Moonbeams frost the dark water of Dailanjiang, and I imagine the great River Dragon passing beneath its skittering ripples. It’s said that he visited our village generations ago and granted our ancestors an enchanted pearl as a sign of his favor. If I hadn’t seen that pearl with my own eyes, glowing like the moon upon its jade pedestal, I would have thought the story false. He certainly hasn’t visited again since. And no one seems to be favoring Dailan lately. As I walk along the riverbank, Father’s sword bounces against my hip. I wrap my fingers around its hilt and feel the magical energy pulsing within. Beside me, Pinghua adjusts the holster carrying her clockwork pistol; at eighteen she’s only a year older than me, but her sharp cheekbones make her look more mature. We turn onto a dirt path and head for the makeshift watchtowers that top several sloped roofs. They’re little more than hastily constructed bamboo platforms since Dailan never needed watchtowers until recently. Our village had always been too small and remote to draw enemies. Until the Ligui came. I scan the glittering sky for any sign of the shadowy monsters. No one knows what they really are. We call them Ligui—powerful ghosts—because they’re not earthly beings, but for all we know, they aren’t ghosts at all.
Unlike the souls of the dead who have visited before, the Ligui are mindless, hungry things that appear in many shapes and attack without reason. Yet unlike other monsters we’ve encountered, they can’t be killed with ordinary weapons. They’re creatures of smoke, spirits of darkness. And tonight it’s our job to warn the village if they attack again. I almost hope they do. It’s been weeks since their last attack, which has meant many long nights of boredom. Pinghua glances at me. “Do you think Mr. Gao made it to the capital?” I shake my head, and my two long black braids brush my cheeks. “Even if he did, the Emperor won’t send aid.
He has no soldiers to spare thanks to the border war in the north. Besides, no one outside Sijiang Province believes the Ligui are real.” “That’s true. I wonder why they strike our village so often.” I shrug. That’s a question our elders have pondered often over the past few years, but even the spellmasters, with their vast knowledge of the supernatural, haven’t been able to come up with a satisfactory answer. “You might as well ask a typhoon why it strikes one shore and not another.” “We’re not their only targets, though. Maybe Mr. Gao can convince the nearby cities to help.
They’ve seen the Ligui too.” “They’ll say they need their warriors to defend themselves. We’re on our own, Pinghua. I don’t know why Headman Su keeps sending out messengers when they always return with the same bad news—if they return at all.” Pinghua sighs. “Especially since there are so few men left.” “Soon he’ll have to start sending women.” I give a cynical smile. “Su would never go that far.” Pinghua pats one of the twin knots on the sides of her head.
“Letting girls join the Guard was one thing. Our numbers were so few, he had no choice. But women traveling without chaperones … Even if he allowed it, no one would volunteer.” “I would. Traveling alone hardly frightens me.” “That’s not the point. It would be inappropriate, and you’d lose any hope of finding a husband. I’m still surprised your mother let you join the Guard; mine wouldn’t have if my husband hadn’t agreed.” I let out a derisive noise. “Who has time to worry about such things when the Ligui could kill us all? There’s no one left to marry anyway.
” “Tradition is important. We’ve already lost so many of our ways. Five years ago it would have been unthinkable for us to be armed and dressed like boys.” “Five years ago the Ligui were only a rumor, and my father was still alive.” A pang slices my heart. I reach the ladder leading to the watchtower on Headman Su’s roof and start climbing. Pinghua continues down the street, heading to a different watchtower. She pauses and glances at me. “May the Gods of Heaven and Earth protect you tonight, Anlei.” There’s a weight to her voice—I think it’s sorrow.
It isn’t until I’ve climbed onto the platform that I realize I should have returned the blessing. A movement catches the corner of my eye. I whirl, drawing my sword, but the shadow across the moon is merely a cloud—not a Ligui about to materialize. Moonlight prances across my enchanted weapon, which looks ordinary with its nicked hilt and well-worn blade. Only the bronze cross guard—shaped like a lion’s face with the blade protruding from its wide, fanged mouth—sets it apart from a hundred weapons like it. I peer at the white gleams on the blade’s surface, recalling what Mother used to tell me about how, if you look closely, you can see the Yueshen in the moon’s reflections. Once the laughter and songs of the lunar spirits whispered across the night breeze, but no one’s found any sign of them since the Ligui first attacked, slaughtering two dozen men in one night. Some say they slaughtered the Yueshen as well and that even the blessed beings aren’t safe. I prefer to think the Yueshen fled back to the moon, where they’re safe in their mysterious kingdom in the sky. A distant screech pierces my thoughts.
