It was in the dead of night that Jinjing decided to make his move. He had long since ripped up his angry letter to Weisheng and burned it into ashes. Forget the letter. Jinjing needed to confront the Demon King in person. And he could take the opportunity to remedy another problem after he had finished speaking to Weisheng.
If Jinjing were going to risk everything by sneaking away from the Heavens, he wanted to make the most of the dangerous venture. He didn’t really have a choice, did he? There was already too much at stake… much more than he had originally intended. But he was committed to it now after everything that had happened. Jinjing had no doubt Weisheng would make good on his earlier threat to reveal all. Just as Jinjing had no doubt that Mo Yuan and Ye Hua would eventually find him. It was crucial he be smarter going forward.
Jinjing needed to find a way to ensure Weisheng’s ambitious scheme to harness the magic contained in Bai Zhi’s heart came to fruition. The demon could use that power along with the dragon talon sword to rally the other dark clans around him and cast off the rule of the Heavens. Jinjing had been skeptical when he had first learned of the plan but now he thought it could work. He could no longer see a positive path for himself going forward in the Heavens after what had happened with Bai Qian. But in an empire controlled by Weisheng? There were many ways he could grab power and gain prestige in such a world.
It had been a mistake to plan for Weisheng to be the one to go after Bai Qian. The Demon King was too impetuous and shortsighted to handle it. Jinjing needed to not only convince Weisheng to have some patience but he must also find a way to capture Bai Qian himself and hand her over to Weisheng. But only after certain safeguards were in place to ensure the Demon King couldn’t betray Jinjing without losing everything.
This meant Jinjing needed to find a way to remain in the Heavens long enough to put a viable plan into action. It was difficult enough to find any information now given present circumstances. But it would become impossible to learn of Bai Qian’s whereabouts or what the twins were doing if he were living in exile in the Demon Realm.
Fury engulfed Jinjing once again as he remembered Weisheng’s threat but he forced the anger back down. Now was not the time for it. The candle he had lit earlier in the night to burn for 4 hours, which was when the next shift change for the guards would happen, was growing dim and had almost burned out.
Heavenly Father had sent orders to double the number of guards on duty after what had happened with Bai Qian, making it much more difficult for Jinjing to sneak away. It was crucial he time his departure for when the guards were changing shifts. He was less likely to be noticed as the guards paused their patrols in order to share brief reports with their replacements.
He stood by the entrance to his private chamber in the General’s Palace, eyes never leaving the candle’s flickering flame.
What if Bai Qian is unable to access the magic in her father’s heart? Jinjing frowned.
What if Mo Yuan and Ye Hua find me before I can get to Bai Qian? His frown deepened into a grimace.
Maybe he was placing too much faith in the success of Weisheng’s scheme. While he was still committed to seeing it carried out if possible, there were no guarantees. What he needed was a contingency plan he could fall back on, a way to quietly exit the scene, just in case the worst were to happen and he was forced to leave the Heavens earlier than he wanted. Jinjing’s mind raced, cursing his failure to think of this before now. He would only have so much time once he left the Heavens. He must make it back for the next shift change.
Jinjing grinned just as the flame on the candle burned out, the beginnings of a contingency plan coming to mind. He now had three important tasks to take care of this morning.
Exiting his chamber on silent feet, Jinjing placed a privacy barrier over the door. He used the same barrier on occasion when he was enjoying female companionship so it wasn’t likely anyone passing by would notice anything amiss. He wrapped a cloaking spell around himself and hurried out of the corridor and into a small, deserted courtyard. Nobody raised the alarm.
He cloud-jumped away and was gone seconds before the soldier making the first patrol of his shift walked by.
An irritated demon guard halted Jinjing before he reached the doors of the Demon Palace. There were two soldiers stationed at the entrance to the palace and several others hiding along the mountain passes in view of the gate. They were all watching Jinjing. He could feel their eyes on him.
“Wake your lord,” Jinjing demanded before the guard who had stopped him could question him. “I need to speak with King Weisheng about an urgent matter that cannot wait.”
“Wait here,” the guard responded, giving Jinjing a perfunctory bow before turning to enter the mountain fortress. A deep rumble shook the ground as the large door closed behind him.
Jinjing ignored the second guard watching him with suspicion as he stood waiting before the imposing entrance, stomping his feet to knock the snow and slushy ice off his boots before wrapping a spell of warmth around him. He fought back a shiver as the last of the chill left his body. As always, it was bitterly cold here in the Demon Realm. How long would Weisheng leave him standing out here? It seemed to be a strategy favored by the Demon King.
Just as Jinjing’s patience was wearing thin, the door rumbled open and Weisheng’s steward greeted Jinjing with a respectful bow that didn’t quite match the annoyed expression in his eyes.
