Far away from the exploits of the Mediterranean powers lies the land of the fabled Qin Dynasty. An empire ruled over by the deranged Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. A demi-godlike being known for his cruelty, exceeding physical might and immense arcane power, around whom all life in the empire revolves. The Qin Dynasty sees itself tasked with establishing a divine order upon Earth by fulfilling the ‘Mandate of Heaven.’ They seek to eradicate the barbarian hordes once and for all, along with anyone who doesn’t submit to their exalted mission of unification, given to them by their gods. But their expansionist dreams have grown to a near halt ever since the Emperor became preoccupied with esoteric pursuits. Now, their armies of battle-hardened soldiers, master archers, warrior monks from the holy mountains, supernatural qilin beasts, and celestial pseudo-dragons, all await the emperor’s return and the completion of their holy task—the unification ‘all under heaven.’ Strife is brewing in the vacuum left by the reclusive emperor, as new contenders seek to fill the void and exploit the opportunity for good or ill. Jealous eunuchs, honorable sword saints, inscrutable taoist wizards, deformed draco-humanoid hybrids, the orcs at the frontier, and the vengeful elven royalty of the defeated ‘warring states’—all see their time of glory has come, and the established order of the newly unified Middle Kingdom is already crumbling…
The roots of the Qin wind deep into the primordial mists of time. Into a nebulous age of myth and legend, when the lands were reborn above the waves and life was resurrected from the depths; the orbit of the heavens had not stabilized yet, and the valleys were wild and untamed. Nature in her capriciousness unleashed firestorms that scorched the realm, while the rivers coursed treacherously in their banks—taking as much life as giving it; giant beasts preyed on the weak and demons prowled unperturbed, feeding off the innocent in the east, reveling in the terror and agony they inflicted. In this way, the people of the Middle Kingdom lived short lives of destitution and suffered greatly. In their hopelessness, they cried out to Heaven and Earth, pleading for deliverance… When at last both were swayed; the earth shook and the sky thundered—their call for salvation had been heeded. A divine twin pair of half-serpents, named Fuxi and Nüwa, emerged from the dark Earth; and a great celestial dragon, the Yellow Emperor, descended from the misty heavens to teach humanity and save them from their plight. Moved by mankind’s suffering, the three set aside their kins indifference and began to ameliorate the torment. And so the age of dolor gave way to a new golden age under the wise rule of the ‘Three Sovereigns’. The three united the disparate tribes, and gave them the name ‘Huaxia,’ the people of the Middle Kingdom. Fuxi laid down the first laws, establishing a societal order. He taught astronomy, making the movements of the sky predictable, and thereby took the cultivation of food away from the moods of chance and gave it into the Huaxia’s hands. In his benevolence, he bestowed his most prized jewel of wisdom upon man, a powerful arcane system, known as the ‘Eight Trigrams’; a universal key of magic meant to navigate the currents of time and all things between Heaven, Earth and beyond. Nüwa, in an effort to elevate man above their beastly nature, manipulated their bloodlines and created the race of elves, meant to guide their human brothers and sisters as paragons of nobility, a yang to man’s yin; and instructed them in the ways of virtue and moral conduct. Following Fuxi’s example, she bestowed the knowledge of the ‘Five Elements’—her system of magic—upon the Huaxia people, enabling the gifted to transmute the state of any object, be it material or immaterial, according to their will.
The golden celestial dragon—the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi—took the form of a perfected man, to lead elves and humans as one of their own, and instill courage in their hearts in the fight against the Demon King of the East and his armies of the Nine Li Tribes, who had gotten fat from feasting on the flesh of the Huaxia’s helpless ancestors. The battle ensued and they fought for ten arduous years across the four directions, with neither side winning the upper hand. When ultimately the Demon King unleashed a pestilent miasma that darkened the sky, enveloping the lands in darkness. But the twin-serpents’ teachings bore fruit, the Huaxia used the Eight Trigrams to navigate without sight, and transmuted the yin of night into the blazing yang of day through the laws of the Five Elements—embodying the wisdom of the Earth. Enraged, the Demon King summoned a storm to end the world. The Yellow Emperor made a final stand to defy the onslaught with his mortal frame. Surprised, the Demon King bellowed with unholy laughter, mocking his futile gesture, insulting Huangdi and conjuring all sorts of horrors from his lips; but the emperor stood his ground unwaveringly like a pillar of heaven. The unnatural storm was unleashed upon Huangdi and his body torn to shreds—but it was not his end. The emperor revealed his true form, the august shape of a grand celestial dragon, unleashed from his human cage; unbound by human limitation, in all his glory, he rose from his shattered flesh and filled the sky with his undulating shape. He proceeded to assume his cosmic form and grew larger and larger as he began to fill all space and threatened to burst beyond the confines of the material universe. The Demon King saw in his eyes the luminaries, the sun and the moon; his bones became the constellations; his blood the milky way and there was life in his breath and death in his shadow; in his face he saw the creation of the universe, in his body the totality of all worlds, and in his tail the dissolution of time.
The Demon King tried to avert his gaze but the emperor extended into all directions, even into his innermost self. Overwhelmed by the vision, he sank to his knees and marveled greatly at the perfection of the celestial being, the purity of his selfless deed, and the supreme freedom it unveiled to him. A shadow was lifted from his eyes that had tormented this twisted, demonic form since the beginning of time. Seeing the futility of his efforts and understanding the misery he was entangled in, realization upon realization filled his dark heart that opened up infinity, a new universe in which his former self swam like an infinitesimal atom beyond all his evil could grasp or conceive. As the world fell silent and time stood still, he abdicated his malefic ways and the entropic weapons in his six hands fell to the ground; he swore fealty to the Yellow Emperor, who lauded his transformation but commanded him to cement his conviction with a sacrifice to the celestials of Huangdi’s pantheon, which had assembled to view his cosmic form. With the repentant zeal of a million ascetics, the Demon King cut off his own head and his body dispersed into black cinder. His armies scattered in the ensuing confusion and were all slaughtered; the Yellow Emperor, greatly pleased, reassumed his dragon form and ascended back to the Nine Heavens, while the Demon King’s spirit departed to the hellish realms, singing the praise of Huangdi. But not before Huangdi proclaimed that the slain Demon King himself, in the coming aeon, would be reborn into the form of a celestial dragon and king of gods, unbound by weakness and the stain of vice. The Demon King then swore to protect all Huaxia in the afterlife, who had laid down their lives for others as he would protect his own children. A great shadow departed from the east and at last the Huaxia were free. Huangdi had completed his goal; the twin half-serpents continued to live for many generations among their disciples and the civilization of the Middle Kingdom thrived through their compassionate work, until they too departed this world for their realm. It was in this time that a third group of Huaxia people emerged and settled among men and elves; the Long-Ren, human-dragon hybrids who sought to unite the human form through alchemical practices with that of a dragon, so they could become like Huangdi and escape beyond the ‘Realm of Dust’ into his abode. Thus ended the age of the Three Sovereigns and the execution of the Will of Heaven passed on to a new regent.
A wise philosopher, and direct descendent of Huangdi, stepped up to assume the role of Sovereign. The sage king, Yu the Great, first of the Xia Dynasty and heir to the Mandate of Heaven. When Yu came into power, the course of the Yellow and Wei River were still unpredictable; the efforts by his predecessors in adapting to the mighty arteries of water had been in vain. Yu uncovered that the giant Kuafu, a remnant of the Hyperborean civilization, and his group of colossi were the culprits behind the streams’ unpredictable behavior. They drained or flushed the valleys according to their whim, as they tried to recover old machines, artifacts of their fallen civilization. In response, Yu began a great construction project of canals to divert the waters and save thousands of lives from the indifferent giants. After 13 years of exacting work, the project was completed; he redirected the streams and the giants became enraged that the fledgling Huaxi had deprived them of the water necessary for their endeavor. The earth trembled under their attack, Kuafu wielding his giant club blotted out the sun over the Yellow River Valley, while the other giants crushed villages and cities like ant hives; but Yu the Great had assembled the tribes. The blood of the Yellow Emperor was guiding him and he confronted the giants in a fierce battle that rearranged the realm. When finally, Yu, in his cunning, had lured the giants into a trap; he opened the dams on the pent up tributaries of the Yellow River and set them loose. Water came rushing in like thunder and the giants were struck by the violent discharge, carried away like straw dogs, thrown about and crushed in the mighty torrent’s unrelenting gyrations. Their bodies were torn to pieces and carried into oblivion; Kuafu and his kin were no more. So it came about that Yu’s wisdom prevailed and the rivers were tamed at last, allowing the Middle Kingdom to harness even more land for growth; and thereby continuing the golden age set in motion by the Three Sovereigns.
