The Black Resurrection, the second book in my Red Wraith series, is out today on Amazon! Want a preview? The first chapter is below:
Da looked away as the Imperial Guards mutilated his nearly completed dragon.
He’d had time to finish the body, enhancing its elephantine base by grafting on the necks of a hundred snakes, the bellies of a thousand frogs, and the scales of countless carp. The four legs were done too, ending in tiger paws tipped with hawk talons. And the head was perfect, rebuilt from amalgamations of camel heads, deer antlers, cow ears, and rabbit eyes—all the core elements of legend.
But the turtle shell, another massive composite, was wrong. And this was why the guards were tattooing a mark of shame on the poor creature’s forehead.
“I asked for a warrior dragon,” the Emperor had hissed two hours earlier. “A Yazi. And this peasant, this gardener, gives me a Bixi. A passive turtle nothing.”
“Yet no one else in the world has one,” Hóu Udom, a leading noble and Da’s sponsor, had suggested, hiding his fear well. “And his shell is strong. He can bear any burden. I’m sure your Exaltedness also noticed how the individual scales are fused into a hundred and seventeen larger pieces? Eighty-one for the beast’s yang aspect and thirty-six for its yin.”
The Emperor had gripped his hands together tight enough to crackle his divine knuckles. “But will he fight? Will he kill my enemies?”
“Not yet,” Hóu Udom had admitted while Da winced. “If you grace us with another week—”
“Another week? I don’t have another day!”
Hóu Udom had lost his head on the spot. And after sending for the rest of the Imperial Household, the Emperor had sentenced Da and his creation to slower fates in the Garden of Benevolent Tranquility, Da’s other charge.
But moving and binding a dragon, even a placid one, was no easy task. And once they’d reached the gardens, Guiren, the lone guard assigned to Da, had been too focused on the proceedings to avoid Da’s elbow to the back of his skull and a dose of puppet spores.
Da couldn’t bring himself to flee, though. Not while there was still a chance the other guards would be called away to help man the walls. So he’d ducked behind a peony bush he’d tended just that morning, grateful he hadn’t trimmed the plant’s red petals any further.
Yet he couldn’t watch. He’d meant to, but when the guards had forced the dragon’s neck down and lashed it to a column—securing his head so he couldn’t retract it into his shell—and a tattoo artist had approached with ink pots and needles, Da had turned away.
From the sounds of it, his dragon bore the needling well. Da only heard a few snuffling whimpers during the ten minutes it took to complete the First Punishment.
But after a guard announced the Second Punishment—cutting off the nose—a meaty thud signaled that one of the guards had smashed the dragon on the head to render him senseless, and a wet tearing indicated a sharp blade had sliced off the poor beast’s snout.
Da squeezed his eyes shut as his dragon screamed in pain. But even bleeding and threatened with the Third Punishment—amputation of the feet—his greatest experiment still lacked the ferocity to tap into the strength he’d given it. Da heard the dragon’s talons scrabbling against the pebbles of the garden’s courtyard, but there were no sounds of ropes bursting, of Imperial Guards being tossed aside or rent in two. Just the noises of a slow, panicking animal and four more cuts of a blade.
During the Fourth Punishment—castration—Da briefly opened his eyes and immediately regretted it. There was so much blood. So many stained pebbles, so many dripping plants.
And so little left of his dragon.
But the Fifth Punishment—death by quartering—drew Da’s gaze back, and he forced himself to watch the hacking of his dragon’s tail, waist, and torso.
“Some guardian,” one of the guards spat after it was over, still panting from his exertions. “Didn’t even fight back.”
“Find Shen Da,” another ordered, equally winded.
“The gardener. Guiren was supposed to bring him here, and the Emperor decreed that the charlatan should share in his worthless monster’s fate.”
“They say Li Zicheng is at the gates.”
“And we have our orders. Find Shen Da.”
Da heard a rustling next to him. Guiren was finally stirring, the puppet spores’ purple foam trickling from his lips. The oaf had roused too late to do anything about the dragon; Da hadn’t meant to hit the big man so hard. But he could yet create a distraction.
And there was still time for vengeance.
“The other guards are traitors,” Da hissed into Guiren’s ear, disguising the lie with genuine hate. “In league with Li Zicheng. They poisoned the dragon so it couldn’t defeat him, then killed it. The Emperor wants you to execute them.” He rotated Guiren’s head toward the bloody crew preparing to disperse from the courtyard.
“Traitors,” the big man echoed, a purple bubble floating from his mouth. “Execute.” He stared at his brethren a moment longer, then leapt to his feet, drew his sword, and charged through the peony bush, red petals fluttering after him.
Da stayed long enough to watch the first exchange, during which Guiren killed one guard and blinded another. But there were too many others, and before the big man lost his momentum, Da crept away.
And when he cleared the garden, he ran.
Normally, sprinting through the streets of the Forbidden City with tears running down his face would have drawn attention. But today, commotion was common—everyone Da encountered was hurrying in one direction or another, yelling about “Rebels inside the city!” or how “The Emperor killed his family and hung himself on Meishan Hill!” Mothers shepherded their children into hiding holes; men shoved each other aside in their haste to get to the gates. No one gave Da’s flight a second glance.
