Time slowed to a crawl. A strained, volatile silence settled over the snow-covered valley.
Tiny details stood out to Bai Qian as she studied Jinjing, her eyes never straying from his for long. Some of his weight was shifted off of his right leg. His right arm hung at his side in an awkward position. His grip on the sword seemed less sure than it had in the cave earlier when he had demonstrated its might to her.
The black dragon must have wounded Jinjing. But it would be a mistake to underestimate him because of his injuries.
Bai Qian waited to see what Jinjing’s next move would be. Her heart raced and her muscles were tense, poised on the precipice of action. She would be ready when he came after her and he eventually would. It was just a question of how he could do so without damaging her father’s heart. His glare told her he was furious with her successful escape and defense of Ye Hua. And that he was carefully debating how to turn the confrontation back in his favor.
A gust of wind swept by, stirring tendrils of her hair. The air was laden with the scent of the black dragon’s blood… Ye Hua’s blood. She could sense their pain and weakness as if it were her own. She longed to run to the black dragon’s side, to comfort him and Ye Hua and tell them that she would find a way to save them. That she would do whatever was needed. They couldn’t leave her. She wanted them by her side for all eternity.
Despite wanting to run to them, Bai Qian didn’t move from her protective position. She needed to find something she could use as a weapon but there was nothing available. Doubt began to creep into her. Even with Jinjing wounded, she needed a weapon. How was she supposed to defend herself and the black dragon without one? She could keep her magical barrier in place for only so long.
The white fox growled, reminding Bai Qian of her hard-earned strength and skills while breaking the tense, silent standoff that had started to unnerve her.
“How did you escape?” Jinjing demanded.
He snarled at her when she didn’t respond to him.
“No,” Bai Qian answered before glancing around for anything she could use as a makeshift weapon. There was nothing. Her eyes met Jinjing’s gaze again. “I already told you. I won’t leave him.”
A weak, ragged growl came from behind her. The black dragon was still conscious. A faint wisp of his magic reached out to her, dropping her fan and her brother’s dagger next to her feet. Ye Hua had brought her weapons and the black dragon had used what little power he had left to ensure she received them. Confidence and hope welled up within her.
A stream of demon magic swept by her as Jinjing tried to take the dagger and fan. Bai Qian summoned both, ripping them away from his spell. She stowed the dagger in the hidden pocket of her dress and transformed her fan into a sword, shifting the jar containing her father’s heart into one arm so she could hold her sword at the ready.
Jinjing sneered. “Do you think that sword will do you any good?” He swung his sword in a wide arc and took a threatening step forward. Bai Qian stood her ground.
“You can’t win, foolish fox. Your barrier will eventually fail. Your dragon is dying even as we speak. There is no way to save him. He has little time left.” He moved another step closer.
Bai Qian lifted her sword, looking down at the remains of Ye Hua’s where it lay cleaved in two. She started to wrap her magic around her blade to help protect it from the dragon talon. How long could her magic hold out if she had to shield both her weapon and the black dragon during a fight?
“Surrender your weapons and your father’s heart to me, fox, and I will allow you to stay by your dragon’s side for what little time he has left. You can ease his passing into the nothingness. Then you can stay in the Demon Palace as a guest instead of a prisoner while you help harvest the magic from your father’s heart for me. I will give you a position of power when I rule the Heavens if you cooperate.”
“I’ll never let you use my father’s heart for such an evil purpose,” Bai Qian shouted at him, his words infuriating her. “I’ll destroy it before I let you get your hands on it again.”
“I will find another way to get what I want then,” Jinjing told her. “You’ll regret not taking my generous offer.”
He readied his sword, striding forward. She didn’t miss his limp though he was obviously trying to hide it.
Bai Qian blasted Jinjing with a rush of power, catching him off guard and knocking him off balance. She poured extra magic into the barrier around her blade as she jumped back to take a defensive position closer to the black dragon. She never took her eyes off Jinjing, trying to gauge how long it would take him to regain his footing. She had only a few precious seconds before he would retaliate.
Intending to place her father’s heart in a safe place near the black dragon, Bai Qian wove a spell around the clay jar to better protect it before moving to the heart itself. The jar cracked when her magic touched the heart inside. Then the clay disintegrated into a powdery dust. Bright silver light shone from the heart, forcing Bai Qian to shield her eyes. What had she done?