As the years passed, the succession of wise and capable kings continued. But what once waxed must surely wane, and after five hundred years, the Xia lineage produced a rotten fruit that would spell its doom. The affluent times had begotten a weakness in the Huaxia, and in none was it more visible than in their flawed 17th ruler, King Jie, the tyrant and Last of the Xia Dynasty, who had evoked the ire of Heaven through his depraved deeds. The king was endowed with many talents due to his bloodline, he could bend iron rods with his bare hands and was extremely quick of mind; but instead of using his gifts for the betterment of his people, he treated them with extreme cruelty and his vassals began to hate him. Retributions to uprisings were swift and without mercy further deepening the hatred. Together with his beautiful but immoral concubine, Mo Xi, he had become enslaved to decadent amusement and sensory pleasures, intoxicated with wine he grew indifferent to duty, the plight of his people and—crucially—the Will of Heaven. The tyrant had many people executed who could not satisfy his extravagant tastes, or conform to outrageous demands made while he was drunk; this included his chancellor, whom he had decapitated after the official objected to being demeaned like an animal in front of the royal court. He ordered outrageously pompous building projects such as palaces with large ivory halls, golden domes and a bed made out of pure jade to impress Mo Xi. According to the Book of Song by Master Yi, the king had an “alcohol lake” constructed for his concubine, on which they sailed immersed in orgies of drunken, naked men and women. Mo Xi then commanded a thousand slaves to drink the lake dry, only to have them thrown into the lake, meeting their drowning with laughter. Natural catastrophes struck the realm, mountain ranges collapsed, earthquakes leveled entire regions, the seasons were thrown into disarray and the oracle bones of the soothsayers prophesied the end of the ruling dynasty. The Mandate of Heaven had been revoked, and a new contender arose among the vassals of Xia; Tang of the Shang state, who had gathered the support of over forty disgruntled vassals to put an end to the terror of King Jie. The state of Shang had grown prosperous under Tang, and expanded its power by annexing smaller fiefdoms loyal to King Jie; until he had gathered a large enough force to overthrow the tyrant. They clashed at the Battle of Mingtao, but Jie was so hated that he was betrayed by his own generals on the battlefield and killed. His body was hacked to pieces as each warrior wanted to return with a part of the tyrant as a trophy. With his death ended the Xia line, for Jie had produced no offspring. And thus, he was supplanted by a new Son of Heaven, the just and virtuous King Tang, First of the Shang Dynasty. This ushered in a prosperous age for the Middle Kingdom, and the inescapable wheel of time began to spin anew.
King Tang lowered taxes, had gold coins minted and distributed among those most affected by Tyrant Jie’s terror. Meritorious acts such as these earned him high regard among the wise. Paying obeisance to the Son of Heaven, outlying kingdoms and tribes joined freely under his august rule and became vassal states. The passage of time continued and the Middle Kingdom thrived further under the Shang lineage. Government became more stratified and effective, technology advanced in peaceful but also martial applications; metallurgy reached mastery and artistry not seen before; a modern writing system was developed that is—with little change over the last 1500 years—still in use to this day; and elaborate ancestral worship emerged. But having grown in size, the empire’s borders began to grate against barbarian territories to the west, north and south; conflict erupted time and again. The rulers of Shang were, in one way or another, always at war with outsiders both near and far. Many armies were sent forth to subdue the hordes; they added new lands to the empire and returned with prisoners and precious loot, but a decisive victory over the outsiders was never achieved, and they remained a threat to the frontier regions. In an effort to forge strong ties with newly added territories, King Wu Ding, the 11th ruler of Shang, married a high-ranking daughter from each of the barbarian tribes. One of them, Fu Hao, rose through the ranks of the king’s sixty-four wives, and became his queen. After a series of losses to northern barbarian aggression, the king gave Fu Hao, in an unprecedented move, control over one of his armies, which was a triple breach of convention that perplexed his elven court. However, the king’s judgment was not colored by idle romance but by imperial shrewdness. Fu Hao’s barbarian instincts took hold and served the empire greatly; knowing the north and its people, she led her troops swiftly from victory to victory, until the king elevated her to the highest ranking military post, giving her total command over the Shang forces. Fu Hao proceeded to smash the Tu-Fang barbarians, who had fought the empire for three generations, in a single glorious battle; splitting the skull of their chieftain with her famous battle-axe, the Seven Star Fury. The north was pacified and the victory earned her legendary status as a warrior. But the real threat was lurking elsewhere. The Shang’s death-knell would not be any barbarian horde; their fate would be sealed from the inside, by one of their own scions.
Just as night follows day and winter follows autumn, so do the cycles of time produce the great seasons of empires. And winter, for the Shang Dynasty, arrived after six hundred years in the name of Di Xin, the Tyrant King of Shang. The most reviled ruler in all of Huaxia history. A man of such evil that his name would become synonymous with despotism in the Middle Kingdom. Although a minor son of the king, Prince Di Xin ascended to the throne through the sly machinations of his uncle. To the amazed court, he displayed abilities that surpassed those of ordinary people; his intellectual brilliance shone in debates against his mentors, and he impressed the royals with his outstanding physical prowess, hunting and killing wild beasts, such as tigers, with nothing but his hands. The early rule of Di Xin inspired great confidence in his court and the people; it was marked by an openness to new ideas and an ear for the counsel of sages. To improve his empire, Di Xin enacted sweeping reforms, overhauled the government and gutted the bloated bureaucratic apparatus. The king also secularized, removing himself from his obligations in rituals, and reducing the influence of oracles and priests on state affairs. Most significantly, the military was modernized, in preparation for the war against the southern barbarians—the ferocious Yi. The Yi had intruded on the Shang’s frontier for many generations, and grew bolder with each passing year. While the Shang military was preoccupied in the north, the Yi barbarians pillaged, desecrated and looted as they pleased. When the northern threat was finally vanquished by Di Xin’s predecessors—and his state thus ordered into efficiency—the time had come to strike back. The drums of war sounded, and Di Xin unleashed his forces against the outsiders. The first campaign routed the barbarian incursion and liberated lost provinces; the second was a full-scale invasion into Yi heartland. In the face of the highly motivated and newly equipped army, the southern barbarians were utterly outmatched, their forces were wiped out and their ancestral territories annexed into Shang; This victory ended the generation-long conflict, and was hailed for its swiftness, which earned the young king massive prestige. Emboldened, the king marched against the eastern barbarians conquering their lands, and for the first time in Huaxia history, coastal regions of the east were integrated into the empire. But while the king was campaigning, trouble began to brew at home. In the king’s absence, those with ambitions grew daring. Revolts erupted in response to the taxation, levies and conscriptions needed to support the large Shang military. The euphoria of victory turned to bitterness of betrayal. Enraged, Di Xin spun his armies around and marched back to quell the malcontent peasants along with the opportunistic vassals who led the rebellions. Among them was Di Xin’s own resentful halfbrother, who had been bypassed in the succession to the throne, even though being his elder. When the forces of the king returned, they squashed the rebels mercilessly in a series of battles. Di Xin’s leadership proved impeccable even in the chaos of the revolts, and again he emerged victorious from the slaughter. The rebel leaders were summarily executed, while the king began to believe in his own myth and his own invincibility. The many military successes had inflated his ego and malefic tendencies began to take root in his mind. According to legend, Di Xin was cursed when, in his hubris, he lusted after a statue of the goddess Nüwa—one of the Three Sovereigns of yore—uttering lascivious words in her temple. Once words are spoken they can never be revoked, and it so happened, fate ordained it, that Nüwa overheard the insolent remarks, unbefitting of a Son of Heaven. In her anger, the goddess cursed the Shang bloodline and sent a demon to undo him.
