Mo Yuan tried to draw what currents of air there were to him.
There was no peach blossom scent to track.
Shrunken down, he could not command the winds nor the water. And the narrow passages would not allow for him to assume his normal size without bursting his way through –something he couldn’t risk without knowing what lay beyond the walls or how deep underground he was. Ramming his way through threatened the earth collapsing upon Bai Qian…
…if she were still here.
The God of War sent a silent prayer to Fate that Bai Qian was still within this underground place. She had to be. He refused to consider otherwise.
To hell with this.
Mo Yuan extended his senses as far as he could, desperate to detect any trace of Bai Qian. He knew that every projection of his senses released magic into the air, but either no one was paying attention or it was not enough to trigger any black spell.
His vision darkened with the strain of trying to penetrate the miasma of evil pervading the area. It was as if the Dragon were the one now being rendered blind.
On the very fringe of his consciousness, Mo Yuan caught the faintest flicker of an ember, one of a fire he recognized. The flame of a certain phoenix whose colours he’d begun to know well. Zhe Yan was here. But the man’s essence was barely perceptible. The flicker was there one moment, gone the next… unsteady, fluctuating. What could be powerful enough to affect a phoenix’s core fire?
But to the Dragon, it was just enough. It was a beacon Mo Yuan could try to home in on.
He had broken his silent promise to Zhe Yan, hadn’t he, to not let Bai Qian out of his sight. If Zhe Yan were here, chances were Bai Qian would not be far or at the very least, Zhe Yan could know where she was.
Golden eyes flashed at the scant torchlight at the end of the passage as the tiny dragon coiled up into the air.
The demonic aura permeating the walls had shielded him from detection thus far, but Mo Yuan could not travel through the rock. Without its shielding, his primordial spirit within his dragon form would be alight to any demon who may happen upon him in the open; his very essence a liability for even the dimmest light shone brightest in the pitch dark.
There was only one way.
Shifting back to his human form, Mo Yuan crouched low in the shadows, withdrawing the plain knife he always kept strapped in his boot.
The lesson he taught to all his disciples once they moved on from advanced training came to his mind. A lesson in circumspect… and humility.
We are all of immortal stock… beings of magic and abilities of great strength, able to wield and use weapons of fantastical power. But your greatest weapons will always remain your wits and your resolve.
An immortal warrior’s cultivation means little if it puts them at a disadvantage by an enemy capable of using it against them.
Someday you may find all you have is the wind at your back and but a knife in your hand to rely on.
The God of War who leads a battle with sacred sword and lightning is no more powerful than the mortal foot soldier with naught but a knife and his backbone. For it is courage and the honour of one’s cause that is any warrior’s –immortal or mortal– indefatigable power.
If not the Dragon, if not the God of War… then simply Mo Yuan, the warrior of Kunlun, would have to proceed from here.
The warrior silently edged his way down the passage to where his spark of hope lay, with naught but his wits and his resolve… and a knife with which to slay.
“So impatient,” Diao Wu complained. “We could have walked. It would have given me the extra time to assure all was set and ready.”
Qing Cang had brought them straight to the opening of the inner tunnels, as close as one could magically get to where the sanctum lay deep below.
It wasn’t possible to arrive by magic at the veil of shadow that covered the sanctum doorway. One had to reach it by mundane measures such as walking from the top of the tunnels. They’d discovered this in the first days after finding the buried Temple of the Nine. The scouts who’d been sent into the tunnels had never returned when they materialized into them.
They’d learned of the veil of shadow only when a new selection of scouts had walked in… with but one running back out in terror hours afterwards to tell of it and how the others who’d touched the veil had disintegrated in screaming mists of green.
Diao Wu greatly admired the ingenuity of the ancient cabal of nine wizards who had created it. The veil of shadow absorbed whatever magic was not black in nature that flared near it as well as absorbed the life force of the bearer of the magic for good measure.
Until the Phoenix, that is.
The Shaman was most eager to start probing Zhe Yan’s defences once Bai Qian had served her final role.
