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Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor
Table of Contents
About The Book
Zachary Ying never had many opportunities to learn about his Chinese heritage. His single mom was busy enough making sure they got by, and his schools never taught anything except Western history and myths. So Zack is woefully unprepared when he discovers he was born to host the spirit of the First Emperor of China for a vital mission: sealing the leaking portal to the Chinese underworld before the upcoming Ghost Month blows it wide open.
The mission takes an immediate wrong turn when the First Emperor botches his attempt to possess Zack’s body and binds to Zack’s AR gaming headset instead, leading to a battle where Zack’s mom’s soul gets taken by demons. Now, with one of history’s most infamous tyrants yapping in his headset, Zack must journey across China to heist magical artifacts and defeat figures from history and myth, all while learning to wield the emperor’s incredible water dragon powers.
And if Zack can’t finish the mission in time, the spirits of the underworld will flood into the mortal realm, and he could lose his mom forever.
1 How to Get Superpowers by Reading Wikipedia
ZACK HAD LEARNED TO STOP opening the lunches his mom packed for him in front of his friends. He didn’t eat them anymore either. He loved his mom’s cooking, but his friends always wrinkled their noses as if the pungent sauces and spices hit them like a physical wave. Of course they made a big deal out of how the one Asian kid in school had the “weirdest” food. Ugh, he hated that this was a stereotype.
“Why care what others say?” His mom had been baffled when he’d begged her to just make him sandwiches. “My cooking is way tastier than slices of meat slapped between bread!”
She wasn’t wrong, but she didn’t understand the problem. Zack had finally gotten a steady friend group after going to a different middle school than his few friends from elementary; he didn’t want to risk getting left out again. Yet no matter how many times he told his mom she didn’t need to cook him full-on Chinese meals, she never listened, because “where would you get your nutrition?” And whenever he’d come home with his lunch uneaten, even with the excuse that he’d been practicing fasting for Ramadan, her scientist side would activate, and she’d unleash yet another lecture about the daily amount of protein and healthy vegetables a twelve-year-old boy needed.
It was easier to just pretend he’d eaten them.
Ignoring the stab of guilt to his heart, Zack hurried down the empty hallway with his lunch box tucked under his arm like he was smuggling something illegal. He stopped in front of a row of color-coordinated trash bins and unzipped the lunch box. The smell of stir-fried green beans and beef slices heaped juicily over rice exploded through the air. It made his mouth water, and he couldn’t help but eat a few sauce-soaked pieces with the chopsticks packed to the side, but he stepped back as he remembered the smell might stick to his hair and clothes. Plus, he didn’t want someone to catch him eating near literal trash bins in a hallway. The last thing he needed was another reason for the other kids to call him weird.
He popped open the compost bin.
“Whoa, kid. Are you really letting all that food go to waste?”
Zack startled at the voice, so close it was practically in his head. It was deep and gruff like a teacher’s, yet when Zack looked around the hallway, there was no one else around.
He set his lunch box on the lid of the paper-waste bin and checked his phone. No sudden notifications or apps that had opened or anything. He dug out the other device in his pockets that could’ve made a sound—his augmented reality portal-lens from XY Technologies. He slid it on over his eyes. Its clear interface spanned his vision as a single long lens. Transparent neon widgets for stuff like the time, temperature, and weather popped up along the edges of his view. But he’d gotten no new notifications there, either.
“Hey! Do you play Mythrealm on that?”
Zack jumped. This time it was for sure a real person speaking. Though instead of a deep, gruff voice, it was another boy. Another Asian boy, coming down the hall with a shy smile. The shiny floor glistened like a path of light beneath him.
Zack couldn’t help his shock. This part of town was so white that he’d been the only Asian kid all through sixth grade. He wondered if the boy was just here for summer school, or if he’d stay for the fall.
“Who doesn’t play Mythrealm?” Zack composed himself and pressed his voice low, as he always did when talking to someone new, because otherwise the first impression they got was that he looked and sounded like a girl. Even short hair and baggy clothes didn’t help when he was so scrawny. Still, he smiled a little. He loved being able to make friends through Mythrealm. It’d been a long time coming. The game—and XY Technologies’ portal-lenses in general—had blown up about three years ago, but that had also been when he and his mom had to move out of New York because she could no longer afford it, so she couldn’t afford to get him a portal-lens then either. Mythrealm did have a phone app version, but the controls were much more cumbersome, so nobody wanted to play with the kid who had to use their phone exclusively. Only after Zack’s mom had surprised him with a portal-lens on his birthday last year had he finally been able to play for real, make friends through it, and even earn a little money from trades on the secondary market—which was how he could afford to buy school lunches every day instead of eating what his mom had packed. “I’m even on the school team,” Zack added. “That’s why I’m here. Get some classes outta the way in summer, and there’s more time to prep for tournaments in the fall.”
“That’s awesome! Wanna add each other?” the boy said while opening the Mythrealm app on his phone. His accent sounded like Zack’s mom’s, which meant he was probably also from mainland China, speaking Mandarin Chinese as a first language.
