Bai Qian cleared away the last bits of debris from what remained of the potter’s workshop, moving a charred bench to the side with her magic. She was using her magic a lot more now compared to when she had first started cleaning up Baihu Village several weeks ago. Her magic was growing more powerful because of it just as it had when she spent time taking care of the peach trees using the spells Heavenly Mother had taught her. Mo Yuan had also taught her one of the more advanced meditation techniques to help her cultivate more power more quickly.
The combination of cultivation methods was working to increase her strength and skills. Bai Qian had finally transformed her fan into its paired sword two weeks ago and Meixiu had promptly started making Bai Qian run through offensive and defensive drills using sword, fan, and various combinations of the two during her training sessions on Kunlun Mountain. The sessions had become grueling but Bai Qian didn’t complain, understanding the reason Meixiu was pushing her harder than she had before Jinjing’s disappearance. They all felt an increasing urgency to make sure Bai Qian was prepared to face what may come in the future.
Am I prepared enough? She swept ashes into a neat pile in the corner with swirls of her magic. She would dispose of them when she was finished with the room. There was still so much she needed to learn. And there was likely no way to know if she was ready until she found herself in a threatening situation.
“Have you found anything worth saving, my lady?” a soft voice asked. There was a faint wheezing underlying the words, telling Bai Qian it was Elder Guangli approaching.
She looked up, a faint smile on her face as the old man hobbled closer, his posture stooped, his face lined with age but wearing an expression of youthful curiosity. Forgetting her earlier thoughts, Bai Qian moved to help him walk by some debris she had yet to clear, holding his elbow to steady him. Elder Guangli’s magic was indispensable to the clean up efforts in the village but Bai Qian worried he would injure himself in the process of moving through the ruins. She didn’t know how old he or his wife, Biyu, were but they had been considered elders of the village when she had been a young girl.
“Just this bench so far,” Bai Qian replied, testing its sturdiness before encouraging Elder Guangli to sit and rest there for a few minutes. “It’s charred in places, but the wood is still strong. It can be salvaged, I believe.”
“Good,” Guangli replied with a smile. Like Bai Qian, Guangli, his wife, and Xiaoli all seemed to be determined to preserve as much as they could from the ruins. The recovered objects served as a reminder that not all from those days was lost. They were all relieved that Heavenly Father’s efforts to protect what remained of Qing Qiu had kept curious scavengers out of the village.
“Xiaoli, Biyu, and I found some axes and other tools that were in decent shape in the woodcutter’s cottage,” Guangli continued. “A skilled blacksmith should be able to help us sort them out and restore the ones that can be saved.”
“I once found an old discarded dagger to use at a blacksmith’s forge in a phoenix village near the outskirts of the peach tree forest,” Bai Qian responded. “But I don’t know him or how skilled he is. I’ll ask Ye Hua or Zhe Yan if they can tell us who is the best person for the job.” She looked over the low remains of a ruined wall toward the two men where they were clearing out the debris from one of the more destroyed houses several paces away. She grinned when the two appeared to be bickering about something. Ye Hua and Zhe Yan could argue endlessly about something without ever becoming more than a little annoyed with each other. It amused Bai Qian and reminded her of her brothers.
Bai Qian’s grin faded as she watched Ye Hua. He had been working hard constantly. As had Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan. The three were helping her with the restoration of Qing Qiu while also spending most of their time away from here looking for Jinjing and trying to determine what he and King Weisheng may be planning. Ye Hua was pressuring Weisheng to meet with him but so far had been met only with excuses for why the meeting needed to be postponed. Two days ago Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan had discovered the remains of a merman while they had been looking for signs of Jinjing’s whereabouts in the lands held by the Dark Tribes.
“He’s a good man,” Guangli remarked.
Bai Qian returned her attention to the elderly man sitting on the bench.
“I’m talking about your young dragon,” Guangli clarified, nodding in Ye Hua’s direction. “He’ll be a faithful partner who will support you. He’ll also be a strong and respected leader, both here in Qing Qiu and in the Heavens. He’s powerful and protective of others. He’s respectful, intelligent, and sticks to his convictions. But he doesn’t discount the counsel he receives from others. Your father would have approved of him.”
“You think so?” Bai Qian wondered what her mother and father would have said in response to her betrothal to Ye Hua. Even though they hadn’t officially announced it yet, those they were close to seemed to know that Bai Qian and Ye Hua would one day marry.
