An arc of silver flashed in the dark, and a monster howled.
Sima Jiao smirked as his perfectly executed spinning slash carried him around to face his enemy as the creature crashed to the ground, gurgling through the gash that had opened its throat. Tapping his foot to the sound of unheard music and humming a merry tune, he leaned to one side, feeling the wind as jagged claws passed a hair’s breadth from his cheek, only for a stinger the size of a spearhead to ram through his chest.
His smirk grew as his form rippled like a pool of ink, the horror’s sting not even managing to ruffle his austere silver and black robes. A flick of his sword severed the limb, and with casual disdain, he stepped forward and rammed his dagger into the thing’s wobbling, jelly-like flesh. The pulse of qi that traveled through his left arm ensured that the strike was a mortal blow, anatomy or no.
Behind him, the last horror gurgled and chittered as a dozen shadow blades impaled its many limbed, twitching form. Sima Jiao merely grinned as he stepped over the dissolving corpse in front of him and let his dagger dissolve so that he could brush his luxurious black hair from his eyes.
As if he would be stopped by a few night horrors, spirits so primitive that they did not even hold their own shape and merely reflected a chaotic mishmash of mortal fears. No, he thought, Lunatic Crag would have to do better than that to stymie him.
With the landing clear, Sima Jiao took his first step down the Phantasmagoric Stair. He would not stop until he had reached the last of the 11,644 steps and reached the root of the mountain where the Realm of the Hidden Moon was said to lie.
He could not fail, Sima Jiao thought as his blade lashed out, impaling a creeping thing upon the ceiling before it could leap onto his face. His prince was relying upon him.
Not like his worthless sycophant father or his oh-so-orthodox brother. Feh, Sima clan indeed. Let the whole of it rot. He had a higher calling to see to.
Mu An had plans, plans to tame the venomous, decadent pit that the Peaks had become and once more make it a place worthy of being called an Imperial Court. But his prince was not yet crowned, and he would need all the help that he could get to navigate the treachery of his siblings and to begin the work of binding the failing Empire back together. So he would brave one of the deadliest of the dragon-wrought Celestial Peaks, this place where it was whispered that the Dragon Gods of old had brought a piece of the moon to earth in their final days. He would come here on a moonless, starless night and seek the secret to the power that he and the Prince would need in the future.
Each step was wide and tall, as if carved for a being far taller than he, and with each step taken, the qi in the air grew thicker and more potent. The scuttling horrors grew less frequent by the step. Rulers of the outer mountain they might be, but here, on the Stair, others reigned supreme.
Sima Jiao passed by the gleaming and inviting passage shown with the full moon’s light. From within, voices chided him for his pride and warned of the dangers of hubris. Yet he walked not only with pride but with need, and so their voices fell on deaf ears.
He passed by the softly litten cavern where voices that echoed with long forgotten maternal love pleaded with him to reconsider his path and seek reconciliation with family. They pleaded for him to turn back from severing those most vital and primal of bonds. Yet he had seen the bonds of family for what they were, an excuse for petty local power mongering, and so their words fell on deaf ears.
Through a hall of mirrors he passed with each surface showing a different path his life could have taken. Shades of futures gone and futures possible challenged his right of way. He passed them all, one by one, flicking glimmering reflective blood from his blade as he cut them down one by one. His path had been chosen. The time for contemplation was over.
The dream mists came next, the sound of piping music and the scent of succulent feasts. Here, at last, Sima Jiao felt his resolve waver, not for material delights but the joy of creation. He remembered the feeling when he had first completed an array of his own creation and watched the pages of his favorite book turn themselves as he read. The joy of research and creation sang to him from softly lit caverns where spirits danced and reveled and where artists and poets and inventors alike shared in the free exchange of knowledge for the sheer joy of it.
With his head low, Sima Jiao stepped from the mists and left the caverns of Dream and Madness behind. That life was closed to him, closed by circumstance, closed by family, and closed by society. Mournful music echoed in his ears as he continued his descent, and the choking darkness grew ever deeper until even his eyes could see no more. Soon, the fading music was drowned by howling wind, and the sharply cut stairs turned into crumbling edifices smoothed by endless wind.
