Edith Pawlicki

a curly haired dreamer who tries

Immortal Beings

Vows of Gold and Laughter

cover

Prologue: The Last Acts of Bai the Warrior

18,000 years ago

BAI leapt high, his calves burning from the demand. A broad spear head sliced under his feet, so close that he felt the breeze of its passing. He landed on the wooden shaft, and before it dipped under his weight, he decapitated the soldier holding it with an efficient swing of the Starlight Sword. He pushed off the shaft to avoid being entangled by the dead soldier, and this time his right leg protested his landing, spasming at the knee before giving out beneath him. Bai knew his end had come and closed his eyes in relief.

But no blow fell.

He slowly opened his eyes and scanned the pass, letting the Starlight Sword and the Water Shield – bound to his left forearm – drag his arms down.

Bai had chosen the narrowest section of Cheolmun Pass to defend, where men could fit no more than four abreast – if he rested his fingers on one sheer stone wall, he could just touch the other with his sword. Having studied martial arts for twenty-five millennia, he could easily defeat even four skilled fighters at any given time, but to do so for so long against so many…

When he undertook this task as a favor to his student, Gang, the God of War, he had accepted his death.

But Bai heard nothing besides his own harsh panting. The soldiers of Zhongtu were a mass of blood and tangled limbs beneath him. While fighting, he had been almost oblivious to the smells, but suddenly the putrid blood seemed to 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 during the fighting the sun had set and risen again. 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, a perk of having been a stone before he gained awareness and became the first immortal.

Perhaps there are some wounded who will live? he thought doubtfully. Having delivered every blow himself, he knew that he had struck over and over to kill as quickly as possible so that he might turn his attention to the seemingly endless onslaught.

But it had ended. And he was still alive.

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

When will it be enough? he wondered. How do these men’s’ deaths avenge Noran? They were soldiers, not bandits.

For the first time, he realized that he could not wait for some lucky warrior to slay him. If he was tired of this life, of slaughtering all challengers, only he could do something about it. He reached for the Starlight Sword, waiting haphazardly in the muck, and pulled it onto his lap. He had once thought it the most beautiful thing he had ever made.

He closed his eyes. “I am so ashamed.”

“You should be,” came a tart voice.

Bai’s eyes flew open and landed on a heavily pregnant woman just past the edge of the bloody mud. Petite and fine-boned, her hands warily clutched her azure sari to a swollen abdomen that threatened to topple her. Her face was taut, and her jaw jutted aggressively, overcompensating for fear. Bai recognized her rich cerulean braid that hung over her shoulder and her eyes, bits of sky even from this distance.

“Neela?” Was he hallucinating?

Neela was only five thousand years younger than Bai – like him, she was one of the Colors that shaped the world. It was strange to think that while he had been destroying life, she had been making it.

“Congratulations,” he said, indicating her belly.

Neela hissed. “Don’t wave that butcher’s knife at me!”

Bai flushed – he had gestured with the Starlight Sword without thinking. “I apologize.” 

“Hmm.” Neela stared at him.

He cleared his throat. “Why are you here?”

“I was elected. Cheng thought if anyone approached you that you’d just cut them down, but Haraa thought my condition might make you pause long enough that I could get some words out.” 

“I can’t believe Cheng would approve of such a gamble.”

Neela tossed her braid over her shoulder with a sniff. “And why would that concern me?”

Obviously it doesn’t. Bai empathized with his lovelorn friend, although Neela had always been clear that she didn’t return his interest.

When Bai didn’t reply, Neela looked past him to the pile of dead bodies. She pressed the back of her right hand to her mouth and looked away.

Bai said, “Haraa appears to be right though – it’s beyond me to ignore a woman on the cusp of labor. Why don’t we relocate before we speak? And I need to bathe.”

She nodded. “Come to my camp when you finish. My wagon is by the mouth of the Kuanbai River, beneath the Great Willow.”

“Very well.” And that was no coincidence. He had created the willow fifty millennia ago – Neela was surely trying to remind him of another way of life. But he was no longer that man, and he could only move forward, not back.

