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Chapter 14 – The Tide Turning

Part 5

written by LalaLoop
edited by Kakashi
consulting by Bunny

Five guards came into Bai Qian’s cell after Luoji had left and put her in large, heavy shackles that she suspected were normally used to contain wild beasts in training, eyeing her with clear anxiety the whole time they were in her cell.

Catching her eyes, the guard who was handling the keys croaked, “We have learned our lesson with you, Queen of Qingqiu. Wouldn’t want to make the same mistake again.”

“No,” Bai Qian lifted her chin. “You wouldn’t.”

The chains — dragging her arms down with the weight — started to take effect. In a matter of minutes, Bai Qian’s healing powers ceased, the spell she had been using to direct heat towards her core to fight against the cold also came to a sudden halt.

One by one the guards exited the chamber. One of them — Bai Qian realized with puzzlement — stayed behind and turned back at her after the other’s footsteps had faded.

“The cold…” the woman stepped closer to Bai Qian, looking terribly conflicted. “The cold won’t kill you.”

“I know it won’t.”

The guard waved her arm, summoning a goblet containing some steaming liquid inside and handing it to Bai Qian.

“What is this?” she asked.

“Something to keep you warm, if only for a few hours.”

“Why?”

Placing the goblet on the ground, the guard lowered her voice to an almost inaudible whisper. “The Crown Prince nearly died while rescuing the children from the underwater palace. Words of his bravery and virtue have spread far and wide.”

Bai Qian suddenly realized that both sides of her neck bore thin slits that lay parallel to each other — gills. She must be a citizen of the four seas, maybe a relative of some of those people whom Senior Diefeng and Yehua had risked their lives to rescue that day.

This guard did not want to be here, Bai Qian understood. Perhaps more than half of them dreaded being here. And the fallen Crown Prince was starting to become their hope, so was anyone who took his side.

Xinglang (兴浪), said the tiny carved characters at the corner of the woman’s pendant.

After she left the cell, it was nothing but endless cold. After another few minutes, she looked back at the ground — but the goblet was gone.

Of course, no guard would want to risk being caught helping a prisoner, especially in this Arctic Land.

Bai Qian sank to the ground and shivered until she was too weak to do so. She lay her head down only to find that the ground could freeze her head over. She could feel feeble waves of energy circling the air, keeping her alive, keeping her from becoming part of the ice. But it was more punishment than mercy — not dead yet powerless under the constraint of the shackles, Bai Qian felt every bit of pain the savage cold inflicted on her, even in sleep. The worst memories one by one came to haunt her.

She saw Lingyu’s kind eyes filled with bewilderment when his chest was suddenly drenched in blood, saw the body in golden armor falling from the bell, saw his closed eyes and peaceful face when her arms clasped around his shoulders.

Was he dead or was he asleep?

And she… was she dead?

“Hope is only gone when the peach blossoms lose their color,” Zheyan spoke to her in her dream.

“But they have lost their color, Old Phoenix,” she muttered back. “I saw them, they were pale, white…”

“Hmm,” he smiled, like he always had. “Then perhaps don’t lose hope, and the color will return.”

“But… you just said the color…,” she started shaking her head vigorously. “I don’t care about the trees. Just don’t leave me, Zheyan, don’t leave me again…”

“Of course you care about the trees. If you didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

He stroked her hair once and held out his hand. Bai Qian hesitated for a second then took it. With one powerful heave of his arm, she was sitting up again, the cold wall against her back.

There was no Zheyan. Tears were drenching her face. Bai Qian stared at the front unblinkingly, taking in shallow breaths.

No, she wasn’t dead, she was just… Hot and cold at the same time.

Heat was suddenly spreading from her guts to the rest of her body, making her head hurt and her skin burn.

Unable to access her bag that contained Zheyan’s potions, Bai Qian crawled to a corner, used the heavy chain to smash some ice that had stuck to the ground into pieces, then picked up one and held it against her forehead, then her neck and cheeks.

Would a fever kill her?