Sima Jiao walked on, powering through the wind as it tugged playfully and insistently at his limbs, pleading with him to forget his troubles and responsibilities, to free himself of their weight. Here, where the moons were at their most primal, the grinning spirits that played in the wind urged him to forget even his name and leave the chains of identity behind. To flee this stodgy, broken Empire and travel the world like a hero from a storybook.
It was almost a relief to emerge from the winds and stumble upon the new stairs. Skulls crunched and sank beneath his feet, and the scent of blood hung heavy in the air. Here, blunt and unforgiving spirits threw his dreams and plans in his face, not with judgement but the absolute finality of truth. Change came only from bloodshed, and the blood price of his prince’s dream would be weighty indeed. Those who held power would only ever give it up when it was pried from their lifeless fingers.
There was no dodging here, no avoidance of pain. Each step carved a wound into his flesh, and yet, he pressed on. He had chosen this, and he would not flinch away. For his prince, for himself, and for the Empire.
When at last his feet touched stone again, Sima Jiao sagged with exhaustion, resting his bloodied palm against the wall. It was quiet here and so very dark. Even with the faint glow of his sword and the power of his arts, he could barely see the step he stood on, and for a moment, his tired thoughts fumbled with the number of that step.
“Eleven thousand, two hundred, and twenty three,” a cool woman’s voice, devoid of emotion or feeling, echoed in the dark.
Sima Jiao straightened up immediately, his grip on his sword tightening. His robes were more ragged now, marred by cuts, their hems heavy with blood, but he refused to be anything less than an ideal gentleman of the Empire, and so he stood straight despite the pain of his wounds.
“My thanks,” he said, bowing stiffly. He had been impeccably polite to every spirit thus far, and he had no intention of breaking that now. “Might I know who it is that I am speaking to?”
“This one requires no name,” the cool voice replied, and the darkness flickered. The spirit shimmered into view. It held the shape of a young woman with impeccable features and silver hair bound tightly in a severe bun that added years to her appearance. She wore a black gown that seemed to merge with the shadows, free of any embellishment save for the faintest flicker of a silver lining. In the darkness, only her face and hands in her lap stood out. Red eyes stared at him dispassionately. “I am an eye of the Black Madam, mortal. What purpose brings you to this place on this sacred night?”
His breath caught in his throat as she spoke that name. Meaning boiled beneath the surface, clawing at his thoughts and burning his eyes. Such an unassuming moniker for the eldest aspect of the Hidden Moon, the spirit which was said to ride beside death, marking the end of each life’s tale in her book. She Who Knew, the archivist of all life.
He had come here for this spirit. The Imperial Court was a twisting monstrosity of intrigue. He would need the sharpest of eyes to navigate it for his prince. There were no eyes sharper than hers, and only on a night such as this would she reside here in the mortal world, surrounded by her daughters.
He sketched a courtly bow to the floating spirit. “I have braved the mountain and this stair for the opportunity to speak with one such as you, eldest and fairest of the moon’s maidens.”
Very slowly, her head tilted to the side as she examined him, and Sima Jiao shuddered as he felt the weight of something far greater than the spirit before him staring out at him through those eyes. It was ten thousand eyes observing him from all directions. It was a physician’s knife sliding through his flesh, dissecting and cataloguing him piece by piece. It was a severe archivist’s eye and he, a particularly uninteresting footnote.
“You do not seek an audience with my progenitor?” the spirit asked. There was a faint hint of curiosity there, but nothing more.
“I am not so arrogant as to interrupt the Honored Madam on this, her one night with her sisters,” Jiao said smoothly. Technically true, even if a spirit so mighty hardly needed to interrupt one meeting to have another. But even he did not wish to descend to the path beneath the last stair. “Instead, I have a proposal for you, or perhaps one of your sisters if you yourself do not find it attractive.”
“We are one, mortal. We are her eyes. Know that you are an open book. You are given leave to speak out of courtesy,” the spirit said plainly.
