Fanfiction: Moyuan and Bai Qian, Book 2 - Chapter 13, Part 9 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 13 - A Debt Repaid

Part 9

written by LalaLoop
edited by Kakashi
consulting by Bunny

“Let’s rest here for a while,” Bai Qian decided when it was clear that the Demon Queen needed a break before the next cloud-jump.

Descending at a riverbank, they quickly picked a small area and set up the enchantments to hide themselves from passing Demons. They could never be too careful inside this dangerous realm.



Strangely, now that they were out of Xunzhua’s palace and she was free to call the woman ‘Demon Queen’, Bai Qian constantly went back to her old habit of addressing her as ‘Jie-jie’.

“She hasn’t led us astray,” whispered Yehua over the crackling sounds of a small fire they had made for warmth. “I have to say, I’m quite surprised.”

Bai Qian glanced back at the Demon Queen, who had fallen asleep in the tent they’d set up despite her earlier insistence that she could keep going for another hour.

“I am rather let down we haven’t met any ambush or assassin yet,” Yehua continued with a chuckle.

“Me too,” Bai Qian admitted, shifting on the boulder she was sitting on. “I’m not sure I’m at ease with the fact that this trip has been going so smoothly, though.”

“There is…” he let out a sigh. “Something about that woman. I can’t quite place it, but I always get the impression that she has powers hidden somewhere in her mortal body, some danger we can’t ignore.”

“I think everyone gets that feeling around her. She’s an ancient being, even without her power, she’s seen more and done more than any of us, that’s why she -- looks like that.”

Throwing more twigs into the fire, Bai Qian cautiously went on.

“Is anything the matter with Zhuowei?”

Something stirred on Yehua’s face but disappeared almost immediately as he replied coolly, “Why do you ask me that?”

“I saw her speaking to you in the library this morning from the courtyard and… er… I thought she looked a little distressed.”

There was a long, puzzling silence. At least for Bai Qian, it was extremely puzzling. Had they really quarrelled? And about what, exactly? Would it have anything to do with them being together when she’d met them in the city?

Of course… She had seen princesses and queens fall head over heels with Yehua before, to the point that they’d risked their lives to slip love potion into his food; Zhuowei wasn’t one of those people, but it was completely within expectations that she was interested in the youngest High Immortal of the eight realms with all kinds of charm and skill. Besides, to this princess, meeting someone who had jumped into a mass destructive weapon and lived to tell the tale must be a thrill. Though, if that was really the case... Bai Qian reflected, then perhaps she should stay out of it altogether and not ask any more questions.

But was that a good idea? Who would take on the responsibility of warning Yehua that Pojing might strangle him then?

“It doesn’t matter,” Bai Qian shrugged. “I’m just making sure there isn’t any dispute between you since we are working with Xunzhua. As long as none of you is fighting with each other --”

“There isn’t any dispute,” he cut in, sounding rather helpless.

“That’s good,” she nodded. “Whatever Pojing says, I know you’ve gained his and his sister’s admiration after what happened at the gathering, they know you’re an irreplaceable ally.”

There was another silence during which Bai Qian wondered whether she’d said too much.

“My past is an endless track of wrong after wrong,” said Yehua in response. “My future is an uncertainty. No one should waste their admiration on me just yet.”


***


Yehua’s words were still replaying in Bai Qian’s head as they made their way to the destination on their swords the next day. If there had been a fight between him and Zhuowei, then Bai Qian believed she had understood what it was about.

He hadn’t forgiven himself, and he wouldn’t until he had reclaimed what his clan had lost. And with that guilt weighing on his shoulders, he didn’t have the heart to accept anyone’s affection, couldn’t allow himself to let any relationship go beyond an ordinary alliance, or friendship.

Hmm... Bai Qian took in a lungful of air, that made the matter all the more complicated.

But she didn’t have long to reflect on this. At what she believed was midday, they entered an unusually dark territory. And soon, Yehua stated that they had arrived at the place on the Demon Queen’s map.

Descending from their swords, the three of them found themselves standing at the entrance of a giant cave, and even though it was still day, the sky was almost as dark and bleak as the rocks that surrounded the area. They were at an isolated location, so devoid of life that Bai Qian doubted even the Demons could be found here. There was nothing but endless black, howling winds, and harsh rocks beneath their feet, not even a little grass was to be seen.

“It’s in there?” asked Yehua, sensing around to see if he could detect anything sinister in the air they breathed.

