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Aberrant: Infinite Earth - Cosmos Nova - [CN] Guo Zhenglai & the Cult of the Black Dragon

Guo Zhenglai

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Xiao Lok stood up from where he’d been kneeling, the ruined corpse he’d been examining still sprawled on the ground at his feet, and turned his gaze out towards the township of Chengxiang where it lay spread out in the valley far below him and several kilometers away. His partner Gu Bolin glanced up briefly as he rose but then turned his attention back to the desiccated corpse where it sprawled on the ground at their feet. Xiao had no idea what his partner thought he was going to find there, but figured he’d leave the older man to it; he much preferred the view he was seeing now. Though getting here had been enough of a workout to make him glad – yet again – for his status as a nova.


Xiao Lok was one of SASA’s newest agents. He was a nova, even if he was what the Westerners called a ‘blip’, a low-powered nova only moderately more capable than a ‘baseline’ human. Sometimes being a member of SASA thrilled him and sometimes it galled him. Before his eruption he’d worked as a member of Chongqing’s police force and had worked many a long, hard hour to earn his way up the promotion ladder, achieving Detective status at a much younger age than was the norm. Then he’d erupted and had been immediately transferred into SASA, where he’d had to undergo rigorous training of the kind that made his days back at the police academy look like a vacation. Working for SASA was far more prestigious a career than working for some local police force – even the Chongqing local police force – but he’d still gone from being one of the fastest rising stars in the municipality to being just another greenhorn in a much larger organization.

Gu Bolin was his first partner in the State Administration of Super-human Affairs, and this was only their third case working together – and if events so far were any indication it was shaping up to be an unpleasant one. Granted, SASA agents didn’t generally work cases that were dull or mundane, but Xiao hadn’t yet worked any that had been quite so inconvenient to investigate yet, either. Gu had assured him this was nothing and he just needed to give the job a little more time. Xiao wasn’t sure he believed that, but knew the case was even less pleasant for his partner – one of SASA’s baseline agents – than it had been for him, so he held his tongue.

For starters, the victim – one Dengfeng Sun, a Buddhist priest – had died (cause of death and motive, if any, still undetermined) at a small temple just outside of the town of Chengxiang of Wuxi county, in the far northeastern corner of the Chongqing Municipality. For Xiao and Gu, based as they were out of the city of Chongqing proper, this had meant several hours’ drive along the Hurong Expressway, followed by a few more hours’ drive on the 102 Sheng Dao up into, and then back down out of, the mountains that Chengxiang and the upper tributary of the Yangtze river it sat next to were nestled in between. Then had come even more driving as they’d gone right on through the town of Chengxiang itself, crossed the river, and ventured out into the tiny townships of the surrounding area. An hour of this had finally brought them to the end of Provincial Road 102, after which point they’d actually had to hike on foot up what had to have been at least several thousand steps (at least!) before finally reaching their destination: Yuntai Temple, perched, at more than 1200 meters above sea level, atop Yuntai Shan. The view was spectacular.

Needless to say though, this had totaled out to quite the trek. For Xiao it had mostly just been tedious and, at times, annoying (though the views, as they’d ventured further up into the mountains, really had been quite lovely), but for Gu Bolin, baseline (and older than Xiao by several years, too), it had been a veritable marathon. And, having finally arrived at the temple atop its mountain, they’d been confronted with a true mystery.

Dengfeng Sun had been a Buddhist priest, of advanced age and some authority, from nearby Chengxiang. He’d been at the Yuntai temple to inspect progress on work being done there. “A temple” had been at Yuntai for more than 600 years, but the current temple, as well as the nearby bell tower and the large church building on the next hill over, were all recently built and were only the tip of the iceberg. The State-run Buddhist association had big plans for Yuntai, and once all of the plans for construction were completed the temple would be a sprawling complex draping itself over much of the mountain’s northern face and covering more than 3,300 acres.

But for now it was just a small temple, a bell tower, and a (admittedly large) church building, all sitting at the very top of the mountain overlooking the river and the nearby townships thousands of feet below.

According to what Xiao and Gu had been told so far, the priest, Dengfeng, had come up to the temple to inspect some recent additions, had done so, and had then exited the temple building itself, gotten about 10 meters, and had then died. In a most… unusual fashion. What, precisely, ‘unusual’ was supposed to mean in this context was not something that had been made immediately clear to the SASA agents, but they’d certainly understood what it meant once they’d arrived on the scene.

Dengfeng’s corpse was emaciated – almost mummified. In fact, if it weren’t for the eyewitnesses who could verify the man’s death, Xiao and Gu would not likely have believed the body on the ground in front of them had been alive anytime in recent history. But then, that was why SASA had sent them to investigate; it wasn’t everyday that they received eyewitness reports of a man dying from on-the-spot, real time mummification while others watched in horror.

Xiao Lok turned from admiring the river valley below them and looked towards the small gathering of Buddhist priests gathered nearby.

“What did you say he was doing just before he died?”, asked Xiao, emphasizing the ‘just before’ part of his question and looking to the young priest who’d been acting as their chief guide so far.

“Inspecting the alters inside of the temple”, was the young man’s simple reply. They’d gone over this with him before, but something about the chain of events was bothering Xiao. According to the facts they’d been given, Dengfeng had performed a perfectly routine, if very thorough, examination of the interior of Yuntai temple and, having finished with this, walked outside where he’d promptly begun screaming in apparent agony and had literally shriveled up and died while the horrified Yuntai priests attending him had watched. Bearing in mind that nothing in the case made much sense yet, these facts weren’t adding up for either of the SASA agents. Something was missing.

Just then Gu looked up from where he was, still crouched next to Dengfeng’s desiccated body, and said, “Xiao, take a look at this.”

Xiao Lok crouched down next to his partner and allowed the older man to point out what he’d found. “Look here and here”, Gu said quietly, pointing with a pen to some easy-to-overlook abrasions on the old priest’s clawed and shriveled fingers as well as to some kind of sediment or powder dusting the robes just underneath those hands. “It looks like he was holding something, doesn’t it?”

Xiao took a moment to examine Dengfeng’s fingers and robes, then looked up to meet Gu’s expectant gaze and nodded silently in agreement. He gave the man a single pat on the shoulder and stood up again, turning back to the gathered priests. Xiao took a few steps until he was standing next to their young, priestly guide and asked, in a quiet tone of confidentiality, “Was the priest carrying anything when he left the temple? His hands look as though something’s been torn from their grasp.”

While Xiao had pitched his voice in a quiet and seemingly confidential tone, he’d still – intentionally – spoken just loud enough for the other priests gathered nearby to hear. He’d observed them from the corner of his eye as he’d done so and, as he hoped, his question had gotten a reaction. A few of the priests were now nudging and whispering to each other, eyes bouncing surreptitiously between Dengfeng’s corpse, the two SASA inspectors, and the temple building behind them.

“Care to share with the rest of us?”, Xiao asked them. This time his voiced was edged and hard, and made it clear that it would be in their best interest not to dissemble.