Squinting, Bai Qian watched as her father’s heart disappeared to be replaced by a ball of pure energy. Warmth enveloped her as her father’s familiar magic washed over her, filling her body with his comforting strength and reminding her of how much he had loved her.
Tears filled Bai Qian’s eyes as she felt like her father was with her again, just as he had always been there for her when she was a young girl. It was an unexpected gift. And it encouraged her to face Jinjing with courage and strength in order to save Ye Hua and honor her father’s memory.
Bai Qian tightened her grip on her sword, using two hands now. Her father’s heart magic continued to swirl around her, condensing around the blade of her sword to form a strong protective barrier. Now she didn’t need to spare any of her magic to keep her sword intact.
“No!” Jinjing shouted, having regained his feet in time to see his plans made useless by Bai Qian. He stood there, watching her with a look of loathing and a deranged light in his eyes. “That magic was mine! It was mine.”
“The heart and its magic belonged to my father. It was never yours.”
“Give it to me, you worthless fox! If you don’t give it to me, I will take it from you. I will destroy you!”
“You can try.”
Without warning, Jinjing leapt at her, the talon sword held high with his left hand. His injured leg buckled when he landed but he stayed on his feet, swinging his blade toward her head. Bai Qian ducked. It sliced through the air above her. Bringing her own weapon up, she countered his sword when he swung it back down. She staggered back a step from the force but her father’s magic held strong, protecting the steel of her blade. She blocked Jinjing but didn’t have the strength to push him back when she tried to.
Jinjing snarled when her sword did not cleave under pressure from the talon blade. His furious expression changed to one of triumph however when Bai Qian again tried to shove him back so she could regain firmer footing. He leaned into the press of his weapon against hers, grinning when both swords inched closer to her neck. She struggled to push them back, the muscles of her arms beginning to tremble.
‘Don’t try to overpower a stronger opponent, Qian Qian. You will lose every time. You must be quicker and smarter than they are.’ Meixiu’s voice reminded Bai Qian of how she should be fighting this battle.
With a yip of encouragement from her fox, Bai Qian leaned back a little further before rolling away with the help of her magic. Jinjing lost his balance and stumbled forward. She darted behind him and took a swing at his unprotected back. Her sword sliced through his leather armor, tunic, and into skin. The renewed scent of his blood permeated the air, becoming stronger than it had been when she first confronted him. He growled with rage, spinning awkwardly with his injured leg.
Bai Qian moved in low as he turned to her and swung at Jinjing’s stomach. A dull clang sounded when he blocked her sword with his own. Again, her father’s magic protected her blade with a flare of power. She jumped back as Jinjing swung at her in a countermove, missing her by inches. She was always aware she mustn’t let his sword touch her skin.
He attempted to blast her with a burst of demon fire. She dodged the brunt of it, the flames just barely flicking along the skin of her arm, burning it with that strange icy heat demon power possessed. Her father’s magic flared and helped protect her from the worst of the damage it could inflict. She ducked under Jinjing’s followup swing, sweeping her sword along his legs as she stayed crouched. Her sword sliced across his shins. He howled with pain and rage.
Jinjing attempted to stab her with his sword but the angle to reach her where she crouched by his feet was closed in and awkward, not giving him room to maneuver well and allowing her to block him with her weapon. Still, the talon blade grazed the skin of her cheek. She gasped. Her father’s magic blocked the demon poison, keeping the cut from becoming contaminated with it. She shoved Jinjing’s weapon away from her, her heart thudding wildly from the close call.
When he reached down to try and grab her instead, Bai Qian dodged his grasp and yanked him down by his arm. As Jinjing leaned toward her, she rammed the edge of her palm into his nose with enough force to jam her wrist. It was a move Mo Yuan had insisted she practice over and over for close combat so she didn’t hesitate and her aim landed true. Jinjing’s nose cracked from the strength of her blow. He cried out, blood gushing over his lips and chin. He staggered back from her, dazed as he attempted to staunch the bleeding with magic.
Not wasting any time, Bai Qian leaped up and kicked out with both of her feet against his chest. She tucked into a ball as she pushed off him, flipping herself over to land, sliding for a moment when her feet struck the icy snow. A burst of magic helped her catch her balance. Jinjing was now on the ground.