The pair of guards stationed at the gaping maw of the first tunnel was utterly silent. They stood rigid as iron bars, unblinking, barely breathing; their eyes sunken and milky white.
Not long after Mo Yuan’s spy had been discovered, Qing Cang had wanted to take no chances and commanded Diao Wu to render all the guards of the inner tunnels mindless except for one simple directive… attack and slaughter any non-demon who may happen upon this place.
The guard’s heads remained stiffly facing forward as the trio walked passed. The Shaman’s magic within Bai Qian kept the guards from attacking her, but their putrefied eyes followed her nonetheless.
Flanked by Qing Cang and Diao Wu, a cursebound Bai Qian’s own eyes were focused straight ahead. Her tails continued to billow behind her as she had no need to use them to guide her steps.
“Extra time? You assured me she was ready.” Qing Cang reached out to grab a foxtail. He roughly rubbed its silken fur between his thick fingers.
“She is ready,” the Shaman insisted with some pique. “I just prefer to take my time at this part as it is the most delicate stage of all.”
Qing Cang’s attention wandered to Bai Qian’s other tails. His gaze slowly travelled from their tips to the curve of Bai Qian’s backside where the tails emerged from a slit in her skirt.
“Perhaps we should have taken some time beforehand.” The Demon’s tone was dark, its implication unmistakeable. “It would have been interesting to discover exactly what she can do with her tails in other kinds of… scenarios.”
Descending their way through the depths to the sanctum, they passed one of the last pair of guards before the area of the veil. Two sets of dead eyes slowly tracked Bai Qian as she passed.
“I’m afraid the damage you would cause with your appetite for novelty would damage her. We need her sound and hale until she completes her task,” Diao Wu muttered.
With a grunt, the Demon Emperor released the tail he’d been holding, but not before wrenching off a clump of fur with a vicious twist which ripped off a piece of flesh along with it. Bai Qian’s face never registered the pain she must have felt.
“Stop that!” Diao Wu scolded. “We need her tails intact!”
“Just a souvenir.” Qing Cang brought the bloodied clump of white to his nostrils only to scowl in disgust.
“Gah!” He threw the clump away from him. “She stinks of flowers!”
The Shaman huffed in annoyance. Serves him right. Qing Cang would never learn that he couldn’t always touch what didn’t belong to him. The Blind Fox was Diao Wu’s masterpiece… his work of art. Just like the Phoenix’s essence would soon be.
What torches there were did nothing against the blackness which swallowed the passage ahead. No eyes could penetrate that which snaked out from the end of the tunnel bleeding into the air; a silence of sight, an absence of being.
The three rounded the last bend, their forms melting into the dark.
It was so dark outside.
Had the sky grown overcast as he’d slept? At the very least, the orchid should be glowing beside him. No, its light went out after I’d absorbed it.
The silver orchid… the silver moon orchid…
‘A flower sown by moonbeams and carried by dragons’, the ancient sea witch had written for her descendents.
Even with cloud cover, the waxing moon over Kunlun should be bright. He would have to ask the 2nd Disciple Chang Shan about that when he brought him his dinner.
Zhe Yan grimaced.
Ugh, my head.
His temple was pounding. How much wine had he drunk to be so hungover? His body was stiff and aching. He tried to stretch out his arms, and couldn’t move. Why was that?
Because I’m trapped inside the veil of shadow.
A bleary-eyed, still kneeling Zhe Yan regained his wits.
He was alone. Qing Cang was gone.
Zhe Yan winced when another splitting bolt of pain ran through his forehead. Maybe if he’d been an ostrich he would have been able to bob his head out of the way when Qing Cang had struck him.
His knees were never going to be the same after this. Zhe Yan was adamant there would be an after this. He just hadn’t figured out how yet. Perhaps if demons would be so kind as to stop clubbing him in the head he could focus a little better on the problem.
The blows he received were making his thoughts flighty. Even now, his mind must be wandering. He swore he just caught a whiff of his beloved peach blossom scented Grove.