“I’ll expect you in an hour then.” The sharpness in her voice made Bai wonder what punishment she thought she could mete out if he failed to appear, but he was in no mood for confrontation. As soon as she vanished, he turned to the dead and bowed at the waist.

“May you find peace in the Sea of Souls, and fate smile upon your families. I am sorry for taking your lives without knowing why you fought.” 

Bai teleported as he straightened and lost about ten minutes between. He was clearly exhausted – usually teleporting took him half that.

He reappeared on the shore 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.

He swallowed his emotions. A quick scan found no bystanders, for which Bai was thankful. The sight of him, clad in armor and blood, would ruin this peaceful place.

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? He kicked away from the sandy bottom and his morbid thought.

Breaking through the water’s surface, he glanced to shore, half-hoping, half-fearing that someone had discovered the Starlight Sword while he was submerged and made off with it. He didn’t want it anymore, but he could not in good conscience let anyone have it.

But it was still there, ugly with dried blood.  He returned to the shallows, where he used the coarse sand to scrub the blood from his body.

I’m not even injured. Not one of the soldiers he fought for the past day and night had managed to land a blow. He felt like his heart had been cut out.

When all the grime had been scoured away, he unbound his top knot and rinsed his long white hair. Then 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 of them 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 then their fates diverged. Less than a mile from here, where the river met the bay, Bai had suddenly become the first immortal.

He shook the memories from his head and 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 white 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 it with his shield to his back.

He wanted to lie down and sleep, but it had already been more than an hour since Neela had admonished him. He supposed he should see her first. Too tired to teleport, he pushed his way through the dense foliage to where Neela waited.

Her wagon was parked several paces from the willow’s white trunk, where the long, thin branches of the tree caressed it at the breeze’s whimsy. Now that Bai was dry and dressed, the breeze was mild and sweet. The silver leaves of the willow rustled a welcome. He held up a hand in return, and they kissed his fingers.

Looking down, it was as if the green undergrowth held thousands of tiny blue butterflies the same cerulean as Neela’s hair. Having once been a dayflower herself, Neela was very fond of them. She must have been here some time to have grown so many. The undergrowth was broken only by a stone fire pit, which had been used so recently that heat still distorted the air above it.

Her blue ombre caravan was a whimsical affair, made of layered star and octagon lattices that changed from pale robin’s egg to a deep cerulean. The roof was arched, and the windows were six-pointed stars. Neela was watching him from one of those stars, a beaten copper cup in her hand. The scent of hot buttered bread beckoned him.

“Door’s open,” Neela pointed out.

Bai mounted the narrow steps of a curved ladder and ducked his head to enter the wagon – the lintel was only five feet high, ample enough for Neela, but hideously low for him. Once through, Bai was confronted by swathes of royal blue, shimmering sapphire, and cyan embroidery on cerulean. It took him a few moments to parse the many textures and shades into familiar objects.

Neela was ensconced on a sumptuous velvet bench on one side of a narrow wood table. She was indicating the bench opposite with a smirk, as if she knew exactly what he was thinking. Perhaps she did. Just as Bai could always discern the essence of things, Neela had insight into the thoughts of sentient beings.

Once Bai was seated, Neela offered him a cup of opaque burgundy juice. Bai thanked her and traced his thumb over the dimples in the metal before taking a sip. His mouth puckered – the juice was both too sweet and too sour.

He gratefully accepted a plate of flatbread and yogurt from Neela and used the supple bread like a spoon to fill his mouth with tangy yogurt.  His stomach rumbled its approval.

“Butchering mortals is hungry work, hey?”

He grimaced but continued eating.

“You said you were ashamed?”

“You’re not my mother,” Bai returned, around a mouthful of bread.

“No,” Neela retorted, “you haven’t got a mother, no more than I. But it seems like you need one, so I’ll just have to do my best, won’t I?”

Bai, despite his hunger, paused to stare her down. She met his gaze without flinching.

“So why were you ashamed?”

Bai gulped his juice, then set down the cup. He rubbed his eyes. “When Noran was killed...”

“You decided to purge the world of bandits. To kill the wicked and protect the vulnerable,” Neela said dryly. 

Bai’s lips twisted. “Yes. Well. I…” He waved a hand, unable to find the words.

