Crouched by his chamber doorway, a frowning Mo Yuan examined the splintered remains of his door.
I never considered you would do something so stupid as cloud-jump on your own. I should have bound you and locked you inside the elixir cauldron chamber before leaving Kunlun. Even the Phoenix with his unexpected trick here would not have been able to free you from there.
Once again, she tried to rush past him.
“Damn dragon!!” Bai Qian shouted when, once again, he silently caught her and slung her over his shoulder to plunk her down onto his bed.
Mo Yuan wanted to know how the Phoenix had been able to break through his barrier. He wanted to ask Bai Qian what she knew of how Zhe Yan had managed it. But the God of War did not quite trust himself to speak just yet.
His anger at the foolish endangerment of her life by cloud-jumping blind, and at having tossed him into the lake, still simmered too close to the surface of his barely held calm.
Bai Qian had no idea how close she’d come to being…
Mo Yuan felt his eyes flash as he thought back to the lake.
When her fox tails had shot out towards him, it had taken an extreme act of will not to react in that split second so as not to injure her. Had he not held himself back, Bai Qian would never have gotten a hold on him as she did. But never did Mo Yuan expect she would go so far as to toss him into the lake.
He had lost his temper, the dragon within him erupting when he’d struck the water.
There was no doubting any longer that something about Bai Qian affected him on a primal level. In a way Mo Yuan had never felt before. Anyone else who would have tried to attack him as she had would have been quickly neutralized by him, meeting with the edge of his blade… or worse.
Seizing her with the leathery pads of his talons, he’d launched swiftly into the air, the lightning ceasing once he reached the level of the clouds. But as tempting the thought of cooling off her temper, and his, by flying them all the way back to Kunlun, Mo Yuan had instead jumped them straight to the main terrace of Kunlun’s temple.
Far was the night when Mo Yuan had cradled a sleeping Bai Qian in his arms to carry to her bed. Returning to his human form, the God of War had slung a squirming, indignant Queen over his shoulder to march straight inside the temple. Who knew she possessed the colourful repertoire of choice insults that she did, damn dragon being the most benign of the list so far –no doubt the Phoenix’s influence.
Because all apprentices and students were still in lock down in their quarters, only Chang Shan had witnessed the spectacle of his Shifu’s arrival and journey through the corridors with the Queen of Qing Qiu being hauled like a sack over his shoulder. His Second had nodded to him without uttering a word when he passed him with Bai Qian railing and cursing and pounding on Mo Yuan’s back. The immobilizing bolt of magic Mo Yuan maintained at the base of her tails kept her from being able to move them.
“I need to return to Qing Qiu,” Mo Yuan had managed to say with forced calm as he headed for his chamber.
“As do I, you scaly-brained lightning lizard!” an upside-down suspended Bai Qian had yelled.
That was one he’d never heard before.
“You’re making a mistake, Grandmaster!” Why had it continued to bother him when she used his title that way.
“I made a mistake, my Lady. I am not making one now,” Mo Yuan had corrected through clenched teeth as he rounded the final corner.
“I’m such a fool.”
The hot tears brimming in Bai Qian’s eyes began to spill down her cheeks.
“I should never have let my heart come unguarded and opened myself to you. You’d think I would have learned. You too only wanted to use me for some advantage to yourself. “
The temperature in the chamber plummeted. Mo Yuan crossed his arms over his chest as he stood before her.
“Are you implying I am like that tiger boy?” His voice was very quiet.
“No, because at least Jinbing made his intentions clear when he tried to force himself upon me!”
When Bai Qian went to bolt up off the bed again, she dropped back with a wince, clasping her side. Mo Yuan’s gaze darkened as he took in the bruises now evident on her skin. How did she end up so battered? Crashing into obstacles racing through the market, he was quick to guess. Zhe Yan had healed Bai Qian’s torn hands at the lake, but had gotten sidetracked with saving Jia. Bai Qian’s bruises must only be making themselves felt now that her adrenaline was nearly spent.
“Qian Qian.” Mo Yuan moved forward to help her. Ready this time, he caught her wrist before she could slap him again.
