Mo Yuan braced when the translucent hand of the undead Shaman rose, prepared to shield Bai Qian with his body, futile gesture though it would likely prove to be.
Black magic… Mo Yuan’s skin crawled from the concentrated presence of it so close, its putrid stench rolling off Diao Wu’s apparition. About to push Bai Qian behind him, Mo Yuan squinted against a brilliant flash of silver aura that erupted around the Phoenix, throwing the crumbling tunnel into blazing relief. It was an aura traced with the burnt orange and cobalt blue flames of Zhe Yan’s pure essence. So bright it was that even Bai Qian reacted, jerking at the light passing through her makeshift blindfold and closed eyelids.
No longer the flickering ember Mo Yuan barely perceived, the Phoenix’s magnificent essence was visible in all its fiery brilliance. So much so that Mo Yuan could actually see the tendrils of dark force slamming against it, trying to reach past the Phoenix but unable to.
Zhe Yan turned his head to look at Mo Yuan. A glint of silver in the Phoenix’s eyes punctuated the message Mo Yuan easily understood.
Leave here with Bai Qian.
Silver light… The Phoenix had somehow absorbed the glow of the silver moon orchid flower. The flower Mo Yuan had touched for himself, one his disciples and apprentices had touched as well, had shared something wondrous and magical with the colourful man whose grace under fire would put any warrior of honour to shame.
As God of War, Mo Yuan had engaged in enough battles to know when a fight did not belong to him.
Mo Yuan’s battle waited upon the surface.
Bai Qian was fast losing what little strength she still had. Unable to stand on her own without Mo Yuan’s support, she nonetheless tried to move towards Zhe Yan. Mo Yuan knew what the Phoenix was saying about keeping up right behind them was solely for her benefit. Mo Yuan knew that was not what was going to happen. The Phoenix’s expression was very clear.
“I’ll be the wind at your back.” Zhe Yan’s next words were directed at him. The lesson of the warrior… Somehow Mo Yuan doubted his knife would serve any use against Diao Wu as he was now.
The Shaman’s green glow flared as he must have drawn upon more power to try and counter the Phoenix’s. When the Shaman lunged, Zhe Yan put himself in the path. And with a bone-jarring tremor, the roof of the tunnel behind the Phoenix collapsed, sealing them off from each other.
Mo Yuan scrambled back from the cascading wall of rubble with Bai Qian.
“What happened, Zhe Yan? Zhe Yan?” Bai Qian coughed from the dust choking the air. Mo Yuan couldn’t answer her. Not here, not like this. He had to get her out, now.
Scooping Bai Qian up into his arms, Mo Yuan spun round and broke into the fastest sprint of his life towards the torchlight at the far opening above.
And over the pounding of his heart and the harsh rush of his breath, Mo Yuan heard the Phoenix’s final words resonate through the tunnel.
‘What am I? I am a Phoenix, of course. I know, I know. Ha! What can I say? I’m just too hot to handle!’
You had the heart of a warrior, Zhe Yan. I will make sure your sacrifice matters. And I will take care of Bai Qian, because I love her too.
Bai Qian’s fox cry pierced through Mo Yuan’s chest before she went limp in his grasp.
The final trigger. It was enough. The constant threat of losing control since he’d come here was a threat no longer. With a furious roar, the dragon god surrendered to his primordial spirit.
Let it be done. Let it be ended. Once and for all, Qing Cang, I am coming for you.
A split moment of infinity, released like a thousand exploding suns, was outshone by only the spirit whose soul was carried outwards.
The Shaman’s scream was soundless as the shock front of unstoppable force obliterated all trace of him and his evil malice and black magic into nothingness.
A churning whirlpool of silver fire now whistled its way, spinning and twisting down tunnels in radiant torrents. It shredded then disintegrated the veil of shadow it struck. And in a violent rush of energy, it wiped out the spectral forms at the doorway as it flooded the inner sanctum; pouring over and into the portal openings of the altar, extinguishing the wisps of green mist escaping from them.
Another shock wave of the expanding blast smashed through the altar, pulverizing it to dust; destroying the sanctum, destroying the connecting tunnels and the halls… destroying everything.
The entire temple structure collapsed as its evil was purged in a purifying sterling firestorm.
