“There’s no one here!”
The candles flickered when Zi Lan ran back into the common area, Da Bao following shortly thereafter.
Die Feng rapped his clenched fists on the stone table.
Something had indeed happened.
That uneasy feeling he’d had when Shifu hadn’t replied to the missive he sent at dawn had only grown worse as the morning progressed. It hadn’t even reached midday before he could take it no longer and decided to investigate. Before leaving Kunlun, Die Feng had informed all the disciples of what had come to pass, then quickly rounded up his Eleventh and Sixteenth brothers who were most familiar with the Lady and her ways to accompany him. Upon their arrival in Qing Qiu, they had sought out Bai Qian’s tree sprite who lived close to the Fox Den.
“No, this can’t be right.” Migu was shaking, the rustling of his leaves blending with the crinkling of the parchment he held between his hands. He’d been the first to discover the ink splattered message left on the table. Migu told them it was from Bai Qian, that the Lady used a special brush to write with.
“This can’t be true!” Migu insisted with distress. “Gu Gu would never do this. She would never…” his voice choked off.
Die Feng approached the distraught tree and gently pried knobby fingers off the edges of the suicide note. The parchment tore but he managed to retrieve it more or less intact. They would need it for proof later, should ever…
No. Die Feng did not believe it was true either.
“From what I’ve come to know of your Gu Gu,” he tried to reassure the weeping tree sprite, “this is not something she would have done, I agree. And as you now know, she was not alone. Master was watching over her. Wherever she is, Migu, Shifu is surely there as well, I swear upon my honour.” Tears still trickling, Migu nodded stiff-lipped.
Kunlun’s senior general fell quiet as he reviewed the facts once more.
The bed chamber Migu had led them to prior had been slept in that night, the blankets tousled on the bed. Shifu had been with her, Die Feng knew. All of Mo Yuan’s men were very much aware of their Shifu’s feelings towards the Queen of Qing Qiu –perhaps more so than Shifu himself.
Die Feng conjectured they had risen in the night for some reason. Bai Qian had written the suicide note, and now both were missing. Where did they go? There were no signs of disturbance in the Den. It appeared wherever they went, it was willingly. But Shifu had left no sign, no message, which meant whatever had happened had happened quickly; the candles all still being lit attested to such. The God of War had had no time to alert anyone.
Shifu would likely not be pleased that his First had told his brothers and now the tree sprite of the plan. Die Feng would surely be disciplined for not following orders. He didn’t care. He had no regrets. Zhong Yi’s fate would not be Mo Yuan’s nor Bai Qian’s. Each and every one of his brothers felt the same way and all swore they would not see Shifu, or his lady, suffer the same violent end.
“Migu, I ask that you remain here. Should Queen Bai Qian return, you are to alert me immediately.” Die Feng proceeded out of the Den with Zi Lan and Da Bao.
“Eleventh, Sixteenth, we return to Kunlun.”
Zi Lan darted in front of him. “First Senior, we can’t just do nothing!”
“We have no choice.” Die Feng’s stern expression hardened even more. “Until Shifu sends us a message or a signal, there’s nothing else we can do except prepare for battle, and keep watch over the skies. Shifu will send us a message, you know he will. And the instant we get it, we will move. I do not wish to lose any more of our family.”
Both Die Feng and Zi Lan jumped when a so far silent Da Bao punched his massive fist into a boulder on the path, cracking it in half.
“First Senior,” the Giant said with deadly calm, “we will be ready when Shifu lets us know. We will lose no more family.”
A pale dead moon hung in a sky of leaden grey, casting grim shadows upon a desolate landscape worn down by aeons of punishing winds.
The air stank of fear where the remaining ranks of temple guards and demon soldiers stood at the ready upon a barren plateau. All was silent but for the flapping of uniforms in howling swirls of dust. None dared utter a word when the Demon Emperor had emerged, alone, from the hidden access to the buried temple. If any wondered where the Shaman could be, they knew better.
They were but the living, awaiting to be joined by the dead after all.