“Bai Qian.” A dragon’s warning growl resonated through the chamber as he slowly released her arm. “I would never dishonour you in the manner you’re implying. When I first met you, yes, I wanted to know if you bore any ill intent. But I swiftly sensed and determined almost straightaway that you were innocent of any wrongdoing.”
“Innocent of any wrongdoing?!” Bai Qian sputtered, balling her hand which had fallen to her lap into a fist. “Wrongdoing?!! What the hell kind of wrongdoing did you think me responsible for?!”
“I am trying to convey to you the truth of the matter,” Mo Yuan said, eyeing her fist. Was she going to take a swing at him?
“Truth?!! By keeping your intentions to yourself? Just what is the truth to you, Grandmaster?!”
In a snarling burst of motion, Mo Yuan seized Bai Qian’s shoulders and pushed her flat onto the bed, pinning her there so she could not strike out at him, maintaining his lock on her tails which lay limp beneath her.
“The truth, Bai Qian?” Mo Yuan’s voice was deadly calm. “I accepted Zhe Yan’s request and invited you to Kunlun because of Zhong Yi’s note. I had never met you before. My intention was to get to know you to see if there was anything to connect you to the demons.”
A seething Bai Qian blanched. “Spy on me is what you mean! Get off of me, you overbearing, overinflated wind snake!”
“And I did get to know you,” Mo Yuan continued, ignoring her retort and her insult. “Thief that you are.” He could engage in a little name calling as well.
“I got to know a wondrous, magnificent woman who despite every reason to be bitter with life had a warm and cheerful disposition, who possessed laughter and curiosity in abundance, yet brazenly stole mine from me. You stole my laughter, Qian Qian; stole my curiosity, stole my affection, and… stole my heart as well.”
“Don’t say that!” Bai Qian shouted, angry tears now streaming down her face.
“Put yourself in my place, Bai Qian!” an exasperated Mo Yuan shouted now, clasping her arms tighter. “Innocent lives lost, butchered. Celestial soldiers killed in demon attack after demon attack with no cause, no clues, no leads, till one day the God of War receives from his brave disciple a note that said ‘Blind Fox’. Tell me, Queen of Qing Qiu, what would you have done in my place, knowing more lives, more innocent souls like little Jia’s, were at risk of being slaughtered for what all intents and purposes seems to be but sport for the likes of Qing Cang?!”
Bai Qian went still. For many tense moments the only sound was that of his and her harsh rasps of breath.
“I would have wanted to meet the Blind Fox for myself,” Bai Qian conceded in a whisper.
“And when the opportunity presented itself in so serendipitous a manner as the Phoenix’s request –which I had nothing to do with?”
“I would have accepted,” her reply was tinged with sorrow.
Pulling her up into his arms, Mo Yuan embraced a rigid Bai Qian tightly.
“I’m sorry, Qian Qian. While I do not ask forgiveness for performing my duty to protect lives as the God of War, I do ask your forgiveness for hurting you by not revealing my intentions and my feelings sooner.” He let his cultivation caress her in gentle waves, soothing the sting and pain of her bruises. Then with a deep breath, Mo Yuan lowered his defenses so she may feel the raw essence of his soul. Bai Qian’s breath hitched as he conveyed to her all he wished in the one way he could not deceive her by.
The tension bled away from Bai Qian’s body and Mo Yuan let go of her, releasing his bolt on her tails. She sat on the bed with her head down not saying a word. Kneeling before her, Mo Yuan brought one of her trembling hands to his pounding heart. “Upon my honour, upon my heart, upon my soul that you are the only one to have ever felt, Qian Qian, my feelings for you are sincere.”
Time slowed to a crawl as Mo Yuan waited. And when finally Bai Qian’s hand stopped trembling, he lifted it to settle her fingertips in his beard. She pulled them back.
Bai Qian had listened to him and believed him, but forgiven him? Not entirely, not yet.
Her chestnut eyes no longer shed tears as they blinked, unfocused, upon where she knew his face was.
“Qian Qian, I must return to Qing Qiu. Please don’t fight me on this anymore. I would prefer to have your acceptance to stay here until–“
“Mo Yuan,” she interrupted, “Do you think Qing Cang or his shaman know about the note your disciple sent you?”
Mo Yuan cocked his head.
