As his mind cleared further, Zhe Yan’s first concern was not for himself.
“Jia!! Where is the little one?!”
Peering into the darkness, Zhe Yan could discern the outline of white robes approaching him. He tried to move again but to no avail.
Propped on his knees, Zhe Yan was fused upon an energy field of some sort, his torso held upright with his arms spread out from his sides in some aberrant posture of mock servility. The Phoenix couldn’t move. He was like a fly stuck to honey, only the honey was poisoned with black magic. Zhe Yan could feel it pulsing against him, a grotesque sucking sensation that stopped just at the surface of his skin. It was trying to force its way inside of him…
Zhe Yan winced when an icy hand clasped his chin and forced his head up, the barrier tugging painfully at his skull as it resisted the motion. The slender demon with sleek black hair and ashen skin before him chuckled as he leaned his face close to the ensnared Phoenix’s. And Zhe Yan’s eyes grew wide when he beheld the chilling hollows of madness looking back at him.
“Are you referring to the rabbit child?” The demon sounded genuinely perplexed. “Why would you bother with such an insignificant creature? Was she a pet?”
“Was?” Zhe Yan’s voice dropped low.
An evil smile cracked the cold visage. “No need to be concerned. I chose to be generous and left her to be found beside a tree. With all the Celestials crawling through the forest like ants it should not have taken long for her to be discovered. I even healed the wolf’s bites on her.”
Zhe Yan had no reason to believe a single word the demented fiend spoke.
The demon cocked his head. “You doubt me? And yet you are witness to what I can do. I captured you easily enough, no? And without me our Demon Overlord would never have achieved all the glorious feats that he has.” He dropped his gaze with a sigh. “I’m well aware that Qing Cang having a dark shaman as a partner is not common knowledge but this will soon change once he and I take over the Immortal Realm together.”
The Shaman lifted his gaze back to Zhe Yan’s.
“If you wanted to meet me…, Diao Wu, is it?” The demon nodded at Zhe Yan. “A simple knock on the door of my cottage would have sufficed rather than a knock on my head,” Zhe Yan deadpanned. As dire a predicament as he was in, the Phoenix had to try and stay calm at all costs.
Diao Wu laughed. “I did both! May I compliment you by the way, Zhe Yan, on the peach wine you keep in your home. I hope you don’t mind. I took the liberty of helping myself to some of it while I waited for the battle to play itself out. Or should I call it a massacre instead?”
The Shaman jumped back when Zhe Yan’s anger flared and the Phoenix’s arms jerked. Demonic eyes narrowed to slits but then relaxed when it became apparent after a few moments that Zhe Yan could do no more than that.
NO! Keep moving! Keep moving! Zhe Yan pleaded with his body. But the surge of rage which had triggered his motion had not been enough to overcome the effects of the field. It had very quickly froze him back in place.
Perhaps he could do more! Zhe Yan reached for his essence to force more than just his emotion through his body, only to discover he couldn’t sense his essence at all. Was it an effect of the black magic attacking him?
But… there was something the Phoenix could feel.
As when he’d shattered Mo Yuan’s chamber door, Zhe Yan could feel the moon orchid’s glow within him; the silver light… spinning, churning… waiting… deep inside him.
“Where am I exactly?” Zhe Yan needed to stall for time until he could figure a way out of this hell. “What are you planning to do with me?”
Diao Wu smirked. “You are trapped inside the veil of shadow that seals off the inner sanctum from the rest of the underground temple. What am I planning to do with you? Why, I plan to absorb your phoenix essence to enhance my powers of course.”
Veil of shadow? Absorb my essence?!!
Zhe Yan tried not to gag when the Shaman approached him once more and ran his fingers almost lovingly across the Phoenix’s cheek. Scoffing with a grin at Zhe Yan’s grimace, the demon moved his hand to trail along the surface of the veil instead. Zhe Yan could only see the black shimmer of the veil from the corner of his eyes since the back of his head was fixed upon it.
“Remarkable, no?” Diao Wu’s tone was one of reverence. “The veil of shadow absorbs all life essence, all breath of light, if you will. And yet,” the demon stepped back and crossed his spindly arms across his chest, “other than hold you in place, it can’t seem to do much else to you at the moment. Now why is that, Zhe Yan? I confess, I am both intrigued and excited. I knew capturing you in addition to the blind fox would be worth it. Once I figure out how you’re able to resist the veil and break your defence to absorb your power, I will truly be invincible.”
“In addition to…? Bai Qian? You! You are responsible for her blindness! You are responsible for the death of Queen Ying Yue!”
