Fanfiction 2: Moyuan and Bai Qian - Chapter 14 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 14 - Chess Master

written by LalaLoop
edited by kakashi

“Hold on, Lingyu,” he assured his Ninth disciple. “We’re almost there.”

Dark clouds billowed above them, covering the last bit of sunlight. The air had become chill.

“I still don’t think you should have done that, Shifu,” said Siyin’s nervous voice from behind, all out of breath from having to keep up with him. “Qingcang might use it as a --” she gasped, “-- a reason to start a war.”

With more pressing matters in mind than discussing their lack of discipline, he simply sighed at her quite heartwarming yet rather naive notion and said nothing - war was already inevitable. If they had not carelessly walked into the Ghost Realm and been taken hostage, the Ghost Lord would have found another way to bring humiliation to Kunlun; or another clan or institution to obtain an official cause for war.

The three of them descended on the steps of Kunlun hall, where they were greeted by alarmed footsteps and concerned faces. Thunder roared in the distance, the bolts were getting closer and closer to where they all stood. As instructed, the disciples dashed away to their assigned tasks.

The first streaks of light crackled against the graphite sky. Without wasting another moment, he seized her by the wrist and pulled her along in the direction of the lotus pond - the clearest area of the mountain.

“Shifu, why are we sealing the mountain!” she said in alarm, the feel of her hand in his gave away her state of anxiety. “What's going on?”

Behind him, her breathing was becoming short and frightened. Her loud and continuous protest faded as he started to retrospect their experience in the Ghost Realm earlier. The encounter with Qingcang had given him an idea of the Ghost Lord’s current state of powers. Now, taking an ascension lightning trial for another immortal would yield serious consequences and the most severe case had been said to temporarily destroy one tenth of the offender’s power.

With nine portions of power left, his eyes narrowed, he would still be able to defeat Qingcang in a duel with weapons under any circumstances. His attention was then brought to one last missing piece of the puzzle: Si Yin’s trial should not be his concern; yet he had gone through arduous planning to make it so.

The rumbling sound became louder.

“Do as I say,” he ordered, aware that his instruction did not make much sense, leading her around the hall, across the bridge and to the front of the cave entrance that led to the meditation room. “And don't attempt to perform magic.”

He turned to face her as they reached the stone arch at the end of the bridge. He stopped and looked directly at her befuddled face, mentally pushing everything around them to the background. His mind’s activity heightened during the last few seconds he knew they had before the first bolt struck, going over the possibilities he had drawn out once again. Entirely unprepared, she would suffer long lasting damage that would take ages to heal but would, no doubt, heal in time to reperform the Sealing spell in the future should the worst happen in the next few days. Would she learn from this experience and start taking her education seriously? Very likely.
Release her hand, let her face her own calamity, let her learn… yes, that would be the right thing to do. Or take the trial for her and face the consequences before a potential war. Too unnecessary… and quite wrong. The choices were as clear now as they had been the first time he had laid them out. But the sound of the untamed powers that was echoing across the sky and the howling wind above were pulling the logical option out of his head despite the voice of reason screaming in protest, leaving him with only two vividly simple scenarios: The bolts would hit her or they would hit him.

Tightening his grip on her wrist, he quickly pulled her out from the shadow of the arch. As if sensing the presence of the immortal, white streaks started to thicken.

And without warning, the first bolt struck as soon as she was out in the open. He flung to the front just in time to shield her from the impact with one arm around her shoulder.

It felt as if an ice arrow had been shot through his back. So merciless and unexpected that he failed to stifle a sound of anguish, failed to stabilize himself and nearly threw her backward. A pain that was ten times worse than that which he had experienced during his own trial immediately shot up his skull and spread to his every limbs. Blood traveled up his throat, spilling from the corner of his lips.
Very good, Puhua, very good indeed. He sucked in a deep breath, clutching onto the only thing his hand could grasp - her shoulder - as an anchor to start summoning healing powers as quickly as he could.

