Fanfiction: Moyuan and Bai Qian, Book 2 - Chapter 7, Part 4 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 7 - Zhuxian’s Fire

Part 4

written by LalaLoop
edited by kakashi
consulting by Bunny

Migu walked into the fox den with a tea tray in his hands and what was, in Bai Qian’s opinion, a grin that was meant to cheer her and the Ghost Princess up. Though as grateful as Bai Qian was, Migu’s effort did not seem to be working. Nothing could take her mind off the fact that Moyuan had been gone for some days. He might be back as soon as tomorrow, but that did not stop her from worrying herself senseless. Normally she would not worry since going on missions was what he did as the God of War. But this time, she had every reason to suspect the worst. To add to that, Yanzhi too was bearing a similar mood because Zilan had also gone missing.

“Where can he be?” Yanzhi sighed. “I’d hoped to find him at Kunlun because he told me the last time we met that he didn’t want to join his Seniors at the Crystal Palace. Do you think maybe he’s with High God Moyuan?”

“I don’t know,” said Bai Qian. “High God Moyuan rarely allows anyone along on his missions though, especially if he’s established that it might be dangerous.”

“Zilan is not one to make others worry. Well — maybe he is a little, but he knows better than to leave us in suspense in times like these. If he’s not contacting us then something must be wrong.”

Migu filled the teacups and placed one in front of each of them.

“Don’t worry, Princess Yanzhi,” he said. “Immortal Zilan is very capable. I’m sure he’s not in any danger.”

Yanzhi gave Migu a thankful look but Bai Qian could tell she did not find the reassurance very convincing.

“Did you send someone to attend the Crown Prince’s meeting today?” Yanzhi changed the subject.

“No,” said Bai Qian. “I can pick up a report later. The meeting should be going on about now, is that right?”

Yanzhi nodded. Bai Qian took a sip of her tea, ignoring Migu, who was obviously pretending to dust around so he could listen to what might be said about the war. Having known and trusted him for as long as she could remember, Bai Qian had gotten into the habit of letting him do as he pleased.

Beside Moyuan’s absence and the exhaustion of having to defend themselves against an enemy that had not yet made an appearance, she had also been thinking about what happened at Prince Sangji’s palace. Given that Shaoxing had been in the middle of it all and could have been killed, Bai Qian was glad to learn from her reports that they were all well and without injuries. Though one thing bothered her still - why had there been an attack at all? The question had come to her many times but she simply had to brush the thought aside to focus on other things. Though now that Yanzhi had mentioned the meeting, Bai Qian felt the need to think over the matter more carefully.

“I’ve been wondering why those people targeted the Northern Sea,” she said to Yanzhi.

“What do you mean? Attacks have been happening in many places in the realms recently.”

“But that’s the point, don’t you see? It’s like they’re seeking attention, whoever they work for. No…” she pondered. “It’s not even that; there’s nothing to be gained even if they’d successfully taken the Northern Sea. The Crystal Palace, I can understand - they wanted to let the eight realms see that they were able to cause chaos in such a well protected place, ruled by a king heavily endorsed by the Skylord, whose son studied at Kunlun. But Prince Sangji’s place?”

Yanzhi gave an understanding nod. “It’s like wasting time and resources to achieve something that would give you no political or military advance.”

“Exactly.”

The Second Prince had been a disgrace to the Skylord. Demoted and neglected, he had been living a life with little wealth and glory. But of course, after an attack like this, the Nine Heavens would have to hold a gathering to acknowledge the tragedy and give assurance to worried tribe leaders. Especially when the victims were the Crown Prince’s uncle and his family.

Unless… unless this was exactly what the person behind the attack wanted.

Then it came to her, so abruptly that she could have sworn she felt pain in her head - it was during the last meeting that Yehua had been poisoned.

“Yanzhi,” she said, standing up. “We have to go to the Nine Heavens now.”

“Why?”

“I think something’s going to happen. I need to warn Yehua.”

“Like what?”

“I’m afraid he and the Skylord are walking into a trap by letting people enter the Nine Heavens today.”

Always quick to grasp the situation, Yanzhi did not protest. Although, she hesitated and said cautiously, “maybe they’re already aware? Security is always at its highest during gatherings like this, isn’t it?”

“Maybe, but I don’t think Yehua is expecting anything to happen, that’s the problem. Whoever planned the attack on the Northern Sea, they wanted this. That’s the only reason they did it, because it’s the only thing they knew for sure would happen following the attack. They knew there would be a gathering. The Nine Heavens would have to admit a big number of guests, people would walk in and out more frequently. Some gods and deities from other celestial palaces would have to attend the meeting, Lord Puhua for example, leaving their posts empty, prone to intrusion. Maybe that’s a normal thing in the past, but now… any place is at risk. If not that, then these people must have wanted this gathering to take place so that they could cause some destruction right in the Celestial Court.”

