Chapter 15 – Reflection
written by LalaLoop
edited by kakashi
consulting by Bunny
Bai Qian lingered in the pond-sized marble bathtub, watching bubbles float about in midair aimlessly.
Perhaps it was nervousness, perhaps it was spite — Bai Qian didn’t know which was keeping her from running to the Guest Hall to see him right away.
But mostly… she mostly did not want to appear in front of him looking like she had skipped meals and lost sleep. What an idiotic wreck she had been — he was here, alive and unhurt. Also…
How can I even begin to explain to him what happened to the Demon Queen? Bai Qian sighed, eyes following the little sprite’s fluttering wings back and forth in the room. Maybe Yehua had explained; still, she had been there, had watched her jump into the golden fire. And all of that… had been for nothing.
When Bai Qian arrived at the Guest Hall, a flock of women was standing not too far from the door, both attendants and soldiers, chattering excitedly.
“Did you see him? Did you?” One of them asked.
“Only a glimpse,” another giggled.
“I saw his face. So Celestials aren’t so bad, after all.”
“Not bad?” an attendant gaped at her peers. “That’s a face that should be carved into a mountain.”
“He doesn’t look like a Demon Lover to me,” came a comment that made Bai Qian grinch a little.
“Is there a specific way Demon Lovers are supposed to look?” another voice asked mockingly.
“Well — yes. Firstly, I’ve always imagined them to be clean-shaven —”
“Don’t discuss that in the palace!” a small voice protested.
One of them saw Bai Qian and gasped. “Queen of Qingqiu.”
They all turned around and greeted her. Then, as Bai Qian nodded her greeting back, their eyes looked beyond her.
“My King,” their expressions changed instantly and with a look of acknowledgement from Pojing, they each carried on with whatever duty they’d had before the God of War’s face became the topic of their conversation.
“You certainly took your time,” Pojing said as he arrived next to Bai Qian.
“Aren’t you still here too?” she asked curiously.
Pojing did not answer but instead gave her a long look from head to toe with a faint chuckle.
“What?” she shrugged.
He leaned forward. “Is this an invitation to prolong the game?”
Bai Qian looked down at her dress, then her eyes shot to his robe and she understood what that smirk was about.
“I haven’t had time to think about mending my ruined clothes!” she argued. “I’ve been wearing whatever the palace attendants provide since I came back here.”
“I’m sure no one will think you look like one of us,” he laughed, gesturing at the door. “After you, Queen of Qingqiu, unless you prefer to walk alongside me to maintain the image.”
Bai Qian shook her head hopelessly and walked through the door. The guards on either side bowed as well as Nalan who was waiting by the seat at the front.
Yehua, Zhuowei were sitting on one side, Zhongyin and Moyuan on the other.
“Excuse our tardiness,” said Pojing and he took his seat while Bai Qian joined Yehua’s side.
Moyuan did not appear to have been injured in any way. Only, there was not as much of the Kunlun Scholar in him as a restless man who had lived on horseback and slept under the stars for days. Months.
His eyes did not leave her from the second she’d entered the room. She looked back, wanting so desperately to be alone with him. But she settled in her seat and took in a patient breath as Pojing began to speak.
“Welcome to Xunzhua, God of War.”
With a nod, Moyuan replied. “My compliments to your security, King of Xunzhua. I do not believe I have seen a protective shield stronger than yours in millennia.”
“My sister deserves all the credit,” Pojing said, and the princess’ cheeks turned pink when the God of War directed a look of compliment toward her.
Zhongyin made no comments and no effort to greet any of them, only contorted expressions as though sitting in the same room with them was giving him nausea.
“I have important news,” Moyuan said. “But first, let us discuss the matter of troops. I believe you have received the numbers and facts about Luoji’s army from my disciples and General Jiayun.”
“We have,” Pojing said darkly.
They were all quiet, soaking in the fact that the formidable army Luoji had been amassing in the Void could crush them into dust — the hounds, a combination of many tribes’ magics, the dark weapons they would not hesitate to use.