She broke from his arms and their gazes met for one brief moment. Her narrowed eyes swept across the line of blood that was running down his chin with terror then suddenly became huge, flashing as she became aware of the situation. Among the many emotions the young face struggled to express, the most visible was indignation, as if wanting to ask why he was depriving her of the right to master what her Seniors had all done. Not a second later, an ominous rumbling sound and crackles of lightning above indicated the second strike was near.

“This is mine…” exclaimed her breathless voice. He could feel her whole body tensing up, powers soaring in her veins, her expression a mingle of fear and excitement, that of a young and inexperienced warrior facing battle for the first time. Palpably strong power, he noticed, but not nearly enough to make it out of this trial unscathed.

With a defiant look on her face, she attempted to break free from his hold. He instantly seized her by the shoulders and in one forceful movement, pushed her away from the area and through the cave entrance. She fell down several steps but quickly regained her balance and was up on her feet, ready to fly out again, looking tremendously insulted and outraged, like a warhorse that struggled to prove itself but was held back from the charge the last moment.

“It’s my trial, Shifu! I can do it!” she cried, her voice was shaking yet had never been more determined. “Let me do it!”

“Stay,” he said, realizing that his own voice was becoming hoarse. A shield erupted at the doorway following a spell from him, throwing her back onto the ground. Turning back to face the thundering sky, he could hear her voice crying out in anger and desperation and the sound of her repeated attempts to escape from the shield.

The few seconds spent on forming the shield had cost him the chance to fully prepare himself. The next bolt hit him on the right shoulder, thwarting the flow of his healing powers. As though having sensed the wrong immortal essence, the angry force wave sent into his body by the bolt became more savage than the first, piercing through his every nerve, blocking his every attempt to self-heal. The head pain that had only subsided a moment ago returned with more severity, nearly blinding him.

The second he could stand straight again, the last bolt, which seemed to be a series of continuous bolts, struck down one after another. The duration was much longer, much more barbarous than the last two so that it nearly knocked consciousness out of him. His ears turned deaf to all sounds only a second after he had heard a distorted scream from behind the shield. His sight darkened, lungs void of air, fingertips numb to all feelings.

And only when he felt a sort of impact on his kneecaps did he realize the trial had ended and he had sunk to the ground. Gasping for breath, he clasped his chest with his left hand, blood trickling down from his chin. Her voice was becoming clearer - his sense of hearing was coming back; and the protective shield was definitely disappearing due to his current state of weakness.

Just as he heard the sound of footsteps, a strong silver wave brushed by his side and into the direction of the cave.
Ascension hazes, he remained on his knees, trying to stable his energy and waiting for the head pain that still came and went in pattern to diminish while every breath he drew in sent a sharp pain through his chest. More waves went flying into the cave with lightning speed. There were gasps of astonishment. Then, the voice that had been calling him moments ago subsided as he heard a small thud.

After a few minutes of intense self healing, feelings started to come back to his arms and legs. Slowly he stood up, turned around and stepped through the cave entrance, where he found her lying on the ground.

Grunting and grimacing, he got down on one knee. Her face was particularly red, eyebrows deeply furrowed. The scratches on her face and hands, perhaps caused during their escape from the Ghost Realm, still remained. He raised his arm, hoping to heal those injuries, but it seemed his own powers no longer listened to him.

Seventeenth… he breathed in exhaustion. Please… stand...

He gently slid his hand under her neck after a few hopeless attempts to wake her up, and with the last bit of strength he could muster lifted her up from the ground. With the much closer distance now, his gaze dwelled on the concerned look that hadn’t quiet left her face and the drops of tears that still lingered on her lashes.

There was a snap in the back of his mind, a bitter sound of laughter escaped him.

Losing a battle must feel somewhat like this.

“I don’t see why you and Senior Diefeng have to leave, Second Senior,” Bai Qian said forcefully after she'd been told of her Seniors’ intentions. “Shifu already said you could and should stay. Just because he’s wanting to leave...”

“I know,” Changshan replied without looking up from his work for he had been folding some clothes at the time. “I’m just worried, that’s all.”

