The paper slipped from Jinjing’s suddenly weak fingers. The wax seal was broken but the note remained unread. He couldn’t make himself read the words written in the War God’s bold, precise handwriting. Not yet. What should I do? Jinjing hadn’t felt cornered to this extent in a long time. His instincts screamed at him to run but he remained seated, struggling to find a sense of calm. He had never had so much to lose so he couldn’t allow himself to give into the panic still roiling beneath the surface.
If Mo Yuan knew I was the one who betrayed Bai Qian’s presence to Weisheng, he wouldn’t bother to send me a letter. He and Ye Hua would confront me directly.
The panic quieted, like a fire banked but not yet extinguished. Jinjing reached for the paper but stopped short of picking it up. Maybe Mo Yuan wanted him to use his skill as a spy to help find out who had betrayed Bai Qian and Ye Hua. Jinjing grinned. Wouldn’t that be a fortuitous turn of events? He would have a unique opportunity to push all the blame toward Weisheng and away from himself.
Mo Yuan wouldn’t ask an outsider to become involved in his brother’s personal affair. Not when he and Ye Hua are capable of investigating the matter themselves.
Jinjing’s bravado faltered, his smile fading. He knew better than to engage in wild speculation. It would get him nowhere. There was only one way to find out what Mo Yuan wanted. Reaching for the paper again, Jinjing picked it up and unfolded it. His gaze lingered on the message and the list of names at the bottom, unsure what to think.
The order was a very general one. Mo Yuan and Ye Hua wanted to speak with the soldiers listed at the bottom individually; Jinjing’s name was one from among a couple of dozen. There was no mention of what it was Mo Yuan and Ye Hua wanted to discuss but an order written in this format was usually not about anything of importance. Mo Yuan had likely written one copy by hand and then magically copied it onto additional pieces of paper to send to the listed soldiers. Jinjing and the other generals used the technique themselves when a common order needed to be given to a certain group of soldiers.
Tapping a corner of the paper onto the surface of his desk, Jinjing waited for a wave of relief to wash over him. But it didn’t. He frowned. The order seemed innocuous, like something that was sent out often. Why were his instincts still telling him to run?
It was no secret Ye Hua and Mo Yuan’s attention right now was consumed by the hunt for the traitor and keeping Bai Qian out of harm’s way. The idea that this order could be about anything other than what had happened to Bai Qian didn’t seem possible. And yet that appeared to be true. Unless…
He studied the list of names again. His name was on the top but he was also the highest ranking soldier named. He spotted other names he recognized though it took him a few minutes to understand why because they weren’t men currently under his command. Was it… yes, the surveillance program during the Demon War. Almost half of the soldiers listed had been under his command at the time. They may not know it’s me yet but I think they’re getting closer.
Jinjing glanced at the hidden drawer where he kept the transformation spell he had purchased from the apothecary. Was he prepared to give up everything he had worked for based on his instincts alone? Why not speak with them? He could give the twins information that would lead them to look in another direction other than his own. It would be too late by the time they realized their mistake. It would be easy to deceive them. The idea tempted Jinjing.
No. The risks are too great. Mo Yuan would sense his deception. And maybe Ye Hua too. Jinjing would raise their suspicions about him if they weren’t raised already. They will know if I meet with them.
He would never leave the Heavens alive once that happened. They would imprison him until all his treacheries and plans had been exposed and then he would be executed for treason. The possibility was enough to spur him into action.
Jinjing stood and hurried over to the hidden drawer and grabbed the bottle containing the transformation spell. He tucked it away carefully into a small concealed pocket of his leather satchel. Then he stuffed extra clothes and other useful items along with his most important belongings into it before tying the flap closed. It was time to put his escape plan into action. He didn’t bother to destroy evidence of his betrayal before leaving his quarters. The twins would discover his identity soon enough and it no longer mattered.
Let them try to find me. I will enjoy hearing about their failure.
Salty, ocean air greeted Jinjing when he appeared at the shared border between the land of the Ghost Tribe and that of the Merpeople. He had chosen this spot when planning for a possible escape several weeks ago because it was out of the way and avoided the notice of the Heavens. The Merpeople were the weakest of the Dark Tribes. Nobody would think to look for him on their land.
