Immortal Beings

Vows of Gold and Laughter


Prologue: The Last Acts of the Warrior

BAI was fifty-seven millennia old, yet he was not a god. He could have been one, but being worshipped held little appeal. Such vanities were for the likes of Aka, who had once been naught but a drop of Bai’s blood.

Rather than worshippers, Bai preferred to collect knowledge.

When he first ascended, transforming from a small white stone to the first being, the first immortal, he had spent centuries walking the Earth. He had watched the land change around him: new mountains had emerged from the sea, spewing hot molten lava, and rivers had carved canyons. He had found portals to the Underworld, a realm of beauty and danger, where all that lived went after death. He had learned to harness clouds, cloaking himself in their mist and even turning them solid beneath his feet, so that he could traverse the Heavens as he did the Earth. Bai had only to look at an object to understand it and everything had fascinated him.

When Aka ascended, becoming the second immortal, Bai learned this ability was not a characteristic of immortality, but something innate to him as the Color White. So Bai invented writing to document his observations for Aka’s benefit. He uncovered the wonders of mathematics and the laws of the natural order in this pursuit, though Aka had little interest in Bai’s studies. Luckily, more immortals followed, first the rest of the Colors, and then others with less magic. It was they who named him the Scholar.

Then Bai fell in love with Noran, the Color Yellow. Her magic gave her a powerful sway over Bai’s thoughts. She was his muse, inspiring him to create passionate music and miraculous jewelry, until…

Until he witnessed her death, her body broken by weapons of iron, murdered by mortals whose lives should have ended in a blink of her eye.

Bai lost his desire to create beauty, and instead studied the ways of fighting. For twenty-five thousand years, he studied the body and force, creating whole schools of martial arts, ranging from the palm technique of Ondor Peaks to the knife dance of Moayi. He mastered every weapon he encountered and even crafted his own, most notably the Starlight Sword, which split steel as easily as flesh. His years of learning were buried beneath the bodies of his opponents, and he was given a new epithet: the Warrior.

But now that life would end as well.

For the past two sunsets and sunrises, Bai had fought a Zhongtu horde alone. A whirling dervish in the narrowest section of Cheolmun Pass, where no more than four beings could fit, he had struck to kill over and over, but now the Starlight Sword and Water Shield grew too heavy for him.

He closed his eyes, lowered his arms, and bared his neck for whichever mortal was lucky enough to end him.

No blow came.

He slowly opened his eyes and met the gaze of one lone soldier. The man held a pike staff, though it wobbled in his hands before falling to the ground. Then the soldier turned and ran, nimble as a deer now that he was fleeing. In the windless canyon, nothing else moved. Beneath Bai’s feet, soldiers made a bloody hillock. While fighting, he had been oblivious to the smells, but suddenly the putrid blood hit the back of his throat. His stomach revolted and his throat seized.

I cannot vomit on the dead!

Bai made a clumsy attempt to get down from the mounded bodies, resulting in a tumble where he dropped his sword. His hands bit deep into the rust-colored mud—this was dust before the fight—and he dry retched for some time.

When the heaves subsided, Bai sat back on his heels and regarded the dead.

It was impossible to count them, tangled as they were, but given the rate of the fight, he must have killed nearly three hundred soldiers. A mortal man might have collapsed from dehydration or exhaustion, but though it was unpleasant to endure, Bai could go indefinitely without nourishment and rest.

He looked at the bodies, and a single question came to him, a question he should have asked earlier.


Why had the Gang, God of War, asked Bai to stop this army? To kill these men?

Gang was the only son of Bai’s lost love, Noran. For her sake, Bai had defended the child-god from assassination attempts and taught him sword-play archery, and wrestling. And then one day, the boy became a man, and he invented strategy, the art of war for armies rather than a lone warrior. At that time, Bai had willingly become a tool for his former student, a hand of death sent to the most desperate situations.

When Gang sent him here, to Cheolmun Pass to fight an army alone, he had warned Bai that this fight would be his last.

Bai hadn’t minded. He had understood it was a gift. Death on the battlefield; death from trying, rather than giving up.

Because lately, Bai had grown weary of his very long existence. What was left to experience but death?

So he had come to die.


Bai was still alive.

Three hundred mortals were dead, not bandits like those that killed Noran, but soldiers sworn to the Zhongtu emperor. Men sworn to protect their country, their homes, their families.

And in mere days, Bai had killed them all, and he didn’t know why.

Hands trembling, he fumbled at the strings that held his water flask. When he had it free and uncorked, he gulped desperately at the stale, hot water. He lowered the flask and looked at his hands, filthy and deadly.

He seized his sword and teleported, no clear destination in mind, simply fleeing as that soldier had.

Bai lost about ten minutes between. He was clearly exhausted—usually teleporting took him half that.