She raced over to him, kicking his sword out of his loose grasp. She pressed the tip of her sword into his neck when he started to roll to get up. He blasted a stream of magic at her but she leaned out of its way. He was still reeling from the blow to his nose and it was a weak shot. He tried to push away her weapon.
“Don’t move,” she ordered him, breathing hard from exertion. Her whole body ached and her muscles trembled from the adrenaline coursing through her. The blade of her sword remained steady, however, as her angry gaze met Jinjing’s watering, pain-filled eyes.
“Ha… have mercy, Bai Qian,” Jinjing stuttered, his eyes begging her to spare his life. “Please. I wasn’t the one who killed your family. The demons did it. It wasn’t…”
“Shut up,” Bai Qian ordered, glaring at him. How dare he try to downplay the part he had played in the murder of her family and the destruction of Qing Qiu and its people. “You may not have killed them but you knew the demons were going to. Didn’t you?”
“Didn’t you?” She demanded he answer.
“Yes,” he whispered.
“And you could have stopped it,” she said, her voice soft, her tone cold. She realized she had no mercy in her for this treacherous man. “You could have saved my family and Qing Qiu but you chose not to.”
Jinjing didn’t respond. They both knew Bai Qian spoke the truth. Silence stretched out between them.
“I’ll tell you everything,” Jinjing said desperately, finally breaking the tense quiet. “Everything I know about that night in Qing Qiu. I’m the only one who can tell you what happened. And I can tell you where Weisheng’s body is. And which demons can’t be trusted… the ones who supported Weisheng’s idea of rebellion. I can…”
His hand suddenly latched onto one of her ankles with a growl, startling Bai Qian. “I won’t let you win,” he snarled, attempting to wrench her feet out from under her.
Using her magic, she held him in place while she regained her balance, not allowing him to take the opportunity to escape. He fought against her magical hold as she moved the tip of her sword from his neck to his heart. Her father’s magic flared and tightened the grip around Jinjing.
“No!” he screamed.
“This is justice for Qing Qiu and my family.”
She plunged the sword through his heart, his scream fading into a wet gurgle before cutting off altogether. She watched in silence as the light of life faded from his eyes.
Bai Qian quickly checked Jinjing’s pulse to make sure he was dead. Then she removed her sword from his body and grabbed the dragon talon sword so nobody else could take it before running to the black dragon. He was still and silent.
“No!” Bai Qian sobbed as she flung herself down to kneel at his side. She wrapped her arms around his great head, feeling how cold he had become. “No. Don’t leave me, Ye Hua.”
Her fox howled. The long, mournful sound filled the valley, haunting in its intensity. Bai Qian’s shoulders shook with her sobs as she hugged the dragon tighter.
“Qian Qian! Ye Hua!”
Bai Qian looked up at the sound of Zhe Yan’s voice.
“Do something, Zhe Yan,” Bai Qian pleaded, tears streaming down her face, as he sprinted over to her. Zhe Yan’s face paled, his expression grim, as he saw the state of his fallen friend.
“Please help him, Zhe Yan. It’s demon poison. Please do something. He’s so cold. He’s dying. I can feel it.”
Summoning a leather satchel, Zhe Yan used his magic to turn the dragon onto his side to better assess his wounds.
“Keep holding on, my friend,” Zhe Yan murmured to the dragon as he hastily cleaned the wounds and began making a foul smelling poultice. His motions were jerky as he worked as quickly as he could.
“He’s fading!” Zhe Yan yelled to her. “He’s fading. Keep him with us, Qian Qian! I need more time. Don’t let him give up! Convince him to stay with us.” He turned back to the dragon. “Come on, Ye Hua. Stay with me. Fight it. Don’t leave her like this.”
Panic tried to take hold of Bai Qian as her heart ached with the realization she could lose Ye Hua, that she could feel his death looming over them. But her fox stayed calm as she reached out with her cultivation, seeking that of the black dragon’s, reminding Bai Qian of the night Ye Hua’s cultivation had provided her comfort and love even though he had been in the Heavens and she had been miles away in the peach tree forest. A special, unbreakable bond connected her and her fox to Ye Hua and his dragon.
Closing her eyes and shutting out everything around her, Bai Qian pulled the peace of meditation around her like a thick cloak. She sought Ye Hua’s cultivation with strands of her own, scared when she didn’t immediately sense it. He was so weak, barely clinging to life.