Now that he was away from the Heavens, Jinjing summoned a jade bowl from his family’s estate to use for the spell and tucked it into his satchel. It was stored in a little used room in the house so his family would likely not notice it missing for some time. He tried not to let his thoughts linger on his parents because of the shame he was about to bring upon them. One day he would make it up to them.
There was a small, rundown Mer village nearby. Jinjing planned to find the most dilapidated cottage in the area and steal the home and life of the person living there. He would have to stay in hiding a long time before he could try to start his life anew, something Jinjing had always been loath to do. But it would keep him safe from the fury of Ye Hua and Mo Yuan.
It was a sound plan and Jinjing was willing to go through with it right up until the moment he was standing in front of a rundown shack tilted so far to the right it appeared it would fall over with the faintest breath of wind. He stepped back into the shadows cast by a grove of trees growing on the edge of the sandy shoreline when the rickety door opened with a harsh grating sound.
An old, filthy merman limped out of the shack, leaning heavily on a walking stick clutched with trembling fingers. Jinjing grimaced when the man’s odor reached him. He glanced around at the other homes in the village to see if there were more promising choices. There were none.
Fury ignited within Jinjing. He deserved better than this. He was a general in the Celestial military, a position he had worked hard to earn. He came from a well-respected family that watched over the lives of all the people living in his home town near the Eastern Sea. Yes, it was true that he had managed to uncover secret information from the Celestial royal family. But it had been that information that had helped Weisheng start down a path that could lead to greatness. The impetuous Demon King would have gotten nowhere without Jinjing’s help.
He will get no further without my help and all my planning will have been for naught. In some ways, this last thought angered Jinjing more than anything else. He studied his surroundings again. Was he really going to give up and just languish here in the middle of nowhere?
I deserve better than this rundown Mer village. I am the one who is destined for greatness and Weisheng owes me. He will give me what I deserve. I will take everything from him.
He had a new plan now and it was no longer about escape. He felt optimistic once more.
Mind made up, Jinjing stepped up behind the old merman who had stopped to rest. He owed this man for helping him find a different path forward. He wrapped his arm around the elderly man’s neck and tightened his muscles, cutting off the man’s breath. His gills were likely worthless outside of the water but Jinjing wrapped magic around them to block them just to be sure. Dragging him into the trees, Jinjing only released his relentless grip once the elder stopped squirming and all life had slipped away from him.
“Now I’ve released you from your miserable, stinking life, old man,” Jinjing murmured before stepping away. The merman’s body fell to the ground, his lifeless eyes fixed on Jinjing as he cloud-jumped to the Demon Realm.
It would be to his benefit to avoid notice by the Demons so Jinjing arrived in a corridor not far from Weisheng’s study, breaking protocol by entering the palace unannounced. A weak barrier of demon magic pushed back against him but he easily brushed it aside. The Demons had always depended on the harsh environment of their land and the confusing maze of corridors within their fortress more than magic to keep out trespassers. He grinned. Luck was on his side; the long stone passageway was empty and he sensed no magical alarms had been triggered.
Walking on silent feet, Jinjing crept along the passage. He kept to the shadowed areas in between the flickering torches as he made his way to Weisheng’s study, slowly pushing the door open to peek inside. The room was empty, a low fire smoldering in the fireplace. At first, he was disappointed to find Weisheng was not at his desk but then Jinjing realized this gave him a better opportunity to catch the Demon King off guard.
He moved to a spot in a back corner of the room where he would be partially hidden by the side of a bookcase and wrapped a concealment barrier around himself. Then he removed a sharp dagger from its sheath, keeping it at the ready. Now he just needed to wait.
Several hours passed with no sign of the Demon King and Jinjing’s patience was wearing thin. How long should he wait before seeking out Weisheng elsewhere in the palace? How much time did he have? Had Mo Yuan discovered his flight from the Heavens yet? I should have sent a reply asking to schedule a time to speak with him and Ye Hua in a few weeks. That would have bought me some extra time. Or would that also have seemed suspicious to the War God? It was difficult to tell what might alert Mo Yuan.