That was somewhat problematic. He had studied the lore of moon spirits deeply indeed, but information on the Eyes of the Black Madam were scant. He had made his preparations based on the context of other moon spirits, and it was how he had progressed this far. A true collective identity though…
“You know then of what I would ask, O daughter of the moon. The time for change is coming again. The Empire’s turmoil is growing, and it will need a firm and understanding hand at its helm to see it through. I would ask that you accompany me and allow me to share your sight. I will accept any trial or supplication.”
“The turmoil you speak of is not so great a thing as you imagine,” the spirit replied, unmoved. “A hundred turmoils and more have happened, and a thousand more will come if the Empire stands. In this damaged world, turmoil is unavoidable. Why should this one grant herself to you to observe such a pedestrian event?”
Sima Jiao almost balled his free hand into a fist, but instead, he raised his head, his own burning gaze meeting her dispassionate crimson one. “It may not be unique, but it is an opportunity. We will set the Empire on a different path.”
Even to his own ears, his words seemed to echo deeply, drinking in the darkness and growing with each echo. He shuddered as the last words passed his lips and left him feeling drained. It had been a very long time indeed since his blood had reacted so strongly, and his divination had slipped his control.
For the first time, the spirit before him blinked, and once again, her head tilted, birdlike, to the side as she observed him. “I see. Then walk the remaining steps with me, Sima Jiao, and if you reach the bottom unbroken, we will consider your proposal. You have one final trial to overcome.”
Sima Jiao straightened up, fully falling in behind her as they began to descend again. “And what trial is that?”
“You must Know yourself and your own secrets if you wish to pass our stair and stand before the undivided moon and not break. Each of the others has tested a fraction of yourself. Know that what comes will be the true test. You will likely go mad and die,” she said simply, not looking back at him. She drifted through the dark like a porcelain doll swathed in liquid shadow.
“I have come too far to break now,” he replied.
“So says every mortal,” the spirit said humorlessly.
“Ah, but they were not me,” Sima Jiao chuckled, his poise slowly returning. He was so close to his goal. Images of what had haunted him on this stair haunted his thoughts, but he could not allow it all to be for naught. He could not leave his prince to be pushed aside by his worthless siblings - as he had been.
“A true, if irrelevant, statement,” the spirit replied.
“We shall see,” Sima Jiao said, smirking as he squared his shoulders. “If we are to travel the rest of the way together, O Daughter of the moon, might I have something to call you by?”
“If you must, simply refer to this one as Xin.”
Sima Jiao pressed his forehead firmly against the polished wooden floor, his features set in an expression of contrition. Internally, he boiled with resentment.
In front of and above him, his father sat atop a raised platform, hidden behind a curtain of black silk. His presence was overbearing, a blot of blackness deeper than space, a grasping, hungry shadow. For one raised in the halls of the mighty, there could be no mistaking the pressure of Sovereignty upon him.
But Sima Jiao knew that his secrets were safe, no matter that he was of fourth realm and his father the sixth. The moon had blessed his ambitions. His secrets were his own, now and forevermore. Those who looked upon him would see only what their minds wished to see. It would be vital in the days to come and he regretted not the cost.
“Your actions have shamed the Sima family. What do you have to say for yourself, boy?” his father, Sima Wen, asked, his voice dripping with contempt.
You shame the name of Sima, Jiao thought scornfully. They had once been among the Sage Emperor’s most loyal retainers, his astrologers and historians, but now, his father and the men like him wielded Emperor Si as a puppet, a pathetic thing raised to complacency, the Imperial blood in his veins wasted.
“I can only express my deepest shame, Honored Father,” he said instead of giving any word to his thoughts. “I do not know what presence could have taken hold of me in order to conduct myself so shamefully.”
“I have my suspicions,” his father said with a cold snort, his power sending the curtains in the dark mahogany hall of their family manor fluttering. “Boy, it is well and good to indulge your desires, but you must know your place, and for the ancestors’ sake, learn some subtlety.”
“What was I to do?” he complained, putting just a bit of childish whine in his voice. “Cao Cun attacked me in a rage!” Not that the buffoon had any chance of harming him, but Father hardly knew that. Sima Jiao’s breakthrough had been well hidden between his own efforts and that of his prince.
“You should have allowed him to beat you, you feckless boy,” his father spat. “He caught you in the act of deflowering his daughter and his son.”
