Chapter 80

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written by MiniOrchid
edited by kakashi


Between the southern borders of the Ghost and the Celestial Realm lay the vast sand desert they called Zhu Long Gu (Valley of the Torch Dragon). Legend had it the old God Zhu Long took a drunken nap there in his true form for longer than he intended after the Celestial Wedding Celebration of Crown Prince Hao De and Crown Princess Hui Feng. By the time he woke from his nap one month later, his wine infused breath had torched the valley into an unrecognizable desert. Dragon fire was very potent and quite detrimental to the landscape, and thus, little growth had returned to the place since. But that was only a legend. Who knew what had really happened during those days: Records were very scarce, almost nonexistent, so unlike the meticulous record keeping of Star Lord Si Ming nowadays. When asked about this incident, he usually suggested that the God Zhu Long had been in love with the bride, and the true reason behind his month-long wine induced slumber had been a badly broken heart.


The Zhu Long Gu had not been under jurisdiction of neither Ghosts nor Celestials since the unfortunate event, seeing how the valley served no advantage to either tribe. What made this place unique was the fluctuation of immortal energy: For the residents, attempting to gain higher cultivation was not a wise choice, given the unpredictable energy concentration. However, it had also become an ideal place for those immortals seeking to engage in shady deals. The black market thrived in the makeshift city with the name Wu Ming Shi (无名市, No Name City), which was filled with red lantern streets, taverns, and shops, containing mainly questionable merchants and customers.

Lou Jun, the 8th Disciple of Kunlun was no stranger to this place, but he preferred a more solitary location with less noise to focus on his work, one of the many things he had in common with his Junior 14th, who had resided here longer than he had at Kunlun. They were staying on the northern edge of Zhu Long Gu, in between high canyons, perfect for hiding from uninvited visitors. After the first Demon and Celestial battle, both tribes were re-evaluating their tactical plans and fighting had come to a halt. With Shifu's permission, 8th and 14th had decided to return to the Valley to check on their weapons resources. They had stayed for two nights before 14th had decided to go gather material for his experiments in the dark alleys of the city.

Lou Jun made use of his time by testing arachnid spinning thread. The producers of this rare weaving material were from the Bai Zhi Zhu Bu Lou (白蜘蛛部落, White Spider Tribe), but their supplies were limited, especially during times of war. The same could also be said for other supplies, like raw ingredients for elixirs or material for weapons. Even food prices had increased, as merchants and middlemen from all over the realms used the opportunity to gain riches in time of crisis.

Lou Jun was still in the process of weaving the spider's thread as a new material for string and ropes, when countless bells set themselves off, bringing endless ringing, extending even to the back of the cave. An uninvited guest had arrived. 8th discontinued his work within the sun-lit cavern and cloud jumped himself to the front. The identity of the intruder was a surprise indeed.

"Zi Lan, what are you doing here?" Lou Jun asked his Junior, who had disappeared for months and was now standing before him at the entrance. How did he even know about the hideout?

"I'm here for you! 14th Senior told me you'd be here, I met him in the Wu Ming Shi earlier. It took some time to track you down, since you were not at the camp."

"How did you pass all the traps?" 8th inquired. 14th had set up multiple traps, to deter uninvited guests, but most importantly, to protect their inventions.

Zi Lan, more vibrant than 8th remembered him, gave a wide smile before he answered, "You mean how I got past the now broken traps, which Senior Yan Wei conveniently failed to mention when he gave me your location. Please tell 14th Senior to redo some of his calculations if he wants to protect his assets."

8th couldn't help but chuckle; leave it to Yan Wei to play such a trick on 16th. "I forgot, you were his unwilling test subject back in the days!" Still...16th being here was unusual. "Shouldn't you be guarding your Princess at the moment?"

At the mention of the Ghost Princess, his expression immediately changed. "She's not my princess, she's my..." Zi Lan stopped short before finishing and Lou Jun saw a hint of blushing from his Junior who obviously tried to hide his reaction.

