The attack was proceeding as planned.
The souls of the dead demon soldiers fed the curse, feeding Diao Wu’s own essence at the same time, increasing his powers. The Shaman took it as his due.
He poured himself another cup of the peach wine he’d discovered here inside the Phoenix’s cottage, savouring its flavour while he bided his time. Since he could easily keep track of the battle from anywhere in or around Qing Qiu, why not position himself where he may seize an opportunity should it arrive?
Able to freely roam the Peach Grove without ill effect, the Shaman had easily found the Phoenix’s home. He’d smirked in amusement at all the books, notes, and collection of paraphernalia he’d found piled on tables inside. How simple, how quaint… It reminded him somewhat of his early days as an apothecary. So primitive it all seemed now. The dark powers he possessed made such trifles frivolous.
Diao Wu smacked his lips. The Phoenix’s brew was a refreshing change from the blood wine Qing Cang preferred.
His hope was that Zhe Yan would present himself at some point during the battle, perhaps to retrieve medicines to treat the wounded. There was no guarantee he would do so but the Shaman figured he had nothing to lose. He would magically replace the wine if it came to naught so as not to arouse suspicion. Would the Phoenix be able to tell? The thought had Diao Wu smirking in amusement once again.
Qing Cang had not spoken of the Shaman’s proposal of taking the Phoenix in addition to the Blind Fox since Diao Wu had first mentioned it. If Qing Cang could not see the potential of claiming the Phoenix’s fire then once Zhe Yan’s essence was assimilated into his, Diao Wu could prove to the Demon Emperor the merits of his actions now.
Waiting in ambush inside the cottage during the battle was one of the plans Diao Wu had devised for capturing Zhe Yan. Should that not work, then after Bai Qian came to them would be the next opportunity. The besotted Phoenix’s guard would be down, grieving as he surely would be at the loss of his lover… for why else were Bai Qian and Zhe Yan always together?
Keeping his senses focused on the cottage’s surroundings for any sign of the Phoenix’s energy, the Shaman ignored the lesser creatures that were at present fleeing through Qing Qiu’s forest. Even as Celestials began to arrive and chase what demons were there, he paid them no mind. Diao Wu merely extinguished any demon soldiers who approached the Grove so as not to have Celestial forces getting too close. Not that they would have seen or sensed him. But he’d rather not take any chances, wanting to avoid any possibility of the Phoenix being alerted to his presence.
However, another’s familiar life force now gave the Shaman pause, racing through the forest as it was towards the nearby lake.
With a scoff, Diao Wu drained the last of the peach wine in the cup. Should he be surprised the wolf had escaped the massacre? There’d been a reason he had spared the wolf from execution back then and put him into service, hadn’t there? Despite the beast’s miserable existence, the wolf had proven himself wily.
The Shaman’s expression darkened.
There was someone in pursuit of the wolf. One whose bright essence he easily recognized as she was connected to him by a black curse as well.
The Blind Fox was chasing the wolf… and closing in fast. How remarkable. Sightless as she was, she manoeuvred through the thick forest with ease.
What had the wolf done for her to be chasing him?
Diao Wu felt the wolf stop by the lake for a moment, only to resume running in a direction which would bring him to the Grove. Bai Qian ended her pursuit at the lake. Again, what had the wolf done?
The Shaman’s head snapped up. The magnificent fires of the Phoenix! He sensed Zhe Yan rushing along the same path the wolf and the fox had taken…
…accompanied by the Gold Dragon.
Diao Wu flinched then grimaced. With their radiance combined, the Phoenix and the Dragon’s powerful essences were searing to his mind’s eye.
Were Zhe Yan and Mo Yuan pursuing the wolf? Or were they after Bai Qian?
You stupid cur… The Shaman’s knuckles went white as he balled up his hands. Have you cost me my chance here today?
He felt Zhe Yan and Mo Yuan stop at the lake too. And the Shaman had to physically close his eyes against the brilliance of the Dragon’s essence as it surged within its element of water. Mo Yuan had entered the lake. Why?
