For preview purposes only; final product may differ
Translators: Yog, SassyStrawberry
First frost in the Year 21 of the Qizheng Era, the Kingdom of Great Qi.
A cavalry galloped down the road, both men and horses worn from travel.
Suddenly, the young head of the cavalry shouted, “We’ve arrived at the boundary stele!”
Not far ahead stood a stone monument greater than one zhang in height, etched with vivid crimson calligraphy. The imposing sign read: Here lies the Crimson Abyss, beyond which the living shall not pass, lest ye perish.
Waiting next to the stele were a middle-aged general and a line of soldiers. Armour clanging, the guards went down on their knees in unison. “Greetings to His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince.”
The young soldier at the front of the cavalry leapt down from his horse before it could come to a complete halt, causing him to stumble. The welcoming general rushed up to help him. “Are you all right, Your Highness?”
“I’m fine.” The young man waved his hand and asked, “Where is my un… the Imperial Father?”
Before he had even finished speaking, however, he heard his pet name being called a short ways off. “Xiao-Tong’er, over here.”
The young heir looked towards the direction of the voice and saw a man dressed in black, standing alone with his back to the crowd, past the boundary stele that claimed death to any trespassers. The prince glanced at the crimson letters written on the stele and, without hesitation, crossed into where even gods fear to tread. He knelt before the man. “Your Maj—”
The man extended a hand to dismiss the gesture. “Rise.”
Both his words and his actions were steady and unhurried, displaying great poise in every gesture. Though he appeared aged from the back, his face was revealed to be surprisingly untouched by time as he turned around, presenting a rather uncanny and unsettling contrast. Just by looking at his face alone, one could hardly believe him to be Emperor Wu, who had reigned for twenty-one years—Sheng Xiao. His eyebrows were as sharp and decisive as the blade he wielded, yet the crescent of his eyes dipped downward, giving the handsome man a touch of gentleness behind his gaze.
The prince stood up and called out softly, “Uncle.”
Since the Emperor had no heir, he had adopted the child left behind by his late brother and made his nephew the heir. Sheng Xiao was, by nature, a distant and cold person, thus the prince referred to him as “Imperial Father” in public for the sake of etiquette, despite not being father and son. Privately, however, the two still referred to each other as uncle and nephew.
Sheng Xiao asked, “Would it scare you to walk beyond the stele with me?”
The prince answered, “Of course not, Uncle! You brought peace to the Abyss at a young age. You restored the land to its former glory by suppressing the evil Yao race and slaying millions of ghost soldiers. I cannot hope to compare myself to Your existence, but I dare even less to speak rashly of fear lest it tarnishes Your reputation.”
“What reputation? My infamy, you mean?” Sheng Xiao chuckled nonchalantly and walked forth. “Do you hear it?”
The prince listened intently, but only the wind made itself known. “I don’t hear anything.”
The Emperor smiled. “Exactly. There’s nothing left.”
The prince was taken aback by the answer, but then, he recalled the legends he had heard as a child. It was said that the resentful souls of the perished millions were sealed in the fires of the Abyss. Their resentment remained so strong that a fiery gale blew incessantly through the Abyss. If one stood before the boundary stele, one would hear the agonising wails and cries from the other side.
However, now that he walked safely within the boundary with only stifling silence and scorching heat to accompany him, he came to a single conclusion.
Folklores and legends are indeed filled with rumours and exaggerations.
They had barely advanced past a hundred chi into the boundary when the heat wave arrived. It was now late autumn, and though the prince wore only a thinly lined robe, it was already soaked through. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead. Stealing a glance at his uncle, he ultimately resisted the urge to wipe them away.
Emperor Wu had a bad reputation. Stories of how he was a temperamental madman born from a pool of his father and brothers’ blood circulated among the folk performers of the land. They also claimed that he killed his mother and his teachers, burned books, banned free speech, favoured sycophants, exploited his army and waged reckless wars, even cruelly slaughtering those who were loyal and virtuous.
For the young prince, however, this man was his only family. Regardless of what happened, he was always gentle and calm, never speaking harshly or appearing unkempt. The prince had looked up to him since he was young. Even now, as the eighteen-year-old imperial heir with the strength to draw the heaviest bow and the poise to govern a state, his eyes would still drift to his uncle as if subconsciously following in his footsteps.
As the two advanced past one li of the border, Sheng Xiao stopped. The smell of sulphur was beginning to fill their noses, and the prince was starting to be short of breath.
“Let us stop here this year. We’ll burn if we go any further.”
The prince was perplexed. “This year?”
“Yes. This year.” Sheng Xiao turned around and drew his nephew’s sword. A protective ward was engraved onto the blade, and the symbols glowed red as the scalding winds of the Abyss swept along the blade’s length.
