The ceiling of the hall was ringed with paper lanterns, swaying as the wind and rain rocked the little wooden building to and fro.

They shone a soft, dim light on the people gathered below them. Just shy of three dozen men and women sat on the mat at the center of the room. They wore all manner of clothes—the roughspun cloak of the landed farmer, the leather boots of the traveler, the silk vestment of the successful merchant, and the threadbare shirt of the pauper were all on display—and all manner of uneasy expressions on their faces.

The nervous murmur was silenced at once by the creak of the wooden door in the front of the room, followed by the soft pats of silk slippers on the wooden floor as the Mandarin entered the room. Like all other Mandarins, she was tall, imposing. It would be proper to say that she “wore the Mantle well.” Her scales were a deep crimson, shot through with streaks of glittering gold, and the jet black surcoat of her station hung straight from her shoulders to the ground. Sewn onto the coat’s chest was a broad square, into it embroidered a blazing red-and-yellow torch.

Followed by her attendant, a sharp-looking woman in a forest-green tunic, she stepped onto the dais at the front of the room and turned to face her audience.

“Good evening.”

She paused. It was a formality—none of the poor souls before her looked to be in the mood to return the greeting—but it seemed appropriate nonetheless.

“My name is Lóngzhi. For those who have traveled here from elsewhere, I am the Prefect of the South Pass. I administer justice here on behalf of the Shining Emperor. But that is not why you are here. You are here because I am also a Torchbearer for the Huǒjù Jūn, chosen for my military aptitude and for the South Pass’s constant challenges with the Demon-touched.

“I’m sure it’s been a difficult few days for all of you. When you decided to take the oath of the Huǒjù Jūn, you had to say goodbye to your families and friends. You have had to come to grips with being, legally, dead. Many of you have had the bittersweet honor of attending your own funerals. You have been dispossessed of land and property, and your closest personal ties have been severed, replaced with the strange and distant reverence reserved normally for long-gone ancestors. And, as you all know, your difficulties are not going to cease any time soon. So allow me to extend, to you, a melancholy welcome. You are now the Huǒjù Jūn. You are the Army of the Torch, the fire that holds back the darkness.”

The Mandarin unfolded her arms and began to pace across the dais. Every eye in the room followed her.

“To your old family, you are dead. Everyone copes with that differently. Some grow to consider their comrades family. If you wish, I welcome you to consider me family—you may call me by my personal name, Zhi Zhao. We will have a lot of time to get to know each other over the next several months. I will see to it that you are trained, clothed, fed, and armed before you assume your final duties. And for as long as you survive this strange un-life in pursuit of those duties, you are welcome in South Pass to rest, and you are welcome to my counsel.”

Zhi Zhao opened her hand, palm upturned. Her attendant placed a wound-up scroll in her long, claw-like fingers.

“I should also mention that your duties in the Huǒjù Jūn may not be what you expect. Many of you have likely heard the famous ballads and poems of the great warriors of the past. And, indeed, these great works of art speak beautifully to ancient truths. But they concern themselves with grand battles, where armies thousands strong crashed against each other in battles for the soul of the entire Empire, times where the elite and noble Huǒjù Jūn saved all the Empire’s armies from certain defeat. And there may come a time when we rally the Huǒjù Jūn from every corner of the Empire to do just that. But until that day comes, you will work, day in, day out. You will range through the forests and in the valleys and across the mountaintops. Whether it is six, a dozen, or a hundred of you at a time, you will ward the darkness from the fringes and from the heart of the great Empire.”

Zhi Zhao began to unravel the scroll. Her golden eyes scanned the silent crowd before her.

“It is time to take the oath. Rise.”