Chapter 87

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written by kakashi
edited by Panda

When they stepped out of the bookshop with several scrolls of top grade erotic material in their possession, Shao Wan became aware of a strange kind of feeling. It was like something was nagging at her, trying to get her attention to spoil her elated mood. It was so unfamiliar, it took her a few moments to identify it: It was her conscience.

It told her to apologize to Mo Yuan - even though she hadn't done anything wrong. Or had she? He, on the other hand, continued to do everything right, which seemed to be part of the problem: He had not only paid for the scrolls she had chosen but also carried them for her, wrapped in a leather band that ended in a tied sling over his shoulder. That someone highborn like him, who had been brought up surrounded by servants who took care of his every need day and night, would not let her carry anything, was a gesture she found oddly touching. When he was so nice and selfless to her, she felt vulnerable. All their time spent together, they had been fighting and aggravating each other. It would take getting used to, this being nice.

He was silent as he walked half a step ahead of her. Because she decidedly did not like it when he was broody, she started to furiously think about how to restart their conversation. When nothing came to her mind, Shao Wan settled on tugging at his sleeve instead.

"Yes?" he said and stopped. His expression was calm and patient. It was his teacher face, the one he used on his disciples. She did not like it when he used it on her, because it put a distance between them. It was a reminder of who he was, the Master of Kunlun Mountains, the God of War, the enemy of Demons, the Protector of the Realms. It was a reminder that they were here on borrowed time and that they were both pretending that they were not currently fighting a war against each other in the immortal realms.

"Are we headed back to the inn?" she asked. She could do nice things to him there, to express her gratefulness and show him that she cared.

"No," he said and continued walking without any further explanation.

He was angry. No, worse: disappointed.

She should have known better than to try and sell her manuscripts with him right there. He was a perceptive bastard and on top of that, as a master strategist, he put together bits and pieces of information very quickly. He knew. And of course, he didn't approve.

Heaving a sigh, she knew what she had to do to set things right.

"I forgot something at the shop just now," she declared, "I will quickly head back to get it. Walk on, I will catch up with you."

She hurried back without waiting for his response and soon burst into the shop again. The owner was just reading one of her scrolls and by the look on his face and the bulge in his trousers, he was liking it.

"I need them back," she declared a bit breathlessly, rushing forward to remove the scroll from his hand.

"But, lady...," the man looked confused, then increasingly angry when she started to grab the other scrolls from the table.

"I have changed my mind!" she said, "be thankful you got to read some of it at least."

"I can sell these for a very good price," he urged her, "I have many clients who would be eager to get these."

"Ah...," she hesitated. But only briefly. "It's a crying shame, but it can't be helped. Give me that one too. Yes, that one."

Soon, she had all the scrolls back in her possession stowed safely away in her sleeve pocket. The owner looked at her with indignation. Well, at least she had confirmation that her writing was good. "Forget you ever saw this," she ordered the man and glowered at him for emphasis until he looked afraid.

"I got them back," she declared when she had caught up with Mo Yuan, who hadn't gotten far, or rather, had probably slowed down so that she would not have any difficulties finding him, "I realized I hadn't read them to you yet. I want to."

Mo Yuan looked at her with his impassive face...but then, a very small smile curved his lips. "I am curious to see whether you have improved your writing," he said.

She felt very excited about the prospect of proving to him that she indeed had. "Let's go back now?"

He shook his head. "No, I want to take you to the teahouse first. And then, I want to show you something."

Oh, a secret? She felt like grabbing his hand or his arm, but she remembered that he did not want to scandalize anyone, since his face was "known and respected" here. She did notice though that he moved closer to her and measured his steps so that they were walking next to each other, in synchrony. It made her happy.

They soon got to a busy street full of merchants and they walked on leisurely, browsing the goods with their eyes - until Mo Yuan abruptly stopped in front of a stall that sold all kinds of diverse objects.

"See this dagger?" he whispered to her.

Yes. It was brimming and shining with immortal energy. Very strange. She felt the first stirring of an ominous feeling creep into her belly.

"How much?" Mo Yuan asked the eagerly smiling merchant, who demanded an exorbitant amount of money, though not at all enough for a clearly priceless object from the immortal realm. How had it found its way down here with its powers intact? That was against the laws of the universe.

"It is a very special object," the merchant excitedly said, when Mo Yuan laughed at him for naming an indecent price.

"In what ways?" Mo Yuan asked, turning the small, pointy dagger in his hand. As soon as he touched it, the glow of the weapon increased, as if it were glad to be back in the hands of an immortal. It was of an unfamiliar design to Shao Wan, though it faintly reminded her of a weapon she had once encountered in the fighting pits. It could be hidden easily, in a boot for example, and it was just big enough to reach and pierce a human's heart.