Still coughing and gasping for breath, the Demon Queen nodded. Being airborne at such a high altitude for so long had put a strain on her mortal body even though she kept insisting that she had especially strong lungs by mortals’ standards - Bai Qian cast a quick spell to help her stabilize again.

“This entrance leads down,” the woman went on. “There will be beasts and guardians waiting to slaughter any intruder on sight. I fought some of them in the outer circle but was forced to retreat the last time I was here.”

Bai Qian surveyed the enormous cave entrance - there was very little chance of it collapsing and trapping them inside, even if it did, they could dig their way out with magic.

They conjured two balls of light and took several cautious steps in - their immortal powers were not suppressed at all. A few yards in - nothing unusual.

It felt like walking into the belly of a sleeping dragon. Strangely, there was only one path, one single path. Had this path been laid out by the creator of the item himself or dug out by the immortals who had sought this item in the past? They passed a few puddles of water, a few dark ponds here and there. Having expected flesh-eating fish to jump out of one of those ponds, Bai Qian was astounded that their walk was nothing but uneventful.

Soon, the path opened to a wide circular field. Several large openings that reminded Bai Qian of the entrances to her Qingqiu cave lined the left and right walls. On the other side of the field, though, a single archway stood dull and isolated - the continuation of the path.

“There is something familiar about this place,” Yehua suddenly stated in the dark, addressing only Bai Qian.

“Familiar?”

“I feel like I’ve been here before,” he continued absently.

“You --” Bai Qian looked around. “You think you’ve been here? But when? During one of your trips to the Demon Realm back then?”

“No,” he frowned. “I’m quite sure I haven’t been here. It just feels like I have.”

Bai Qian’s own frown was even deeper, she couldn’t make head or tail of what he’d just said. Was this about one of his Golden Lotus dreams? But Yehua seemed to have dismissed the subject as he picked up his steps toward the small door.

“Demon Queen,” she turned to the woman. “Did you make it this far last time?”

“Not this far,” said the Demon Queen’s cautious voice. “I was attacked much earlier. But be on your guard, I believe there should be guardians --”

However, no sooner had they heard the rest of that warning than what sounded like footsteps of giants shook the whole area. Then, five gigantic beasts shot out from the openings along the side and charged at them.

Bai Qian instantly cast a shield around the Demon Queen as the latter backed out of the center.

Turning back to the Beasts and getting ready as they charged nearer, Bai Qian wasn’t sure what creatures she was looking at. A sabre-toothed tiger with five tails; a Kirin with what looked like wings attached to its hind legs backwards; a tiny lynx with one glaring eye in the middle of its forehead - although Bai Qian doubted its small size was no hindrance to its ability to shred its prey apart; the ugliest turtle she had ever seen with a long, spiked dragon tail; and a dark bird that could pass for a phoenix but its feathers were battered to the point that they looked more like rags hanging across its muscles. Five at once, they let out dry, grating screeches - like the sound of hundreds of talons scraping on a rock surface, stomped their feet, flapped their wings and bared their uneven teeth.

She’d never had the chance to handle the four beasts on Yingzhou islands - Bai Qian reflected. Well, now she could finally…

Suddenly, the five creatures decided to halt their attack. The ones on the ground stopped on their tracks as though someone was yanking on their leashes, the bird retracted its talons and hung suspended in midair, five pairs of eyes glared at the two intruders they had circled, the sound of them breathing and gritting their teeth could still be heard.

Still gripping her silk fan, Bai Qian prepared for the worst, pressing her lips together and eyeing them with eagerness. She was ready for any kind of trick. Would her first blow break some bones? Yes… she believed it could...

But the creatures were still glaring. Then, for some unthinkable reason, they dipped their heads in a bow, as respectfully as if to a god they worshipped.

Utter silence followed their strange behavior.

“What on…” Bai Qian muttered, both bewildered and disappointed. What was going on?

She looked toward Yehua, who didn’t seem to have any more clues about this than she did.

Very slowly, the five beasts stepped back, and back, until they passed through the mouths of their separate lairs once more.

Another long silence passed by, and as soon as their eyes met, she said, utterly confused, “What’s wrong with them? What kind of guardians are they?”

Yehua only responded with a shake of his head as she ran over to remove the shield around the Demon Queen.

“What just happened?” asked the woman.

