Zengmei poked her earlobe with her gold demon-spike of an earring a good five times before she finally found where the hole was and pushed it through. Her maid, Tian Wen, was looming over her, carefully gathering the top part of her hair into a jade comb carved with peonies.
It was the one Song Fenghai – second son of the Song Sect of Lushan – had given to her as an engagement gift. The wedding was due to occur a few weeks from now.
It was a wedding of necessity. Zengmei had no interest in love anyway.
Her sister, Ruilan, had taken a child of the Blood Sect and hopped along her merry way away from her responsibilities. Which left Zengmei to take her spot as the one who had to piece their clan back together.
Zengmei’s eyes flitted to the mirror, catching a glimpse of herself, red eyeshadow like flames across her eyelids. “You have to come with me tonight,” she said to Tian Wen, who was securing the bottom part of her hair with a ribbon.
“I thought Madam Jia said she didn’t want me to go with you,” Tian Wen replied.
Zengmei scoffed. “Who cares about what my mother says.”
Ten years ago, the prominent cultivation sects allied to rid their world of the Blood Sect – a clan once led by Hua Zhiyin, a respected cultivator who went rogue and founded blood cultivation; using spiritual energy in blood to strengthen their Qi.
The siege on the Blood Sect resulted in their eradication. Hua Zhiyin had died years before – rumours say that his gory method of cultivation made him go mad. His son, Hua Jing tried his very best to defend the clan against the attack, but in the end, he was dealt a sword through the heart.
The Jia sect had helped in the effort, but many disciples were killed, one of which was Zengmei’s younger brother Jia Han, the future leader of the sect… no longer. Her parents still wept for the death of their only son, and the leaving of their eldest daughter.
And Zengmei, their only child still remaining, had no place in their teary, bloodshot eyes.
Zengmei pushed in her other earring successfully. Tian Wen stuck a gold hairpin the shape of a phoenix through her hair. Zengmei never understood the need for such excess of jewellery. She preferred her plain black robes.
She had spent too much time in meditative isolation to remember what a proper banquet was like. The isolation heightened her spiritual ability to become almost unmatchable in the cultivation world, but didn’t do wonders for her social skills.
“My Lady, you are aware that the Song Sect will be at this banquet, so, at least try to be… proper?” Tian Wen said, a slight waver in her voice.
“I will,” Zengmei replied. She had been known in the past to use her sword rather than her words to make people listen to her – but she was a spiritual practitioner, a cultivator, she was beyond such antics.
Or so she would like to convince herself, and also have others believe.
She hid her sword under her robes. Its name was Huixue.
They announced Zengmei’s name when she walked into Huaiyang Hall like she was royalty.
“It is truly an honour to have you here, Second Lady Jia.” Madam Song and her fake smile – lovely indeed.
Zengmei was respectful though. She bowed. “Madam Song, it is a pleasure to be here.”
Madam Song’s hawk-eyes shifted to the slight bulge at her left hip. “My dear, you’re not carrying a sword, are you?”
Zengmei didn’t even flinch. “No, Madam Song, why would I bring a sword?”
The right question exactly.
That question was easily answered by the fact that the man sitting across from her assigned table, her supposed future husband, was not Song Fenghai at all. She could sniff the Yao’qi on him from here.
The Qi of a demon.
No doubt the bastard had probably killed the real Song Fenghai and was wearing his skin. Zengmei had smelt it on him the first time they met. He was definitely no low-level creature, but he was still unhuman nonetheless.
It would definitely put a pin in the whole marital plans and salvaging the Jia Sect if she unmasked him and killed him right then and there. It would also be quite off-putting on people’s appetites too, she supposed.
Zengmei had to find out his motive though. Was he targeting her? Her sect? The Song Sect? The entirety of the cultivation world?
The last one might be a bit of a stretch. Getting married to her certainly wouldn’t stir up the pot that much in terms of the cultivation world. Zengmei was powerful in terms of her cultivation levels, but she was by no means a significant figure.
She was shown to a redwood table ladled with assorted cold dishes and a pot of jasmine tea. Zengmei glanced across at ‘Song Fenghai’, whose table held a gleaming black bottle of wine.
The creature caught her gaze. He was leaned back casually in his chair, his hair pulled up and tied with a silver cuff and hairpin. He smiled; Zengmei didn’t miss the sly coyness in the curl of his lips and the flash of his canines.