Qing Cang stood a short distance off, his halberd pitched into the ground.
How was it possible? How had he found the temple?
There could only have been one way.
Mo Yuan had made it known he was returning to Kunlun when, in fact, he never left Qing Qiu. He must have been with the blind fox when they summoned her at a time she should have been alone. Never would it have occurred to Qing Cang that Mo Yuan would be in Bai Qian’s bed with her at the Fox Den at night.
The Demon had not missed the look on Mo Yuan’s face when the Phoenix said Qian Qian was behind the veil.
Who would have thought it possible?
The great God of War, the so-called powerful Grandmaster of Kunlun, had become besotted with some pathetic, blind female! It just proved that Mo Yuan was indeed a spineless worm, unworthy of his title. A God of War’s power lay in tyranny, not tenderness. There was no place for such aberration of force in the new order. The Immortal Realm would learn soon enough what kind of Emperor, Overlord, and War God, Qing Cang would be. A true ruler wrought discipline and obedience with an iron fist stained with blood!
It was all Diao Wu’s fault.
Had the Shaman not been so greedy and taken the Phoenix as he had, Qing Cang wouldn’t have had to kill him so soon. The plan had been perfect till that point. But even if breaking Diao Wu’s neck had been a spur of the moment decision, would the Shaman maybe having been able to sense Mo Yuan’s approach have changed anything? For that matter, how had the Phoenix managed to come free of the veil? So much for Diao Wu’s reassurances that all was set!
Mo Yuan should have tried to go for his throat before rather than watch him go. Qing Cang had left the trio behind, knowing from Mo Yuan’s look that he would stay to try to rescue Bai Qian. Why have wasted time and energy squashing the worm there? Let the spectres take care of it. Speaking of which…
The air began to ripple among the ranks of guard and soldiers.
“What the hell was that?!” one shouted as an icy fog formed at their now shifting feet. More shouts erupted as figures began to condense from a strange green vapour.
The first wave of spectres had reached the surface. And Qing Cang began to laugh as the green-misted soldiers bent the knee before him.
The living ranks trembled as they stared at their former comrades who had defied death, all for the glory of the new Demon order.
“Is there no other way?”
Zhe Yan supported Bai Qian by an elbow while Mo Yuan did the same on her other side as they helped her to her feet.
Bai Qian bit down on her lip, struggling not to shriek at the pain in her tails.
The last thing she remembered was being at the Fox Den with Mo Yuan. Where were they now? How did she get here and end up in this state? What happened? But Zhe Yan was here and he was ok. Wasn’t that what mattered most? If Mo Yuan said they needed her to get them to safety, she would do whatever she must.
Her fingers traced the edge of the cloth Mo Yuan had tied about her eyes. It was rougher than her silk band had ever been but it helped take the edge off the discombobulating sensation that something was going on behind her closed eyelids. It was a crutch she could use for now.
“We can’t use our magic till we exit the tunnels.” Mo Yuan tucked his head under Bai Qian’s arm to bring it behind his neck and over his shoulder. “Unless you wish to stumble about in the dark careening off the rock walls, Qian Qian is capable of navigating without sight. I trust her to be able to guide us out swiftly and safely!”
A reluctant Zhe Yan took Bai Qian’s other arm and slung it across the back of his shoulders as well, taking hold of her wrist. Both men now flanked her, supporting her between them.
Bai Qian wrapped a tail around each man’s waist, then she extended a pair front and outwards to fan out the sides, the remaining three tails she hovered forward before her to sweep the ground. But she had to curl up all the tips, unable to feel anything but an agonizing burning. She would have to rely solely on her tail lengths.
“Zhe Yan.” Despite her best effort, her voice was laced with pain. How had her tails come to be like this. Scalded by tea.
That made no sense.
“Zhe Yan, it’s ok. Let me help.”
She angled her face toward Mo Yuan’s. “We are somewhere where there are tunnels?” His beard brushed against her temple as he nodded.
