WINTER SWORDSMAN

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CHAPTER 1

 

A cutting wind blew across snow-covered fields, sweeping away dustings of soft white crystals from icy sheets, three months in the making. The wind was cold—uncommonly so for the time of year. It was also not a natural wind, and the creatures of the land felt it.

The inhabitants of these prairies had seen cold like this before, and though it did not concern them, per se, they chose not to tempt mother nature. They hid away in the safety of their homes, burning log after log to chase away shadows.

Sometimes, the shadows listened, and other times, they grew bigger.

Asher only remembered one day as cold as this one—it was on such a day that he’d first awakened his talents. Back then, he hadn’t known the origins of these chills, or of the darkness that covered the earth like a dark blanket every Lunar New Year.

It was currently the year 2034. Planet Earth was doing well and was an objectively better place for humanity than it had been a decade prior. Technology had improved, and poverty had decreased. Renewable resources were now a large source of energy in most developed countries, but the rapid industrialization of poorer nations still worried environmentalists.

Yet despite these vast improvements, society was still ignorant. Not as a generality, but of something specific: Magic was real, and it always had been, if you knew where to look for it.

In the mortal world, Asher Beverly was a first-year student studying Fine Arts at Carter University in Boulder, Colorado. In the immortal world, he was simply known as Asher, one of the dozen or so disciples of Daoist Chilling Blade, and a junior member of the Sword Immortal Sect, which had expanded into North America due recent magical events.

Asher knew full well that it was important that the first group of people never become aware of his second identity, or the second group of people.

Secrecy was of primary importance, which was why, despite being able to travel faster on foot, Asher was currently riding a snowmobile through the frostbitten prairies, with all the winter gear that a proper mortal should be wearing.

Strictly speaking, Asher did not need the winter gear or any of the protective equipment. Beneath his winter coat and snow pants, he wore a pair of frost steel silk robes that would shield him from the weather. On his chest, he’d pasted an anti-impact talisman that would protect him in case of a collision. At his waist, he held an abnormally small sword, opposite the inner pocket where he kept his cell phone.

Northern Minnesota was a wonderful place in the winter, but Asher was here for work, not pleasure. He did not enjoy cutting through the Reeds family’s private fields, for example, nor did he like skimming dangerously close to their farmhouse.

But he was a professional. If you were going to imitate a recreational snowmobile, you did what they did. You made noise and pushed personal property boundaries. It was a game to see how far you could get until a farmer pulled a shotgun on you—not that they would ever do such a thing in weather like this.

It was just past six. A pale sliver of moonlight hung desperately in the sky, doing its best to stave off the encroaching cold and darkness. And thus far, it was losing, as it did every Lunar New Year.

It was a good thing that Asher’s vision was better than the average human’s, and that his spiritual senses made up for what he lacked. It was thanks to this non-physical sense that he was able to confirm the Reeds family was safe through his multiple incursions on their property.

Having completed his first objective, he circled around the property before stopping before a small, inconspicuous accumulation of snow. Any mortal would see it for what it should be—a snow drift, abnormally large, which for some reason they really didn’t want to get close to.

A flash of silver exposed its unwelcoming inhabitants: a group of six bone-white arachnids with sharp eyes that glinted in the dim moonlight. They were each two feet across and could kill and devour an entire human family in three hours, should they have that inclination.

“Snow crawlers,” Asher muttered, shaking his head. They were but the weakest of creatures. Normally, they were no threat to people and subsisted on wildlife or the occasional head of livestock.

But not on this day, the darkest of days, which transformed even docile creatures into serious threats. Asher wouldn’t risk it.

So he pointed, and a silver streak of light sliced into one of them like heaven’s judgement, cutting one of their pale exoskeletons down the middle. The remaining five spiders scattered but could not outrun the silver streak. It cut an arc through the second and the third before doubling back and mowing down the remaining three that were now thirty meters away.

Snow crawlers were not like normal creatures, so Asher did not need to dispose of their corpses. Their bodies disintegrated into pieces of ice and snow, which blended into the landscape to be scattered by the cold, cutting winds.

“The Reeds farmhouse is clear,” Asher said, pressing a patch on his coat. The patch was no ordinary patch, but a voice transmission talisman.

“The Lews farmhouse is clear,” another voice said, and two more voices followed suit.