“The Demon Queen is no longer here,” Pojing continued toward Zhongyin with some reservation. “We don’t intend to bind you to the alliance, Demon Steward, but that doesn’t mean we will not welcome help. Please consider the future of the realms before you –”
A broken laugh from Zhongyin interrupted him.
“Spare me the hypocrisy,” his face went wild. “You were not this courteous when you ordered your cat underlings to tie and drag me back here, King of Xunzhua.”
“We had our difficulty,” Pojing said.
“You think I don’t know what you all thought about my sister?” Zhongyin spat. “What you say about our tribe when our backs are turned? You never trusted my sister, especially you, Fox Queen.”
His bloodshot eyes darted to her face and Bai Qian found herself facing pure loathing.
“You talk and preach and act as though you stand for justice and appreciate the differences between tribes, but you never granted her the trust she asked for. You are as pathetic as them –” he pointed at Yehua.
“Demon Steward,” Moyuan began. But Zhongyin’s voice raised like mad thunder above them, he wasn’t going to allow anyone to speak.
Still staring at Bai Qian, he scoffed. “She said if you’d stop looking beyond what is right in front of you all the time, maybe you would see what you are missing. Not that you will ever understand that.”
While the rest of them still hesitated to respond, Zhongyin pulled up his right sleeve. On one side of his arm was a black mark that looked like a poor illustration of a tree branch.
“She made me swear it,” Zhongyin hissed, his eyes bulging. “My words carved into my flesh and bound with magic. Before that trip to the Demon Cave, she made me swear not to betray you and help you in any way I can.”
The hall was submerged in silence. Even Moyuan seemed unprepared for this. His fist tightened at his side as he gazed at the dark mark.
“You know nothing of her,” Zhongyin scoffed loudly and looked at each of them with disgust, opening and closing his mouth as if wanting to insult them more but unable to find the words. “I will send my troops to Xunzhua and let them help you. After this is over, don’t let me see any of your faces again.”
His chair made a loud grating noise as he pushed it back violently.
“I hope when you die a tragic death in this war, High God Moyuan,” he glowered, and Bai Qian flinched at those words. “You will remember how much she did for you.”
Zhongyin strode out. No one bothered to stop him this time.
“Was it…” Yehua frowned.
“Yes,” Moyuan nodded in confirmation. “That was an oath bound by an unbreakable spell.”
“Should we let Zhongyin leave just like that?” Bai Qian voiced her concern.
“There is no information he can offer that Luoji doesn’t have already,” said Moyuan.
Once again, they fell silent. Bai Qian looked out the window — was that mortal cottage still there?
Several more seconds went by before Pojing gave the order to Nalan. “Seal the room.”
A blue, transparent barrier raised from the ground and covered the entire hall.
“High God Moyuan,” Zhuowei cleared her throat and began now that they could not be heard from the outside. “What news have you brought from the Void?”
“The devices can and will be destroyed,” Moyuan replied. “I have found a way to compromise the protections around the locations without Luoji’s knowledge.”
“When will you do it?” asked Yehua.
“Lord Donghua is currently recuperating. I will need a few days of meditation to be certain the next time I face the device, I will be able to contain it without any complications. And I believe the Fox Empress requires the rest too. When we are ready, I will inform you,” he took a brief pause. “The numbers indicate our disadvantage in this battle, but once Luoji loses his life anchors, he will no longer be the unparalleled Dark Immortal he is now; his priority will change, his followers will waver, and an army without a leader stands no chance no matter its size.”
“Give us the locations of these devices,” said Pojing. “They can’t be destroyed at the exact same moment. If Luoji puts all of his speed into cloud-jumping, he can arrive at any sky island in a matter of minutes and whoever is the slower one to destroy a device will probably need reinforcement.”
“Thank you,” answered Moyuan with a nod. “I will give you the details of these locations.”
“How do you compromise the protections around the devices, High God?” Yehua asked.
“It isn’t something I want to trouble you with,” answered Moyuan simply.