“I don’t know,” Bai Qian frowned and glanced around, half wondering whether some deadlier danger was lurking around and had scared all those beasts away. But… no, they had bowed. Why had they done that?

Standing like statues for a long while, the three of them kept looking back and forth at each other and sulking in the emptiness and silence of the cave.

“Do we… keep going, then?” Bai Qian blurted out.

“Stay close to each other,” Yehua said and waited for her and the Demon Queen to join him.


***


The lack of a proper attack made them even more anxious as they went in further. They were now climbing down so many sets of stairs that Bai Qian had a feeling they would soon reach the centre of the earth.

“That was peculiar,” the Demon Queen remarked again. “They were ready to kill us all, those beasts. Why did they retreat?”

“I have no idea,” Bai Qian mumbled. “Were they the same beasts that you fought?”

“No, the ones that came at me when I was here alone were… different. They looked different.”

“Maybe they were the same ones, and they just became bigger and… er… more hideous over the years.”

“Possibly...”

“That doesn’t explain why they behaved like we were guests,” Bai Qian looked over to Yehua. He didn’t have an answer to this, either, and seemed to be still pondering over some other things.

Bai Qian stopped as she suddenly caught sight of a small archway tucked in a corner on their left. And on the other side of the threshold...

“Hey… there’s a fox!”

A white, nine-tailed fox was blinking at her with its mouth hanging ajar in amazement. Astonished, she strode forward.

“Come here!”

Strangely, the fox didn’t run away, it didn’t even appear to be scared of her. Instead, it ran toward her; and as Bai Qian was only one step from the threshold, it too ceased and looked back at her curiously.

“Which Fox family are you from?” Bai Qian asked. But the animal didn’t reply. Had it been trapped in here all this time? Had it lost its ability to assume human form? She shouldn’t scare it then.

“I don’t see any fox,” said Yehua when he was next to her.

“There it is,” Bai Qian pointed at the little creature. “It’s…”

But the words died in her mouth when she saw another Yehua had appeared right next to the little fox, which was raising its paw and pointing at her.

The other two people had become strangely quiet.

She took another step toward the archway. The fox did too. Bai Qian got down on one knee and squinted.

Raising her arm, her hand reached the fox’s paw the same time it reached hers. But instead of fur, she felt something like the surface of a magical shield. She blinked and tilted her head, it did the same.

It wasn’t any fox, her heart skipped a beat and her mind started racing. It was her own reflection. Herself.

The fox suddenly retreated a few steps on its own while Bai Qian rested still, its big, round eyes became wary as it looked right and left, as if it was afraid of something. Then, it sat still, deep in thought, perfectly poised yet its face was a reflection of some silent fear.

Bai Qian realized without having to think that she knew what that fear was.

Am I right -- or am I wrong?
A whisper here. A whisper there. What will the world say if I turn out to be wrong?
The world judges. The mark of failure can’t be erased.

Bai Qian shut her eyes for a long second, when she opened her eyes again, the little fox was once more tiptoeing toward her, raising its paw and waiting for her to do the same. So she did.

Its little smile was meant to say something, but she couldn’t figure it out.

Unable to bear this crushing emotion any longer, Bai Qian turned around - Yehua was wearing the same perplexed expression she’d had and was probably still wearing now. The Demon Queen too was wordless.

“Let’s keep going,” said Yehua. Neither she nor Shaowan argued.

Bai Qian didn’t have the heart to ask Yehua or the woman if they’d also seen their true forms in that magic mirror, if that true form had also reminded them of what they normally would bury deep within themselves.

What magic was this? To strip one’s soul bare without a single spell. Who had built that mirror?

She glanced back once more as they picked up their pace, eyes narrowing.

This time, she recognized some carved patterns running along that rocky archway, and they looked… familiar. Where had she seen these patterns before? She brought her eyes back to the front.

Yes, very -- very familiar. They looked almost like a depiction of fish scales. Why did these carvings suddenly remind her of a child?

The path gradually became wider until it became as big as the Celestial Court, and this time, Bai Qian had to force her questions away in order to take in what was in front of her.

They were at a dead end. There were no more stairs, no more archways that led down further, only... fire.

Her eyes were assaulted by extreme brightness and the amount of breathable air seemed to have been reduced by half. An endless sea of golden fire was burning above what seemed to be a cliff, its dancing flames as high as the cave ceiling. Several rocks of all sizes and shapes protruded from the ground.

