Without warning, the darkness lifted, and the sky grew light. Cries of wonder and confusion came from all around, as Dixingren blinked or shielded their eyes against the unaccustomed daylight.
Changcheng glanced at Chu-ge, but he didn’t seem to share his people’s amazement. He looked grim. Changcheng swallowed nervously, and they ran on, following Lin Jing who was leading them to Chief Zhao.
“Here he is,” called Lin Jing, but when they rounded the corner, Chief Zhao was slumped, unconscious or worse, the Guardian Lantern burning on the ground beside him.
They halted as one—Changcheng, Da Qing, Zhu Hong, Chu-ge and Lin Jing—and Changcheng knew then. It was too late for first aid or to summon help. The only one who could have saved Chief Zhao now was gone too.
Da Qing let out a choked sob. Chu-ge bowed his head. Changcheng stepped forward, a part of him horrified at his lack of respect, the rest of him determined. Chief Zhao was beyond saving, but Changcheng could still pass on his last message.
But as he stepped closer, a gust of wind nearly buffeted him off his feet. The Lantern wobbled on the ground and rose into the air, to be joined as if from nowhere by the other Hallows—the Dial, the Awl, the Brush—all of them swirling faster and faster, creating a tempest that tugged at Changcheng’s clothes and hair. He staggered, nearly falling. Behind him, Chu-ge shouted a warning, but it was too late.
A portal opened the sky, light and terrifying, different from the ones the Black-Cloaked Envoy used to summon. Changcheng felt its pull in his chest, in his heart. It wanted to swallow him, it was choosing him.
Could he trust the Hallows? They’d caused so much harm, so much strife. They were too powerful to be trusted. But in the end, Chief Zhao had given his life to the Lantern, now hanging radiant in the sky, and Changcheng had to believe he’d done it voluntarily.
He’d take his cue from that. He raised his eyes to the portal and stopped resisting, let himself be dragged up and into.
He dropped awkwardly, flailing, onto Guangming Road a few metres from the SID, banging his elbow and knee as he landed. “Oof!”
The city was quiet, the sky either starting to lighten or fading at the end of the day. No, there weren’t enough people around for it to be evening, and there were newspapers on some of the doorsteps. It must be early morning.
He sat up and rubbed his sore arm in chagrin. Chief Zhao wouldn’t have fallen so clumsily and hurt himself; none of the others would have. Chu-ge would have managed a dramatic warrior pose, ready for anything. Why had the Hallows chosen him of all people? And why had they brought him back to Haixing alone?
The door to the SID opened, and Lao Li stepped out, picked up the newspaper that was lying there and took it inside. He didn’t see Changcheng, didn’t look around at all.
Lao Li? What was happening? Changcheng fumbled for his notebook so he could write down his observations to make sense of it all, but his bag was missing. The Hallows had stolen his diary! Okay, that was okay. He didn’t need his notebook. He’d managed without before, when Chu-ge had confiscated his old one and torn out half the pages.
Changcheng crawled to the kerb and sat down, put his head in his hands, and tried to think. Someone—Chief Zhao? Or had it been Lin Jing? Someone had mentioned time travel in the last few days.
It didn’t matter who. If Lao Li were alive, then either Changcheng must be in the past or someone had brought Lao Li back to life, and the latter wasn’t possible—it couldn’t be, or Professor Shen would have done it.
He was in the past. He could change everything, if only he knew the right course of action.
The city around him was calm and ordinary. A delivery van passed by, the woman behind the wheel singing along to music Changcheng couldn’t hear. No one was dying in the streets, but the peace that he’d used to take for granted seemed fragile and precious. Even the steadiness of the ground was something he could no longer count on.
Changcheng had studied economics at university, following in his father’s footsteps, but he’d never had much aptitude for it. (He’d never had much aptitude for anything till he’d joined the SID and Chief Zhao had entrusted him to Chu-ge’s training.) Nonetheless, he couldn’t help thinking the battle against Ye Zun—the battle to save everything that mattered—was the cruellest possible expression of supply and demand: they had won only by losing their strongest, bravest people.
(Changcheng was grateful beyond measure that Chu-ge had been spared, but even that gratitude was infused with guilt; relief felt unforgivable in the face of their losses.)
The point was, they had come perilously close to failure. Ye Zun had nearly consumed the entire world. And if Changcheng changed anything—if he stepped on a butterfly, or said the wrong thing to the wrong person—it could bend the course of history and undo their hard-won victory. And how would he know? How could he only make the right choices? He, Guo Changcheng?