"It has magical qualities!" the merchant declared. "It will keep your enemies away from you if you carry it on you!"

"Is that so," Mo Yuan said. "Who told you?"

"The man who sold it to me," the merchant explained. "He got it from a travelling merchant who deals in special artifacts, he comes by about once a year. He was in need of fast money, some kind of trouble with the tax collectors or something, I was very lucky to meet him at the teahouse before he disappeared again."

How mysterious. As Mo Yuan, a determined glean in his eyes, expertly started to bargain for a lower price, a very pretty flask caught Shao Wan's eye. It was half hidden behind some colorful earthenware yet shimmered in all the colors of the rainbow when one squinted one's eyes. She extended her hand to touch it.

"Has the Lady seen something else of interest?" the perceptive merchant immediately said. "This flask? Ah, a very good choice indeed. It is a rare item, a drinking bottle used by one of the desert tribes, very old." He grabbed it and pulled it out for her to see, having it dangle in front of her eyes on a piece of red leather string that was tied around the cap and the neck of the flask. "I will give you this for free," he said to Mo Yuan, "together with the magic dagger. It is a real bargain, this alone fetches a high price."

"Do you want it?" Mo Yuan asked her.

"You have bought me enough already," she answered, though with some regret. The flask would look really pretty at her belt. She could put Zhe Yan's peach wine in it so that she would always have some at her disposal.

Mo Yuan accepted it anyway when he purchased the dagger. The salesman carefully put it into a sheepskin sleeve. "These flasks are sturdy, yet you should not expose them to the rain," he explained. "The colors are from the special metal that is used to make them, but rain dulls them. They're called Soulcatchers." He laughed. "You should drink water in the desert, but soulcatchers more often are used for alcoholic beverages."

Shao Wan smiled happily when Mo Yuan handed her the bottle with a very smalls bow. The merchant wrapped the dagger in thick cloth and Mo Yuan stowed it away inside his sleeve pocket. And then, he sneezed. She narrowed his eyes at him, but he just beckoned with his head and they continued walking.

"We have no money left now," he said with a slight grimace and another sneeze. "I am glad we have bought all of our supplies before this discovery."

"You used magic?"

"I had to use my língshí (Spiritual Sense) to probe this weapon," he explained. "I feared a malicious force, which it is not. It did not reveal its origin, however, or its purpose."

"How is it possible it keeps its immortal essence in the mortal realm? That shouldn't happen."

"I'm intrigued myself," Mo Yuan said slowly. "Is it possible it is drawing its powers from something - someone? - inside this mortal world?"

It was true that this world, it felt different than other mortal worlds she had visited before. She had immediately noticed when they had arrived. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but it was as if the earth beneath her feet was humming with a faint vibration. But a source of strong immortal magic? Magic biteback was here for a reason: Mortal worlds needed to be protected against the meddling of the Gods. It was the law. Immortal magic couldn't exist here.

"Should we sing and dance to earn some money for tea?" she asked him.

"I think we have just enough for one of the lower grade teas," he answered and guided her steps towards this town's teahouse.

It was plain yet cozy and they sat down at an upstairs table with view of the stage, on which a story was being read, causing the small crowd to cheer and clap ferociously.

"I like the mortal world," Shao Wan said with a smile, "people live so much more intensively here."

"You probably only like it because you are an immortal," he replied. And sneezed. There was truth in his words, of course. But there were more sides to this.

"I would not want to experience mortal suffering, you are right. But at least, it ends. Immortal grief is much worse. It doesn't."

"Unless the person you had lost returns to you," he said very softly. Her heart started beating fast as she gazed into his dark eyes.

"I....I didn't know you were waiting," she stammered. "I...I would have returned faster? Maybe."

Mo Yuan chuckled. "To anger me earlier? Yes, I'm sure you would have."

He took her hand. "Shao Wan. I fear...as long as we are here, there will never be a right time to talk about our situation. I feel we should take the opportunity now. We need to find a way to end this war without too much damage."

Reluctantly, she nodded. She waited until the waiter had brought them some tea, a welcome few moments to collect her thoughts. "You are right," she sighed. "I should tell you about my reasons. It is not that I just wanted to go to war against you."

"I was hoping as much," he said and poured her some tea with a smile.

"You will not like what I am going to say," she said with a frown.

"Let that be my problem," he replied.

She nodded again. "I...I need to become Overlord again," she started. Did she have to tell him that it wasn't primarily because she was hungry for power? Or would he understand? "I can only be accepted as Overlord if I prove myself to my people."

