Chapter 14 – The Tide Turning
written by LalaLoop
edited by kakashi
consulting by Bunny
Bai Qian ran for her life. By ‘deserving of a queen’, that Spinner had meant an extremely nasty place reeking of dampness and mold, with spiders dangling about, waiting to jump on her hair, red-eyed rodents lurking in corners, gnawing on their own limbs and looking suspiciously like they would feast on human flesh. The deeper she was into the maze, the muddier the ground became.
At every turn, every fork — right in the middle of her path sometimes — there were sticky, translucent fibers that latched onto her as she bolted by, holding her back like spider webs trapping a lost fly. And it was too late when Bai Qian realized that the more of those fibers her body gathered, the easier it would be for the next web to trap her, slowing her down even more.
The only advantage she had over the Kirin was her size. The creature’s humongous body thwarted its speed every time it turned, buying Bai Qian one or two seconds to lengthen the distance between them.
But she knew she would be caught up with sooner or later. Even if she managed to keep running like this without exhausting herself, she was bound to run into a dead end at one point. She knew this kind of enchanted maze — it rearranged itself.
Starved, whipped, and angered, the Kirin was even more violent than last time in the Arctic Prison. Every failed attempt to close its jaw around its food enraged it and even from a distance, Bai Qian could hear the sound of it tearing apart the hedge bushes.
Her legs groaned in pain. Not being able to breathe fast enough, her chest was near exploding.
Running into another particularly strong web, Bai Qian’s whole body was caught and she was suddenly squirming about in midair.
She tried to reach to her boot. But… They have taken my dagger away, she remembered.
The raging sound of the Kirin was near.
More… harder… she kicked and punched madly. When the web finally broke from whatever had been holding it from either side of the path, Bai Qian fell face down.
Sobbing in terror, she staggered up.
No, I can’t die. Not here. But what choice did she have except running? Killing the Kirin? She was no huntress.
The Spinner had probably made sure there was no way out. This was not a test of how many books she’d read or how fast she could solve a riddle, but what she could do with her bare hands.
She could barely rub two sticks together to make a fire.
But then she remembered the black sockets on the creature’s face where eyes should have been — its eyes had been gouged out, the creature couldn’t see. And being a Kirin of the Arctic Prison, it relied mostly on its sense of smell and hearing to monitor the prisoners who walked up and down that corridor it had been positioned.
The Kirin’s excellent ears, she couldn’t do anything about yet. But the scent that gave her away…
Bai Qian stopped running, quickly took off her outer robe and shoved it in a bush. Next, she made several turns. Once far enough, she pulled out her hair tie and wrapped it around one of the branches that stuck out of the hedge, then put her hair up in a tight bun and secured it with the bracelet Pojing had given her. Some more turns and Bai Qian stopped to bury her belt deep inside the hedge.
That should be enough of her scent to distract the Kirin.
She looked down and tapped her feet — this mud isn’t soft enough.
Thundering footsteps were nearing again. She couldn’t make out which way it was coming from, only an estimation of how much time she had.
Bai Qian took off one of her boots, filled it with the water from a puddle nearby and splashed it all over the ground. Using that same boot she stirred and mixed the liquid into the half-softened soil. Then, without hesitation, she threw herself down, rolled over the newly made mud — again and again until her whole body was covered in revolting, brown chalkiness.
She sat up, smeared some on her neck and every spot on her skin that was still clean save for her face.
Was this what Luoji had hinted for her to do?
Whatever his intention, this was the only plan she had at the moment.
Now… now she needed something to defend herself with. Anything would be easily snapped by this Kirin’s merciless teeth, but standing here with nothing sounded even worse.
Panting, Bai Qian glared around. Branches…
She reached deep into the hedge and seized the biggest branch she could see…
“Arghh!” Bai Qian bit down on her lip. Some angry, multi-legged animal had just attacked her upper arm — perhaps for disturbing its hiding place — and scurried upward.
Grimacing, she pulled the branch out. Sharp twigs tore her sleeve and cut into her skin, the nasty mud stinging the wounds. She snapped the long piece of wood against her knee to achieve the desirable length, ignoring the pain that raked through her leg.