Bai Qian didn’t know whether he was vexing them on purpose or just unaware of how infuriating his secrecy could be. Frustration took the better of her and words slipped out before she could think twice.
“If it concerns your life, High God, then don’t you think we should know?”
Zhuowei’s head bobbed and she leaned forward in curiosity. “Yes, I’d like to know.”
Clearing his throat, Moyuan said, “The magical beasts, I control their minds. The enchanted barriers, I study their energies from afar to construct the proper combinations of counter-spells to deactivate them.”
Zhuowei’s eyes were wide. “You control their minds — constantly? Every second of every visit to the location?”
“Yes, it is necessary that they do as I command and that their memory does not retain their encounters with me when Luoji searches their minds, as I believe he does during every inspection.”
“Well,” the princess bit down on her lip in concern. “Then you must be exhausted.”
Yehua frowned. “Please do not strain yourself, High God. If your meditation requires more time, then give it more.”
Moyuan nodded at his brother.
“Has Luoji discovered anything that might be dangerous for us?” Bai Qian asked.
“What he has discovered,” Moyuan said, “encourages his own recklessness more than it endangers us. He knows nothing of our activities in the Void, I can assure you that.”
“What makes him so confident?” Yehua asked.
“His belief that he has achieved what the rest of the world hasn’t.”
Bai Qian was more worried than assured. Was Moyuan being too careless? She couldn’t help but notice that there was, indeed, excitement in his voice, even if it was well concealed and overwhelmed by the concern for what was to come — the kind of excitement when one met his match in an enemy, the energy that was essential for an impossible mission to be accomplished.
“I will leave for Kunlun now,” said Moyuan, standing up and drawing a small piece of paper from his chest pocket. “The locations are recorded on here.”
Zhuowei walked over and accepted the paper with glee before any of them could.
“Invisible ink,” said Moyuan. “I believe you know what to do, Princess?”
“Are there any complications with the Feather?” he moved on.
“Not anymore, High God,” Zhuowei said. “I think I have a good grasp of its seemingly untamed power, and I’ve let the Celestial Crown Prince familiarize himself with the Phoenix’ energy on it. Once the weapon is finished, it will answer to his summon. If someone else knows of its location and summons it with a spell stronger than he can conjure, it might temporarily obey the command. But I have designed this weapon specifically to suit the Crown Prince immortal essence and power. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” said Moyuan. “What about the jade hairpin?”
“I have unlocked the Kirin boy’s torc, Master Gejing is helping me study his fire and decide when it’s safe to use it on the hairpin.”
“Is there anything I can assist you with?”
“No, High God,” Zhuowei shook her head with a proud smile. “As one weapon inventor to another — I think I can manage.”
“Excellent,” said Moyuan. And as the princess blushed like a student being praised for her perfect marks, he spoke to the rest of them. “I will be in touch shortly.”
With little hesitation, he took a few steps toward Bai Qian’s seat.
“Would you accompany me back to Kunlun?”
She nodded and came to his side. He didn’t have to ask, she needed to talk to him and she didn’t care where they had that conversation. Furthermore — Kunlun, Qingqiu, the Ghost Realm, they were not far from one another, if she could…
“Just a moment,” it was Pojing’s voice.
Bai Qian turned to see he had stood up from his seat. Zhuowei was looking at her with uncertainty. Only Yehua remained detached though Bai Qian felt as if he too was expecting something from her.
“Kunlun is three days away,” Pojing said.
“I am aware of the facts, King of Xunzhua,” replied Moyuan politely, but his voice was sharp enough to cut a brick in half.
Pojing took a step down from the dais. Bai Qian stared at him, looking hard for the jest, the swagger he frequently wore to irritate her — maybe this was one of his ideas to test Moyuan’s limits.
But there was none of that, only seriousness mingled with astonishment.
“May we know when you will be back?” he asked her.
Right, Bai Qian sighed her head at herself. The realms weren’t the same as a few months ago, she herself had just barely escaped death. She couldn’t just leave the shield without letting them know even if she was leaving with the God of War.