Gu Bolin had finally stood up by this time and was now bearing down on the enclave of whispering monks with a glower that was something of a trademark of his firmly affixed to his face. In exchange for their services and loyalty to the Party and the State, SASA agents were given broad authority with relatively little oversight and they had already developed a reputation amongst China’s population for having a rather imperious and haughty attitude. Xiao Lok was hardly an exception, but Gu Bolin could really take it to another level when he wanted to.

“Out with it monk!”, snapped the older SASA agent, having apparently chosen one of the two priests in the middle of the whispering group to bear the brunt of his indignation. “What aren’t you telling us? Or is it you we should be investigating here?”

“No sir!”, the young man exclaimed and somehow managed to point at the corpse and wave both hands simultaneously. “I swear to you, I had nothing to do with this!”

Gu Bolin covered the remaining distance between himself and the unfortunate target of his ire and, his glower still marring his already less-than-appealing features, jabbed a pointing finger into the poor trembling monk’s chest to emphasize his words.

“You, and your companions – No! Your co-conspirators! – are hiding something!”, the SASA agent shouted. Personally, Xiao thought his partner was overdoing it, but he’d learned a long time ago that while liberal Capitalists in the West might not approve of such ‘bullying’ the truth was that it got people talking.

“Just tell us what you know”, Xiao demanded, backing his partner’s play (though his own tone was noticeably less imperious). “We only want to determine what caused this poor man’s death. Once we’ve solved that mystery our superiors can ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again. Helping us helps the State.”

“Yes”, Gu continued, catching his partner’s cue and running with it, “and if you lie to us you work against the State. Keep it up and I can personally guarantee that you’ll lose all of your funding for your precious temple!”

As previously mentioned, Yuntai temple was to be the center of a massive rebuilding effort by the State-run Buddhist association with a final estimated cost in the millions of Yuan. Work on it all had barely begun, and to have all of that funding cut would leave the priests living and ministering here with little or nothing except a mark of shame for such a monumental failure that would haunt the rest of their priestly careers. The frightened young priest that Gu Bolin had singled out was still just staring wide-eyed at his tormentor, but one of his associates was a bit quicker to take initiative.

“The Hēi Long!”, he exclaimed, “Dengfeng Sun was trying to remove its effigy from the shrine inside of the temple!”

“What?”, asked Gu, his tirade cut short by this unexpected revelation.

“The effigy of the Black Dragon”, declared another of the monks, “Dengfeng declared it unsuitable for a place at our shrine, saying that it hadn’t been cleared or approved by our head office in Chengxiang. We told him that couldn’t be, that the effigy’s inclusion at the shrine was one of the conditions given by our largest contributor of funds for the temple’s construction, but the elder brother wouldn’t listen and insisted on removing the Black Dragon’s effigy at once. He was carrying it when he… died.” Xiao Lok thought the monk sounded as though he’d been about to say something different and had thought better of it at the last moment, but before he could ask him about it his partner interjected loudly.

“He was carrying a statue when he died? In his arms?”, Gu demaned. A few of the priests nodded in the affirmative. “Then why did you remove it?! You’ve tampered with the scene of the crime! With evidence! Explain yourselves at once!”

The young monk that Gu had initially targeted for his tirade appeared to have gotten his wits back again, and this time it was he who answered first. “Pardon us, sir, but we couldn’t simply leave it there!”

“Of course you could!”, Gu countered angrily, “It’s easy, you just don’t pick it up! There, simple! Problem solved!”

At this the gathered monks began shifting anxiously and exchanging sidelong glances of discomfort with each other. The young monk who’d answered Gu did so again, “Oh no, sir! To do so would be absolutely unacceptable.”

“What nonsense are you speaking?”, Gu lamented, “It would have been the opposite of unacceptable. In fact, I’d have commended you for it, if you had. Right, Xiao?”

Before Xiao could comment, the monk corrected Gu. “My pardon sir, but I did not mean you. I meant it would have been unacceptable to the Black Dragon!”

The other monks were nodding at this, and it was Xiao’s turn to ask, “What?”

“Isn’t it obvious, sir?”, the monk asked him, “Our venerable brother, Dengfeng Sun, was struck down by the Black Dragon for his disrespect towards its effigy and for attempting to remove it from its rightful place at the shrine.”

Xiao and his partner were both stopped up short by this remark and they exchanged a long look with each other while each tried to determine where to go from here. The Chinese Communist Party had had to pull its fellow countrymen out of the mire of superstition and religious dogma by its collective bootstraps, but even so it was not terribly uncommon to hear superstitious comments in this country. Xiao’s own mother had been fond of visiting a local fortune teller to have questions of finance and home troubles answered for her. But to hear someone – even a Buddhist priest whose religious beliefs were, presumably, much stronger than those of most of his countrymen – make a claim that was as flatly outrageous as the one that some minor god had struck a man down dead in broad daylight simply because he’d dared to move that petty god’s statue was – well, it was outrageous.

“Where is the effigy now?”, asked Gu Bolin, “Back in place at the shrine, I take it?” One of the priests nodded silently.

“Show us”, said Xiao.

As a group the monks all turned and began walking back towards the temple building, which was not far away to begin with. As they walked Xiao fell into step next to the monk who’d suffered the brunt of his partner Gu’s wrath and who had revealed to them why it had been deemed necessary for the dragon-god’s effigy to be moved. Xiao asked him, “What did your fellow priest mean when he said that the effigy’s inclusion at your temple’s shrine was a condition of the funding you’ve received?”

“Well not all of it”, answered the young man, seeming to have recovered already from his fear and now speaking in a mild tone and with a slight smile on his lips. “But the source of most of our temple’s funding was very specific in her desire that the Black Dragon have a place here at Yuntai.”

Xiao nodded a little impatiently at this unnecessary clarification and asked, “And who was the source of this funding, exactly?”

The monk’s eyebrows rose at the question and he seemed to hesitate momentarily, and so it was that they were passing through the temple’s doorway and the shrine and effigy in question were just coming into view as he began to answer. “It is Madam Wu herself who has provided the bulk of the funding for the building project here”, he finally answered, finishing just as the group came to a stop before the shrine.

Xiao Lok stared at him. Madam Wu, he thought, well this adds a whole new dynamic to the investigation.

Madam Wu, real name Wu Zhilan, frequently referred to by those who knew of her as Empress Wu, was the most powerful woman – indeed, the most powerful individual of either gender – in Chongqing’s municipality. In fact she was rapidly becoming one of the most powerful individuals in all of China, and it was rumored that one could feel her influence all the way to Beijing itself. Her husband, Wei Keung, had been the party chief of Chongqing’s municipality until his untimely demise (that some said was caused by Madam Wu herself). Wu Zhilan’s nickname, the Empress Wu, was a reference to China’s first (and, so far, only) female Emperor, Wu Zetian. It was also a reasonably accurate indication of just how powerful the woman really was, too.