Two wisps of hair framed the roundish face, the out-of-place gleam in those obsidian pupils didn’t so much as tremble when encountered with the flame flickering at the corner of the table.
His smile was unfitting, too malicious on the slightly pudgy face. The gleam in his eyes cut through his irises like a sliver of wayward starlight.
As Madam Song passed, he sat up straight, resuming a dull look that made his eyes look like they were bulging from his skull like those of a fish.
Zengmei had met the real Song Fenghai once before, and he definitely didn’t strike her as having the brightest of minds, but she could tell that he had no ill intentions; in fact, his heart was a kind one, so Zengmei would rather reserve her judgements of character for someone who had a punch in the face coming.
She turned Tian Wen, who was positioned slightly behind her. “Something isn’t right about him,” Zengmei said. “After the banquet, I need to get him alone.”
“My Lady, what do you suspect that he is?” Tian Wen asked.
“Some sort of demon spirit in human form,” Zengmei replied. “Can’t you smell the Yao’qi on him?”
Tian Wen shook her head. Zengmei should have known it was pointless to ask. Tian Wen was not a cultivator, her senses were indifferent to those of demonic creatures. However, that begged the question of why, among a roomful of cultivators was she the only one who seemed to notice the oddity.
“May I offer Second Lady Jia a cup of wine?” a voice said from above. Once again, Song Fenghai’s voice was too airy to fit with the twisty nature of this creature’s words; she knew what he was doing. “Unless your branch of cultivation prohibits such a beverage.”
“What kind?” Zengmei took the cup he was offering. Drinking had nothing to do with her ‘branch of cultivation’. Why would she ever give up alcohol?
“Plum blossom wine,” the creature answered. “Fitting for you, don’t you think?”
Zengmei attempted a laugh, but it was more like a soundless inhale that got stuck in her throat. “Sure,” she replied.
Her name – Zengmei; it meant ‘to gift a plum blossom’. It was a dainty name, had no cutting edge to it – just a flower that could be given away.
She let him pour the wine into the blue and white porcelain cup, and downed it in one go. She didn’t like how sweet it was.
The night was a clear one. The sweetness of the wine had turned sour on Zengmei’s tongue.
Huixue was almost buzzing at her hip, begging to be used. She couldn’t stare down that creature’s incessant sideways glances in her direction, as if prompting her to poke her sword into his throat. The blood would bob hot and syrupy down his neck, starkly red coming through those thin lips.
She shouldn’t be having such thoughts.
Her parents had invited a Daoist priest to their home when she was born to look at her ‘path’ in life – how the balance of the forces with reference to the Heavenly Branches and Earthly Stems had intertwined at the moment of her birth: sheng’chen’bazi – the year, the month and the day to form the ‘eight characters of her birthdate’.
He promptly concluded with maybe a shake of his head, “Your daughter’s xue’xin is strong.”
Xue’xin. Blood heart.
Perhaps Zengmei was just craving to shed some blood.
She should change the xue character in her sword’s name from snow to blood. The blood that always circled back.
“I can tell you want to leave.” The creature was so close to her, Yao’qi bombarding her enough to cause a stir in the flow of her own Qi.
“Sure,” Zengmei said. “Let’s leave.” Her metal headpieces rustled as she rose, ringing out Tian Wen’s protests.
“My Lady, you…” Tian Wen didn’t go on because Zengmei was already walking away, so she just sighed instead. She had known Tian Wen since she was around four; she was one of the few who could dissuade Zengmei from engaging in needlessly bloody antics.
Oftentimes, the bloody antics happened anyway.
Under a weak flamelight, Song Fenghai’s features melted away. Rounded jaw sharpened as though the soft, fleshy bits were cut away with the swipe of a dagger. Now that wolfish grin and keen-edged gleam matched his appearance.
Zengmei didn’t give him another chance to toy with her; forearm jammed across his collarbones, her hand and elbow pinned at each shoulder. Huixue was across his throat. One wrong move and the blade was ready pry open that lacklustre skin.
Zengmei slammed him against the wall, fire boiling at the pit of her stomach. “It’s you.” Her voice was lowered to a hard whisper. “Huli Jing.” Fox spirit.
Sometimes, an animal could cultivate its way to gain human form. Such spirits were akin to consuming human flesh to maintain a prolonged youthful appearance.