“If you will follow me, General Jinjing, I will take you to see my lord.”
Jinjing gritted his teeth as he followed the manservant down a shadowed corridor, the way lit with the dim flames of candle sconces placed along the walls.
“King Weisheng has been expecting you,” the steward said.
Jinjing lifted one brow in surprise at this revelation before frowning. He did not respond. It irritated him when Weisheng seemed a step ahead of him. It reminded him how much he had lost control of the situation and how urgently he needed to get it back. No matter. He was finished sharing all his information with the Demon Lord.
Weisheng did not immediately acknowledge Jinjing when he entered the Demon King’s study. The demon was admiring the jar containing Bai Zhi’s heart and the dragon talon sword he kept in a safe hidden in his study, something Jinjing had watched him do before. No doubt Weisheng did so to remind Jinjing who held the most important items of power. It was the same reason the demon had failed to follow his promise to hide both objects in a less conspicuous place despite Jinjing’s urging that he do so.
Rage started building inside Jinjing again as he stared at Weisheng. He could easily slip a dagger through the demon’s back and into his heart while he was turned away. Then this whole thing would be over. As would his chance to gain power and prestige, Jinjing reminded himself. And Mo Yuan would continue to hunt for him even after Weisheng’s death. Like it or not, Jinjing needed Weisheng for the time being. He was the only one who could unite the dark clans against the Heavens.
With a pulse of magic from his hand, Weisheng sealed the wall safe, the edges of the door blending in with the rock and disappearing from view.
“I know what you’re thinking, Jinjing,” Weisheng said with a smirk as he finally turned to face his guest. His voice gained a menacing tone as he continued. “It won’t work. I have a message for Heavenly Father all ready to go at the time of my death. If you try to take me down, you’re going down with me. But you won’t actually do it, will you? It’s not your style. You prefer to let others do all the work for you.”
Jinjing clenched a fist but did not rise to the bait. “Why didn’t you grab Bai Qian while you had the chance?” he demanded instead. “I told you we should wait for a better time but you insisted you could take her from the Heavens. You had your chance but you failed to take it! You’ve ruined everything. It’s no longer just Ye Hua protecting her now. The whole royal family has closed ranks around her. They’re actively hunting evidence against both of us.”
Weisheng glared but did not respond.
“Why did you squander the opportunity I gave you?” Jinjing barked, his tone harsher than before.
“Because her fear was invigorating,” Weisheng answered after a long moment of silence. “I’ve never felt anything like it. And the knowledge that I was there with her in the Heavens… that I was grabbing the terrified little fox right there in the Dragon’s domain, right out from under his self righteous nose, made me feel more powerful than I ever have before.” He scowled. “I was savoring the moment. Can you blame me?”
It was an unexpectedly forthright answer and some of Jinjing’s fury dissipated but it did not leave him completely. He had sorely misjudged the demon. The authority granted to Weisheng by his birthright was wasted on a fool like him. He wasn’t smart enough to wield it appropriately. But maybe Jinjing could use that to his advantage if he played things just right.
“Well, while you were basking in Bai Qian’s fear, you let a perfectly good chance pass you by,” Jinjing responded, his voice calmer than it had been before. “We no longer have the element of surprise. Things have become a lot more complicated.”
“You’re not giving up, are you?” Weisheng growled, menace back in his voice. “Don’t forget you have no choice but to help me.”
“We can still get to Bai Qian but you can’t be the one to do it,” Jinjing explained in a calm tone. Some of his control was coming back and it felt good. Weisheng needed him more than ever now. “It’s impossible for you to get anywhere near her after what happened. But nobody knows I’m the one who helped you… not yet. I can use that to my advantage while it lasts.”
An eager light entered Weisheng’s cold green eyes. “You have a new plan?”
“Not yet but I’m working on one. I think the fox is now on Kunlun Mountain.”
“You think? I thought you knew everything going on in the Heavens.”
“Not anymore thanks to you,” Jinjing bit out. “Nobody is talking about Bai Qian in the Heavens and even if they were, it isn’t safe for me to try to listen in and risk giving myself away. But I think she’s on Kunlun Mountain. It’s where I would take her if I were Ye Hua. Kunlun is the safest place in the realm and is protected by the War God. It’s the most logical place for her to be but I’m working on confirming it.”
“Mo Yuan.” Weisheng said the name with obvious distaste. “Nobody enters his land without him knowing about it.”
“Yes. So now you can see how the situation has become much more complicated. And Mo Yuan is looking for me, probably even now as we speak. Our time is running out. I need you to promise to lay low until I’ve come up with another plan.”
“Tell me as soon as you’ve thought of something,” Weisheng demanded.