Zack’s excitement slowed into caution, as it always did when he met another kid from China. There was a chance that politics would get between them, considering that Zack’s mom had to flee with him from the Chinese government when he was just a baby. Most Westerners thought of Chinese people as all having the same background and same beliefs, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Zack was often frustrated that English labeled them all as “Chinese,” while in Mandarin there was a clear difference between Huárén, someone of Chinese descent, and Dàlùrén, someone from mainland China. Huárén had been migrating all over the world for centuries, maybe millennia. Back in New York, his mom’s Chinese friends had been mostly from Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and other Southeast Asian countries—those who were Huárén but not Dàlùrén, and thus were more likely to be as against the mainland Chinese government as she was.
It wasn’t that Zack had to stay away from all fellow mainlanders. After all, his mom had friends from there, too. But he first had to figure out if the boy was gung-ho about the Chinese government—the way some kids here believed the American government was all good and powerful without questioning it—before getting too close to him. It was an awkward question to ask right away, though, so Zack just flashed a hopefully natural-looking smile and opened his own Mythrealm profile on his portal-lens, which was connected to his phone app.
“So you’re Zachary Ying, right?” The boy held up the friending QR code on his phone screen. “I’m Simon Li.”
“How’d you know my name?” Zack frowned as he pointed a finger beneath the code, which made his portal-lens scan it. A thin neon square closed around the code and flashed, then Simon’s profile popped up in Zack’s view. He tapped the floating friend-request button.
“A teacher told me!”
Zack blinked fast. He didn’t know how to feel about that. He could guess what had happened—Simon must’ve dropped into summer school for some August classes, and a teacher must’ve told him to find Zack, as if they should automatically be friends just because they were both Chinese. It was another sharp reminder that when people looked at Zack, Chinese was all they saw. Ha-ha, of course the two Asian kids found each other, he could already imagine the other kids saying.
A familiar exhaustion weighed down on Zack. He was tired of being singled out because of how he looked, which had gotten so much worse after moving to Maine. Back in New York, people were so diverse that his race was hardly a huge deal, but here, it was like he walked with a glaring sign saying FOREIGNER. He didn’t get it. He was as American as any other kid in his classes. He couldn’t even speak Mandarin besides a few basic phrases. Why couldn’t people see past his face?
“So is your family name the same Ying as the First Emperor’s?” Simon turned his phone back toward himself. His thick bangs seriously needed trimming; they were so long that they basically hid his eyes.
“The what?” Zack took off his portal-lens and smoothed out his own hair, which his mom always complained was too messy.
“The First Emperor of China. Everyone calls him by his title, Qin Shi Huang, but his real name was Ying Zheng. Is your Ying the same as his Ying? I mean, there are a couple of different family names that are read as Ying, but his is really rare. ’Cause, you know, most of his kids were killed when his dynasty fell. But if your Ying is his Ying, you’re probably from a surviving lineage!”
“What are you talking about?” Zack’s own last name didn’t sound like a real word anymore.
Well, it never sounded like a real word. He had no idea if it meant anything. Besides, he hated it. He’d been teased all his life about how it made his name sound like a verb. Zacharying. Past definitions included “running out of breath faster than anyone else in gym,” “acting like a girl when you’re a boy,” and, of course, “bringing weird food to school.”
“You don’t know who the First Emperor of China is?” Simon recoiled. “Wow, what is going on in American schools? He, like, invented China! That’s a big deal, even for world history! By 221 BCE, he had conquered the Seven Warring States and declared himself—”
Oh God. This was too much. Ha-ha, of course the two Chinese kids are nerding out about ancient Chinese history together, Zack imagined other kids saying again.
“Listen, uh”—he cut Simon off—“speaking of history, I actually have that class right now. And I told the teacher I’d only be at the bathroom for a little while. I’ll see you around, okay?”
“Oh. Okay.” Simon whipped his bangs out of his eyes, which caught the gleam of his phone screen. “You should search up the First Emperor of China, though. He’s pretty cool. I’ll send you a link!”
“All right. Thanks.” Zack snatched his lunch box off the paper-waste bin lid.
“Wait, were you gonna throw that food out?” Simon pointed.
“What?” Zack laughed a little too stiffly. He slapped the compost bin shut. “Of course not. I was throwing… something else out.”
“Kid, you care way too much about what other people think.”
Zack jolted, then looked around as cold sweat broke under his shirt and jeans. That voice definitely didn’t come from his phone or portal-lens.
“What’s wrong?” Simon’s gaze turned weirdly piercing.
“Um. Nothing. Just… bye.” Zack shuffled away.
When he passed the bathroom, he briefly thought of flushing his lunch down a toilet, but he couldn’t stomach the idea of doing that to his mom’s cooking. At least compost went somewhere valuable. Or so he told himself.
Maybe the voice was his conscience.
But since when were consciences so loud?
Once Zack got back to history class, he sat down with his friends to continue their project on Alexander the Great.
“Welcome back. Had fun?” quipped Aiden from across the small round table, twirling his tablet pen with a lazy grin. He was the captain of their Mythrealm team, and Zack’s heart had an embarrassing tendency to beat faster around him. Not only was Aiden absurdly tall, his short blond hair was always impeccably styled.