“But who would want to cause chaos in a place full of wary tribe leaders who probably have brought double the usual number of bodyguards along with them? Zhongyin?”

“No,” Bai Qian shook her head ominously and stared into Yanzhi’s eyes. “Not Zhongyin.”

“Xiaowu!” someone’s voice boomed from outside the cave, making both of them turn. Migu, who was dusting a vase nearby, also sprang up in shock.

Appearing from behind the fox cave’s entrance, Zheyan strode in, looking somewhat weary, though in his eyes were such urgency and alarm that it rendered Bai Qian bewildered.

“Zheyan, you’re back…”

“Xiaowu, where’s your Fourth Brother?”

“Peach Blossom Garden,” she said, startled at his breathless voice. “What’s going on?”

“High God Zheyan…” said Migu.

“Migu, go to the Peach Blossom Garden and tell Bai Zhen to get back here now. We can’t take any risk, not tonight.”

“Zheyan, what is it!”

“Go,” he said again. The tree spirit dashed out of the cave without another word. Zheyan looked at them both in silence for a minute, his eyes contained none of his usual calmness.

“He’s here.”

Bai Qian grimaced. “Who…”

But it did not take her long to realize whom he was referring to. There could only be one person whose presence could warrant such a tone in a high god’s voice. Next to her, Yanzhi froze. It was as if time ceased at that very second and everything around them, even the tiny dust particles in the air stopped moving. How… Everything had been fine this morning...

“Here?” Bai Qian swallowed. “Where? The Nine Heavens?”

“Yes. His people have infiltrated the place. Nearly half of them have been working for him all this while. Many people in that meeting are there on his order.”

Another mass of shock and terror fell upon Bai Qian’s head. She could hardly believe what she was hearing. Infiltrated? The Nine Heavens? Bai Qian was one of the people who constantly urged the Skylord to consider the possibility that there were spies among his court officials, but even she had always thought of that as a possibility with an extremely low chance of happening. This was so unbelievable that she nearly deduced it to being a dream.

“You mean they’ve been put under a spell, High God?” asked Yanzhi.

“No,” Zheyan said.

Bai Qian’s hand flew to her mouth. She could tell from his voice that he too wished it had been that simple.

“We need to get there now.” he said again.

Not waiting to be told twice, she and Yanzhi rushed after Zheyan as he took wide strides toward the cave’s exit. Along the way, a small chirp sounded from somewhere and something hit the back of Bai Qian’s head. Too used to the little sprite’s way of attaching itself to her, she did not bother to say anything. Once they were outside, grasping both of their shoulders, Zheyan cloud-jumped with such a speed it left Bai Qian’s head spinning when they landed on the Nine Heavens’ ground, so quick she could not keep track of how many jumps had taken place.


***


Floating in the highest clouds and complicatedly structured, the Nine Heavens consisted of severals sky islands, each of which were a city of palaces, easy to get lost in even for the people who worked there. The Celestial Court, the royal family’s home, and Taichen Palace were all positioned within the main island, which was surrounded by smaller ones that housed deities and gods who functioned under the Skylord.

How many of those people had been working for Luoji all along? Bai Qian wondered in terror as she and Yanzhi rushed alongside Zheyan. All this time the Celestial Court had been defending their lands against outside forces. All plans and strategies had been made to deal with a war and the Dark Immortal should he come to them with an army. None of them had seriously considered the possibility that the Nine Heavens could be taken from within. Perhaps when Yehua had started to investigate his subordinates’ activities during the past years, it had been too late? Perhaps by then many of them had turned?

It was deadly quiet when the three of them arrived at the front gate. The guarding posts were, to Bai Qian’s horror, vacant, granting them free access. Considering the size of this place, even if a fight was going on near the Celestial Court, they would not be able to hear it from here. Further in, there was not a shadow to be seen, nor any sign of a struggle, a drop of blood, nor an abandoned weapon on the walkway.

Bai Qian stared around at the place while keeping up with Zheyan. Where was Yehua? Was he keeping A-li safe?

“All the men must have been called to the Celestial Court,” Zheyan said.

At this time, a group of soldiers dashed out from behind one of the buildings and ran in the direction of the court. A few seconds later, a similar scene occurred.

