Only a little further to go…
The lacerating pain of the Shaman’s bindings had left him weak and exhausted. Stumbling between the trees, the Grey Wolf staggered his way back to the cave where he lived.
Situated at the northernmost edge of the forest of Qing Qiu, the cave was near a stream which supplied him with the fish he brought to market daily to steam and sell. And while the Wolf had lived here for many years, it was not a place he ever considered home. No, the caves of home were quite a distance away… in the rocky foothills bordering Demon territory.
Once the Wolf finished serving his sentence here, he would return to where he belonged.
Though the Shaman never divulged his plans, his presence and persistence of late was a telltale sign, was it not, that whatever demonic scheme was in store for the fox goddess was coming to fruition. The Wolf rejoiced that he would soon be free. Free to leave, free to roam, free to hunt whatever he wished for his next meal.
And if he never laid eyes on a fish again, it would be too soon.
As a mangy, flea-ridden rogue with no pack, a once starving Grey Wolf had made the desperate mistake one night of attacking a flock of fire pheasants that belonged to the Emperor’s private stock. He’d been swiftly captured by guards, tortured, then condemned to death. But the night before his execution, a tall, imposing figure garbed all in white robes had come to his cell and told him he was lucky, for he now had a choice: Be skinned alive and torn limb from limb… or accept the man (whom the Wolf later learned was the Demon Emperor’s personal shaman) as his master from now on. His execution would be commuted to serving a sentence, a mission of many years in the fox ruled territory of Qing Qiu. Once done, the Wolf would be allowed to go wherever he wanted with free rein to hunt any creature of prey not owned by a demon. And if he served his master exceptionally well, he may be rewarded with several enslaved she-wolves to breed in order to start his own pack.
Since wolves existed in many lands, the Grey Wolf had aroused no suspicion when he first arrived in Qing Qiu so many years before. He’d come during a time of great mourning for them, their beloved Queen Ying Yue having just died in childbirth. Presenting himself at the Market one rainy morning, the Wolf had introduced himself to the Mushroom Fairy who ran it. He’d introduced himself as Xingyun, a fishmonger who’d been travelling through the Immortal Realm for many years and now wished to settle down in a quiet place.
The Shaman had been the one to give the Wolf the name Xingyun, whose characters represented luck, as he had no name of his own. Everyone at the Mushroom Market called him the Grey Wolf though.
Once the Wolf had proven his reliability to the Mushroom Fairy as a vendor, she’d sought the Fox King’s permission to allow him to settle permanently in Qing Qiu. But the Fox King had wanted little to do with the affairs of his land during that period and left it to Fenfang’s judgment whether to accept the Wolf or not. Lucky for him, she had.
The Wolf’s mission had been simple enough: Be on the alert for anything out of the ordinary that involved the fox princess. Keep casual watch over her and report if ever there was something unusual.
The Shaman had only ever inquired after the fox princess once or twice a year. And as Bai Qian frequented the market often and the people always knew of any unusual goings on, the Wolf’s was the easiest of tasks. He’d always been sure to offer her fish when she passed by his stall so he could see her up close and talk to her. And except for the time when she’d begun to wear a silk band across her eyes which ended up being of no consequence, nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened.
Of course, the Wolf had informed the Shaman in the past that the Phoenix of the Peach Grove was seeking ways to try and cure Bai Qian’s blindness. For instance, there was the time the Wolf had overheard a conversation Zhe Yan had had with the Market tea vendor about a certain herb he was looking for to make a medicinal eyewash.
The Shaman had laughed when the Wolf had told him this. ‘Let the Phoenix try whatever concoctions he wishes to his heart’s content. Unless he begins to practice black magic, nothing he does will have any effect.’
The Wolf’s standing orders had thus remained unchanged all this time, until now.
With Qing Qiu being the tame and quiet backwater that it was, the Wolf’s life here had indeed been quiet…
…and a living hell.
Plagued by relentless hunger, his was a constant battle to resist the voracious urge to lunge for the throats of all the softly fleshed and plump woodland spirits that lived here; prey a far cry from the scraggly pickings of prey he used to have to scrounge for back in the Demon Lands. Before coming to Qing Qiu, the Shaman had changed him, cursed him, so that the Wolf could survive on fish alone. Yet the Wolf had quickly discovered that it had done nothing to curb his carnivorous nature. Had it been intentionally done? The Wolf knew the answer of course. And thus the lure and scent of fresh red meat all around him everyday was his constant torment.
Once his master and the demons ruled, the Wolf knew exactly which morsel of flesh he would reward himself with and devour first… a certain tender young rabbit he’d been eyeing for a while.
The opening of the cave was just ahead.
The Wolf wished he could spend the whole day sleeping but knew he could only afford a few hours. He needed to discover as much as he could of Bai Qian and Zhe Yan’s comings and goings. The Wolf couldn’t go back to the Fox Den just yet without a good pretense. He would have to rely on the eyes and ears of the Market for the next while instead, which meant going to his stall in the afternoon as he always did.
Crossing the cave’s threshold, the now ravenous Wolf collapsed in an exhausted heap.
