Chapter 98

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written by kakashi & Panda

The weather was unusually still when Ye Hua, with two spare horses behind him, set forth from camp in secret, the plans given to him by Bai Qian carefully stowed away in his armor. He had had to do a lot of pleading before he had convinced her to stay behind. It was astounding but her mood had noticeably lightened after her encounter with the enemy soldiers and the Demon Ancestor - it must be because the agonizing wait was over and they could finally do something to get Mo Yuan back.

His Qian Qian had hugged him fiercely when she had come back to camp last night, finding him worried sick over her absence. Her kisses had made him forget to scold her for running around alone in the dark, but now, he remembered her strange behavior of the last few days and that he still did not fully understand what had caused it. No matter though, he thought, as he spurred his horse to a faster trot, he had to focus on the important task ahead.

When he got to the designated meeting place and found it empty, he paced impatiently back and forth. His brother had given the strictest orders to be left alone until either he himself came back or somebody brought word that he could be rescued - apparently, he had known about the Demon Ancestor's double role in all this. The wait, though not longer than a few days, had been extremely agonizing for Ye Hua. Every time he had felt pain through their magical link, he had ironically been glad: the more the better. Pain meant his Da-Ge was still alive and a lot of pain meant he was still strong enough to be tortured a lot. And yet, nightmares had plagued him, horrible images of his brother's disfigured, limp body and he had felt immensely guilty for supporting his reckless plan and for being too polite to tell his brother what an idiot he was.

Has Star Lord Si Ming not gotten to him in time? Ye Hua wondered impatiently after checking the sky for the passage of the sun for the hundredth time.

Just when he thought he couldn't wait any longer, light footsteps approached from the right and a very tall God stepped out from among the trees with long, yet casual strides, his long hair flowing down his back like a silvery waterfall.

Ye Hua bowed. "Donghua Dijun." Finally!

"Crown Prince," the Old God nodded in greeting. "I met with some trouble on the way, excuse my delay."

Ye Hua eagerly handed him the plans Bai Qian had received from the Demon Ancestors and waited tense like a bowstring as the former Heavenly Lord studied them intently before handing them back.

"Devil Tower bonds? I must say, I'm intrigued." He shook his head with raised eyebrows. "She really wrote get Donghua Dijun, he's the only one who can fix this. Her handwriting certainly hasn't improved."

"Is it a bad thing?" Ye Hua asked, not hiding his anxiety.

"Nothing I cannot handle...I think. But why did Mo Yuan think this was a good idea?"

Ye Hua took a breath to explain Mo Yuan's reason, but Donghua Dijun just waved his hand. "It was a rhetorical question. I know him well enough, thank you, Crown Prince. This isn't the first time I'm called upon to fetch him from some unpleasant situation."

They had met at the border of the Celestial realm and as soon as they went further on horseback, Ye Hua felt the effects of power suppression. When this war was over and won, he needed to hasten his ascension, he thought. Thanks to Donghua Dijun's powers, the strides of the horses were lengthened, their presence hidden from the prying eyes of their enemies and before long, they came to the area where one of the secret passages into the Obsidian Palace was according to the plans they had received.

Donghua gave a stop sign and carefully surveyed the area. It was entirely empty, a desolate, rocky landscape that grated on Ye Hua's Celestial eyes that were used to the soft colors and lights of the Heavens. The longer they stood still, the bigger the cold feeling of dread that filled Ye Hua's being became. Apart from the uncomfortable tension he felt from the power suppression, this place made his bones hurt.

"You'll get used to it," Donghua Dijun remarked with a side glance. "Some find it even pleasant and invigorating with time. Crown Prince, when we find him, I will have to focus on the bonds. It might take a while to take them off. While I am thus preoccupied, I will need you to ward off any guard that comes in our direction."

"Of course, Dijun, I will take care of if," Ye Hua vowed.

The secret passage was a death trap unless one knew about the hidden mechanisms and how to defuse them. Carefully studying the map before each step, they made it unscathed to the dungeon where Mo Yuan was being held.

On sighting what had been done to his brother, Ye Hua's heart dropped and he rushed forward, but was stopped by Donghua Dijun command: "Do not touch him!"

"But his hair!" Ye Hua cried out in anguish. "His hair has been cut off, Donghua Dijun. What kind of cowardly man does this to someone who has been taken prisoner in war? This breaks all the rules of engagement!"

"Let me assume the man who did this will not live for much longer," Donghua sighed. "The door, Crown Prince."