The Lord of Su, vassal to the Shang, had to forgo his annual tribute to the king due to a natural catastrophe, but to avert the king’s wrath he gifted him the most beautiful of his daughters, Daji. The king was instantly struck by her bewitching charm and made her his queen. Daji was Di Xin’s equal in her appetittes; she amplified his hedonism and together they began to sink into wine and lust. Disconnected from the common people, they grew ever more arrogant and self-infatuated; Di Xin began to think of himself as a god, in the same vein as Huangdi. Eschewing advice, he raised taxes even further to provide for the construction of lavish palaces. The most eccentric of these, Lu Tai Palace, was built out of the most expensive materials, with jewels worked into every wall, doors made out of precious stone, lined by exquisite artifacts, and a zoo of exotic animals from far away lands which roamed freely in its paradisiacal gardens. The queen installed the infamous “Wine Pool and Meat Forest” to outshine even Tyrant Jie’s debauchery. Roasted meat hung from tree branches overarching the pool filled with wine, while the royal pair, and their entourage, engaged with naked servants and slaves in orgies that could last for months on end. The people were carrying the burden of all this, starving outside the palace walls, working more for less, and seeing their sons conscripted into war. But the king’s tastes grew ever more epicurean. With the aim of imitating the bliss of Huangdi’s heavenly court, the corrupted pair intended to turn their pleasure palace into its earthly reflection. Tyrant Di Xin sent his armies forth to abduct beautiful women and girls all over the land, even from other elven royalty, such as the daughter of the helpless Count of Jiu. However, the king killed the girl in a fit of fury, as she refused to attend to his wishes even after repeated torture and threats. Her father, and other royals, who protested against this reckless disregard for life, were made examples of. Count Jiu was thrown into molten bronze, his remains, frozen in agony, sent back to his court; the other dissenters were spit roasted like pigs and their meat fed to palace animals. The tyrant had abandoned all care, he launched unprovoked wars against his own vassals to plunder them for jewels, horses and slaves for his garden. One such state, the Su, surrendered to the tyrant. Not satisfied with the surrender—and angered for being cheated out of a war—he massacred their entire ruling clan down to the last heir. All the Middle Kingdom cursed the tyrant in their privacy but none would dare to rise up in fear of retribution. According to the Jade Phoenix Records, Daji’s favorite past time became the devising of ever new torture instruments and elaborate routines to extend the suffering without killing the subject. King and queen reveled in their power over life and death; aroused by the screaming and begging, their love life drifted into unspeakable abysses. But soon even these depravities were not enough to satisfy their abnormal lusts and the taste of human meat came to entice their palates. The pair cut people open they deemed interesting, so they could observe their inner workings in intoxicated rapture. The king’s loyal uncle, responsible for putting him on the throne, petitioned the king to abandon his evil ways, only to have his heart cut out by the monarch, so the mad tyrant could see what the heart of a sage looked like.
Finally, the state of Zhou rose up in defiance. Their ruler, the wise Count Wen had abided his time, waiting for an opportune moment to overthrow the hated Shang, who had wronged the house of Zhou long before the terror reign of Di Xin. The count himself, had been imprisoned and tortured by the tyrant; through his magical mastery he managed to escape without harm, but the episode instilled vengeance in his spirit. Count Wen enjoyed great recognition among the other vassals, for his valor against the western barbarian tribes and his displays of sagacity. In secrecy some nobles already began to call him king. Being a student of the Eight Trigrams, Count Wen fathomed the invisible terrain of time through which reality courses like a river; he was a sage who knew not to work against this temporal flow, and he also knew that once the right moment had arrived, nothing could save the Shang from their destruction. And that time had come, the “heavenly order” had been given as the oracles revealed. Meanwhile, Shang forces were engaged in yet another war against their own tributary states and the capital was vulnerable. Count Wen launched a surprise attack on Shang with the help of other wronged vassals; he even managed to recruit outside barbarians to help topple the hated tyrant. Their forces clashed brutally in the epoch-making Battle of Muye, covering the terrain in the red of slain soldiers. The slaves under Di Xin were given weapons as his main forces were occupied in the east. But at the crucial hour, they turned on their hated masters and joined the Zhou army. Seeing his doom approach on the battlefield, the tyrant fled to Lu Tai Palace, where he dressed himself in full regalia, sat on his throne, poured oil on himself—surrounded by his most precious treasures—and waited for his queen, ready to self-immolate and leave this world in flame. When Daji appeared, she sat down before the king in perfect composure and fixed her unblinking eyes on the pathetically drenched king. The skin she wore for so long dropped and revealed her true form. The flesh on her face began to boil and fell off like rotten meat, her appearance morphed into the elongated visage of a grinning skinless demon, and she bellowed with inhuman laughter that scattered the king’s remaining servants. Aghast the monarch stared at his lover. She lit the fire and the flames engulfed the king as life flashed before his inner eye, each moment like a mosaic piece suspended in eternity; in abject horror he realized the depth of his failure, and the nature of the curse that had been placed upon his house. The demon’s corporeal form was reduced to ash along with the king; their bodies disintegrated and their souls departed to the hellish realms. The Shang were undone. When Zhou forces arrived at the palace, they were out for vengeance; they took the skull of the tyrant, plus the heads of his favorite concubines as well as his closest servants, and installed them on long spikes in front of Lu Tai Palace, as a symbol of their victory over the tyrant and as a sacrifice to the tormented Zhou ancestors. Time had completed one revolution along its spiraling way, and the Mandate of Heaven passed on to the new king, Wen, first of the Zhou Dynasty and Lord of Change.
The rule of the Zhou dynasty heralded the beginning of a new golden period for the Huaxia people, and the cycle of empires resumed its relentless course. Under the previous ruling lineage many liberties were enjoyed and many new avenues of development explored; female leaders thrived, the influence of shamans and oracles waned, barbarians and other outsiders were given influence in state affairs; all this changed under the traditionalist Zhou who desired a return to normalcy above all else; and to undo everything the Shang, and especially Tyrant Di Xin, stood for. The Shang Dynasty sprang from mercantile roots, in contrast, the Zhou emerged from an agrarian background, instilling in them a deep connection to the land and a more conservative attitude, appreciative of stability that translated into an inborn affinity for tradition and paths well trodden. The early Zhou monarchs reinstated the importance of oracular councils and the compliance of the Huaxia people to Heaven’s will and the fear of its wrath. Legendary King Wen the Wise, deeply contemplated the Eight Trigrams inherited by the divine Fu Xi, and rearranged them into a magical sequence of sixty-four—so-called— hexagrams, named the ‘King Wen Sequence.’ He compiled this achievement into one of the most important arcane tomes ever written on this plane of existence, the Yi Jing or Book of Change. Seeking guidance from past wisdom, he opened his court to the Long-Ren, the human-dragon hybrids, who had lived in isolation on mountains, practicing their mystic work and preserving the knowledge handed down from the time of the Three Sovereigns. Strange and enigmatic creatures, whose presence foreshadowed the ingression of high strangeness in the centuries to come. The reborn appreciativeness of wisdom emanated from the king down to the level of regional rulers who sought guidance and practical philosophies from the wise, not only from generations past but from new thinkers and sages; this beget a great philosophical flowering. The so-called “Hundred Schools of Thought” emerged in this atmosphere of intellectual exploration. Some of these would shape things for all future generations, such as the Taoist school, a philosophy of harmony with the underlying natural current of reality; a mystical system that produced outstanding wizards, for good or ill; Confucianism emerged, centered around the obligations of the individual towards the whole of society, ancestral veneration and the embrace of ritual and piety; The brutal state philosophy of Legalism found many adherents among the royalty for its realist worldview and strict adherence to authority, enforced by draconian laws. The monumental Art of War was compiled during this period, a tome of martial philosophy that would guide many future leaders of the Middle Kingdom and beyond. Although the Zhou were traditionalist, strict and hierarchical, they did not want to repeat the mistakes of the past, therefore, more autonomy was granted to the vassal states, making their feudal chiefs virtually independent, a lenience meant to prevent the abuse by a corrupted king, while their allegiance was secured through blood ties established by clever intermarriages. But the early period of the Zhou was not without its own troubles; a great rebellion arose in the newly annexed provinces to the east, where the Shang, despite the tyrannical rule of their last king, still harbored many loyalists, defiant towards the new Son of Heaven.
After the tumultuous regime change achieved under King Wen, a figure known as the ‘Shadow Emperor,’ Luo-Pan, rose to power in the eastern provinces, and with the support of the Shang loyalists and Southern Barbarians threatened to wrestle half the kingdom from the Zhou. But the king himself was beyond help. Misfortune had struck King Wen, and only four years after the victory over Di Xin, the wise king passed away, leaving behind his young son as successor, who was yet unfit to rule. In accordance with his filial obligation, Duke Zhou Gong, the king’s brother, stepped in to fill the position, a move which would earn him the glorification of future generations, who would title him a “perfect regent.” In the meantime, the Shadow Emperor had not only amassed worldly might, but also openly displayed his mastery of otherworldly arts, allowing him to summon supernatural beasts and deploy them in battle against conventional Zhou Dynasty forces, and, more disconcertingly, was able to recruit royal family members to his cause. The duke, through his outstanding military acumen acquired during the campaigns against the tyrant Di Xin and through the bravery of his veteran soldiers, eventually crushed the uprising, known as the “Rebellion of the Three Storms,” and executed the Shadow Emperor along with the treacherous family members. Zhou Gong had stabilized the realm, and after this grand victory remained humble. When the rightful regent came of age, he relinquished all his state power and gave the kingdom to his nephew, in a much better shape than when he took over. Where lesser men would have succumbed to their lower nature, Zhou Gong, never in his time on the throne did overstep his position or act cruelly; he exacted his duties to the benefit of his subjects and remained connected to the roots to his people and loyal to his nephew. Rebellions in the realm subsided completely for the time being, as life under the Zhou was markedly better than under the previous dynasty. But the Shadow Emperor’s tale did not end here nor would he be so easily defeated, for he was the remnant of an ancient evil that had survived for thousands of years by unnatural means. His body was slain but his spirit retreated into a new form. He would re-emerge, even more powerful, to threaten the realm in a few centuries hence when the stars were in his favor once more… The extraordinary competence and virtue of the early Zhou kings, King Wen, his brother the Duke of Zhou, and those that followed in their wake, earned them veneration as the greatest heroes of the Middle Kingdom, right next to the divine Yellow Emperor, and the legendary, Yu the Great.