She thought for a second — if she made a stop at Qingqiu…
But her eyes caught sight of Moyuan’s face before she could finish planning. He didn’t seem to take too kindly to this delay even though his expression was unmoved.
Zhuowei stepped closer to Pojing and began with probably the best smile she could muster. “What my brother means is — the Queen of Qingqiu is our ally and her presence is crucial in every meeting we’re about to hold. We would like to be assured that she will return here safely and as soon as she can.”
Moyuan’s answer was instant, “I can assure you that she will be safe.”
Pojing’s eyes narrowed for an instant. Bai Qian believed she knew what thought was going through his head and he said it before she could do something about the rising tension in the room, before she could even feel insulted that they were talking about her like a helpless child. “Can you, High God Moyuan?”
Behind her, Moyuan drew in a sharp breath and Bai Qian began to feel as if frost was biting her back. Yehua made a small movement forward, perhaps wanting to say something, but quickly retreated to silence.
“High God,” she said to Moyuan. “I have some things to say to my friends before we leave.”
Another few seconds of silence, then Moyuan quietly stepped away. Yehua walked over to join his brother as Bai Qian made her way to the Xunzhua siblings.
“Don’t you trust me to look after myself?” she said to Pojing.
He scoffed and shook his head, not answering her.
“Will you come back here as soon as possible?” asked Zhuowei.
“I’ll possibly make a stop at the Ghost Realm, then my home, and I’ll come back right away.”
“Good,” Zhuowei nodded. “You can tell the Ghost Princess that her Kirin friend is free of the enchanted torc.”
Bai Qian nodded. Kirin was free, and they would have his Hellfire to their advantage.
“It’s a long way to Kunlun and back,” Zhuowei went on. “The God of War is powerful but so are his enemies. You should be careful.”
“I will,” Bai Qian stressed. “I’m always careful, and –” she sighed. “It’s not like I’ll be slaughtered the minute I’m out of the shield. Even Luoji doesn’t have that much spare time to follow me everywhere.”
“All right,” shrugged the princess, grinning. “I hope to hear good news from your second brother and that the number of soldiers on our side will increase with your return.”
“I hope so too. Thank you for –”
“I would be happy if you’d just come back with your limbs intact,” Pojing cut in, sounding like he had made a real effort to be kinder, but failed.
“Am I that useless in your eyes?” she gave back.
“Not useless, but a little insane, yes. Listen to me, Queen of Qingqiu — you volunteer to fight another Kirin and I’ll leave you to die.”
Zhuowei shook her head and grimaced while Bai Qian stayed quiet. Coming from Pojing, that warning probably meant ‘good luck’. She wanted to smile but did not.
“All right,” she shrugged and joined Moyuan.
Facing him, she couldn’t smile, either. She had a feeling he would not appreciate any explanation for what had just happened no matter how amusing it might sound. If there was irritation or anger, he gave no hint of either; but she was certain that whatever was behind his indifference, she would know once they arrived at Kunlun.
With a nod at Yehua, she walked alongside Moyuan out of the hall.
“Kunlun is three days away, Shifu,” she said.
“It depends on the cloud-jumper,” his answer was reassuring.
“I am back,” the boy breathed out.
At once, the merciless talons and beaks plunged into his skin — his legs, his arms, stomach, back. Blood poured from his wounds, the world became darker every minute. They moved back, and attacked again. But for some reason, he knew the creatures would not kill him. They hadn’t killed him with all the chances they’d been given even though they were much capable of doing so. They had wounded him again, and again, but not enough to take his life.
Perhaps there was hope. Perhaps what he needed to do was keep trying, keep showing them he was not afraid. He must get there, he must…
The boy dug his fingers into the ground and crawled forward. But one of those things, he didn’t know which one, viciously crashed into his back. He bit down but screams of pain escaped from his throat — he was going to pass out again. So close… But the boy realized something before giving in.
He had gotten a few inches closer to the door than last time.
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