He stabbed the sword into the ground. “This is the first and most important task I have for you. I have spent my whole life tackling the Abyss, and I’m finally seeing the results now. I estimate this sword can advance five li each year. In less than a decade, the flames of the abyss will be extinguished completely. Once the sword reaches the edge and the canyon is windless, you may station someone from the Bureau of Peace here.”
The prince was stunned. He felt a sinking feeling in his heart. “Unc… Imperial Father, wha…”
“My Prince,” Sheng Xiao announced impassively, “I hereby pass unto thee the Throne of Great Qi.”
The prince fell to his knees.
Emperor Wu had gone out twice this year to inspect his nation and suppress dissent across the realm. At the same time, he allowed the prince to oversee the state’s affairs, gradually relinquishing control of internal governance and carefully paving the way for the coming generation. Given these circumstances, the young heir had been preparing himself for this day, but no amount of preparation could have let him accept reality so easily.
“I've taught you everything that needs to be taught,” Sheng Xiao went on, sparing him a glance. “As for the rest… Zhang Bo and Kong Yu will both make fine subjects. Zhao Kuan is still imprisoned, but he is innocent, so release him and offer compensation to the Zhao family, and he will devote his entire being to serving you. A son does not speak of his father’s faults, so when you find it troubling to speak ill of me in the future, push Yang Dong out as a sycophant who will bring calamity to the country. That man is no paragon of virtue, and he’s been eating his mind dull and his gut full over the years. Consider him my gift to you.”
The prince crumpled to the floor, forehead on the ground. “Imperial Father, you are at the peak of your reign…”
Sheng Xiao looked amused by his nephew’s reaction. “What, do you expect me to work until I’m an old man or until I’m in a coffin? Your uncle has been worrying over the country for half a lifetime. Show some pity for me, won’t you? Zhang Bo and Feng Chun both possess a copy of the edict. In particular, Feng was a close friend of your father’s when he was still alive. He will look after you, so there’s no need to be afraid.”
The young man’s eyes reddened.
Sheng Xiao looked towards the Abyss, his hands clasped behind his back. “Do you still remember how your parents, who gave life to you, died?”
“This dutiful son dares not forget even for a day.”
“Good.” Sheng Xiao nodded approvingly. “You’re all grown up. You know the path that you must walk. Now go; the Austral Flames will one day be extinguished, but the heat still remains. Staying any longer will be harmful to your body.”
“Then, what about…”
“I shall stay for a few days more.” Sheng Xiao waved his hand and did not elaborate. “A country cannot be without a ruler. There is much to do in the capital, so hasten back.”
The prince knew that the Emperor’s words were final, and he dared not disobey his command. Despite his reluctance, he had to leave, but he still couldn’t help but look back at the man once more when he reached the boundary stele. His uncle was seated on the ground in front of the sword.
The unspoken farewell weighed heavy like a stone in his heart. He shook his head but found himself growing dizzy from the heat. Kneeling before the stele, he prostrated himself in a reverent bow to the black-robed man before rushing back to the capital, speeding overnight onto the road of his destiny.
After sending the prince off, Sheng Xiao ordered the imperial guards to return to their official posts and await further orders, leaving only a single personal bodyguard behind.
As night descended, the guard approached Sheng Xiao from behind and made sure they were alone before kneeling down and curling up. His armour fell away, and his clothes crumpled to the ground soon after. A chick no bigger than a person’s palm wriggled out from the clothes to perch next to Sheng Xiao.
“Oh, right…” Sheng Xiao scratched its neck and pulled out a fine golden thread. “Almost forgot about you.”
Complex inscriptions flowed over the golden thread, appearing as if they were part of the bird’s neck. With a light pinch, the thread shattered at his fingertips. The little chick’s body grew more than ten times its original size. It swiftly unfolded its wings and raised its head, letting out a cry that stirred the stars in the southern night sky—it turned out to be a young fire bird known as a Bifang.
Sheng Xiao stood up. “You don’t have to watch over me anymore, nor should you feel compelled to serve me. It’s time for both of us to be free.”
The Bifang hesitated for a moment before taking a step forward and tugging timidly at his robe. When the man looked down and met the little Bifang’s gaze, it couldn’t help but flinch back and let go of his robe meekly.
Sheng Xiao removed his crown, placing it askew on the bird’s head before removing his seal, thumb ring, jade pendants, and other accessories. Finally, he removed the jade pendant shaped like a man from his neck, giving it one last glance before casually tossing it aside.
The jade carving was evidently something important, because the fire bird panicked and chased after it, carefully grabbing it with its mouth. By the time it turned back, the man had already walked away, his hair blowing freely in the wind towards the Abyss. The fire bird chirped anxiously, no longer caring about the jade pendant, and flapped its wings to give chase.
The Abyss spanned a thousand li long, and violent hot magma flowed within. As the Bifang approached a hundred chi from the cliff, its wings suddenly erupted into black flames, and it tumbled to the ground, screeching. Having nearly been turned into a roasted chicken, it knew it could not go any further.
