“Hurry now, Qian Qian. It would be rude to keep our guests waiting too long.”
She crossed the threshold to the main area of the Fox Den. It was time for her afternoon lesson with her father. Mornings were reserved for practical instruction, primarily orientation and mobility skills training designed specifically for her. Afternoons were for lectures and tutorials.
Today’s tutorial was about the proper etiquette for serving tea to high ranking visitors. Her father wanted her to learn the protocol involved should ever they receive royal guests from families interested in having their sons court her. The Fox King was not one to stand on ostentatious displays of wealth, believing in the humbleness of hospitality instead. A host was never so high as to not serve their own guests.
For some reason, Bai Qian was particularly eager to do this lesson. She felt so at ease and happy today. Maybe because she’d been for a long, winding walk through the forest earlier. It had been so relaxing. She hadn’t been able to stop humming as she’d walked along the footpaths between the trees.
Normally lessons regarding protocol were something she hated. Bai Qian couldn’t stand having to memorize all the titles used for addressing this, that, or the other deity or immortal depending on their position.
Peach pits! What nonsense… Zhe Yan was a highly ranked god and he’d told her when she was little that he’d turn into a mockingbird if she ever addressed him as High God or Master. She remembered her father’s rare snort of amusement at her explanation when he’d asked her why she wanted to know what a mockingbird was.
His irises awash in green flame, Diao Wu smiled as he watched Bai Qian make her way to the round stone altar at the center of the sanctum through her eyes.
He had never made the connection to Bai Qian’s eyes before now. The black magic required to manipulate her brain was too strong, forcing her visual cortex to recognize shapes, forms, and colours when all it knew was sound and touch. The curse allowed him to impress a new construction of reality upon Bai Qian. Blind yet “able” to see for him. It wouldn’t be long, however, before her mind would collapse from the strain.
Diao Wu’s breath hitched at the approaching sight of the nine hooded forms seated around the altar. Having only ever glimpsed them through a blood crystal mirror he’d projected within the sanctum –a mirror that had shattered within moments; to be able to view the demonic wizards now with such clarity… The Shaman would savour every second of this and recall it for the rest of his days.
“How rude of me, Zhe Yan.” Diao Wu felt the need to address the Phoenix.
Qing Cang remained standing behind him, silently observing the veil.
“I should explain what’s going on, no?” the Shaman went on. “This temple was built in a forgotten past by a cabal of nine demon wizards. The temple was buried deep into the earth so they may cultivate and practice with powers of darkness and death undisturbed… and undetected.
The wizards achieved great things, the greatest being the ability to harvest souls and reanimate them into spectral beings they could command. It’s why I placed you here kneeling, Zhe Yan, so you may show them your due respect.
The wizards planned to create an undefeatable army of the dead to bring the living world to heel. They collected souls inside an abyss accessible by nine portals inside the sanctum. These portals could only be unlocked in unison, the Nine having to link their own life forces to open them.”
Diao Wu raised a finger in warning to Zhe Yan when the latter jerked and struggled to move. “Now, now, there’s no need to worry, Zhe Yan. Bai Qian is in no pain. She is actually quite happy and relaxed at the moment in her altered state of consciousness. However, I can easily change that and make it so it isn’t as pleasant if you don’t behave.”
Zhe Yan went perfectly still.
Diao Wu continued. “We had to be patient…”
Qing Cang scoffed at the remark directed at him.
“There was much to study and learn from their scripts and writings we were uncovering throughout the temple as we dug through it. For instance, learning how to lift the veil of shadow in order to access the sanctum. That was a major breakthrough. It allowed us to discover that none could enter without going mad from the sight… some clever defense devised by the Nine, just like the veil of shadow. We learned this from the first few scouts we sent inside once I could control the veil. As an experiment, we took the eyes out from one of the scouts and sent them in. Blindness was the key! The scout managed to find his way out again relatively unscathed. But sending in nine blinded scouts to do the task? It would never work.”
The Shaman’s robes rustled as he clasped his hands behind him. “And then came the infertile Fox Queen, who happened upon my apothecary shop while I was still living there. The solution to our problem could not have presented itself any more perfectly. It had to have been Fate, if such a thing as Fate exists for demons.”
Qing Cang laughed. Fate was a fairytale for Celestial children to believe.