That was ascribing far too much virtue to the both of them, SIma Jiao thought snidely. The two had been involved before he had ever shown his face. It was not he that had produced the inventive devices which cluttered Cao Lei’s “special chambers.” They were of surprisingly fine craftsmanship. It was too bad that it had been turned to such a worthless pursuit.
“That is too much, Father!” he cried pitifully. “You did not see the man. He might have killed me in his fury!”
“Perhaps it would have been better,” his father snarled. “Now the heir of Cao has been humiliated twice! I would be proud if you had managed such absurd luck in a proper duel, you ridiculous child.”
That, admittedly, was something to regret. He had overdone it. His father was right in that much. Taking a few lumps would have been better than almost letting his true skill slip. “Father, I -”
Jiao choked as the words were ripped from between his teeth, and even the flow of his breath stopped. “No, Jiao, I will have no more excuses. Your betrothal to Lady Hui is already on thin ice after that absurd adventure in the south. Do you have any idea of the work I will need to do to reassure that family of our good intentions?”
Jiao stewed silently, unable to move or breath. It was a mere inconvenience, but he made a show of struggling and growing red in the face. Frankly, he hoped the whole ridiculous agreement fell through. He had seen quite enough of spiders already.
“It is only your friendship with that dangerous prince that spares you further punishment,” his father bit out. “But even that wears thin. This is your last warning, boy.”
He would need to dial back his wastrel persona, Jiao thought absently as he babbled apologies aloud. Rising and bowing in affected panic, he allowed the force of his father’s will practically shoved him from the room. That was going to make future operations more difficult and annoying. He would need to rethink his approach if his father's patience was truly at an end. He and his prince had discussed it before, but it was most likely time for him to begin “reforming.” A few years of intense cultivation would set Father at ease and grant him the cover to “break through” in public.
As he spun plots in his head, Sima Jiao walked through the family manor with his head down and his hands balled into fists, an expression of anger and humiliation on his face. Though their meeting had been private, his father's wrath had certainly percolated through the halls. Cousins snickered into their sleeves as they watched him pass, whispering rumors of his latest escapades.
It was irrelevant. This family was rotten to its core, and he would be pleased to see them all punished for their crimes against the Empire. But now was not the time. Now, he had to make a show of being contrite and accepting his confinement to his apartments.
It was fine with him. Dealing with those decadent Cao’s had exhausted him, even before coming back to this pit.
The door of his chambers slammed shut behind him, and at last, Jiao allowed himself to relax.
“Welcome back, Master,” a feminine voice said, cool and demure. In his mind, the same voice spoke, but there was no softness in it. <Your masquerade remains in place?>
<My head would not still be on my shoulders if it hadn’t,> he thought back wryly, slumping his way over to the couch. “Xin, my father is terrible,” he complained aloud childishly.
The spirit that sat behind the writing desk in his front room had changed a little since their meeting beneath the earth. Part of that was her disguise as a reflective moon spirit. Part of it, he suspected, was genuine change. She still wore the same face and severe black robes, but points of twinkling starlight marked the black expanse. The severe bun of hers had grown less tidy, and strands of silver hair hung down to frame her spectacled face rather prettily.
“Master, it is your actions which are outrageous,” the spirit replied calmly. “Please consider your family next time.”
<You were sloppy,> the spirit thought to him.
“Even you…” Jiao complained, falling upon the couch. <You would be sloppy too if you had to make moon eyes at those two decadent dolts and engage in their revolting games.>
<Irrelevant. You chose the task,> she shot back silently, adjusting the silver framed lenses of her glasses. “I hope you have finally learned your lesson, Master.”
He threw a hand dramatically over his eyes as he leaned back on the couch. “Perhaps… Father was truly enraged this time. Maybe I have been too foolish…”
<Please tell me the operation was at least a success,> he thought, exasperated.
Xin glanced down at the desk, continuing to scratch out correspondence in an elegant hand. <Through the intelligence you gathered, Prince An and I have identified key allies within the house of Cao. The current heirs' humiliation will allow us to move a more favorable candidate into place.>
“It is good that the Master is finally learning his lesson,” she said aloud demurely. “Perhaps he should focus on cultivation for a time?”