He could hear multiple footsteps approaching from the darkness ahead. Three very different forms came into focus as they emerged. Two, he’d come to know just recently, and the third one…
“QIAN QIAN!” a frantic Zhe Yan cried out to her. But she stood unresponsive by the Shaman’s side, her face blank. Her eyes… Zhe Yan saw that Bai Qian’s eyes were focused ahead of her. Her sight was restored? Not in any natural vision.
“You filthy bastards! What have you done to her?!” His arms jerked again but still no more than that. Rage brewed inside Zhe Yan, and the silver light spun and churned deep within him… waiting…Waiting for what dammit?!!! Neither demon reacted. They couldn’t sense what was happening inside of him. They didn’t sense the orchid’s light. The agonized screech of the Phoenix caused both demons to slap their hands over their ears.
“No! Don’t!” Diao Wu jumped between Zhe Yan and Qing Cang who had his fist raised to strike the Phoenix again. Qing Cang’s fist froze mid air just before Diao Wu’s face.
“Your pet bird best keep quiet in his cage, Diao Wu. Now get on with it and get the fox going so we can leave for the surface.”
All other temple guards and remaining ghost soldiers were now amassed at the surface. The need for secrecy of the buried location no longer needed as they would shortly achieve their plan.
“Use me instead!” Zhe Yan pleaded to Diao Wu who gave the Phoenix a quizzical tilt of his head as he turned to face him. “Let Bai Qian go and I will do whatever it is you need.”
The Shaman laughed.
“I’m afraid you are not in possession of nine identical appendages we can control at once, Zhe Yan. Besides, I need your essence whole for myself.”
Diao Wu’s icy fingers sank painfully into Zhe Yan’s flesh where he clasped his face tight. “Now be good and don’t screech again. If you do not remain perfectly silent from now on, I will let him play with her here… in front of you.”
Let me? The blazing flash of red from Qing Cang’s eyes went unnoticed by the Shaman who had his back to him… but not by Zhe Yan.
Bile rising in his throat, a despondent Zhe Yan’s mouth pressed into a thin line. If there was going to be any way to help Bai Qian, he had to remain conscious and aware in order to know what was going on. The Phoenix had never been one to appeal to Fate but he sent out an anguished plea now.
Let her live and be safe… please. If there is a price to pay, I will pay it, willingly.
Diao Wu reached inside his pocket for the bone flute. Playing only half the spell key’s notes resulted in a partial opening of the veil, like a curtain half-drawn with the other half trapping Zhe Yan remaining in place.
The area immediately became flooded by the stench and strange waves of energy emitted from the exposed sanctum doorway.
“Go ahead, Qian Qian,” Diao Wu said sweetly in a gentle prodding tone a parent might assume with a child. “You know what to do. The knowledge was embedded into your mind long ago while you hummed in your sleep.”
Qian Qian! Snap out of it! But Zhe Yan knew the power of the black curse upon Bai Qian was too strong, set upon her as it had been from her very conception.
Slowly but steadily, Bai Qian walked towards the opening in the veil. The moment she stepped through, Diao Wu played the spell key’s notes in reverse in order to close the veil again.
“This won’t take long,” Diao Wu said to Zhe Yan.
The corner of Qing Cang’s mouth quirked up as he looked to Zhe Yan as well. “Yes, pretty bird. You see, it has to be done swiftly in one go before her brain burns out.”
Tears streamed down Zhe Yan’s blanched-faced. And the silver light began to simmer… waiting still. WAITING FOR WHAT!
His breath froze.
Waiting for what… or waiting for whom?
…sown by moonbeams… and carried by dragons…
The barest flicker of hope sparked in Zhe Yan. One he had to cling on to.
You wouldn’t have left her alone. Of what I’ve come to know of you, and sense from you towards her, you would not have left her alone. You’re here now somewhere, aren’t you, Dragon.
Hurry, Mo Yuan. Before it’s too late.
⇛ Next part: 36(第三十六章) The Labyrinth of Hell
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