“I got held up by this random new Chinese kid, actually,” Zack muttered, averting his gaze from Aiden’s pale blue eyes. “You guys heard anything about him?”
“Why are you asking us? You’re the one who’s also Chinese,” said Trevor, another member of their Mythrealm team. He had shaggy brown hair and wore the same weatherworn hoodie year-round. Or maybe it was two twin hoodies that he switched around. Theories differed.
“That doesn’t mean I know anything about him!” Zack spluttered. “That’s why I’m asking!”
Trevor’s hands shot up in defense. “Sorry. Don’t sue me.”
Zack tensed back a sigh, not wanting to seem so sensitive that he’d get offended at a single comment. After checking to make sure Ms. Fairweather was busy helping another group, he scrolled on his phone under the table. Simon had already sent him a message on Mythrealm and a link to an article about the First Emperor of China. “This kid’s kind of intense. He said a whole bunch of stuff about some emperor and made me add him on Myth—whoa.”
“What?” Trevor peeked over at Zack’s phone, which was open to Simon’s Mythrealm profile. It showcased six favorite virtual myth creatures in Simon’s collection, visible to friends only. All of them were maxed rank and extremely rare.
Trevor’s jaw dropped as well. “Is that an Exalted level ten hydra?” he exclaimed, drawing looks from a nearby table. “And an Exalted level ten Chinese dragon?”
Zack shot a nervous glance at Ms. Fairweather, ready to pocket his phone. Luckily, she didn’t seem to have heard.
“Are you serious?” Aiden snatched the phone from Zack. “Dude, I’ve been needing an Exalted version of that! How much is it worth now?”
Trevor did a quick search on his own phone, then looked up with a mind-blown expression. “About two thousand dollars on Mythrealm Exchange.”
“No way that kid could’ve caught all these on his own.” Aiden’s wide eyes reflected the glow of Zack’s phone. “His family must be rich!”
“Well, duh, he’s an international student.” Trevor shrugged in almost a defeated way. “They’re all rich.”
“Zack isn’t rich,” Aiden said. “His mom works at Target.”
Heat scorched Zack’s ears, but he tried to keep his tone unbothered. “I’m not an international student. And my mom works at UMaine, too.”
“Well, my sister says these crazy rich Asians are all over UCLA, wearing Supreme and driving BMWs and Porsches.” Trevor huffed. “More like University of Caucasians Lost among Asians.”
Aiden choked out a laugh. “You are so not allowed to say that.”
“We’re friends with Zack! We get a pass, right?” Trevor nudged an elbow at Zack, grinning.
“Uh—” Zack didn’t know how to answer that. He just reached to take his phone back.
“Dude, you need to actually become this kid’s friend.” Aiden waved the phone in a way that prevented Zack from getting it. “You gotta borrow this dragon for me.”
Zack drew his hand back as casually as possible so he wouldn’t seem desperate for his phone. Aiden would prank him by keeping it longer if he sensed it.
“Ugh, you weakling. These boys are no true friends.”
Zack sucked in a sharp breath. What was that voice? How was it speaking right in his head?
“Zack?” Aiden leaned closer. “Did you hear me?”
“Oh, um…” Zack hesitated. Whenever Aiden said “borrow,” he never meant the part where you gave the thing back. A few months ago, when walking near a pond with Mythrealm open on his portal-lens, Zack had captured a super-rare level 5 boto, a shape-shifting dolphin from South American myth. The next day, Aiden had “borrowed” it. He still had it. “Come on,” Zack said. “He’s never gonna let me borrow a two-thousand-dollar creature.”
“If his parents are letting a twelve-year-old—is he also twelve?—have that, that amount of money is obviously nothing to his family. Besides, it’s not like we could lose it.”
“You already have a level ten Chinese dragon, Aiden. It does the same thing.”
Exalted Mythrealm creatures were only different aesthetically, having a fancier design that spawns with a one-in-ten-thousand chance.
“But it’s not Exalted. Look, I’m running my Water-type roster for the next regionals. If you don’t get this for me, my Chinese dragon will be my only creature that’s plain.”
“No one’s gonna expect you to have an Exalted one,” Zack pleaded. Unlike Western dragons, Chinese dragons controlled water, not fire, and were by far the most powerful Water-type creature in Mythrealm—and thus rarer than rare.
“But imagine their faces if I do show up with it! It would make our rep forever.” Aiden stared into Zack’s soul with his striking blue eyes, making Zack’s skin grow uncomfortably warm. “Come on, dude. Be a team player.”
Zack bit his lips together. It didn’t look like Aiden was going to back down, and he didn’t want Aiden to hold a grudge against him. He couldn’t lose his friends and go back to being the weird kid eating alone at lunch. “Fine. I’ll talk to him.”
A dazzling smile broke across Aiden’s face. He pointed at Trevor with his chin, then bumped Zack on the shoulder. “We’ll come with you. Give you some moral support.” He placed Zack’s phone back in front of him. “Tell him to meet us after school.”
When Aiden said “us,” Zack didn’t know he meant them, Trevor, plus three other boys on their team also taking summer classes.