“It must have been lit recently,” she said, half glad to have finally met with a real obstacle. “Maybe when our presence was sensed.”

“Then it can’t be put out by ordinary means,” Yehua concluded.

“Are you not well, Demon Queen?” asked Bai Qian anxiously as she suddenly noticed the woman’s unblinking gaze at the fire. “You shouldn’t look at it for too long.”

“I’m fine,” she replied. “It’s just that — fire…”

Bai Qian stepped closer to her so she could hear better. “What about the fire?”

“I’ve have quite a few memories with fire, that is all.”

“Oh,” Bai Qian understood now. This woman had been a Fire Phoenix. At the peak of her power, she must have shone as brightly as this fire. Then, it was also fire that had killed her at the end of the Demon War.

Along with Yehua, Bai Qian began to walk alongside the cliff to look for a bridge, or perhaps an enchanted boat with a grumpy ferryman that could carry them across for a price, but she found none of those, either.

There was only one option, then...

“Stand back,” said Yehua as he raised his arm. His ice-blue magic sizzled at the center of his palm then shot forward in waves.

The result was atrocious. Like a beast being disrupted in its slumber, the fire roared in fury and several of those flames launched toward them like attacking vipers, as if to return all the blows they had gotten. They struck, retreated, swaying for a second as though contemplating, then struck again. One nearly burned Bai Qian’s face had she not conjured a shield in time; and for a second, she could have sworn those flames had eyes.

It took several rows of striking for the fire to finally calm down and returned to their former passive state.

“Right,” Yehua said, brushing what seemed to be hot coals off his black robe. “That didn’t work.”

Bai Qian bit her lips, staring straight into the blazing flames. “The item must be in there, or something valuable at least. This fire protects it.”

“Then there must be a way to get in,” Yehua concluded. “There must be a way to extinguish it.”

She glanced down at her feet then took another long look around the cave.

“There’s water,” she said. “The ground is damp, there was water dripping down the cave walls all the way here and we’ve passed a couple of underground lakes. If we can summon those waters into the fire, it might cease.”

She didn’t see much of a chance that regular pond water could extinguish an enchanted fire, but they had to try. The Demon Queen, however, was not reacting much to this hindrance. Instead, she seemed to be deep in thought.

“You have to be inside a shield this time, Demon Queen,” said Bai Qian. And she quickly conjured a protective shield as the woman made a small sound of agreement.

But the water didn’t work. They used a considerable amount of energy, summoned waves and waves of water from every corner of the cave. But that only seemed to anger the fire more because the golden flames struck them more viciously this time, chasing after them, hissing and making snapping sounds as if wanting to swallow them, burning through almost all the defensive shields they conjured.

“Well,” Bai Qian panted as she removed the shield around the Demon Queen after the fire had stopped trying to roast them. “At least we tried.”

“Are you all right?” Yehua eyed the miserably burnt patches on her dress.

“I’m fine, it didn't burn me.”

“There is something about this fire,” the Demon Queen spoke suddenly with a kind of curious fascination.

“Yes, it’s golden, can’t be put out by wind or water --’

“No, it’s not that,” she said. “I meant -- you are right, I don’t think we can extinguish it by force.”

Well, we certainly can’t ask it if it’ll let us cross in peace, either, Bai Qian thought spitefully as she took a look around the cave. The flames had left their marks on most of the rocks too. And…

That was when she saw it.

“There’s something there!”

Bai Qian strode toward a rock that was particularly close to the cliff’s edge, the other two people following her closely.

“There are some writings here,” she said loudly.

Deeply carved words formed some kind of writings on the rock’s body, words that looked too ancient and complicated for her to understand. The flames, having brushed past these rocks, had left the edges of those words glowing gold.

“Is that… er…” she tipped her head, working out the character she could kind of recognize “Is that ‘dragon’? It looks like ‘dragon’...”

“I can’t tell,” said the Demon Queen. “This isn’t my language.”

“Yes, it is,” Yehua confirmed. “This is the ancient language of our tribe. I used to spend hours translating old texts in the inner vault of Taichen Palace’s library.”

Bai Qian lowered her voice. “Your grandfather made you do that?”

“No,” he said, to her great surprise. “I did it in my spare time.”

“You mean for fun?”

“Yes,” with a smile, he went back to the writings. “That is ‘dragon’.”

“Oh. Well -- what does the rest of it say?” asked Bai Qian eagerly.