“The Empress” was known to have strong ties with the Communist Party’s liberal wing and had been kicking up some controversy lately because of her support for many religious activities, shrines, and temples. (This was to say, rather, that she had been kicking up more controversy than normal, as the simple fact of her being a woman who wielded great amounts of power within the traditionally male-dominated Communist Party made her the center of an ongoing controversy as it was.) Personally, Xiao admired the woman for her savvy in providing such support. The truth was that religion and superstition – in a variety of forms – was making a comeback in China. In some of the more backwater portions of the country it was more accurate to say that the Party was in retreat in the face of this religious resurgence. Madam Wu was very effectively forestalling any such occurrence in Chongqing by doing what most of the Party was too afraid to do, except in the most half-hearted of ways, and her own power and policies were now inextricably intertwined with religious and superstitious belief in the municipality.

And that was all well and good, but now Xiao Lok found himself caught in the middle of what had suddenly become a very delicate situation. They would need to examine this “Black Dragon’s” effigy, and to run some tests on it as well in order to properly conduct their investigation, but doing so would make it difficult for the priests here and could potentially be seen by the Empress as a challenge to her power. And speaking of that; if rumors started to spread that a man had been struck dead on the spot simply for removing one of the Empress’s favored deities from a shrine of her choosing, the entire situation could quickly get out of hand.

Gu Bolin had not heard the conversation between his partner and the monk, and so he remained completely ignorant of the Black Dragon’s exalted status as one of Madam Wu’s favored little gods. He stopped before the temple’s shrine and, his frown still very firmly fixed in place, demanded loudly to know which of the effigies before him was the Black Dragon. One of the monks pointed and Gu found himself regarding the statue of man seated, and dressed, in a manner fairly typical for such “honored ancestor”-style statues. As was typically the case for Chinese dragon deities, the “Black Dragon” was here represented as a human being, dressed in appropriately regal robes and with appropriately sage-like facial hair. All in all the Black Dragon didn’t look that impressive to Gu Bolin.

“This is it?”, he demanded to know, looking from priest to priest with an expression of incredulity. “I’ve seen more impressive effigies at the family shrine in my father’s home!”

The gathered monks chose, wisely, not to respond to this taunt. “Well you wasted your time”, Gu declared, turning his frowning countenance back to the Dragon’s statue. Leaning forward, Gu poked at the statue with the same pen he’d used to examine Dengfeng’s corpse, eliciting small gasps of dismay and disapproval from a few of the watching Buddhist priests. The SASA agent threw them a withering glance at this but he nonetheless pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and, using that, shifted the statue this and way and that as he gave it a thorough looking over. This seemed to appall the gathered priests just the tiniest bit less than poking it with a pen had. When Gu examined its base he immediately saw more of what appeared to be the same powder that had he’d noticed on Dengfeng Sun’s robes outside; though it appeared to be just some powdered clay worn lose from the statue’s bottom, the power and the statue would still need to be analyzed properly.

Gu looked back to the monks and finished his sentence from a moment before, “we’re just going to have to move it again”, he said, “and hope your meddling hasn’t hopelessly contaminated any evidence we might have pulled off of it otherwise.”

“You mustn’t do that”, said the priest who Xiao Lok had been speaking with as they’d entered the temple. “That effigy was placed there and blessed by the holy woman Plum Flower Sika herself.”

“Even if I knew who that was”, pronounced Gu Bolin, adding quickly, “and I don’t – it still wouldn’t make a difference. I promise you that your statue will be returned to you as soon as our people are done analyzing it.”

“Please”, entreated the young monk, “you cannot do this. The Black Dragon’s presence here brings our temple great good fortune, and if you remove it you can only bring calamity on yourself.”

“Are you threatening me?”, demanded Xiao’s partner.

To this the young priest could only shake his head in the negative and, bowing at the waste, say that he begged the inspector’s forgiveness for his rudeness.

Gu was looking appropriately huffy about all of this, but was somewhat distracted now, as he had his cell phone in his hand and was regarding its display with a look of disapproval. “Reception up here is lousy”, he muttered. Turning his attention back to the priest before him he said, “You and I aren’t done yet. I’m going to step outside and, assuming I can get any reception on top of this mountain, I’m going to find out what’s taking our forensics group so long to get out here. Once they get here we will tear this place apart and you’ll wish it were just a ‘divine’ calamity you were dealing with. Then we’ll see how uncooperative you all are.”

Gu Bolin threw one more disparaging look at the Buddhist priests before him and then he turned and walked out of the temple. Xiao Lok watched him go while debating within himself. He knew that his partner might not be so eager to mistreat the priests or their idols if he knew that it was Wu Zhilan herself who’d installed them all here, but he also knew that Gu was right about needing to go over everything forensically, and that that would mean moving the Black Dragon’s effigy – and probably carting it off to a lab somewhere for at least a few weeks, too. This was one apple cart that was going to be disturbed no matter what, and if Gu wanted to be the one doing the disturbing then so much the better. A part of Xiao wanted to tell his partner what was at stake here on Yuntai mountain, but the other (larger) part of him saw an opportunity to navigate a tricky situation with his career still intact and, frankly, he was inclined to take advantage of that opportunity now that he’d seen it.

These thoughts were still passing through Xiao’s head when the screaming started.
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  • 7 months later...
Those who devote themselves to the martial arts spend their lives striving to perfect their martial techniques.

I say that, having mastered their techniques, they should then master the art of not needing them.

Many also strive to master their limbs, their breathing, their very bodies, and to achieve a perfection of strength thereby.

I say this is time ill spent.

Once you have defined strength within yourself you have also defined weakness, and by mastering your own body you only succeed in enslaving yourself. Even the largest and strongest trees in the forest will break in the face of a powerful storm, while fragile blades of grass will be trampled underfoot, but the reeds that grow by the riverbank bend and are not broken, are pushed aside but spring back immediately to their proper place. You must understand at least this much before you can learn anything from my teachings.

Strength and weakness, perfected skill and complete ignorance. Each is defined by its opposite and has no meaning apart from it; they are all one. Therefore the man who pursues strength and shuns weakness, who seeks perfection of skill and fears to “not know” a thing, this man makes an enemy out of himself. And so it can be said that the true martial artist knows nothing of either strength or weakness, but simply knows his own self.

To master is to conquer, to conquer is to be victorious, and to be victorious is to pacify. Pacification can only be achieved through violent force but violent force does not always pacify. It is therefore true that both the man who seeks to pacify without the use of violence and the man who revels in violent force for its own sake are alike in that neither will ever know lasting peace. And so it can be said that the only right way is the way of peace.

You should study these things thoroughly, so that you may properly appreciate them.

--Guo Zhenglai, excerpt from Wéiyi Dí Lùjìng

When Anton Solzhenitsyn finally found the Shifu it was at the Rootless Tree, where the ancient master was busily cleaning up the detritus of paper good luck charms, prayer flags and burnt joss sticks that were scattered about the area. It was already very late – or, depending on how you looked at it, very early – the sun had set long ago, and the air at the top of Huashan was now very cold. It was not, in Anton’s opinion anyway, the time or the place for China’s so-called ‘Ninth Immortal’ to be out picking up litter.