Eventually, the sun set over the Zhou Dynasty, but whereas the previous royal lineages collapsed with an earth-shattering event, their line faded with a whimper. When the kingdom, after a near thousand years of unbroken rule, splintered, their weakness was seen as an omen that the Mandate of Heaven had been rescinded from their lineage, and was awaiting a new, worthy monarch. Thus, their vassal kingdoms broke completely free, declared themselves king each, and vied openly for the title Emperor, ‘Son of Heaven,’ hegemon of the Middle Kingdom, and the corporeal embodiment of the ‘Will of the Divine’ upon Earth. Out of the Zhou’s fractured state-body arose seven powerful successor kingdoms, and an era of relative peace gave way to hundreds of years of ceaseless conflict and intrigue between the so-called ‘Seven Warring States.’ These kingdoms were known as the Qin, Zhao, Wei, Han, Yan, Qi and Chu. Only one of them would survive the approaching storm.
The Qin were the westernmost kingdom of the seven states. The ancestral lands of the Qin are rugged and mountainous, hiding bountiful valleys which stretch along the river Wei. It is a land that produced a resilient, war-like people used to extremes. The Qin shielded the western frontier of the Middle Kingdom against barbarian incursions, and were protected by mighty fortifications to their northern and western borders. The true origin of the Qin people is lost in ancient legend; but the Jade Phoenix Annals mention the admixture of barbarian blood into their lineage, giving the Qin royalty a distinct look, different in comparison to the delicate elven stock of the other kingdoms. Of the seven states, the Qin were always the most belligerent, earning them the epithet as people of ‘tigers and wolves.’ They were feared for their martial expertise, their fighting spirit, and especially for their mastery of the crossbow and artillery. To the west and north of the Qin territory stretch vast, arid lands of mountains and sand which lead into the steppes and the forbidding Plains of Ash. This area is pervaded by man-eating orc hordes that seemingly appeared out of nowhere during the latter reign of the Zhou, and decimated the other western barbarian tribes in a savage campaign that saw them all exterminated. A feat the Zhou Dynasty, on their own, was never able to accomplish. It was tolerated and help to the Western barbarians was denied when the green hordes arrived to devour them, a political maneuver that would cost the Zhou ultimately everything. The Orcs, lusting for more blood, followed up with a devastating move that shook the Middle Kingdom to its core: they broke through the wall fortifications, ravaged the frontier regions of the empire, and drove with blinding speed, deeply into its heart; taking the weakened Zhou utterly by surprise and revealing their rule as ineffectual and no longer sanctioned by the Will of Heaven. The raid culminated in the pillaging and burning of the grand capital of Haojing and its miraculous, flying palaces; along with anyone who didn’t flee or had been eaten alive by the green marauders. As smoke pillars darkened the sky and bandits roamed freely in the orc’s wake of destruction, the vassals of Zhou took matters into their own hands.
The Qin marshaled their forces, swiftly assembled a large army, and fought the savages, slaughtering the invading horde to the last. Together with an allied army, composed of other Zhou vassals, they set out to bring death to their lands in retaliation—to end the orc scourge once and for all. They marched boldly into the dangerous west, but given the vast expanse of the frontier, and the orcs’ talent at reproduction, it was an endeavor that proved itself ultimately futile, even for the combined forces of the vassal states. Nonetheless, this punitive expedition delivered an unexpected success. Once the main orc forces were cut to pieces on the battlefield, and their leadership decapitated, the remaining hordes’ unity was shattered, and the tribes fell into a cannibalistic perma-war amongst one another; a state of intertribal animosity from which they haven’t recovered until this day. In the light of such a shameful display of incompetence, the Zhou Dynasty’s legitimacy was severely weakened; and the rule of the hapless emperor as the exactor of the ‘Will of Heaven’ was brought into question. The king of Zhou, was not dethroned but reduced to a ceremonial position, exploited by the other kingdoms for his symbolic and political value but devoid of actual power. This episode marked the beginning of the Qin’s ascendancy and the start of the turbulent age known as the ‘Warring States Period.’
The clouds of war were gathering and the kings of Qin saw their time draw near. In their wisdom, they enacted sweeping reforms to prepare for what lay ahead by transforming their state into a potent warmachine, able to churn out near endless swaths of soldiers and weapons. Each Qin monarch sharpened the blade that was their kingdom, and with each generation their state became more powerful. The other six states signed pacts among each other to counter this looming threat, but intrigue and miscalculation made such alliances temporary at best, or exploited by treachery at worst. War erupted time and again among the seven states, but none was able to achieve a definitive victory. While some kingdoms saw a decline others rose to the top, fieldeding formidable armies led by skilled generals. The Qin had a reputation for barbarism due to their ruthless battle tactics, and the unrefined ways of their kin, it was a deserved reputation as the Qin were only interested in results not appearance. Thus, they replaced the ineffectual, aristocratic nepotism of old with a meritocratic system, opening up their highest military positions to the most skilled, regardless of elven or aristocratic descent. This provided the Qin with an advantage in warfare most of the other kingdoms could not easily match, as they were deeply entrenched in an unadaptive tradition of royal privilege and succession. Powerful generals would often be killed instead of promoted by jealous rulers, but not so in the lands of the Qin; and so the word spread, drawing in ambitious talent from all directions. The Qin juggernaut would soon find a new king who would perfect what his ancestors started, unleash a bloody campaign unlike the Middle Kingdom had ever seen and bring all under his dominion; thereby ending the destructive period of ceaseless war that had raged for hundreds of years since the burning of Haojing.
Ying Zheng entered the world in this time of universal war. He was the firstborn of a low ranking Qin royal, named Yiren, a political hostage of the neighboring enemy state of Zhao. Like all the Warring States, Qin and Zhao had a mutual history of warfare and atrocity which spanned centuries. During an uneasy armistice between the two kingdoms, royal family members were exchanged, as was custom, to show goodwill towards peace or at least the pretense of it. The low chance of succession to the throne made Yiren, of course, an acceptable casualty in the inevitable future clash between the two states. Prince Anguo, was the second son of the king and heir apparent to the Qin throne, his son, Lord Yiren, was the grandson to the king of Qin, and the 10th among his father’s twenty sons, making him a very expandable asset to the machinations of the king. The Zhao made the Qin responsible for the orc invasion that destroyed the old capital five hundred years ago, and ushered in the decline of the ruling dynasty and with it unleashed the chaos of the Warring States. The Qin in return had little regard for the Zhao, whom they viewed as weak and soft people, whose warriors were addled by comfort, a shadow of their former glory and ready to be conquered. In this tense atmosphere, Lord Yiren lived under his Zhao captors, who held no sympathy for the royal nor his family members. They were mistreated and demeaned in ways unbecoming of any man yet alone for someone of aristocratic blood. But one day a chance encounter changed the fate of the ill-starred royal and with him the future of the entire Middle Kingdom. Lü Buwei, a merchant of extreme wealth and ambition, was introduced to Lord Yiren, whom he happened upon in his natural habitat, the market of the Zhao capital, where he frequented between his travels across the realm. Lü Buwei witnessed the treatment Lord Yiren was receiving and immediately realized what tremendous opportunity had just fallen into his lap. He introduced himself in all his eloquence and with full decorum appropriate for royalty. A spark was immediately lit between the two and a friendship developed. The return on investment for goods and luxury articles from far off lands was immense and allowed Lü Buwei to accrue outrageous amounts of gold, but the potential profit he could reap from a prince was incalculable. Lü Buwei used his fortune to bribe the Qin court and leveraged his political influence to appear before the favorite consort of the heir apparent, Prince Anguo; and convinced her of having Yiren return from captivity back to Qin and see him replaced by someone else from the king’s ample progeny. The silver tongue of Lü Buwei beguiled the childless wife of Prince Anguo with the prospect of Yiren securing her future at the court despite her barren womb. She proceeded to formally adopt Yiren as her very own son, thereby making him the heir apparent next in line after the prince, elevating him from the low rung of succession right to the top. To further tie Yiren closer to Lü Buwei and his machinations, he introduced him to one of his concubines, a beautiful dancing girl named Zhaoji; he fell in love with her, just as the merchant intended, and the very same year she bore Lord Yiren a son, Ying Zheng, around whom, very soon, all affairs in the Middle Kingdom would revolve. Yiren’s luck seemed to know no bounds, fortune had truly blessed him since the chance encounter with his mercantile benefactor. But things were not as they appeared, for Lü Buwei might have been ingenious in his moves but this intelligence sprang not from a mortal mind; Lü Buwei was a mask underneath which hid the being known as the Shadow Emperor, who had coldly and calmly amassed power and wealth since his previous form was slain by the Duke of Zhou, over a millennium ago during the “Rebellion of the Three Storms.” It was not just the shrewd mind and adroit tongue of Lü Buwei that set heaven and earth into motion to aid of the future king, but astral forces of an elder evil that had been trained and sharpened in the dark arts for millenia, a power that could play on susceptible minds like on instruments.The chess pieces had been set and future events, as foreseen by the Shadow Emperor, only needed the formality of occurring…