“Yes, we’re deep underground in a place where we can’t use our magic freely until we reach the top of a long network of tunnels,” Mo Yuan quickly explained. “The tunnel walls are all chiselled rock. The ground surface is mostly hard compacted dirt. The tunnel width is approximately two and a half times your arm span. The ceiling stands about two heads tall. There will be… obstacles… you’ll encounter sprawled on the ground. Ignore the dead demon guards. Is there anything else I can tell you that may help?”
Dead demon guards? Bai Qian shook her head no.
“Is there anything else we can do to make this easier for you?” Mo Yuan asked as well.
She flexed her tails in readiness and could not quite hold back her cry of pain.
“Ah, Qian Qian.” Zhe Yan squeezed her wrist he held over his chest. “Your tails. Maybe I should take a mome–“
“There’s no time!” Mo Yuan interrupted, glancing back at the eerie glow of dead soldiers who were forming and then vanishing upwards from the sanctum doorway at a faster and faster rate.
“You said before her tails could wait and they’re going to have to. Qian Qian, I’m sorry. If there were any other way… but unless we hurry, Qing Cang is going to raise an army the likes of which the Immortal Realm cannot stand against!”
Bai Qian let out a harsh rush of breath. “I’m ok. I can do this!” she ground out through clenched teeth. “Let’s go!”
As one, the men manoeuvred her around Diao Wu’s corpse.
“The passage back to the tunnels is this way but we can no longer see it,” Mo Yuan said in her ear. “There used to be torches lit but they have likely been snuffed out the whole way.” She nodded in understanding.
All three gasped and had to steady their footing when the ground shifted hard beneath their feet. The tremors were back and stronger than before. The trio ducked their heads as dust and rubble rained down anew.
“Qian Qian, just manage for a little while,” Zhe Yan said worriedly. “Once we reach the top of the tunnels, the Dragon will take it from there and I will take you home to treat you properly.”
Both men crossed arms behind Bai Qian’s back to clasp her sides and together let her lead them where they could not see. Forward and then upwards through the passageway they went, plunged into the pitch black of the tunnel leading away from the sanctum.
Neither man saw the Shaman’s corpse go up in green flame.
The torches along the tunnels were out. The blackness was utter and complete. But with Bai Qian’s tails surrounding them, her surefooting led them steadily upwards. There were several instances when she tensed, the tails she used to sweep ahead coming still for brief moments. The dead guards… Those were the moments when she would shudder and whisper terse instructions such as: “Sidestep to the right –Move to the left–There is something to clear over in four steps.”
Zhe Yan knew Bai Qian had to be in considerable pain. The healing he had effected was but a rough patch up job. A nine-tailed fox’s tails were highly innervated. Millions of touch receptors ran through them, so extremely sensitive to the fox’s sensory nervous system that the loss of one could be fatal. And all of Bai Qian’s tails had been scorched at the ends. But what worried Zhe Yan more was the impact her unnaturally forced vision would continue to have. As they ran, he kept monitoring her pulse from her wrist he held. It was racing, of course, as all of theirs were, but that increased pressure was dangerous for her. The Phoenix knew Mo Yuan was right, however. There was no other way for now. The faster they could get out of there, the faster he could take Bai Qian away and let the Dragon go on to destroy Qing Cang which he so desperately wished to believe was all it would take to lay waste to the army of dead rising.
Zhe Yan had never been one for violence but if he could have gotten his hands on Diao Wu just then, the Shaman would have greatly regretted the luck he’d had when he’d snuck up upon Zhe Yan from behind at the lake.
Swiftly rounding another bend that only Bai Qian knew to be there, a breath of frost blew down the Phoenix’s neck.
Something was behind them… behind him. Supporting Bai Qian as they were, Zhe Yan could not turn his head to look.
“Zhe Yan?” Bai Qian slowed a little when his steps faltered.
“Mo Yuan!” Zhe Yan shouted forward to be heard above the rumbling around them. “How much further?!”
“We’re definitely past the halfway point!” Mo Yuan shouted back. “Keep going!”
