The Buried World
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Release date: June 23, 2020
Print pages: 329
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The Buried World
Dragon of Night
Sometimes when Bingmei fell asleep, she died. It was happening more and more, as if her ghost-self could be removed from her body as easily as a foot from a shoe. Only, she couldn’t just return at will. No, her ghost-self would be forced on a journey, and she’d find herself leagues away, a thin invisible thread connecting her souls to her body. Until she returned, her body would lie still, unbreathing.
It was a terrifying feeling, knowing she might not wake up. If she was gone too long, she feared she would have no living body to come back to.
Someone always slept near her to shake her awake when it happened.
But this time, it seemed Mieshi had fallen asleep too.
Her ghost-self wandered down the shadow-draped corridor of the palace at Sajinau. The atmosphere had turned oppressive since the dark lord Echion had claimed the place as his own. The walls seemed to be closing in on her as she dreamwalked down the corridor, leaving no trace, no sound. Incense hung in the air, cloyingly sweet, but the stench of Echion overpowered it.
All her life, Bingmei had been cursed with the ability to smell emotions. Greed had a lemony smell. Dishonesty, a stench like rotting meat. In crowded places, like the trading hub inside a town, the stew of emotions quickly became overpowering, making her crave seclusion. But she’d never smelled anything worse than the terrible, pervasive scent of Echion. It was the smell of a million murders, of savagery masked in justice.
It was her fault the ancient ruler had risen from his tomb. She’d drawn the glyph that had initiated his release, compelled by forces she still didn’t fully understand. According to Jidi Majia, the wise steward of King Shulian of Sajinau, she was the phoenix-chosen, the one person capable of destroying Echion for good. She didn’t doubt him, but she had not chosen her role, and she didn’t want any part of it. Not when the only way she could defeat Echion was by willingly sacrificing her own life.
A feeling tugged her toward a set of large doors leading to the audience hall. Prince Juexin’s face surfaced in her memory. Sadness welled inside her. The prince was dead—she’d watched Echion kill him—and so was his once-mighty army. They’d been obliterated by the killing fog, a curse summoned by using ancient magic.
Only Echion could control the fog.
She felt herself tugged up and through the crack between the doors, entering the massive audience hall with its giant meiwood pillars. Moonlight poured in through the upper windows and silky curtains, drawing her attention to the room’s altered appearance. The tasteful antiques had been replaced with huge casks of coins, coffers stuffed with jade and gold jewelry, and ornate statuary carved with lions, tortoises, and ravens.
A prickle of awareness shot down her back. The shadows looked . . . alive. As she watched, they began to twist and quiver, joining together, growing thicker.
She shuddered, trying to wake herself up, to escape the dreamwalk before her body remained dead forever. Her heart filled with dread as she felt an irresistible tug toward the light coming from one of the anterooms. She attempted to resist the impulse, but she kept moving toward the light.
The anteroom door was made of paper fixed to latticework. The smell of Echion was everywhere, and it horrified her. The shadows in the hall were pulling together faster, coalescing into a huge, beastly shape. Her fear multiplied when a pair of slitted yellow eyes opened.
It was Echion’s shadow dragon.
As she reached the paper-thin door, she passed through it, and noticed that the paper rippled slightly as she did. She could almost feel it, which made a shivering sensation go through her.
Jidi Majia was working intensely at a desk. She’d not seen him since the fall of Sajinau, but his pale skin and white hair were unmistakable. Like her, he had the winter sickness, except her hair had turned a rusty amber—a transformation that marked her as the phoenix-chosen. Beneath the scent of Echion, she sensed the bite of sadness.
The steward wasn’t seated at the desk—he stood over it. A large white paper lay before him, next to a collection of ancient scrolls. He had a paintbrush in his hand, glistening with an oily black substance. On the white sheet, he had drawn three rows of glyphs. As Bingmei watched him painstakingly finish another one, she saw the last stroke smudge. He gritted his teeth in frustration and crumpled the whole sheet, tossing it onto the floor, where she saw a mound of other similar failures. With a sigh, he mopped his sweaty brow on his sleeve and started again, poring over one of the ancient scrolls and retracing its sigils, stroke by stroke.
She felt the darkness gather behind the light of the oil lamps. She could hear the scratch of claws on the marble floor, the dragging of scales. The dragon was coming.