Though just as Bai Qian and Yanzhi prepared to follow them, Zheyan held the two of them back and said quickly, “we have to go to Zhuxian Terrace.”

“Zhuxian Terrace?” Bai Qian stared. “Why?”

“I know Luoji will be there. If we can stop him now, it will be a lot easier to control his people.”

“Why would Luoji be at Zhuxian Terrace, High God?” Yanzhi asked.

“It means something to him. The Nine Heavens used to be his home. If he returns, that’s the first place he’ll go. Come, we can’t afford to lose another moment.”

The clouds became thick and the sky darker the closer they got to the somber area of Zhuxian Terrace, until it was almost as dark as night. Patches of fog hung here and there, the chilly air stinging Bai Qian’s eyes as she ran across the walkway alongside Zheyan and Yanzhi. The marble pavement eventually disappeared and gave way to the bare ground and the rocky stairs. There was not a single soldier guarding this place.

Suddenly the Old Phoenix sprang up his arms to stop them both and pushed them behind the rocky form of a pillar when they were a distance away from the cliff. Still far away, but close enough for Bai Qian to recognize a figure of a man, cloaked and with his back to them, standing at the edge, looking out into the distance. A fear, colder than ice, seized her guts and twisted them into a knot.

“Xiaowu, listen to me,” Zheyan’s voice was suddenly breathless. “I will go out there and meet him.”

Zheyan!” she grasped his arm.

“I need to keep Luoji here to prevent him from giving orders to his people for as long as possible.”

“Does Shifu know about this yet?” she asked, so scared to let Zheyan go that she was now holding onto his arm with both hands. “Has anyone told him?”

“Yes, he is coming. So is Donghua, he must have gotten the news too wherever he is.”

“But how? How are you going to keep Luoji here? Oh please don’t do anything reckless, Zheyan.”

“People who like to pretend they can control themselves better than others are the ones prone to manipulation, Xiaowu. Luoji is one of them, even if he is older and harder to fool than any of us. I can keep him occupied for a while.”

“High God Zheyan…” Yanzhi began, but the Old Phoenix would not let her go on.

“Luoji is strong. None of us can take him on alone, do you hear me? None of us. Stay here and don’t come out unless one of us asks you to. If anything goes wrong and we cannot hold him off, you two get yourselves out, do you understand? Don’t try to play the hero or you’ll get killed. I mean it.”

Neither Bai Qian or Yanzhi said anything. Leaving the Nine Heavens while the Celestials here were fending for their lives? Bai Qian knew her friend found this order hard to obey as much as she did. As if reading their minds, Zheyan continued forcefully.

“You cannot help anyone if you are dead. And death is exactly what awaits you should you stand between Luoji and what he wants. Whatever you do, do not try to oppose him today.”

This time, they both nodded. Bai Qian had to admit to herself that this was no longer a game or a trial in which life could be given a second chance, even though she very much wanted to believe that it was. One wrong move and they could indeed be killed.

“Xiaowu,” Zheyan suddenly took her face firmly into his hand. Only now did Bai Qian realize that his fingers were ice cold. “Be safe.”

She nodded again and for a moment, her eyes lingered on his - which had displayed many emotions she had not seen until today - then let go of his arm.

While they remained where they were, Zheyan walked forth. Half way from the pillar to the cliff his figure pulverized and within the next second reappeared behind Luoji. As quietly as they could, Bai Qian and Yanzhi crept forward and hid behind another rock closer to the men. There was not a single sound in the air, even the sprite had silenced its wings and stayed still on her hair ornament.

The dark figure turned around to take a look at the person who had joined him. It was a face that Bai Qian did not know how to describe. In fact, there was almost nothing wrong with that face except for the dark criss-crossing lines embedded on his skin and what looked like a long scar between his eyes. Yet his appearance bore a malicious air that chilled her to the bones - an appearance that she suspected had once been pleasant to look at, perhaps before all the darkness within emerged. His movements were slow, but not at all cautious - like a predator who knew his trapped prey had nowhere to go.

“Zheyan,” he said with a smile that turned Bai Qian’s insides into ice.

“Luoji.”

“Where are Moyuan and Donghua?”

“They’ll be here.”

“Good. I was beginning to think they have forgotten about me. Especially my old friend, the God of War.”

“I doubt any of us considers you a friend.”

Luoji let out a long laugh that was so loud it echoed through the air. Fear rose to Bai Qian’s head as she watched Zheyan standing in front of the Dark Immortal, unaccompanied, unshielded.

“You have my respect, Zheyan, for meeting me here with such calmness and integrity, knowing that it is only a matter of time before I take over the Nine Heavens, that I can end your life this very minute.”