Yehua ran his fingers along the words, taking a few long minutes.

“Join… The… Join the dragons.”

That didn’t make much sense. But Bai Qian kept quiet as he continued to decipher the words.

“A willing… horse, no -- heart. A willing heart…” his eyes narrowed. “Yields a path.”

The Demon Queen quietly stepped closer to the rock, examining the carvings with a sort of curiosity in her eyes, as if she was seeing something else in those words none of them had seen yet.

Join the dragons? Bai Qian thought. What dragons? Dragons somewhere in that fire?

But it came to her almost immediately when those eyes she had caught a glimpse of earlier flashed in her head.

The dragons… are the fire. The flames had shot forward and attacked as though each had a mind of their own. And of course, riddles were never meant to be direct.

“What do you think it means,” Yehua asked. Had he seen those eyes too?

“The flames are the ‘dragons’,” she replied. “It’s a figure of speech.”

“So… join the dragons?” Yehua’s voice became suspicious.

“Willingly,” Bai Qian added.

But the more the ancient words became clear to her, the more she believed they had no chance of getting this item, or if there even was an item on the other side of the fire.

“A willing sacrifice will open the path through the fire?” Yehua said.

“Yes, I think that’s what it means,” Bai Qian said.

With a heavy sigh, she sank onto one of the rocks and buried her forehead in her hands.

“Are you sure that’s what the words say, Celestial Prince?” Asked the Demon Queen suddenly.

“I’m sure,” Yehua said. “It doesn’t make any sense, however, if it implies that the only way to cross the fire is by willingly walking straight into it.”

“Of course it doesn’t make sense,” said Bai Qian in frustration. “No magic in the eight realms can measure someone’s heart or evaluate their thinking, no enchantment anyone can make is able to detect willingness. This is absurd.”

Pausing, Bai Qian suddenly realized that perhaps she was lying to herself. The mirror -- it had measured her heart, had shown her what she would never let someone else see about herself.

“Also,” she continued promptly. “What if only one person went into this cave, if he sacrificed himself then to whom would the path be open? And when it would be open, how long would it stay open? And how would the magic know to keep the unwilling people away if the fire ceased?”

“You’re right,” Yehua sighed, sounding even more let down than her. “This is sorcery.”

“So I was never going to get it back then, anyway,” the Demon Queen’s soft voice suddenly raised. She was still staring at the rock.

“Neither are we, it seems,” Bai Qian said.

They had come all this way, had prepared to face the worst kind of obstacle, only to be thwarted by a convoluted riddle, by magic they couldn’t understand, and couldn’t take the risk of entertaining.

Bai Qian looked up at Yehua - leaving was probably their only logical choice, but she didn’t want to admit it.

“Let’s go back,” Yehua decided in her stead.

“Yes,” she agreed with a heavy heart, standing back up. They must know when to stop chasing the impossible. “This doesn’t make any sense.”

“Go back?” the woman’s voice sounded almost dreamy.

“We won’t be able to cross that fire, it’s over,” Bai Qian said without looking at her. “Even if it’s true, it’s not like any of us is going to volunteer to be burnt alive so the others can have a chance.”

Signing again, Yehua uttered in an accepting tone. “We’re no worse off than we were before the trip, that is already a blessing, let’s not linger.”

Bai Qian nodded, although her feeling of indignance was eating her from the inside. Together they turned away from what could very well be a solution to this war and dragged their feet back the way they came. The Demon Queen, although reluctantly, followed them.

But this might not be the solution they’d hope it would be, Bai Qian made an effort to console herself. Who was to say that whatever lay behind the fire could be better than everything else they had done to prepare for the war? Who was to say that it was any better than Zhuowei’s inventions or Moyuan’s plan?

But what about the mirror? She couldn’t stop asking herself. Was that sorcery or magic from powerful hands they had yet to understand? And if the mirror was not an object of dark magic, then why would the fire be?

Deep in thought, Bai Qian was a minute too late to realize something that nearly made her blood stop - Yehua was on her right, but there was no one on her left.

“Jie —” Both she and Yehua whipped around. “Demon Queen?”

For a second, Bai Qian instinctively prepared for the worst treachery to happen, but what she saw was something completely unexpected. The woman was far behind them, but she was not moving. She was standing at the edge, face to face with the golden fire.

“Demon Queen --” It didn’t take Bai Qian long to understand why she was not following them, and that they had been too careless.