Jidi Majia, Bingmei whispered.
Nothing changed. He continued to pucker his brow and retrace the glyphs. What was this? Although she’d drawn the glyph that had awakened the dark lord, she hadn’t been in control of herself. She’d never seen anyone else draw a glyph, or even try. It was best to be cautious when it came to the ancients’ magic—no one knew what might summon the killing fog.
Echion had clearly brought back a lost art . . .
Or was Jidi Majia copying the scrolls in the dark of night because he’d stolen them?
Jidi Majia, the dragon is coming!
She reached her ghost hand out and tried to touch his arm, but her hand passed through him. He was oblivious to her presence. In short order, he had retraced several of the glyphs, his arm moving in a delicate fashion, pausing every so often to dip the brush again into the black oil.
Bingmei wanted to go—she saw yellow glowing eyes through the paper door—but she could not. Nor could she force herself to return to her body.
The door slid open, and Echion stood beyond it. She had expected to see the snout and fangs of the dragon, but she sensed they were one and the same. Two essences fused together. He was both beautiful and terrible to look at. Tall and muscular, but graceful. His long pale hair was loose around his shoulders. He wore a black silk dressing gown embroidered with gold thread. His expression was always so kindly, gracious, and patient, all of which belied his true nature, his willingness to slaughter any who defied him. Sajinau had not been the only kingdom to fall in the time since his rebirth. And that was to speak nothing of the people he’d killed during his other reigns of terror.
Jidi Majia looked up, blinking in surprise. “Dread sovereign, I did not hear you approach.”
“You do not sleep, Jidi Majia?”
Jidi set the brush down on a porcelain rest, the black tip away from the paper. “It requires great patience and practice to master the craft of writing,” the old advisor said. “I must discipline my hands and my mind to do this. I wish I were younger. What a masterful invention, my lord, being able to relay messages across great distances without trusting the memory of faulty servants.”
“Your tirelessness is impressive, Jidi Majia,” said Echion. He entered the room, and Bingmei thought she heard the flutter of leathery wings. “Every general is being taught to read and write. Every officer as well. You do well by setting an example. Your service will be rewarded.”
“Thank you, great one,” replied the servant. His tone was humble, but she could smell his sorrow as well as the memory of pain inside him.
“Do you know why I am here?” Echion asked.
Jidi Majia’s brow wrinkled. “I . . . I know you do not sleep, great one. You are tireless in your inventions that benefit the people.”
“My laws are just; it is true. I impose order in the world. But that is not why I am here this night.”
There was a burst of dread from Jidi Majia. Bingmei stood at his side, across the table from the overlord, who had not looked at her yet. But she knew he had the ability to see her ghost-self. Was he toying with her?
She wanted to fly away but could not.
“Have I displeased you, dread sovereign?” Jidi Majia whispered huskily.
“Only because you cannot see her, like I can,” Echion answered, his eyes finally shifting to Bingmei’s, a lurid smile twisting his mouth. “Come back to Sajinau, Bingmei. I need my queen.” She could smell his impatience, his anger, his determination thrumming inside of him.
She stared at him, frozen in terror.
“Who?” Jidi Majia said, looking around in confusion. “Bingmei?”
“She’s here,” Echion said. “Come back to your cage, little bird,” he said coaxingly, but she smelled death on his breath. Creeping around the desk, he surreptitiously lifted his hand and traced a glyph in the air.
Bingmei bolted. Echion’s face twisted with hatred, and he pounced at her, trying to snatch at her with his now-glowing hand. She ran without looking back, but the dragon’s claws closed around her tunic. She tried to scream as she was violently yanked through the audience hall, but no sound came out. When she looked up, a play of shadows revealed an enormous scaled snout and a pair of flaring yellow eyes—inhuman eyes filled with a reptilian menace that made her whole soul shrivel for fear of being devoured.
She heard a snapping noise, the clash of fangs, and then suddenly she was back in her body, being shaken vigorously, a voice begging in the distance.
“Bingmei, please! Please wake up! Please!”
It was Quion’s voice.
And it was sick with worry.
“They’ve found us!”
The pricks of pain in Bingmei’s palms and the soles of her feet were excruciating. Each time she died, it became harder and more painful to come back to her body. A small oil lamp sat nearby, exposing the deep night of the cave. She blinked, trying to banish the image of the dragon’s snapping jaws and reorient herself.