“You see, Zhe Yan, studying the texts the wizards left behind, learning the black incantations necessary to prepare demon soldiers who would be sacrificed, would take me a long number of years. Just enough time for a nine-tailed fox born blind to mature into an adult of her own capable powers.”
Diao Wu paused with a sigh of pleasure. “Ah, she is among them now.”
“Are they as you saw in your blood crystal mirror?” Qing Cang asked.
“Yes.” The Shaman’s tone was one of reverence as the green flames in his irises flashed brighter.
Nine skeletons garbed in rotting grey robes sat around the altar. The finger bones of each pair of their hands all lay within an equal distance of levers before them. Had they been attempting to open the portals, or closing them, when their life forces had been sucked out?
If flesh still clung to their faces, what would their expressions be?
Diao Wu had never discovered what had killed them nor why they hadn’t risen back. With their demise, so went their writings. Whatever had befallen the nine wizards remained a mystery of the ages.
Their mistake would not be Diao Wu’s. He’d sworn to see himself and Qing Cang take their rightful place as overseers of this realm.
He focused his thoughts back to Bai Qian.
“You will be serving nine guests today, Qian Qian.” Her father’s voice was calm and soothing. “All your guests are of equal royal standing and must thus be served all at once at the same moment so as not to cause offence.”
“Yes Father, I understand.”
Standing at the edge of the table, Bai Qian fanned out her tails to slip the ends through the handles of all nine teapots that were already placed before her silent guests. “You’re doing well, Qian Qian. Your guests are smiling at you.” She was glad to hear her father say so.
Something wet and warm dripped onto her lip. She touched her fingers lightly to her mouth then lifted her hand before her.
Diao Wu’s flaming eyes narrowed as he took in Bai Qian’s bloodied fingertips. She’s bleeding from her nose. He’d been correct in his prediction that her brain wouldn’t handle this too long. Luckily there was not much left to do. She would unlock the portals and open the abyss to the physical world.
“Focus now, Qian Qian. Don’t be distracted,” her father’s voice said. She lowered her hand, instantly ignoring the ache in her forehead.
Carefully, Bai Qian wrapped her tail tips around the teapot handles all at the same time and lifted the pots, tilting them simultaneously.
Nine streams of hot tea all burbled out at once.
“Yes.” Diao Wu trembled with excitement when Bai Qian’s fox tails wrapped around each lever and with a shimmer of her magic she pulled them all forward at the same time. Nine sections of the altar grinded open amid crumbling stone and puffs of dust. Thin wisps of green mist whirled out from the openings, slithering around the fox tails hovering over them. The pain they caused Bai Qian must have been excruciating as she reacted to it through the enchantment.
Bai Qian staggered back with a whimper, whipping her tails behind her as lacerating pain shot through them. Oh no! Did she make a mistake? Did she scald herself with the hot tea, or worse, the guests?
“You served the tea correctly, Qian Qian. There was no mistake,” her father’s voice reassured her. “You can rest now, child, and listen to your mother’s song play forever in your mind. The final lesson is done.”
“It is done.” Diao Wu’s words were punctuated by a deep rumbling coming from beneath them.
The green flames in the Shaman’s eyes went out when he looked directly at Zhe Yan.
“Bai Qian is on her way out,” he lied. Who knows? Perhaps she will make it that far. She is quite strong in her own right. She may make it out the sanctum before she collapses.
How long would it take before the reanimated demon soldiers emerged? Minutes? Hours? Diao Wu could be as patient as needed.
What a glorious day for him and Qing Cang! Finally after hundreds of thousands of years…
Qing Cang eyed Diao Wu carefully from behind, noting how the Shaman shook with anticipation observing Bai Qian’s progress.
Though no practitioner of black magic, Qing Cang had felt when the fox had opened the access with the dark energies converging beneath them. Finally, he would possess a force no Celestial god nor company could hope to defeat. A legion of soldiers who could never be killed, since they were already dead. Using the dead as a weapon… death magic… the blackest of spellcraft providing him an army at his sole command. The Demon Emperor chuckled.
“Well done, Diao Wu, well done.”
Qing Cang stepped up to the Shaman and placed his hands on his shoulders, caressing his thumbs up the back of Diao Wu’s neck. Diao Wu closed his eyes at his lover’s touch.
“You foresee no difficulty with our new forces being controlled?” Qing Cang asked huskily next to Diao Wu’s ear.