And once it was done, as quickly as it had ignited, the lustrous blaze went out. All that remained in the recesses of crushed earth were but a few scattered silver sparks, suspended in the rock…
…which began to draw back and converge into a sparkling ball of burnt orange and cobalt blue that sizzled and smoked.
The pain in her head and her tails was nothing compared to the one crushing her heart.
Bai Qian had heard Zhe Yan’s words echo all around her. She’d recognized that particular laugh of his, the one that always preceded him doing something flamboyant… Zhe Yan, being Zhe Yan, after all.
And now there was but a stifling silence where his laughter should have continued to be.
Zhe Yan… no…
Overwhelming anguish cut off her cry, sapping her of what little strength she had left. Her head slumped against Mo Yuan’s neck as her body gave out in his arms.
Mo Yuan’s roar rippled through her as he started to run. She couldn’t tell if she managed to raise her tails away from the ground, unable to feel them any longer. But what she did feel through the press of her forehead was the flesh of Mo Yuan’s neck begin to harden.
Flesh thickening, shifting into hard scale; arms growing wider as hands lengthened and narrowed, fingers transforming into sharp points. A pounding heartbeat changed to a thunderous one.
The last thing Bai Qian felt before losing consciousness was Zhe Yan’s essence washing over them both, the Phoenix becoming the wind at her Dragon’s back.
A fresh current from behind allowed the Gold Dragon to soar. Wrapping his precious bundle in a ball of protective light, the Dragon now called upon the ever-present lightning within him to slice through rock and earth as his horns smashed through the collapsing opening of the inner tunnel. The Dragon rode the jet of silver which propelled him faster towards the surface, his body coiling and curling to shelter Bai Qian.
Qing Cang wrenched his halberd out of the ground.
One moment the orderly ranks of living and dead were before him, the next, pandemonium as he and the live soldiers lost their footing when the ground heaved, splitting open with steaming fissures and crisscrossing bolts of lightning shooting up into the sky.
Unaffected by the buckling earth, the spectres held their positions.
Qing Cang launched himself backwards onto a cliff just as a flash of silver erupted from the plateau. He watched the dead soldiers’ green-misted bodies shimmer within it then resettled.
Something was tunnelling up from deep below, something fast, something roaring…
The living soldiers were further tossed like rags when the Gold Dragon exploded out of the plateau with lightning crackling against his golden scales.
And in his front talons, he held the fox goddess in a ball of light.
“ATTACK THE DRAGON! KILL HIM! KILL THE WORM!” Qing Cang bellowed at his incomplete legion of the dead and the scrambling living. The spectral soldiers led the charge as both groups ran towards where the Dragon now hovered over a ridged peak.
Mo Yuan lay an unconscious Bai Qian inside the nook of a rocky outcrop.
Spiralling upwards, he flew in concentric circles, drawing upon the billowing storm clouds he generated to form a cyclone of lightning around her. It was the most powerful protection he could set –one that cost him his ability to retain his dragon form for long as it drew upon his own raw essence for its strength. But nothing would get through it, not this time… not unless he were dead.
With one last glance at his Fox, the Dragon launched himself straight for the fog of death charging at him in the form of spectral soldiers. Coasting to the ground, Mo Yuan’s feet struck the surface running, his hand extended as he summoned his longsword to it.
But before he crossed halfway, fifteen white bursts of cloud mist appeared between him and the charging spectres. Mo Yuan’s fifteen disciples, all at the ready in full battle gear.
“Shifu!” Die Feng shouted.
“For Zhong Yi! For the Phoenix!” Mo Yuan cried out, never breaking his pace, and his men took up the chorus as they too charged the oncoming wall of the dead.
Rage gave way to incredulity as Qing Cang watched Mo Yuan prioritize “protecting” the fox, who had to still be alive then, wasting what element of surprise he may have had to pour his essence into a lightning barrier around her.
The phoenix was nowhere to be seen.
Qing Cang couldn’t help but chuckle maliciously now.
Could Mo Yuan have made it any easier for him, the Demon thought, as the former shifted to human form and charged across the field? Did the Grandmaster of Kunlun just choose to give up his sole advantage in a fight to protect a woman?!
Love, Mo Yuan? Really? Was that all it took in the end to bring the worm down? Qing Cang would have preferred to be able to mount a gold dragon’s head above his new throne but would have to settle with dismembering the sentimental fool of a Celestial God of War instead.