***

When someone wrenched the door open and told her it was time to attend the banquet, Bai Qian had lost her voice completely. Her insides burned even though she was quite sure the external temperature had been slowly turning her into an ice block.

Not daring to attempt anything too drastic to get her to move faster as they left the prison, the guards only expressed their impatience with frustrated sighs.

The sunlight and fresh air gave her back a little strength on the way to the Nine Heavens, not much, but enough for her to be able to breathe evenly again and attempted some healing with her suppressed magic.

It was only when Sufeng met them at the Nine Heavens’ back gate that her shackles were removed. But even then, her powers did not work as properly as she expected them to.

The said banquet was being held in a courtyard at the edge of the central sky island on which the Celestial Palace was positioned. Dances were being performed, food and drinks filled tables, but the atmosphere was far from merry.

On one side of the banquet were, no doubt, Luoji’s followers — the only ones who appeared untroubled and excited to be here. On the other, emotions were divided. Some people distanced themselves from tall exchanges and kept to their drinks, some others — like that Fuze from the Demon Realm — consumed their drinks in conflicted yet curious silence. Several seemed like they were only at this banquet because they were afraid Luoji would decimate their lands otherwise. The Eastern and Western Sea Kings were also present, making empty statements about the decoration.

Everyone seemed to be wondering what they should be doing, wondering what the new laws were and if what had once been considered ordinary would offend the new, unpredictable Master of the Nine Heavens.

Luoji himself didn’t dress any fancier than his usual plain, dark robe. He sat casually at the low table at the front, no Dragon Crown on his head. He needed no crown — the power that leaked from him commanded every living thing in the vicinity, even every breath that was taken.

The crowd gasped and stared when Bai Qian appeared, not through the entrance they had used, but from behind the Dark Immortal’s back. And at once, most of them seemed to understand that she was a prisoner.

Pojing was not among them, neither was anyone from Qingqiu, Bai Qian was glad to realize — the last thing she needed was for her family to be at Luoji’s whims.

“I trust your stay at the Arctic Land was beneficial?” Luoji said in a low voice to her as Bai Qian approached.

She attempted to respond, but only rasping sounds came out of her mouth. He lifted a hand and pointed at her neck. His magic hit a spot near her throat and spread across her skin.

“Now, what was that?” he asked.

She cleared her throat, voice still hoarse. “You’re despicable.”

“You are welcome.” he pointed to the low table particularly close to his own, on the side of his followers. “There.”

I’m going to be sick, Bai Qian thought as she settled on the seat. Her healing power was not working fast enough to undo the damage three days inside the Arctic Land had caused her. The Arctic coldness had numbed whatever ability she had to endure hunger and fatigue.

The Spinner, the Fox Woman she and Yanzhi had fought a while ago, and several others murmured vulgar remarks about her sickly appearance.

“Did any of them assault you in the last three days?” asked Luoji. Her seat was close enough to his that the conversation heard by no one but them.

Bai Qian grimaced in response and glared at the unreadable face, confusion replacing her fear. “What do you care?”

The music continued to play, the dancers in the center went on wordlessly.

“I like to take well care of all my chess pieces,” Luoji took a sip of his wine. “The power to hurt and break them is mine alone.”

Bai Qian threw her deepest loathing look at him, scorching heat surging furiously from her core. But she pushed down her temper.

“You’re a…”

Her insult never had the chance to leave her lips.

A silver ray slammed into the ground, accompanied by a crack as sudden and vicious as thunder before a spring storm. The next second, Moyuan was standing in front of them all, amid the silver smoke, arms behind his back, paying the stunned faces around him no heed. He had cloud-jumped straight into the center of the courtyard.

Bai Qian’s heart nearly leapt out of her rib cage. But against the emotions that were strangling her throat, against the exhaustion that was becoming worse and worse, she instantly put on the appropriate expression and shot up.

The guests sprang from their seats and backed away, several snapped their protective shields around themselves and kept their hands at the casual reach of their weapons, as though expecting a duel of some kind to break out any moment. And the silence that followed was deafening.

Luoji was the only one who greeted that entrance with a satisfied smile.

“Moyuan.”