Male fox spirits were rare though, so Zengmei remembered a face when she saw one. Especially the face of her brother’s killer.
Ten Years Ago
When the night dissipated after the bloodbath was complete, dawn streaked the sky with the colour of the ground, the walls, the pillars, and the soldiers. The sun hung over them, leaking sluggish rays as though, it too, were wounded and bleeding.
The colour people wore at wedding, New Year… it was supposed to bring fortune.
Blood. To sacrifice yourself for the greater good was a glorious, honourable thing.
Huixue lay drenched in it. And Zengmei alive.
Droplets of blood in fresh snow looked like a string of plum blossoms. The first flower to break through the snow. The sign that the harshness of winter was over.
Her brother’s body in her arms was cold like the snow. The Han in his name meant cold. Their parents called him Han’er – cold child. He wasn’t meant to be cold. Not when his own sword was next to him with no blood staining the pristine metal.
He was the baby of the family. Had two older sisters meant to protect him. But Zengmei failed. They both failed.
But Zengmei especially.
She had been the one fighting Xue Kai. She was weak back then. Their abilities were almost a match, but they were not enough. She hadn’t cared about looking at his face, only the deafening clang of their swords.
Zengmei had caught him as he was trying to run away. She had been instructed. Not a single cultivator of the Blood Sect could be let free.
Especially one who wasn’t even human.
It felt like she was fighting him until the sky had grown faint and the earth was entirely dark. Zengmei had felt the flash of the blade coming towards her chest.
She couldn’t doge it in time. The sword plunged through skin. But not hers.
Holding her brother’s body, Zengmei had cried and screamed, but when had that ever let a person cheat death. You could say she had cheated death. However, the forces of the universe were always balanced.
Her brother had taken her place.
“Jie…Jie…” Each syllable was a slap across the face, a stab in the heart. To become strong, she had forced her will to become unbendable, tough as iron, so nobody could ever tear her down to her feeble, trembling core.
Why was it her own brother?
“Han’Han…” She stroked his cheek, rocking him as though that could make him transform back into an infant who never had to know that red was the colour of blood.
Her tears dripped onto his face, beneath the eyes that stared blankly up at her. Eyes that would never sparkle or hold laughter again.
By the time Ruilan finally came, Zengmei’s arms had gone numb, and she didn’t want to hear the sounds of Ruilan’s crying echoing her own from hours previous.
She never called Ruilan Jie’Jie again.
With the creature that killed her brother so close to her, Zengmei wondered if he could feel the disjointed clang of her heart against her ribs. “What do you want from me?” Her sword cut into his throat as easily as it did any human.
His grin disappeared. “What makes you think I want something? Maybe I’m just here to… make amends.”
“You. A Huli Jing. Making amends?” If ten years-worth of rage and hunger for revenge wasn’t lashing out, Zengmei would have laughed. “I’m not a fool. I don’t fall for such tricks. I don’t want your amends.”
“I know,” Xue Kai replied. “You want to kill me. But do you think revenge will bring your brother back? That this is what he would have wanted?”
Zengmei pulled him back so she could slam him against the wall again. “Do not speak to me about what he would have wanted. You don’t have the right.”
The gleam shifted in his eyes, his gaze intense. “Do you remember when you were thirteen, trekking through a mountain alone, when you encountered a nine-tailed fox which you then slew?”
Zengmei narrowed her eyes. She should cut his throat open right then and there. Of course she remembered that – it had been one of her greatest triumphs. But what did that have to do with him?
“That nine-tailed fox was my mother,” Xue Kai said, his face this time seemed… human. “She died protecting me.”
Zengmei finally let loose a weak laugh. “So I take your mother from you, and you take my brother from me. What do you want? To cry together?”
If he was speaking the truth, then she should make it fair. Zengmei took the sword off his throat and stepped back. “You have a sword on you, let’s fight each other.”
Who knew? Maybe they’ll slaughter each other to make it totally even.
“I would never win against you,” Xue Kai said, pausing. “I could also never lock myself up for ten years to heighten my spiritual energy. Isn’t that what you did after the siege on the Blood Sect?”
“I hate people who continuously talk after I offer to fight,” Zengmei said. “So what if I did? Those ten years were for this moment.”