Shimmering, otherworldly vibrations shake me to the core. A Ligui is approaching. This is it—a chance to fight at last. I seize the clockwork pistol strapped to my belt, aim upward and pull the trigger. Red streams into the air, whistling as it flies. An instant later Pinghua fires a flare from her watchtower. Within seconds ruby blazes fill the sky, bathing the rooftops in fiery light as guards spread the signal. Having alerted the village, I shove my pistol back into its leather holster. Sword in hand, I search the dark for the source of the screech. Heat crackles through my veins, and my body itches for a chance to slay the monstrous beings.
A black tendril rises, reaching for the platform I’m standing on. I leap and slide down the sloped roof. Friction from the clay ridges heats my skin through my clothes. I push off, launching myself into the air as a giant black dragonfly appears before me. I slice its wing. My blade glows gold when it touches the being of smoke, and a satisfying sizzling noise envelops my ears. The Ligui’s shrill cry splits the air. Cringing, I grab the edge of the roof with one hand. My palm burns as I swing toward the house and land on a balcony. Thick columns support the roof, and a waist-high, latticed wall separates me from the flailing monster.
No moonlight reflects off its long body, and its wings appear to be made of dripping tar. I slice downward, chopping off its head with a fierce cry that I barely hear over the creature’s screech. It dissolves into black fog, and a grin creeps onto my face. This is what I was born to do: fight evil. Where Ligui go after I slay them, I do not know, but if there’s any justice in the universe, they spend eternity suffering the torments of the Courts of Hell. Screams of terror pepper the dark, interspersed with the whistles of flares and the battle cries of my fellow guards. The air reeks of the acrid smoke of gunpowder and the sulfurous stench of the Ligui, and it’s exhilarating. Barrier spells to repel the Ligui glow in golden lines around the edges of several houses. Heavy hoofbeats pound nearby. My blood rushes as I leap over the latticed wall, twisting as I jump.
In midair I face the thick column supporting the balcony, seize the column with both hands, and slide down. Splinters slice the skin off the knuckles of my sword hand, but I don’t care. I kick the column and release my grip. The movement whirls me to face the street as I land. The ground trembles. A bull made of shadow charges toward me, driving its horns into the houses on either side of the narrow street. Gold sparks fly from the barrier spells in the walls, but the horns nevertheless tear gashes through the brick. It must be an especially strong Ligui. Smoke trails after its running form, and the smell of sulfur is so thick I nearly gag. Fear creeps up my chest, but I set my jaw, determined not to let it sink in.
The Ligui have taken enough from us. No more of their kind will harm my people—not if I have anything to say about it. The ground seems ready to leap to the rooftops under the weight of the bull’s hooves. Its ferocious, glowing eyes fix on me, and I snarl. “Come on! Lai ba!” Before I get my chance to strike, Pinghua leaps from a balcony above and lands on the bull’s back, burying her blade into its body. My eyes widen in surprise; I’ve never seen her attempt such a bold move before. I wish I’d thought to do that. The bull bucks, but Pinghua keeps her blade embedded, hanging on with her thighs. Her sword, like mine, possesses magic that allows her to treat the Ligui as if it’s an earthly being. Heart pounding, I charge.
The bull rears. I leap and plunge my sword into its throat, relishing the crackle of magic that arises. My weight draws the blade downward, and orange sparks fly. The bull jerks, flinging the blade from its body and throwing me into a wall. The impact knocks the breath from my chest. I force myself to get back up. Though pain pulses through my back and knees, I don’t have time to be hurt. I glimpse Pinghua standing in one of the wide doorways lining the street; she must have been thrown off too but had a better time landing than I did. Two of the Guard’s men race past me toward the bull. I exhale.