The Dragon’s tone did not suggest he was aware of anything behind them. And Bai Qian’s heart rate remained the same frantic beat. Neither of his companions could feel what he was feeling.
‘Where do you think you’re going, Zhe Yan?’
Zhe Yan’s blood turned to ice as the words echoed in his ears.
The Shaman was dead. The Phoenix knew he was. He’d felt the body himself. And the gruesome realization of what the Shaman must have done filled Zhe Yan with a sickening dread.
Insane was the wrong word to describe you, Diao Wu. Evil incarnate would better suit.
So this was how the curse continued to inflict itself upon Bai Qian. Whatever black incantations Diao Wu had performed upon the demon soldiers to bring them back from the dead, he had performed upon himself as well.
‘We have unfinished business, you and I, Zhe Yan. Just as I do with my ex-lover goading upon the surface.’
Bai Qian’s tail tightened around Zhe Yan’s waist in reaction to what must have been his continuing fumbled steps. He made an effort to pick up his pace.
Without a doubt he alone could hear the dead man’s voice. Neither Mo Yuan nor Bai Qian were reacting to it.
As if knowing his thoughts, Diao Wu went on.
‘I did not rise to my position without being cautious and prepared. As you have no doubt surmised, the black magic I am master of allowed my soul to enter the sanctum and rise as well.
I still wish to possess your essence, Zhe Yan. With your powers combined to mine, I will exact such a revenge upon the Demon Emperor. Qing Cang can only kill me once but I will be able to kill him over and over again!
The Shaman’s terrible laughter rattled inside Zhe Yan’s skull.
But I have yet to discover how you were able to resist me before and how you escaped the veil. It would seem phoenixes are good at keeping secret agendas, just as demons are.’ The bitterness in Diao Wu’s hoarse voice was undeniable.
A familiar wave of dizziness struck Zhe Yan. The silver moon orchid’s light surged forth from wherever it hid, this time to concentrate itself around his heart. My heart?! Why aren’t you spilling out everywhere and…
Zhe Yan’s breath caught.
Because the core of a phoenix resides inside the heart.
And the beautiful burnt orange and cobalt blue colours of his fire essence began to swirl with the silver around it.
Mo Yuan was shouting something about feeling the return of the upper level’s air current. “Just a little further, Qian Qian, we’re nearly there!” Zhe Yan heard the Dragon call out to her.
‘I can kill them both instantly here and now.’ The Shaman’s smugness hadn’t died with him. ‘You cannot escape me, Zhe Yan. I will claim you for myself. You know I’m right behind you. But allow me to be generous once more. The dragon and the fox are of no use to me. The fox will continue to weaken, the curse will win out. Though perhaps Mo Yuan could provide me some entertainment by distracting Qing Cang. How amusing to consider the dragon could win in a fight between them. I would enjoy watching Qing Cang getting taken down in disgrace before I would deliver the first of an infinite number of fatal blows.’
Zhe Yan’s darkened field of vision flashed silver, a sterling backdrop to an illuminating flash of memory…
On the page Qiaolian marked with her finger was an image of a flower. An orchid of some kind? Lines were sketched radiating out from it. A light? Some kind of magical force? Above the orchid were drawn the four main phases of the moon. Written in ancient verse below the flower was Silver Moon Orchid. An orchid indeed.
“The light of which could serve to illuminate the darkness,” Qiaolian translated aloud.
“Silver is a lunar metal, a reflector of light,” she explained. “It cleanses as it removes negative energy and purifies as well. It’s best wielded by the hands of those with a deep emotional nature or those who already manipulate the magic of light.”
“A means to combat black magic?” Zhe Yan quickly surmised from the description. Qiaolian didn’t answer…
Heat bloomed in Zhe Yan’s chest.
“Mo Yuan!” Zhe Yan shouted as they took a sharp upturn. “About the silver moon orchid’s light…”
The three ducked their heads again when a shower of loose rock came down from the ceiling once more. Would the tunnel cave in before they reached the opening?
“You can tell me about that later!” Mo Yuan growled, running with his hand pressed on Bai Qian’s brow to shield her face.