A crease appeared between his brows. “I think you did it because you wish to turn back time and ensure that nobody ever hurt your brother. That you could protect him better the second time around,” Xue Kai said, his words suddenly smooth now. “Am I wrong?”
Zengmei swung Huixue at him, disarming him with one strike. “If you don’t fight me, I’ll run this sword through your heart.”
“All right,” Xue Kai replied, unmoving.
Zengmei didn’t usually hesitate. But it was almost as though Huixue was resisting her, that no matter what, her arm just couldn’t extend to make the killing strike, as though an invisible force had risen around Xue Kai.
In the vague shadows on his face, she remembered the eyes of the fox spirit she had slain – it hadn’t been menace in them, but fear, a beg for mercy. Zengmei didn’t care then. She had never cared. The fox had been protecting her child, as Jia Han had protected Zengmei.
She didn’t wish she could turn back time. She just wished she could have been the one to take a sword for him.
“I wanted to kill you for a long time as well,” Xue Kai said. “But all that bottled-up rage never helped me, except in driving away the remaining few that still cared about me. It’s not worth it.”
With a breeze, a solemness mixed with an almost-twinkle in his eyes, he disappeared like a ghost. That was the only thing Zengmei had been trying to kill for, for ten long years.
She dropped to her knees, Huixue clattering on the stone. For the first time since the night she had clutched her brother’s body until the sun had risen, Zengmei allowed herself to cry.
To accept that a mother and a brother could make the same sacrifice so that those they loved could keep living.
Living was more painful. But they had to keep living because of the pain, not despite it.
This night was dark, so Zengmei would wait for the sun to rise.
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Hey, Yolanda! This is incredibly late, but I had to comment because this story was so captivating. Because the story is set in East Asia, where I have relatives, and also because the story uses spirits and has a strong main character, I enjoyed the story and the description in under 3000 words. It's lovely to read your work again. ~ Jasey :)
Thank you, Jasey! I appreciate your comment. :)
Of course, Yolanda! Hope you're doing well :)
Wow...this is just the piece I was looking for. You have carved it with so much perfection, really. I liked the pace of the story and the way it has been described at every step. I felt really bad for Zengmei and also a bit for Xue Kai for the losses they have gone through. The love between Zengmei and her brother is shown beautifully and how she prepares to fight for herself in the long ten years. This piece instantly strikes up our imagination, creating a place of empathy in our hearts. Loved the ending Thanks for sharing this beauti...
Thank you for such a lovely comment, Keya! I'm glad you connected with the characters. This really made my day. :)
This story just-- BANG Shot straight into my heart. I loved Zengmei, and what a pretty name! Also, I checked your bio, and seven novels? Wow. I can barely finish a short story on Reedsy, you've got a lot of dedication!
Thank you so much! I'm glad you liked Zengmei, she's my girl, I love her too. Haha... the seven novels thing seems like a brag, but it really isn't... I haven't properly edited any of them.
I have a lot of unedited stuff, too. I think everyone does.
Heyo! A.G. Scott is thinking of starting a little critique circle composed of 5 or 6 writers, myself included. Just a way to get constant feedback while we work on our novellas/novels. As a fellow fantasy writer we’d love your input. Would you be interested by any chance?
Oh that sounds like a lot of fun! Of course I'd be interested. I'm not currently working on any novels (more just doing a lot of brainstorming and outlining), but I'd be happy to do reading and give critiques!
Great! Do you mind sending me your email so we can add you to google groups? Or you can contact A.G. Yourself at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sure thing! My email is email@example.com
Wow! This is an amazing story! I love the way you wrote this. The descriptions were vivid and easy to understand. The dialogue was exceptional and very real sounding. I love stories like this where the main character is asian because I feel like there aren't enough stories like that. Keep writing! If you could, would you mind checking out one of my stories? I would love to hear from you!
Thank you so much for reading, Lily! I agree, there aren't enough stories with Asian main characters. I'm glad you enjoyed it! I'll definitely check out one of stories when I can. :)
Awesome story. I loved the twist at the end. At first I thought Xue Kai was the bad guy. Great story and great writing!! I was wondering if you could please give some feedback on my work. I would be really grateful.
Thank you so much for reading! Of course, I'll check out your story as soon as I can. :)
This. Is. So. Awesome! I love how you incorporated your culture into this story. Not only did I learn a lot, but every word you wrote gripped my attention until the end. Zengmei is a formidable character, and your dialogue and descriptions are fantastic as well (I really liked the plum blossom motif). Xue Kai's message at the end is something I think we all need to hear sometimes too. Great story!