“I had the same thought. I might have lost sight of my Path,” he said wryly, sliding his arm down to look at her. <That’s good then. In a few decades, we can see the head removed.>
With the artifacts available to his prince, once he reached the fifth realm, they would be ready to start… pruning.
“Well, it seems to have put off Lady Hui again, so it’s not all bad.”
Xin shot him a sharp look. “Master’s sense of humor remains poor.”
<Work on the Kang and Hong clans remains before phase one is complete. Rest and reorientation to observe new factors would be wise,> the spirit noted.
Jiao chuckled, and for once, it was genuine. “Oh, Xin, don’t be coy. You know you can’t stand her either.”
It was funny. This double conversation was the closest he was able to come to honesty these days. With his prince so thoroughly embroiled in his own domestic politics, only Xin could be trusted. Her nature as a fragment of the Black Madam granted to observe and aid his plot meant that she was almost as invested as he.
<That is my intent. Some time spent in my books is the perfect cure for being immersed in idiocy,> he agreed.
“Lady Hui is a woman of fine bloodline, and Master should be honored at his betrothal,” Xin replied with a sniff. <Then perhaps you can stop mentioning that creature. Choose a different masking topic.>
Jiao snorted and rolled his eyes, lying back on the couch. Layers and layers. Even his choice to leave her with the name “Xin” was a deception. From the outside, it looked like a bit of ham handed misdirection. Her “disguise” as a reflective moon spirit hiding as a hidden spirit was not particularly effective on those like his father, but making the seeming attempt to deceive was enough to throw most off the trail. His reputation did the rest.
“If you say so,” he said aloud.
Hm, now that he thought about it, that was a little rude, wasn’t it?
<Xin, do you like your name?> Jiao asked mentally.
She shot him a suspicious look over her shoulder and then turned back to her work. <It is a sufficient designation. It serves the purpose of the deception.>
<Obviously,> he thought back. <But that merely makes it a good codename. Is there something else you want to be called?>
She stilled for a moment, but no response was forthcoming. She thought he was being silly then and had elected to ignore him. He supposed that was fine. It had only been an idle thought.
<It is fine. That is what ‘I’ asked you to call me in the beginning, was it not?> she answered.
“Master, cease loafing, and do something productive,” she said aloud with a huff.
“Fine, fine,” Jaio sighed dramatically, sitting up. There was still so much work to do.
Sima Jiao Branch Three stood still in the center of the empty, unfurnished room. He wore robes of plain black and a white mask, blank save for a single mark of rank, a third eye inscribed upon his brow in black and silver ink.
Prime-Self remained in the Imperial palace. Branch One remained in the Ministry of Integrity, running interference. Branch Two remained on duty, observing the developing situation in Thousand Lakes.
Branch Three was the lowest priority, little more than a warning alarm and activation switch for the more complex defense mechanisms, invested only with the base power of a first realm, outside of perception. Even higher priority branches had been reduced to a bare minimum to avoid unduly weakening the Prime.
His secondary purpose was self-management. Sima Jiao Branch Three looked down at his hand and flexed his fingers, examining their newly dull grey shade. The skin was smooth, the lines and marks of birth gone. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, studying the infinitesimal puff of grey dust worked loose.
The composition of his body was now just like the moonstone dagger he had driven into the base of Father’s skull. The stroke had been perfect in precision, cutting through flesh and spirit to slice deep into the old Patriarch’s mind pearl, scrambling his thoughts and slowing his reactions. It had not killed him, of course. No wielder of sovereignty could be slain in a single blow. However, it had slowed and weakened him.
It had allowed the eight thousand, seven hundred, and thirty two precise strikes that followed over the next ninety seven seconds to do so with minimal disruption and collateral. The raw betrayal, rage, and grief he had felt radiating from Father with each blow skittered distantly through his thoughts.
He recalled a young boy grinning proudly as Father handed him his first real sword.
Aunt Min, the current clan head, had been the next target. Six thousand and forty one strikes. Sixty seven seconds.