“I know so.” Guangli’s voice was confident. “Though he viewed some things differently than they, your father had a great deal of respect for Heavenly Father and Mother. He would be pleased to welcome their son into his family. And he would be proud to have him leading Qing Qiu at your side.”
“He would approve of your choice,” Guangli repeated. “I know he would. I’m just sorry he’s not here to tell you these things himself.”
“Yes.” Bai Qian’s tone grew wistful. “I wish Ye Hua could’ve met my family. I think he would’ve gotten along well with my brothers.” Her spine straightened and she pushed those thoughts aside. “I’m almost finished here. Let’s go check on Xiaoli and Biyu.”
“Aye, my lady,” Guangli responded, slowly standing from the bench. He offered his elbow to Bai Qian and she took it with a warm smile, thinking it would give her the chance to help steady him should he lose his footing without it being too obvious. He launched into one of his stories about the old days as they made their way to the woodcutter’s cottage at the edge of Qing Qiu’s forest.
“My lady,” Biyu said, greeting Bai Qian with a small bow. She had a large carpenter’s plane in her unsteady hands as she turned.
“Let me help you with that,” Bai Qian said, releasing Guangli’s elbow to rush over to the elderly lady. “It looks heavy.”
“Nonsense.” Biyu moved the iron woodworking plane out of reach. “I still have my magic, you know. It aids me when I need it.”
Biyu placed the plane near a large pile of axes and woodworking tools and Bai Qian looked around the cottage which was in surprisingly good condition considering the ruins all the other cottages were in. “They didn’t burn this place, did they?”
“No, my lady,” Biyu answered. “We’ve found a great deal of useful items here. Xiaoli thinks this cottage can be restored without a lot of work.”
“Where is Xiaoli?” Bai Qian asked, looking around the interior. She didn’t see the young woman anywhere.
“She went into the forest to collect some honey for the evening meal. She thinks she spotted a large bee’s hive not too far away from here one day when she was exploring the area. She should be back shortly if she found it.”
Bai Qian nodded, excited at the prospect of having fresh honey. “I’ll help you until she returns. I don’t have much left to do at the potter’s cottage.”
Biyu smiled and pointed to a large cabinet with trembling fingers. “We haven’t looked to see what’s in there yet.”
“I’ll take a look now,” Bai Qian answered, curious to see what else of use could be found here. She was in good spirits today, especially now that they had found at least one structure in Baihu Village that hadn’t been destroyed beyond use. It had been an encouraging day.
Jinjing sat before the fire in his study, staring at the flickering flames as he planned. Mo Yuan had recently been spotted in both the Ghost Realm and the Mer Realm. The official reason for his visits was to assess the dark lands for locations that could aid in the training of Celestial soldiers for combat using various types of terrain. But Jinjing knew better. Mo Yuan was looking for him. And he had found the rotting corpse of the merman. Word had reached Jinjing just that morning and it disturbed him to know the War God had followed his path that far. Did Mo Yuan know Jinjing was the one who killed him? How could he? Nobody was there to witness what had happened.
He frowned, standing and walking over to his desk. Could he say for sure there had been no witnesses? He hadn’t sensed any others around him but he hadn’t looked all that closely either. Even if there had been no witnesses, Mo Yuan would be able to tell the old merman had been murdered and that would raise his suspicions. Jinjing had to assume it was possible Mo Yuan knew who had killed him.
Jinjing knelt at his desk and glanced at the missives Ye Hua had sent him. There were several neatly stacked there. His time to prepare for the revolt against the Heavens had been growing short even before the news of Mo Yuan’s latest discovery. The Crown Prince was insistent on speaking with him and Jinjing couldn’t put him off much longer even though he feared Ye Hua would realize the truth of his identity during a private meeting. The Crown Prince was angry and growing impatient. Soon he would show up at the Demon Fortress unannounced.
And the other Dark Tribes were becoming uneasy with Jinjing’s desire for a new alliance between them. Ye Hua had been doing a good job of reminding them of their obligations laid out in the treaties they had signed after the war. The War God’s recent presence in their realms only served to emphasize the point further. They wanted guarantees of success before creating an alliance and Jinjing hadn’t yet fully convinced them. But that should change once he had captured Bai Qian.
He had been using soldiers to monitor Qing Qiu and the peach tree forest for weeks now. Jinjing had a good idea of which Celestial guards Ye Hua would trust enough to post around Qing Qiu while Bai Qian was visiting. He also had a good idea of the methods those guards would use and where they would most likely be stationed. He had used this information to plan ways in which to watch Qing Qiu without being detected. His plans had paid off.