“Then what are you waiting for?”

“It is very tempting, I admit. But no rush, I have better plans for you today.”

“What is it that you want, Luoji?” asked Zheyan calmly. “Power, sovereignty? So long it has been and yet you still have not gotten any wiser, still believe that these things matter.”

“Have I not? A life without desire is not worth living, Zheyan - that much I have always known to be true. Unlike you and those who call themselves -- what is it? -- ‘enlightened’.” He laughed. “Prisoners within eternity. I pity you.”

“Well,” Zheyan gave back a smile that was no less taunting. “That is where you are mistaken - confusing my choice not to bother myself with the world with the inability to find joy.”

Luoji said nothing this time, which made Bai Qian fear for the Old Phoenix more than ever. Rage and bloodthirst were much easier to deal with than this kind of inscrutable passivity. Not to mention that both Zheyan and the Dark Immortal were standing at the furthest point of the ledge. Bai Qian could not chase away the thought that just a gust of wind and they might be blasted down the cliff and be torn apart by the vile magical forces inside the dark hole and scatter in an instance. The Dark Immortal, she could not pretend to care about. But Zheyan… she wanted to yell for him to come away from that cliff.

A silver jet of light suddenly appeared from nowhere and slammed onto the ground where Luoji and Zheyan stood. The silver mist subsided within an instant; and opposite of Zheyan, at the other side of the cliff, stood Moyuan, quiet, face betraying no emotion.

Bai Qian gasped, her heart leaping at the sight of him.

Luoji, with a broadest smile, greeted Moyuan as if he was indeed a dear old friend. Though only a second later, the smile twisted into something ghastly. Madness, loath, and satisfaction, all manifested on his face at once.

“Moyuan.”

Still, the God of War was quiet.

“Never speaks a word more than necessary; this is what I admire about you. What do you think, Moyuan? All that preparation and training those troops and writing battle plans you have been doing with the Nine Heavens, all vanished into thin air in one day,” he gestured toward the Celestial Court. “Impressive on my part, wouldn’t you say?”

“I would rethink my plan if I were you, Luoji,” said Moyuan at last.

“Why?” Luoji jeered, his voice colder. “The Nine Heavens are being taken as we speak. Their defenders turn against each other. Their fortresses crumble against my forces. It seems I have made all the right moves so far.”

“If you believe that we will stand by and watch you claim the Nine Heavens or that we have not prepared for something like this, you are wrong.”

“Ahh, I am honored, truly, that you have been treating the mere rumors about me with such seriousness. But I’ll have you know that nothing you have done falls beyond my expectations. Allow me to ask you something,” he stepped closer to Moyuan. “Are you sure you have exerted all of your considerable intellect and skill into defending the realms? Or has a large part of your attention been expensed elsewhere?”

“You certainly have your presumptions about this and I do not intend to alter them.”

A crackling noise escaped from Luoji’s throat. Then a loud and entertained laugh followed.

“How I miss conversations like this. How I miss watching you -- assuming you have the whole world in the palm of your hand. Do you really think you know me? Do you truly believe that you will win in the end because you understand what I want so well? You certainly do, to an extent. But did it ever occur to you that I know you too? You have failed to protect your own sentimentality, Moyuan, your own desires, from being seen.”

“Enlighten me,” said Moyuan.

“Gladly. Have you ever wished you had chosen differently that night?

Even from behind the rock, Bai Qian could feel the impact that question had on Moyuan. His head slightly lifted though he remained quiet.

“But no matter, no matter,” Luoji continued. “I offer you a chance to choose again.”

Taking a step back, he raised his arm and opened his hand. Directly above his palm an object materialized, something Bai Qian had never seen before, but she somehow had a feeling she already knew what it was.

A feather. In the color of a flame.

From a distance it looked almost as if Luoji was holding a small fire in his hand. Why it was here and what it had to do with them all now, however, she had no idea.

There was a subtle change in the atmosphere and even as far away as she was from them, Bai Qian thought she saw Moyuan’s calm expression stir.

“You know this item,” Luoji hissed triumphantly. “Yes, you have been searching for it. You want it so much that you have thrown caution to the winds, along with several other things. But I do not blame you. She was -- your life. I saw it in your eyes. I see it now. With this, the gathering of her soul will be possible. She will be here without having to suffer trial after trial of hardship. She will be here, powerful, complete, radiant, just as before.”

It was as if all of Moyuan’s attention had been directed onto that feather. His eyes did not stray an inch from it and Bai Qian could see his fist balled up at his side.