They’d abandoned Kunmia’s quonsuun in the summer because it was no longer safe to stay there. Kunmia was dead and had bequeathed the leadership of the ensign to Bingmei. At first, they’d gone west in the hopes of reaching one of the kingdoms that hadn’t fallen. But Echion controlled the waters and the inland passages now. And he hunted for Bingmei relentlessly. Armed bands of Qiangdao chased them wherever they went. The thieves and murderers had been ushered out of their mountain lairs and made overlords.
The ensign had hunted for a safe place to spend the winter, and their search had ended here—a series of hidden caves they called the Dongxue, which ran beneath the faults of the mountains. The caves were cold, but not nearly as cold as the winter air outside. Water from mountain streams trickled through the twisting passages, some of which looked like the jaws of an ancient fish, with lumps of stone stretching from both the floor and ceiling. They’d taken up residence in an abandoned lair of a Qiangdao war band that had previously inhabited the mountain.
“She’s awake,” Mieshi said in relief. She was hunkered down near Bingmei, chafing one of Bingmei’s fur-covered hands.
“What’s happened?” Bingmei asked, still struggling to awareness.
Quion leaned closer, his smile evident. Behind him, his pet snow leopard yawned lazily. “Huqu was guarding the icefalls entrance when he heard noises coming up the trail. He had just enough time to escape deeper into the caves before the Qiangdao arrived. They have torches and gear.”
Bingmei shook her head in confusion. “Why would they come here in the middle of winter?”
“Maybe winter is ending early again?” said Mieshi. “What are your orders, Master?”
The last word was said respectfully, but Bingmei caught a whiff of contempt. It smelled like the desiccated jujubes they’d found in storage in the caves, which hunger had finally forced them to eat. Not everyone in the ensign had taken to having such a young, inexperienced master.
She tried to stand, but dizziness washed over her. “Are they still at the icefalls?”
“No, they’ve entered the caves,” Mieshi said. “Are we going to defend or run?”
“Where can we go in the middle of winter?” Bingmei said. “Move the young disciples and the servants into the deep tunnels. There are plenty of places to hide. Maybe these Qiangdao are a foraging party. Let’s see what they’re after.”
“But how did they find us?” Quion asked.
Bingmei shook her head. “I don’t know, Quion. Take the servants and the younger disciples and leave through the back exit. I don’t want you part of the fighting if it comes to that.” He was a fisherman by training, and although he could not be relied upon to fight, his survival skills had kept them all alive.
He nodded and then rose. “Here; keep the lamp. I know my way through the caves blindfolded.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. He’d spent weeks memorizing the trails in and out, learning to trust his hands and not his eyes. Dongxue held natural beauty, not the painted construction of Echion’s palaces. The strange pillars of stone that decorated the caves had been formed over thousands of years by the steady dripping of water. It was a strange, ethereal sort of beauty. The woods outside teemed with life, but the only plant life that grew inside the caves was lichen. It speckled the strange stone sculptures only nature could fashion.
“Bring the warriors here,” Bingmei said to Mieshi.
Mieshi nodded and then took the lamp and left, plunging Bingmei into darkness after she’d gone only a short distance. Bingmei grabbed the rune staff, which had been Kunmia’s, and invoked its power. Wisps of green light danced on the meiwood.
She’d learned it could be used like this, for light, without summoning the killing fog. The power it used was too little, much like her meiwood cricket. With its dim light, she added to her fur clothes and then quickly ate some sour jujubes.
The tingling sensation from the lack of blood in her hands and feet subsided, but the vision of Jidi Majia and Echion still tormented her. She didn’t know what to do with it. Why had the vision come to her? What did it mean?
She wondered what would have happened if Echion had caught her. Could he have harmed her spirit, or prevented her from returning to her body?
She rolled up her bed furs and there, hidden beneath them, lay the sheathed Phoenix Blade. In the green glow from the staff, it almost looked as if the phoenix carved in the hilt was flapping its wings. As she stared at it, she felt the urge to pick it up. To draw the blade and hunt down her foes.
She heard boots scuffing against the stone, and then Marenqo entered the chamber, eating from the huge leg joint of an elk.