The group of four worked quickly and methodically, eliminating any potentially dangerous creatures that found themselves too close to the region’s human inhabitants. It wasn’t safe on the prairies on this night, the coldest of nights, due in no small part to the fact that these people were traditionalists and would not be taking part in the Lunar New Year festivities.

At the most, they would keep their homes well-lit and make noise as they watched the Lunar New Year Gala. As much as they didn’t condone the new holidays, that would not stop them from secretly enjoying state-sponsored shows by all of the hottest celebrities.

Of course, it helped that the gala was the only thing playing on any channel on any TV, something that many people still vehemently denounced as government overreach. But in Asher’s opinion, it was safety first. These people just didn’t realize how much small things like lights and loud noises protected them on days like these.

He visited dozens more properties, and what he discovered worried him. The number of hostile creatures was abnormally high this time around. Was this year different somehow? Was this why it felt so cold?

Eventually, his path coincided with that of another snowmobiler, who traveled the woodlands in a pattern they’d practiced many times over the past few weeks.

“Nervous?” Asher asked Reynold, his voice piercing past the snowmobile’s high-pitched whine.

“Why would I be?” Reynold asked. “It’s nothing we haven’t reviewed and practiced.”

“I’ve often found there to be big differences between theory and practice,” Asher said.

“And I have only ever found that to be the case if the subject matter is approached with the wrong mindset,” Reynold said. “Hang on, I found something.” They both stopped in front of a mysterious-looking pile of wood, which seemed to have been cut and abandoned. Reynold held out a single finger and sent out a serpent of pure flame, which burned the pile alive as it tried to piece itself together. “Sorry, you were saying?”

“I just think there’s a big difference between pest extermination like this and what we’ll be fighting soon,” Asher said. “Am I wrong to think that?”

Reynold shrugged. “I don’t see it, but then again, I never have.” And given his character, he probably thought of the upcoming mission as a practical educational experience. Which it was, to be fair.

The duo continued along their route until they arrived at a meeting point closer to the dense woods, where they would be executing the next part of their mission. There were three other snowmobiles there—two with people on them, and one without.

“It took you guys long enough,” one of them said, pulling off her helmet to reveal shoulder length, dirty-blond hair and hard, golden eyes. “Are you going to strip, or do you need my help? I didn’t come here to play mother.”

The woman’s name was Elizabeth Loren, or Liz for short. She was their leader for this mission. Both Asher and Reynold had worked with her before and knew it was best not to irritate her.

They joined her and the fourth individual in stripping away their useless winter attire and packing it away in small bundles for later usage. Their mortal disguises were no longer needed. This left them all in the same blue cultivator robes that marked them as members of the same sect, but that was where the similarities ended.

Liz was tall and proud. She wore a long and broad blade on her back. Asher had tried lifting it once and failed—it was rumored to weigh over a hundred kilos, despite how easy she made it look to wield it. Reynold was a bookish fellow; he wore enchanted spectacles, kept a pack on his back filled with odds and ends, and had a multitude of colorful pouches on his waist.

The fourth member of their team, Edward, was a very handsome man. He had shoulder-length blond hair, which he fortunately did not keep in a man bun, as was the fashion in the sect these days. Like Reynold, he carried a pack and pouches, but his main weapons were his fists, which he kept wrapped up with enchanted bandages.

Asher was neither short nor tall. He had dark brown hair, a slender build, and always kept a small sword at his waist. And unlike the others, he never smiled, but no one ever gave him any grief for it. They were cultivators, after all, and everyone had their quirks.

Liz confirmed everyone was ready then pressed on her voice transmission talisman. “Talk to us, Kat.” She waited a few seconds before trying again. “Kat?”

Static answered her. Lots and lots of static.

“Stupid shoddy equipment,” Liz muttered. “We’ll have to assume she’s compromised. We’ll need to fan out but remain in sensory range. Reynold, do you have a ritual or something that could help? How about—” Her words were interrupted by a familiar jingle.

Liz’s left eye twitched as she reached into her robes and retrieved a familiar device. It was a smart phone, and it was ringing. Liz did not hide her disapproval when she answered the phone. “Kat, what did I tell you about using unsecured cellular devices to communicate?”

“To never to do it?” Kat answered. The phone wasn’t on speakerphone, but as cultivators, their senses were far sharper than normal human’s. “But what’s more important, Liz? Sect procedures written by a three-hundred-year-old man that grew up revering an emperor as a god, or mission communications?”