“We have a meditation room here,” said Bai Qian. To speak the truth, she did not want Moyuan to leave either. “It’s well equipped and much larger.”

Being absent for a few days due to a trip into the Forest with Zilan and Yanzhi to entertain A-li, she hadn’t expected to come back to the news of them leaving so soon.

But apparently, the Old Phoenix was quite adamant about how he thought Moyuan should resume and remain in meditation this time. He had gone so far as to declare that his words were others’ command where it concerned physical health. And Moyuan himself did not oppose the idea for he too had admitted that it was time he resumed the healing meditation he'd always planned to do before the battle.

“I know. But it’s no substitution for Kunlun’s divine energy while you’re in the process of healing,” Changshan proudly pointed out. “High God Zheyan said so too.”

“But the banquet is just days away, I really wish you would stay,” said Bai Qian, hoping to intrigue her Senior.

For a moment, Changshan looked truly sorry that he would have to miss the banquet and sighed deeply. And yet, the thought soon seemed to be slipping his mind.

“I’ll have to go get Shifu’s potion ready now,” he said, turning towards the door, carrying the tray of white garments with him.

“I can do it,” Bai Qian suggested. “You can stay and finish packing.”

“No, thank you,” Changshan looked at her as if he thought she was trying to be humorous. “Shifu has taken enough risks for a lifetime.”

Considering the remark was nothing more than what she'd expected, if not to say she didn't want anything to do with that complicated potion Changshan had to brew everyday, Bai Qian said nothing.

Though after Changshan had disappeared through the door, she was left with a sudden empty feeling.

After Moyuan and her two Seniors’ departure, Bai Qian spent a great deal of the next few days entertaining A-li to the best of her ability. Even though she had assured the boy that they could always meet whenever he liked in the future, she knew very well that they would not be able to spend their time freely once he had returned to the Nine Heaven and she to Qingqiu. A-li, having decided he would like to call her ‘Qianqian’, was now having much fun saying the name and was quite proud that he was the only one allowed to do so besides her family.

The rest of her time was spent with Zilan and Yanzhi. When they had gotten enough practice with magic fights, Yanzhi suggested that they seal their powers and duel with regular swords and other weapons, an idea that both Zilan and Bai Qian endorsed with enthusiasm. Therefore, during these days, none of them ever had to touch their own weapons.

Early in the morning before the banquet, Bai Qian’s brother, Bai Zhen, walked into her room while she happened to get ready for yet another duelling session with Zilan and Yanzhi.

“That isn’t a bad idea. No wonder Princess Yanzhi is such an excellent swordswoman. Her training has been more strenuous,” exclaimed her brother, looking curious and barely hiding the sarcastic tone that was indicating he thought Bai Qian wasn't very good. “I’ll join you.”

“Good,” Bai Qian grinned and raised her arms as she walked over to him. “Here, let’s do the sealing spell now.”

Bai Zhen rose, touched her hands with his own and quickly, they sealed each other’s powers.

As they walked along the corridor to get outside, they heard the sound of two people talking from within one of the guest rooms. It was Zheyan and their mother. It seemed they were in the middle of a pleasant discussion for there was a lot of laughing. But just when Bai Qian was about to step past the room, the sound of her own name made her turn and step closer to the door, despite Bai Zhen’s effort to hurry her along.

“I take it you are not going to tell me what happened with Xiaowu’s eyes?” said the familiar velvet voice.

Bai Qian felt a terrible feeling in her stomach, praying Zheyan would keep his word. Besides her, Bai Zhen whispered “the Old Phoenix knows what happened?”. But Bai Qian simply ignored him.

“I’m sorry. I promised,” said the Old Phoenix flatly, to her relief.

“As I remember, you also promised Moyuan you would not reveal his secret.”

“That was different,” Zheyan retorted. “Xiaowu uncovered the secret by herself. I only filled in the details.”

Bai Qian silently giggled - cunning Old Phoenix. Even though he had scolded her, he had always taken her side.

“Well then. Shall we talk about the one who played a major part in placing her in the mortal realm in the first place?”