Once, the Rootless Tree – a large and undeniably “Asian-looking” pine tree that clung, somehow, to the bare rock face of Huashan’s Middle Peak – had simply been another of the mountain’s many tourist attractions. People would come to the tree to admire it, take pictures of it, perhaps tie a prayer flag around one of its branches, and then be on their way. Now, however, it was the site of a small but seemingly irremovable shrine to the Shifu himself. Ever since his eruption as a nova, the common people of China had believed the Shifu to be a real, genuine “Taoist Immortal” (Anton was Russian, as he was always quick to point out, and therefore not susceptible to such foolish superstitions... whatever that was supposed to mean), and while for most this simply translated to a great deal of respect and nationalistic pride directed at the elderly sage, for some few it had come to mean an unhealthy devotion that hadn’t been asked for and, honestly, was not desired.

These deluded fools (as Anton thought of them) would spend hours hiking up Huashan’s longest and most arduous paths, not so that they could see the sunset from the mountain’s top as many did, or so that they could take pictures of themselves standing next to its numerous tourist attractions as most did, nor even so that they could meet the Shifu himself and attempt to engage him in an actual conversation as only a few did – and certainly not so that they could ask to be accepted as one of the Shifu’s students in the martial arts as only a tiny handful had ever done! No, they hiked for hours up the mountain just so that they could visit a shrine – erected by other deluded fools – built to honor the Shifu and his supposed enlightenment and immortality. There they would drop off their prayer flags or good luck charms, or burn their joss sticks, and perhaps say a prayer as well (Anton could only hope they weren’t actually praying to the Shifu). By the end of a typical day the area around the little shrine – which had been built, for whatever reason, next to the Rootless Tree – was a mess of paper charms and ash that the wind was all too prone to blowing away and scattering all across the Middle Peak’s face if left alone.

But the Shifu – in Anton’s opinion anyway – was a softhearted old man, and he refused to admonish the ‘pilgrims’ who arrived every day to visit ‘his’ shrine or demand that they at least clean up their mess before going back home for the day. Instead, he would wait until long after the sun had set and the tourists and pilgrims were either asleep or on their way back home, and then the Shifu would go to ‘his’ shrine and clean the area himself, tending to the Rootless Tree as well if he determined it to be necessary. Usually, by the time he was finished the site was immaculate, with only the tiny alter itself and the rather simple-looking effigy meant, one presumed, to represent the Shifu remaining to show that there was anything remarkable about the area other than the Rootless Tree itself. Anton knew that the Shifu wanted to remove the alter as well but, as the ancient master had explained to him once, doing so would only prompt its devotees to put up a new one that would probably just be larger and gaudier and even more out of place than the original.

And despite their numerous protests, the Shifu wouldn’t even allow any of his students to help in the cleanup either. Stubbornly, the old man insisted on doing the work himself, toiling away in the windy cold of Huashan’s predawn hours to clean up someone else’s mess. Anton had once asked him why he tolerated the pilgrims who came to see ‘his’ shrine and why he was willing to clean up after them night after night. “Though I may not have intended it”, the Shifu had answered him, “they are like wayward children birthed by my presence here on this mountain. A good parent does not disown his children for behaving foolishly, and he cleans up after their messes until they are old enough or wise enough to do so themselves.” With a wink and a smile he had then added, “If you want to help, then join me in praying that they grow up quickly.”

Anton hadn’t come to the Rootless Tree to help clean, however.

“Shifu”, he called, his deep voice rumbling in his massive chest even as he endeavored to keep his tone soft and respectful, “an emissary from the Empress requests your presence. She’s waiting for you back at the temple.” The Shifu, Guo Zhenglai, stopped what he was doing and turned to look at his student. Wordlessly, the old master set his trash sack to one side and began to follow his student who, also wordlessly, turned to lead him back to the temple.

Anton Solzhenitsyn was one of Guo Zhenglai’s few non-Chinese students, and the only one – apart from the SASA recruits sent to train under him – who was also a nova. The Ministry of State Security had made it very clear to him – on more than one occasion – that they were not pleased with his decision to allow non-Chinese to study at the Temple of the Jade Maiden, but Guo Zhenglai had been teaching Taijiquan there for more than seven decades – long before the government had taken any notice of him – and he had always allowed anyone who wished to, and who showed the necessary resolve, to study under him, whether Chinese or not. Anton had found his way to Jade Maiden Temple after his own (and Zhenglai’s) eruption, but before the Ministry had formed SASA or gotten wind of Zhenglai’s presence up on top of Huashan and, as a result, had been effectively ‘grandfathered in’ once the Shifu had been taken into SASA’s employ.

The Russian nova stood more than two meters tall, had bulging, inhumanly large muscles, violet-colored skin, hair that was almost whiter than Zhenglai’s, pointed ears and vaguely feline facial features. He was immensely strong and tough and his nova powers were all either very esoteric or very destructive or both, and ever since his eruption as a nova he’d had… ‘anger management’ issues. The Shifu had never seemed to be bothered by his appearance or his temper in the slightest, but Anton made most everyone else nervous.

Since the big Russian’s physical mutations didn’t seem to have anything to do with his actual powers and appeared to be entirely vestigial, the Shifu believed them to be the result of some kind of ‘imbalance’ within Anton’s falì – his power as a nova – and, as such, that it was something that could be ‘balanced’, or corrected. Anton wasn’t sure he agreed, but whereas he knew for a fact that he wasn’t the smartest guy out there, he was pretty sure that the Shifu was, so he’d chosen to keep his misgivings to himself and to wait and see what the old man came up with.

The direct Chinese translation for ‘quantum power’ worked out to something like ‘power of measurement’ or ‘measurement power’, which, obviously, fell a bit short of the mark in terms of accuracy (novas who actually did have measurement-related powers notwithstanding). So, naturally, the Chinese had come up with other words to describe novas and their powers – quite a few of them, in fact. ‘Officially’, novas were referred to as ‘chaorén’, meaning simply ‘supermen’, though another popular name for them was ‘qínéngyìshì’, which translated to something like ‘extraordinary hero with special abilities’. Meanwhile ‘quantum power’, the Western term for that ineffable source for all of a nova’s superhuman abilities, was officially referred to as ‘néngyuán’, which meant ‘energy source’, but unofficially most of the common Chinese people referred to nova powers as falì, which meant ‘magic power’.

Steeped as he was in Taoist mysticism, the Shifu also preferred falì over néngyuán, but he also liked the word because it was, in his opinion, a more accurate description of the power most novas possessed. As Guo Zhenglai had once explained it to Anton, the word falì actually meant something along the lines of ‘the ability to change the rules’, and was comprised of the root words fa and . Fa meant ‘law’ or ‘rule’, while meant ‘power’, ‘capability’, or ‘influence’, and it was , the Shifu had explained to him, that was the critical piece of the puzzle in explaining Anton’s unasked-for mutations. was simple, raw capability, a capacity to influence a thing, without any inherent direction, qualification, or even control, and that was the crux of the problem, if Guo Zhenglai was correct.

But there was another type of ‘magic’ that, the ancient sage believed, very few novas possessed – possibly even that no nova possessed. Not yet, at least. When Anton had asked if the Shifu himself did not already possess this ‘other kind of magic’, the Shifu had assured him that, while he undoubtedly was not suffering from the same kind of ‘imbalance’ as Anton was, his own falì was ultimately no different from the big Russian’s.