Qing Cang leaned back in his chair, watching Diao Wu exit the cavernous hall. There was a definite eagerness in the Shaman’s steps.
The blind fox was spending nights on Kunlun… because of a flower? Qing Cang pondered what the Shaman had been told by his mongrel and scoffed. Or was it to be deflowered… by the worm, perchance? The Demon’s poisonous smile at this thought never reached his cold eyes.
He stomped his boot on the dais –the slave musician’s cue to resume playing the bone flute.
It hadn’t escaped Qing Cang’s notice how unusually animated his sullen and taciturn shaman had been when Diao Wu had brought up wanting to take the Phoenix of the Peach Grove as well when it came time to take the fox. Diao Wu’s eyes had just about lit up with glee when he explained to Qing Cang how he’d finally been able to touch one of the Phoenix’s enchanted trees without any ill effect.
Tell me Diao Wu, just what will you do once you have the Phoenix’s essence at your disposal? Qing Cang stomped his boot again as he reached for his cup of blood wine. The musician hastily changed tunes.
The Demon Emperor knew very well why Diao Wu wanted to get his hands on the Phoenix. As powerful as the Shaman had grown, he wanted more. Qing Cang understood this desire well; the need to wield power, the greed for more… which was why he could never allow it to happen. For in the end, it was always going to be just the one of them to possess it all.
“Mo Yuan’s man is dead,” Qing Cang had declared at that point, putting a stop to Diao Wu’s chatter. The Shaman’s look of surprise had quickly shifted to one of pleasure.
Qing Cang raised his empty cup for a harem girl to fill. He drained it in one swallow before breaking into a yawn. How easy it was to manipulate and use Diao Wu’s jealousy to his advantage. Truth was Qing Cang had grown weary of his Celestial plaything… that, and a recent idea he’d had required Mo Yuan’s man dead sooner rather than later.
“You’ll find his corpse at the veil of shadow next to the sanctum,” he’d told the Shaman. “I killed him there so that the field would take effect. However, when you go to perform whatever necessary spells or rituals, Diao Wu, there is something I need you to preserve in particular.”
The Shaman had listened intently to Qing Cang’s new plan. “It will be done, my Lord. But since he was not a demon it will take me a few days to prepare him.” And thus, Diao Wu was now heading off to the inner tunnels.
Qing Cang’s gaze lingered over the row of burning torches in the smoky hall. The ancient temple they were in had been built, and buried, by an ancient cabal of nine demonic wizards whom legend told performed dark sacrifices to build their power. What had happened to them who had simply vanished one day remained a mystery of Demon lore. The wizards were thought to have left no traces behind until a certain lowly demon apothecary had uncovered some obscure writings revealing the whereabouts of a hidden temple; whereabouts he’d shared with his Demon Overlord.
It had cost many lives and taken many failed attempts to find and unlock the temple’s secret. But they had… as they’d also found the nine dark wizards who’d never left.
Just one more battle, one more sacrificial attack, and it would be time for the blind fox to serve her purpose. Qing Cang would then be able to unleash the temple’s secret upon an unsuspecting Immortal Realm. And once he destroyed the Celestials and became Overlord of all immortal lands, he would destroy the Shaman as well.
It was why he would humour Diao Wu for now about claiming the phoenix.
There were no coincidences. When the Fox King’s wife had approached Diao Wu, who back then still posed as a simple demon apothecary, the opportunity had been too great to pass upon. A nine-tailed fox that could be bred to suit their needs… with the necessary number of identical appendages that could be controlled with magic. And the necessity to see into the darkness? This was where Diao Wu had arrived at his idea of rendering the offspring blind. If the fox child were blind yet able to “see” when the time came, it would serve their purposes perfectly.
To ensure the mother would not speak of the demon apothecary after unsuspectingly giving birth to a blind child, she would have to die in childbirth. It was something that could be made to happen with the same black spell used to enchant and blind the fetus. Desperate as the vixen was at the time, it had been easy for Diao Wu to make Queen Ying Yue believe the song he’d requested as payment for her fertility was due to his admiration for her talent.
Diao Wu had indeed become quite powerful over the years since. It was a long way from an apothecary to the second-most feared demon of the Immortal Realm. A close second to him. Qing Cang sneered as he drained his cup the harem girl had refilled once more.
Yes, some plans would have to be carried out sooner than he’d expected.
Just like his execution of the Kunlun disciple…
After all that had been done to him, Mo Yuan’s man never spoke a word, until the moment Qing Cang ran a sword through his heart. “By the grace of the Heavens do I declare my name so that my soul may be recognized in the afterlife and my body claimed in this one. I am Zhong Yi, Fourth Disciple of the God of War Mo Yuan.” And with that final breath of words, the man had died.
“Do not fret, Zhong Yi, Fourth Disciple of the God of War Mo Yuan.” Qing Cang proceeded to sever the man’s head from his neck with a single swipe of his halberd. “Your soul will not go unrecognized, not at all in fact. As for your body being claimed…”
Qing Cang had erupted in a roar of laughter watching the ripples flow across the veil of shadow before him.
Xingyun (lucky) 幸运
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