“I am prepared to offer this to you, to end your days of blaming yourself for her death, to end your yearning,” he spoke the last word with contempt and ridicule, as if it was something he could never understand or care to, something that he associated directly with weakness and failure. “In exchange for something else.”

Bai Qian’s heart started to beat even faster than before. Luoji’s head slightly turned to Zheyan, his smirk stretched.

“One feather for the other.”

What was he… But it dawned on Bai Qian immediately; even though her head was still wrapping around the details. Her hands became icy and her whole body was petrified at the realization. Luoji had wanted to get Zheyan’s cultivation and powers for himself before. He wanted them now. Perhaps that was what the feather was for - an item within which sealed immortal powers. And he wanted… Zheyan’s...

“We both know what you are capable of, Moyuan,” said Luoji. “You did it once, you can do it again. This -- is balance, isn’t it, the thing we all have to live by. You cannot obtain something without losing something of equal value. What is your choice this time?”

Moyuan gave no reply. Neither did Zheyan. They were both staring at the fiery feather as if in a trance.

“I do not need to explain to you why I need the other feather. I am sure somewhere during your searches and trips to Penglai and the mortal realm you have figured that out. And I did make a point of acquiring it the last time the five of us met, did I not?”

A vengeful leer was directed at Moyuan. Though it soon diffused and gave way to a taunting look.

“You have the choice to walk away, Moyuan. But should you choose to abandon this opportunity, I promise you, Shaowan will never see the light of day again, no matter how much longer you keep looking for her soul. But -- ahh,” he searched the God of War’s face. “You already know this. Eternal damnation is what she chose for herself when she practiced forbidden magic to secure and enhance her powers; after all, not everyone has the resources I do to defend themselves against the consequences. Not everyone possesses the patience and skill it takes to conquer death.”

Luoji extended his arm a little and rolled his head lazily.

“With this, and the right magic, which I know you have been looking into, venerable Master of Kunlun, she will be here once more. Now, before I feel tempted to throw this thing down the terrace and let it be destroyed once and for all, I will say it again,” Luoji was now speaking with a deadly slowness in his voice. “If you want this feather, then get me the other one.”

Silence. It was the kind of silence that reminded Bai Qian of the night the Bell of Donghuang exploded in the sky. The silence that burned one’s ears and seized one’s brain. Bai Qian bit down on her lips and prayed.

Then, Zheyan spoke. In the calmest, most worriless voice she had ever heard.

“It is only fair.”

Old Phoenix… what are you doing? Bai Qian’s heart was now pounding in her chest. She held her breath and inched closer to the pillar, her fingers digging into the rock. Was this a plan? Were they stalling to wait for Donghua to get here?

The torment of suspension prolonged; the Dark Immortal seemed to be savouring every moment of it. Bai Qian’s head was spinning itself exhausted from trying to figure out what to do. If a fight broke out, would Zheyan and Moyuan be able to hold against this man? Just exactly how strong was he? If Donghua could not come in time, then fleeing and taking as many people out of the Nine Heavens as they could might be the only option.

It was then that she saw Moyuan’s fingers flex open, on his face a kind of expression she could not read. Agony? Determination? Or was he simply... emotionless?

As quick as a flash of lightning, his arm suddenly sprang up. A blinding jet of magic shot out from his palm and hit Zheyan in a violent impact.

Terror exploded inside Bai Qian’s head and from behind the rock she screamed out Zheyan’s name. None of the men turned their heads, as though they could not care less about who else was there. She flew out from her hiding place and sprinted toward them despite Yanzhi’s calling, not knowing what she could do, only that she had to get to Zheyan… she had to... Rays of blue radiated from every corner of Zheyan’s body and flowed toward his chest, where they formed a dazzling spherical mass of light.

Before she could take as many as five strides, to process everything that was happening, the spell lifted in a sudden movement, like a robe being severed at one end, the momentum of which threw Zheyan backward and over the cliff.

At the same time, a feather that the magic had successfully extracted flew into Luoji’s grip while the other one was sent flying toward the God of War.

During the fleeting moment Bai Qian’s eyes still held Zheyan’s figure before he disappeared into the abyss, blue fire ignited and engulfed him, followed by a thunderous eruption that shook the surface of rock below her feet, sending a thrust of air across the atmosphere that was so strong it threw her to the ground. Springing up again, she ran toward the cliff like a mad person. Before she could reach the edge, Bai Qian saw fiery hues flashing all around and heard the sound of flames flaring up from the sea of darkness below.

The next second, it was dark again with only fragments of blue drifting about in midair.

Chapter 7, Part 5