Death began to stalk the kings of Qin. First to die was the old regent, who had ruled for 57 years and passed away in his sleep, unbecoming of the warrior that he was. In his time, he had elevated the Qin state towards strategic dominance over the other six. The people of Qin affectionately called him “War God” for his many successes against the other kingdoms. Among his many aggressive exploits were the conquest of the Chu capital, Ying; the seizure of orc territories and other barbarians to the south west; the victory at the Battle of Changping; and the slaying of the Mao Shan dragon awakened by the immortal Ge Hong. It was time for his son, Prince Anguo to ascend to the throne, however, tragedy struck the new king and his reign was cut short. Only three days after his coronation, the new regent followed his father to the realm of the dead. Lü Buwei’s handiwork was subtle and traceless, spectral terrors appearing at night that strangled the old heart of the regent were beyond the royal guards reach, as was the ‘five venom poison’ that paralyzed and killed his son through the kiss of a concubine. Pesky royals were driven insane by terrible thoughts he fixed in their minds through his mental powers, others were won over through seeds of betrayal he skillfully planted in them to drive them into his arms. Lü Buwei expanded his web of shadows and many easily manipulated royals and corrupt eunuchs joined his cabal, or found themselves exiting the orbit of the throne, either willingly or through a premature grave. In a short time, he had elevated himself to the supreme power broker of the kingdom, and his plans were coming to fruition; but he himself could not ascend to the throne, this would never be an option for the Shadow Emperor in his current form, but rule he would through his chief asset. Yiren’s moment had arrived and thanks to the cloak and dagger machinations of his benefactor, much sooner than anticipated. Yiren became king and entrusted the position of chancellor to his trusted patron, Lü Buwei who, of course, had only used his protegee; but that usefulness had run its course after only three years on the throne. One night, the king received a mysterious visitor, a legendary taoist sage named Li Tieguai, who offered the king oracular council and revealed to him a terrible secret: Ying Zheng was not his real son; Lü Buwei’s concubine was already pregnant when she was introduced to Yiren during his captivity. The sage offered the king a way out, to follow him to the mountains and leave this world of dust behind—or face tragedy; but the king was beyond reasoning. Enraged, he confronted the chancellor in his chambers and demanded the truth from him; unexpectedly, the Shadow Emperor obliged in full, and revealed his designs to the doomed king. So sure was he of his position that he would treat himself, and savor the desperation carried in the king’s heart, once the truth dawned on him. Ying Zheng was an alchemical child, the product of an artificial assemblage, created out of powerful essences derived from salts, spagyrically extracted out of the ashes of long dead men and supernatural beings, painstakingly collected over the last thousand years from catacombs, mausoleums, temples, all over the Middle Kingdom, and fused into a new entity in the cauldron that was the queen’s womb. More importantly, it would be the next skin the Shadow Emperor would be wearing after the child reached maturity. A fitting vehicle to house his expansion in power towards godhood and things beyond the king’s comprehension. Before the full gravitas of the words uttered could settle on the king’s troubled heart, the mental blade of the dark sorcerer severed Yiren’s central meridian; his life force fled from his orifices in ghostly vapor and he collapsed like a discarded puppet. Another perfect regicide, and the kingdom mourned yet another unexpected loss. With the king’s death, the young Ying Zheng ascended to the throne, but due to his young age, the obligation of steering the fate of the state fell unto the chancellor, Lü Buwei, who, for all intents and purposes, was now the sovereign of Qin.
Ying Zheng was 13 years of age when he observed the construction of his mausoleum. The looming specter of death, which had haunted his father and grandfather, was always close by. Life was uncertain, intrigue and war made it so, even for the most exalted positions in the realm such as his. A natural lifespan was the exception, not the rule; accordingly, the complex constructions of tombs and burial chambers for royals began early, to be ready for when the time came. These circumstances produced a serious and intense child whose concerns and ambitions were far beyond the hopes and woes of other children. From his earliest childhood, it was instilled into him to complete the dream of unification, to finish what his ancestors started and bring ‘all under heaven’ under Qin dominion. The young Ying Zheng was a promising scion and the court held great confidence in his abilities. Outwardly, he exhibited a bright mind paired with an indomitable will; his unusually large physique set him apart from his peers and made him seem ripe beyond his age, and an almost inhuman luster seemed to radiate from his face, that sprang from the power pent up inside him. But there was something else within him, a thing that in moments of great danger took hold; another self that guided his hands or could direct his thoughts; a presence which during hypnagogic sleep, whispered to him, flashed symbols before his inner eye, entire libraries of books, words which made perfect sense during the in-between state but which upon awakening were lost, and he could not recall, even under the greatest of efforts. He kept this to himself and took it as a sign of his special birth, although in what sense, he did not know. The moment the dark sorcerer, hiding behind the visage of Lü Buwei, was anticipating drew closer; at the completion of the king’s 21st year, he would take over the regent’s body, and wear it like a garment. The Qin state awaited to be wielded like a sword. The glove to yield it would be Ying Zheng, but the hand would be the Shadow Emperor; who, by now, had set the stage for his next steps. But he knew that his moves, although invisible to the eyes of the court, had nonetheless drawn unwanted attention. The visit by the sage, Li Tieguai, to the old king was a sign that others might be drawn to foil his plans should they divine his carefully concealed identity. The Shadow Emperor was powerful but there were others in the realm who possessed his degree of internal mastery. One stormy night, an uneasy dream awakened the young king. Unable to regain sleep, he took a stroll through the palace when he observed strange lights emanating from the chancellor’s mansion, driven by curiosity he peered into his mentor’s chambers, only to find the seemingly stiff Lü Buwei engaged in a battle with two dark figures. Several guards lay dead across his chamber. The assassins moved with superhuman speed and struck martial blows that sent shockwaves through the chamber, wrecking the interior and shaking its foundations. The old chancellor, seemingly through a miracle, kept up with them, even striking back, cleaving one of them into two and revealing the other assassin’s slashed face. They were Long-Ren eremites, draco-humanoid hybrids from one of the holy mountains. All this perplexed the young king, but, ever stalwart, he drew his sword and dashed into the chamber to defend his mentor. Distracted by the surprise entrance, Lü Buwei’s frame was pierced by the assailant’s eerily glowing sword. Although many things can be foreseen through the arcane arts, some things are not bound by the chains of stars and fate; Ying Zheng’s special blood made him such an unpredictable anomaly. Seeing the end of his flesh-vehicle approach, the Shadow Emperor gathered his spirit and assaulted the king’s body in spectral form—when, an inhuman glow shone from Ying Zheng’s eyes and in the same instant, a large radiant mist began to congeal above his head, taking the fearsome shape of a celestial dragon.The two spirits hung like storming clouds in the large chamber, while the draco-human assassin shielded his eyes from the blinding lights beaming from the apparitions. Lü Buwei’s attack had awakened the presence sleeping within the king, and the silent guardian recognized the true identity of Lü Buwei, and through his eyes Ying Zheng understood as well; the Shadow Emperor was the undying glimmer of evil that sprung from the primordial Demon King’s heart as he sacrificed himself over 6000 years ago in the battle with Huangdi. An autarchic splinter that separated itself from the Demon