That ‘other kind of magic’, the Shifu had explained, was called fashù, which also meant ‘magic’ but that more literally translated as ‘the discipline of changing the rules’. The fa in the word was the same as that in falì, but instead of – mere capability – such a nova would instead possess shù, meaning ‘skill’, ‘technique’, or ‘discipline’. It was Guo Zhenglai’s opinion that any nova who could transform the power that made them what they were from a mere ‘capability’ into a fully realized and developed discipline would, by their very nature, be incapable of possessing any unwanted ‘imbalances’ in their quantum essence.

That was the theory, at any rate, and one that had yet to be validated. Even the Shifu himself claimed to have not yet reached this supposed pinnacle of quantum enlightenment, or even to be sure that it was possible, though Anton felt sure that if anyone could achieve such a thing, it would be the Shifu. And having sought out China’s ‘Ninth Immortal’, Guo Zhenglai, hoping that the ancient Taoist sage could teach him the discipline and means to control the temper that boiled within his quantum-charged form, Anton had a vested interest in the Shifu’s success.

Of course, Anton reflected, the Shifu’s efforts would doubtless go much more smoothly if it weren’t for ‘the Empress’ and her all-too-frequent interference in the goings-on at the Jade Maiden Temple on Huashan. As it was, China’s State Administration of Super-human Affairs had saddled Guo Zhenglai with enough extra work to make it difficult for him to find time for his true students without Wu Zhilan – aka ‘Madam Wu’, aka ‘the Empress’ – coercing the Taoist priest into helping her run her criminal empire.

It had taken less than a year for SASA to form after the first appearance of novas around the world and within China, and the ‘Ninth Immortal’ had been one of their first ‘recruits’. It had taken less than six months after that for the more corrupt elements of China’s government to show up at the Jade Maiden’s doorstep, in the form of an emissary from the Empress herself. As SASA had before her, the Empress had essentially coerced the old Taoist sage into working for her – with the continued safety of the priests and students of the Jade Maiden itself as the ‘payment’ for his cooperation.

It made sense, really. Guo Zhenglai had only just recently completed his training of the last of his current batch of students from the Ministry of State Security, and there hadn’t yet been any word of new recruits being sent to replace them. Everyone at the temple had been looking forward to some relative peace and quiet – and an increase in the amount of attention that the Shifu could give to the rest of his non-State-sponsored students – so of course the Empress would demand his help now! Not that it took much these days, but just thinking about it was enough to cause Anton’s never-very-pleasant mood to take a sharp nosedive.

Clearly sensing his student’s mood, the Shifu stopped the big Russian nova outside of the Jade Maiden temple and said, “Anton, go on ahead to the training room and begin a set of moving-meditation exercises; you may stop at sunrise. If my meeting with Madam Wu’s representative ends quickly enough I will join you.” Anton nodded quietly (if one discounted the sound of teeth grinding in frustration) and turned towards the temple’s single small training room. A good thing about being a nova (in their cases, at least) was that neither he nor the Shifu required much, if any, sleep and so could often engage in one-on-one training during the small hours of the night.

Guo Zhenglai watched the departing back of his most troubled and powerful student for a moment and then started up the steps leading to the temple’s meeting room, where he knew the Empress’ emissary would be waiting. The moving-meditation exercises would help to calm Anton’s temper, but more importantly, they would keep him away from the meeting itself. ‘Heaven above, the Abyss below’; so the yarrow stalks had said when he’d done his reading earlier that afternoon, and the signs were clear enough, even without the old sage’s quantum-enhanced insight: great and opposing forces were now in conflict with each other, and before the night was over he would be dragged into it.

Best not to have six hundred pounds of perpetually angry Russian nova around when it happened.


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  • 9 months later...

Of those who devote themselves to the martial arts – though they may claim to be pursuing the complete mastery of their minds and bodies – many in fact are seeking only to forestall old age or death and, of the rest, most fear vulnerability.


You should recognize that this is a perversion of the natural course of things, causing even the spry young sapling to wither under the sun’s dry heat, and snapping even the strongest oak at its base as the trunk rots from within. If even this much is beyond your understanding, how can you hope to learn anything further from my teachings?


It is also imperative that you do not mistake the creative for the overcoming, or the generative for destruction. Death always yields to new life, yet age and wisdom are superior to strength and youth; wrath, no matter how great, can never withstand an infant’s laughter, yet mere muscle can potentially end any man’s life. Water quenches flames and nourishes wood, wood feeds the flame and pushes aside earth, earth holds even the oceans in their place and bears forth metals, metal can always split wood yet it melts under a flame’s heat, fire is quenched by water and the cycle begins again.


The distinctions should be apparent.


--Guo Zhenglai, excerpt from Wéi Lùjìng (simpl. Chinese 启蒙)

,, ,,

The Jade Maiden’s receiving room was not large, but it was perhaps the most elegantly appointed of its rooms, aside from or along with the meditation and reading rooms. Most of the temple’s rooms were very spare or utilitarian; the kitchen and the main training hall were furnished only with what was necessary for their respective functions, while the bedrooms of the priests, teachers, and students tended to contain little beyond a bed, a chair, and one or two pieces of simple furniture for holding their few personal belongings. Even Guo Zhenglai’s cabin, where he and, until her death, his wife had lived for the past several decades was a tiny and extremely simple affair.


By contrast, the Maiden’s receiving room looked a little more like what one imagined when picturing ancient Chinese temples nestled atop mystical mountains. Finely carved wood paneling adorned both walls and ceiling, and there were a decent number of scrolls and paintings depicting the words and visages of various Taoist sages hanging from them as well. Tables, chairs and other furniture in the room were crafted from finely-aged and finely-carved dark wood, and incense bowls with joss sticks poking out of their tops could be found here and there.


Yuen Chao-Xing, the Empress’ emissary, was standing with her back facing Guo Zhenglai as he entered the receiving room. She was examining a scroll hanging next to a window that, during daylight hours, gave a fine view down the mountain’s side and of the valley below it. At the moment it was only a window onto blackness.


Reading from the scroll, the young woman recited,


The rootless tree,

Its flowers secluded.

Who among those attached to the red dust of this world would cultivate it?

The affairs of this floating life

Are like a ship on a sea of bitterness.

Driven hither and thither, out of control,

With no sight of land or shore, how difficult it is to find safe mooring.

So we drift forever in a region of cruel sea monsters.

If you will but turn your head,

And look back at this shore.

Do not wait for the wind and waves to wreck your ship.”


As she finished the last line of the scroll, Yuen Chao-Xing turned to regard the famous Guo Dixian.


“Good advice, for those willing to hear it”, the old sage observed, nodding his head at the scroll hanging behind her.


Yuen’s response was a sly smile with the subtle undertones of a smirk and a shifting of the eyes in the direction of the scroll, though she did not turn to look at it again. Looking back at Guo Zhenglai, the smile still on her lips, she replied, “That’s the first stanza of the Wu-ken Shu, is it not?”


“Yes it is”, Zhenglai answered her, “You’re familiar with Chang San-feng’s writings on the Rootless Tree?”