The sound of boots scuffing stone outside the door stopped Jinjing right before he was about to step away from his hiding place. He strengthened his concealment magic and backed further into the corner as the door to the room swung open. Weisheng entered along with one of his generals.
“How do you want me to handle it?” the General asked as he closed the door behind him.
“Things will remain the same for the time being,” Weisheng replied. “Though I believe he is coming to the end of his usefulness, I can’t make any big moves until I have Bai Qian under my control. I will decide how to deal with Jinjing once he has handed her over to me.”
“Yes, my lord,” the General replied.
“That will be all.”
The General bowed at Weisheng’s dismissal and exited the room. The Demon King sat at his desk and started sifting through a stack of papers, seemingly unaware he was being watched.
Jinjing tightened his grip on the dagger, rage rushing through him. After all he had done for that useless Demon, Weisheng was planning to betray him. He wouldn’t even know of Bai Qian’s existence if Jinjing hadn’t alerted him to it. If he had possessed any lingering doubts about his change in plan, they would have evaporated right then.
Glaring at the Demon’s back, he forced himself to remain patient just a little while longer. Jinjing had to be sure they were truly alone before he acted. A misstep now could ruin everything.
When Weisheng locked the door and stirred the fire in the fireplace back to life with his magic, Jinjing knew his time had finally come. Dagger at the ready, he crept closer to Weisheng with noiseless footsteps, his concealment magic still strong and in place. He grinned as he stood right behind his target. The stupid Demon didn’t even have any defensive spells set up in his study to alert him to Jinjing’s presence or to counteract his magic. His folly was Jinjing’s gain.
As Weisheng reached for the brush and ink well on his desk, Jinjing’s concealment spell expanded and morphed into a privacy barrier that wrapped around the room. While his spell was changing, he grabbed Weisheng from behind, yanking the Demon to his feet roughly. The ink well fell to its side with a clatter, black ink draining onto the wood. Weisheng cried out but the sound cut off when Jinjing pressed his dagger into the side of his neck.
“Don’t make another sound,” Jinjing ordered harshly, increasing the pressure of the dagger’s blade digging into Weisheng’s skin. Then he waited to see if anyone had heard Weisheng’s shout. Had the privacy barrier gone up in time to block it? The next few minutes were tense, the only sound in the room Weisheng’s ragged breaths, as they waited to see if any demons were coming to help their King.
Jinjing’s senses were filled with the smell of Weisheng’s fear. It was so strong he could practically taste it and it urged him on. The Demon put up no defense, surprising Jinjing until he remembered that Weisheng was depending on him to capture Bai Qian. The Demon’s hands were tied if he wanted to carry out his plan. This was going to be easier than first thought. “Nobody’s coming to help you,” Jinjing said when the door to the study remained closed.
“How did you get in here?” Weisheng growled. He started to push back against Jinjing’s hold but stopped when the dagger blade bit further into his skin.
“Your security measures are lacking,” Jinjing responded conversationally. “Something I plan to change. Our partnership is over, Weisheng.”
“The letter,” Weisheng said, his voice wavering with fear. He tried to pull Jinjing’s hand away. “Don’t forget about the letter revealing everything. It will be sent to the Heavens the second I die.”
“Send it. They already know I’m the traitor.”
With those words, Weisheng finally summoned his magic and tried to lash out at Jinjing as if he now realized the Dragon had nothing left to lose and would kill him without a second thought. His strike was useless against the defensive shield Jinjing snapped into place. He struggled desperately against Jinjing’s hold when his attack failed.
“You’ll never get away with this.”
“I already have,” Jinjing murmured before he slid the dagger across Weisheng’s throat, slicing him deeply. The pulsing spray of blood told Jinjing he had cut the artery. He loosened his hold and watched without remorse as his body crumpled to the floor. Weisheng was dead within minutes.
Something akin to pleasure filled Jinjing as he looked around his new study. The Demon Realm would be his once the transformation was complete. The realization of the power he now held was a heady feeling, one he could get used to.