“I was bringing this for you to eat,” he said. “I promise. But then I realized you’re so small, you probably weren’t going to be able to finish it. And since you’re also so nice, I knew you’d offer the rest to me. So . . . I thought I’d just start on it now. Thank you for being so generous.”
She arched her eyebrow at him, watching him take another bite. Then another. He reached out as if to hand it to her, then took one more.
“Thank you, Marenqo,” she said after she wrenched the bone from him, looking at him with exasperation.
She was hungry. They were all hungry.
Huqu came jogging up, winded, followed by Bao Damanhur, whose stump of an arm still made her wince. His sword was belted to his waist.
Bingmei lifted the staff, holding it up to give them light. “Where are the others?” she asked.
“Jiaohua has his men watching the Qiangdao,” Huqu said. He was one of the warriors who’d been part of Damanhur’s ensign before it had joined with hers.
Jiaohua had once been the head of King Shulian’s Jingcha in Sajinau, responsible for fighting crime and keeping peace in the streets. The cunning man was their best source of information from the outside world. Sometimes he disguised himself as a beggar to seek news. Sometimes he intimidated someone for it with the threat of violence. He was always trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else. Of course he’d be right in the middle of the threat.
“Are we going to fight, Bingmei?” Damanhur asked, his voice serious.
Mieshi returned with three sister warriors just as the words were spoken.
“We need information first,” Bingmei said. “I don’t even know how many there are. Huqu?”
“They’re still coming in,” he answered. “It’s probably up to a hundred by now.”
She stared at him in disbelief. “A hundred?”
“It’s hard to say,” he answered. “Some of them have made camp by the icefalls. There’s more light over there, but they’ve started sending search parties into the caves. Bands of ten or more.”
“This isn’t random, then,” said Damanhur firmly. “We’ll have to fight.”
She knew he wanted to fight—he’d been aching for a fight ever since the battle that had cost him his arm.
“Are you even able to fight?” Mieshi asked. Bingmei could smell the worry in her, but she could sense Damanhur had misjudged her meaning. That happened a lot between the two of them. Bingmei hated that they argued so much, especially since most of their arguments could easily be resolved if they would only talk to each other.
“Of course I can!” he snapped. “I’m not helpless.” And he wasn’t. His wound was still healing, but Bingmei had watched him train with his nondominant arm. To her eye, he was just as strong and capable as he’d been before.
“That’s not what I meant,” Mieshi said.
“Enough bickering,” Bingmei said, trying to mimic Kunmia’s decisive tone. “I’ve sent the servants and the young to escape out the back. The icefalls isn’t the only path out of Dongxue. We’ll hide in the sentry row. The formations there will provide many places for us to conceal ourselves. It’s a difficult climb to that spot. They’ll be exhausted when they get there, and we’ll attack from both sides of the trail. Then we can fall back and choose another place to attack from. If nothing else, we’ll give the others time to evacuate. What do you think?”
“Sentry row is a good location,” Marenqo said. “But we should leave now before their main group gets there first.”
“Agreed. Let’s go.”
Bingmei lifted the Phoenix Blade strap over her head and felt it thump against her back. Gripping the rune staff, she led the way. Some of them held lamps, others clutched lanterns, but each of the lights could be shuttered if need be. When it was truly dark, Bingmei couldn’t see her hand in front of her face, and all sense of distance faded. It really took feeling your way to travel in the dark. She set a quick pace. Drops of water splashed down on them intermittently. Before long, they reached one of the sections where they had to climb up boulders to reach the next level of the tunnels. Some of the trails were very steep, and the columns of stone from the floor connected with the ceiling.
In some portions of the cave, the ceiling came down so low that even Bingmei, who’d always been small for her age, needed to duck. It felt as if the mountain might collapse on them at any time.
When she reached the top of the rock, she smelled Jiaohua’s strong odor, his rampant smell of trickery and dishonesty. Although his scent made it difficult for her to trust him, there was no denying those very qualities made him useful.
He tried to reach out and help her, but she bounded up the last bit on her own. She hated it when people tried to assist her in things she could do for herself.
“Where are they?” she asked him. His dirty face was outlined by shadows from the faint light exuding from the rune staff.
“Coming this way,” he answered.
“Hard to say,” he answered. “I hid some men closer to the icefalls to keep counting. Haven’t heard from them. Hope they’re still alive.”
“We’re going to hide here at the sentry—” Bingmei said.