“Ghost Lord Qingcang?”

There was a brief silence. Then, Zheyan continued with a nervous laugh.

“You cannot be serious. Don’t tell me you’re going to hold it against him.”

“I already have, I’m afraid.” The Fox Empress’ voice was most challenging. It was obvious she was determined to get the Old Phoenix to talk. Bai Qian shook her head - this had always been her mother’s well known talent.

“Moyuan cares about his disciples. If he had had any other choice….”

“Spare me the sentimental talk,” she cut off Zheyan’s, utmost impatience in her voice. “Given his track record, not many of the people the God of War cared for have actually turned out to have a good life.”

“You are rather ungenerous sometimes,” said Zheyan with a scoff.

“Please, we’re talking about someone who has studied Xiaowu’s character, and used her nature against her.”

Bai Qian frowned at the statement. And she did not need to be in the room or to look up at her brother to know he and Zheyan were having the same reaction.

“That is a very serious accusation,” Zheyan challenged. “Would you care to elaborate?”

“Gladly,” her voice was slightly raised. Bai Qian found herself moving closer to the door. And she could feel her brother doing the same. “He left her the sealing technique for the Bell, told her only enough information to trigger her interest but not enough to let her know the magnitude of the danger she would be facing. At such a young age, one’s Shifu’s wish is one’s command. He knew with her independent nature she would never involve anyone else. Thus, the Bell would be sealed when the time came and the spell invented by Kunlun would be safe from outsiders. When she had studied the spell thoroughly, discovered the danger ahead, she still obeyed unconditionally, still jumped into the fire as asked without hesitation. Whether it had been done on purpose or not, that is what happened. Isn’t it elegant?”

“Your dissection is elegant, yes,” said Zheyan instantly with a hint of humor in his voice. “But it was a war. One has to make choices for the greater cause. Moyuan, Donghua, Bai Zhi, I, and -- forgive me -- especially you, will not hesitate to maneuver subordinates should the need arise to guarantee victory.”

“Of course I know it was a war,” said the Fox Empress wearily. “For the greater cause, you and Donghua would have done the same. And I would be more than happy to put the lives of many in the God of War’s hand should there be a war. But in this particular -- well -- situation, you can see why he makes me quite nervous.”

“That is a first, I’ve never heard you admit to being nervous all your life,” Zheyan said sharply. “But you have forgotten something that refutes your whole theory: Moyuan did not plan to die.”

“I did not forget. I ignored it,” came the Fox Empress’ cold reply, there was a small clink on a glass surface. “The point is, very few people stand a chance against his brilliance. He might be a kind and caring master to his disciples but he did grow up studying the art of mind-reading and is a natural at it. He can lead and steer people effortlessly like pieces on a chessboard and in the end still manages to earn their absolute loyalty. Now, he might have done the things I’ve listed, he might not have. But he is capable of every single one of them. After all, the safety of the realms is always his first priority. Almost everything else is dispensable. So, I surmise as long as he has a back up plan, planning his own demise shouldn’t be that difficult a task, either.”

“It is difficult if you must part with what you hold dear.”

A surge of respect and affection for the Old Phoenix rose inside Bai Qian, making her unable to contain yet another smile.

“Still, this is a gamble.”

“Perhaps. But would it please you to know that the gambler inherited your analytical mind?”

There was a faint silvery laugh of satisfaction. Not wanting to listen any further, Bai Qian stepped away and started walking to their destination with Bai Zhen beside her. Strangely, her mother’s speech did not have the effect it should have had on Bai Qian. She and her brothers had always been more than familiar with the Fox Empress’ judgemental nature and her straightforwardness while expressing opinions, if not to say she herself had inherited a large part of it.

...Underneath it all, he is only a worthless bastard who simply excels at manipulation… Qingcang’s words from the night of the battle started to ring again in Bai Qian’s mind as she let her feet take her to where Zilan and Yanzhi were. Powerless, incapable, forever unable to protect those you care about. To those remarks, not only she, but Yehua had also reacted fiercely. She, her Seniors, and Yehua, would openly defy anyone who threatened to tarnish his image. No matter the circumstance, no matter their relationship, deep down each one of them always glorified Moyuan in such a way that prevented them from accepting that he could make mistakes. And given his position, his mistakes, when made, would be followed by disastrous consequences.