Sheng Xiao, however, had already reached the cliff’s edge. His robes and boots were scorched, and the man’s stoic mask finally cracked open, pleasure and madness spilling out.
It was better to be mortal. A mortal life lasted only a fleeting moment. Bitterness or joy, it endured only for a few decades. The pain that one’s shell could experience would always be limited, and often, one would be released from the grasps of suffering before anything could even be felt.
As for him… Well, he may have to suffer a little.
With a last screeching cry from the little fire bird, Sheng Xiao threw himself into the sea of fire.
The searing heat consumed him. Everything that it touched quickly burned to a crisp, his hair disintegrated, and his flesh peeled off like layers of an onion. Blood vessels burst through charred flesh. His blood was boiling, and every last meridian was severed. He coughed up a mouthful of ash that might have been his heart or his lung.
Then, his body plunged into the molten rock. A hard crust had formed on the surface, but his body and flesh proved far sturdier. Despite falling from such a lofty height, his body did not shatter as it made contact with the bottom. His broken spine snapped in half and broke through the igneous shell, causing flames to erupt and soar high into the sky like a war banner. The hot magma that could melt both gold and jade swallowed him up in one gulp.
But still, he did not die.
If one could experience the sensation of having their bones be pulverized to dust and scattered in the wind, then every memory and experience profoundly etched in their existence would also amount to nothing more than mere dust on stone. The narrative of his life, encompassing all its ups, downs, joys and sorrows, had been amalgamated along with his melting consciousness in that great fire.
Incessant laughter echoed through Crimson Abyss that day, persisting until the charred remnants that seemed as if they would never burn away gradually disintegrated, the stirred magma returning to a standstill.
Emperor Wu of Qi, Sheng Xiao.
After Emperor Ping had perished in the Crimson Abyss under the hands of the Yao, the youngest son, Sheng Xiao, succeeded as emperor at birth. Rising from a tumultuous time, he slew the King of the Yao beneath the walls of Yong’an the year he turned twenty-three and proclaimed it the start of the Qizheng era, where he restored the state and pacified the borders. He had strength rivalling the Five Emperors, but with such cruelty and bloodlust, he corrupted both principle and virtue. He ruled for twenty-one years before ending his life under the Austral Fires of the Abyss, leaving no trace of his remains behind. A decade after Emperor Wen ascended the throne, the fires subsided, and peace came upon the Abyss. Emperor Wen withdrew the boundary stele and erected a mausoleum in the name of Emperor Wu.
The blue sea turned into mulberry fields; over a thousand autumns, a vast forest grew on the ashes of the fire. The primaeval forest of the Great Canyon became a 5A tourist attraction.
Deep within the earth, a sudden tremor emerged, followed by indistinct, unsettling mutterings. The noises grew louder and louder, enshrouded in some unfamiliar ritual and piercing into his chaotic sea of consciousness like sharp needles.
What... is that noise?
Who dares cause such a disruption?
“I will sacrifice everything…”
“With my body... as a medium…”
“May the gods above and the demons below…”
The sudden clamour left him bewildered for a moment.
Before he could fully come to his senses, his perception exploded with stimulus. Senses that had been dormant for thousands of years suddenly awoke and greedily extended their tendrils outward, taking in every vibrant detail in their vicinity. The noisy world outside crashed into him without restraint, boring into his sea of consciousness through his senses—the sensation of the soil, the smell of its musk, the sound of wind, rustling leaves, footsteps, voices...
“Who dares to disturb my slumber?” He felt a loss of control and could only retaliate angrily. Ominous black clouds emerged from the depths of his mind, forming sharp claws that lashed out at the voice that dared to disturb him. “Insolent fool!”
Amid his confusion and irritation, his newly awakened senses suddenly detected a faint and familiar presence. His stormy mind cleared instantly, and his heart, which had lain still for millennia, trembled, unprovoked.
What… is that?
His hostility dissipated.
But before he could catch it, that presence disappeared.
Wait, no… Don’t go.
He couldn’t remember who nor where he was, but he had an undeniable urge to latch onto that wisp. The noise around him fell away to that one desire. He began to struggle. Desperately.
Suddenly, his sea of consciousness shook. He felt his body, then he heard a crack. Wind blew past his face, and his eyes opened. Tears welled up as the long-absent sunshine dazzled him. He found himself lying in the debris of a coffin, a single cluster of delicate, fiery red fluff nestled in his arms… feathers.
They were all dried up after being buried in the ground for who knew how long, preserved from decay by a weak trace of spiritual energy from an unknown source. When he grabbed them, the small feathers disintegrated into dust, scattering in the wind.
He curled his fingers and gazed down at his empty palm. After a long while, he raised his head and squinted at the dust floating in the air. The mortal realm… he thought, have I been brought back to life?