“No, Qing Cang would have launched his attack sooner if he had. And I know Zhong Yi, he would never have spoken a word even under…” Mo Yuan’s voice tightened, “…torture or curse. He would have wiped the memory of the note from his mind the moment he sent it. It is a tactic the disciples have all learned.”
“Qing Cang didn’t sound surprised when he mentioned my being here on Kunlun.” Bai Qian shuddered, recalling the distorted voice she knew now emerged from the poor 4th Disciple’s head.
Mo Yuan’s gaze narrowed. What was Bai Qian getting at?
“You said before, Mo Yuan, that you thought the Wolf had been killed by the Shaman.”
“Yes, Qian Qian. Even if you don’t want to believe me when I say Qing Cang wants you for some reason, consider the Wolf; how he’d bolted from the Market, what he’d done to Jia.”
“You think the Wolf was connected somehow to Qing Cang.”
Mo Yuan nodded though she couldn’t see. “It is what I believe. The Wolf was in Qing Qiu to keep an eye on you. Was it a secret that Zhe Yan was bringing you here to investigate the properties of the silver moon orchid?”
Bai Qian shook her head. “No, Migu knew of course, which means the beekeeper did as well. I know the tea merchant would have known if Zhe Yan went to ask about certain leaves and herbs.”
Mo Yuan rubbed a hand over his brow. “It wouldn’t have been difficult for the Wolf to learn this. He was likely reporting anything unusual and any of your comings and goings. He was killed to ensure he would not reveal what he’d been doing.”
“The Wolf wasn’t there the day you came to the Market,” Bai Qian remarked. “He never witnessed us together.” Mo Yuan could see the wheels turning in Bai Qian’s head.
“So they are unaware of the note,” Bai Qian resumed her earlier point, “and the Wolf had been telling them of only my comings and goings. Qing Cang and the Shaman have no reason to believe anything other than Zhe Yan has been bringing me to Kunlun for the orchid to cure my blindness.”
Mo Yuan watched the pupils of her eyes dilate slowly.
“You insist Qing Cang wants me for something.” She lifted her hand to still his reply.
“Then I cannot stay here, Mo Yuan. I need to return to Qing Qiu and stay in the Fox Den as I would be expected to given what has happened –as I would be expected to do.”
Was she implying what he thought she was?
“You know I’m right, Mo Yuan. If Qing Cang does want me, though I remain unconvinced, this can be the way to bring it all to an end for you. Let me go back to Qing Qiu and do what I would be expected to do after an attack in my land, what Qing Cang would be expecting me to do; deal with the aftermath, tend to the injured,” Bai Qian’s voice caught, “and the dead.”
Mo Yuan stood up abruptly.
Qing Cang had goaded Bai Qian but had not tried to have her taken from Qing Qiu during the heat of the battle as far as he knew. Why? Surely if Diao Wu had been there he would have known Bai Qian was too.
And why mount such a one-sided attack yet have the demon soldiers slain much more easily and faster than in any attack before. Why? To upset Bai Qian… To shake her confidence, her resolve… to render her despondent. What would that achieve? A depressed, humiliated queen, one who would feel helpless… useless… though Mo Yuan knew nothing could be further from the truth.
“You propose to be used as bait.” Mo Yuan scooped a large splinter off the floor and crushed it in his fist. “With all due respect to the Phoenix, I cannot allow you out of my sight in Qing Qiu.”
“Then stay with me there!” Bai Qian burst out with.
Mo Yuan walked away from the bed and started to pace the room. His stormy gaze roamed his chamber… looking for what? Something to strike.
“You know I’m right.”
Yes, Qian Qian. I know you’re right. And I want nothing more than for it to work so I may finally seek justice and retribution upon the Demon monster who has caused so much death and bloodshed. But at what risk to you?
Mo Yuan’s eyes fell upon the tiny gold dragon upon his treasure shelf. Its crystal heart twinkled in the ambient light… Jia’s added special touch; the little rabbit who somehow knew the Dragon God of War would hold a heart formed in a peach blossom dear. Mo Yuan fervently hoped the girl would not suffer lifelong trauma from her experience this day.
To save all the little Jia’s in their world, Mo Yuan would do what he must. That Bai Qian had willingly offered to help and come up with her plan herself was something he was grateful not to have had to do.