"Your what?"

"Nevermind," 16th answered quickly, his expression blank again.

"You could say lover," Lou Jun suggested without hiding his smirk.

Lou Jun saw the slight hesitation in his eyes, guarded once again, but Zi Lan eventually nodded. Lou Jun wondered if he would ever succumb to the same emotional temptations like his junior, senior and Shifu. Would he ever be as lost as them, or like his own mother, who could never forget the one who had abandoned them. He had always devoted himself to one goal, the one mystery he couldn't solve. But now was not the time to be distracted, Zi Lan hadn't travelled this far for tea.

"Zi Lan, there's no need to be shy, we all know you're not the type to drag his feet," Lou Jun stated as he guided 16th into the narrow but high tunnel towards the back of the cave. "What's the reason behind this unannounced visit?"

"Senior, how much do you know about magical weapons? Do you know how to break them?" 16th asked.

"Straight to the point as usual, you never fail to amaze me with your connections," Lou Jun exclaimed, as they settled inside the weapons room. Lou Jun busied himself with tea preparations, but at a slower pace than he normally would.

"Is there are a way to break them?" Zi Lan repeated again. His patience was short fused, as always. Lou Jun placed the teacup down with casual ease, before he spoke again.

"Junior, it is not easy to break Musical Weapons, and those who can do it without knowing the technique require a high level of cultivation. Why do you have such strong interest in a lost martial arts you've never taken an interest in before? You're sure you are really talking about a Musical Weapon?" He asked, his eyes narrowed skeptically.

"It was sonic waves, no doubt about it. I came across it recently, and wish to learn more about it," Zi Lan explained, his voice changing again, as 8th noticed. "You've been studying Musical Weapons for years."

"That is correct, I have searched for users of musical weapons for thousands of years, even before my arrival at Kunlun. I thought Shifu as the God of Music had knowledge behind the lost arts, but unfortunately, he did not. The only known user used to be High God Zhe Yan before he retired, but he is not the one I've been searching for either - he isn't the author of the original magical weapon manual, Harmonic Resonance. To the inexperienced, musical weapons only serve to harm. But that mysterious manual indicates that with the right notes and tone, musical weapons can also serve a higher purpose, such as healing and cultivation gain."

"Do you know their weakness?" Zi Lan asked.

"When it comes to weakness, each weapon has a unique vibration, and the sonic waves produced have to counter act with the other. In short, the best way to counter a musical weapon is to have a musical weapon yourself. What type of instrument is it?"

"A flute."

"Then I would suggest using a string instrument, to balance the vibration."

"I know you and 14th senior have been experimenting. Can you produce such a weapon? "

"We're still at an early stage, but it wouldn't hurt to have a test subject."

"I can be the test subject," Zi Lan answered promptly, too quickly. 8th arched his brow at his Junior who soon realized he had misspoken. "I-I meant...I...," he stammered, but Lou Jun raised his hand.

"You don't have to explain, I now know who the weapon is for. I can produce the weapon for her, but there is a condition."

"Anything," Zi Lan agreed without hesitation.

8th sighed with a slight irritation at his Junior, who never thought twice when it came to his Ghost Princess. He wasn't sure whether to admire his devotion or curse his stupidity.

"16th, you should listen to my condition before agreeing so readily! However, we don't have to discuss it now, since it will take place in the future. Although it will take some time to produce a new weapon, especially during the time of warfare."

"Is there anything I can do to speed up the process?" Zi Lan asked impatiently.

"Eager as always," 8th teased before turning to a more serious tone. "Supplies, we are in short supplies due to the war." Lou Jun wrote down a few items on a list and handed it to Zi Lan. "If you can bring these back for me, I can work on the weapon that will fit her needs."

"Thank you, Senior," he bowed as Lou Jun placed his hand on his shoulders.