King before it could be annihilated alongside him. Equally, the Shadow Emperor saw Ying Zheng for what he carried within. Besides the amalgam of ashes from great beings, there was the remnant of the Yellow Emperor’s mortal form, which he had unknowingly fused together when he alchemically forged the child. For a thousand years, the Shadow Emperor, Luo-Pan, had meticulously scoured catacombs, temples, holy mountains for the ashes of great beings to assemble them into the perfect avatar for his consciousness, a body capable of conquering the realm and sustain even more ambitious endeavors. Unwittingly he had given part of his archenemy new flesh, a catastrophic blunder that nullified lifetimes of work. The spectacle had by now alerted the entire palace. As guards swarmed in from all directions, Lü Buwei pulled the sword that had pierced his chest and hurled it in hateful fury at the king. The glowing straight-sword was made of rare orgolith crystal, holding a living awareness that could negate astral effects. The blade shattered on contact with Ying Zheng, he was badly struck and thrown into a coma, the dragon dissolved into the astral background like a mist, while the royal guards rushed to secure the scene. In the chaos, the heavily bleeding chancellor managed to flee the palace and disappeared beyond the borders of Qin. Although his grand scheme had been foiled by an element he could not foresee, he was too calculating to not have conceived of a failsafe…
When Ying Zheng awakened after days of unconsciousness, his nervous system and his mind were still wrecked from the ethereal attack. They would heal in time, but the trust shattered by the betrayal never would. The full extent of Lü Buwei’s conspiracy dawned on the king; the deaths, his birth, the scheming royalty, it all came together; yet, Ying Zheng did not waver but his heart was steeled only further. The dark sorcerer had fled to the state of Zhao and was already preparing his counter move—there was no time to waste. The Qin were in a better position than ever to achieve unification, destroy the Zhao state for good, and Lü Buwei along with it. The campaign had to begin immediately, but before it could commence in full, it was time to clean the royal house of all traitors. First to go was Lao Ai, the not-so-secret lover of the Queen Mother Zhaoji; a man famed for his virility, who had been enfeoffed to the position of marquee by the dowager queen for his services. Besides royalty, only castrated men were allowed into the palace, but through some extraordinary trickery, Lao Ai managed to get into the queen’s private circle and into her bedchamber. She bore him two sons, which she carefully concealed; but Lao Ai had developed ambitions of his own. With the tumultuous upheaval in the upper echelons of Qin hierarchy, he saw his time had come and attempted a coup d’etat—legitimizing his claim through his sons and the queen’s seal. Ying Zheng, eager to expunge this shame from his house and exercise his power, dealt swiftly with Lao Ai and his halfbrothers. The attempt was crushed and thousands of his followers executed; Lao Ai himself finally got the castration he so skillfully evaded, when he was torn apart by five horses. His sons followed him into death and the queen dowager was sent into exile to the former state of Shu, on Qin’s south western frontier. Next in line were the remnants of Lü Buwei’s shadow network. This was difficult since they were numerous and deeply embedded in the Qin’s governmental apparatus. His closest allies were, naturally, summarily executed if they hadn’t committed suicide themselves by now. Ying Zheng had learned from his former mentor’s manipulative ways, and had the rest appear in small groups before his court to test them. A horse and a deer were present during the examination of the bureaucrats and royals. While they kneeled and absorbed the king’s words, he proceeded to call the deer a fine horse, and extolled its equestrian qualities at exhausting length. Each attendee that dared to correct him, or just called the deer for what it really was, was decapitated on the spot. A message that was unmistakable and frightening, fulfilling the intended purpose perfectly. With the royal household and bureaucratic body cleansed, the stage was set to launch the first invasion. Extraordinary envoys arrived at the court during this time, the Long-Ren clan chiefs had traveled far from Mt Tai and the Mt Kunlun, to pay deep obeisance to Ying Zheng, not because of his earthly title, for which they cared very little, but for the spark of the Yellow Emperor he carried within himself, which was their sole reason of existence. The word was spreading since the episode in the palace, and soon devolved to: ‘the king of Qin is a celestial dragon,’ among commoners. A rumor that was welcomed by the king and his generals. The Long-Ren offered themselves into Ying Zheng’s service and he accepted them into his forces as fanatical commando troops. The human-dragon hybrids were exceptional fighters from the “Jianghu martial world,” a parallel society of warrior clans that has existed side-by-side regular Huaxia civilization for generations, but who were exclusively concerned with the perfection of their martial prowess, in a never ending contest for supremacy among their many legendary factions. Some of the most elite warriors on this plane were now under the Qin king’s command. Fate was aligning circumstances, and the state of Han, which housed the last remnant of the previous Dynasty—feeble King Nan, the last scion of the Zhou—was the first to suffer the fully awakened Qin warmachine.
The ‘Unification War’ was upon the Middle Kingdom. To the east of Qin lay the central plain or Zhongyuan. For the largest part of Huaxia history, this land has been the heart of culture and political power. But now it was ruled by the state of Han, the weakest of the seven warring states, who nervously awaited the inevitable in the shadow of its towering neighbor. The Han kingdom was small and had already suffered numerous assaults by the Qin over the last generations, but this time was different, the Qin were here to end 500 years of chaos and no other state would be allowed to exist in their new world order. When the invasion force crossed the Yellow River into Han, the Qin armies fell upon them like a force of nature, an avalanche of arrows, swords and horses, sweeping—near unopposed—over their lands. The ruler of Han surrendered quickly and the state fell within the year and was annexed into Qin. Besides the royalty of Han, the kingdom was also the refuge of a another monarch, the 37th and last descendent of the Zhou Dynasty, King Nan; after the traumatic fall of Haojing and the rampage of the orc hordes, the Zhou royalty had been reduced to a symbolic and ritualistic position. Nonetheless, the last Zhou monarch was still a Son of Heaven, and as long as he drew breath he could bestow legitimacy upon others, since the Mandate of Heaven passed through his lineage, connecting him directly to the authority of the Three Sovereigns. Despite not owning any land or military forces of his own, Nan was able to preserve the Zhou line through clever alliances and cunning conspiracies. But none of this was of consequence when his soft neck met the steel of Ying Zheng’s general, who had come not only for the lands of Han but to end his bloodline forever. The Qin could not allow the conference of heavenly authority to anyone but their own regent. And with King Nan’s gruesome death, ancient and potent artifacts passed to the king of Qin: the so-called Jiu Ding, or “Nine Tripod Cauldrons,” forged by Yu the Great during the ancient Xia Dynasty. For millennia, the holy tripods were used in sacrificial rituals directed at ancestral spirits and the forces of Heaven. The king of Qin, however, was not a sentimental man but driven by superior ambition. With ruthless impunity, Ying Zheng had the cauldrons melted and instruments of war forged out of their mystically imbued metal. He bestowed these to his generals and personal guard, to aid them in their battles against mortal and supernatural forces. Each of the tripod’s metal held a power linked to the nine spheres of the Astral Sea, giving every forged weapon a very unique ability related to the nature of the planes. Ying Zheng took the sword forged out of the solar tripod’s metal for himself but abandoned it when—unexpectedly— his court received an exotic guest; the alchemist Xu Fu arrived at the capital bearing an extraordinary gift. To the astonished court, the humble Xu Fu presented the Xuanyuan Sword, the “Blade of Primordial Mystery,” a living sword that was once wielded by the divine Yellow Emperor and still contained traces of his life-force. The weapon had been kept in sacred temples all these millenia, shielded from the tribulations of history, but was awakened when the scintilla of Huangdi, that had lain dormant in Ying Zheng, showed its true power. The sword began to move. Like a meteorite stone aligning with the northern pole, its tip began to point into the direction of the Qin capital. It had heard its master’s call. Xu Fu, not seeking reward but the fulfillment of his duty in the grand scheme of things, had embarked on the perilous journey to deliver the blade to the king of Qin, rumored to be a celestial dragon. As Ying Zheng, in wonder, reached out for the sword’s hilt, the ancient weapon flew miraculously into his open palm, snapping into position with a will of its own. Xu Fu was given the position of court alchemist for his invaluable service; and Ying Zheng’s mind, though temporarily absorbed by sword’s ghostly whispers, returned to ponder the unification of the realm . . . and the destruction of his blood nemesis, the Shadow Emperor.