“Zack!” Simon laughed nervously in the looming shadows of Zack and his five teammates. They were at the school’s back entrance, right near the turf and running track. “Did you read that link I sent you?”
“Not yet. Sorry.” Zack scratched the back of his head. He didn’t like how it looked, them crowding around Simon, but saying something like Don’t worry; we’re not here to beat you up! seemed like it’d make everything worse.
“So, Simon.” Aiden slipped on his portal-lens. “Zack tells me you have an Exalted level ten Chinese dragon.” He strode toward the running track as he spoke, and everyone followed, equipping themselves with their own portal-lenses. Mythrealm players never wasted time standing around outside. They were always on the move, collecting the virtual creatures and in-game items that spawned everywhere.
“I—I didn’t tell him that. Not deliberately.” Zack adjusted his portal-lens to hide his guilty glance at Simon. “I just showed them your profile. Because of how impressive it is.”
“Yeah, it really is impressive.” Aiden peered sideways at Simon. “Listen, I don’t know how the tournament circuit works in China, but over here, we have a regional one in two weeks. I’m running my Water roster. I would really appreciate it if you would let me borrow your dragon.”
“Oh, uh—” Simon clutched the straps of his schoolbag.
“Come on. You’d be doing me a huge favor.”
“Um…” Simon stopped walking, shoes scuffing the red-paved track. “That dragon is pretty important to me. I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable lending it out.”
Aiden halted as well, spinning toward Simon with his hands in his jean pockets. “Relax, we’ll give it back right after.”
Simon glanced up at the group. He was taller than Zack, but shorter than Zack’s five teammates, so they seemed to be bearing down on him. Just when he looked about to stutter out something else, he suddenly squeezed his eyes shut as if hit with a wave of pain. A strong wind blew over, rustling everyone’s hair and skimming a raindrop across Zack’s portal-lens. Zack flinched, but the material of the lens was so water-resistant that moisture slid right off, and no water mark lingered.
When Simon opened his eyes again, there was something completely different about him.
“I’m not giving you my dragon,” he snapped with shocking force. He raised his chin and straightened his back. His stare turned as sharp as knife edges under his thick bangs.
Aiden bristled. Zack exchanged bewildered looks with the others, relieved to find he wasn’t the only one who had noticed Simon’s change. As the wind blew Simon’s hair out of his eyes, he looked strangely familiar, yet Zack couldn’t figure out from where.
Aiden recovered and said, “Why? Are you actually coming to the regionals with the dragon or something?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Simon said. “You’re not getting the dragon, and that’s that.”
Chills shivered across Zack’s shoulders. He was awed by Simon’s audacity, the confidence he was summoning despite being surrounded by six other boys. Where had it come from? More and more raindrops plummeted from the sky, streaking across Simon’s portal-lens, yet he didn’t even blink.
A scowl scrunched up Aiden’s face, then he relaxed his expression and leaned down slightly. “Are you staying here past the summer? Wouldn’t you want to join our team?”
Zack had never heard someone “chuckle” in real life, but Simon made a sound pretty close to how villains did it in movies. “Team? This game isn’t even played in teams. You call yourself a team because you pool your resources and knowledge. I have more of that than all of you combined. Why would I downgrade?”
“Wow!” Aiden lurched back. “Didn’t think you’d be such an arrogant little jerk.”
Simon laughed again. “It’s just a silly game. Don’t take it so seriously.”
Lightning flashed across the school grounds, glinting in Simon’s eyes. Aiden’s fists clenched. Panic burst through Zack’s chest.
He darted in front of Simon just as the shove from Aiden came. Aiden’s palm smashed into Zack’s collarbone, jarring him against Simon. Simon stumbled a step back, steadying Zack by his shoulders.
“Dude, stop!” Zack said to Aiden, surprising himself with how firm he sounded. Fear instinctively recoiled into him, but a few murmurs of agreement from his other teammates gave him the courage to go on. “If he doesn’t want to give us the dragon, he doesn’t have to. This is going too far. You’re making the team look bad.”
“No, you’re making the team look bad.” A wild intensity bloomed in Aiden’s eyes. “You’ve always made it look bad. I never wanted you on it!”
Before Zack could process the shock of hearing that, thunder crashed and rumbled in the distance. Aiden snatched Zack by the arm.
“Give me that dragon!” Aiden shouted at Simon while shaking Zack. His grip was so painful that Zack gasped, terrified that his bones might actually break. “Transfer it to my account right now, or I’ll hurt him!”
Variations of “Whoa, man!” erupted from their teammates. Trevor made a grab for Aiden’s elbow.
“Stay out of this!” Aiden smacked Trevor with his free arm.
Trevor went sailing out of the track. He landed in the inner turf with a thud and a scream of pain.
Zack was so stunned he couldn’t breathe. The cries of his three other teammates reached him distantly, as if through a tunnel. They ran to help Trevor while casting horrified glances over their shoulders. Another flash of lightning blanched their faces. It was now raining so thickly that the tips of Zack’s hair plastered to his scalp. He didn’t understand what was going on. No matter how much of a jerk Aiden could be, he would never do this.
