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Invincible

By Kit Sun Cheah

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Kit Sun Cheah

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



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Table of Contents



Chapter 1: Blood and Fire

Chapter 2: Sujiang

Chapter 3: The Destroyer of Evil

Chapter 4: Beat the Grass to Scare the Snake

Chapter 5: Ritual

Chapter 6: Yaomo

Chapter 7: Zhang Wudi

About the Author

Connect With Me Online



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Chapter 1: Blood and Fire



Zhang Tianyou hated working with internal troops. The Shenwujun did all the hard work, while they claimed all the glory.

Shenwujun like him.

Zhang lowered to a knee, steadying himself against a hardy tree. By the light of the crescent moon, he saw the rebel encampment, two li away, situated by a burbling river. Defended by a thick wooden palisade, it boasted four guard towers and a gun pit at either entrance. A tough nut to crack, for the internal troops.

For Shenwujun, it was nothing.

Ten Shenwujun gathered silently around Zhang. Their leader tapped Zhang’s shoulder. Zhang nodded. Lowering himself to the ground, Zhang began the long crawl downhill and towards the southern gun pit.

Grass tickled his cheeks and brushed against his jet-black armor. The scent of soil filled his nostrils. Zhang moved carefully, his fingers probing the earth ahead. Whenever he found a rock, a twig, anything that might betray his presence, he gently set it aside. If it were too large, he crawled around it. Every so often, he lifted his head above the grass, just enough to check his bearings.

He immersed himself into the rhythm—right hand, left hand, right knee, left knee—going as fast as he dared while maintaining stealth. The enemy guards showed no sign of detecting his approach. He continued crawling. Right hand, left hand, left knee—

A cry of alarm.

He snapped his head up. Had he been detected?

No. Worse.

The internal troops had arrived. Two columns of men spilled out of the forest and wheeled towards the camp. One headed for the southern entrance, the other to the north.
The fools had attacked too early.

Rebels cried in alarm. Drummers pounded out a call to arms. The internal troops picked up the pace, but they were still too far away.

No more time for subtlety.

“Hong Er!” he whispered. “Lend me your strength!”

A warm female voice filled his mind. Who will you burn today?

“Rebels. Murderers, robbers and rapists, all of them.”

Very well.

His skin crackled. Invisible fire coursed through him, radiating from his crown and flowing to his hands and feet. Auras appeared in his vision, betraying the enemies’ presence.

In the gun pit, the rebels scrambled into action. There were three of them: the gunner, the loader, the powder-man. Together they crewed the wall-gun. It was six miniature cannons, braced by a thick wooden shield. The loader stuffed a shot into the breech of a gun, then moved to the next. The powder-man poured a measure of gunpowder into the loaded barrel. The gunner readied his matchbook, checked the load and aimed the gun.

None of them saw him coming.

He sucked in a breath, absorbing the qi in the air, and transmuted it to fire. His dantian, three thumbs below his belly, turned warm. He pointed at his target. A stream of red light pulsed through his arm. Downrange, a tongue of flame caressed the gun-pit’s powder store.

A bright flash split the night. Fragments of men and metal flew in every direction, whizzing past his ears.

The other gun pit exploded. Zhang looked up at the guard towers. Dry snaps rippled from the timber. The wood warped and flexed and broke. All at once, the towers collapsed.

The Shenwujun behind Zhang caught up, unhooking hand bombs from their belts. They lit the fuses and tossed the iron spheres over the palisade. The bombs erupted in fire and sprays of metal, producing thick clouds of smoke. Men cried in pain and alarm. Commanders yelled hasty orders. The drummers went silent.

“Hong Er! Let’s finish this!” he called.

The fire withdrew from his body. Before him, fresh crimson flames appeared, forming four trigrams arranged in a cross. The three solid lines of Heaven, the two solid and single broken line of Wind, solid-broken-solid of Fire, and broken-broken-solid of Thunder. Together they represented Hong Er’s essence. In the center of the formation, he caught sight of a complex geometric shape—her true name, not the nickname he had given her. The symbols converged, colliding in a burst of light.

His vision cleared. Before him stood a phoenix blazing in brilliant scarlet.

“What needs burning?” she asked.

“The whole camp and every rebel in it.”

“Very well.”

She spread her wings and took flight. Orbiting the camp, she shrieked, releasing a shower of feathers. Each feather turned into a flaming arrow, raining from the sky. She was a celestial spirit; she would never miss. Every single fire feather would find a target, and every target would die.