When Kunlun’s disciples appeared, Qing Cang launched himself over the heads of his army, their ranks parting to allow their Overlord to face off with Mo Yuan directly.
Halberd and longsword connected with a concussive blast.
God and Demon eyed each other over their locked weapons.
“Aww, did the pretty bird not make it out?” Qing Cang leered. “Your foolish attempt to protect the fox will be your last mistake, Mo Yuan!”
Not wishing to waste his breath with a reply, Mo Yuan sidestepped in one smooth motion, drawing back his sword to slice diagonally from below. Countering with a strike from its handle, Qing Cang leapt back and started to spin his halberd over his head.
“Your men will be butchered, Mo Yuan! My army of dead cannot be defeated!”
But from the corner of his eye, the forward lunging Mo Yuan saw otherwise.
Die Feng swung his broadsword, the blade carving through a living demon’s chest, slicing the heart. The struck demon did not combust in a black mist as it fell dead.
Stepping back, Die Feng slashed the tip of his sword backwards over his head, splitting open the skull of another demon who’d been charging him from behind.
One of the aberrations came running at him now, with a sword of green vapour like its form. Having no time to dodge, the First Disciple instinctively drew up his blade to intercept. But how could steel stop mist?
The jarring contact of both blades stunned Die Feng before he smiled and flipped his sword tip down to sweep sideways, eviscerating the spectre that disintegrated in an odd shimmer of silver.
The spectres could be stopped! They were vulnerable to physical attack just like the living! Die Feng called out the news as he charged another green-misted soldier.
One by one, the disciples picked up the call as their brothers shouted it out to each other.
Zi Lan twined the rope of his dart round his elbow and projected his shot from his side into the side of the demon running up from the left. Once the dart punctured the demon’s rib cage, a spinning 16th Disciple took up the slack by wrapping the rope around his shoulders then throwing it under his armpit to sling diagonally across his back.
When his dart shot forward again on the subsequent down spin to pierce through the translucent head of a spectre, Zi Lan let out a triumphant shout. He leapt high to land on Da Bao’s shoulders before jumping into a thigh spin to launch his rope dart once more.
A half dozen demons flew over his head as he landed, a tribal mountain howl drowning out their death cries.
Twin iron maces swept to and fro, bludgeoning, pounding, as the Giant made swift work of both the corporeal and incorporeal enemy. The corner of his mouth rose when he eyed a steaming fissure to his right. It was too good an opportunity to ignore.
The 11th Disciple twirled his maces to brace them the length of his bare forearms. Leaning forward, he rammed full force into a cluster of demons, hurling them backwards to fall to their doom through the rent earth.
Da Bao slammed the heavy heads of his maces together over his head with a brassy clang as he straightened. The Giant let out a booming guffaw at the same time, one that could have been mistaken for an earthquake… laughing.
The battle wore on. For the dozen upon dozen of demon soldiers taken down, every Kunlun disciple remained standing.
When the first contingent of Celestial soldiers finally made their appearance, the spectral soldiers had all been destroyed, and the living demon forces had been reduced to but a few pockets who were easily defeated or rounded up.
His battle with Mo Yuan having taken him away from the fray of action, an incensed Qing Cang raged, seeing from a distance what was happening to what should have been his army of death.
With a renewed burst of strength, Qing Cang violently slashed the blade of his halberd sideways to cleave Mo Yuan’s face but was caught off guard by a completely unfamiliar defensive manoeuvre from Mo Yuan.
The latter dropped into a spinning crouch, whipping his longsword in a circle just above the ground. And as the halberd sliced through empty air where Mo Yuan’s head just was, the Demon was forced to scramble backwards to avoid being slashed at the ankles, his footing becoming unbalanced. In that moment, Mo Yuan catapulted himself into the air, tucking his knees into his chest to somersault high overhead. As he arced over Qing Cang, Mo Yuan hooked his longsword flat-bladed under the arm of the unsuspecting Demon, the momentum lifting Qing Cang clean off the ground to flip over Mo Yuan’s head as the latter came out of his airborne roll to land solidly in a kneeling crouch.