“I’ve read them”, Yuen acknowledged, “but I didn’t understand most of the verses. What was your interpretation of them, Guo Da Shi?”


“Most of the stanzas”, the ancient master replied, regarding her seriously and nodding his head, “are about sex.” He shrugged his old shoulders and added, “Or not, depending on whom you ask.”


The knowing little smile on Yuen’s lips slipped before she could catch it, and the young woman seemed to be temporarily at a loss for a response. Guo Zhenglai, his own expression perfectly neutral, waited a beat before asking her, “What urgent matter brings you to the Temple of the Jade Maiden in the middle of the night, Ms. Yuen? Surely it is more important than old Taoist poetry?”


Yuen Chao-Xing held no official position in China’s government – certainly not in the SASA – and she was by no means well-known to the general public. Zhenglai’s own reputation was far better-known, actually. Yet the young woman was nonetheless an exceptional individual, a talented nova, and she exercised a great deal of personal authority within those circles who knew of her. This was because she was the personal representative of Wu Zhilan, aka “The Empress”, who was the most powerful woman, and one of the most powerful individuals, in all of China. And though Zhenglai might work for SASA on paper, in reality he worked for the Empress.


It was not a contract of employment he had accepted voluntarily, and it did not make him especially pleased to see Ms. Yuen. While there were no records of it in SASA’s databases, Guo Zhenglai had trained her himself for a time, and though she had been an able student and very talented in the martial arts, Yuen Chao-Xing had shown little interest in learning anything from him other than how best to hit things. The old nova genuinely hoped she gained some wisdom in her ‘floating life’ before its wind and waves wrecked her ship.


“Of course you’re right, Guo Da Shi”, Yuen Chao-Xing answered, having regained her poise, “poetry is not what I’m here to discuss after all.” She half-turned and placed one delicate hand on the window sill behind her, turning to glance briefly out of it, almost as though checking to see that no one was lurking outside listening in on their conversation. Apparently satisfied that there wasn’t, she turned back to Guo and leaned against the windowsill as she asked, in weighted tones, “What do you know about the cult of the Black Dragon?”


“The Hēi Long?”, asked Zhenglai, not trying to hide his surprise at being asked about such a thing by such a person at such an unusual hour of the night. “I don’t know about any ‘cults’ associated with the black dragon of Shaanxi”, the ancient master went on, “but I know it is a relatively recent, vaguely Buddhist deity based out of the village of Hongliutan in the Yulin prefecture. Why do you ask?”


“What about Yuntai temple?”, Yuen pressed, ignoring (rudely) her former master’s question.


“The one in Chengxiang?”, he queried in return. “Yes”, she answered. Guo shrugged again and answered, “It is in the early planning stages of development, and is a project that Madam Wu has taken a personal interest in. I’ve heard that it will be quite something once it is finished.” The ancient master stopped speaking for a moment and fixed his deep nearly-black eyes on Yuen in sudden interest. “Did Madam Wu install an effigy of the Hēi Long at Yuntai temple?”


Yuen’s pretty eyes – nearly as black as Zhenglai’s – narrowed at his question, and in a voice tinged with suspicion she asked in return, “How did you know that?”


To Yuen Chao-Xing’s annoyance, the old master merely smiled sadly, but sweetly, at her and told her that, “I did not.” The Shifu shifted his old eyes away from hers and looked over her shoulder, into the blackness of the window behind her, as he seemed to consider. “But it was logical”, he continued after a brief pause, “A temple as large as Yuntai is meant to be will be quite the public works project, and unless the rumors that reach these old ears of mine up here on this lofty mountain have deceived me it is a project with much support amongst the common people. The Hēi Long has also been growing in popularity amongst the common people, specifically in Shaanxi and in the municipality of Chengdu. Giving official support for both would only be prudent on Madam Wu’s part.”


Guo Zhenglai spread his left hand out to his side, as if in surrender, while his right hand maintained its grip on his knotted old cane, and in a mild tone he concluded, “And since you asked me about both of these things, one right after the other….”


“…the conclusion was obvious”, Chao-Xing finished for him. “Yes, I see.”


Almost grudgingly, the lovely young nova offered the Shifu a smile of admiration. The way Guo Zhenglai explained things, it had sounded obvious, too, but Yuen knew this was deceptive. The man the ‘common people’ referred to as Guo Dixian, ‘The Earth-bound Immortal’, possessed a humble attitude and unassuming demeanor that, combined with his readily apparent and very great age, made it all too easy to forget that he wasn’t just an old man who happened to be really good at teaching the martial arts – he also possessed an intellect that caused even Madam Wu – by far the most brilliant mind that Yuen Chao-Xing had ever encountered – to sit up and take notice. Every time she was reminded of this facet of the old master, it made her nervous.


The expression in Guo Zhenglai’s ancient eyes right at that moment wasn’t exactly making Yuen comfortable, either, and she realized that he’d been staring intently over her shoulder and out the window behind her ever since he’d trailed off in midsentence a moment before. “What is it?”, Yuen demanded.


The Shifu’s eyes snapped back to hers and he said, “You should step away from that window.”


“What?”, she asked in confusion, turning to look back at the window in question even as she stepped to one side of it. Just in time, too, because the beam of coherent red light that melted a glowing hole through its glass at just that instant missed her by only a hair’s breadth. Had the Shifu not said anything it would have punched a hole clean through her middle.


Gasping in surprise, Yuen took another quick step backwards and jerked her head, following the laser’s path and hoping it hadn’t struck Guo Dixian. The Empress was unlikely to forgive her if it had. She needn’t have worried, however, because the Shifu, Yuen saw, had somehow ‘captured’ the laser’s beam in midair using hand motions that she couldn’t follow, causing a twisting and knotting of space where the laser’s beam ended that made her feel dizzy when she looked at it too hard.


Guo Zhenglai shifted his footing just slightly and, with both hands, pushed, causing the beam to bend back into itself and decohere in a cascade of crimson brilliance. At the same time the entire window pane through which the beam had come burst from its frame, scattering glass shards into the night. With a speed that seemed impossible for such an old body, the ancient master then crossed the receiving room’s width and passed through the window’s now vacant pane as easily as a spring breeze passing through a forest glade, disappearing into the night’s blackness almost before she realized what he was doing.


A former student of the Shifu herself, Yuen Chao-Xing was not much slower to react to the situation than her former master, following him through the broken window and into the night within a second or two of his passing. She immediately found herself swathed in blackness as her eyes, used to the illuminated interior of the Jade Maiden’s receiving room, struggled to adjust to the dark of the moonless night outside. Though many aspects of her basic human nature had been enhanced when she erupted as a nova, her physical senses had not been amongst them.


From the corner of her still mostly night-blind eyes Yuen caught a spark of red light as it appeared from somewhere up in the trees that surrounded the temple, diving for cover just in time to evade another of the crimson laser beams as it arced down over her head. The beam sliced cleanly through a bush growing near the base of the Maiden’s wall just behind her, sizzling into its bricks and mortar with a quiet rasping sound. A mildly exasperated sigh escaped from someone’s lips just to her left and Yuen looked up in alarm only to find Guo Zhenglai standing over her with his head bent over what appeared, in the darkness, to be a small piece of paper.