Bellowing war cries, the internal troops charged. They were poorly-trained and ill-disciplined, their formation widening and falling apart. The men didn’t even have firearms, just spears and crossbows. Zhang prayed that the other unit at least had the sense to take up blocking positions at the other entrance, well out of their comrades’ line of fire.

All the same, he positioned himself on the right side of the camp’s entrance and touched the interspatial ring he wore around his neck. A wealth of images flooded his mind. He focused his intention on one, and held out the black jade ring in his left palm. A small black sphere opened above the ring. Reaching in, he pulled out a repeating crossbow and rested the butt of the weapon against his belly.

“Form up on me!” Zhang yelled. “Crossbows out!”

The Shenwujun obeyed, forming two ranks of five men. The front rank knelt, the rear stood. They readied their repeating crossbows, preparing to intercept anyone trying to flee.

Beware! Hong Er spoke in Zhang’s head. The enemy has—

FAN YONG FU GUANG!

Black spikes tore up from the ground, ripping the column of internal troops apart. Men tripped and fell over each other. Others fled from the hostile magic.

Twenty rebels burst out of the camp, yelling a war cry. Black qi danced around them, staining their auras.

spirit warriors, she finished belatedly.

Even as she spoke, she danced in the air, dodging dark spikes and arrows. These rebels had the same powers of Shenwujun, but granted by infernal spirits.

They were the top priority.

“CONTINUOUS VOLLEY, SHOOT!” Zhang ordered.

He punched the firing lever down. The crossbow jerked, loosing a bolt. He pumped the handle as fast as he could, throwing bolts downrange, faster than a musket could hope to match.

A hail of bolts slammed into the rebels. A few staggered, dropped, fell. The survivors screamed, turning towards the Shenwujun. Some had bolts sticking out of their bodies, but they continued running like men possessed. Dark qi flared around them. Supernatural wind yanked bolts from the air. Black flames wreathed men like shields, burning up missiles.

“COMBAT MAGIC, LOOSE!” Zhang called.

Around him, the Shenwujun loosed their powers, and the rebels countered. Clods of earth broke away, levitated, and fell back to the ground. Bolts spiraled away at impossible angles, or shattered against flesh as hard as metal. Hong Er flung a fireball at a rebel. Flames coated him for a moment, then disappeared in a blast of steam. The rebel shouted in triumph—then sank to his knees, his chest and face peppered with bolts.

Only ten enemies remained on their feet. They were just thirty paces away. His crossbow was empty. No time to reload.

“DRAW SPEARS!” Zhang ordered, dropping his crossbow.

Reaching into his interspatial ring, he pulled, and pulled, and pulled. Out came a war spear, over twice his height. Wielding it in both hands, he took up his guard.

“CHARGE!” he ordered.

“KILL!” the Shenwujun roared, their voices booming across the land.

As one, the Shenwujun charged the scattered rebels, keeping their formation tight. Zhang engaged a rebel armed with a spear. The enemy aimed his spear at him and hesitated.

Zhang did not.

Reeling his spear outward, he batted the offending spear aside. He stepped in, thrusting at the man’s throat. The point touched his skin, then bounced off as though it had struck steel. The rebel stepped forward—and collided into his spear’s crosspiece. As the rebel stumbled, Zhang yelled, focusing his qi into the spear, and thrust again. A moment of resistance, a flash of golden light, and the spear pierced deep and true. The man fell, gurgling, clutching his neck. Zhang stabbed him once more, and the rebel went silent.

Zhang scanned for more threats. His comrades had made short work of the remaining spirit warriors. But the internal troops continued to flee.

“Cowards!” a Shenwujun called. “Come back here! The enemy is—”

A monstrous roar cut off his words.

Illuminated by burning tents, a giant shambled towards the Shenwujun. Fur covered its entire body, sparkling and glittering in the firelight. Easily twice the height of Zhang’s spear, every footfall caused the earth to tremble. As it lumbered towards the Shenwujun, it raised a spiked club in his right hand.

“Scatter!” Zhang called.

The giant brought the club down. The men fled just in time. The world quaked, dust rose, and a fresh crater marked the point of impact.

It was a powerful creature. It would give even Shenwujun pause. But it was a being of the metal element. And fire melts metal.

“Hong Er!” Zhang yelled. “Harmonize!”