"16th," he said with a light squeeze, his narrowed eyes searching beyond the dark eyes of his guarded Junior. "Is she worth it?"

His gaze was returned, unwavering without a hint of doubt. "Yes, more than my life," Zi Lan answered.

Lou Jun gave a rueful smiled. "Sometimes, I envy you."

A puzzled expression crossed Zi Lan's face, not understanding the depth of Lou Jun's words. He thought he may never experience what they did. But maybe it simply wasn't his destiny; there was a higher purpose for him to achieve. For that reason, Lou Jun would continue his search, no matter how long it may take.

Fate had always been unpredictable, because it had brought 16th here today. Lou Jun had finally found the first sign of another user he had long sought. Never would he had predicted that the answer would arrive at his doorstep.

For there is no use to rush fate - those who wait will be rewarded.

****

The Ghost Warriors went through their days, purposeful, organized, and most importantly, following a well-known routine. Morning training, afternoon reports, and heavy feast by nightfall. But the past week, they had been more cautious, despite maintaining the same pattern. In time of peace, one had to prepare for war. Any day now, the storm could arrive. Every Ghost Warrior in the realm felt the clash of powers when the Demon and Celestial Tribes had their first battle. The warriors were agitated, more so because they had been training for far too long without real action, real opponents, real bloodshed. Although they were not involved in the current war, their warrior's blood could not ignore the gravitating sensation of being part of something they were born for. They wanted to fight, to test their strengths, to kill those who opposed their authority.

Yan Zhi had felt the eagerness and drive, even among the Royal Guards and also within her own blood. In the past, after the Ghost War, she had always fought to protect, but now she felt something more invigorating. She wanted to fight to win, to crush those who opposed her. The days of the Ghost Tribe glory would return, she had promised them, but it couldn't come until they first resolved the unrest within their realm.

By nightfall, she strolled alongside the water lily pond of Ziming Palace, it didn't take long for a dark presence to appear behind her. Yan Zhi whipped her dagger out and swung the blade at her target - who dodged and jumped to her side.

"Yan Zhi," the rogue smiled, but she instinctively pulled out another dagger and held it to his neck.

"Even without your magic, you still move like a phantom," she commented, eyes narrowed mockingly.

"Good...it only means you'll always be within my sight," he answered with a grin, then glanced at the blade against his neck. "I thought we talked about this...you shouldn't...," his words were cut short when she pressed the blade against his skin.

"We did, but I don't recall I agreed to stop," she countered, her brow furrowed at her wild tiger, debating if she should put a leash on him. "Where did you go today?"

"Nowhere far," he answered calmly, again with the gaze she knew so well. "It wasn't a dangerous mission."

"Zi Lan," she said impatiently at his continued evasion. Yan Zhi knew it would not be easy to break him from his pattern, because he was not someone who could be easily tamed. She could see in his eyes he was analyzing his next move, calculative as always. As if on cue, with the reflexive ease of a warrior, he captured her free wrist, twisted her arm behind her back, and pulled her against his chest, completely ignoring the dagger at his throat.

Face to face, he gripped her tightly, preventing her from struggling from their intimate contact, his usual tactic when he tried to rattle her composure to his advantage. "I went to consult with 8th Senior on the matter we spoke about before," he admitted casually, but his words remained controlled as he continued, "like I said, the mission was not dangerous."

"You went to Zhu Long Gu again," she glowered.

Zi Lan suppressed a laugh at her accusation, infuriating her even more as he changed the subject, his lips now close to her ears. "I wonder how many spies you placed on me, I thought I lost all of them this time."

"I didn't set any spies on you, General Yu was only thorough with his job, given your continued refusal to take the title that was offered," she answered defiantly.

"General Yu did send the best then, and I do appreciate his loyalty to you, but I am not a fan of his meddling," Zi Lan admitted, "Yan Zhi....I assure you..." but his words were cut short when she turned and captured his lips, clearly disarming him, his eyes widening in surprise.