His heart thumped at the responsibility. His blood rushed in his ears. If only there was someone here to advise him! He tried to imagine what Chief Zhao would say. What Professor Shen would tell him to do, if he were here. They were the experienced strategists. They were the ones who should decide whether to let their victory stand or intervene now in the hope of a better outcome.
They were the ones who should decide. But they weren’t here—not the versions of them who knew the whole story.
They had died honourably. Their sacrifices had been meaningful. Would it be selfish of Changcheng to undo those events, to risk the lives of millions for a chance of finding another way? Please cherish your lives, he’d implored the citizens of Haixing, but was it right to cherish their loved ones’ deaths, too, or to rail against their passing?
Chief Zhao’s and Professor Shen’s sacrifices weren’t fair. Lao Li’s death, Wang Zheng and Sang Zan—none of it was fair! Wasn’t that why the Hallows had brought him back?
But could he trust the Hallows?
He groaned in despair. How could he decide? He couldn’t decide. It shouldn’t be him who made that call. Leave it to someone wise, with perspective. Yes, that was what he should do. He would find someone with the authority to determine the fate of the world: the Black-Cloaked Envoy, the Chief of the SID, or Chu-ge who had lived over a hundred years and knew the world far better than Changcheng ever could.
Changcheng scrambled to his feet, resolved, but as he did—
The caged outer doors of the fruit and vege shop down the street rattled open, and Wang-ge the grocer, dark-haired and smiling, lovingly stroked Bai Suxia’s hair. “Will you be all right here alone? Won’t you miss me?”
“Go,” she told him, laughing. “Hurry, or the good pears will be gone before you get there.”
“I’m going,” he said. “I’ll bring you the best pears money can buy.” He ran to his truck, where it was parked down the street. The two of them were a picture of industry and innocence, of the ordinary life that was so important. The life that Ye Zun had wanted to destroy.
And suddenly there was no more doubt. Changcheng knew what he had to do. If it changed history, well, the SID would find a way. Maybe a better way. They would not fail.
It was what Chief Zhao would do, and Chu-ge might grumble, but secretly he would agree it was right.
Changcheng dusted himself off, tried to cover the hole in his sleeve from where he’d fallen, and limped over to greet Bai Suxia.
She was turning, about to go back inside, when she saw him. “Guo Changcheng! What happened to you?”
“I fell,” he said. “Su-jie, I—I came—” He broke off. He couldn’t tell her the truth. Even if she believed him, how could he say that she’d died? That her baby had died, and her husband had gone mad with grief? He couldn’t tell her that, and if he did, she wouldn’t believe him. “I hurt my arm.”
“Sit down.” She nudged a wooden crate into the doorway with her foot and waved him down onto it. “Sit! I’ll get the first-aid kit and make you some tea.”
“No, no, I’m fine. Please don’t go to any trouble.” He waved his hands to stop her, but she overrode him.
“We all have to help each other,” she said, disappearing into their apartment, her voice rising to be heard over the sound of water running into the kettle. “That’s what keeps the world turning, isn’t it?”
She was right. Chief Zhao would say the same—with an ironic twist, but he’d still mean it.
Bai Suxia came back with the first aid kit and kicked a plastic chair into place for herself, lowering herself onto it carefully. “Show me.”
Embarrassed, Changcheng peeled up his torn sleeve and displayed the graze on his arm. It stung when the air hit it, and even worse a few seconds later when Bai Suxia dabbed at it with disinfectant.
“It’s very early for you to be out, isn’t it?” she remarked.
Changcheng nodded, unable to speak. There was something familiar about this, an echo of his childhood. He didn’t have many memories of his mother, but of course he must have scraped his knee or his arm as a child, and she would have tended to him just like this. The thought made his eyes burn.
Bai Suxia and Wang-ge were going to be good parents. They would love their children and raise them well.
Changcheng swallowed. “You know, Su-jie, I heard there’s a shortage of blood donations in Dragon City lately. Have you heard that? Supplies at the hospitals are running low.”
“That’s terrible, but I don’t think you’ll need a transfusion this time.” Bai Suxia put a plaster over Changcheng’s injury and smoothed it gently in place. “There, all better.”
In the other room, the kettle clicked off, and she started to rise.
“No, no, stay here. I’ll make the tea.” Changcheng went into their small living-room, where the furnishings were worn but clean. There was a wooden crib in the corner, full of old toys and folded baby’s clothes. Changcheng made tea in the two mugs Bai Suxia had set out and brought the drinks outside, and they sat in the peace of the early morning, sipping their tea together and listening to the first chirps of the dawn chorus, while Changcheng tried to work out what to say.