The demon soldiers he had sent to spy on any activity in Qing Qiu and the surrounding areas had convinced him that it would be difficult but not impossible to take Bai Qian when she was away from Kunlun Mountain. His soldiers had provided him with a general pattern of her whereabouts. She was often seen in and around the ruins of the village, cleaning up. She was always accompanied by either Ye Hua, Mo Yuan, or Zhe Yan and they all kept a close guard over her which was the biggest problem to overcome. The key would be to snatch her when their attention was diverted elsewhere.
Jinjing had been waiting for an opportunity to present itself for the last week but so far none of his soldiers had alerted him to let him know Bai Qian had been spotted wandering away from her protectors. They were under strict orders to do so. But waiting for an opportunity wasn’t working so it was time to go to Qing Qiu and create an opportunity instead. The news about Mo Yuan’s discovery had convinced him he could wait no longer.
With that thought in mind, Jinjing wrapped a concealment spell that would allow him only to be visible to the demon soldiers around himself before jumping to the outskirts of Qing Qiu, near one of the points of surveillance he had planned out weeks ago to avoid alerting any of the Celestial guards. One of his soldiers was in place when he arrived.
“King Weisheng,” the Demon soldier said, saluting him. “I wasn’t expecting you. How can I be of service?”
“Plans have changed.” Jinjing kept his voice low so it wouldn’t carry and alert either Bai Qian or whoever her protector was for the day. “Is Bai Qian here?”
“Yes, my lord. In the village. I received word from the other soldiers when she arrived. She’s not alone though.”
“I’m going to remedy that problem. Follow me.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Following Jinjing’s instructions, the soldier surrounded himself with the special concealment spell so only other demons could spot him as they moved silently through the forest to a spot closer to the village, finding another of the concealed soldiers placed to spy on Bai Qian.
“Where is she?” Jijing asked, taking a spyglass from the soldier.
“She’s in that cottage close to the edge of the forest.” The soldier pointed it out to Jinjing who studied the cottage through the spyglass. He frowned when he couldn’t see her because the structure was still intact. He didn’t have the correct angle to see in through any of the windows.
“Is there anybody in there with her?”
“Yes, my lord. The elderly couple who often meets her here is in there with her. The young woman was in there as well but she left to go into the forest.”
Jinjing’s spirits lifted when he heard that last bit of news. “And the Crown Prince or War God? Where is the person guarding her?”
“The Crown Prince is here, King Weisheng. But he is over there with the Phoenix Prince.” The soldier indicated a ruined cottage closer to the middle of the village. “They’ve been working in that location all afternoon.”
Grinning, Jinjing watched the two men through the spyglass for a minute. Ye Hua was not at Bai Qian’s side and one of the village survivors had wandered into the forest. An idea quickly took shape in his mind. Could it really be that easy?
“Which way did the woman go?”
“That way, my lord.”
“Bring her to me. Now. And I don’t want to hear a sound. We can’t have her alerting the Black Dragon. He will kill us all if he catches us.”
Bai Qian looked up from where she was sorting through items from the cupboard in the kitchen of the cottage. Guangli and Biyu were both resting for a spell at Bai Qian’s insistence. She didn’t want either of them to get injured by overdoing it. She had been working for a good half hour and Xiaoli had still not returned from collecting the honey.
“Xiaoli should be back by now, shouldn’t she?”
“Yes.” Biyu nodded. “She told me she wouldn’t be gone long.”
Bai Qian placed a stack of bowls next to the plates she had already separated out. “It’s not like her to stay away like this without telling one of us. I should go look for her. I’m finished for the moment, anyway.”
“I can go look for her, my lady,” Guangli protested, trying to stand. It always took him several attempts before he could successfully get back up on his feet.
“No, don’t get up.” Bai Qian hurried over and coaxed the elderly man back to his seat. “I’m ready for a break and it shouldn’t take me long to find her. My fox used to know the forest very well. Did she say in which direction the beehive was located? If not, I should be able to follow her scent.”
“She didn’t tell me where she saw it,” Biyu responded. “I hope she’s alright.”
“I’m sure she is,” Bai Qian answered. “But maybe she could use some help collecting the honey.”