"Yan Zhi?" he questioned breathlessly when she broke the kiss.

She smiled, but her eyes remained dark. "Are you ready?"

Grinning with understanding, he released her wrist. "When have I not been?"

"Do you want to move somewhere else?" She asked calmly. Grasping his hand, she guided it to the front of her body, the other remaining on her waist.

"No....we shouldn't make a mess in your room."

"Now you're worried about my room?"

Smiling, Yan Zhi magically cloud jumped them away, right before dark clad assassins descend from above. They now stood outside the pack of uninvited intruders, all in dark clothing, their faces hidden. Yan Zhi quickly conjured swords into their hands as she and Zi Lan faced their enemies.

"Took you long enough, any longer and I may have forgotten your existence. She happened to smell very nice today," Zi Lan taunted their opponents, fifteen of them at a quick glance.

Surprised but undeterred, the assassins attacked. Yan Zhi threw her daggers, killing the first two in front. They might seem stronger than the ones in the mortal realm, but their techniques and martial arts were similar, indicating they were in fact the same type of assassins, at the very least the same branch as the ones who had attacked them before. One should never fight too often with the same enemies, because without realizing, the assassins had given them the upperhand this way - Yan Zhi had trained to counter all their attacks at Kunlun. It didn't take long for her and Zi Lan to killed more than half the assassins. The rest tried to retreat, but Zi Lan blocked their path.

"Hey now....don't run yet, you haven't disclosed your plans," he said before attacking the remaining three. Just like her, Zi Lan had learned to counter all their martial attacks from previous sparring practice, the benefit of those who had to fight for survival. Her Royal Guards arrived just when Zi Lan had subdued the last assassin.

Yan Zhi placed a binding spell on them immediately before they could try to attempt suicide, a common last resort of well trained assassins. "Start talking, where are the rest of you?" Yan Zhi ordered, as the guards surrounded them.

"Celestial Whore!" the assassin in the middle spat.

Zi Lan slashed his shoulders, but not deeply enough to kill him, making the assassin jerk in pain, though he did not cry. "I'm sorry, do you want to repeat that?" Zi Lan asked, his tone dangerous.

"Lying with a Celestial Commander, she is nothing but a...," Zi Lan backhanded the assassin so hard, he fell to the floor with a groan.

"I must apologize, I may have to kill you before you finish giving us intel."

"Even if you kill us all, you're going to die - did you think we're the only ones?" the other assassin muttered.

"You think we aren't prepared?" Yan Zhi glared at them coldly. These foolish followers, their eyes were now startled at her statement.

"Aaahhh...Cheng Yin must have recruited the dumbest crew for the job. So easily manipulated, you're nothing but sheep, no wonder you always fail. At first I thought I should let you live a bit longer for your intel, but we're a warrior clan. Weakness even in the mind is also a weakness we can't afford."

At her words, Zi Lan raised his sword, but her hand rose to stop him. It was her duty to finish the job, not his. With a wave of her hand, Yan Zhi slit all their throats with her magic, just in time to hear the sound of a battle horn on the highest peak of Ziming Palace. The battle had finally arrived.

In times of crisis, those who fought for survival were forced to bring forward hidden strengths they never knew they possessed from within themselves. Nothing could hold them back now, as her warriors were eager to show their skills. Their warriors blood boiled tonight.

To run was to die, it was time to stand up and fight, for there is no reward for second place when it comes to war.

****

Not since the Ghost Tribe Civil War had they had such a battle on the ancestral land. Tribe after Tribe, Generals after Generals. But this time, it was different, because the surprise attack was no surprise at all. Everything was set, down to the last detail. With the collaboration of the experienced Generals, the Red Royal Army, and General Zhao's personal troop, they had planned every possible scenario. Traps had been laid, warriors hidden with their aura camouflaged, and those who had been targeted placed in secured locations- within the Breeders Den, protected by the trained beasts. The rest prepared for the attacks that had finally arrived. Nothing could possibly go wrong, because their lives depended on it.