This wasn’t him.
“You have ten seconds!” Aiden yelled at Simon, fingers crushing Zack’s arm. A yelp shot out of Zack’s throat.
Simon said nothing. He stared intently at Zack, as if expecting something to happen.
“Dragon! Now!” Aiden kept demanding.
“Zack,” Simon said, deathly calm, “in 221 BCE, the First Emperor of China unified the Seven Warring States and founded the Qin dynasty, the first imperial dynasty of—”
Aiden twisted Zack’s arm. Zack screamed. How could Simon be rambling about Chinese history right now? “What are you—”
Zack choked on his words upon catching sight of Aiden’s face in his periphery.
Aiden’s eyes were glowing completely fluorescent green, and a Mythrealm tag hovered beside his face.
A malevolent creature of greed with the body of a goat, the fangs of a tiger, the hands of a human, and eyes under its armpits. It will eat whatever it sees, even if it means stuffing itself to death.
No matter how Zack moved his head, the tag’s indicator ring encircled Aiden’s rain-splattered face. Not only that, but an energy meter trailed above the tag. And Zack’s own energy meter appeared at his bottom right. Just like the interface during a Mythrealm battle.
Simon went on in a rush of words. “The Qin dynasty set up a government system that’d be used for the next two thousand years. The First Emperor built the Great Wall and the Terra-Cotta Army, and—”
With an almost animalistic howl, Aiden switched his grip from Zack’s arm to Zack’s neck, lifting him into the air. Zack screamed again while kicking uselessly against Aiden’s legs. What were the others doing? Were they just standing on the turf and gawking? Zack tried to pry at Aiden’s grasp, but his strength was pathetic compared to Aiden’s. It had always been.
If only Zack were stronger. If only.
Simon let out an exasperated sigh. “Zack, click the link I sent you!” he yelled over Zack’s shrieking while taking out his phone.
A new message from him popped up on Zack’s portal-lens.
Simon Li: READ IT.
Wheezing, Zack double-tapped the air where the transparent notification appeared. It opened to his chat history with Simon. He aligned his finger with the link and tapped again. A webpage flew open on his portal interface.
Qin Shi Huang, birth name Ying Zheng, was the first emperor of a unified China. He was born in 259 BCE—
As he skimmed the summary, something happened to him. His senses retreated into himself, as if plunging into water. Aiden and the whole chaos of the situation faded to darkness. A shadowy figure in heavy black robes appeared in Zack’s mind.
“Finally! Be my mortal host, boy, and I will do everything in my power to grant you your greatest desire,” the figure said in the same low, gruff voice Zack had heard earlier. “So, tell me: What is the one thing you wish most direly for?”
Aiden may have faded out of Zack’s awareness, but Zack’s heart still thrashed with panic. “I want to be stronger,” he blurted. “Make me stronger!”
The figure burst into echoing laughter, then rushed at Zack like howling wind. “That’s what I like to hear!”
Before Zack could scream again, reality blew back into his senses. But everything was dimmer, duller. Aiden was still clutching him by the neck, yet Zack’s arms hung limp at his sides. He couldn’t move them.
Zack heard a growl rip out of his own throat, even though he’d had no intention of making a noise like that. A string of words that sounded vaguely Chinese, but not any dialect Zack recognized, rasped from his mouth. In his utter confusion, he caught how his energy meter dropped a huge chunk.
Then everything slowed down.
In vivid detail, Zack saw the deepening grooves of Aiden’s contorting expression, the lashing of his tongue, and the individual flecks of spittle flying out of his mouth.
As if controlled by someone else, Zack’s arms shot up at normal speed and wrenched Aiden’s fingers from his neck. When Zack dropped to the ground, the rainwater under his soles splashed out from the red track in slow motion, like two watery crowns. He tried to turn and run, but his body still wouldn’t respond. It cleared a distance from Aiden with several backward steps, then the flow of time coursed back to normal like a restarted train. Aiden looked disoriented for a second, grasping at the air where Zack used to be. Then he snarled and charged toward Zack.
Zack’s arms swung out and slammed downward.
At once a storm descended.
A downpour of water struck the track like a million tiny bullets, wave after wave after wave, so loud he could barely hear Aiden’s hollering and so thick he could barely see their teammates freaking out on the turf. Everyone else was drenched within seconds, yet Zack remained dry. The rain swerved around him like a wet, ghostly aura. He felt his fists clench and curl upward, as if lifting two heavy dumbbells. The ground water swirled up like a twister around him.
Zack’s mind went blank except for one thing: Unlike Western dragons, Chinese dragons controlled water, not fire.
To his rising horror, a network of black lines darkened across his arms. Like veins, except straighter and more angular. Despite not getting wet, a coldness seeped into his bones. His energy meter drained steadily. His hands drew inward with a massive effort he only faintly felt, then made the motion of throwing a baseball.
The frothy twister of water around him hurtled toward Aiden as a single shooting stream. It splattered on and on into Aiden’s chest, making him stagger and stumble.