“What is the Queen of Qingqiu doing?” Someone from the crowd seemed unable to hide their astonishment regarding what was happening in the maze.
“Why is the Kirin not chasing her anymore?” Another voice joined in. “Why is it charging in the opposite direction?”
A smile broke on the face of Moyuan’s opponent.
“Not bad for someone so coddled, isn’t she?”
He made no response.
Slowly, the game went on, each move a statement, a question. It had been one quarter of an incense’s time.
The crowd turned their heads continuously, observing both the chess pieces and the small sky island. Their reactions were neither helpful nor kind, but they were the only thing he could rely on to grasp the progression inside the maze.
Winning a provoked mind was not impossible — Moyuan surveyed the current state of the game. But to win would require time — hours, days. Bai Qian only had minutes.
The glances at her he had stolen earlier had told him enough. The rims of her eyes were red, her blush was certainly not due to any healthy absorption of sunlight. Why was she ill?
Damn the consequences and take her away — the voice in his head that defied his reason spoke louder than ever. Luoji obviously had no intention of killing her, but his interest alone was not a promise to spare her from fatal injuries. So the game had to go on – should any movement be made on his part that broke the bargain, she would die or suffer a worse fate before he could reach her.
The crowd’s attention suddenly shifted to something other than the game. Their voices now rumbled with new-found excitement.
From the entrance, two impatient figures strode to the front. Moyuan kept his eyes on the board — he knew with certainty who they were before either of them spoke, understood clearly what expressions they each wore without looking.
“Ahh,” Luoji said without removing his eyes from the chess board. “I must say, I expected you to be here before anyone else, King of Xunzhua.”
“Your messenger informs us the Queen of Qingqiu is here,” the king replied. “Where is she?”
Some relief crept into Moyuan — Yehua knew what to do, perhaps they had established a plan at Xunzhua beforehand.
“I admire your courage, young king,” Luoji drawled.
“Where is she?” the king repeated.
“Believe me,” Luoij shifted his piercing glare toward the two new arrivals and said with a leisurely smile. “Bai Qian is enjoying herself.”
“I have no wish to be a part of this act of diplomacy you are attempting here, so if you will not let her leave with us without a bargain, then name your price.”
A jesting voice raised from among Luoji’s ranks. “He wears his heart on his sleeve. Just like his father.”
Several others joined in with laughter and taunts.
“It is no wonder why she chose you.” Luoji crooned. “There is no price to be paid. But perhaps if you entertain me well, she will be here sooner.”
This time, Moyuan himself moved his gaze from the board to the King of Xunzhua.
Down there… Get down there and help her. He bore into those eyes, ignoring the raging flames behind the amber and what they might indicate. This game needed time. He himself needed every bit of his attention on the board, not on the maze, to bring about the outcome that could save her life.
“My King…,” the Xunzhua soldier uttered some words of caution.
The young king’s brows convulsed and he directed his searching glare around. Toward the guests. Left. Right. Terror suddenly filled his face. Faster than any weapons should be able to assemble, clawed gauntlets encompassed the king’s lower arms.
The men who were positioned along the border looked to their detached Master with desperation; a few of them flocked to the king instantly and carried out their duty. “King of Xunzhua, you are not allowed –”
One slash of a clawed gauntlet tore into one of the guards’ armors, left five long, clear marks on his chest and rendered him unconscious.
“My Lord…,” another guard stammered.
But Luoji did not oppose as the king leapt over the crowd’s heads onto the small sky island.
“Stay there,” said Luoji as soon as the Xunzhua soldier attempted to follow. “Do not make things worse for them.”
The man who was addressed as Spinner came forward with a troubled look, rubbing the long scars on his face. “Master, what shall we –”
“Release the hounds,” was the response full of malicious ease.
A large part of the hedge had been brought down by the Kirin’s fury. Ripping, tearing, its teeth were too quick for the magic of the maze to regenerate and rearrange itself. Bai Qian heaved herself around and around in a hopeless flight, her heartbeat counting the seconds she had left before dying either from exhaustion or being chewed alive.
