Chapter 96

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written by kakashi
edited by Panda

It looked like a Celestial lightning storm was approaching. Goosebumps formed all over Shao Wan's body, a feeling of instinctive dread mixed with morbid excitement crept up from her feet, over her midriff, up to the top of her head. In the midst of the howling energy storm was the God of War, carrying a massive killing aura before him like a black, thick cloud. He was brandishing his sword with elegant, yet powerful movements, drawing Celestial fire from the Heavens and throwing it to all sides, downing screaming soldiers by the hundreds. A sight to behold and never to forget, her Mo Yuan.

"Magnificent," Cheng Yin whispered beside her. His face was frozen into a sneer of admiration and fright and something much more disturbing...lust. Shao Wan felt bile rise in her throat - not long to go, not long to go at all, she repeated silently as she swallowed it down. There was a tiny voice in her head that she ignored, because it wanted to scare her.

The noise grew louder and the horse underneath her shied and tried to break away, but she held it in place with a tightening of her legs and a hard pull at the reins. "We should retreat! The defeat we suffered in the last battle was bad enough, too many had to die," she said to the Yellow King, but he shook his head, transfixed by the approaching calamity.

"I want him right here, in front of me," he whispered, his voice quivering with excitement, like a hunter on a stakeout finally rewarded with the appearance of his prey. "He won't be able to escape this time."

Shao Wan felt a different kind of thrill race through her. Would Cheng Yin finally give away something about his plan? Mo Yuan turned his horse in their direction and Shao Wan's armor came alive with a scraping, ugly sound - one moment there was nothing, the next, there was a humming in the air that made her head vibrate and a light that made her eyes water.

"All it takes is one traitor ready to sell you scales from the Heavens' Dragon shrine," Cheng Ying said with a pleased look on his face.

Unsure what he meant, she looked to the side - she was very anxious today and she feared her expression would give away too much. She also felt nauseous and the light and the sound drawn forth from the armor by Mo Yuan's dragon essence echoed in her skull, giving her a horrible headache, so she gritted her teeth and took a deep breath to steady herself. Today, she needed to talk to Mo Yuan - in the previous battle, they had not even been within eyesight. She desperately wanted his council, but almost more importantly - she missed him; so much that breathing sometimes became difficult when her heart clenched in longing. She was sorry she had simply left him in the mortal realm, as weak as he had still been. She had been worried about his health ever since and when she had heard about what had happened at the Lost Devil Tower, she had wanted to rush to him, knowing how much he must be suffering and blaming himself.

Cheng Yin was highly unstable, his powers fluctuating erratically, which had him gulping down elixir after elixir at ever shorter intervals, but she knew better by now than to underestimate him. He had carefully planned to kill Yan Zhi and had almost succeeded, in the process getting another great prize for his efforts - maybe the even bigger prize, for any victory over the God of War weighed a thousand times more than anything else on his scales. Shao Wan shuddered when she thought of the Lost Devil Tower's collapse: what if one of the Unstable Ones had escaped? She had sent Fong Hung to investigate, but he had not yet reported back.

She was certain Cheng Yin must be planning the worst yet for Mo Yuan. His hatred for the God of War was so strong, he started vibrating with fury as soon as his name was mentioned. But he did not trust her at all, and he had not revealed the slightest thing useful about his plans so far. She fully understood what would be necessary to get access to his secrets, but she could not possibly give it to him. Her reluctance to submit to him bodily herself jeopardized everything, but the price was too high, she just couldn't do it - and she should have known instead of so brazenly and cruelly declaring her intentions to Mo Yuan in the mortal realm, once again foolishly robbing them of the possibility to act together.

If only they could go back. If only she could snuggle up to her beautiful Celestial underneath the soft fur blankets again, feel his silken skin against hers, lie in the comfort of his arms in their warm nest, listen to his slow breathing, touch his long lashes when he slept, tug a little at his beard to make him wake up... and forget everything else. No duty, no fear, no Cheng Yin.

"You're wondering why I want him close? Because I poisoned him," Chen Yin laughed. "Twice, actually. He got rid of the poisonous substance, just like you - but not of my blood that I used in the mix."

A blood connection? What for? She felt scared. It was like things she had been in control of were slipping from her hands, one after the other, until she stood exposed and alone in the middle of a maelstrom.