Not too far a distance away was the faintest speck of a flame, but to Mo Yuan it was a supernova. Torchlight at the opening of the tunnel. They were nearly there!
The Phoenix finally understood as he too spotted the flicker of torchlight up ahead. He now knew why the silver orchid had chosen him to share its light with. Heavenly Mother must have foreseen this day and created the flower for her son who would need a light to guide his way through the darkness. For who else but a phoenix could embody the fire of life over death?
Resisting the veil of shadows had been but a precursor.
Letting go of Bai Qian’s side, Zhe Yan ducked his head out from under her arm and came to a stop, only to turn around.
Sure enough, standing not far behind was the glowing green-misted form of Diao Wu, gazing impassively back at him with that cruel smile on his translucent face.
“Zhe Yan!” Bai Qian cried out and Zhe Yan heard both her and Mo Yuan stumble to a halt.
“What’s wro–” Mo Yuan’s angry question cut off as the Dragon caught sight of what stood glowing behind the Phoenix.
“Mo Yuan? Zhe Yan? What’s happening?” Bai Qian hung onto Mo Yuan’s side.
When Diao Wu’s translucent hand went to rise, Zhe Yan could feel the orchid’s light flare along with his essence. Flames of orange and blue and silver engulfed him, lighting up the tunnel, and he smiled back at the now confused looking dead Shaman.
He could feel Diao Wu’s deadly black magic reaching out to strike Bai Qian and Mo Yuan, but it was blocked from getting past him.
“You two keep going.” Zhe Yan looked to Mo Yuan. It had been a while since the two shared a silent communication of gazes.
“What?!” Bai Qian tried to move towards Zhe Yan but Mo Yuan held her back.
Diao Wu’s form began to glow brighter as the Shaman drew upon more of his power to try and strike out.
“I’ll be right behind you,” Zhe Yan told his companions. “I’ll be the wind at your back,” he said directly to Mo Yuan who gave him an unreadable expression in return.
When Diao Wu lunged forward, Zhe Yan physically blocked his path.
And with a deafening rumble, a part of the ceiling collapsed; a crushing cascade of rock and dirt that sealed off the tunnel behind Zhe Yan, cutting him off from Bai Qian and Mo Yuan.
Diao Wu’s ghost form erupted into green flame.
“You want my essence, Diao Wu?” Zhe Yan’s smile grew. “Allow me to be the generous one now.” For if you are destroyed for good, your filthy curse upon Bai Qian will be destroyed with you.
Zhe Yan gave a passing thought to the latest text he’d been working on, left opened and unfinished upon his work table. He’d planned to complete it during the winter months. There just never seemed to be enough time to get everything done, did there.
Spring would return soon enough to his Peach Grove. And Zhe Yan thought about his favourite season that brought new buds to bloom in his trees, heralding the next fresh batch of peaches. It had been during a springtime long ago, hadn’t it, that a little fox girl had come to bloom into his life as well? A little fox girl who had somehow added her own rainbow of colours to his.
The silver light sank into his heart. He knew what was to come next.
Diao Wu’s spectre frowned as Zhe Yan became iridescent in hues of silver, orange, and blue.
‘What are you d—’
“What am I?” Zhe Yan interrupted. His voice had taken on a strange harmonic, one that caused it to resonate throughout the entire underground temple. “I am a Phoenix, of course. I know, I know. Ha! What can I say?” Zhe Yan laughed merrily —he did so love to make a grand exit. “I’m just too hot to handle!”
Thank you for having been my best friend, Qian Qian.
I love you.
With that, the Phoenix God of the Peach Grove ignited his soul, releasing all his colours upon a wind that exploded outwards along with his body.
And from behind the wall of rubble could be heard the heart-wrenching cry of a fox, followed by the bloodcurdling roar of fury of a dragon, finally unleashed.
⇛ Next part: 39(第三十九章) A Thousand Exploding Suns
⇚ Previous part: 37(第三十七章) Lifting the Veil