The battle of the night lasted until dawn, and ended only after the sun had reached the morning horizon, when all of General Hu Qian's warriors retreated in defeat. Hu Qian was one of the young bloodthirsty Generals, much like General Zhao - yet, unlike him, General Hu was obsessed with power and recognition. His hunger for domination never ceased, even attacking his own people, with little regard for the benefits of the Tribe. So it was not a surprise he had joined up with Cheng Yin. The enemies had a large amount of weapons, supplied by the Yellow Demon King himself. Even though there was minimal casualty on their end, they still sustained injuries, some more serious than others.

Zi Lan, who could read her posture without fail, had insisted they leave the clean up to the rest of the Generals while they headed back to her chambers to change, before they regrouped again. Moments before, while she had been sparring with General Hu, another warrior had taken advantage and had attacked her from behind. Yan Zhi had easily dodged, but Hu Qian had used the opportunity to release his Three Petal technique, hitting her squarely on the left shoulder. Now the needles were still embedded within her. She had endured the pain, even after the enemies had retreated, although maintaining her breathing had become difficult with the passing of time.

"You can tell me if it hurts," Zi Lan told her when they reached her chamber.

"It hurts," she answered breathlessly, no longer struggling to keep her composure now that they were alone. She sat on her bed, with Zi Lan kneeling before her.

"See...that's not so hard," he smiled approvingly as he brushed the wet loose strands from her face. But his teasing expression didn't last long after he accessed her injuries, no longer hidden by her dark clothing after he removed them. "We should have asked the warrior to put a sleeping spell on you."

"No," her head shook instinctively, tightening her hold on his arm. "Anything but that," she begged, as haunting images returned.

"Yan Zhi, you can't hide from them forever," he reasoned. "This may be the first battle, but a Princess is allowed to be injured."

"I know," she admitted, but her breathing grew heavy, not helping her case. "Just a little longer...at least until I complete my training. Please, I can handle this."

Zi Lan closed his eyes briefly, and cursed under his breath, but she knew he'd relent, even if reluctantly, since he could never deny her. He stood up and left the room to grab supplies. It took longer than expected, but when he finally returned, he came back with bandages, healing salve and an unusual metal rock. Zi Lan settled himself in front of her again, a grim expression still on his face.

"Three Petal Needles are not easily removed, you have to hold on to me," he advised, as he placed her hands on his shoulders. Hands tightening, she nodded reassuringly, though cold sweat dotted her forehead. Three Petals were specially made by the Ghost Tribe to easily enter the body, but their tips had three unique hooks, made to pierce the flesh, causing excruciating pain when extracted. How did he know?

Zi Lan took a deep breath before placing the magnet rock over her left shoulder, the needles reacted immediately, cutting her flesh as they rose to meet the metal. Hands gripped tightly on his shoulders, Yan Zhi bit back a shout that came out as a whimper and she was unable to control the distressed expression on her face. Zi Lan stared back at her, with an even more painful and regretful expression, although he was not injured himself. She tried to give him reassuring words, but he smothered them with his lips.

Her eyes widened in surprise as she stared into his dark eyes that glowed with the fire of a fiery beast. Her nostrils filled with the fragrance of mint and earthy sweat of day old battle, mingling with blood and masculine musk. She relaxed, almost dreamlike, as her eyes fluttered closed under his gentle caress. Yan Zhi felt him hold her closer, his strong arms wrapped around her waist, while the other remained on the magnet. Her hands gripped his chest and shoulders, marveling at the feel of his hard yet comforting body, the warmth she could no longer live without. His mouth took hers with primitive hunger, slipping his tongue in the cavern of her mouth, as he explored the edges, with shallow hot laps. She began to quiver as a different fire grew within her, heightening her other senses to a lurid electrifying intensity.