The Shaman crouched before him, shaking his head sadly. “Ying Yue, Ying Yue… poor pathetic vixen. She was so desperate to have a child by her beloved Fox King, after having been told time and time again by so called healers that she could not bear children. I guess she’d never consulted you? I’m not surprised. Her infertility was something she wished to keep secret from any and all in the upper echelons of the Celestial world. She feared shaming the Fox King. She never told her husband she’d gone so far as to seek out an apothecary in the demon lands, one whom she’d heard whispered could offer her help where none other could. And she was right.”
Diao Wu looked smug.
“So easy to fool. So easy to manipulate. It was fairly simple to render her fertile. Something you could never have done. There is a rare herb that only grows in the demon lands. The herb, a few choice incantations, were all it took really. The translucent luminous pearls I told her were all I wanted as payment were but part of the ruse.”
The Shaman seemed to warm to the topic of conversation. It was as if he viewed Zhe Yan as a colleague whom he wished to show off to. That the Phoenix was revolted rather than impressed was lost on the demon.
“It was the most masterful curse I’d ever crafted til then. You see, Zhe Yan,” fervour gleamed in crazed eyes now, “I used the fact she was an accomplished musician to tailor it. It was the song I’d had her compose which included a few chords and scales from me that mattered. I had her believe the song was for her to play to her growing womb to help the pregnancy along; my parts of the song being part of the fertility spell. I told her to play it throughout her pregnancy and it would be soothing to the baby. The song was the true crux sealing the curse. Brilliant, no?”
An old memory resurfaced in Zhe Yan’s mind. A hot summer day long ago in the Peach Grove, when he and Bai Qian had spent a merry afternoon taste-testing his latest batch of wine. She’d fallen asleep on the bench outside his cottage and had surprised him by humming in her sleep. It was something he still teased her about from time to time.
“This song you had Queen Ying Yue compose and play, Bai Qian has heard it from the womb? It is linked to the curse you have woven and thus linked to you?”
Diao Wu’s expression was exultant, as if he’d been praised in the highest degree.
So if you cease to exist, Diao Wu, the curse would cease as well. Zhe Yan thought.
The Shaman reached into a pocket and pulled something out. “Music is a powerful medium for magic, as I’m sure you know, Zhe Yan. Songs of healing, songs of meditation, songs of… control. For instance, I use this bone flute to play the key of notes that lowers this veil so one may access the doorway of the sanctum. Of course, to enter the sanctum is to enter death, at least physically. I would lower the veil to show you the doorway but I’m afraid I need it in place as it is the only thing I have that can capture a brilliant source of flame such as yourself. Let it hold you until I can figure out how you’re able to resist its effects.”
The staccato beat of booted steps came up from behind the Shaman. Zhe Yan saw Diao Wu’s eyes flash with annoyance before he whirled about.
A ghost soldier emerged from the darkness and bowed deeply. “My Lord Diao Wu. The Demon Emperor demands your presence in the great hall right now.”
“Demands? So impatient…” Diao Wu muttered.
He turned back to Zhe Yan. “You will excuse me, Zhe Yan. Duty calls. But don’t worry, I’ll return soon and we can continue our talk. Don’t go anywhere.” Demented laughter faded as the Shaman disappeared into the darkness along with the soldier.
Qian Qian, whatever you do, please…
…stay by the Dragon.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” Qing Cang roared in fury. “Why were you seen carrying a Celestial into the area of the veil? You captured the Phoenix without my say so, didn’t you!”
Diao Wu scowled.
“The Wolf had attacked one of the woodland spirits and Bai Qian had given chase… along with the Dragon and the Phoenix. I killed the Wolf so he wouldn’t talk. When the opportunity presented itself to take the Phoenix unencumbered, of course I took it. His essence absorbed into mine will increase my powers by immeasurable magnitude.”
Diao Wu met Qing Cang’s furious glare with a cold one of his own.
“You killed the dog.”
“You kidnapped the Phoenix.”
“Yes. He is trapped in the veil which is having no effect upon him other than holding him in place. It’s most interesting. I mu–“
Diao Wu went flying to the ground when Qing Cang struck him hard across the face.
In an instant, the Shaman was back on his feet, green flames swirling about his body. Qing Cang did not step back.
Both men eyed each other in the terrible silence that ensued. Then Diao Wu calmly wiped the blood from the corner of his lip with the back of his hand.
Qing Cang forced his rage down.
Until Bai Qian opened the abyss for them, he could not get rid of Diao Wu. But he could not allow the Shaman to grow more powerful than he already was, he thought, eyeing the green flames about his body closely. But did Diao Wu not just say the Phoenix was somehow able to resist the effects of the veil?
If he went down there and killed the Phoenix outright, what would Diao Wu do? No, I must wait. The moment Bai Qian had fulfilled her purpose, the Phoenix, and Diao Wu, were dead.
He needed to keep a rein on his temper and keep the Shaman satisfied. Luckily that was something well within Qing Cang’s power to do, knowing Diao Wu’s appetites.