Then she found what she looked for in the dark. The spark of Ye Hua’s soul along with that of the spirit of his dragon. While they usually blazed bright and powerful, they were both small and faint, on the cusp of being snuffed out completely. And there was another presence there with them… her father’s heart magic. It had been doing more than protecting Bai Qian during her fight with Jinjing. It had also been protecting the life of the man she loved, helping to delay the effects of the demon poison as best it could. Without her father’s magic, Ye Hua would likely already be dead. Her father’s magic greeted her cultivation before winding its way to her heart where it settled, a familiar presence that would be with her always.
“Thank you, Father,” she whispered.
Bai Qian wrapped her magic around the fading flames of Ye Hua’s and his dragon’s lives, protecting them, lending them strength.
“Stay with me, Ye Hua, my dragon,” Bai Qian murmured. “I love you.” They responded to her warmth and comfort, flaring faintly as she cradled them with her very being. The bond between them grew ever more powerful with her efforts until it became almost impossible to tell where her cultivation and that of her fox ended and theirs began. She didn’t know how long she stayed that way, keeping Ye Hua and his dragon there with her while Zhe Yan worked his medicinal magic to try and reverse the effects of the poison.
“Qian Qian,” a voice whispered softly. Bai Qian ignored it. “Qian Qian,” the voice repeated, more insistent this time, punctuating her name with a gentle nudge to her shoulders.
Reluctantly, Bai Qian pulled herself back to her own body and opened her eyes, feeling a bit disoriented at first.
It was Meixiu who had called her back. Deep in meditation and focused solely on Ye Hua and the black dragon, she hadn’t sensed Meixiu’s arrival. She could sense Mo Yuan there with them as well.
Meixiu had wrapped Bai Qian up in a wool blanket to help keep out the cold and she had one arm draped around Bai Qian’s shoulders in a soothing gesture of support. “I didn’t want to disturb you,” Meixiu told her with a sad smile, “but you were growing weak. And we need your help with something.”
“Ye Hua?” Bai Qian croaked, her throat sore from her earlier sobs.
“He’s stable for the moment,” Zhe Yan said, kneeling at her other side, “but I don’t yet know if he’ll survive. The poison had already done a lot of damage. Which is why I need him to take this.” Zhe Yan showed her a small bottle filled with a bitter smelling liquid. “This is the antidote I’ve been formulating. He won’t swallow it when I give it to him.”
“Will it save him?” Bai Qian asked, taking the bottle from Zhe Yan.
“I can’t make any promises,” Zhe Yan answered her, his face serious. “I haven’t been able to fully test it. But there’s nothing else out there that works. We have to try it.”
Bai Qian nodded and turned back to the black dragon. Mo Yuan was kneeling on his other side, his hand on his brother’s neck. He was speaking to the dragon in a soft murmur, a worried expression in his golden hued eyes.
Her hands trembling with pent up emotion, Bai Qian poured some of the antidote into the black dragon’s mouth when Mo Yuan had opened his jaws just enough to allow the liquid to fall towards the back of his tongue. She was careful to avoid his sharp teeth. “I need you to take it for me,” she whispered to the unresponsive beast. “Can you drink it for me? Please.”
There was no response at first. Then the dragon growled ever so faintly. Bai Qian could have jumped for joy at the sound. “Go on,” Bai Qian urged him. “Don’t be stubborn about it. Drink it.”
The dragon swallowed the liquid weakly and Bai Qian poured the rest of it into his mouth, encouraging him the whole time.
Bai Qian shivered as she finally noticed the cold snow seeping into her clothes.
“We need to get you and Ye Hua somewhere warm,” Meixiu told her, rubbing Bai Qian’s shoulders to provide some warmth. “We can go back to Kunlun.”
“I want to take him to the peach tree forest,” Bai Qian said, shaking her head at Meixiu’s suggestion before looking at Mo Yuan to gauge his reaction. “I think he will heal better there. I don’t know how to explain it but there’s special magic in the peach trees. We can stay in the cabin.”
“Alright,” Mo Yuan agreed. He whispered a few words into the black dragon’s ear and his eyes flashed a deeper golden color as he waved his magic over his brother’s still form. The dragon’s size shrank down until he was little larger than a common black snake. Bai Qian picked him up and gently cradled him to her chest.
“Thank you,” she told Mo Yuan.