"I know that," he said. Now he sounded arrogant again.

"Yes, but only because you've recently started to develop an interest in Demon customs," she said, more sharply than intended.

He looked at her, handing her the teacup. "And let me guess. To become Overlord, you need to beat Cheng Yin?"

"Beat him...or marry him."

Mo Yuan had a lot of self-control, but the mention of Cheng Yin in combination with marriage made him growl in anger. He glowered at her.

"Of course I'm still considering both options," she viciously added, just to vex him a bit more.

"I won't let you," he hissed.

She shook her head at him, half laughing, half offended. "How can you even believe that."

"I know you and him..."

"No, you know nothing," she chastised him. "You are assuming. He never got what he wanted. It was my way of torturing him. As a result, his will to possess and subjugate me is very strong. Are you listening?"

"Yes," Mo Yuan answered, grudgingly and in an instant foul mood. "But why did you not let me kill him when I could have?"

"You promised you would leave him to me!" she said, running out of patience fast. "It is I who need to end him, in front of my people. But I cannot do that yet."

"Why?"

She shook her head in disbelief. "Did you not hear him? He has not revealed his final weapon yet."

"Because he doesn't have one."

"Don't be arrogant, Celestial," she said raising her voice, "has he not been able to outsmart you several times? If you underestimate him, you might lose everything. This man, he has had 190,000 years to prepare for this war. If he says he has something to destroy the realms, you better believe him."

The entire realm will be lifeless and dead. Your father's creation: all of it, gone.

"Such a thing doesn't exist," Mo Yuan said calmly.

"Again, your damn arrogance is making me furious," she spat. "While you sneaked around in my Demon Camp, I was trying to find out what he was planning and it seems..."

"Teacher, is that you?" A man appeared next to their table, very suddenly, making both of them jump. Too intent had they been discussing their issues to pay sufficient attention to their surroundings. He was wearing the plain clothes of a scholar, his hair already thinning and grey, but his eyes shone with joy as he gazed upon Mo Yuan.

There was a brief moment of confusion and alarm on Mo Yuan's face, but then, it broke into a friendly smile. "Fan Fu Rui! I almost didn't recognize you."

The elderly man bowed happily. "You look very well, teacher, for your age! I probably do not, if you do not recognize one of your own pupils."

Shao Wan squinted - and saw. Unlike her, Mo Yuan had come here well prepared, it seemed. He had changed his appearance for the eyes of mortals on their cloud jump, to make sure he looked appropriately aged to anyone who had met him before. This was unwritten law - scaring mortals with immortal powers was strictly forbidden, which included not aging when going back to the same place within a human's lifetime. If he was posing as a grandpa right now, she was less surprised he had thought they would scandalize people walking hand-in-hand.

"And this is..." Fan Fu Rui said with a friendly look at Shao Wan.

"My wife," Mo Yuan explained readily, but paused a little before he added: "Huo Niǎo (火鸟)."

Shao Wan snorted. What had happened to the "Immortal Demon"? She had started to like her identity as dangerous being, tamed by a monkish scholar.

"What happy news!" the scholar delightedly exclaimed, "teacher, you deserve all the marital bliss in the world. Lady, I am happy to make your acquaintance," he beamed at Shao Wan, "you could not have wed a better man."

"I would have gone to the school later," Mo Yuan said, "do you know, is everything well?"

"It couldn't be better," Fan Fu Rui smiled, "we have more pupils and more donations than ever before. Oh, you probably do not know that I have become a teacher there myself! Everybody is waiting and praying eagerly for your return. It has been such a long time!"

"It has indeed." Mo Yuan said slowly.

"So many years!" the man exclaimed. "Let me take you. People will be delighted to see you."

With an apologetic glance at Shao Wan, Mo Yuan got up and nodded to the man. They left the teahouse and walked for a short while until they got to the gate of a sizeable building. "The Golden Dragon", a big sign above the door read, and it made Shao Wan snicker, "school for the poor," a much smaller one underneath said, and that stopped the laughter quickly. So he had built a school in the mortal world to pay off his debt?

Mo Yuan was welcomed like a long lost friend, and excited children flocked around him, many obviously meeting him for the first time. Their friendly welcome extended to her and she received smiles, hugs and little presents from many sides, until she felt a bit dizzy.

"Come play with us?" one girl said and tugged at her hand.

"Who bit you?" another child demanded to know in outrage and pointed to the bruise on her cheek.

"Just some...small dog," she explained and laughed when Mo Yuan threw her a look.