The Demon Emperor reached out slowly for Diao Wu’s blood-covered hand and raised it to his mouth. The Shaman appeared confused a moment but then moaned with pleasure when Qing Cang ran his forked tongue along the back of his knuckles. “Without the dog to report her activity, it would be wise to bring the blind fox here now.”
An aroused Diao Wu nodded. “We have a sufficient number of souls now. But the phoe–“
“Once the army is unleashed you will have ample time and freedom to amuse yourself with your new plaything, Diao Wu” Qing Cang interrupted, staring into Diao Wu’s eyes with a fierce hunger. “I will try not to be jealous of not having all your attention.”
The Shaman’s eyes lit up. He’d never thought of Qing Cang being jealous before! It gave him a strange sense of pleasure, considering his Lord wanted him all to himself.
“Word is that Mo Yuan has returned to Kunlun and is directing search efforts again to find us,” Qing Cang said, releasing Diao Wu’s hand.
Diao Wu smiled. “Then I agree now is the time for Bai Qian to come. I will need to prepare a few hours before I play the song and then it will be done as you wish it to be.”
Qing Cang smiled back. Yes, Diao Wu, now is the time and then it will be done as I wish it to be.
Heavy footsteps once again approached from the darkness.
“So it’s true. You cannot break free on your own,” said the most menacing voice Zhe Yan had ever heard, the same voice that had been speaking out of the severed head of Mo Yuan’s disciple at the gates of Kunlun.
“Qing Cang…” Zhe Yan whispered.
The Demon Emperor emerged from the black recess, scrutinizing the Phoenix with unnerving intensity. “I have never been attracted to pretty birds but it would seem my shaman is. No need to worry, Phoenix. It will soon all be over for you and the blind fox.”
Zhe Yan’s blood boiled and his arms jerked again. “NO! Leave Bai Qian alone! Haven’t you done enough to her?! Your Shaman is mad, Qing Cang. The black powers have made him insane, don’t you know?”
Qing Cang slammed the side of Zhe Yan’s head with his fist, knocking him unconscious.
“Yes, of course I know Diao Wu is mad. But all that matters in the end is that I am not.”
“You need to eat something, Qian Qian.”
Mo Yuan took in the dark circles under Bai Qian’s eyes. She’d barely eaten since the attack, let alone sleep.
It was late evening as they sat alone at the kitchen table in the Fox Den.
Bai Qian’s tree sprite had initially wanted to stay at the Den during the nights, not wanting her to be alone knowing how upset Bai Qian was about Zhe Yan. Bai Qian had been able to convince Migu she would be fine, making pots of soup if she couldn’t sleep. She’d told Migu he should tend to the Beekeeper instead who was still recovering from her injuries. Migu’s foliage had wilted a little with guilt but he’d listened to Bai Qian and left.
None but Die Feng knew that Mo Yuan was still there, in Qing Qiu, staying with Bai Qian in the Fox Den. Everyone believed the Gold Dragon had returned to Kunlun, continuing to coordinate efforts to track the whereabouts of the Demon Emperor when in fact it was Die Feng overseeing things back on Kunlun. Mo Yuan stayed at Bai Qian’s side as per their plan, cloaking his essence and remaining invisible when others were present.
It had been a sombre and nerve-wracking three days; the funerals, the clean up, the search for Zhe Yan turning up nothing. Then there were Tianjun’s missives demanding Mo Yuan report directly to him rather than by simply sending scrolls.
Earlier that evening, the kindly Mother Rabbit and little Jia had come by, bringing their Gu Gu some food to eat as they knew how distraught she was with all that had happened. Mo Yuan had been cloaked the whole time and had watched as the Mother Rabbit had embraced Bai Qian and thanked her for saving Jia and Delun. The boy was fast on the mend apparently. Mo Yuan was especially pleased to see the little girl. The gleam of excitement in the child’s eyes was dimmed a little but not completely gone. She had wrapped her arms tightly around her Gu Gu’s legs and kissed her cheek when Bai Qian leaned down to hug her.
The Mother Rabbit told Bai Qian that all her children were helping in the search for the Phoenix. Every able woodland spirit was combing the forest and the Grove daily for any signs of him.
Like Bai Qian, Zhe Yan was well-loved by the people of Qing Qiu, Mo Yuan observed. The Phoenix’s disappearance worried them all, but none more so than their Gu Gu.
‘What could have happened to him?’ Bai Qian hadn’t stopped asking Mo Yuan since they discovered him missing. Had Zhe Yan been taken by someone? By whom? Who could be powerful enough to overwhelm the ancient Phoenix? Could it have been this shaman of Qing Cang’s? Why? What harm had gentle Zhe Yan ever brought on to the likes of the Demon Emperor?
Mo Yuan had no ready answers for her.