“Well,” said Bai Suxia, emptying her mug. She clearly expected him to leave so she could get on with her day.
“Su-jie, I—I think you’re right,” blurted Changcheng. He didn’t know what would persuade her, and the fear of getting it wrong, of not saving her and raining destruction on the whole world—a world Chief Zhao had given everything to protect—made him wish the ground would swallow him whole. But there was no one else to speak out. It had to be him. “I mean, that we all have to h-help each other. That’s why we should tell everyone we know to donate blood. All our relatives and friends.”
“You’re a good person, Guo Changcheng.” Bai Suxia smiled kindly. “Your heart’s in the right place.”
Changcheng tried to answer her smile, but the compliment made him uneasy, as if she were brushing off his suggestion. “But will you do it?” he said. “Will you make sure everyone you talk to knows about the blood shortage. Su-jie, the life you save could be your own. Or your baby’s.”
Her smile faltered, and he panicked. He’d offended her. He sounded too urgent. He was doing this all wrong.
“My parents,” he added hastily. “They died in a car accident.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” She looked like she meant it. “All right, yes. Let’s make it our mission to encourage people to donate blood this week. I can’t, of course, because of the baby, but look—I’ll put up a sign, so all our customers see, and when my husband gets back from the market, I’ll make sure he goes to donate.”
“And your relatives,” said Changcheng. “Especially if they’re the same blood type as you.”
Her gaze sharpened, but she nodded. “All right.”
Changcheng let out a sigh of relief and stood up. He took both of the mugs inside and washed them. When he came out again, the first rays of sun were spilling down the street like honey, and she was still sitting there, her hands on her pregnant belly, a pensive look on her face. “The SID is a strange organisation, isn’t it?”
“What? Oh. Yes.” Changcheng stood in front of her and tried not to fidget.
“Sometimes I think the people who work there know—” She hesitated. “—things.”
It was almost a question. Changcheng nodded. It was true. Worlds he couldn’t have dreamed of before he’d joined the SID had all turned out to be real—Yashou and Dixingren, love that spanned centuries. Heroes prepared to pay the ultimate price to protect those around them. He thought of Chief Zhao, slumped in the street, next to a golden lantern flame that burned bright enough to light all of Dixing, and he bowed his head. “Everyone there is special except for me.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. I think you’re special too.” She was watching him. He could feel it. “I think you know things.”
He looked up and met her eye. “I do know some things.”
She nodded, and there was no smile in her eyes at all. She pulled her cardigan across the swell of her belly. “You should go now.”
She was right. There was nothing more here he could do. He took a step back and stopped again.
Maybe there was one thing. “Su-jie, would it be all right—I mean, I hope you don’t mind, but could I borrow Wang-ge’s brush. The heirloom one.”
She laughed in surprise. “What?”
“I can’t say why,” said Changcheng, “but it’s important.” If they could gather all the Hallows together now, that would give the SID an advantage, surely. Perhaps present-day Professor Shen and Chief Zhao could use the Hallows’ combined power to stop Ye Zun’s uprising before it happened.
Bai Suxia levered herself to her feet. “You’re welcome to it. They say the pen is mightier than the sword—and that brush has always struck me as downright dangerous! It gives me the creeps.” She went inside and returned a few seconds later with the familiar jade brush, holding it outstretched between her fingertips. “Here, take it.”
“Are you sure Wang-ge won’t mind?”
“It was his father’s, and I’m trusting you to take care of it. But if you took it away for a few weeks—or months—honestly, I’d thank you.” She lowered her voice, serious and conspiratorial. “I know I can count on you, Xiao Guo.”
He took the brush carefully—the jade handle felt warm to the touch, almost alive in his hand—and gave Bai Suxia an awkward bow. “Thank you for the tea. I’ll be going.”
He turned toward the department, his head fizzing with equal parts accomplishment and alarm. He’d acquired one of the lost Hallows, and he knew the location of the other. There was a very good chance Chief Zhao and Chu-ge were about to yell at him, and even more chance he would soon come face to face with his very own former self, a prospect that made him more than a little queasy. Either that, or the Hallows would open up another portal, and he’d be dragged somewhere else, presented with more impossible choices.
But until that happened, he was stuck in this time, where he’d made the decision to interfere, committing the SID to a new path, wherever it led. And it had to be a better one—it had to. He gripped the brush tighter and let himself through the SID’s front door. One thing he did know for certain—whatever came next, he wouldn’t have to face it alone.