The Demon sprang back to his feet, spitting out blood. Mo Yuan wiped his own blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. Both adversaries were covered in cuts, both heaving from exertion, both at a stalemate seemingly evenly matched.
“Love has made you weak, Mo Yuan.” Qing Cang spat again. “Know that once I kill you, I’m going over to that rock to snatch Bai Qian away for my own carnal pleasure in another hideaway I have in the Demon Lands. I will make my slaves watch until she finally expires with her mouth crushed around my swollen length!”
A fury like none he had ever felt before set Mo Yuan’s blood on fire, and a madness of wild ferocity consumed him. Roaring at the top of his lungs, what should have been impossible, happened. A pure bolt of lightning drawn from his essence shot out his arm to roll along the blade of his longsword.
In a charged spin of incredible force, the God of War swung his sword down, splitting the Demon’s halberd lengthwise to then plunge directly through Qing Cang’s chest and out through his back –incinerating the monster’s insides with the lightning that boiled out the gurgling Demon’s eyes.
Both halves of the halberd clattered to the ground, Qing Cang’s body crashing down upon them.
An exhausted Mo Yuan leaned over the steaming corpse. The running footfalls of his men were approaching from behind.
“You’re wrong,” he whispered hoarsely to the dead Qing Cang. “Love has made me stronger.”
And shifting into his dragon which should have been impossible as well, Mo Yuan flew to where he’d left Bai Qian.
The disciples watched the Gold Dragon soar, then clustered round to take in the sight of the vanquished Demon Emperor. Heads snapped up when they all felt a strange surge of energy.
“First Senior?” the 7th Disciple Gao Fushuai frowned as they all looked down at the ground beneath their feet. “Is–is that…? It feels just like…”
… the pulsing waves of an essence, being sent out like a beacon, by someone who loves to make his arrival known… Die Feng knew exactly what it was.
Molten lava spewed forth from the fissures just as a shrill cry had them all clapping their hands over their ears, all grinning madly as a fiery Phoenix gloriously rose from the ashes.
Angry shouts… the clanging of metal upon metal…
She could hear these through a crackling, gusting rotation of air surrounding her. After several feeble attempts, Bai Qian had finally been able to move her arm upwards enough for her fingers to hook onto the cloth bound around her head and pull it up. Eyes tearing, she forced them to remain open a crack.
The barrage of…noise…assailing her vision did not pain her as much as before. Was it because the edges had shrunk and a familiar void of blankness began to fill in?
An electrical sizzle sent static up her arms. There was the telltale smell of scorched air.
Was that what stung every time it appeared? She recognized the rapid swishing of water. That had to be what was streaming between the bolts.
Through it all, Bai Qian discerned… spaces. She could make out more motion through them. This was how her ears had picked up the sounds of battle, followed by sounds of victory, followed by a shrill cry that made her shed new tears, but of joy.
Her eyelids opened wider when the water and the lightning vanished in a rush and the feel of sunlight fell upon her in the form that approached.
Mo Yuan. The form that dropped beside her and lifted her was Mo Yuan.
Bai Qian did her best to blink hard. Wasn’t that how the sighted focused?
“Qian Qian, can you see? Look up to the sky.”
Mo Yuan gently cupped her face as she struggled to direct her gaze towards a spectacular view that made her heart sing.
So this is what the heart of a fire and the heart of a sky look like.
Too weak to speak, Bai Qian marvelled in silence at the sight of Zhe Yan in his Phoenix form circling above.
But her vision was dimming faster now, the blank edges filling in more and more.
Turning her head, she stared at Mo Yuan’s face. He seemed lost for words too as her trembling fingers reached up to lightly sweep his eyebrows, the bridge of his nose, the curve of his lips, then the bristle of his beard. And when she saw him smile at her, she smiled back, before her hand dropped.
A fresh breeze swept across the landscape, the leaden sky wavered as its clouds began to unravel for the first time in an age. And the sounds that were not sounds completely disappeared from Bai Qian’s eyes, her eyelids closing as the song of motion ended.
Bai Qian could hear Mo Yuan frantically calling out her name from a growing distance. But she was so tired. She only wanted to sleep.
Would Mo Yuan hold her in his arms again while she slept? Bai Qian liked it… when he did.
She liked… it… very… mu…
⇛ Next part: 40(第四十章) When Calls the Heart
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