He removed the jade bowl from his satchel and carried it over to Weisheng’s lifeless body. Then he lifted the Demon’s head and neck, holding the bowl under the ragged wound he had made so blood could drain into it. Once the bottom of the bowl was completely coated with blood, Jinjing dropped Weisheng’s head, satisfied with the hollow thud it made as it struck the stone floor.
Per the apothecary’s instructions, he needed to add the potion to the blood before it clotted. He summoned the small bottle from his satchel and poured the dark grey concoction into it. It swirled chaotically with the blood until it sparked and thickened. Then it changed in color to the deep black of a starless night. It was now time to add the additional components. The more he added the more complete the transformation would be.
He started with something easy, collecting a lock of Weisheng’s black hair with his dagger. He added it to the bowl. Then he sliced through the skin of his cheek and added the chunk of flesh to the potion. He removed the tip of a finger from Weisheng’s dominant hand and added it. He hesitated a brief moment before digging one of Weisheng’s eyes out of its socket, the typically sharp green irises dull and lifeless. He added it to the potion with a wet plunk before he cracked Weisheng’s ribs and skull in order to collect pieces from the demon’s heart and brain.
The potion sizzled and smoked with every ingredient added, growing ever more powerful. Jinjing stoked the flames in the fireplace, coaxing them to greater life with his magic. Once the fire was blazing hot, he placed the jade bowl within it and allowed the spell to feed off the energy until it was boiling. Everything he had added melted and then thickened into a brown bubbling paste. He removed the bowl from the fire, gagging at the rancid stench wafting from the potion.
He stared at the bowl before him and grimaced with distaste. There was just one final step and then the spell would be complete. Jinjing hesitated, the apothecary’s words coming back to him. ‘It is driven by sacrifice… the greater the sacrifice the more powerful the effect of the spell. Are you still interested?’
“I am,” he said aloud to help gather his fortitude. He had come too far now to back out. There was only one way forward for him. He had given this final step a lot of thought and he knew what he needed to do. He searched for a strip of cloth he had stored in his satchel and then brought it and his dagger to the desk once he had found it.
Jinjing took his dagger with his left hand, the grip less comfortable in his nondominant hand. Then he spread the fingers of his right hand out on the surface of the desk, palm down. He may be a skilled spy but he was also a soldier who depended on his sword and dagger to protect him and to slay enemies during combat. There was no greater sacrifice for a soldier than the intentional loss of a finger from his sword hand.
He lifted the dagger and placed it first against his little finger but then moved it to the middle finger instead. A great sacrifice should be difficult to overcome. He hesitated. You’re acting a coward. Do it.
Again, Jinjing hesitated. The pain would be excruciating but should not be dulled with magic in case it made his sacrifice become lesser. Nor should he heal it with magic. He could not risk weakening the strength of the spell.
“Do it,” he growled aloud and slammed the dagger down with all his might before he could debate his decision any more.
He screamed as his middle finger was severed at the second knuckle, dropping his dagger to the floor. The pain was sharp and excruciating as sensitive nerves were exposed to the cool air. Blood gushed from the wound. Blackness creeped in around the edges of his vision when he spotted bone. Breathing raggedly, he closed his eyes for just a moment before opening them again. His right hand and entire arm throbbed with a pain more intense than he had anticipated. And blood continued to drain from the place where his middle finger should be.
Fighting off both dizziness and nausea, Jinjing leaned heavily against the desk and weakly groped for the cloth with his left hand. Sweat beaded on his brow. He did not allow himself to sink to the floor. If he did, he may not get back upright again in time to complete the spell. It was impossible to bind his wound with his left hand so he used magic to wrap the cloth strip around his hand and the stump of his finger and tied it tightly to apply pressure. He grunted as the pressure of the cloth renewed his agony before the pain dulled to a terrible aching throb.
Picking up his severed finger with a shaking left hand, Jinjing dropped it into the paste in the jade bowl and pulsed his magic into it before stepping back. At first, nothing happened and he feared all had been for nothing. The spell wasn’t going to work. But then, a bright magenta flame surrounded the bowl, scorching the outside before it disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared.