“Mmm, none at all. They will obey only us. Yours and my ability to command them is set into the incantation. None other can have authority.”
Qing Cang clutched Diao Wu’s head and snapped it around from front to back.
With a dull thud, the Shaman’s body flopped dead onto the ground before a gasping Zhe Yan.
And the rumbling of the earth beneath grew stronger.
Mo Yuan had yet to encounter a single being in this labyrinth of hell. There were no guards, no soldiers anywhere. In the smoking torchlight, the place seemed abandoned. He kept to the shadows, gripping his knife tightly.
A cluster of torches planted in a triangular formation in the ground ahead drew his attention. Their flames reflected off a smooth, glass-like slab embedded in the rock wall. As Mo Yuan came closer, he discerned lines of symbols carved into a wide expanse of onyx. He frowned at writing he’d only ever seen in dust-covered, archaic manuscripts kept in the vaults of the Celestial Palace. The script was of the old demonic tongue. The first word he read was sanctum.
This was a final confirmation for Mo Yuan.
The aura of this place… the miasma of evil… the impenetrable darkness… Qing Cang and Diao Wu’s hideaway was some ancient demonic holy place, a shrine or temple deep underground.
Though unable to read the entire text, some words Mo Yuan knew from the studies he’d had on demon lore; the Nine… sacrifice… conquest… death… rebirth.
A chill went down his spine.
The spark of Zhe Yan’s essence flickered in and out of his perception, hampering his attempt to track it. His mounting frustration and growing fear for Bai Qian began to make the hold he maintained on his control tenuous.
Mo Yuan was close… dangerously close… to surrendering to instinct, unleashing his primordial form; the blood hunt of a dragon sweeping away all cultivated thought. If he allowed it to happen, the destruction he’d wrought risked injuring or killing Bai Qian and Zhe Yan, which is why he could not allow himself to give in though it called to his spirit… not yet.
A sharp clinking of metal had him diving to the opposite wall. Pressing his back flat to it, Mo Yuan inched his way along to peer around the bend before him.
What lay beyond was a massive cavernous hall, its atmosphere hazy from what Mo Yuan could smell were burning magical herbs. At the far end was a raised dais upon which were a throne chair and table. The clinking of metal was coming from chains bounding someone to the wall beside the dais. It was not the Phoenix. The ragged figure in torn robes showed no sign of knowing Mo Yuan was there.
A low growl rose from Mo Yuan as he allowed his eyes to shift. The Dragon could neither see nor sense any other predator in the immediate vicinity. Time to risk it. Mo Yuan pressed close along the walls as he crept to the far end of the hall to where the figure was chained.
It was a minor demon with a slave collar round his neck. The slave was being held upright by rusted chains, his feet loosely slipping in a pool of blood whose origin was the bleeding stumps of his arms that ended at the wrists.
“The Emp—Emperor lost his temper.”
Mo Yuan tensed. The demon must have had a fine ear to hear his approach in the silence of the hall. “I… didn’t play a song at… right tempo this time. So he beat me… cut off my hands.”
The slave’s drooping head tilted slightly as one blood-filled eye squinted up at Mo Yuan.
“You are… another Celestial… like the other one? One of… God of War’s men?”
Mo Yuan came closer but said nothing.
“I am… the last of the slaves here.” The demon broke into a hacking cough. “The other slaves… the harem girls… sent off.”
The chains clattered as the demon coughed more. “If it is… Emperor and… Shaman… you seek, they are at…veil of shadow.” The slave drew in a rattling breath. “Word was… Diao Wu captured a phoenix… trapped it there.”
Mo Yuan could tell the miserable creature was near death. “If you know how to reach this veil of shadow,” he spoke in a low voice, “tell me, and I will end your suffering mercifully.”
What at first Mo Yuan thought were more hacking coughs were actually chuckles, gurgling in blood. The demon slave was laughing.
“Mer–mercifully? Save your… mercy, Celestial. Unless… the very God… of War appeared, you can be no… match for the Emperor and his trained… shaman whore. Even then, I wonder if… the Gold… Dragon would stand a chance…”
“Do you know the way?” Mo Yuan insisted, for a split second allowing his essence to shine forth.
The slave’s eye grew wide.
“You mustn’t… approach by magic… You can’t… use magic near it. The veil will absorb… Get the flute… the flute is the key…”
A shrill cry pierced the air. That of a phoenix.