He said nothing in response, not a flicker of emotion on his face as his eyes found her.

Bai Qian debated flying to him and cloud-jumping away instantly. But she was completely within Luoji’s reach, no doubt there wasn’t any idea she could come up with that he hadn’t anticipated. Not to mention Sufeng who was only a few feet away.

“Do not be alarmed,” said Luoji lazily to the rest of his guests. “The God of War takes pleasure in being the cause of bewilderment, that is all. Did you deem yourself too noble to enter through the gate like everyone else, Moyuan?”

“Can I help it if your security is insufficient?” was the reply.

Bai Qian swallowed, her fear rising — she hadn’t forgotten what had happened on the sky island — that Moyuan could lay battered on the ground any second if Luoji was not amused.

But his words did not anger Luoji in the least. Instead, the Dark Immortal’s excitement seemed to have been heightened. “Well, how have you fared?”

“I am not in the habit of exchanging pleasantries with the enemy.”

“No,” Luoji’s smile grew savage. “You prefer to bed them instead.”

Someone spewed out their drink — Fuze, perhaps. Another round of murmur rumbled. Some faces seemed eager for the exchanges to go on as though they had long yearned to see the God of War’s reputation smeared. Some expected a denial, but Moyuan gave them no such thing. He looked back at Luoji as though what had been stated was a compliment he couldn’t care less about.

“Is the Demon Queen back among us yet, then?” The Dark Immortal continued. “I had hoped to see her alongside you at this celebration.”

This time, the guests no longer contained their sentiments. Wide eyes and gaping mouths were directed at the center.

“So it’s true…” was the comment that was raised the loudest.

“The Demon Queen?”

“Demon Lover…”

“We have placed our trust in a depraved traitor.”

“Madness!”

“I always knew it…”

“What is he doing here?”

“Say something, God of War! Did you break the Celestials laws that you yourself signed?” It was Fuze, his seemed to be the one voice that contained excitement instead of shock and disgust as those around him.

Whether Moyuan had been informed ahead of time of her circumstance, Bai Qian didn’t know. He looked casually at her and raised his voice above the crowd.

“I was not aware that Qingqiu had any involvement with the new Celestial Court. Is the queen’s presence here meant to be a statement?”

Bai Qian lifted her chin and went along. “Is yours, High God?”

Luoji glanced back at her then went on with ease. “We rescued her from the battle of the Crystal Palace.”

Unexpected to her, Moyuan said, “in that case, I would like a word with her.”

“No.” Luoji’s immediate response sent a deadly chill spreading forth. Bai Qian saw the crowd inching further away from the confrontation. They understood that war had been declared between two very powerful immortals, a war they absolutely didn’t want to be caught in between.

Moyuan’s expression slightly changed, as though one mask on top of the many he wore had been dropped. Whether it was intentional, Bai Qian wasn’t sure.

“Is imprisoning younger immortals your new obsession?” he said. “She is not part of any game.”

“How touching,” Luoji observed his own hand as he flexed his fingers. “After what she let me do to you on the sky island. It seems you still cling on to the bond she has long severed.”

Moyuan’s gaze darted toward her. “Does this man speak for you, Queen of Qingqiu?”

What is your plan, Shifu?

Bai Qian held her breath as she answered swiftly. “Certainly not, but I happen to agree with him. You and I have nothing to talk about and if you’re here to rescue me as I think you’re doing, I suggest you save your strength.”

“Not that any rescuing is to be done while I am here,” Luoji added, smirking like a wolf. “You see, Moyuan, the only people with the right to negotiate her release are her family and the King of Xunzhua.”

Luoji took a step down. The crowd jolted and shrunk.

“But if conversing with her is so important to you,” he pointed at the ground. “Beg, and I will consider it.”

“Beg?” Moyuan repeated with the same provocation in his voice. “When have you become so insipid?”

Under reproachful eyes, he strode toward the front and waved. A giant chessboard replaced the low table.

“This is what you want, isn’t it. A game? Very well, if I win, you let her go.”

“You never disappoint.”

