yang, the energy of all life, light, and warmth, and yin, the energy of death, darkness, and cold. Qi was also the basis of all practitioning--or magic, as the common folk liked to call it. It existed everywhere and in everyone; practitioners were merely those born with the ability to sense it all and weave different strands of it into Seals.
He could feel the thick layer of yin clinging to the ruins. So much bloodshed, so much pain, and so much fear in its final days . . . yet before that . . . Zen closed his eyes and dug deeper. Before that . . . there had been light and life, which he now felt glimmering beneath the layers of yin like the lost warmth of a cup of tea gone cold.
Hints of a life he should have had, one he had never known.
Ah. That inevitable voice came again, this time the rumble of distant thunder. The one he had come to dread in the hours after dark, once the fires died and the voices of his companions gave way to silence. But I have known it.
Overhead, the clouds darkened as a shadow stirred beyond them. It yawned to life, stretching across half the sky--a shadow only Zen could see, with a voice only he could hear. An existence he had bound to himself, one that continued to expand inside him until it threatened to drown him day after day.
Zen stiffened as the Black Tortoise flickered into clarity. Eyes the crimson of war and bloodshed burned as they turned to him; a claw shifted so that it appeared to grip the distant mountains as the Demon God lowered its head to him.
I remember your legacy. I can show you that which was stolen from you. That which you wish to rebuild.
That gave Zen pause. The Demon God had been in existence since long before the birth of this world. It had witnessed the tides and turns of history and all the triumphs and failures of humankind.
And it had been there with Zen’s great-grandfather when he’d ridden into wars with his legendary army. What if the Black Tortoise could provide clues as to the ancient magic Xan Tolurigin had used with his army?
Since Zen had bound the Demon God to him at Black Pearl Lake nearly a moon ago, he had devoted every ounce of his energy to shutting it out. A demonic bargain was always one of exchange: surrendering an eye, an arm, a leg, or, in the most extreme cases, one’s entire body in return for access to the demon’s power. If Zen refrained from using the Demon God’s power, he would need to yield nothing further of himself to the being.
The bargain he had sealed with it echoed in his mind, haunting him as it had for the past weeks.
With each time that you use my power, with each soul that you deliver, I take more of your body. Then your mind. Last, your soul.
No--he would pay no heed to the wicked temptations of this being. He had pledged his mind to the Demon God’s control as part of their bargain, but he refused to lose it so swiftly to the creature. That meant he had to abstain from use of its power unless absolutely necessary, for Zen planned to unleash the power of his Demon God only in the final battle against the Elantians.
Zen kept walking, footsteps sounding quicker and sharper. Directly ahead was a great forsaken temple. Traditional Mansorian and Hin architecture bore resemblances in the upward-curving green roofs and red motifs--the two cultures had thousands of cycles of intersection and commingling, after all. Yet here and there, Zen could spot differences: the curved side domes, alluding to the yurts his people inhabited; the touches of gold and blue, representing the sun and the Eternal Sky his people worshiped.
There were no doors to the temple. The entryway yawned open between stone pillars. Zen paused with a foot on the first step, the hairs on his arms rising as a draft emerged from within, as though something there breathed.
Zen’s focus tightened, homing in on the qi inside the temple. He hadn’t given much thought to the stifling yin earlier--attributing it to the horrors of war this place had seen--yet now, as he closed his eyes and parsed the layers, alarm began to grip him.
There was something inside, something roiling beneath the surface of yin energies left behind from death, pain, and slaughter.
Nightfire--one of the few family heirlooms remaining to Zen, a longsword forged by the greatest blacksmith in the north and infused with the essence of fire--hissed as Zen unsheathed it. He brushed his fingers against the small black silk pouch at his waist. Embroidered with crimson flames, the sigil of the Mansorian clan, it was enchanted with a Seal that allowed it to fit much more than its size belied. Practitioners used such storage pouches to carry an assortment of magical weapons, and Zen’s was no different; its belly was full of fú, Seals written on strips of bamboo paper, whose intended functions were activated with a spark of qi at moment’s notice.
Enough ammunition for whatever it was that awaited within.
Longsword flashing silver in the dim light, Zen stepped forward.
The earliest scholar-sages and practitioning masters had agreed on one defining principle: that qi was meant to be balanced. In a place with an excess of yin, the energies could fester into something unnatural, something monstrous.
Zen stepped into the ruins of the temple, and the temperature seemed to drop. His breath began to frost as he moved forward, Nightfire in one hand, the other reaching into the pouch at his waist. He withdrew three sticks of incense and a strip of yellow paper with a red symbol on it.
Copyright © 2024 by Amélie Wen Zhao. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.