Hissing through clenched teeth, Diao Wu left the cottage to intercept the wolf.
Dirt and torn grass flew when the Grey Wolf came to a skidding halt, nearly smashing his muzzle into the ground to avoid colliding into the Shaman who materialized before him.
Wolf and Shaman eyed each other in silence; one peering up with fear, the other staring down with a cold, angry glare, the other staring down with a stone cold glare. The Wolf shifted to his human form.
“Master… The attack on Qing Qiu…” The Wolf could not quite keep the whine of fear from his voice. “You should know… I-I bring news of Mo Yuan…”
Diao Wu raised an arched brow. “Mo Yuan? Perhaps it is you who should know that he is at the lake where you just were, having followed Bai Qian when she chased you.”
The Wolf’s panicked eyes darted from side to side. When the Shaman forced him to shift back into his beast against his will, the Wolf began to whimper, tucking his tail between his hind legs as a knot-like pain slowly gripped his insides.
The Shaman calmly clasped his hands behind his back. “If there were time, I would ask you to regale me with the details of what you’d done to have the Fox chase you but the blood smeared along your jawline tells me plenty. You attacked one of the woodland spirits, didn’t you.” It was a statement, not a question.
The Wolf was hoisted into the air by invisible bindings. Coils of magic tied forelegs and hind legs together as well as wrapped around his muzzle, clamping his jaw shut.
“Whatever fabricated story you were about to give me no longer matters, Xingyun,” Diao Wu said. “Your usefulness, and your luck, have run out.”
Diao Wu swiped his finger along the trussed up Wolf’s jaw, testing a sample of the blood there. It was indeed that of a woodland spirit, he sensed. He rubbed it between thumb and forefinger… a very young woodland spirit.
“Figured on a tender morsel of meat as you fled?” the Shaman sneered. “Don’t think I didn’t know how much you hated surviving on just fish. It’s hard to always be hungry, isn’t it? Hungry for food, hungry for freedom, hungry for power…” the Shaman’s voice trailed off in a whisper. His eyes went black. There was a sickening crunch as the Wolf’s spine snapped.
“Let me show you what true hunger looks like,” Diao Wu told the now paralysed beast through a cruel smile. “You should know this was always going to be how you would obtain your freedom in the end.”
The Wolf’s body jerked as his fur was entirely ripped off his body. Exposed greyish white flesh began to slip before sinking in between bones. The Wolf’s terrorized eyes were sucked back into their sockets as Diao Wu siphoned off the beast’s life force with a cruel smile. When it was done, the coils of magic came unbound and the shrivelled husk of the dead wolf thudded to the ground.
Green flames rose off Diao Wu as he glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the lake.
The Dragon was fast approaching, in his true form. The Blind Fox was with him. The Phoenix? Zhe Yan’s essence remained by the lake, with no other high power around him. The Shaman looked back on the Wolf’s remains.
Perhaps you did not spoil my plans after all.
He hadn’t time to waste.
Grey ashes scattered in the wind when Diao Wu destroyed what remained of the wolf’s carcass.
Cruel smile grown wider, the Shaman vanished in a putrid mist.
So you snatched a rabbit for a meal. Was that your foolish mistake?
Yet the wolf’s action had turned out to be one final service rendered to his master. It gave Diao Wu his chance to catch the Phoenix alone and unaware.
The Shaman watched with interest as Zhe Yan cleared the child’s lungs of water and got her breathing again. The wolf must have thrown the child into the lake to delay Bai Qian. Wily indeed...
But why didn’t the Phoenix sense Diao Wu behind him, uncloaked as he was? The Shaman was a little disappointed. To be honest, he’d looked forward to enjoying a brief confrontation first, but Mo Yuan’s presence nearby changed things. He could no longer afford to linger.
Zhe Yan slumped forward silently when Diao Wu struck him from behind.