Spreading her wings, Hong Er dove to him. Dropping his weapon, Zhang spread his arms to receive her. She flew into his chest, merging into him. Holy fire coursed through him, renewing his strength. His body ignited in ethereal flames, as bright as a furnace. He opened his hands and focused. Fire gathered in his palms, expanding and solidifying, transforming into a spear.

“I’ll deal with this one!” Zhang called. “Complete the mission!”

The Shenwujun sprinted around the giant, heading into the camp. The giant ignored them, turning to Zhang. Raising its weapon, it stepped into range.

Zhang aimed at its head, focused his flames on the tip of the spear, and unleashed a firebolt. The creature stumbled away, covering its wounded face. Zhang drove forward, plunging his spear into the giant’s thigh. Steam and gray fluid gushed forth. He withdrew the weapon and the giant swung down at him.

Zhang pointed his weapon to the sky, ran between the giant’s legs, and carved through its lower torso. It howled in pain. Zhang swung around, slicing through the back of its other leg.

The giant toppled like a dead oak. Howling in pain, it crashed face-first into the ground. As it struggled to get up, Zhang thrust through its skull. It abruptly went limp. Its flesh rippled and bubbled, and the creature dissolved into a metallic lake.

Zhang dashed into the camp. The Shenwujun had harmonized with their bond-spirits, wreaking havoc among the enemy. Whips of fire lashed through the rebels. Tents and barricades rotted and crumbled. Earth lances and water jets tore men and structures apart. Some rebels fled to the other exit, where the remaining Shenwujun destroyed them.

In the middle of the camp, he saw a summoning circle. It was drawn in blood, surrounded by inscriptions in a strange language. At the four directions, a totem stood, each spattered with blood and decorated with skulls and bones.

It was currently inactive, but nobody wanted to take any chances. The Shenwujun attacked the totems with everything they had. Wood blackened and crumbled with supernatural rot. Metal axes materialized and hacked away. Zhang extended his palm towards the nearest totem and unleashed a fireball. In moments, the totems were obliterated, and the circle neutralized.

Zhang rejoined his men, scouring the camp. The rebels had been slaughtered to a man. One by one, the Shenwujun’s commanders sounded the all clear.

Now, it was over.

“Hong Er, thank you for your help. I release you.”

The fire faded. Fatigue flooded his body. His mouth dried in an instant. His head throbbed, his heart pounded in his chest, and his skin was hot and dry.

He sat, drew out a calabash of water, and drank. Drank and drank and drank until there was nothing left. He was still thirsty, but his temperature was dropping to more human levels. He grabbed another calabash and sipped at it more slowly. Humans were never supposed to house the full power of a celestial spirit; there was always a price to pay for harmonizing with one. Around him, other Shenwujun sat also, and tended to their bodies.

As he drank, he stared at the blackened spot where the totem once was.

Hong Er’s voice filled his mind. I’ve never seen humans use blood magic like that before. Isn’t this the trademark of the wangliang race?

Zhang nodded. And wangliang and humans don’t get along in the Empire.

It seems your life will become more…interesting.

Zhang snorted. He finished his water and got up. His muscles were sore, his joints stiff, but he still had work to do.



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Chapter 2: Sujiang



The Shenwujun labored through most of the night, picking through the remains of the rebel camp. In the fullness of time, the internal troops regrouped and returned, but by then there was nothing more for them to do. The Shenwujun made camp upriver of the rebel camp, and bedded down for the few hours to dawn.

After breakfast, Captain Cao gathered the men around him. It was a small group, only thirty of them, but Shenwujun rarely gathered in larger numbers.

“Gentlemen, good work last night. You took on a rebel group three times your number and won. Impressive work, even by our standards. Well done.”

Regular soldiers might have cheered. The Shenwujun simply smiled and nodded approvingly. They were still in the field. Still at war.

“Now the bad news,” Cao said. “Our target, Mojian Han, was not among the dead. We found no trace of him or his infamous sword.”

Regular soldiers might have groaned. The Shenwujun simply remained silent.

“Our campaign continues. But there’s been a new development.

“We ran into spirit warriors last night. The rebels have the knowledge and the means to bond with infernal spirits. They are better-trained and better-equipped than we thought.

“Worse, the summoning circle they used was based on blood magic. Wangliang blood magic. The words written in the circle come from the language of the frontier wangliang tribes. And that means the Grand Union is involved.”