Demons believe in magic the rest of the world never would.

But surely, she couldn’t be planning to...

“Xiaowu,” the woman’s voice echoed, making both her and Yehua stop on their tracks before they could take more than five steps.

“Demon Queen,” Bai Qian said, her heart pounding. “What are you doing? We’re going back.”

“You are going back.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not jumping in there.”

“Demon Queen,” spoke Yehua, he too had grasped the situation. “We need to go back to Xunzhua.”

“No.”

Please don’t ruin the alliance we have just made with Zhongyin,” he continued. “We are responsible for your life and you need to help us ensure that Zhongyin doesn’t change his mind.”

“Zhongyin won’t betray you,” she assured them. “He listens to me.”

“Yes,” Yehua stressed. “And we thank you for that, but we need you to --”

“Xiaowu.” Ignoring Yehua’s reasoning, she held out her hand. Gracefully, leisurely. “Come here.”

Holding her breath, Bai Qian began to move quietly toward her, beginning to project power into her fan to do a summoning spell. But her fingers contracted and her magic was forced to cease when she realized how close the woman was to that fire. The spell’s momentum might just push her right in before it could pull her back.

“There,” the woman said when they were more or less twenty feet apart, turning her hand over - an order for Bai Qian to stop.

There was nothing she could do, Bai Qian thought frantically. If she used magic… if she made a sudden move and disturbed that unpredictable fire and all of them might end up in its belly.

Bai Qian squeezed her eyes shut for a second then opened them again.

“Jie-jie --”

“You know this is true,” she looked briefly toward the rock. “You both understood that this place possesses magic beyond your comprehension the moment you saw yourselves in that mirror. This is where you cannot escape from what you really are. And such a place cannot hold lies.”

“Demon Queen,” Yehua spoke behind Bai Qian. But the woman didn’t give him a chance to finish.

“You want to know why I’m helping you.”

Bai Qian exhaled. “You’re not helping me or anyone by --”

“Let me finish,” she interrupted in the calmest voice.

Conjure a rope and snatch her over? Bai Qian contemplated the idea. Hit her hard enough so she passes out and… No, that might push her into the fire...

“I have done unforgivable things in the past,” the woman continued.

“I know what you did --”

“No, you don’t. What you know are only numbers and dates. You wouldn’t be calling me Jie-jie if you saw with your own eyes what I did.”

“If you’re talking about the people who have died during the War --”

“Yes, them. The innocent hearts I have stabbed, the bodies I have trampled on, have watched my soldiers burn.”

Cold sweat broke behind Bai Qian’s neck. “You didn’t care that much when I told you how you wounded the late King of Xunzhua.”

“There is a difference between wounding an opponent and slaughtering an innocent, Xiaowu. And the latter, I have done so many times that I can still smell the blood on my hands.”

“You were not like this in the mortal realm,” Bai Qian swallowed. “You were always… laughing, and telling me to stop thinking too much. You gave me advice to help me forget my own misery…”

“Did I?” There was a small crack in the woman’s voice. “A pathetic attempt to escape reality from my part. But I’m glad I helped someone. Here -- I can no longer pretend to be the person you found a friend in.”

“But… But that’s who you are.” Bai Qian’s throat tightened.

“That’s who you want to believe that I am. It’s who I want to be again. But it isn’t possible, not until I have paid the price. And death -- that is not the price.”

“Listen --” Bai Qian breathed out. “High God Moyuan knows everything you did and he still forgave you. And this is not the time to talk about --”

“Moyuan is kind,” was the woman’s soft reply. She suddenly moved another inch toward the fire as her eyes flickered to Yehua, as if to warn him to stay where he was. “You are kind. But I know better than to think that Moyuan’s forgiveness can wash me clean of the past.”

Bai Qian had never felt more frustrated or helpless. “What are you saying, that killing yourself is going to solve the problem?”

“I understand now that the universe did not bring me back so I could return home. There was never a possibility of going home. I understand now why I met you in the woods that day, why I was allowed to see Moyuan again. I understand what it was all for.”

“Are you insane! We need facts. We need to know exactly how this works before risking our lives; and since we can’t figure it out, let’s just go back and continue with the work we do understand. I’m not going to let you jump in there because you suddenly have a feeling about the universe’s plan for you!”

“Thank you,” a smile spread across her face slowly. “I’m going to assume that you have some trust in me after all. But I’m afraid it is I who will decide what to do with my life.”