Jinjing approached the blackened bowl cautiously and looked inside. The thick paste had thinned to a liquid consistency and the potion was now clear as spring water. This was a good sign. The clearer the potion, the stronger the spell. His sacrifice had been worth it. He sank to his knees and lifted it to his lips, checking the smell. It had no scent now. He drank the flavorless liquid in one go before dropping the bowl to the stone floor where the jade shattered like glass.
White hot heat burned through his body and limbs. He could feel the magic zapping down his nerves and vessels before his dragon essence began to retreat into his core. His flesh, his very being, began to shift and change. Jinjing groaned. His whole body stiffened and then he went limp before blacking out.
He had no idea how long he lay there motionless on the floor of Weisheng’s… his study. When he came to, Jinjing felt different. His dragon magic was still there but it was hidden away in a place that was difficult to reach. The predominant magic running through him now was cold, so cold it stung. Demon magic. I’m a demon now.
Jinjing shifted his body over and grabbed the strap of his satchel to fish out the mirror he had brought. He looked into it. Green eyes stared back at him instead of the familiar brown. His face was younger and clean shaven. I’m Weisheng. Only that wasn’t completely true, was it?
The apothecary had warned him that there was no magic powerful enough to change one person completely into another. This spell was the closest one could get to such a transformation but Jinjing’s dragon essence, his core, was still there. It was hidden but it had not disappeared. He needed to be careful. Most people would never notice a difference between him and Weisheng but a discerning person could see the truth if they looked closely enough. And if he ever used his dragon magic again, the spell would be broken and his identity would return for all to see.
He staggered to his feet, glancing down at his right hand. Though he felt a little stronger now, the finger from his right hand was still bandaged and missing. And it still pulsed with pain. He needed to find out if Weisheng had a healer in the palace who could dress the wound properly and make him an herbal tea to help relieve some of the pain. And he needed to come up with a believable explanation for why he was now missing a finger.
But first, he needed to get rid of Weisheng’s body. This was as good a time to test out his new demon magic as any. An icy chill ran through his left arm when he swept his hand over Weisheng’s body and green fire leapt from his fingers as he made it disappear, sending it into the underground cavern in the Mortal Realm forest where they had found the dragon talon sword. Nobody would find his corpse rotting there.
He cleared away all the blood seeping into the stone floor. The ink and blood stains on the desk he kept, wanting to preserve them as reminders of his sacrifice and of the great magic he had done. He tested his privacy barrier and found it still in place only now it was composed of demon magic.
Then he checked the hidden alcove where he knew Weisheng had been keeping the sword and the jar containing Bai Zhi’s heart. The rock wall shifted when he placed his hand in the place he had watched Weisheng place his hand to reveal the hidden items. They were both there right where he had hoped they would be.
His gaze lingered on Bai Zhi’s heart. Soon he would have a second fox heart and some fox tails to utilize for his own purposes. He couldn’t wait to have all that powerful fox magic at his disposal. And he would need to begin teaching the Demon soldiers and the other Dark Tribes’ soldiers new battle formations. Jinjing was familiar with the war masters Mo Yuan had studied under and he had a good idea of the strategies and battle formations the War God would likely use in battle.
With this inside knowledge, the magic of the nine-tailed foxes, and the might of the Dark Tribes united behind him, Jining would conquer the Heavens. Only then would he cast off the spell giving him Weisheng’s identity and rule the realms as Emperor Jinjing.
A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts and Jinjing magically sealed the hidden alcove once more, hiding his precious items from view. Then he lowered the privacy barrier from around the room.
“Enter,” he called out, moving his bandaged hand out of sight.
“King Weisheng,” a demon servant said, greeting him when he entered the study. “It is time for the noon meal. Would you like it brought to your study?”
“Yes,” Jinjing said. “I also need to see the Healer immediately. And arrange a meeting with the generals. I have some new battle plans to discuss with them.”
“Yes, my lord,” the Demon servant said, bowing again. “I’ll see to it right away.”
Jinjing grinned, pleased with his new title of Demon King. Never had he held such complete power. Everything was turning out better than he could have ever hoped. Now it was time to start putting his plans into action.
⇚ Previous part: Ch 48: A Step Back
⇛ Next part: Ch 50: The Light of the Pearls