She herself had never questioned Moyuan’s intentions when he had left the Sealing spell with her without more specific instructions. Faith in her nature or a brilliant chess move from a master none of them stood a chance against? Considering how Moyuan had defied fate and pierced his soul together to come back to them, questions of the kind had never once struck her mind.

When Qingcang had activated the bell 70,000 years ago, Moyuan had prevented her from performing the spell and instead had done it himself. Be it an impulsive act in response to a threat to her safety or something that had been a part of a bigger plan, he had saved both her life and the life of his most valuable asset at the time to ensure the realms another 70,000 years of peace.

A mistake, no more than a grave mistake caused by his best yet worst quality: secrecy. Secrecy and the tendency to believe he was acting for the good of others without giving them the chance to make an informed choice. And keeping secrets had always been what he did best, whether it had been to maintain complete control over the ultimate chess game or to protect others from the burden of the knowledge. Like he had once stubbornly admitted in the wine cellar: he had never regretted hiding the truth of his feelings from her.

Bai Qian inhaled deeply - one would have had to be there to see. Until this day, the feel of his hand on her nape as he had comforted her on the eve of battle 70,000 years ago and the strain in his voice as he had taught her the spell never quite disappeared from her memory.

The look of hopelessness in his eyes the night her Ninth Senior had died, when the battle formation had been breached still haunted her - the look of someone who bore the weight of the whole world, who knew he would very soon fail those he had vowed to protect. None of those things could have been an act.

Bai Qian stared into the distance, no longer trying to deny the fact that she yearned to see those dark, piercing eyes again and was dearly wanting to embrace their owner for reasons other than his respect for her passion regarding equality for mortals. Shifu, she closed her eyes for a brief moment.

“You know our mother,” said Bai Zhen’s voice, interrupting her thoughts. He uncomfortably forced a laugh. “No one ever escapes her harsh evaluation.”

“She is wrong,” said Bai Qian flatly. “I know why she’s worried, but she’s wrong. Shifu doesn’t forget… he…”

There is nothing in the world he is unable to let go off, Bai Qian paused as she recalled those abstruse words. But how deep the wound that would be left is - she completed the remark with a heavy sigh - he has no control over.

“Our safety is always his priority. It’s always something that derails his plans. Every time,” she continued in a quivering voice, her throat becoming dry. “He’s never been able forget. And Qingcang knew. He knew and he taunted him about it that night.”

“During the battle?”

Bai Qian nodded, sniffling. She had never cared to disclose the exchange between Moyuan and Qingcang to anyone since what had actually happened during the battle quite overshadowed it. “It was after we all thought Yehua had…,” she paused - the moment when that last bit of hope had left his eyes was still vivid in her mind as though yesterday. “And then... Qingcang spoke of the Demon Overlord.”

“I see. That again,” nodded Bai Zhen. “I tried to get it out of the Old Phoenix many times too. But he wouldn’t budge.”

“Frankly, I don’t care what happened,” Bai Qian lied defiantly - a lie to stable herself. While it might not have much of an impact on her, she would die to know what had really taken place during that great battle and why the death of the Demon Overlord could have that effect on three of the most powerful Gods of all the realms.

They walked back to Zilan and Yanzhi in silence.

“Zheyan told me you talked to Yue Lao,” said Bai Zhen suddenly.

Bai Qian airily nodded. Of course the Old Phoenix had told him. There were very few things Zheyan kept secret from Bai Zhen.

“Did he say anything interesting? Not many people got the chance to talk to him, after all.”

“Nothing I don’t know already,” she said right away. And it was the truth. She had always known.

“Don't be stingy. Tell me,” Bai Zhen shoved her by the shoulder. Bai Qian made a mysterious face she knew would annoy him then started to run the rest of the way with her brother right behind.