Zack’s body stepped forward calmly. Bolts of lightning shot down around him as he walked, each coming with an earth-shaking clap of thunder, charring craters into the track. The air practically hummed, charged with the smell of burning rubber. His every hair rose on its end.
What the heck is happening?
All Zack wanted to do was scream and run and hide, yet his body refused to obey. His black-lined fingers splayed to the sides. The rainstorm gathered into orbs of churning water beneath his palms.
His hands slammed the orbs together and thrust the combined water forward. It caught Aiden’s head and trapped it, swirling around it like a sphere of liquid glass. Flailing, Aiden tripped over his own feet and fell. He rolled over the wet track and onto the turf, but the water wouldn’t let his head go. His energy meter dropped rapidly.
Fresh terror surged through Zack.
Stop! he tried to yell, but the sound wouldn’t come out anywhere. His black-lined hands extended before him like claws, moving in circles that matched the water sphere’s motion. Aiden grasped for his throat, hands splashing into the water, but it was useless. His energy meter drained to its last quarter.
Zack had a bad feeling about what would happen if the meter hit zero.
Stop! Stop it! He struggled for control over his body.
“Back off, kid!” came both out of his mouth and in his head.
The voice in his head was the same one that had been haunting him all day.
Zack was sure, then. He was being possessed. The voice was using his body to kill Aiden.
Be my mortal host, it had said.
Oh God, what had Zack agreed to?
He’d made a terrible mistake. This wasn’t what he wanted!
Stop! Stop! Stop! he mentally shrieked over and over.
His hands and the water sphere faltered a little.
“Kid, shut up!” the voice snapped.
Zack refused. Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop!
“No, you are going to—”
“Stop!” The word finally broke free from his mouth.
Zack swore his breath came out like black mist for a moment before the world sharpened. His senses crashed back to their full depths. The sphere of water collapsed, leaving Aiden choking for air. His energy meter stopped draining, almost depleted.
Zack’s legs buckled. His knees hit the wet track, his previously dry jeans soaking instantly. The storm weighed down his hair and drenched his skin like a shower. The black lines faded from his skin, and so did the bone-biting coldness.
Messages appeared on his portal-lens, having no sender’s name.
: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?
The rain leveled off to a drizzle. Dark green smoke curled out of Aiden’s mouth. It briefly took a monstrous shape before unraveling in the air. His energy meter vanished.
Zack’s breath came in short, hyperventilating spurts. He braced against the track, vision swinging, nausea tiding in his belly.
Another message came. But this time it bore a name.
Qin Shi Huang: YOU TRULY DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’VE DONE, BOY.
Reading Group Guide
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Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor
By Xiran Jay Zhao
About the Book
Hui Chinese American and gamer Zachary “Zack” Ying is doing everything he can to fit in at his small-town Maine school. Who needs to learn about one’s heritage when you’ve got to focus on making friends, right? When his life suddenly turns upside down, Zack realizes exactly how wrong he was. It is precisely that missing cultural knowledge he’ll need to win a race against time and seal the newly leaking portal to the Chinese underworld.
With the help of his gaming headset (occupied by Qin Shi Huang, one of China’s most prominent rulers, a brutal tyrant, and Zack’s apparent ancestor) and some new friends, Zack must make up for lost time and cram in all the cultural knowledge he actively avoided in the past. In this action-packed journey of a lifetime, Zack has got to heist ancient artifacts, dodge historical enemies, and save himself, his mom, and the rest of the world. Will our gamer-turned-hero be up to the challenge?
Prereading: Analyze the cover. What details stand out to you? What can you infer about the main characters or the contents of the book just by looking at the cover? Discuss as a group.
1. What are microaggressions? Discuss the microaggressions that Zack experiences in chapter one.
2. When you have labels, it comes with stereotypes and other assumptions. Both of Zack’s parents have been labeled “terrorists” for different reasons. Zack’s dad was labeled one by the Chinese government for speaking up against what was wrong. Zack’s mom was labeled one for wearing a hijab. Discuss why this label is dangerous. What are some other labels you can think of? How are these other labels dangerous as well?
3. After the fight with Aiden, Zack holes up in his room for hours ignoring a number of calls and communications from his phone and headset. How does he feel? What would you have done in his situation?
4. The characters in the book talk a lot about culture and identity. What are some cultural things that make up your identity? Who can you share that with? Who can you learn more from?
5. Upon arriving in China, Zack admits that he is not the “typical American, the typical Chinese person, [or] even the typical Muslim.” (Chapter five) Discuss why he feels this way. Describe a time when you felt different from everyone else. What did you learn from that experience?
6. Ethnicity plays a huge role in the book. Zack is Hui and Melissa is Miao. How does Zack feel when Melissa shares that she, like him, is also from an ethnic minority group? How can you tell that their ethnicity means a lot to both of them? Explain.
7. Consider this quote from Zack: “Whenever an empire or country pushed for everyone to be the same or to do the same, there were inevitably those who suffered because they couldn’t help but be different.” (Chapter seven) What are the pros and cons of standardization? Explain your rationale.