His tone was nonchalant, but there was shock on the silver-haired God's face too when he looked at his friend. He has cut his hair! White hot rage engulfed Ye Hua as he took position at the entrance. He and everyone associated with him will pay a very high price for this. Being tied down, being tortured, all these were things that happened to prisoners and Mo Yuan had certainly known that - but cutting off a man's hair went beyond all acceptable deeds. The humiliation! The disgrace!

Donghua stood in front of Mo Yuan and studied the bonds his hands were tied with carefully from all sides. "This is certainly the most interesting thing you have ever done," he said to the God of War.

Mo Yuan opened his eyes. "Took you long enough," he croaked.

"You two...," Donghua sighed, "what blasted idiots. One would think you'd have had enough of going to war against each other by now."

Dong Hua straightened and with a blast of white-hot energy exploded the bonds from Mo Yuan's extremities. The instant they were off, Mo Yuan sagged forward and was quickly caught in Dong Hua's arms.

"I can stand," Mo Yuan claimed and pushed himself up straight, standing there swaying on his own two feet, only wearing his once white trousers that were now red from his blood. Dijun conjured a set of robes and a thick cape from his sleeve pocket with a snort.

"Shame about the bonds," Donghua said after Mo Yuan was sufficiently covered, "I would have liked to study them, but brute force was the only thing I could think of. They suppress immortal powers? It's such an extraordinary invention."

The blast had alerted the guards to their presence and Ye Hua was too busy fending them off to worry too much about Mo Yuan's weakened state. The worrying came later when they rushed along the secret passage, dragging him along, and when they reached the place where they had hidden their mounts. As soon as they had hauled Mo Yuan up on horseback, he sagged over his animal's neck and didn't stir until they were back on Celestial territory.

"Out with it, Crown Prince," Donghua Dijun said once they slowed down, "what is wrong with him? Where is his soul?"

Ye Hua simply bowed in response, his heart as heavy as a stone.

Dong Hua muttered something about idiots and fools under his breath. "I will get Zhe Yan to come over immediately. Do not let your men see him in this state so as not to lower morale. Most importantly, hide his hair."

"Thank you, Donghua Dijun," Ye Hua replied and bowed deeply. "My family is in your debt."

Since the sun had set a while ago and only a few fires were burning in the camp, it wasn't too difficult to get Mo Yuan back to his own tent unseen. Either Bai Qian had paced nearby or she had been alerted by his presence, but she came rushing in not long after he had put Mo Yuan on his bed and had started healing some of the worst wounds. She gasped and slammed her hands over her mouth, her eyes filling with tears instantly.

He took her into his arms. "He will be fine, Qian Qian," he reassured her as he rubbed his hand over her hair, "surprisingly, his cultivation is intact. It'll just take a while for his qi to stabilize."

"But...but...his hair," she stammered.

"It will grow back, my love," he whispered to her. It would. But it did not change what had been done. They sat on Mo Yuan's bedside holding hands, watching him breath, watching his healing powers begin to work until someone cleared his throat behind them.

"Old Phoenix!" Bai Qian flew up and rushed over to the physician, to draw him by the sleeve towards the prone Mo Yuan. "I thought you would have gotten here faster."

"Hmmmmpf. I got here as fast as I could. My poor Phoenix heart almost gave out." Zhe Yan moved closer to Mo Yuan and made a clicking sound with his tongue. "These brothers certainly like courting death. Thankfully I don't have to sacrifice a lotus root this time. They're extremely valuable."

A red faced Ye Hua quickly stood up so as to give Zhe Yan an unobstructed view of his patient. The Old Phoenix rummaged for a vial in his sleeve pocket and bent over to feed its contents to Mo Yuan. He then examined his entire body, making little "hmhmhm" noises. When he got to his back, he stopped and straightened sharply.

"A curse? Dijun was right, he got himself cursed?"

Ye Hua sighed. "The horse tribe. It must be the one they're famous for."

"What a bloody fool," Zhe Yan swore angrily, "that magic is very dangerous and off-limits. Does he think he is beyond the law? If the Celestial authorities find out about it..." He looked at Mo Yuan with slitted eyes. "And about the hair. As soon as it is known in the Nine Heavens, our God of War will have some rather unpleasant questions coming his way."

"They should leave him alone!" Bai Qian exclaimed, "again, he is sacrificing himself to win a war!"

"One would think a man his age would finally know better," Zhe Yan sighed. "I will monitor him closely. I have only heard rumours about this, but they were not very reassuring. We have to make sure he comes out of this with his soul intact."

Zhe Yan bent down again and put a few more drops of his medicine on Mo Yuan's lips. With grim satisfaction, he watched as the God of War came to with a big coughing fit.

"Bitter...," Mo Yuan murmured.

"I chose the most bitter one," Zhe Yan snapped. "You bloody fool, what do you think you're doing? Forbidden soul-magic?"