“Of course,” Jinjing lied smoothly. He had no intention of sharing anything more with Weisheng until after Bai Qian was safely in his care. Only when he handed her over to the Demon Lord would he share any further information and then it would only be that which he decided the Demon Lord needed to know.
Jinjing was in better spirits already as he left Weisheng’s study.
Disguise in place, Jinjing only had to wait a few minutes before the young man approached on lumbering legs. The sound of him crashing through the underbrush warned Jinjing of his arrival well before the dragon could see him. Bears were bulky, strong and loud. They lacked agility even when in their human forms. And this particular one wasn’t very intelligent either in Jinjing’s estimation.
Jinjing had sent out two messages with nothing more than a time written on them before entering the Demon Realm. The location for the exchange of payment had been arranged ahead of time. He was pleased to see the bear had followed the instructions. Where was the vulture who had trespassed on Kunlun Mountain? Jinjing didn’t want to have any loose ends.
“You didn’t tell me I was being used as a diversion so you could disrupt the festival in the Heavens,” the bear growled as he stopped before Jinjing. “Everybody knows what happened and that War God Mo Yuan is hunting for the ones involved. You should have told me what I was agreeing to!”
So the young bear wasn’t as dumb as he had seemed after all and had managed to connect his actions with what had occurred in the Heavens. This also meant rumors of what had happened to Bai Qian were spreading through the realm faster than Jinjing had expected. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Could he find a way to use the gossip to his advantage?
“You owe me a lot more money than we agreed to.” The man bared his teeth to Jinjing as he spoke. The threat was clear. Bears weren’t to be trifled with which was why Jinjing hadn’t bothered to respond. He had no intention of engaging in meaningless discussion with this one.
His dagger appeared in his hand and was embedded in the man’s neck in the blink of an eye, severing the carotid artery. Jinjing watched as the bear collapsed to his knees before him with a gurgling gasp. Blood streamed from his lips and joined the blood gushing from the wound as it coated his chest.
“I owe you nothing now,” Jinjing said, staring dispassionately at his handiwork as the bear’s body gave out and his back and head landed with a thud on the ground. Jinjing smiled as the spark of life left the dark eyes gazing back at him. Should he dispose of the body? No, better to let the wild animals take care of it so there was no trace of his magic left behind. This location was hidden enough to avoid notice for a few days.
Jinjing glanced up at the sky to gauge how much time he had left before he needed to return to the Heavens. He could see glints of early morning light appearing on the eastern horizon through the pine trees. It was dawn. His time was running short.
Where was the vulture? Jinjing asked himself the question again as he removed the dagger from the bear’s throat and wiped the blood off the sharp blade with a cloth he had in his pocket.
After several more minutes it was becoming clear that the vulture wasn’t going to show for the meeting. Funny. Didn’t he want to collect his payment?
Obviously, the vulture had also connected the events from two days before and deduced the role in the uproar he had unwittingly played. Only he seemed intelligent enough to realize what that meant when it came to receiving payment for his services. Either that or he was too afraid of facing Heavenly Father’s wrath to risk showing himself anywhere.
He’s gone to ground, Jinjing thought with a sigh. He couldn’t wait any longer, not if he wanted enough time to stop by the apothecary’s cottage before returning home. This was one problem that would have to remain unresolved for the time being. He would have to hope the disguise he had worn when hiring the vulture would be enough to cover his tracks if the vulture were caught and questioned.
Securing the dagger back into its sheath, Jinjing left the bear’s body without a second glance, his thoughts having already moved on to the next task ahead of him.
The apothecary’s cottage was built deep in the Eastern Forest down a trail that was obscured from view by large twisted trees and dark shadows. Very little light reached the forest floor there and that was especially true in the dim light of early morning. Jinjing wasted several minutes searching for the beginning of the trail, always aware of how soon he needed to be back in the Heavens.
Only those who had heard whispers of the cottage by word of mouth knew of its location. The apothecary catered to a certain type of clientele, utilizing dark magic though she was a creature of the light. Jinjing had only been there one time before and that had been a long time ago before he had become a general. He had never wanted to return because the apothecary was dangerous in her own right. But she was likely the only one who could provide him the means for a viable backup plan.
When he found the trail, Jinjing hesitated only a second before following its winding path through the trees.
The cottage still looked the same as he remembered. It was a rickety wooden structure that looked like it might collapse if challenged with even the gentlest of winds. The windows were dark and empty. The place looked abandoned. But Jinjing knew its outward appearance was deceiving. Inside lay a spacious sturdy room with an inviting fire. There were shelves filled with forbidden texts that could be borrowed for a price but never owned and cabinets containing all the ingredients needed to create dangerous elixirs and curses for those unable to work dark magic on their own.