8. In exchange for being a mortal host, Zack, Simon, and Melissa each had a “wish” they wanted to be granted: strength, money, and fame, respectively—all things that the emperors would be able to help them achieve. What does each wish reveal about them as a person? What desire would you like granted? In small groups, discuss what it is, why, and how you can achieve it one day, even without a legendary emperor.
9. Zack is constantly unsure if he’s working with the villains or the heroes. Qin Shi Huang berates him for seeing the world in just black or white. Describe examples of moments when Qin Shi Huang and the group were heroes and when they were like villains. Discuss in a small group. What makes a hero? What makes a villain? Explain your answers.
10. It is clear from the beginning that Zack actively avoided his Chinese heritage in an effort to fit in. What are some examples from the beginning of his journey? How does that change throughout the course of the book?
11. Zack spends much of this journey constantly experiencing new and sometimes alarming things, very little of which makes him feel safe. What would make Zack feel safe? What makes you feel safe? Is it a place or a person or an object? Why? How important is feeling safe to you?
12. Wu Zetian says that the legends of the Eight Immortals were corrupted by people’s retellings so that they are not as pure or true as one might believe. How does this compare to myths and folklore from other countries? Consider Greek and Roman gods, but also think about other countries. Compare and contrast the Eight Immortals and other gods.
13. In a short amount of time, Simon and Melissa become the friends that Zack has always wanted to have. Zack understandably feels betrayed when he realizes who actually put his mother’s spirit in harm’s way. If you were Zack, how would you have handled the situation? If you were Simon and Melissa, how would you have convinced Zack of your good intentions? Explain.
14. The seal provided the holder absolute power and command over other people. Would you wield a power like this? If so, how would you use it? Why does Zack decide to use the seal’s power one last time and then no more?
15. Technology plays an important role in this book, but it can be used by people in good, neutral, and bad ways. Using XY Technologies as an example, discuss how it is good, neutral, and bad. What other technologies or tools can you think of? How are they used in good, neutral, and/or bad ways?
16. Explain what Jason Xuan wants to do with the same portal Qin Shi Huang and team are trying to seal. Are you Team Jason Xuan and the Yellow Emperor or Team Qin Shi Huang, Tang Taizong, and Wu Zetian? Explain your rationale.
17. Explain what happens to Zack when Fusu takes control over Zack’s body. What did Zack see while he was being possessed? How did it make you feel? How would you have handled the situation?
18. Time and time again, Zack displayed resilience and courage. Would you say that, like his original desire, he’s become stronger? Discuss examples of this. Why was he so willing to continue this mission even though it put him in harm’s way?
19. Qin Shi Huang was known for being the great unifier of China. Wu Zetian was known for being the only empress of China. Tang Taizong was known for ruling during the Golden Age of China. These legacies were built and stayed long after the person passed on. What do you want your legacy to be? What do you want to be remembered for?
20. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor ends with a cliff-hanger! How do you feel about this ending? Explain your emotions. What do you wish will happen in Zack’s next adventure?
Alternate Cover Design
Now that you have read the book, were your initial presumptions about the cover correct? How would you re-create the cover artwork to better represent your experience with the book? For extra points, draw or lay out how you would redesign it.
Fact from Fiction
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor features a lot of different Chinese legends and myths, from legendary emperors like Qin Shi Huang to other famous characters like poet Li Bai and assassin Jing Ke. Pick one of the legends featured in the book. Do a little research and read up on the character. Compare their role in the book to what you read online. Did author Xiran Jay Zhao do the legend justice or was there more creative liberty? Discuss with a partner.
Mapping the Route
Print out a minimalistic map of China. As you’re reading Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, trace the route from where Zack first lands in Shanghai to where the book ends in Xi’An. Of course, some of their off-land expeditions can be harder to track, but interesting to pinpoint, nevertheless! See if you and a partner can find images online that anchor you from the places in the book to these real-life places.
Zack doesn’t like certain labels that are put on him, especially since he’s not the “typical American, the typical Chinese person, [or] even the typical Muslim.” Discuss ways in which you label yourself. Which labels do you like and which do you not like? What are ways in which you and your friends label one another? What happens because of your labeling or other people’s labeling of you? Discuss in small groups ways in which you can speak out against labels and stereotypes.
Author Xiran Jay Zhao is an active YouTuber with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Their channel is dedicated to Chinese history and culture and, most popularly, how cultural inspirations in pop culture are presented. Find “Everything Culturally Right and Wrong with Mulan (1998)” on their channel and discuss, as a group, what you found to be interesting and three things you didn’t previously know.
As a group, come up with a list of ten questions that you would like to ask the author if given the opportunity. Choose a few and take to social media with those questions to connect with the author! Maybe they’ll even answer a question or two from your class!
This guide was created by Christy Lau, Senior Children’s Librarian at the Chatham Square Branch Library of the New York Public Library.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.
Why We Love It
“Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is voicey, action-packed, and laugh-out-loud funny. Plus, it makes learning about Chinese history a blast (never thought I would use the word “blast” to describe learning about any history, but here we are). I am over-the-moon in love with this delightful, hilarious, and heartfelt fantasy adventure.”