Neela sighed. “I am familiar with your unrequited love – Noran bragged about it often enough. And although I never cared for her, no one deserves such a death.”

Bai closed his eyes, remembering Noran’s bold, flirtatious manner. He had known she mocked his seriousness, his earnestness behind his back, but he had not cared. She had been everything he was not, and he had wanted her vivacity for himself.

He had given her a braided bracelet of his hair so that she might summon him whenever she wanted. And she used it regularly – whenever she wanted to make Aka, the second eldest immortal and her lover, jealous. After she and Aka had Gang – the first born-immortal – Bai didn’t see the point in going to her anymore. That was why he had hesitated and arrived too late to save her that day.

When he found her dead, surrounded by mortal bandits, her crying son sheltered by her bloody body…

Anger and hatred had rushed through him and found a convenient target in the mortal bandits who had murdered her. But even after they were all dead, and Gang returned to his father, the rage didn’t dissipate.

Bai started his third life that day, that of a warrior who honed his body into a tool for destruction. He had mastered every weapon he encountered and invented dozens of new ones. Two thousand years later, Gang, on the threshold of adulthood, had come and asked to be trained, and so Bai had taught the God of War everything he could.

Gang wasn’t just a warrior – he was a general. He had often called on Bai over the last score of millennia and sent him to the worst battles. Bai had always gone willingly, trying to obliterate the memory of the small boy huddled beneath his dead mother.

“It was watching your self-destruction that made me realize we are better off without great passions.” Neela’s words pulled Bai back to the present.

Neela had only casual affairs, usually with mortal men whom she could soon forget.

“Self-destruction?” he said. “I never thought of it that way before today. I thought the deeper I threw myself into the art of fighting, the more men I killed, the more whole I would feel. Somewhere along the way, I stopped caring about why there was fighting, just that there was. Today... I don’t even know why I was fighting those men. Hundreds of men dead, and I don’t even know why.”

Neela took a slow sip of her juice. “I know why. Shall I tell you?”

Bai nodded once.

“Those men were reinforcements, coming to the aid of the Bandoan king.”

Bai finished chewing a bit of bread and then said, “But the Bandoan royal family were Gang’s first worshippers. Why would he turn on them?”

Neela fiddled with her cup. “His father was fighting the Golden Phoenix, and the men of Bando tried to intervene.”

“The Phoenix? But why? He’s not like the other immortal creatures that Aka has locked away over the years.”

“It doesn’t make sense to you because you’ve never wanted anyone to worship you. But Aka would like to replace Phoenix in the hearts of the Bandoans.” Neela took another sip. “I don’t think Aka has been locking away the immortal creatures out of generosity – he has specifically been pursuing the worship of mortals. Regardless of whether the creatures are benevolent or wicked or simply are.”

Bai considered this. “I can believe such of Aka, but,” Bai shook his head, “surely Gang would not help with such an endeavor?”

“What, because you were his teacher? Or because Noran was his mother?” Neela shook her head. “You don’t know him as well as you think.

“Early this morning, while you were still butchering mortals, Aka locked Phoenix in the Underworld. He was the last of them – the last of the immortal creatures.”

“Are you certain?” Worry and disbelief sharpened his voice. “How could he have done that without our noticing?”

“Some of us have noticed – Cheng, Haraa, and I. And so have Zi and Hei for that matter – they’ve been helping him in exchange for a position at court.”

“Court? What court?”

Neela smiled humorlessly. “The Court of the Heavens. You are now an imperial subject of the Sun Emperor. As are all who live in the upper realms.”

Bai snorted. “I’d like to see Aka try to command me.”

“Hmm. I wouldn’t mind seeing that myself.” Then she sighed. “Regardless of how much personal power you have, most are now subject to Aka’s rule. Which isn’t all bad –”

Bai cut her off. “But what are you proposing? You want me to fight him? That’s why you sought me out?”

Neela suddenly looked old and tired, her tens of millennia showing in her eyes. “No. I want you to stop fighting; I sought you out so you wouldn’t fight him. Can you imagine the destruction of an immortal war? You against Aka and Zi and Hei? All those little deities they’ve gathered around themselves?” Neela shuddered.