Bai Qian left the cottage through the back door, catching Xiaoli’s scent as she descended the wooden stairs and walked to the edge of the forest. The scent trail turned toward the east. She followed it into the trees and along a small game path Xiaoli must have discovered while she had been out exploring. Bai Qian hurried along it, expecting to find Xiaoli at any moment. Her scent was still strong in the area so she couldn’t be too far away.
The stench of demon suddenly enveloped her and Bai Qian ground to a halt, tensing. Where was it coming from? She still seemed to be alone. Her fox growled, low and fierce, when she heard footsteps behind them. Weisheng stepped out from the cover of two trees, dropping a concealment spell as he did so. His eyes were cold, his expression gleeful. He had a terrified Xiaoli tight in his grasp, a knife held to her throat.
Bai Qian was surrounded. And she had forgotten to tell Ye Hua she was leaving the village. Panic clutched her. Her heart pounded as her mind raced. She took a deep breath to still her scattered thoughts and her panic receded. Her fox urged her to use the bracelet to alert Ye Hua and the black dragon. She tried to reach for it.
“Not so fast, sly fox,” Weisheng growled at her, noticing the movement of her hand. Xiaoli whimpered as the edge of the knife bit into her skin. Blood trickled down her neck. Bai Qian froze. “One sneaky move or attempt to escape and your friend will die. I’ll slit her throat before you have time to stop me.” He gestured to somebody standing behind Bai Qian.
Large hands snatched her wrists in a painful grip, wrenching her hand further away from the jewelry. The clasp on the chain broke from the force of the soldier’s hold as he pulled her hands to her sides.
Her beloved bracelet fell to the ground. Bai Qian’s heart sank as she stared at it. The hands tightened on her arms once again, holding her motionless. If only she could find a way to get to it. What should she do? Her eyes lifted and met Xiaoli’s. Her friend’s gaze begged for help. Bai Qian wanted to help Xiaoli and herself but her friend would die as soon as Bai Qian tried to make a move. She sensed Weisheng meant what he had said.
It was always best to fight and avoid capture altogether but that option had passed her by. Could she catch Weisheng off guard? Maybe but there were too many soldiers with him. She couldn’t fight them all. The words of a trusted voice echoed in her mind. ‘If you’re at a disadvantage from the beginning and your life is not in immediate danger, it is sometimes best to remain still and wait for a better opportunity before revealing what you are capable of. As long as your enemy underestimates you, you have an advantage.’ Mo Yuan had taught her that and Ye Hua and Meixiu had both agreed.
“I’m sorry, my lady,” Xiaoli said suddenly, her voice weak and hoarse.
“Shut up,” Weisheng said, strengthening his hold until Xiaoli cried out.
“Don’t hurt her,” Bai Qian said, trying to distract his attention away from Xiaoli. She was proud her voice didn’t tremble the way her legs were. “She’s done nothing to you.”
“I won’t hurt her as long as you cooperate with me.”
“What do you want with me?” Bai Qian hoped to delay him, aware that Ye Hua would soon notice her absence and come looking for her. The black dragon would find her quickly once he realized she and Hu Mei were missing. She just needed a little more time.
“You’re going to do something for me, little fox,” Weisheng answered. “It’s time for us to leave.” He directed his attention to a soldier standing near the one restraining her. “Search her for weapons.”
“Yes, my King.”
A new pair of intrusive hands began to grope along her arms and sides while the other soldier held her in place. Bai Qian suppressed a shudder at the violating touch. A dagger was tossed to the ground near her fallen bracelet. It was the dagger she had bought for her brother’s birthday. The hands paused when they found her fan next. She held her breath, hoping the hands would disregard it. They didn’t. Hope fled when her fan joined the dagger and bracelet on the ground.
Weisheng’s order was clear. Bai Qian was out of time. The soldier pushed her forward.
She pretended to trip and lurched to the side in a desperate attempt to alert Ye Hua. Her foot landed on the bracelet as she had planned and Bai Qian pulsed some of her magic through the soft slipper she was wearing and into the bracelet. She hoped it would be enough to trigger Ye Hua’s spell.
The soldier yanked her back into place, strengthening his hold. “Watch it, clumsy fox,” he ordered.
Weisheng struck Xiaoli’s temple with enough force to knock her unconscious. She slumped to the ground when he released her. The demons cloud-jumped to the Demon Realm, dragging Bai Qian along with them.
⇚ Previous part: CH 51: One Step Ahead
⇛ Next part: Ch 53: Hidden