—Sarah M., Editor, on Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor
- Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (May 10, 2022)
- Length: 352 pages
- ISBN13: 9781665900706
- Ages: 8 - 12
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Raves and Reviews
Zach Ying has always had a hard time fitting in: he and his mom keep moving; they never have any money; and to top it all off, he’s the only Muslim Chinese kid at school. So when he learns that he’s meant to host the spirit of the First Emperor of China, he’s more than a little surprised. But a lot is riding on this: not only is his mom’s spirit hanging in the balance, but if Zach can’t seal the portal to the Chinese underworld in the next 14 days, the world will be overtaken by malevolent spirits. Oh, and the First Emperor didn’t properly possess Zach, instead attaching to his AR headset, which means Zach might have to find his own warrior spirit, something he’s pretty sure he doesn’t have. This is a creative, engaging story that will appeal to fans of ancient mythology and world history. The plot will draw readers in, but what will keep them is Zach’s struggle to belong, his journey to find himself and discover real friendship, as well as the highlighting of underrepresented mythologies. While the folklore and history might not be as smoothly incorporated as other mythological fantasies, it’s done well enough that middle grade readers won’t mind. VERDICT This new series will grab readers with its dynamic plot, video game lingo, and relatable characters. An exciting new addition to the world of mythology- and history-based adventure novels.
– School Library Journal, July 1, 2022
"Culture and technology clash as Zachary Ying takes adventure to a new level!"
– Kwame Mbalia, #1 New York Times bestselling author
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is an edge-of-your-seat adventure that has you laughing on one page and cheering on the next. Zach is a gamer turned hero who goes on an epic quest across the globe only to find his greatest strength within. More, please!
– James Ponti, New York Times bestselling author of CITY SPIES
"Jam-packed with humour, heart, and hijinks, ZACHARY YING is the Chinese history class you wished you had at school. Exploring diaspora and intersectional identity in between magical heists and mythical creatures, this book is a marvel. I am officially a Xiran Jay Zhao stan!"
– Graci Kim, author of THE LAST FALLEN STAR
"I started reading it and finished it in a day! There are so many things I adore about the book from the characters to the amazing and hilarious facts about Chinese history. It had me grinning all the way! It's a wonderful book, and I will be raving about it to everyone I know for a long time."
– Ann Sei Lin, author of Rebel Skies
Twelve-year-old Zack is recruited into helping the spirit hosts of ancient Chinese emperors in a dangerous mission.
Zack has always struggled with a sense of belonging. He is the only Asian kid in his mostly White town in Maine, and, as a Uighur Muslim, he is also a minority among other Chinese and Muslims. His dissident father was executed by the Chinese government, and he faces Islamophobia in the U.S. Zack has made friends through playing Mythrealm, an augmented reality game that uses a wearable portal-lens that spawns mythical creatures from folktales and legends from around the world. When a real demon threatens Zack and his mom is attacked, ending up in a coma, he discovers a connection to the spirit of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, that gives him magical powers. Together with the spirit hosts of two other former emperors, Zack travels to China in an attempt to save his mother’s life and prevent an otherworldly disaster. This science-fiction/fantasy mashup incorporates Chinese history and mythology into relentless action. Thrilling battles and chase and heist scenes are balanced with a droll sense of humor and quieter moments that explore Zack’s complex relationship with his cultural identity, including criticism of Chinese government policies that oppress Muslims.
Levels up legendary Chinese heroes and folklore into a thrilling adventure with video game appeal. (Fantasy. 9-13)
– Kirkus Reviews, 3/1/22
Zhao’s (Iron Widow) action-packed middle grade debut transports readers to a 12-year-old’s encounters with legendary Chinese figures who connect him to his personal history. Gamer Zachary Ying desperately wants to fit in outside the virtual world of Mythrealm, but as the only Asian kid in his largely white Maine town, he finds himself quietly suffering microaggressions and peer pressure to avoid standing out. Zack’s Chinese family is also Hui Muslim, a minority among other Chinese and Muslim people, but he knows little about his family legacy outside of his father’s execution by the Chinese government for speaking out against its "oppression of Uighur Muslims and other minorities." So when an attack on his mother leaves her soul in the hands of demons, and Zack is revealed to be descended from China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, he feels overwhelmed and unprepared. Things are further complicated when the Dragon Emperor bonds to Zack’s gaming headset, needing the boy to host his spirit. Now, Zack must travel across China and carry out a vital mission with the fate of the mortal realm at stake. Compact history lessons woven throughout guide Zack through the plot and into a greater understanding of his identity, while plentiful pop culture references root this fantastical read in the contemporary, making for a quickly paced book that’s by turns educational, reflective, and thrilling. Ages 8–12. Agent: Rachel Brooks, BookEnds Literary. (May) Correction: The text of this review has been updated for clarity.
– Publishers Weekly, 5/2/2022
Awards and Honors
- Kansas NEA Reading Circle List Junior Title
- New York Public Library Best Books for Kids
Resources and Downloads
High Resolution Images
- Book Cover Image (jpg): Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor Hardcover 9781665900706
- Author Photo (jpg): Xiran Jay Zhao Photo by Xiran Jay Zhao(0.1 MB)
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