“If we do this, Qian Qian,” Mo Yuan stared at the peach blossom shaped heart, “it must remain a secret. None other than Die Feng, you, and Zhe Yan can know that I am there with you and not on Kunlun.” He drew in a deep breath. “You are putting yourself in a danger far graver than any you face from cloud-jumping. You must agree to follow any and all of my orders or else I am sealing you in here right now. And I know even the Phoenix will not disagree with me doing so if he hasn’t already come to the conclusion that the Demon Emperor wants you. You will follow my orders without question or else I am not allowing this.”
“Agreed,” Bai Qian said without hesitation as she stood up, her tails fanning all round her. “Now please, Mo Yuan, take me to the Mushroom Market directly.”
Migu’s leaves rustled loudly as he ran to her and hugged her tight.
Bai Qian’s tree sprite was the first to have spotted them when she and Mo Yuan arrived. “Migu, are you alright?”
The beekeeper’s tired voice answered for him. “Migu is a true warrior, Gu Gu,” the beekeeper spoke with her buzzing lisp. “He skewered dozens of demons using his branches and roots before they could attack anyone else.” Indeed the tree sprite’s twigs and branches were stained with demon blood, Mo Yuan saw.
Bai Qian tightened her hug about her loyal tree sprite.
Mo Yuan gave the beekeeper an appreciative nod. “Your bees are a force to be reckoned with.” The beekeeper, clutching a bandaged arm close to her side, gave him a weak smile, “I would rather collect honey than blood, High God.”
Migu let go of Bai Qian to steady the beekeeper when she swayed a little.
“Where is Fenfang?” Bai Qian asked.
“I’m here, Gu Gu.” The Mushroom Fairy’s voice came up from behind.
“Eleventh, Sixteenth” Mo Yuan eyed his dynamic fighting duo. The Giant’s maces dripped demon gore, as well as Zi Lan’s rope dart and chain whip.
“Shifu,” Da Bao bowed. “We are coordinating the search and rescue parties as well as rendering aid to the injured, almost all of whom are inhabitants of Qing Qiu.” The Giant’s fearsome rumble of anger vibrated through the air.
“There were few injuries amongst the Celestial troops,” Zi Lan continued. “The Mushroom Fairy, Fenfang, has been invaluable in her assistance with our efforts.”
“Fenfang…” Bai Qian’s voice became urgent. “How many, Fenfang?”
The Mushroom Fairy drew in a ragged breath, knowing what Bai Qian was asking. “Sixty-two confirmed dead so far, scores injured. There are still those unaccounted for but many hid in the forest which is being searched. I told my sprites to go there and–”
Bai Qian reached for Fenfang who took her hand. “Fenfang, I came across them in the forest before. Lele went to hide, Rourou… ” Bai Qian couldn’t finish.
“No…” Fenfang’s whisper shook with a stifled sob.
“I’m so sorry, Fenfang,” Bai Qian said.
Mo Yuan was noting the efficiency with which the Celestial soldiers were clearing off debris from the paths and carrying the injured off to a makeshift medical tent on the field outside the Market entrance.
“Sixteenth.” He turned to his swiftest disciple. “Find Die Feng in the forest and tell him to report to me outside the entrance.”
Zi Lan bowed then sped off in a blur. Mo Yuan’s gaze narrowed on the pale, gashed face of the Mushroom Fairy. “You had better seek medical aid yourself. You can be of no use to anyone if you fall over.”
The fairy’s black-eyed gaze hardened. “I’m fine. Until everyone else is–” Da Bao sidled up to the fairy. “I am on my way now to the tent, Shifu. I will bring her.”
“Is Master Zhe Yan not with you, Lady?” Da Bao asked. “We could use his help with the wounded.”
Bai Qian frowned. Zhe Yan is not here? “He must have gone to his cottage to fetch some of his special medicines.”
“Gu Gu,” Fenfang reluctantly allowed herself to be helped by the Giant, “about the casualties. There is a makeshift morgue…”
“Yes, we will have to identify everyone and notify family. Funerals will need to be arranged,” Bai Qian said as steadily as she could.