“Of course you are,” Jiaohua said, interrupting her. “Smart. I’m going to hide myself by the entrance to the sentry row. I’ll see if I can identify the leader and capture him. Then we can question him.”
“But if there are a hundred, you’ll be cut off from the rest of us,” she said.
He smirked and pursed his lips. “Worried about me, Bingmei? I didn’t know you cared so much.”
She knew he was goading her. “Just be careful.”
“They’re blundering around with torches. Don’t look right at the flames, it will hurt your eyes after being in the dark so long.”
“I know that, Jiaohua,” she said.
“Just being sure.” He stiffened. “I hear them. They’re coming this way. Get into your hideouts.”
“Do you think they brought a lot of food with them?” Marenqo whispered to Jiaohua. “If so, perhaps we should welcome them instead.”
Jiaohua scowled at the jest—Marenqo had yet to get a smile out of him, but that didn’t keep him from trying. He jerked his head and then slunk into the shadows, weaving behind the natural columns like a lurking spider. Bingmei silently commanded her people to take their positions, indicating with hand gestures who should go where. By the time she finished, she, too, could hear the voices echoing off the walls, the tromping footsteps of men who weren’t bothering to conceal their movements.
Bingmei maneuvered past the various thick and thin columns. They were hunchbacked and crooked, nothing like the tall straight meiwood pillars that held up the quonsuuns and other buildings left by the ancients. Yet the stone had a rippled appearance that she found beautiful.
She picked out a spot behind a pillar of damp stone. With a thought, she revoked the power of the staff, and the runes went dark. Others settled in close to her, and those with lamps shuttered them.
“I’ve always been tempted to lick these rocks,” Marenqo whispered from his perch next to her. “I don’t know why that feeling keeps coming over me.”
She leaned her back against the rippled edge of rock behind her. Light appeared in the distance, coming nearer, and soon she could see the outline of her arms and legs. Then her fur cloak and leggings. The caves were cold, although they didn’t get much colder at night—the temperature stayed oddly consistent, given the lack of wind and sunlight. Turning her head, she saw Marenqo crouching, staring around the pillar he’d hidden behind.
“They’re making a lot of noise,” he whispered.
“So are you,” she whispered back.
He ignored the jibe. “I’m just starting to pick out words.” He knew many languages, a talent that had already proven useful in their travels. She held her finger to her lips for him to be quiet, and he obeyed, cocking his head to hear better.
The lights from the Qiangdao’s torches made shadows writhe and dance on the broken edges of the tunnel walls. She crept back a pace, tucking herself more securely behind her pillar, when the light threatened to touch her knee. Pressing hard against the wall, she watched. And waited for the right moment to attack.
It was then the smell of the Qiangdao struck her, a noxious stench of murder and death. A few moments later, she saw the first of them. Dressed in layers of furs and thick boots, they carried torches and weapons. She heard their voices but didn’t recognize the language they spoke. Patiently, she let the first arrivals pass without opposition. She wasn’t ready to give the signal to attack. Better for the Qiangdao to believe they were safe.
A visceral feeling of hate filled her stomach as she watched them. A band of Qiangdao had murdered her grandfather, her parents. She’d had an opportunity to kill the leader of that band, Muxidi, but in the end she’d allowed him to live, a decision she still questioned. The Qiangdao were lawless marauders who preyed on the weak, and now they were ruling every village and town, eating food they didn’t grow or cultivate. Getting drunk on drinks they hadn’t made. The injustice stung her nose, making her despise them even more. But she wrestled down her hate. She would not let it control her. She would master it.
At least a dozen had already come up the rocky slope, and more were coming. If she waited too long, they’d be too many. She saw the worry in Marenqo’s eyes, saw him waiting on her order to attack. She saw Mieshi looking at her too, a forceful look that said, now . . . soon . . . now?
Bingmei reached into her pocket for the meiwood cricket she’d gotten from her grandfather. She leaned forward, squatting low on her heels. This was another reason she’d chosen this spot for their attack—there was ample room for her to invoke the cricket’s magic without crashing into the ceiling.
She nodded and then rubbed her thumb across the cricket, invoking its magic. The meiwood cricket sent a jolt of magic through her legs, and she sprang up from her hiding place, soaring into the midst of the Qiangdao trudging through the tunnels.
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