Bai Qian pulled her hands away from the bowl. “I’m not hungry,” she said quietly.
“If Zhe Yan were here, he’d scold you for not keeping your strength up. You won’t be able to help him when the time comes if you faint. Then what would the Phoenix say?”
Bai Qian’s lips thinned and her hands balled up. But then with a shaky breath she reached forward for the steaming bowl again.
“I placed the spoon upright in the stew,” Mo Yuan told her. She nodded without a word.
After a few mouthfuls, she pushed the bowl aside to reach for the feather she’d been carrying with her constantly the last three days. Mo Yuan knew Bai Qian took comfort in holding it. The feather was proof that Zhe Yan still lived. For if the Phoenix were dead, the feather would have disintegrated in flames. An attempt to trace the Phoenix using his feather had proven futile. The spell upon it tracked but the one way.
Was taking Zhe Yan part of the scheme to get Bai Qian? Was it about holding Zhe Yan hostage until she deliver herself somehow?
Mo Yuan watched Bai Qian’s fingers ripple back and forth along the edge of the plume.
“I think Zhe Yan would not care to see his precious tail feather ruffled that way,” Mo Yuan said softly. “He’ll expect it in pristine condition when you return it to him.”
Bai Qian clenched the feather tighter in her hand.
“Zhe Yan always takes pride in his appearance, it’s true,” Bai Qian said in a quiet voice, the longest sentence she’d uttered in the last day and a half. “It’s why I was so shocked when he gave me this feather.”
She drew in another shaky breath. “One of the few things in my life I regret not being able to see with my eyes is Zhe Yan’s true phoenix form. Father told me he’d once observed Zhe Yan take flight from the Peach Grove. His feathers are supposedly a magnificent blend of burnt orange which resembles the heart of a fire and cobalt blue which resembles the heart of the sky.”
A sad smile crossed Bai Qian’s face as her words began to flow.
“Zhe Yan’s love of colours and show. It was the reason I sought him out when I was a child and we became best friends, did you know? Zhe Yan taught me so many things I would never have otherwise come to know.”
Mo Yuan gently wiped away the tear that trickled down Bai Qian’s cheek. “I know that Zhe Yan is perceived by many as an eccentric and buffoon, but the truth is, Zhe Yan has a great capacity for love. It’s just his… preference of colours… is rather unique and throws others off.”
“I understand,” Mo Yuan said, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze.
They sat in silence for a short while.
“I don’t think I would have ever learned how to laugh had it not been for Zhe Yan,” Bai Qian whispered.
“Or have acquired such a vivid repertoire of dragon insults.” Mo Yuan desperately sought to make her smile again.
But a now expressionless Bai Qian fell silent once more.
Mo Yuan’s hand still on hers, he could feel it tremble with exhaustion.
“You need to get some sleep.”
Bai Qian shook her head stubbornly. “I have to find Zhe Yan. I have to–“
“We will find him, Qian Qian. Come now,” Mo Yuan insisted.
She must indeed have been exhausted, given how she didn’t resist when he pulled her up gently from her chair and led her to her chamber. Seating her on her bed, Mo Yuan stroked her arm and wiped her wet cheeks again with his fingers. When she jerked her face away and went to stand, he pulled her down along with him, wrapping his arm around her waist.
He lightly caressed her with waves of his essence as he’d done back on Kunlun to soothe her. Unlike then, her rigid body did not resist long. He felt her muscles relax and her limbs go slack as an exhausted fox finally succumbed to sleep.
Stroking her hair gently, Mo Yuan increased the temperature of his body to keep Bai Qian warm.
His thoughts drifted back to the Phoenix.
I know what you’re thinking. Rest assured, I will not let her out of my sight until this is ended, Zhe Yan. You have my word.
Mo Yuan thought back to the first time he’d met the Phoenix, at a banquet in the Heavens where ironically Queen Ying Yue had performed. He’d immediately pegged the Phoenix as overly flamboyant and talkative. But tonight, he found himself grateful the Phoenix had been part of Bai Qian’s life. Would she have been so fearless and carefree with Mo Yuan otherwise had it not been for Zhe Yan’s influence in her life?
It had been three nights since Mo Yuan had slept also, having kept his constant vigil upon Bai Qian. He felt the heaviness of his eyelids now as he rested beside her. Snatching a few hours of sleep with her would serve him well. He knew to expect a missive from Die Feng before dawn so he would get up then.
Mo Yuan’s thoughts turned again to when he’d first met the Phoenix. He’d greatly enjoyed listening to Queen Ying Yue’s performance that day.
The notes of one of the guqin songs began to play in his mind as Mo Yuan lowered himself and Bai Qian to the mattress and drifted off to sleep with her in his arms.
⇛ Next part: 34(第三十四章) A Compelling Refrain
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