Now the men whispered among themselves. North of the Empire, the Grand Union claimed it was a land where all races could live together in peace. Zhang knew the truth: the Union’s Immortals subjugated every living being in the Union under their rule, and used wangliang and humans as spear fodder in their countless wars with the Empire.

But this was the first time the Union was supporting an internal rebellion like this.

“We cannot overlook this, but neither do we have manpower to spare,” Cao continued. “So long as Mojian Han lives, our campaign against the Tiandi Lianhe Association continues. We must continue to support the regular Army. At the same time, we must see if the Tiandi Lianhe Association were truly cooperating with wangliang, and if so, whether the Union is involved. Higher command cannot spare any more men to assist us. We must conduct the investigation ourselves. Ensign Zhang?”

“Captain,” Zhang replied.

“I’m dispatching you to investigate the situation.”

Zhang blinked.

“Just me?”

“Yes. I need everybody else to hunt the rebels. It’s a tough assignment, but if anyone can do it, it’s Zhang Wudi.”

The men smiled and jeered good-naturedly. Zhang simply nodded. He had long ago given up any notion of persuading his comrades to stop calling him Zhang the Invincible.

“Aren’t investigations the responsibility of the Censorate?” Zhang asked.

“Criminal investigations. This concerns national security, making it our business.”

“Very well,” Zhang said. “Do we have any leads?”

“None. We were unable to recover any intelligence materials from the rebel camp.”

And dead men told no tales.

“Then we have to do this the hard way.”

“Indeed. Head to the city of Sujiang. It’s the district capital. The local Xianzhang should be able to assist you. Keep me updated.”

“Very well. By your leave, I shall depart.”

“May the gods watch over you.”

“We are Shenwujun. They always do.”

Sujiang was a hundred and sixty li away, through wending forest roads and rugged hill trails. Most men would need a horse to travel that distance in a day.

Zhang walked.

With every step, every breath, he inhaled qi into his dantian. On the exhale, he expelled toxins and waste qi into the air, returning it to the cosmos. Energy filled every fiber of his being, keeping him going long after a lesser man would have needed to rest. His step lightened, his gait loosened, his muscles relaxed. He walked from sunup to sundown and sunup again. For sustenance, he sipped at a calabash of water and chewed dried strips of oversalted pork. It was the only time he allowed himself to stop—the doctors said eating while walking interfered with digestion.

A man wandering the frontier alone was looking to die alone. But Zhang had left on the black uniform of the Shenwujun and wore his dao at his hip. Neither man nor beast dared to disturb him.

Half a li from his destination, he saw the first sign of civilization: a long line of carriages snaking down the road. Merchants and travelers from the rest of the Empire. He headed for the front of the queue. The people complained, then went silent when they saw who he was.

The guard commander did not.

“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Get back in line like everyone else.”

Zhang reached into his ring and drew a brass medallion.

“I am a Shenwujun on Imperial business. Let me through.”

Any other day and he would have waited patiently for his turn. But every hour he spent doing nothing was an hour the rebels gained. And despite his mastery of qigong, a deep ache sank into his calloused feet.

The guard’s lips moved as he pretended to read the words embossed on the medallion’s face. Finally, he nodded sharply and gestured at his men. Zhang passed through without even a perfunctory inspection and headed for the first inn he saw. The signboard said it was the Plum Blossom Inn.

An aged woman waited at the counter. She greeted him with a smile and a bow.

“Good morning, honored Shenwujun. Would you be staying with us?”

Zhang nodded. “What are your rates for a basic room?”

“One fen a night.”

“And a bath?”

“We don’t have one. You can find the public bath next to the market.”

“Very well.”

From his interspatial ring, Zhang produced a silver ingot and handed it to the woman. She goggled.

“It’s too much!” she protested. “I can’t accept this!”

“I’ll be staying in the city for a while. Consider it a deposit. You can give me the change when I check out.”

She beamed.

“Thank you, Your Excellency!”

She handed him a worn key. It called out to him, promising rest and relief. It would be so easy to just take a bath, head for his room, strip off his clothes and fall into bed.

Instead, he asked, “How do I get to the yamen from here?”

“Go down the road to the marketplace. Turn left at the cobbler’s, then make a right at the clinic. You should see the yamen down the street.”

“Thank you, laoban niang.”

At the public bath, Zhang washed off the dust and grime from the road. Breakfast was a pair of steamed buns at the market. Then it was off to the yamen, a walled complex where the local government officers lived and worked. A pair of stern-faced constables stood watch at the gate with repeating crossbows.


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