“No,” Mo Yuan said, “I’m the one who should be grateful, Qian Qian. If it weren’t for you, my brother would be dead. I appreciate all you did to keep him alive while Zhe Yan worked to reverse the effects from the poison. I can never repay you for that.”
Bai Qian watched rage flash in his eyes as he glanced at Jinjing’s body. Mo Yuan likely had no idea that it wasn’t Weisheng.
“Zhe Yan and I will go to the peach tree forest with Qian Qian,” Meixiu told Mo Yuan before Bai Qian could tell him the truth.
He nodded. “There are things I need to take care of here and then I’ll meet you there,” Mo Yuan responded. “And I need to tell Mother and Father about what has happened. Contact me if anything changes with Ye Hua. Anything at all.”
“That’s not Weisheng,” Bai Qian told Mo Yuan before he turned to go and investigate the remains. “Weisheng is dead. That’s Jinjing. And he had this with him.” Bai Qian handed Mo Yuan the dragon talon sword she had taken from Jinjing. He took it from her wordlessly, his expression more furious than she had ever seen it when he realized what she had just given him.
“I’ll take care of it,” he reassured her.
“Be careful,” Meixiu told Mo Yuan, giving him a small hug before helping Bai Qian with her cloud jump to the peach tree forest since she was still weak from all that had happened.
His rage carefully masked, Mo Yuan approached Jinjing’s body. The soldiers he had ordered to guard it while he helped take care of Ye Hua saluted him before moving out of the way.
He passed his brother’s broken sword and stopped to pick it up, studying the clean slice through the steel. The dragon talon sword explained how Jinjing had been able to get the better of Ye Hua. The disgraced general was better known for his ability to spy on others than for his prowess with a sword. In a fair fight with equal weapons, there was no way Jinjing could have injured Ye Hua.
The dragon talon sword needed to be destroyed and only Heavenly Father had the power to do it. Mo Yuan would take it to the Heavens to give to his father, ensuring nobody was ever able to use it again.
Once he reached the body and lifted the stasis spell he had placed around it to preserve evidence, Mo Yuan stared at the face of the Demon King. As he studied it, the spell hiding Jinjing’s identity slowly disintegrated, losing its power now that the stasis spell was no longer preserving it. The sight enraged him further. If only Bai Qian could have left the traitor alive. Mo Yuan would have liked to be the one to punish him. He would not have given Jinjing such a swift death, not after he had betrayed Qing Qiu, the Heavens, and Bai Qian and Ye Hua.
“Return the body to his family,” Mo Yuan ordered the soldiers. “They must declare his disgrace to their town. There can be no funeral, nor any grave marker or memorial placed in his honor. I want the entire realm to know Jinjing dishonored his family and his people.”
“Yes, my lord,” the soldiers responded as Mo Yuan jumped to the Heavens with the talon sword.
Tendrils of grey mist poured from Jinjing’s body, collecting in a swirling ball in the air. It was too faint to be noticed by the soldier’s carrying Jinjing’s remains away. It streamed out of Demon Lands, leaving the ice and snow behind it as it entered a dark, ancient forest, winding its way in between thick tree trunks and dense underbrush. The grey smoke stopped for nothing, pressing against a gentle wind as it sped towards its final destination… a seemingly rundown cottage in a hidden part of the forest.
The apothecary smiled, pleased to sense the dragon essence headed towards her home. She had been waiting for this day patiently, knowing it would come sooner rather than later. It was never wise to go up against Heavenly Father and his family. A pity, really. There were so many more pleasurable ways she could have obtained his essence but he had been the one to choose to take the concealment spell in return for that most primal part of him. Of course, he had overestimated his abilities and had expected to outlive her, voiding the deal. He had been fooling himself and she had known it.
She collected the essence in a small jade urn, similar to the one she had sold Jinjing when he’d asked for a way to contain a special kind of magic. She trapped the smoky essence inside with the whispered words of a powerful spell. Then she placed the urn in a safe place where nobody could ever find it. Dragon essence was precious and rare, the most difficult essence to obtain. And it was powerful. She smiled again as she left the underground room of her cottage. Yes, dragon essence was more valuable than anything else in the realm and she now had some for her own private use.
Her bargain with Jinjing was complete.
⇚ Previous part: Ch 54: A Stalemate
⇛ Next part: Ch 56: A Haven of Peach Blossoms