“Bai Qian,” Mo Yuan hesitated. “What of your father?” Bai Qian understood what Mo Yuan was asking. Why was there no sign of the Fox King?
“In his last missive to me, my father said he was going to explore the underground caverns beneath the Ice Seas of the North. There’d be no one there with him nor anyone to let him know of the lightning signal you set in the sky, yes?” She turned to where she knew Mo Yuan stood.
“Yes, a lightning signal,” Mo Yuan confirmed. Bai Qian nodded. “My father will be unaware of what has happened here and there is no way to contact him until he returns to the surface.”
“Shifu!” Die Feng was at the Market entryway.
“I need to speak with my second-in-command,” Mo Yuan said, excusing himself from the group.
“Lady,” Da Bao spoke. “I will escort Fenfang to the medical tent now. It is set up on the field near the entry.
“Lead the way, Da Bao. I will follow you.”
Bai Qian did her best to comfort those who reached out to her in the medical tent. Holding their hands, offering words of comfort, using her magic to soothe their pain as best she could though she was no healer and in no perfect shape herself. The question so many uttered was why? Why attack Qing Qiu? Of what importance was their quiet little land to the likes of the Demon Emperor? Bai Qian had no answer for that, except for the one that echoed in her head which she didn’t want to listen to… that if she were to believe what Mo Yuan did, it had everything to do with her.
“Gu Gu?” Delun. The boy’s voice came from up ahead. Bai Qian found the boy on a mat, surrounded by the voices of his entire family. “Gu Gu!” the frantic Mother Rabbit cried. “Where’s Jia?!”
?? Hadn’t Zhe Yan brought Jia to her family?
Before Bai Qian could speak, the Mother Rabbit cried out and dashed off towards where the tent opening was. “Delun?” Bai Qian asked in a rush of breath. “Tell me what’s going on!”
“It’s Jia!” The rabbit boy’s relief was evident. “There is a man who looks like one of the Grandmaster’s disciples holding her in his arms and she’s reaching out to our mother now.”
Bai Qian swiftly made her way back to the front of the tent, using her tails to avoid bumping into anyone. She sensed Mo Yuan approach from the outside. “Seventh, report,” Mo Yuan ordered. “Where did you find this child?”
“Shifu,” Gao Fushuai answered, “The girl was alone, curled up asleep against the base of a tree in the forest. When we approached her, she awoke and cried for her mother.”
Mo Yuan’s tone was edged with steel. “Alone?”
“Yes, Shifu. We brought her back here immediately.”
Bai Qian shook her head. “That makes no sense. Why would Zhe Yan leave her alone in the forest? Where is he then? Where’s Zhe Yan?” A sickening sense of dread settled in Bai Qian’s chest. She tried reaching out with her magic for Zhe Yan’s colourful touch. There was nothing, but it was hard to get through the aura of pain and fear of those in the tent.
“Jia?” Bai Qian advanced to where she could hear the little girl crying in her mother’s arms. “Jia, you’re safe now. The wolf is dead.” Every woodland spirit within earshot gasped. “He can’t ever hurt you again, Jia. So please tell me, where did Zhe Yan go?”
Her little friend’s tears subsided a little. Bai Qian used the tip of one of her tails to gently feel for then wipe the girl’s face. “Gu Gu,” Jia sniffled. “I… I… didn’t see Master Zhe Yan. There was just Delun, then the w-w-wolf and then I woke up in the forest and this man helped me.”
Icy tendrils wrapped around Bai Qian’s heart and squeezed in a crush. The blood rushing in her ears made her dizzy.
And as if from the end of a very long tunnel, she could hear Mo Yuan issue orders for any men who could be spared to head immediately to the Peach Grove, giving exact directions to the Phoenix’s cottage.
No… there must be some mistake. Bai Qian was finding it hard to breathe.
“Ah, awake finally are you?”
In the pitch darkness, it was impossible to see a thing. The stale air and the smell of decay was overwhelming. “Where… where am I?” Unable to move, Zhe Yan struggled to speak.
“Welcome to the inner sanctum of the Temple of the Nine, Phoenix of the Peach Grove. I am Diao Wu, Shaman to the Great Lord Qing Cang. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
⇛ Next part: 33(第三十三章) A Dragon’s Vigil
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