The atmosphere surrounding the cottage was heavy with trace remnants of forbidden spells along with the ongoing clash between dark and light magics. To avoid Heavenly Father’s notice, the apothecary built her cottage very close to the border between dark lands and light lands. And it lay on the dark side in the realm of the Ghost Tribe, a rebellious faction of demons that had broken away ages ago after a violent civil war. Yet it remained close enough to the light to entice customers from both sides. Jinjing didn’t know what other means the apothecary used to avoid attracting the attention of the Heavens.
The magic of the cottage beckoned him forward, urging him to enter. The place seemed to have a magic all its own. Jinjing climbed the uneven stairs and crossed the warped floorboards of the small porch. He wasn’t surprised to find the door unlocked even if it was still very early in the day. Did the apothecary ever close her shop?
Despite knowing what to expect, he was still just as taken aback by the apothecary’s enchanting beauty now as he had been the first time he had seen her. Then Jinjing had expected to find a haggard, ugly, old woman, shoulders stooped by the weight of her dark deeds, when he had first met the inhabitant of this shadowed place. A gorgeous forest spirit had welcomed him instead.
She had long wavy hair the color of burnt umber and delicate features. Her dress was a deep blue that enhanced her flawless tan skin and she glowed with an enchanting inner light; the natural magic of the forest flowed through her. She moved with feminine grace and possessed a seductive air that wrapped around Jinjing just as tightly this time as it had the last time, arousing him with her scent and magic. If anything, the effect she had on him had grown stronger, something he suspected would happen with every subsequent meeting between them. She was indeed a dangerous woman.
What he wouldn’t give to share an erotic night with her but he had no doubt that the ultimate price for even an hour of her time would be far too high for him to pay. It wouldn’t be gold or valuables she took from him in return for giving him full access to her luscious body. Her innate magic was of the light so she needed to fuel her dark spells in other ways. How many men and women had given in to the temptation she presented?
“Welcome, Jinjing,” the apothecary said, her voice light and airy. She flashed him a bright and earthy smile that stirred his blood even more as she likely intended. It brought unbidden images of him thrusting into her hard and fast up against the trunk of a tree flashing through his mind. “Or should I call you General.” She paused before speaking again, her voice no more than a low murmur now. “I’ve been waiting for you to return to me.”
Jinjing cleared his throat as he approached her, doing his best to ignore the tight, heavy ache building in his groin and the tingles of desire that shivered through him when he heard his title cross her full lips. The realization she remembered his name made him feel special and he wanted to reach out for her but he stopped himself. This was all part of her attempt to charm him into giving her a part of his soul.
“You remember me and you know my new title,” he said with a pleased grin he couldn’t hide, clearing his throat again when his voice sounded huskier than he would have liked, giving away the direction his thoughts had taken.
“I keep tabs on all my most important clients so I can be of better service to them.” She smiled warmly and reached for his hand. “I can give you anything you need… anything you desire. Anything at all.”
Jinjing pulled his hand away quickly, knowing he might be lost if her slender fingers touched him.
The evasive action didn’t go unnoticed and the apothecary’s smile grew amused, a knowing light visible in her grey eyes. “Pity. Maybe another time then. Remember… I’m always available should the mood strike you.”
Her expression changed and while she was still a beautiful woman, she no longer looked quite as enticing to Jinjing. “Why have you gifted me with the honor of your presence this morning, General? Is there something I can help you with?”
“There is,” Jinjing answered. The seduction spell she had been weaving around him dissipated as they got down to the business of why he was there.
“I find myself in a bit of a… precarious situation right now. A serious one. If it goes awry I will need a way to evade capture by some very powerful men. I need a foolproof plan to escape if it comes to that.”
Interest and curiosity glinted in her eyes at Jinjing’s mention of very powerful men. Had she guessed he was referring to the Dragon Emperor and his twin sons? Given Jinjing’s position in the Celestial military, there weren’t too many other men he would feel the need to run from. And she had likely already heard the rumors of the uproar in the Heavens and Mo Yuan’s hunt for those responsible just as the Bear had.
The apothecary had to be wondering if there was a connection between Jinjing’s request and those rumors but she did not ask him about it. She obviously knew that one did not keep the trust of one’s clients in her line of work by asking prying questions. “Hmm…” She stepped away from Jinjing and looked around the room.
“I think I have something that will help. It’s a spell that will camouflage your identity. Mind you, it won’t change your identity down to your core. Nothing can change your primal spirit to that extent. But this spell comes really close. It is one of my darkest spells. And it comes with a hefty personal price. It is driven by sacrifice… the greater the sacrifice the more powerful the effect of the spell. Are you still interested?”
“Show me,” Jinjing answered without hesitation, following the forest spirit through a door in the back of the room he hadn’t noticed before now.
⇛ Next part: Ch 43: In the Quiet of Morning
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