Don't come here! It's a trap! she wanted to shout at Mo Yuan, but she had to hold back - she had to continue pretending, had to believe it would end well. Meanwhile, Mo Yuan was drawing ever closer to their position and she unfurled her substitute whip in haste and transformed it into a sword. If she met him a distance away from Cheng Yin, she should be able to warn him!

Shao Wan catapulted herself into the air, looking down at the wreckage Mo Yuan had wrought, waiting for him to notice her and to join her among the clouds. He did look up...but only briefly and he made no move at all to come to her. Instead, he went forward, straight towards Cheng Yin, who had not budged. Frowning, she went lower, trying to catch Mo Yuan's eye - but the bastard simply ignored her.

"What are you doing," she yelled and shot down to block his path, hovering in the air before him. "Mo Yuan! Stop!"

He reined in his horse and looked her up and down...and a horrible chill went through her when her eyes met his. This wasn't Mo Yuan at all. Or rather, it was him and at the same time wasn't, because something fundamental was missing. Reflexively, she lifted her sword, right in time to deflect a massive discharge of power thrown in her direction that made her tumble backwards.

"Get out of my way, Demon Queen," the God of War said with a flat voice when she had stabilized herself.

"Listen," she said with urgency, "he has poisoned you. Don't go near!"

"Obviously I know about the blood in my system," Mo Yuan replied sourly and wanted to ride on, but she engaged him once more in an exchange of swords. His blows were forceful and he did not hold back one bit, pressing forward, swatting at her with his sword like one swatted at an annoying fly.

"What happened to you?" she asked when she got a chance from a safe distance, shielding her eyes from the brightness around her.

"I did as you told me," he replied coldly, lowering his sword for a moment. "But now it seems you want to hinder my plans."

It felt all wrong. Cautiously, she probed his essence, attempted a soulsearch...but there was nothing. Nothing to prod, nothing to search, only a great emptiness where Mo Yuan had been. She suddenly felt very cold.

Stupid.

Stupid of her to think she knew about curses just because she had once read a story. Stupid of her to take him lightly, stupid of her to think what was now between them had changed who he was and what he would do. He was the God of War and he was merciless. You leave me alone like this? she wanted to wail, but it would be pointless and unfair to blame him, since it had indeed been her telling him to go ahead with it. And there could be no doubt, it would make winning easier. Only...what was the price they were going to pay for this?

I need you... I cannot do this alone.

"What do you remember?" she asked him, swallowing down her sadness and loneliness, making sure it looked like she was circling him before her next attack from Cheng Yin's vantage point.

"Everything," he replied, moving his eyes over her body.

She ignored the insinuation, but it helped to make her angry, and anger gave her energy she always welcomed. "Then you must remember that I am here to find out what Cheng Yin is planning! We cannot act before that! I told you to take his threat seriously!"

"I know this," he replied, "let me pass."

"I want you to stand down and ride away!" she shouted. "You're messing everything up!"

"Quite the opposite, I need to take things into my own hands," he said and attacked her again, at full force. He even dismounted to be more mobile and despite her armor's visible effects on him, he soon had her on the ground, his sword pointed at her throat.

"Where is your feather?" he asked with dead eyes as he looked down at her, "I remember you much more capable than this."

"I hid it!" she hissed, "would he believe me if he sees I have it again? Everybody knows you stole it. And I don't want to fight you, you bloody fool! I want you safe, I want you far away from here."

"Rash and nonstrategic", he nodded, "no wonder you Demons lose every war."

"I know exactly what I'm doing!" she shouted, so angry she tried to scramble up despite the sword hovering right at her carotid, "this is the only way! Get out of here already!"

He pulled back the sword a tiny fraction. "I gave you a few days, but you have failed your mission. I have come to move things along in your stead."

No.

"Ride away, Mo Yuan," she begged, "I thought we agreed you would not jeopardize your life under any circumstances."

"A life is never sacrificed lightly," he answered. "It is not a thing I need to promise."

And with one swift move, he knocked her out.