“Please try not to strike the temple”, the old man called out, directing his plea in an almost admonishing tone to whichever of their unseen attackers was responsible for the destructive beams of coherent light.


Chao-Xing pulled herself to her feet next to her former master, trying to rub away the laser’s brilliant afterimage out of her vision. He was still peering intently at the little piece of paper held in one gnarled old hand – which she now recognized as one of the fulu talismans he always seemed to have on him – while with the other hand he scribbled arcane symbols she could barely make out in the darkness with a calligraphic pen he’d gotten she knew not where, all the while muttering what sounded like Taoist sutras in archaic Chinese. Yuen had no idea what he was about but she thought it wondrously foolhardy of him and was about to grab the old fool and drag him to safety when he suddenly stopped his writing and muttering, cried out loudly “Yè shēn, yuè zhèng míngyuè!”, and threw the fulu talisman into the night.


The paper talisman began to glow immediately upon leaving the ancient master’s hand and it seemed to Yuen that it was flying much further, and faster, than such a small piece of paper had a right to. It rapidly grew brighter as it streaked towards the trees and Yuen had just made out what she thought might be shapes moving in their branches, but then a baggy sleeve of Zhenglai’s priestly robes blocked her vision as he threw one arm out in front of her. Even so, the brilliant flare of light that erupted from the fulu talisman just as he did so managed to make her squint even with two layers of cloth between her and its source.


“Much better”, declared Zhenglai from where he stood to Chao-Xing’s left, and the robed arm blocking her view retracted as quickly as it had appeared. Yuen found herself gazing out upon a suddenly illuminated landscape – or rather ‘treescape’, as the ground itself, and the trees along with it, dropped off rapidly down the mountain’s side starting not far from where she and Guo stood. Silvery light like that cast by the full moon was rippling through branches and leaves all around her, casting eerie shadows as it shifted and pulsed in time with the flickering ball of silver-white light that floated in the air just about where she had last seen the fulu talisman. A product of the Shifu’s ‘Taoist magic’, it seemed.


There were at least half a dozen figures moving through the branches of the trees and around their trunks. None of them looked precisely human.


“Do you think”, Zhenglai asked, indicating with a gesture the figures slinking through trees and darkness, “they might know anything about the cult of the Hēi Long?”


Yuen Chao-Xing looked at her former master and then back at those not-quite-human figures he’d just indicated and clenched her jaw. “Let’s ask them”, she said, and then leapt to join their strange attackers in battle under a shimmering, pulsing, false moonlight sparked by Taoist magic. Or quantum powers, depending on whom you asked, and assuming there was a difference.

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  • 1 month later...

This is how the battle under a shimmering, pulsing, false moonlight sparked by Taoist magic went: quickly. Also: eventfully.


Yuen Chao-Xing leapt into the nearest tree with attackers in it – two of them, in fact. As with, frankly, an embarrassingly large and clichéd number of other Chinese novas (including the Shifu himself), Chao-Xing possessed ‘light body’ powers resembling something out of a wire-fu movie, so it is perhaps more accurate to say that she glided gracefully into the nearest tree like a leaf blown on the wind. In any event, there was a tree with two attackers in it and then Chao-Xing arrived there, so then there were three people in it, and they all fought with each other. It was a short fight, too, and the two unknown attackers lost very emphatically.


In little more than an instant, Yuen’s powerful blows sent both of her enemies hurtling into the night, only to then careen down the nearly 90° slopes of Hua Shan’s Middle Peak to what would, no doubt, be their demise. Yuen Chao-Xing had not yet fully withdrawn her fist from the powerful long-form blow she’d used to send the second of her opponents flying when she heard the Shifu’s voice call out to her from a few trees away and inquire of her, “Were you able to ask those two about the Black Dragon cult Yuen? What did they say?”


Chao-Xing looked in the direction of the Shifu’s voice as he spoke, but upon hearing the question she immediately looked back to where she’d last seen her two opponents as they’d hurtled through the air (it was too dark to see them anymore, though), then back at the Shifu, and finally back to the darkness. There was nothing in the old master’s tone of voice to suggest that his question was anything but an honest one, and yet its implications so clearly pointed out the mistake she had just made that Yuen could not help but feel like quite the fool. The hot-headed young nova said nothing, but gritted her teeth and shot the old man a dirty look before leaping to do battle with her next opponent.


For his part, Guo Zhenglai had chosen to target the one responsible for firing the laser beams at his temple. He had already determined that his opponent did this using what appeared to be a pearl or smooth gemstone embedded in the man’s forehead, after having to defend himself from it two more times before he’d even reached his attacker’s tree. Guo supposed he thought of it as a pearl because its owner looked like some sort of dragon-man; vaguely reptilian – scales instead of skin, if his old eyes weren’t deceiving him in the dim lighting – eyes like a snake, and so on – but with a face that very much resembled a stylized Chinese dragon’s. Very unpleasant to look upon. The Shifu immediately gave him the private nickname of Tāotiè – the name of a ferocious man-monster from the Shang Dynasty period.


Now that Zhenglai had joined the dragon-man in his tree, Tāotiè seemed to give up on the idea of eviscerating the old master with a laser beam and started trying to eviscerate him with the wicked talons extending from each of his fingers instead. The Shifu deftly deflected two such swipes in quick succession, his expression placid and inscrutable in the false moonlight, and then his leg suddenly lashed out in a forward snap-kick straight to Tāotiè’s gut. The kick slammed his attacker into the main body of the tree’s trunk behind them, but the dragon-man shrugged it off almost instantly and used the hard wooden surface of the trunk to launch himself with renewed force at Zhenglai.


Rather than deflecting Tāotiè’s new round of vicious slashes and chops, the Shifu simply leaped straight up into the air. As he ascended the old master performed a twisting cartwheel motion that brought his feet around to where his head had been only a moment before. Being in a tree, he was of course surrounded by more branches – and that included directly overhead – so his now-skywards-pointing feet made contact with the underside of one such overhanging tree branch almost immediately. Bending at the knees, Guo Zhenglai allowed the momentum of his leap to carry him into a kind of upside-down squat on the bottom of the tree branch, at the nadir of which he “leapt” off the branch and launched himself back down at Tāotiè, his old arms outstretched and his hands open and reaching for the dragon-man.


Guo Zhenglai came down almost on top of Tāotiè, his reaching hands clamping down with force on each of his attacker’s shoulders. In the instant before his palms made contact with Tāotiè’s shoulders, Zhenglai began twisting at his hips, forcing his ancient body into a rapid corkscrewing motion just as his hands closed upon their targets. The result was that Tāotiè suddenly found himself off-balance and twisting right along with the centenarian kung fu master currently doing a handstand on his shoulders.


Needless to say, this sort of thing never ends well when one is standing several meters up, on a tree branch attached to a tree which is itself growing off the nearly vertical side of a mountain top. Tāotiè’s feet rapidly lost their grip on the branch underneath him, one foot slipping off one side of the branch, the other foot slipping in the opposite direction, which left only Tāotiè’s groin to stop the fall that resulted by colliding solidly with the tree branch.