Mo Yuan managed to sit up. He looked at the three people in his tent with cold eyes. "It worked. I know everything we need to know to win this war. Heal me, Zhe Yan, instantly. The final battle will take place in two days."

***

Two and a half Immortal Days ago:

"Celestial! Celestial, you must wake up!" Shao Wan grabbed Mo Yuan's arm to shake him awake. They had no time to waste. Her hand touched ice-cold flesh; his temperature was much too low. Weren't dragons supposed to be always heated? Worried, she tried to rub some warmth into him - in her haste to get to him, she had forgotten to bring him a new set of clothes.

Mo Yuan groaned.

"I'm so sorry!" she exclaimed and pulled back...she must have hurt him. His eyes were swollen shut, so she quickly used magic to heal the worst of the bruising on his face and then a few of the deepest cuts on his upper body. The Devil Tower bonds had prevented him from using his healing powers on himself and he must be in a lot of pain judging from how he labored for breath, but she had to stop here. She needed all her powers for what would come after...all of them and more. She tried not to feel anything, since this was going to be over soon - but seeing the jagged mess of his hair hanging into his face brought a coldness into her heart that threatened to freeze her insides.

But she couldn't be weak. She couldn't be afraid. She couldn't stop to think even for a moment, because she feared the horror of the situation would drive her over the edge, into an abyss of despair from where there was no return.

"I will go to the Celestials and tell them how they can free you," she whispered into his ear, "come now."

She stretched up to unhook his hands - and yelped as Mo Yuan collapsed into her arms, almost toppling her over.

"You're heavy," she wheezed, lowering herself carefully to her knees without letting go of his body, cradling his head against her chest and wrapping her arms around him. His face was grave and still. She lifted her hand and gently stroked his cheek, her heart overflowing. "You silly man," she whispered, "did you know what that curse would do to you? Is that why you protested so vehemently?"

He did not budge, though his breathing gradually grew less labored. Suddenly, she felt drained of all strength herself. She would sit here with him, as long as she could.

The bonds around his hands lit up in an eerie red when he feebly moved them. She eyed them with a deep frown but she had no idea how to undo these fetters, so she wouldn't even try: She feared the consequences for her cultivation. The Devil Tower and its many features had been designed by a mad genius, now scattered, and she knew enough about his inventions to be wary of anything he had designed.

She took off her outer garment and draped it over Mo Yuan when he started to shiver, drawing his body closer towards hers, gently rocking it. "You did well," she said to his still face, "I know everything I needed to know. The realms will be at peace soon. You will be able to rest and sit on your beloved mountain until you take root and grow twigs out of your head. You'll make quite the sight."

She felt how warmth from her body radiated out to him until his shivering stopped. Of course she wished for things to be different. But at least, they would rid the world of a great evil. Together. A Celestial and a Demon. The Yellow Demon Clan and its allies would be annihilated, men executed, women and children exiled. Hopefully, all the hatred would disappear with them. Her people had suffered enough.

Mo Yuan moaned softly and stirred, finally opening his eyes. He blinked a few times until they were fully focused. They were dark as the darkest night and as empty as the Nothingness.

"Glad you're finally awake," she told him, suppressing a shudder, "Cheng Yin won't be sleeping forever and I have things to tell you before you leave."

Yet, she didn't budge. She wanted to look at him, feel his body against hers for just a little longer.

"Where to?" he said, his voice hoarse though he had not screamed even once.

"Your brother, the Crown Prince will be alerted to your whereabouts. He will take you home soon."

"You have not asked my permission," he said, narrowing his eyes. "I'm not done here."

"Yes, you are, Mo Yuan," she retorted and moved some hair out of his face, making him flinch back, "you have played your part. Now, you need to be healed so that you are ready for the final battle. And your hair....it will grow back in time."

His bound hands moved up, like he hadn't even noticed what had been done to him until now, but when his fingers touched the jagged rim, his face remained unmoved. "Insults never had an effect on me," he shrugged, "but this I will remember."

She felt a sob wanting to escape her throat, but she clamped her mouth shut, forcing it down.

He tried to get up but fell back with a grunt. "Take those bonds off me! I can't use my powers."

She shook her head. "You need to stay here a bit longer or Cheng Yin will know we are working together. Plus, I like you being at my full mercy."

"I remember that," he replied with a small frown and she chuckled sadly, knowing he wasn't capable of deliberate humor in his state.

"Listen," she said, taking a deep breath, "listen carefully. I need to teach you a spell. You will need it to use my whip."

"Why would I touch an inferior Demon weapon?"