It was a very happy afternoon that they spent at the school, full of warmth and gratefulness. While some pupils flocked around Mo Yuan to get him to teach them something, some others insisted on playing hopscotch with her. She learned that many of these children had no other home than the school and they considered the founder of this school - a forefather of the current He Jing - their great benefactor.

"Why is the school called The Golden Dragon?" she asked some of the children when they took a break from jumping and running around and munched on some salty snacks.

The children's eyes grew round and their faces turned solemn. "Do you not know the stories?" one girl whispered conspiratorial. "Everybody knows them. How this world came into being."

"I...I wanted you to tell me," she quickly said to cover up for her lack of knowledge, "to test you."

"A Golden Dragon got very angry at the sins of people," a boy gravely started, "and he destroyed the world they were living in."

"No!" a girl interrupted him, "they took away what he loved most and then he got angry!"

"He destroyed a world, but he was kind to the good people," the boy continued with a shrug, "he made another world for them where they could be happy."

"No!" the girl interrupted again, "Golden Dragon cannot make worlds!"

"How do you know that!" some other children shouted.

"It is how this world became ours," the boy ended. "He brought our ancestors here. We are very grateful to the Golden Dragon. We are his sons and daughters."

"Many years ago, he visited!" the smallest child piped up. "One of the pupils met him!"

"He...visited?"

Mo Yuan...what have you done?

"He had had a fight with the Ruler of All Birds!"

"Her name is Heavenly Phoenix! Fenghuang!"

Thunderstruck, Shao Wan stared at the little faces around her, which were suddenly out of focus as she dizzily struggled for breath. All of them spoke together now.

"The teachers say it was a heavenly blessing."

"A red bamboo forest grew where they bled! It is holy, nobody is allowed near."

"My elder brother has seen it! He went to pray there."

"He did not! He is a liar!"

"Huo Niǎo, are you feeling ill? You look pale." The faces moved closer to peer at her and one small, sticky hand gently moved over her cheek.

How are we going to end up being punished for this, Shao Wan thought, feeling cold all over. It was us that brought immortal magic to this world. Us.

She struggled to her feet. "I need to see my..."

But there he was already, walking towards her, a deep frown on his face and in his hand a green cap. She quickly moved forward to meet him in the middle of the courtyard and grapsed both his hands.

"We need to solve a potentially big problem," he said, his low voice as concerned as his face, "Fan Fu Rui tells me a boy he was friends with in his youth met a man, looking just like me, who transformed into a black dragon in front of him to save his brother, a golden dragon. He...," he turned the green cap in his hand, "I must have flown to this world instinctively when I... when we... I am... I am very sorry, Shao Wan."

"A red bamboo forest?"

"The boy...he was known to be crazed, so not many people believed him...He died early. But he gave this cap to Fan Fu Rui before he passed away. It belongs to A-Li."

Immortals were not allowed to meddle with the lives of mortals. How careless of the Celestial Twin to transform in front of a mortal child!

"I should have known. I should have noticed. How did I not realize earlier? I apologize. It is my mistake."

"It has been a while," Shao Wan said, "and we did not break any laws deliberately. Maybe..."

Mo Yuan shook his head. "We need to go there. Immediately. We need to fix it. "

"That will need a lot of magic, Mo Yuan."

"You will be the one to nurse me back to health, so I won't mind."

She pressed his hands. "I will help you. We will share the burden."

"No," he said sharply, "no. One of us has to stay alert to watch time. We cannot both be weakened."

They immediately set off after packing supplies and tents and other things one needed when hiking up a mountain right before winter. Fan Fu Rui said it would take them two days to get there, which, all things considered, seemed like a blessing. He had also cautioned them against going altogether, but seeing Mo Yuan's eagerness, he finally agreed to be their guide. The school owned a fairly old horse that they took along to carry the supplies. Shao Wan was sorry to say goodbye to these children and to this lovely town in such a hurry, since all of a sudden, it was unclear when she would be back.

Mo Yuan's face looked so troubled, she wished to say something to him to lessen his worries, but Fan Fu Rui walked beside him and talked and talked about the Tao, about this and that text he wished to have Mo Yuan's opinion on such that Shao Wan had no chance to get a word in. Only when they set camp for the night, after a scarce meal, did she finally have the opportunity to talk to him alone inside their tent.

"Mo Yuan," she said as she gently undid his hair. "Have faith and believe that our intentions are more important than our mistakes."

He hugged her very tightly. "I just don't think...I told you before, I think I have sorely tried the Heaven's goodwill already."

"You silly man," she said and kissed him, "you are much too short sighted. Fate plays a very long game. Look at where she got us."

They made love that night, quietly, gently and slowly, with rain falling onto their tent, its sound soothing. Later, it turned into snow, which wrapped its soft cocoon around them like a protective blanket, softening all sounds except for their breath and their heartbeats.