Her unconsciousness didn't last long, since he had not even bothered to hit hard. By the time she had managed to scramble up, Mo Yuan had almost reached Cheng Yin's position. All of a sudden, there was a massive discharge of power from her armor, an arc of light shooting across the battlefield in Mo Yuan's direction, illuminating the gruesome scene of death with a golden light. She shouted in pain as a large amount of energy was sucked out of her before she could get a grip on her powers. But it was already too late - as soon as the light reached the God of War, it engulfed and trapped him. She felt a strange tug in his direction...the blood link, she realized. She, too, was bonded to Cheng Yin by blood and he was drawing dragon power from the armor to multiply the effects. Mo Yuan stood immobilized exactly between them, in a collapsed triangle that had become a fetter of power running from her, through him, to Cheng Yin.

No, she thought, feeling bile rise in her throat again - only this time, swallowing it down did nothing, it was too much and it kept on coming. The content of her stomach followed and she retched and retched until tears streamed down her face.

She felt utterly helpless. But she knew with bitter clarity, wasting his sacrifice was not an option they could afford.

***

Cheng Yin bound Mo Yuan with Devil Tower bonds that he conjured from his sleeve, all casual, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to possess them. Shao Wan had never seen any of them outside of that place, but of course, Cheng Yin had planned every aspect of this grand finale meticulously. She had been to the Tower once, so many millennia ago, after one of her closer confidants had to be submitted - but she had not had the heart to be inside for long. It wasn't advised for someone with her amount of power anyway: The Crazed ones went wild as soon as they felt it, greed turning them into drooling monsters. One had even gouged his own eyes out in front of her, howling like an animal. The memory gave her instant nausea again.

Mo Yuan was only temporarily paralyzed, not unconscious, but the bonds subdued him - they were said to be unbreakable and they would hold back his powers every time he tried to use them. She avoided his eyes, because she feared to give herself away.

But this was only the beginning...

When Cheng Yin asked for her permission to take their prisoner to the Obsidian Palace, into the dungeons, known wide and far for being exceedingly well equipped for the torture of immortals, she had granted it. She was right there when the God of War was secured with special seals at his hands and feet and hung up from one of the hooks in the ceiling. She personally cut open the straps of Mo Yuan's armor to peel him out of it and slashed his robes with her dagger, stripping him down to his pants. During all of this, she tried to avoid touching his skin, but it happened anyway - a bolt of energy shot through her as soon as her fingers met his skin and she stifled an outcry. Something flared up on his back, ugly black sigils in a language she did not know, as quickly gone as they had appeared.

"I hope it is worth it," she said to him, her heart pounding fearfully. You fool. How do we know which price is too high to pay?

"Oh, it will be," Cheng Yin answered, thinking she had spoken to him. Thankfully, he had not seen the sigils because he was carefully laying out some torture instruments on a table against the wall, weighing each tool in his hands with obvious pleasure.

Shao Wan had foolishly hoped the curse would at least make Mo Yuan immune to pain, but pain was a physical reaction, not a derivative of the soul. She thought she couldn't possibly bear to watch it when Cheng Yin got started, but she had to - so she did bear it, with that cold brutality she had always possessed if needed, even though she felt a horror that threatened to crush her heart. She sealed the horror away with the voice, which was no longer tiny.

How will you ever be able to forgive me? she thought, my beautiful and brave Celestial.

There soon was a lot of blood, but Mo Yuan remained stubbornly silent, whatever Cheng Yin did to him, only watching them with cold, expressionless eyes. After a while, an impatient Cheng Yin began to ask Mo Yuan questions about the Nine Heavens' and Kunlun's defenses, which the God of War simply ignored, making Cheng Yin more and more furious.

"You want to attack the Thirty Six Heavens? And Kunlun?" Shao Wan asked incredulously. "Our forces are not big enough. That's suicide."

"The Celestials will all die first," Cheng Yin answered and noisily spat on the floor.

"By you wishing them dead or what?" she sneered. Please, tell me what you have prepared, she begged in her head. Please, it must end now. No more.

His eyes flashed dangerously. "You will learn to appreciate my plans soon enough."

Mo Yuan spat on the floor too, though in his case, it was mainly blood, not spit. "I am looking forward to seeing the Celestial host throw the both of you into the Evil Pagoda," he said, "you can rot in there for eternity, driven insane by the shadows of your past."

That's it, Shao Wan thought excited. That's it! Oh, her Mo Yuan was a smart man, he too had realized how they could kill someone who cared as little for pain as Mo Yuan himself.

"Who allowed you to speak!" Cheng Yin shrieked and backhanded Mo Yuan across the mouth with a forceful blow.