Guo Zhenglai simply let the now-agonized (and possibly emasculated) dragon-man continue his somewhat awkward fall out of their tree, dropping out of his hand stand and coming to rest, right-side up, on almost exactly the same point on the tree branch from which he’d originally leapt. Tāotiè hit the ground at the base of the tree with a muffled *thump* an instant later, and Zhenglai left him there for the moment, turning his attention instead to the rest of their attackers.


Meanwhile, in a tree not so very far away, Chao-Xing found herself doing battle with a real ogre of a man. He was so large that Chao-Xing had to wonder how the tree they were fighting in could support him. She didn’t have much time or concentration to spare for such thoughts, however, as the ogre was really trying his damnedest to kill her, requiring quick-thinking and even quicker footwork on her part to evade his tree-trunk-sized arms. One of the ogre’s swings came in a little faster and a little closer on the mark than Chao-Xing was prepared for and she flung her arms up in an attempt to block the hit she’d failed to dodge. The blow struck her like a vehicle collision and sent her flying, but Chao-Xing expertly rolled with it and, bending backwards at the waist, allowed her momentum to carry her to an adjacent tree branch, which she hooked with bent knees and flexed calves and used as a makeshift gymnastics bar to swing herself around so that she was aimed at the ogre again.


Kicking off of the branch with a precisely timed kick, Chao-Xing launched herself at the ogre with nova-class speed. In an instant she brought her legs around and snapped first one and then the other of them out in a vicious one-two flying kick combination that impacted with the ogre’s chest and chin with an audible *thwack*. Caught completely off-guard by this, the ogre lost his balance and began to fall while Chao-Xing attempted to use the momentum of her flying kick to carry herself to a nearby branch, but at the last instant her attacker regained enough of his senses to lash out with one of his massive arms and latch an equally huge paw around her still-extended leg. Equally caught off-guard, Chao-Xing’s graceful leap was unceremoniously diverted and turned into an awkward and painful plummet to the ground below.


The ogre landed first, on his back, and swung the arm holding Chao-Xing’s leg down into the ground, dragging Chao-Xing with it. She hit the soil and rock at the tree’s base with enough force to kill a baseline – which meant it knocked the wind out of her and possibly cracked a rib or two – Chao-Xing was tougher than her petite frame would suggest. The ogre let go of her leg as he struggled to regain his feet on the uneven ground, and Chao-Xing used the opportunity to spin herself around and launch yet another powerful kick that connected solidly with the side of his face. Though she was clearly the faster of the two of them, the ogre was just as clearly tougher, because while he seemed to feel – and not to enjoy – being kicked by the Empress’s most trusted agent, her kicks really didn’t seem to be doing nearly as much damage as she would’ve liked.


In any case, the giant of a nova more or less ignored her kick to his face, grabbed Chao-Xing again, and flung her with herculean strength back up the mountain and towards the temple she and the Shifu had left only moments before. She missed the temple itself, but struck the awning that overhung a portion of the long, narrow courtyard that lay between the temple and the short cliff face atop which stood the Rootless Tree and the Shifu’s shrine, the impact abruptly slowing and altering the course of her trajectory so that she rebounded painfully against the stone paving of the courtyard underneath the awning and rolled to a stop in a crumpled heap a moment later.


Struggling to regain her feet, and still gasping for air after having the wind knocked out of her during the fall out of the tree, Chao-Xing rolled over onto her back and got her elbows under her. She’d barely pulled herself into a half sitting position when her eyes caught sight of the ogre flying through the air in a powerful arcing leap directly towards her, only an instant away from impacting with her again. Chao-Xing couldn’t do much except brace herself for the impact, but it was an impact that never came; a silhouette – nearly as large as that of the ogre – suddenly stepped into the path of her oncoming assailant and, spinning on its heel, executed a perfect roundhouse kick that cut the ogre’s leap short in an instant and flattened him against the courtyard’s pavement hard enough to crack stone.


The silhouette, Chao-Xing realized as her eyes adjusted to the dimmer lighting of the courtyard, was none other than Anton Solzhenitsyn, the only other nova who was actually supposed to be on Jade Maiden Peak. The hulking, purple-skinned nova turned away from the now-still form of the ogre to regard Yuen Chao-Xing with burning green eyes, his vaguely feline mouth pursed in disdain. “Should have figured there’d be trouble”, he said with a sneer, “there always is when you come around.”


Chao-Xing, still half-sitting on the ground, smirked defiantly right back at the big Russian until her eyes fell on the good-sized knife he’d pulled from seemingly out of nowhere. Anton’s expression bordered on the murderous for most of any given day, but even so, he looked particularly unhappy to see the Empress’s agent just then and Chao-Xing was by no means certain that he wouldn’t try to gut her where she lay. But her worries proved unfounded, as the Russian nova only turned away from her again and, in one smooth motion, hurled his knife in the direction of two more assailants that Chao-Xing hadn’t noticed until just then.


The glimmering false moonlight caused by the Shifu’s Taoist magic was much dimmer all the way up here in the temple’s inner courtyard, so Chao-Xing couldn’t be entirely certain, but it seemed as though Anton’s knife suddenly became a dense cloud of several dozen knives – perhaps more – all traveling at ballistic speed by the time they struck their targets, both of whom were essentially ripped to shreds by the veritable swarm of knives. What was left of them fell to the ground in messy heaps and tumbled to a stop several feet away from their two nova targets.


The ogre had regained his senses once again while Yuen and Anton had been preoccupied by his companions and, seeing their gruesome demise, apparently decided his cause was a lost one. Springing to his feet with nova-quickness, the giant nova started sprinting back towards the trees from whence he’d come, leaving Anton and Chao-Xing to chase after him. But after no more than a half-dozen steps the ogre faltered and fell to one knee, clutching at himself and screaming in pain. Chao-Xing and Anton skidded to a stop a few feet behind him and simply stared in bewildered confusion. The ogre, meanwhile, collapsed to the ground and rolled onto his back, still clutching at his chest and screaming at the top of his lungs; as his two pursuers looked on, dumbfounded, he quite literally began to burn up from the inside out.


“Do something!” Chao-Xing shouted, remembering that she wanted at least a few of these mysterious assailants alive for questioning and beginning to panic. Between them, she and Anton had already killed four of them, and she wasn’t sure how many more there were left.


Solzhenitsyn turned his perpetual glare on her and snarled, “What do you want me to do? Pull out my swinging, purple Russian cock and piss on him?” Yuen Chao-Xing didn’t seem to have anything immediate to say in reply to that, so Anton just turned back to watch the ogre’s body incinerate itself before his eyes. Moments later a pile of ash and charred bones were all that was left of him.


Anton finally turned to look back at Chao-Xing, confused surprise having mostly wiped the anger from his face for once, and the two novas just stared at each other for a moment. Then Chao-Xing’s stare transformed into a look of alarm and without warning she took off running in the same direction the ogre had been going only a moment before, but not before worriedly exclaiming, “The Shifu!”

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