“She has you there, Liz,” Reynold said. “It’s probably technological interference again. You never know what could be causing it, whether it be towers sending waves through the air or random unshielded power lines…”

Asher coughed lightly. “I take it our cell phones aren’t helping?”

“And neither are the smart watches,” Reynold confirmed. “But the worst part is probably the snowmobiles. They’re completely unshielded and built cheaply because half the time they’re stolen.”

The irony of the situation was not lost to their group. Here they were, supposedly immortal cultivators, protecting the world from the unknown. They wore thin cultivation robes that were superior to tactical body armor, and wielded powerful weapons and Daoist spells. And yet… the budget still won out. It always did. Things would be so much better if the sect’s administration just bit the bullet and bought space on a secure satellite network. But such was life.

“Guys?” Kat said from the phone. “Are we on the same page? Phones are better?”

Liz sighed. “Yes, phones are better. I’m making a command decision. We’re ditching the talismans and using hands free.” Fortunately, satellite technology had come a long way in the past few years, and it was difficult to find anywhere without any reception. Batteries had also come a long way, so they didn’t have to worry about their headsets running out of battery.

“Truth be told, we’re probably better off like this,” Reynold said. “The phones are well-shielded these days and won’t interfere too much with our techniques. Plus, since we’re not using any magic, the Nian Beasts won’t even be able to sense us when we communicate.”

“I just wish I didn’t have to file so many damn reports for things like this,” Liz muttered. “Tell me, Reynold, why do we have three-hundred-year-old fogies drafting rules instead of someone competent?”

“I think Sect Uncle Tong made that rule one or two decades ago, actually,” Kat said. “His daughter got angry when he didn’t answer his cell phone once or something, so he banned them as a form of soft revenge. No one was ever brave enough to fight him on it, so here we are.”

It was generational politics at their finest. You saw it wherever you went, but things got real when cultivators were involved, because their lifespans were measured in centuries and not decades. And their memories were excellent, so they carried long grudges.

“Now back to proper business,” Liz said. “Kat. Report.

“Oh, we’re all clear,” Kat said. “I’m six point four kilometers ahead of you all and haven’t seen any Nian Beasts. I haven’t really seen any other animals either, so I think we’re in the right location?”

“You mean six miles?” Edward asked.

Shut up, Edward,” Liz said. “She means four miles, but she’s going to use metric, and we all are, because it’s 2034, and the entire world has been using metric for decades. Continue, Kat.”

“I’ve been sweeping out in a zigzag pattern from the treetops, and haven’t encountered any problems,” Kat said. “The conspicuous absence of normal animals and weaker monsters aside, of course. I don’t think I’ve been discovered—the Drifting Cloud Steps technique is silent, and my cloak should keep me invisible from most sentry-type demons.”

“Just make sure you don’t step on those trees too heavily,” Liz said. “Unexpected snowfall could give your position away.”

“Yes Mom!” Kat said. The banter was familiar and reassuring, and it reminded the group that while they, the four juniors, were on their first demon slaying mission, they’d been out on several lesser missions before.

Liz sighed. “All right. Since we’re setting off, I’m going to repeat the contents of our mission. This is probably the first real mission you have all been on, and by real, I mean unsafe and potentially life threatening.

“Our group’s mission is simple: Enter the wilderness neighboring the village of Ashton and cull as much of the local Nian Beast population as we can while this lunar year ends and the next one begins. We will continue until we slay twenty Nian Beasts, but have the option to remain longer at my discretion.

“This mission is perfectly achievable, given that you’ve all reached the middle of qi condensation, and I, as your leader, have achieved the first level of foundation establishment. Any questions?” Edward raised his hand. “Any intelligent questions?” Edward lowered his hand. “Good. Keep in contact. Keep safe. My second in command is Reynold, followed by Kat, then Asher, and finally, Edward. Edward, if you find yourself alone and in command… I recommend you run, but all the power to you.”

The four of them set out together. Kat maintained her scouting position up ahead, and Liz took point while Edward took up the rear. Reynold kept himself in the safest middle position because he needed time to activate his spells if they were needed. As for Asher, he also stayed in the middle, because out of all of them, he had the least ability to dodge, evade, or even defend.

There were only two words in Asher’s combat vocabulary: cut and kill.

 

 



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