Qin’s armies stood ready to be released like arrows from drawn bows, awaiting the word of the king. The recent conquest had sharpened their instruments of war and inured their hearts towards more bloodshed; they would not stop until the entire realm had been unified under their rule. To the north of the central plain, and northeast of Qin’s heartland, stretched the state of Zhao—the only real threat to Ying Zheng’s juggernaut among the remaining six. Zhao, like Qin, shielded the realm against barbarian invasions from the west, and despite the Qin’s dim view of their neighbor, King Qian of Zhao still fielded many formidable warriors, such as general Li Mu, who gained tremendous prestige after wiping out an overwhelming orc invasion force with superior battle tactics. During his captivity, Zhao was the hated prison to Ying Zheng’s ill-starred father; it was also the home country of his mother, the exiled queen dowager; but most importantly, it was the center of Lü Buwei’s web of shadows. Zhao would not fall as readily as Han did, Lü Buwei made sure of that. By now, he had taken full control of the state in all but name and transformed it into a bulwark that would make a victory for the Qin as costly as the bloodiest defeat. But more than that, the Shadow Emperor had not given up on his body stealing ambitions and set up a trap for the precious corporeal form of the king of Qin. One of the few physical forms in the realm that could receive his spirit without disintegrating. Although Ying Zheng’s unusual origin made him an unpredictable variable to Lü Buwei’s divinations, he was still a man, and as such within the boundaries of the calculable, no matter how volatile. In many ways Lü Buwei considered himself Ying Zheng’s father, but on a deeper level he understood that Huangdi—and what remained of the god-dragon inside his alchemical child—was actually his creator; he was born from the ancient Demon King’s ashes when the demon cut off his own head at the Yellow Emperor’s behest. Without Hunagdi he would never have come into being. That his fate should be so deeply entwined with his hated enemy infuriated him greatly. This hate found its symmetry in Ying Zheng’s deep loathing for the Shadow Emperor, a usurper and murderous traitor both on a personal and collective scale, that had manipulated the fate of so many, including his very own, yet without whom he would have never been born . . . Thus two years passed and the anticipation of war hung like an oppressive fog over the realm, suffocating the Huaxia people with grim foreboding, until nature broke the false calm with a great earthquake that shook the Zhao kingdom and threw it into disarray. The chaos granted Qin the sought after opportunity for military exploitation. Their armies moved swiftly and split into two battle groups, advancing in a pincer move deep into Zhao. General Li Mu met them with his forces and by virtue of his genius in the art of war, he was able to repel the invading armies in several brutal clashes that decimated the Qin forces severely. Ying Zheng, despite his court’s objections, took this as an excuse to join the war personally. The king entered the frontline and with his spirit form wreaked havoc across the battlefield. He was aided by his loyal guard, the draco-humanoid fanatics, from the Dragon Gate Sect and the Kunlun Clan, both of whom were outlaw societies that had previously sworn fealty to Ying Zheng’s blood in the aftermath of the king’s awakening. They laid waste to the conventional Zhao forces, and thrashed through their fortifications one after the other, spearheading ever deeper into enemy territory, with the Qin armies advancing in the wake of their slaughter. Having sustained heavy casualties against the king and his elite warriors, the Zhao fell back to their final defense perimeter—the fortified capital, Handan. The entire city had been transformed into a vast and deadly fortress on Lü Buwei’s order. Aside from regular army and conscripted peasants, Lü Buwei had secretly recruited help from the Jianghu world, enough to outmatch his arch-foe’s allies: The Venom Clan, Thousand Hands Sect, Invincible Clan, White Ape Clan, Golden Mantis Sect, and Lü Buwei’s very own cult, the Demon Vapor Sect, all stood ready to kill any Qin that breached the city walls. One of these warriors alone was worth hundreds of veteran soldiers and there were nearly a thousand of them ready to foil the plans of the Qin would-be hegemon. Three Qin armies had the capital surrounded and a stalemate was reached; but soon, discord began to spread among the Shadow Emperor’s forces, while the Qin remained united in obedience to their king. On Ying Zheng’s order, his secret agents bribed key officials within the Zhao apparatus; as anticipated, only the most corrupt remained in power under Lü Buwei and a little gold went a long way. Word reached the Zhao king, general Li Mu’s popularity had gone to his head, that he planned to betray the monarch and surrender to the Qin, who would grant him royal titles and rulership over the Zhao lands in their name. Two could play at the game of subterfuge, as Lü Buwei had to discover. Before he could intervene, King Qian, who already suffered severe paranoia following the Shadow Emperor’s takeover and the many suspicious deaths, had Li Mu executed. Enraged, Lü Buwei slew the monarch in return and animated the corpse with his life force to perform the necessary administrative functions to keep the city running. But the damage was done. A puppet master can pull only so many strings before he runs out of fingers, and commanding an army without the right puppets proved impossible. But the ancient glimmer of demonic evil would never give up and he still had one final trick to pull.
Veins of fire blazed across the sky. In unceasing waves, artillery bombardment descended upon the Zhao capital. Day and night, arrows fell like rain and burning projectiles of every kind pounded the city; setting it aflame and causing vast destruction. Yet the massive city walls stood defiant against everything the siege force could muster. Meanwhile, the citizens of Handan cowered in their homes, fearing for their lives; the will of their army had been broken since general Li Mu’s unexpected execution, and their soldiers were ready to abandon their positions were it not for the lieutenants still enthralled by Lü Buwei’s powers. In stark contrast, the Jianghu warriors could easily evade and deflect everything thrown at them and suffered minimal losses; their resolve was unbroken; still firmly intent on facing their sworn enemies of the Dragon Gate Sect and the Kunlun fighters—even after days of hell raining from above. In this apocalyptic scene, Lü Buwei’s condition was rapidly deteriorating, his ethereal self was barely holding on to his tormented flesh and the many beings dominated by his will were slipping in and out of his control. He never fully recovered from the orgolith blade that pierced his chest, the wound had destabilized his physical vehicle and formed more ruptures all over his body. Out of these apertures, his ghostly form was bursting like steaming vapor; a glowing ectoplasm that danced around his features with an agency of its own before rising and merging into the atmosphere. Outside the capital, Ying Zheng held his armies back from a direct assault. He was prepared to pound the city until it was reduced to ash and rubble, not daring to throw his men into the thinly disguised maw of death. On the twenty third day of the siege, an unexpected thing occurred; the massive city gate opened, and Lü Buwei emerged—solitary—his silhouette a miniscule fleck against the immense doorway. A strange sword gleaming in his hand, he moved daringly towards the Qin armies; approaching with great effort while pushing against his increasingly uncooperative flesh. On his torturous way, he lost a limb, but, as if it were nothing, he replaced it with a swirling mass of volatile vapor and forced it into shape with his demonic will. Evil had made his spirit a solid thing. Ying Zheng, in amazement at this display, halted the barrage of artillery fire, keen to see how this would unfold. With the uncanny sword in his ethereal arm, Lü Buwei spoke and his voice boomed in the minds of everyone within three leagues around Handan; it bellowed from inside each skull, drowning out thoughts, searing itself into the souls of those receiving it like hot iron driven into soft flesh. A taste of Lü Buwei’s real mental powers. Brutally it echoed from within each soldier, general, warrior, aristocrat and child; with all its ancient malice it challenged not the king of Qin but the scintilla of Hunagdi directly to a duel; to end it once and for all; fully knowing the dragon would not hesitate. Ying Zheng, with utmost confidence in his overwhelming power, weighed the challenge, while his enormous astral dragon form congealed into physical space above him. The spark of the Yellow Emperor had taken up the gauntlet, and in synchronized fashion, Ying Zheng’s eyes began to glow in unison with the spectral dragon’s luster—the decision had been made—and his muscles surged with preternatural might. He tersely ordered his men to abide by their positions while his chariot sped towards his nemesis. As he approached, Lü Buwei’s form grew, swelling into grotesque shape, struggling to accommodate the demoniac forces loosened within him, now towering over the king of Qin, thrice the size of his former self. The golden dragon swooped in from above with enormous speed, but the demon met the massive beast with its blade, slicing a deep gash across its right eye. With radiant light beaming from the wound, the dragon shrank back in agony, shrieking an astral scream that echoed across the hidden landscape of the soul. The serpent of light had underestimated the demon’s cunning. Angered, Ying Zheng drew his legendary Xuanyuan blade, his blood quickening. Lü Buwei raised his humming sword, unnatural light emanating off its unholy aura, as uncontainable wrath glinted in his eyes. With an evil writhing smile he mocked Ying Zheng, holding in his reconstituted hand one of the original six weapons of the ancient Demon King of the East—the “Witch Blade,” an entropic sword created by unspeakable acts of horror, forged out of the ashes of a hundred slain saints and other holy creatures. An instrument of such foul evil that it is seldomly crafted in the history of a cosmic cycle. Those killed by the entropic blade do not merely die, they are denied an afterlife; their essence wiped from the fabric of the cosmos, and their innermost being forever erased from existence. It was not meant for Ying Zheng, whose body was still the supreme prize, but for the spectral guardian and through it for the God Emperor of yore, in his high heaven. Through the eyes of the dragon, the king understood what this weapon really was, a soul killer—true death. Two crimson phoenixes composed of oozing blood materialized from the cursed sword, as hundreds of Jianghu warriors emerged from the ground, where they had dug tunnels in secret as the city suffered bombardment. The king was encircled, his celestial dragon engaged in mortal combat, swarmed by the blood phoenixes’ blazing talons. Lü Buwei’s trap had been sprung and the battle for the destiny of the Middle Kingdom erupted in full, echoing the mythical past, as infernal and holy swords clashed in vengeance.