Thank you so much, Phoenix! I'm happy that people like the cultural aspect, sometimes I worry that it's a bit overwhelming. Writing Zengmei makes me feel like a badass, lol. I'm glad that you like Xue Kai as well.
Compelling story. It read like an excerpt from a longer book, rather than a self-contained work. Best of luck incorporating it into your future novel! You have great potential.
Thank you so much for reading!
Yolanda, what I love most about your stories aside from how incredibly good that are, is how much I learn about another culture. Your story is rich to the extent I felt like I read a novella. You pack so much into less than 3k words!!! I really loved the divide here of trying to figure out who was actually more good than the other. Well done, even if it doesn't match the prompt.
Thank you so much for reading, Shea! I love being able to share my culture with other people, I'm glad you enjoyed it!
Very gripping and entrancing. My favorite thing about this is there is no clear-cut “good guy” or “bad guy.” The two main players are just vengeful souls doing what vengeful souls do. They are only human, in other words (even if one of them is a shapeshifting demon but you get what I mean lol). Compelling plot, interesting lore and beautiful prose as always! 😙
Thank you for stopping by, Rayhan! That's exactly the way I wanted to depict them, that they're both in the wrong, they've both done bad things, but the circumstances in which they did it is also not entirely black and white. Theese characters have a whole storyline together that is so chaotic. Thanks again for reading!
Thank you, Kate!
*still in love but has a slightly better comment and a critique* this was amazing, yolanda! so twisty and beautiful and raw. i'm glad to hear you're developing this world more! i have one critique, though- at the beginning, with the dress-up scene and the description of the overthrowing and the blood sect, it seems a little out of place. maybe you could add a few connecting lines, like zingmei thinks about that and then we launch into the description. just my advice, no need to follow it. ;)
Thanks again, Kate! I'll definitely find a way to edit the beginning. :)
*rocker-style hair flip*
Enjoyable read. Even without the explanations, you conveyed much of this lore as the story unfolded. The imagery is vivid, and the characters come alive. Also I think it does manage to fit the prompt as Zengmei considers Xue Kai's motivations.
Thank you for reading, Jon! I chose to submit it under this prompt, because I did think it still fit somewhat. I'm glad that it worked even without explanations.
Yolanda! Okay, I skimmed through this story and I liked what I read but I honestly don't have the time or energy to read it in full right now - I mostly just wanted to talk to you about Reedsy's new policy. What do you think? Are you staying on the platform? Because at this point I have no idea what I plan on doing.
Yeah... it's definitely a little off-putting for someone like me who's just a student, and doesn't have their own money (I still don't have a job lol), I don't want to have to go to my parents every time I want to submit a story (it's only $5 but still). However, at the same time, I do get it, it would be hard to review that many stories in a week. I think I'll still post whenever I can, even if they won't get submitted into the actual competition, the real reason I'm even on here to share my work and get feedback on my stories, so at least ...
Hmm, okay. Yeah, at this point I don't know if I'll even stay on Reedsy anymore. I hardly ever post nowadays and without entering the contest I know that each time the winners are announced I'll start wondering if that could have been me, had I paid. But I'll definitely think about it more!
Yeah true, but I think for me, the most important part of being on here isn't to win (don't get me wrong, being able to win once was amazing). I don't really post that much anymore either, but I think I'm still going to stay, just for the community and the friends I've made on here.
Yeah, of course. It's not really about winning, it's just knowing that in another world I *could* have won, y'know? I might post something soon, though, who knows.
Also, another really random thing, but I just read the book These Violent Delights and I think you'd really like it if you haven't read it already!
I've actually bought These Violent Delights, I just haven't read it yet. You're the second person to recommend it to me, lol.
I am very aware that this story doesn't really hit the prompt, it's because this story was meant to be for this week's contest, but I didn't finish it in time. This story is sort of a companion story to Borne From Blood, but it can definitely be read on its own. Both Zengmei and Ruilan art part of the novel I'm working on (I haven't made a lot of progress on outlining it recently, but hopefully I'll get round to it). I just really wanted to post a story because I haven't in so long. As I did for my previous story, I'll explain some of the na...