He looked around and recognized the mouth of the Kuanbai River, not far from rich green foliage that danced lightly in a breeze from the ocean. He could feel the large grains of pale sand through his thin-soled boots, and the river drifted past his toes languorously. Tears pricked Bai’s eyes.

It was here that he had gained his immortality, so long ago, before the flora had grown. Ah, to have a fresh start again!

At least he could bathe.

Bai set down his sword to unbind the Water Shield from his left arm. He set it on the sand and then he removed his leather armor. He shivered—it was a warm day, but the sweat that coated him and dampened his underrobe made the wind feel sharper than it was.

He studied the Starlight Sword for a moment, its dappled metal hidden by crusted blood. He had always cleaned it before tending to himself. He had forged it from the metal of two meteorites under the white light of the stars over a hundred nights, and it had its own power. But today he hated it.

Bai filled, drained, and refilled his water flask before stripping his shoes, trousers, and underrobe. He waded into the Kuanbai until the water reached his waist. Then he dove, swimming with deep strokes to the bottom.

What would happen if he just stayed here? He didn’t need to breathe, but given enough time, would the water erode him away?

Bai stayed there for an indeterminate amount of time, perhaps days—surely not years?—feeling the water ease over his skin, debating whether his life had indeed come full circle.

But as his energy returned, he grew less confident in his decision to stay at the bottom of the river. Was there nothing left to learn, to discover, to achieve?

Strangely, it was the Starlight Sword that made him kick away from the sandy bottom and swim swiftly upward. What if someone happened upon it as he sat moping and took it?

Whether he was afraid to lose it or whether he feared the damage a new owner might inflict on the world, Bai could not say, but as soon as he broke the surface, he looked to shore.

It was still there, ugly with dried blood. He felt disappointed and relieved all at once as he swam toward it.

On shore, he turned to the task of neatening his appearance. First, he ran his fingers through the sand until he found a simple white stone.

Those men would still be alive, he thought, if I had remained like this little one.

Both he and the stone had once been a part of the White Mountain, until they were tumbled free by a mountain spring and washed down the Kuanbai River. But it lacked the will, the spark, that had granted Bai sentience and magic.

Bai shaped the stone into a comb. Detangling his hair was soothing—he kept his mind blank as he worked.

Finally, he rose and dropped the comb into the river. He was ready to deal with the accoutrements of war.

His garments and armor would never be free of blood stains again. He might as well be rid of them. White sand, white sunlight. He focused, bouncing the light off the sand to the clothes until they burst into flame.

While they burned, he scoured his sword and shield with wet sand. After he rinsed each for a final time, he set them to dry on a large stone. Then he looked for something from which to make cloth and found a dove tree, with large petals of purest white. He plucked a flower, discarded the pistils, crumpled its petal in his hand, and then shook it out into a drying cloth, which he used to wipe the remaining water and sand from his body before plucking six more. The first he stretched and folded until it became a pair of wide-legged trousers. The second became a wrap-around shirt. The third he tore into strips for ties, the fourth a loose overrobe with bell-like sleeves, and the last two each made one soft-soled boot.

He dressed himself and then returned to his belongings. After a brief hesitation, he sheathed his now dry sword and tied both it and his shield to his back.

It was time to get his answer. He would visit Gang—and his father. Aka. Who had chosen to be worshipped and who had been chosen by Noran until her death.

Five minutes later, Bai reappeared at the Southern Gate of the Sun Palace. Two Sun Guards flanked it; their eyes went first to Bai’s bone-white hair and then the handle of the Starlight Sword over his shoulder. One snapped to attention, the other bowed at the waist. They both glanced at each other, then reversed their poses. Before they could try again, Bai said, “I have come to see the God of War.”

“My apologies, Warrior,” said the one who bowed first, “The God of War is on a mission set by the Sun Emperor.”

Did he really have to see Aka for his answer? “Very well, I’ll see him instead.”

The guards both did sort of half-bows, looked at each other, and shifted on their feet.

Because he didn’t enjoy others’ discomfort, Bai suggests, “You may request an audience. I’ll wait.” After all, he was never short of time.

The left guard went through the round gate and ran down a broad flagstone path edged with cherry trees—their leaves were a vibrant green with bright red clusters of fruit hiding amongst them. At the end, he paused and adjusted his armor before entering Aka’s Reception Hall, a massive wooden building with vermilion pillars as thick as a man was tall and a flaring red-clay roof. Some minutes later, an official wearing rose robes heavily embroidered with silver peonies made his way down the flagstone path and through the gate. He bowed to Bai repeatedly, inviting him to enter the palace. Passing through the high arch of Southern Gate brought the rich, sweet smell of ripe cherries and a noticeable warming of the air.

As they mounted the steps of the hall, Bai glanced up, looking for the gold chrysanthemums that capped every row of roof tiles. Noran’s work.