Mo Yuan grabbed the shivering demon slave by its shoulders. “Where?! What direction?!”
With choked breaths, the slave related the way to the inner tunnels.
“The veil… the sanctum… are at the end. Beware the gua…” The demon’s body jerked in a final throe of death. “Freedom… at last…” the slave whispered, the chains clinking one last time as the his body slumped forward.
Rancid air currents rose from the gaping maw of earth before him. This was the entrance to the inner tunnels, if the dead demon slave’s words were to be believed.
It was here, finally, that Mo Yuan encountered a first pair of guards –one moment standing dead still, the next laying dead at his feet. The way they had hissed, snapping their teeth as they’d lunged at him savagely at great speed… Qing Cang and his Shaman’s cruelty knew no bounds as Mo Yuan took in the mindless guards’ whitened eyes sinking further into their skulls.
Flicking the blood off his knife, the warrior ran inside.
Was it the dragon who embodied the man now, or the man who embodied the dragon? Mo Yuan’s breaths were like the soughing of the wind, and he a wild current of air that blasted past guard after guard, carrying lightning strikes which sliced through more hissing throats. The onslaught of a gale, a cutting flurry, ruthless in its precision… the warrior with but a knife in his hand, blade leading and held down along his forearm with edge out.
Toward the end of the tunnels, Mo Yuan came to a rushing halt.
A scent he would recognize forever stopped him cold. It was Bai Qian’s peach blossom fragrance…
…mixed with fox blood.
Crouching low, he reached into the shadows. His fingers sank into a sticky soft mass… a torn clump of white fox fur with bloodied flesh clinging to it.
The tunnel shook around him but Mo Yuan did not take note. His pulse roaring in his ears, the now snarling warrior sensed the flicker of a Phoenix’s essence just ahead, somewhere beyond the void at the end of this passage.
Mo Yuan exploded forward and into the blackness.
“You should be thanking me, Phoenix, rather than giving me that look of revulsion.”
Qing Cang wiped off his palms.
“Insane, Diao Wu may have been, but a genius nonetheless. I’ve no doubt he would have found a way to break whatever your defences against the veil are and take your energy for himself –something I could not allow, you understand.”
“Qian Qian… is she out yet?” Zhe Yan chanced to speak, seeing how Qing Cang’s mood had changed. The Phoenix did his best to avoid making eye contact with Diao Wu’s empty stare coming from a face now seated above the nape of his neck.
Reaching behind him, Qing Cang lifted out his halberd strapped to his back. “I cannot see through the veil, pretty bird. I doubt it though. Diao Wu was always adamant we couldn’t use the blind fox before this as it would damage her brain.”
Zhe Yan choked back a sob of despair. Tears ran down his face.
Qing Cang gazed down at the dead shaman.
“He wanted to resurrect this temple, acquire acolytes and begin a new order of demon wizards to rule jointly from here. But I never had any intention of remaining in this underground hole any longer than necessary. No, once my reanimated forces are set loose upon an unsuspecting realm, I will take my rightful place upon a charred Celestial throne under a sky turned red with hellfire. There can be only one Overlord of the realm. I will destroy this temple shortly thereafter so none other can make an army such as mine.”
Sidestepping Diao Wu’s corpse, Qing Cang approached Zhe Yan, slowly swinging his halberd to bring the tip of its blade under the Phoenix’s chin. Zhe Yan flinched as it cut him.
“I would have rather had your essence at my service than Diao Wu’s. But he would never have agreed to perform the black spells required to have your soul sacrificed to the sanctum. A waste to only be able to kill you here but again, perhaps you should thank me. Your death could have been made far less easy for you.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Zhe Yan said, having suddenly stopped crying. Qing Cang frowned at the Phoenix’s change in demeanour. “Perhaps you are just as insane as your shaman not to feel it. The ‘very far from easy death’ you mention? I sense it coming… for you, that is.”
One moment the halberd blade was slicing into his chin, the next it was clanging against the far wall as Qing Cang was sent crashing into it.
Gold irises ablaze, Mo Yuan sprang upwards from his tackling position with knife held in striking position.
Zhe Yan smiled as a silver aura glowed briefly about him and his arms dropped from the veil.
“Enter the Dragon…” the Phoenix whispered.
⇛ Next part: 37(第三十七章) Lifting the Veil
⇚ Previous part: 35(第三十五章) The Warrior