Shuddering sensual desire began to eclipse the ache on her shoulder as he continued to distract her with skillful deep kisses of sweet salted nectar, clouding her mind, pulling her away from reality, further from the bitterness of the present. She responded hungrily, demanding more as her tongue met his greedily, anything to forget the sensation of piercing pain. But it was much more than the need for relief from the throbbing agony of the flesh.

Since the battle had ended, molten blood lust remained in her veins, an inner craving that had yet to cease, as her unfulfilled body demanded comfort, to bond once more. She moaned against his lips, so absorbed in the moment and dazed from tasting him, she only woke from their passionate embrace when she felt the sharp pain of cutting flesh on her shoulder. It was magnified without warning, like hot searing fire, making her cry in pain as her head jerked back in surprise, because Zi Lan had swiftly pulled the magnet away, the embedded needles along with it.

Zi Lan immediately crushed her mouth with his, desperate as he attempted to smother her senses once again, to ease away the lingering pain he had caused. She heard him drop the metal rock, and his hand with bandage cloth covered her flesh, placing pressure on her bleeding wound. But then she felt the most unsettling response of all; Zi Lan trembled as he held her, but not from desire but from fright.

Eyes tightening as she reflected on the man who embraced her, how it must have distressed him, this task he had taken upon himself because of her stubbornness, her obstinacy. She had hurt him again, yet he did not hesitate to do as she asked. Her face grew hot, eyes stung with tears that threatened to fall, because the intimacy, the sacrifice was more than she could have imagined.

Her hero, her rogue, her husband...the one and only.

His lips slid down her throat, sending tingling waves of pleasure into her body as he savored her with slow open kisses, absorbing the remaining lingering pain of the flesh. "Zhi'er," he whispered. Her eyes fluttered open.

"What did you call me?" she asked in a quivering voice when his mouth lingered on the sensitive spot on her throat.

Lifting his head, his hand cupped her flushed face, red mystic eyes gazed passionately into hers, yet they remained serene, like untouched calm surface water of the night. "Zhi'er," he repeated softly, the words mesmerizing to her ears.

She gave him a faint smile. Only her late mother had called her by that name. It was a distant past, a sweet but bitter reverie she had long forgotten. "I'm sorry," she choked.

"Don't be," he said as he wiped away her tears. "We'll get through this, I promise."

Not long after, with the efficiency he had always possessed, Zi Lan changed back to his usual unruffled self as he bandaged her injuries and redressed her for the gathering of the Generals, taking place in the afternoon. They needed to regroup after the first attack. The Generals were now busy tallying the fallen, their people and their enemies. General Hu's warriors had countless weapons, which was their advantage, but they hadn't counted on Ziming Palace being waiting and ready for their attacks. The next battle would not be as easily won now that they knew about the preparations.

"This was not one of Qiao Er's predictions," Zi Lan stated as he glanced at her injury, "or she would have warned us."

Qiao Er, the brave child, had learned to conceal her terror over her premonitions. Although her eyes widened with fright, she no longer stammered when she explained her vivid dreams. She did not cry like she used to in front of others, but only in private once her duty was completed. She understood her powers had benefited their survival. This was not a life Yan Zhi had envisioned for her niece, but they had little choice when destiny had decided her path. Today they found out the true powers of the Ghost Princess. But like her ancestors before her, Qiao Er had a role to play, most importantly, to serve her people.

"No, it was not," she said regretfully.

"You do understand the implication of this," Zi Lan warned.

"I do, but what other choice do we have when it is her fate?"

Without further words, he held her close, an unsettling feeling engulfing them. It was true, they had sustained the least amount of casualties, but there were casualties nonetheless. They were saved today, but what about tomorrow? They couldn't turn back now, even if they had wanted to.

The dice had been tossed, they could only look forward to what the future may hold, for the choice they had made.

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