A gleam of thrill swept across Luoij’s eyes. It was true, he could never resist an invitation to a duel from Moyuan. It seemed that the majority of the crowd shared his excitement this time, knowing that they were in no danger from a chess game.

Bai Qian swallowed and pondered the worst outcomes this game could end in. She wasn’t sure whether Moyuan’s calmness would help them this time, wasn’t sure whether he was unknowingly giving Luoji what the latter wanted to see. Her own calmness had done them more harm than good. Above all, she couldn’t stomach the idea of sitting still while her life was being decided over a chess game.

And she had to react… she had to. She hated Moyuan — that was the mask she couldn’t drop.

But Luoji spoke before she could. “Do not look so ungrateful, Bai Qian. You should thank your mentor for knowing me so well. If he had begged, I would have killed you both for boring me.”

“I don’t need my fate to be determined by two Celestials who are out of their minds –”

“Is that so?”

He took a step in her direction. From the corner of her eyes, Bai Qian saw Moyuan make that same step, as abruptly as if his leg moved on its own accord.

“If you insist, we shall play our own game,” Luoji said. “Spinner.”

From among the ranks, his servant appeared next to them and bowed.

“Arrange the maze. And kindly ask the Queen of Qignqiu’s old friend from the Arctic Prison to meet her there.”

The Spinner could barely contain his excitement as he flew away.

“What old friend?” Bai Qian winced, her stomach lurching.

“Patience,” Luoji whispered.

His hand came to her neck in a swift movement. Bai Qian gasped as she felt a sudden disruption in her body, like her blood flow had suddenly ceased. The next second, she knew — he had sealed her immortal powers.

Luoji was now addressing Moyuan while gesturing at the chessboard. “You win, I let her go and let you — what was it — speak to her as you please. I win, we watch her survive this maze on her own. We come to a draw, I return her power and she continues her battle in the maze.”

“Luoji,” Moyuan began, but Luoji cut him short.

“Is that fair?” he asked Bai Qian.

“If I defeat whatever it is in that maze, with or without my powers,” she said, clutching her wrist. “You let me go.”

“Yes.”

“Immediately?”

“Immediately.”

At her suspicious silence, Luoji went on in a lowered voice. “If you run out of ideas, be invisible.”

“What?”

But the Spinner had returned and interrupted them with a disgustingly proud look on his face. “I have spun a maze deserving of a queen.”

“Good,” Luoji responded and positioned himself at one side of the chessboard. “You are the guest, Moyuan.”

Moyuan took the opposite side and pointed at the random square. A black chess piece the size of a bucket’s mouth appeared on the spot.

Holding the silk fan for Bai Qian to see, Luoji said, “Pray you will be able to retrieve this soon,” and flicked his hand.

A gust of wind hurled her away and dropped onto the smaller island that floated a modest distance away from the central one.

Bai Qian scrambled up. Mud and dirt from the ground had sprayed her face upon landing. She was indeed inside a wide maze, the hedges were at least three times her height. The sinister atmosphere separated her completely from the banquet on the main island even though the sun could still be seen.

She couldn’t see or hear anyone, but the people who were observing from the central island above no doubt could see her very well.

What kind of torture was waiting for her in here?

The ground suddenly rumbled. Bai Qian instinctively made a circular motion in the air only to remember that she had no magical power to summon a shield. Then, something rounded the corner.

She turned, finding herself looking at four scaly animal legs, each one the size of an oak trunk, and whipped up.

It took Bai Qian a good minute to recognize that it was the Kirin she had ridden briefly while escaping the Arctic Prison. The creature looked different. It seemed they had tortured and starved it for a while for its skeleton was visible underneath the pale, gashed skin. And instead of eyes, two black, hollow sockets stood out on its bony face. There were no metal chains to tether it but shackles were present on its wrists and ankles.

Baring its red-stained teeth, the Kirin roared and stomped its giant feet, its tail knocking down several hedges around, its icy breath freezing her core.

Luoji had made her into the first meal this creature had been given in probably weeks.

Exhausted, starving and more powerless than she had ever been, Bai Qian wheeled around and ran.

Chapter 14, Part 6

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