“Jie-jie,” Bai Qian heard her own voice break over anger and fear. “Let’s assume that this stupid request is not a trick,” she pointed at the stone. “What are you doing this for? For High God Moyuan? To assuage your guilt? Do you really think that by taking your life this way, the universe will spare you a proper trial?”

The red phoenix’s eyes stared back at her. Pain. More pain than ever manifested on her face. Still, it didn’t look like she had given up her suicidal plan.

“What is a proper trial?”

That… Bai Qian had no answer to.

“This thing,” she flung her arm at the carvings on the stone again, too desperate to make this woman see reason; she didn’t even care how harsh she sounded anymore. “It says a true sacrifice is demanded. You were a ruthless queen of the Demons; you have betrayed and you have killed for power. Are you telling me you’ve suddenly become a do-gooder who would lay down your life so we, the people you’ve known for less than a month, could have a chance to win this war, is that the person you have become? Ask yourself those questions before you jump in there. Is your death really going to help us or is it going to be just another death!”

A long line of tears rolled down that beautiful face. But there was such determination in her eyes - a determination that was stronger than the fire before them, stronger than anything Bai Qian or Yehua could conjure at the moment. She didn’t look scared, nor disconcerted, only frighteningly calm.

“The universe will be the judge of my intention.”

The Demon Queen wheeled around and, in front of their helpless faces, lunged forward. Into the golden flames.

“No...” with her fan, Bai Qian shot forth a summoning spell. But she was a fraction of a second too late.

The fire’s fury exploded and rose even higher, shaking the whole cave, as if it was letting out a cry of triumph and excitement, that someone had finally -- willingly offered herself to its power.

It kept roaring and roaring, but no fire serpents attacked them this time. The flames spread around the edge of the cliff, slipping into every small crack on the ground.

She felt Yehua’s hands grabbing her by the waist and pulling her back; then, as if afraid she was going to do something stupid, he held her to him with both arms. It wasn’t necessary - she knew there were deadly fires in front of them. She knew she couldn’t do anything but watch as the woman’s body was consumed by the flames, as those eyes, that elegant face contorted in agony. The fire seemed to be ripping her apart from the inside. She was screaming yet Bai Qian could hear nothing beyond the raging fire that was suddenly as loud as a hundred beasts’ hungry roar.

That mortal body ceased to struggle as it took on the golden glow of the fire. Then, it scattered into tiny pieces and was no longer seen.

A rumbling sound issued from somewhere deep within the earth. The cave shook. With a loud hissing sound, the golden fire extinguished itself, leaving only white smoke in its place.

Yehua loosened his hold, although his heart was still hammering against her back. Bai Qian blinked furiously to adjust her eyes to the darkness before them.

In the distance, a small isle came into view. Countless rocks and pebbles floated in the void where the fire had been.

She detached from Yehua and they shared a long look.

It worked, his eyes seemed to say.

Yes, it had worked. Bai Qian still couldn’t wrap her head around what had happened, around the fact that there were now only two of them. But it had worked. The last barrier toward the item had been cleared.

Two seconds later, the rocks that had been floating about in midair whooshed down and assembled themselves, one by one until they made a thin bridge to the faraway isle.

The path…

It had worked.

“We’re going over there,” Bai Qian said under her breath. They had no reason not to. She couldn’t think back to that golden fire anymore and whatever fear she’d had was no longer there.

Quickly, she conjured a ball of light and sent it upward, illuminating the way they were about to walk across.

In agreement, Yehua took her hand and with one slow step after another, they approached the cliff and began to cross the stone bridge. The cave did not collapse on them and no beast jumped at them.

At one point, Bai Qian dared to look down - it was nothing but pitch black. She didn’t know what she had expected to see.

She had never asked that woman why she’d liked butterflies so much.

On the isolated isle, there was nothing but a stone dais in the center. On top of it lay a wooden box with exquisite gold patterns running along its panels. That was it - they both understood without having to speak - that was the item they had come for.

There was no lock, no chain, no more obstacles.

They stepped closer to the dais. With extreme caution, Yehua reached for the lid and lifted it open.

Bai Qian’s eyes were wide in bewilderment. Yehua too seemed to have petrified.

“It’s empty...” she gasped.

“Someone… someone’s been here,” Yehua’s voice was breathless. “Someone’s taken it?”

Chapter 14, Part 1