Four against one … even though this Ligui is stronger than most, we stand a chance of defeating it. A flash of movement catches my eye and I whip around as a man-shaped shadow disappears around a corner. Though his silhouette suggested an everyday tunic rather than the warrior’s armor he wore the last time I saw him, the glowing crescent on his neck told me everything I need to know: This is the Ligui that killed my father. The Shadow Warrior. The world vanishes behind an explosion of wrath. All I see is that crescent. Though the Shadow Warrior has appeared often in my nightmares, this is the first time he’s returned while I’m awake. May the Gods of Heaven and Earth witness my oath: I will avenge you, Father. I sprint after him, rage pulsing through my body. Somewhere far away, a girl’s voice calls, “Anlei! Come back!” The words are a meaningless buzz beneath the blood thundering in my ears.
All I know is that my father’s killer is at last within reach. And, by the Gods of Heaven and Earth, I will destroy him. Like the legendary Warrioress, I will slay my enemy and reap the glory. As I follow the Shadow Warrior through alleys so narrow they nearly scrape my shoulders, red edges my vision. I don’t care if there are other guards who could fight him —this victory will belong to me alone. I stop in my tracks as a single rational thought cuts through my fury. He’s heading toward the River Dragon Shrine. I know every house, every street, every forgotten corner of my village. If the Shadow Warrior thinks he can outrun me in my own territory, then he’s dead wrong. I whirl to my left and race toward the open window of Mr.
Hong’s house, leaping over the golden line of the magic barrier surrounding it. I sprint across a wide room, jump out the window on the other side, and cross the street. If anyone protests, I don’t hear it. After zooming across a bridge over one of the many little rivers running through Dailan, I arrive at the miniature island dedicated to the River Dragon. A lone willow stands by the bridge, bowing its branches toward the water. At the island’s center stands a small, round shrine with a three-tiered roof and a wide entrance supported by red columns. A stone statue depicting the River Dragon, with his serpentine body and long horns, sits inside. Before it stands the River Pearl he granted our ancestors, guarded from outsiders by his lingering magic. Only residents of Dailan can enter the shrine, but though the pearl’s power protects itself, it’s never done a thing for us. The Shadow Warrior runs at it from the main road.
I don’t know if it’s the River Pearl he’s after or something else, and I don’t care. I rush into his path. Before I can strike, a burst of yellow explodes against the ground. The force knocks me off my feet, and I land painfully on the stones. Heat pours over me. I spring up, determined not to let anything—not even a mysterious explosion—keep me from my revenge. But as a stream of golden light falls from the sky, the Shadow Warrior takes off in flight, vanishing into the dark. Frustration grinds at my insides. I’ve failed. Though the monster that murdered Father was right in front of me, I let him get away.
All my hopes for glory suddenly seem foolish. Clunking and whirring noises swirl above, and the smells of metal and a strange, bitter smoke waft toward me. I look up. Five mechanical dragons made of bronze with red and green accents soar above the village. Their long bodies twist through the air like a snake twists through water. Yellow eyes glow beneath sharp horns, and metal claws extend from wide paws attached to short legs. Fire streaks the night as more blasts spew down from their mouths. For a moment I fear they’re attacking us, but then I hear the wild screeching and feral bellowing of the Ligui as the fireballs strike them. The popping noises that follow make the crackle of my sword seem like whispers. What are they? Where did they come from? I stare in amazement as a sixth flying machine emerges from behind a cloud: an enormous cruiser, resembling the great oceanfaring warships I’ve only seen in pictures.
Three tall masts with scalloped sails rise above it, flanked by giant propellers protruding from either side of the hull. Long cannons extend from the ship’s body, and additional propellers spin at the keel. A dragon’s head adorns the bow. White steam pours from its flared nostrils. A bronze tail curls up the back. I watch in awe as the ship draws closer. I’ve heard rumors of flying machines like this, powered by a combination of science and magic. But I never dreamed that one would find its way to a village as remote as Dailan. Whoever controls these mechanical dragons, whoever is responsible for the great fleet in the sky … I can’t help feeling as if my life’s about to change forever.