"Don't anger me," she hissed at him, "I have no tolerance for fools. Try a little harder not to be at your worst or I'll have to scream at you."

Mo Yuan stared up at her and she glared back down at him. He should be reasonable in his current state. All reason, no emotion. It was a Mo Yuan perfect for what she needed. A Mo Yuan perfect to win a war that extended far beyond the battlefield.

"Looking at you is discomforting," he said unexpectedly. "The memory of your naked body under my hands is very vivid and yet, I feel nothing."

By Pangu's Balls. "Celestial. I will smack your mouth shut if you don't concentrate," she said half laughing, half crying from annoyance.

"It will not distract me," he murmured, though he sounded a little unsure.

"I will retrieve my whip - in secret so Cheng Yin is not alerted. I will teach you the spell to activate its special powers now. Be aware that there will be a backlash when you use it, but nothing that you cannot handle."

"I heard stories of its special powers. But why should I be the one to wield it?"

"Because I will be busy distracting Cheng Yin, of course. He cannot know I have the weapon again or he will change his plans, like he has kept doing all the time."

"I understand," he said and nodded, "yes, I once gave a spell to someone too. All things considered, it was a good idea. We won."

All reason, no emotion - perfect. Shao Wan took a deep breath, but before she could start explaining the spell, his brow furrowed again. "I may be bound and wounded, but I demand you honor your side of the bargain and share your information with me."

Share information? She could do that. "It's a deadly poison, Mo Yuan. He has deposited in the Heavens with the help of a traitor on your side. Cheng Yin's death would trigger it - but my whip will not kill him. If he does not die, the poison will not activate."

"If there is poison in the heavens, we will just remove it." Mo Yuan remarked drily. "We don't need the hokkuspokkus from your whip."

"It's in the clouds. If you touch them, it rains. I wouldn't try."

"You are asking me to trust you with something that endangers my entire tribe?" he said with his expressionless voice. "I don't see why I should. Maybe I should not have listened to you at all."

"Then don't listen the next time," she hissed, "especially if it's about getting yourself cursed. You're such an idiot."

"It seems you too are upset about it, just like my brother," he said and tried to get up again. "Why?"

This time, she helped him into a sitting position, re-arranging her gown around his shoulders, her hand lingering for a moment, then lifting it to brush the hair out of his face again. "Oh, you're mistaken," Shao Wan said. "It's the best thing you've ever done. I don't think we could win this war any other way. It's just that it strikes a great fear in people's hearts if people meddle with their own souls. Especially when it's you."

"I could not allow myself to be a stone in a game controlled by Cheng Yin," he said resolutely. Was he looking for confirmation? No. He wasn't able to have any doubts.

"You did well," Shao Wan told him nonetheless. "He wanted you to sacrifice yourself. If you do, we lose everything."

"I know I have done such a foolish thing before," Mo Yuan said and tried to get up, "but that was in the past."

She took him by the arm and helped him stand.

"I am very weak," he said drily. "I guess I have little choice but to trust you at this moment."

"Correct. I hope you already considered that when you rode in like a goddamn fool," she replied. "Ready?"

When he nodded, she started teaching him the spell. It was one she herself had designed, so many millennia ago. It had seemed simple enough back then, but it was not: the finger movements were very complicated, born from youthful exuberance. Yet, Mo Yuan was a very fast learner and she felt almost proud that he picked it up so quickly, despite his bound hands and his many injuries.

When her heart overflowed again with affection for him, she stepped close and hugged him, her arms around his torso, her head against his shoulder. He was too surprised to push her away in time, though his body went rigid. His bound hands he had halfway raised in defense touched her belly and she felt a tingling feeling deep inside, a greeting - a farewell. She wanted to smile, but only tears came. Where once his life force had been, there was nothing. The heart in his chest beat steadily, toc-toc, toc-toc, but underneath it, only silence. Yet, the feel of his body against her was so familiar, so comforting just by being there, she responded instinctively, by lifting her head to kiss him.

He was entirely unresponsive, his lips cold and hard, but she had to take what she could get - a taste, a feeling, something to hang on to in the days to come.

"Save your breath", he said with a frown when she stepped back, "it is pointless. I feel nothing for you."

"But I feel," she said, new tears gathering in her eyes, "I feel for you, more than you know. And one day, you will feel again too. And when you do, I want you to remember that I love you. More than life itself. And I...we..."

But she couldn't tell him about the new lives she carried. It would mean nothing to him now, and it would only be a burden to him later. It was too late to hide her tears though. Under his impassive gaze, sniffling like a baby, she pressed the strands of his hair inside her breast pocket to her heart and indicated for him to hold up his arms, so that she could tie him up again until his brother would come and take him to safety.

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