When they entered, the official genuflected on a marble floor so polished that Bai could have used it as a mirror. At the far end of the hall, Aka sat on a massive red lacquer throne carved with immortal creatures. To his right sat his Empress, and to his left, his daughter. The latter’s ambition burned so fierce that Bai gave her a cursory inspection before returning his focus to her father.

Aka’s hands clenched his armrests when he realized that Bai did not intend to genuflect, but he said nothing. The official glanced up at Bai nervously—because of his master’s anger and because he realized how powerful Bai must be to ignore Aka’s rules. As he rose, he trembled like a leaf in the wind.

 They halted twenty paces before Aka where a red-lacquered table had been set with refreshments.

The official indicated that Bai should be seated then backed away from the imperial presence on his knees, until he reached the pillars where other members of the court sat. Bai eyed them. “Perhaps a private discussion would be preferable?” he said dryly.

Bai could see hesitation, doubt, deep under Aka’s façade, but the other man replied, “These are the record keepers of the Sun Court. They watch all my meetings.”

Bai arched a brow but shrugged.

“I slaughtered the Zhongtuese army in Cheolmun Pass. How did they offend you?” Though Bai liked to pretend otherwise, he knew a favor for Gang was a favor for Aka.

“I thought you didn’t care why you fought, so long as you did.” Aka’s upper lip curled.

Bai shrugged. “Today I care.”

Aka’s right eye twitched. “So, you heard that I imprisoned the Golden Phoenix, and you’re annoyed.”

Bai had heard no such thing, but he held his tongue, knowing that Aka was prone to filling silence. He might be the ruler of the world, but he was still younger than Bai by a whole millennium.

“I fought the Phoenix myself, while Gang dealt with its worshippers. The Zhongtuese sent aid to the false god,” Bai snorted—to his mind, worshipping Aka was as arbitrary as worshipping an immortal creature. “Thank you,” said Aka with a malicious smile, “for dealing with them.”

Bai flushed. He had ignored Aka’s campaign against immortal creatures, thinking he didn’t care to be involved in the struggle for worshippers. Except he had involved himself, without even realizing it, all because he “didn’t care who he fought, so long as he did.”

“And now the Phoenix is in the Underworld,” continued Aka, “with all the other immortal creatures.” Aka touched a medallion hanging around his neck, drawing Bai’s attention to it. Kunjee, Bai’s magic told him.

And the sight of that abomination stirred something deep and forgotten in Bai.

“I told you before,” Bai said through clenched teeth, “it is wrong to steal power. You have no right—!”

“I am the Sun Emperor!” Aka barked. “I can take what I want, from whomever I want! If no one can stop me, then I have the right!”

Bai paused. Then smiled as hard as a stone. “No one can stop you? Are you sure?”

Aka stroked the red sun pendant, his fingers trembling ever so slightly. “Did you really go to Cheolmun Pass?”

“I did. I killed three hundred mortals for your cause. I will accept Kunjee as payment.”

Red fire danced over Aka’s fingers before disappearing. “You would find me a more difficult target than those mortals.”

Bai again arched a brow. “I am sure I would. And your death would reverberate throughout the realms more heavily than theirs.”

Sweat beaded on Aka’s forehead. “I think we must let fate tell us if you or I should be the keeper of the key,” he suggested.

“A duel?” asked Bai, somewhat surprised.

“Not with weapons,” answered Aka. “Let us play Jieqi.”

The world game. Bai nodded his consent.

Aka waved his hand, and there was a flurry of activity as court officials set up the game. Brown ribbons were stretched across the floor to create a grid, with four blue ribbons crossing diagonally for rivers. The court officials donned masks—monkey, elephant, goat, peacock, deer, tiger, and dragon. They took their places as pieces, and Bai had to suppress a laugh at the sheer pretension. It seemed they were well-acquainted to this job though, as they elegantly and efficiently followed the instructions that Bai and Aka called out.

At last Bai prevailed. He watched Aka carefully as he captured the emperor’s dragon to win the game.

Aka seethed beneath the surface as he removed Kunjee from his neck. He then blasted it toward Bai on a scorching ray of pure sunshine, but Bai froze the water vapor that hung in its path and used it to whirl away the heat before he caught the key.

“Thank you,” Bai responded and almost teleported. But he sensed Aka’s satisfaction and studied the pendant intently. Aka had woven an intricate protection that prevented any but himself from teleporting with it—otherwise the pendant behind would be left behind. Bai thought he could break the protection, but he saw the folly of doing so—such a protection would make it difficult for a thief to steal it. So, after a moment’s thought, he slipped the ribbon over his head, gave a nod to the court, and walked out of the palace.

He summoned a wispy cirrus cloud at the gate and harnessed it as a mount.

The men gaped as the cloud drifted away.

He sighed. He had never felt so old, so tired of all other beings. He touched the sun pendant around his neck. Kunjee.

Both you and I would be better off where no one can find us.

He steered the cloud to the White Mountain. It is time to go home. To leave this world behind.

gold plum blossoms indicating scenebreak

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