Steel flashed and armor clanged as the blood of the slain poured. Dust rose ominously over the battlefield, shrouding the solar rays and submerging the carnage in the scarlet light of hell. Fearing greatly for his life, Ying Zheng’s men disobeyed their orders and stormed towards their king in a desperate sprint, spearheaded by the Dragon Gate Sect’s fanatical royal guard. As they scrambled towards their beset regent, the remaining Jianghu warriors swarmed out of the citygate with thousands of Zhao soldiers close behind. At the center of the battle, the king of Qin stood his ground defiantly against the overwhelming numbers; growling and baring his teeth, engulfed in a savage battle trance, the embodiment of the Qin warrior spirit. His blade was blazing silver; shooting forth with speed faster than the eye could see. His bones and blood were electrified by the spectral guardian’s energy, moving and striking with godlike levels of precision. Like wind, his sword strikes were carried beyond the Xuanyuan blade’s radius, dismembering and decapitating at a range that was physically impossible; scores of Jianghu warriors were felled before the death blows even registered in their minds and oblivion embraced them. While their comrades were sliced and sheared to pieces, the icy touch of fear began to spread in the hearts of the veteran swordsmen. Lü Buwei, in tow with his summoned avian demons, charged at the golden dragon, the only obstacle to usurping Ying Zheng’s mystically crafted body and towards total control over the Middle Kingdom. The dragon raged, thrashing and crushing with his giant frame, while his astral essence seeped in blinding light beams from the cuts inflicted by the frenzied abominations. When he was relieved by his royal guard from the ceaseless waves of attackers, Ying Zheng fell on Lü Buwei to the full. In maddened desperation, the Shadow Emperor struck back with the Witch Blade, tearing rifts into space wherever it sliced—another aspect of the cursed metal’s power. The tears hung suspended in the air as if ripped into an invisible fabric; through these shears in reality other worlds began to bleed in. Strange and alien places became perceptible; hellish realms of black suns and skinless fiends, mesmerizing vistas of unknown sensualities and colors, unbelievable landscapes of mind-breaking impossibilities. Astral beings leered from the ruptures in astonishment as some cracks in reality swooped up warriors and carried them away, beyond the boundaries of space and time to far regions of infinity; while others spat out their denizens onto the chaos of war, along with queer extra-planar matter. Reality was disintegrating as the battle reached a fevered intensity. But Ying Zheng’s blade would not be denied, and, gaining an opening, he leapt forward like a viper, piercing its mark. Lü Buwei had not forgotten the bite of Huangdi’s sword, yet it burned itself once more into his being. The psychic screams of the Shadow Emperor spread in shockwaves across the battlefield, causing heads to explode and erupt into gushing red fountains. His deformed body was shredded by the king’s shimmering sword and he destabilized completely. Falling on his knees, an amorphous, wraith-like vapor spewed forth from his shattered torso as a pyroclastic cloud bursts from a volcano. The corporeal form which served the fiend for nine centuries—since his former body was slain by the Duke of Zhou—had been annihilated. Its gorey pieces scattered across the field of battle with unnatural force. But the demoniac spirit endured, like it endured for thousands of years before. The ethereal tentacles of the writhing demon seized the nearest warrior, took hold and possessed him instantly, continuing the fight against Ying Zheng unabated. But Lü Buwei’s malefic spirit was too intense, the occupied body began to age and shrivel at an accelerated rate, after mere moments it had been reduced to a charred, smoldering skeleton. Only special bodies—very few existence on this plane—could accommodate the power of his erosive evil. The incandescent phantom began to leap between new bodies, using the Jianghu warriors as temporary mediums, before they were inexorably consumed by the terrible force of the Shadow Emperor. But the concentration of his mental dominion had been broken as this demoniac dance was unfolding; the remaining Zhao military under his spell were set free and regained their lucidity as if awoken from a dreadful dream; they began to abandon their battle formations. In their flight, they were cut down by Qin warriors and the entire Zhou army began to rout. Yet the Jianghu warriors kept pressing on. The Kunlun Clan and the Dragon Gate Sect fought with all the fanaticism their allegiance to Huangdi could produce, but they were outmatched in number by enemies of equal martial prowess; the battle inflicted a heavy toll on the ancient warriors but they would fight to the last for their god king. In the sky, the golden dragon seized a blood phoenix with his talons and savagely ripped its head off before flinging it at Lü Buwei; in the same moment of wrath, its twin dove deep into the dragon’s ventral side and ripped a large piece out of its ghostly flesh. The flying serpent raced like a meteor to the ground. The earth shook and many soldiers were crushed like insects. The wraith did not hesitate and went in for the kill, dashing through the battlefield in its stolen body, to deal the final blow with his soul-erasing blade.
The warriors on both sides no longer fought for their lives but their very souls. Pandemonium ensued as the fight between Qin and Zhao drew in denizens from other planes of existence, while the Shadow Emperor burned through more of his own men. Ying Zheng pressed through the battle chaos in the wake of Lü Buwei, who cleaved his path towards the felled dragon, cutting swaths of soldiers indiscriminately like ripe grain. In his rapidly withering flesh, the evil spirit raised the entropic blade and lunged at the mortally wounded sky serpent. In utter desperation, the king threw himself like a shield between the unholy sword and his supernatural guardian—the purest fragment of his forged soul. As the point of the blasphemous blade sang towards him, time slowed to a crawl. The metal made contact and pierced through his armor with little resistance, rending through muscles, fat and organs, before burying itself deep into his belly. Lü Buwei reeled back in fear at the damage done to his future skin. The king of Qin collapsed as the wraith withdrew his sword and arc of blood shot from the wound, an injury that could never heal. With Ying Zheng immobilized, he thrust his weapon—drenched in royal blood—once more at the dragon’s head. The Witch Blade drove unforgivingly towards its prey, and a mere hair’s width before the weapon split the dragon’s skull and erased it from existence—it stopped. A giant crimson hand had shot from one of the shears in reality and caught its advance at the very last instant. The enormous hand snapped the blade like a twig between its oversized fingers and the metal shattered into a myriad of coldly glittering shards. And with it, the remaining Blood Phoenix evaporated into oblivion. A titan-like, six armed entity entered our world through the fracture; behind it an entire host of demonic figures followed, carrying strange regalia and burned offerings in a religious procession. It was the myth of old, the ancient Demon King of the East himself. The wraith—in shock—rushed to escape the clutch of the giant demon, but to no avail; the powers of the dark sorcerer were insignificant to the archfiend’s might of which he was but a mere fragment. Lü Buwei’s frenzied rage against Ying Zheng had summoned his progenitor. The shreds in the fabric of space had blurred the line between life and afterlife, between this world and the beyond of the Astral realm; allowing the ancient Demon King to intervene and fulfill his oath to Huangdi, to protect all Huaxia people who had laid down their lives for others like his own children. But especially to protect the indirect scion of the Yellow Emperor for his act of selflessness, just as he had sworn. As the Demon King towered over the bloodbath like a mountain, an otherworldly silence descended onto the battlefield. The Qin warriors beheld in awe the being from ancient tale along with the host of infernal supplicants that swirled around him like hellish bees. Faced with an extraplanar invader of godlike proportions, the Jianghu warriors, already deeply shaken after Lü Buiwei burned through swaths of their own in total disregard of their pact, finally broke and fled the battlefield. In haste, other planar creatures departed the scene; tentacles and impossible anatomies not made for our space scurried for the embrace of their native realms. The Demon King then spoke strange words not meant for mortal ears, and in accordance with his oath, raised the most valorous warriors among the slain Qin and Zhao back to life; he healed the astral serpent’s mortal wound and paid obeisance to the dragon. However, the wound inflicted by the Witch Blade was beyond all healing, even for an entity such as he. Ying Zheng would have to carry it, and its deteriorating effect, for the rest of his shortened life. By the power of his will, the towering red giant sealed the holes in reality before turning his gaze towards the sky. He held the swirling, stormlike cloud that was the wraith in his hand and was about to devour it—assimilate what had escaped his will six thousand years ago—but Ying Zheng commanded the Demon King to leave his doom to him. The king of Qin invoked the names of old and with the authority of the Son of Heaven damned the Shadow Emperor, cursing him to eternal fleshlessness, to wander the earth like a hungry ghost until the end of time, with no substance and no power of his own like the shadow that he is, forever seeking and forever being denied to satisfy his obsessions, until driven mad and broken by inexorable gloom of impotence and hopelessness. Upon completion of the curse, the wraith cried out in despair but his shriek faded along his ethereal form and dissipated like mist into the twilight of his parallel nether realm; a hell appropriate for the evil known as Lü Buwei and countless other names since the dawn of history. Clouds thundered loudly and the voice of the Demon King boomed across the battlefield, renewing his vow to the Yellow Emperor. Cerulean lightning from Heaven struck the Demon King thrice, each hit stronger and more deafening than the last, until he vanished with a blinding flash along with his congregation of fiends, back to his infernal abode where he awaits the coming of a new aeon and the cleansing of his sins. The abrupt departure left the armies stunned. The Battle for Handan was over and the Qin, suspended between dread and awe, battered and bloodied, emerged triumphant once more. The sky cleared as the first stars of dusk glittered, and tentatively the warriors cheered their victory at first before erupting into rapturous hails to their king. Propped up by his loyal physicians, Ying Zheng gathered his strength to meet their elated shouts. To honor the supernatural intercession, leniency was extended towards Handan and the city was spared the intended wrath of Qin. A red sun sank below the horizon, and, with its descending course, Zhao perished from history. The great enemy had been vanquished and the realm was ready to be reforged into new glory.