The Shaman’s attention shifted to the rabbit girl. If he left her here alone, they would immediately know something had befallen the Phoenix. How to buy time? Should he take his cue from the wolf and toss her back into the lake, this time good and deep? He saw that the Phoenix had not yet gotten to the child’s cuts. The bite marks from the wolf were superficial.
Since you made it so easy for me to take you today, Zhe Yan, I will return the favour. Consider it a professional courtesy.
With a wave of his hand, Jia disappeared, the Shaman disappearing with the Phoenix a second thereafter.
Bai Qian needn’t be able to see to know Mo Yuan flew directly above her in his dragon form. The feel of the sun streaming down upon her back as it kept pace with her was impossible to ignore.
Why isn’t Mo Yuan flying ahead?
With the lake on one side and the mountain range on the other, the Wolf could only have fled this way along the shoreline.
I’ve shown him the way enough, haven’t I? I need to get back!
Annoyed, Bai Qian stopped running. Her tails whipped forward when the wind changed direction as something large, like an airborne dragon, abruptly spun round in the sky to make its way to her.
Booted feet struck the ground at the same time Bai Qian shifted to her human form.
“Qian Qian, why did you stop?”
“Why are you trailing behind with me, Mo Yuan? At the speed you can surely fly, you could catch up to the Wolf much faster.”
There was an exasperated exhale of breath. “I can’t leave you behind.”
“What?! Well, that’s news to me, Mo Yuan. You certainly had no problem leaving me behind on Kunlun!”
He drew in an angry breath which triggered her temper further.
“You have a lot of nerve, Mo Yuan. Had I come with you and Zhe Yan, maybe I could have saved more of my people and kept Jia from harm as well!”
Bai Qian started at the sudden rush of air in her face. Mo Yuan had rounded upon her and gripped her arms tight.
“What were you thinking, Qian Qian?! I ordered you to stay there!”
“I don’t take orders from you, Mo Yuan,” Bai Qian snapped. “Qing Qiu and its people are my responsibility!”
The small gap of air between them started to heat up.
“The safety of all the Realm is my responsibility, Bai Qian!” Mo Yuan snapped back at her, his fear for her taking the fore.
“What does leaving me behind on Kunlun have to do with the safety of all the Realm?” she asked in angry confusion.
“Because Qing Cang wants you, Qian Qian!”
“Wants me?! That’s ridiculous! Why would you think that?”
Mo Yuan’s hands dropped from her arms.
“Because of what you heard him speak through the severed head of my 4th Disciple, Zhong Yi –the head dumped before the gates of Kunlun by his shaman no doubt. Zhong Yi had been on an undercover mission in the Demon Lands trying to discover the whereabouts of Qing Cang’s hideaway.”
Severed head? Bai Qian recalled the distorted nature of the voice she’d heard and the sound of disgust made by Zhe Yan.
Despite her anger, Bai Qian felt sadness for the disciple she hadn’t met but was told great things about. One who spoke many dialects and whose tone of voice she would never learn a flowery description of now.
“I’m so sorry, Mo Yuan,” she said with genuine regret. “But I still don’t understand what any of this has to do with me.”
Mo Yuan drew in a steadying breath this time. “Zhong Yi sacrificed himself to send me a warning message. It was a note, bearing only two words.”
Bai Qian remained silent as a chill of dread coursed through her.
“’Blind Fox’,” Mo Yuan finished.
Stunned, Bai Qian began shaking her head.
“No, this is insane. What would the Demon Emperor want with me?”
“I’d hoped to get some answers from the Wolf. I…” Mo Yuan stopped talking.
“What? What is it?” Bai Qian tilted her head, listening for anything unusual.
“There’s an odd scent here.” Mo Yuan drew in a lungful of air. “Smoked fish… mixed with ashes.”
Smoked fish. The Wolf. Bai Qian whirled about in a circle. She could not sense anyone’s presence in the vicinity nor could she hear anything other than what sounds had been there all along, just the wind and that annoying sizzle of lightning overhead. “I hear nothing of him,” Bai Qian said.