He recalled a young boy and an older woman, smiling as she passed him a sweet from a voluminous sleeve after he had angered his father with his antics.
His elder brother Jian, the heir. Four thousand, two hundred, and twelve strikes… One hundred and thirty five seconds. Hesitation. Error, costing time. Mistake corrected. High priority eliminations completed.
He recalled a young boy in the garden falling asleep as his brother read him a story of heroes.
“Uncle, where is my father?” a young voice asked, and Sima Jiao Branch Three twitched.
His charge, the one thing he was not on guard against, had been beneath his notice while not under threat. She must have awakened and noticed the change of venue.
He turned to face her mechanically. Princess Xiang stood before him, thirteen years old and well into the second realm, an acceptable rate of growth for an Imperial princess. She was disheveled from sleep, wearing only a simple black robe. Her bone white hair hung loose about her shoulders. It was an unacceptable breach of decorum in any other time and place.
Her features and eyes were sharp, shedding the softness of youth. It was only her dark eyes which made her seem less than a youthful twin of her mother.
Her late mother.
Sima Jiao had failed to protect his prince's consort and wife-to-be from the machinations of her own family. The dominant isolationist faction had found the idea of a White Serpent in such a position unacceptable.
They had acted.
He had failed.
Now, his emperor had only the scheming creatures which had been attached to him by his own late father. At least some of his sons were loyal. They fought at their father's side even now.
“Your father is in the Imperial Palace,” he replied simply.
“Then why am I not in my rooms?” the princess asked bluntly, crossing her arms. Youthful impetuousness remained in her.
Engage comforting social gestures.
He raised a hand to rub his bald head. His hair had vanished along with his wastrel mask. He felt a twinge of something. Sadness, perhaps.
“The Princess is sharp-eyed,” he said, injecting humor into his tone. “Your father is engaging with some discontented supplicants.”
The foundations of the palace trembled as Emperor An and his Prime-Self engaged with the Emperor’s uncle in the cavernous halls, their power contained by the eons old spirit of the palace. Mu Jing had been deeply enmeshed with the power structures of the controlling count clans. They had underestimated his attachment to their vices and his capacity to try and drag his own clan down on the dawn of Emperor An’s victory.
The Mu clan will have lost much strength by morning. Unfortunate. It would set back their plans by decades.
Princess Xiang regarded him suspiciously. “More assassins?”
This time, his smile required less effort. It was dimmed as the Crown Prince, her eldest brother, fell under the concentrated offense of three of his cousins, Mu Jing’s sons, deep in the Imperial archive. He was avenged immediately. “The Princess has understood her lessons well.”
She looked away, her expression dropping. “... When will it stop, Uncle?”
The tired despair in her voice touched something that remained in him. The Crown Prince was not the first of her siblings to fall to palace intrigues, and he would likely not be the last. But his emperor had been clear. Not Xiang. Never Xiang. It had been his last command to Jiao before he had stepped into the White realm and cast aside his personal bonds.
Jiao felt so very old in that moment, even as his emperor cut down the last credible threat to his throne. Distantly, he remembered the night he had descended the stairs and the warnings he had been given.
“When the Imperial Throne is supreme once more,” he replied quietly. “Princess, please retire for now. This will be over by morning.”
“Jiao, the last of the conspirators have been marked,” Xin’s report reached him, echoing from Prime to Branch. “The operation is complete. Only the combatants in the palace remain.”
It was a balm to hear as he watched the princess turn away, knowing that he had not lied again. His Prime-Self impaled the last of Mu Jing’s sons, a boy barely half a year the princess’ elder, upon his own shadow as he lay asleep in bed.
<Jiao,> Xin said quietly in a voice for only him and not their many agents. <After this, may we please spend some time in our apartments alone? It need not be our primary selves.>
He nearly dismissed her request immediately. Even a minimally powered simulacrum was an unacceptable expenditure of resources.
He recalled a young man and his wide grin as he caused a stoic moon fairy to laugh aloud for the first time.
Sima Jiao reached up to touch his fingers to his chest where he had felt a brief pain. “A good idea. It would not do to burn ourselves out,” he murmured.
<I love you, Xin,> he whispered silently.
<And I, you,> she murmured back.