"I hear you killed your father with poison," Mo Yuan continued after spitting out more blood, "like the coward you are. You had no chance against him in a real fight - never had. The weak will always be weak. Some just mask it better than others."

Cheng Yin's fury was unleashed instantly but judging by how smug Mo Yuan looked even while he had to endure it, he knew exactly what he was doing.

"Why not kill me, you dirty wolf?" Mo Yuan whispered, as soon as Cheng Yin had quieted down sufficiently to let him speak.

"You will die soon enough," the Yellow King growled, but again, a look of satisfaction showed on Mo Yuan's battered face.

"You have not done anything to deplete my cultivation," the God of War observed. "You want to preserve it so you can take it? Your weak body won't be able to hold it though. You will simply be consumed by it - at best."

Take Mo Yuan's cultivation...even if Cheng Yin had acquired the knowledge of how that could be done without fungal grass through that Cult, Mo Yuan was much too powerful in comparison to Cheng Yin. Without Mo Yuan's consent, no power transfer of that magnitude would be possible. Unless...

A sacrifice, she thought with a sinking feeling. And she knew, under normal circumstances, Mo Yuan was indeed the kind of man ready to sacrifice his life for what he considered under his protection. His father's creation. The realms. His people. Maybe...her. He had done it before, he would do it again. It was who he was and it was why she felt a need to protect him from himself.

Her dream... the one she had had after being poisoned, after being saved by his blood. It had never quite lost its grip on her soul because it had never felt like a dream at all. He had died by her hand. She had seen him take his last breath, after bleeding out from the fatal wound she had given him. Stabbed cleanly through the heart - he had not even tried to dodge her sword. Had he prevented that self-destructive impulse of his through the curse?

"Shut your mouth!" Cheng Yin screamed and beat him again, this time until Mo Yuan's body went slack. But the Yellow King's movements were becoming more erratic by the moment, and Shao Wan knew what that meant: He was nearing one of those critical points where his powers surged uncontrollably and he had to gulp down whatever elixir he carried around his neck.

Soon. Soon.

Cheng Yin was breathing heavily, his face a pale mask of hatred. He pulled out a knife from his belt with a jerky movement. "What are you...," Shao Wan asked, horrified.

"Me? You," Cheng Yin said, turning his violet eyes at her, sneering in anticipation of seeing her fail his test. "You can do it. You have been lying to me all this time, do you think I'm stupid? Standing there, watching in silent horror. You two are still lovers, I can see it written all over you."

She laughed. "You think I would share my bed with people who steal my feather to manipulate me? You are mistaken."

"Then prove it to me," he hissed, "that he means nothing to you."

"You want me to kill him?" she asked breathlessly, taking a step forward, her brain furiously trying to come up with a way to get out this impossible situation.

Cheng Yin measured her with his crazy eyes. "No. I want you to cut his hair off."

Shao Wan sucked in air sharply.

"See?" Cheng Yin sneered. "Of course you cannot do it. You would never hurt his precious pride."

"Give me the knife," Shao Wan said.

There was uncertainty in Cheng Yin's eyes then, doubt that made it clear that this was it. Mo Yuan had achieved what he had come to do. Cheng Yin would crumble. One last step. Shao Wan took it. She stepped in front of him and took the knife from his hand, looking down into the beautiful violet eyes that hid the biggest evil this world had ever known.

"It's only hair," she said, leaning in a little, waiting for him to hold his breath in anticipation of more, then stepped away and in front of Mo Yuan.

But it wasn't only hair.

It was his pride. His honor. His identity. His filial piety.
His tribe would shun him.

This...this was unforgivable.

His hair should be hers, like hers was his and his alone. She had been too scared when he had asked to braid it - too scared and too excited. Had he known what it meant to a Demon woman? You are mine and mine forever. It was the simplest of wedding customs in her tribe. The groom braided the hair of the bride. The bride braided the hair of the groom. The hair of the bride and groom was then entwined to signify their lifelong union. Hair and hands interwoven the bride and groom walked together to the edge of the mesa in the East to witness and pray to the rising sun.

The moment she put the knife underneath Mo Yuan's topknot, grabbed the hair and pulled, she knew: in this lifetime, sacrifices needed to be made. And by the Ancestors of All, she would make each and every one count.

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