“And I suspect you never will again.” Mo Yuan let out a growl of frustration. “Ashes? The wolf is dead.”
“D-dead? How? Why?” Bai Qian demanded.
“The Demon Shaman. It had to be. He killed him so the wolf wouldn’t talk,” Mo Yuan replied matter-of-factly.
“The rumour Qing Cang has a shaman of black magic is true?”
“Yes, Qian Qian. His name is Diao Wu. And until I know exactly why they want you, you will stay out of this and on Kunlun.”
“That’s not for you to deci– Wait.” Bai Qian frowned as something Mo Yuan said before struck her. “When exactly did you receive this note from your 4th Disciple?”
Mo Yuan wasn’t paying attention. The cursed black magic kept him from sensing Diao Wu. He’d always suspected the Shaman was nearby during attacks. The Shaman could be anywhere by now.
“Qian Qian, I need to get you back to Kunlun.”
“Hang on. That note… Is it why you accepted Zhe Yan’s request to visit the gardens of Kunlun the second time he asked? Not to help him but to spy on me?”
Mo Yuan’s focus snapped back to Bai Qian.
“Is that why you got close to me?” Bai Qian couldn’t quite keep the choke of tears from her voice. “Did you take advantage of my emotions to…”
“No, Qian Qian!”
Mo Yuan’s hands gripped her arms again. “My feelings for you are sincere. Please… I’ll explain once the situation is under control here. But until I know what’s going on with Qing Cang, I cannot let you out of my sig–”
His face jerked to the side from the sharp slap Bai Qian delivered, her aim quite true.
“Go to hell, Mo Yuan,” she seethed before cloud-jumping out of his hold.
In a roaring heartbeat, the God of War followed to where he knew she’d gone.
Bai Qian stood alone on the shore of the lake. The Phoenix and the rabbit girl were no longer there. Zhe Yan must have brought Jia to her home, Mo Yuan thought, then he took in the lower half of Bai Qian’s dress that was dripping wet again.
She’d landed in the water.
“Are you insane?!” He stormed towards her. “Do you not realize the dangerous risk you take when you do that?” Mo Yuan was livid but prepared this time. If she thought to jump again, he would stop her.
“Cloud-jumping without being able to see where you land! What if you’d materialized inside a tree or deep underwater?!”
Bai Qian’s voice was ice. “You thought to take advantage of my blindness as a means to keep me in place, Grandmaster. I am proving to you your mistake, amongst many.”
Die Feng along with a company of Celestial soldiers emerged from the forest.
Never taking his eyes off Bai Qian, Mo Yuan addressed his First. “Report.”
“Shifu, the demon attack force has been defeated. No demons remain in Qing Qiu. We have search parties combing the forest for any inhabitants of Qing Qiu who sought to hide there.”
“Zhe Yan must have taken Jia home to the Rabbit Hole,” Bai Qian said, ignoring the burning glare she could feel upon her. “You and your men have my permission, Grandmaster, to finish conducting your search of the forest. I’m going to the Market.”
She braced herself to cloud-jump for the third time that day… and for the reaction she now expected.
When her ears caught the first shuffle of movement from Mo Yuan in that last split second, Bai Qian dropped to a crouch. Fox tails shooting faster than they ever had before over her head snapped around him to fling him far into the lake.
There was a most satisfying splash.
The collective gasps of Die Feng and the Celestial soldiers was followed by a deafening silence of held breaths. Then the hairs on the back of Bai Qian’s neck rose when her ears picked up what sounded remarkably like the steam escaping from under the lid of her soup pot; a hissing of water a distance away that grew into a churning roar.
Swallowing hard, all thoughts of cloud-jumping fled from her mind as her nerve broke and Bai Qian bolted for the trees… which she never reached as she was snatched off the ground and whisked away in a blazing burst of sunlight.
⇛ Next part: 32(第三十二章) With Clear Intentions
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