The next day, the journey became much more strenuous even though the snow melted in the sun. The path was slippery and muddy and before noon, Shao Wan cursed the lack of magic and cloud jumping under her breath because her feet inside her boots hurt, the wetness was seeping in, her ears were cold and her trousers chafed painfully.

"Do your feet hurt?" Mo Yuan asked her.

"No," she flat-out lied. He just lifted his eyebrows. "Yes, they hurt," she admitted grudgingly, "these mortal shoes are too tight. I hate everything."

"I will carry you," he offered and positioned himself in front of her, slightly bending his knees.

She laughed and hit him gently. "I vow that on the day I will allow you to carry me, you can ask anything of me."

"Anything?"

"Anything. And I cannot refuse you."

"The sky heard you," he jokingly said. Was it her imagination or did she really hear some thunder in the distance? She shuddered involuntarily. Mortal realm adventures with Mo Yuan always ended in very ominous ways, it seemed.

They got to the red bamboo grove after noon the next day. Even from far away, they could feel it. It was brimming with immortal powers, emitting waves of energy that made the air around them crackle and both of them glow, more and more strongly. Shao Wan shot Mo Yuan a worried look when Fan Fu Rui looked at them strangely for the first time, his glances increasing in frequency and troubled intensity thereafter.

Mo Yuan hesitated, but it was more than obvious that the immortal energy in this place was so strong, even a mortal could sense it. When she lifted her hand to perform a spell to delete his memory and put him to sleep, Mo Yuan shook his head vigorously. "Wait. You promised not to use any magic," he whispered urgently.

Yes, she had. This place carried their combined Dragon-Phoenix powers and it would take a lot of magic to hide it from view. The effects on him would be brutal. She needed to make sure he got back to the lakehouse safely.

The red bamboo was very thick and it looked like there was no way into the grove. But when they approached further, a breeze rustled the leaves and the stalks bent hither and thither, suddenly forming a small path that led into the heart of the forest.

"Gods protect me!" Fan Fu Rui screamed, terrified, "what is happening here?"

"Do not fear," Mo Yuan said, and with a deep sigh, he put his hand over the elderly scholar's eyes. He caught him before he could fall to the ground and gently leaned his limp, sleeping body against one of the bamboo trees.

"I'm going in," Shao Wan said.

Mo Yuan nodded. "And I will prepare for putting up the wards. We will have to leave immediately after. I need to get as far as I can before the full brunt of the punishment hits me."

Shao Wan nodded in turn and started walking towards the heart of the forest, her heart beating fast. The bamboo around her whispered excitedly when she passed by and the stems moved out of her way almost like in joyful reverence. She did not have to walk far until she got to its center and gazed upon a still, blood red pond. It was of a serene, yet eerie beauty. She bent down and dipped her finger into it. It was warm. She moved her finger to her lips and licked it clean. It tasted sweet. Instantly, a great feeling flooded her body.

She knew that feeling.

... when they took their last breaths and shed their final tears, a new world was born from the blood of the Dragon and the Phoenix, the most prosperous and happy world there had ever been...

She went back quickly after filling her new flask, watching Mo Yuan setting ward after ward, using more and more magic, until the powers of the blood bamboo grove dimmed, and more even, until the bamboo grove disappeared from their view. There was a light shimmer in the air, but that, too, disappeared with a last boost of energy from his hands as he set several seals. With a thud, Fan Fu Rui's head hit the ground.

Sweat was starting to gather on Mo Yuan's forehead as the fever in him rose, merciless and quick. He staggered and she rushed to his side to support him.

"You're not allowed to try and carry me either," he said with a hoarse voice, "but I will probably have to lean on you."

Fan Fu Rui stirred awake with a puzzled look and Shao Wan explained to the confused mortal that the magical place they had sought had disappeared in front of their eyes, clearly, the gods had not wanted them to see it, that he had fainted, and that venerated teacher He Jing had completely exhausted himself on this long walk and was now feeling ill.

Since Mo Yuan had not said anything against being carried by a horse, Shao Wan removed all supplies from the snorting animal and pushed the God of War up onto its back, where he sat hunched over, though able to hold onto the mane of the horse.

It was an entirely new experience for her to feel like a packhorse, but it did not even surprise her that she did not mind carrying burdens like a lowly slave. Looking into Mo Yuan's thankful face was enough to make her feel good.

"Do not worry about a thing, husband," she said and patted his leg, "I will take care of everything."

Mo Yuan and Shao Wan (三生三世十里桃花) - Vol. 1 [COMPLETED]Read this story for FREE!