“I consider it done,” she continued. “Aka is the Sun Emperor. I want you to accept it. That’s why I found you.”

Bai looked at Neela closely – about as closely as she was studying him. For the second time that day, he wondered just what she thought she could do to him. She clearly had some idea – but he was hardly going to provoke a pregnant woman nearing labor. He didn’t want to fight Aka anyway.

Casting about for a different subject, Bai tried, “Who’s the father?”

“I don’t know.”

Perhaps, all things considered, that was not surprising. “I could find him for you,” Bai offered.

Neela laughed. “Not even you could find him – he must be eight hundred years dead. He was a mortal – I made sure of that.”

“Ah – you thought you could have the child all to yourself.”

Neela scowled. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s good for children to have two parents – it brings balance. She’ll look to others for guidance whether you like it or not.”

Neela turned to him in excitement. “She?”

“Yes. It’ll be a girl.”

“Good. Then I’ll name her Aashchary.” Neela smiled to herself, dismissing his warning as pontificating. Bai shrugged – there was nothing he could say to convince her. Neela was as stubborn as they came.

“She’ll be born soon – less than a week, I should think.  Do you have a midwife?”

Neela tossed her head. “What do I need one for?”

Bai smiled. “It’s easier to have a baby with support.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll stay nearby until the babe comes, if you like. I’ve caught a few.”

“You? When?”

“When soldiers go to war, wives and other women follow. And inevitably…”

“So mortal babes then.”

Bai shrugged. “The process is the same for us as it is for them, if longer.”

Neela looked down, chewing her full bottom lip. “Well, if you want.”

Bai smiled slightly. “I’ll stay then. I need to think through all you’ve told me, anyway.”

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TWO weeks after little Aashchary entered the world, Bai teleported to the Gate to the Underworld.

Aka had built it in the Land of Winter, a lone structure on top of barren Mount Korikami. Despite being summer, a bitter wind mourned the Korikami, the fearsome creature that Aka had trapped in the Underworld a few millennia ago. The wind chilled Bai through his dove petal clothes.

Black gravel crunched beneath his feet as he circled the vermilion torii gate that now was the only way to enter the Underworld. So fervently red that it almost glowed, the gate consisted of two thick columns on either side, two bars across the top, with a flaring roof above the upper. He had walked through it several times, but each time he had simply passed through to the other side – in fact, if not for his insight into the true nature of things, he might have believed it was nothing but a beautiful monument.

It needed a key to enter. An object that triggered the gate so that the other side was the Underworld. Aka must have the key. The same narcissism that had led the immortal to declare himself a god and now an emperor would surely compel him to keep such a powerful artifact for himself.

Bai had no intention of starting a war to free the creatures, but the gate was not fully closed and that troubled him. Energy was streaming through it, flowing most likely to the key. Without being able to examine the key, Bai could not identify that energy, but he suspected that Aka was draining power from the creatures he had defeated.

Even if only the foulest of the monsters that were trapped there, Bai could not abide such an arrangement. To steal another’s power was wrong. Each being had a right to itself; he had learned that the hard way when Aka came to be.

It had been over fifty millennia since that day, and Bai had decided that it was not only futile to control other beings, but it was wrong. Everyone was entitled to their own self, to make their own choices poorly or wisely, to regulate their own bodies, minds, and powers – so long as they respected those rights in others.

The possibility that Aka might be violating that essential truth in regard to the immortal creatures filled Bai with a cold anger.

He needed to see the key for himself.

Bai transformed into a white egret, hiding the Starlight Sword and the Water Shield in his feathers, and took to the skies. He teleported midflight to the air above the Sun Palace.

When Aka claimed his divinity, he had rather pretentiously gathered the red rays of a rising sun and created a floating residence. Bai had visited it before, a guest of Noran and then later Gang, but he was surprised to see just how much it had changed.

The original residence’s walls were still in place, creating what must still be Aka and his wife’s personal living compound. Central was a nine-storied pagoda with red clay roofs and gold-leaf sides. On either side of the pagoda were pavilions centered in two large ponds with arching bridges granting access to them. Grand halls stood at both the north and south points of the enclosure, and several smaller buildings were set among the gardens. This was familiar.