Once he’d passed the Hall of Spring and Happiness, he cut over to the western walls, rushed to his quarters … and stopped outside the door, his fingers trembling above the handle.
What would he say to Jie?
His sister hadn’t known about the dragon he’d defied the Emperor to create for her, the companion he was going to let her name. But she’d needed it—a Bixi strong enough to carry her on his immense shell. Now he was gone. Another unspoken, broken promise.
But shame and grief would have to wait. The air reeked of fire, and somewhere nearby heavy feet stomped in the unified cadence of a march. Be a stone, Da. Be hard and strong enough to bear the weight without showing the strain. He took a deep breath and opened the door. “Jie, the Emperor’s lost his mind, and Li Zicheng’s rebels are—”
She staggered against him and groped for his hand, the ribs of the latest bamboo body brace he’d fashioned for her pressing into his side. Even when healthy, Jie had never been large—shorter than him by two inches, and leaner by half. But when her fingers found his, she pulled him forward with a force that amazed him.
Then he saw her eyes.
They were swirling with colors and shapes and … images. Scenes. People climbing something. A hill? But not the Meishan Hill. Something … angular.
Now he understood. “You’re mirroring,” he said.
Jie yanked him further into their modest room, past her stacks of novels and baskets of handsewn baby clothes, steering him toward a small urn he’d seeded before leaving that morning. Once they were in front of it, Jie jammed his hand into the soil.
“Watch,” she whispered as his fingers exploded with pain, aching with the quickening, shifting hurt he felt whenever he channeled his jing to join objects or accelerate their growth.
But this was worse than usual—maybe ever—and he gasped with shock. “Black eggs, Jie, get a hold of yourself! We don’t have time for this. The city is falling!”
He tried to pull his hand from the urn, but Jie held it there, pinning him as she had when they were children, before her body betrayed her. And still she directed his energy into the soil, somehow feeding his excruciating, nurturing jing into the dirt until … a seedling emerged.
Then another. And two more. And a fifth. And the rest: one for every seed he’d planted.
But they didn’t stay seedlings for long. Within seconds, they developed into fully flowered chrysanthemums with writhing stems and dancing leaves that twisted and bent around his wrist and her forearm before collapsing and dividing into smaller and smaller parts: first petals and shoots, then strips and veins, then tiny segments of single colors.
Pigments—natural paints that swirled and reformed into a larger version of the scene Da had glimpsed in Jie’s eyes.
Animated by the chrysanthemums’ essence and orchestrated by whoever’s power Jie was mirroring, the urn’s surface coalesced into an image clear as any silk painting, dynamic as any zaju play: four people climbing an earthen pyramid—not a hill—upon which waited a man and a woman. The climbers crested the pyramid, fought each other, and shot the man who’d already been on the summit. Then they froze.
Except for the wounded man, who meditated for a time before exorcizing two spirits from his bleeding body.
“Yaoguai,” Jie murmured.
The spirits assaulted each other with titanic powers until the wounded man bested them with spells of his own. Then he seemed to steal their strength as well as that of the climbers, using it to impart something to the avatars of thousands of new people, their likenesses shining in the little sky like a constellation of human stars. That something was dangerous, though. Many of its recipients fell and didn’t rise. But many more regained their feet and stood straighter. Taller.
“He’s a healer,” Da breathed.
Jie nodded, her eyes still reflecting the scene in the urn. “Him or one of the others.”
“Which one are you mirroring?”
“The seer.” She pointed with her free hand to the tiny woman who’d waited with the wounded man on the pyramid. “Maybe the man too, to tap your jing.”
“Two people at once?”
“It feels like it.”
Da was growing dizzy with the pain of sustaining the vision, but he ignored the impulse to pull his hand out of the urn, focusing instead on memorizing every detail of the miniature figures now slumping across the pyramid’s flat summit. “Is this happening now?”
“No … Not for a year or so.”
He didn’t ask how she knew. He only asked, “Where?”
Jie shuddered, slumping herself. Shouts and screams intruded through the open door, accompanied by the argument of blades and the drum of hooves.
Da leaned against his sister to steady her. “Where, Jie?”
“Far away … Across the ocean.”
“Can you find them?”
“I think so.” She pulled her hand away from his, bringing an end to the animation.
He pulled his hand out too and flexed his fingers, clumps of colored dirt falling from them as the pain ebbed. Looking around the room, he noted how few of his experiments—the pots of hybrid plants and cages of rats grafted to rabbits and mice to birds; all the precursors to his lost dragon—were worth saving, worth anything at all.
Not compared to what he’d just seen.
“Get your things,” he said to Jie as the scent of smoke slipped into the room. Darting around their modest furniture, he opened each cage and shooed out its inhabitants. Then he pocketed his flute. “But go easy on the books. The city burns, and we need to travel light to make it to that pyramid in time.”
Buy The Black Resurrection on: Amazon