But there was now an outer wall encapsulating as much space as the inner. There were new gardens being landscaped and a variety of colorful buildings – the residences of his court, perhaps. Three smaller circular compounds were also present – it was easy enough to see that each was for one of Aka’s children. Bai briefly considered going to Gang’s, near the north gate, but Bai no longer trusted his student as he always had. To see him and know Gang had changed – or worse, that he was the same, but Bai had never known him at all – well, Bai would simply find the key himself.

Bai opened his senses, looking for it. He knew it would have the same essence as the gate he had just studied.

Aka was having tea in one of the pavilions with two concubines. Dangling from a red ribbon around his neck was a wooden pendant carved into a sun with a hundred rays, painted deep vermilion like the gate – the key. Kunjee, it told Bai its name.

Bai’s suspicions were correct; Kunjee was siphoning magical power from the creatures trapped in the Underworld.

Bai immediately decided to take it.

He flew to the Southern Gate, circling once before landing lightly on the polished pink marble slab before it. Two guards, clad in red leather with embossed suns on their chests, eyed him curiously. As Bai transformed, they both lowered their spears nervously. When he was once again himself – clad in the white dove petal clothes he had made by the Kuanbai River, the Starlight Sword and the Watershield on his back – Bai smiled at the Guards and bowed respectfully.

“I have come to see the Sun Emperor.”

The guard to the left frowned and began, “The Sun Emperor –” but his fellow raised a hand, having noted Bai’s pure white warrior’s knot and the gleaming handle over his shoulder.

“Bai the Warrior, bearer of the Starlight Sword,” he said and bowed. “Please wait while we send a messenger to his Imperial Majesty.” 

Bai nodded graciously. If he had to fight his way in, he would, but let them see if Aka would welcome him.

As he waited, he amused himself by studying the elaborate illusion of water that filled the circular gate, intended to conceal the palace grounds. With little effort, Bai looked through it to see 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 of the path was Aka’s Reception Hall, a massive wooden building with vermilion pillars as thick as a man was tall and a flaring red-clay roof. Very quickly, a large retinue arrived at the hall, Aka at the center and wearing Kunjee. 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 immediately brought the rich, sweet smell of ripe cherries and a noticeable warming of the air.

As they approached the large hall, Bai saw it was not entirely red after all – golden lattices decorated the top and bottom of the pillars and gold chrysanthemums were on the end of every row of roof tiles. Bai recognized Noran’s designs immediately, and his heart, even after all these years, lurched sadly. They walked up a wide set of stone steps, and Bai’s escort immediately genuflected on a marble floor that was as pure a white as Bai’s robes. 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, the Goddess of Lightning, whom Bai had known before her marriage. She kept her eyes on her hands and her expression blank. To Aka’s left was a young woman with eyes just a bit deeper red than Aka’s – his daughter. She returned Bai’s gaze with frank curiosity, and her ambition scorched him. He abruptly returned his focus to her father.

Aka’s hands clenched his armrests when he realized that Bai had no intention of genuflecting, but he said nothing. The official glanced 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 simply replied, “These are the record keepers of the Sun Court. They watch all my meetings.”

Bai arched a brow but shrugged.

“I’ve come for Kunjee.”

Aka stiffened. Before he could make a reply, Bai continued, “You’ve sealed the immortal creatures, and made yourself emperor, but the power it channels does not belong to you. You have no right to harvest it.”

Aka scowled now. “And you do?”

“No. No one does. I will keep it safe so that no being can siphon the power of the immortal creatures.”

Aka stroked the red sun pendant. “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 Kunjee,” 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, elephant, 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 ray of pure sunshine that could easily have been deathly, 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 – anyone else who did so would leave the pendant behind. Bai thought he could break the protection, but he immediately 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 mount.

The men gaped as the cloud drifted away.

He sighed. He had never felt so old, as if all the millennia of his life were bearing down on him. He touched the sun pendant around his neck. Kunjee.

First, I must put you somewhere safe. Then... then I can lay down my burdens.

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

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