Suddenly, a deafening roar in the distance nearly broke her eardrums, sending chill spiraling across her veins. Bai Qian clapped her ears and ran in the direction opposite of that which the hungry creature might be coming from. But abruptly her feet ceased, as though her memory had realized something her head was one step behind to process, and she stared blankly ahead.
That was not the Kirin’s roar.
A shadow shot out from behind the hedge and landed twenty feet in front of her. Mud and water once again sprayed her face at the impact upon the ground, but Bai Qian had never been happier about getting dirty. She didn’t know what to say — didn’t even know what to think.
Pojing wheeled around and dashed toward her instantly. But more ear-splitting high pitched howls sounded all around them and a second later, more than ten creatures that looked nothing like Bai Qian had seen before descended from above — serpentine-faced, spike-backed, dagger-sized teeth baring, ready to rip apart the first moving thing they could get their paws on.
Were these the kind of creatures they should expect to face on the battlefield soon?
“Stay there!” Pojing said to her right before the hounds launched at him.
Bai Qian stood with her back tightly against the hedge, thinking about asking him to activate the bracelet for her, but then remembered that without her own power to direct and utilize the foreign energy, it would be useless.
Unlike ordinary hunting hounds, these creatures seemed to be driven purely by bloodlust and the single command of killing the stranger by their master. But they did not last long. Within minutes, they lay in puddles of their own blood at Pojing’s feet. However, just as he was about to move toward Bai Qian again, another group of hounds appeared from nowhere, jumping at him and continuing the work their brothers and sisters had failed. This time, from the back, one of them sunk its teeth into Pojing’s shoulder.
Whether the attack had hurt him, Bai Qian couldn’t tell. Anger was the only emotion she saw in him at the moment.
Pojing seized the hound by its jaw and flung it against the ground, the sound of bones breaking erupted and vibrated through Bai Qian’s head.
As if on a suicide mission, the other creatures weren’t at all discouraged but instead attacked more recklessly. When one batch was spent, another appeared. The ground was now splashed with the hounds and Pojing’s blood alike.
The Kirin was very near, Bai Qian felt the ground rumble. The pain in her arm was becoming more intense for some reason. What was it that had attacked her earlier? A venomous spider? Perhaps, this maze was the Spinner’s product, after all.
Chirp. A tiny sound raised right next to her ear. Bai Qian’s head snapped to the side and the little sprite was fluttering with a wide grin and a container as big as a wine jar with some clear liquid inside.
“Little Sprite…,” she was happy beyond words.
It gestured at her muddy face, grimaced in disgust, then waved the jar at her.
“What’s this?” Bai Qian breathed. “Where did you get this?”
The sprite placed its fist over its mouth, tipped its head backward, then pretended to pass out, making itself look like a falling leaf.
“Sleeping potion?” Bai Qian glanced back and forth between the hounds and the hedge from which the Kirin could burst any second. “This is from the Arctic Prison… It’s one of those sleeping potions, isn’t it?”
The sprite nodded. She bit her lip — How can I use this effectively?
Before Bai Qian was done contemplating, a sensation not too unfamiliar rippled through her. She turned her head up in the direction of the central island.
The game had ended.
From her core, power stirred and began to spread across her veins, healing her injuries. But it was too slow — too slow for the speed of the charging Kirin. How Luoji was unsealing her magic from a distance was a question she didn’t have time to think about.
She held out her hand, cast a summoning spell, and waited with baited breath. Several seconds went by…
Snap. The silk fan was firm in her grip.
Next, she pulled the bracelet from her hair and unsealed its power.
“Stay down there, Little Sprite,” she said, ears picking up on the Kirin’s presence.
Three more seconds. Her own healing powers were still struggling to function but the foreign energy was coursing through her fast.
Two. As fast as its unyielding owner who was slaying those hounds.
Bai Qian shot up with a speed that astonished herself just as the Kirin squashed the last barrier of hedge between them. She flung the vial at its face. The glass broke, releasing a white vapor which, as the creature breathed in, entered its flaring nostrils.
“Bai Qian!” Pojing’s voice called out from down below.
The new power made her more… reckless, mad. It was a ravaging force that was both frightening and exciting. With her own feeble energy that had barely returned, she could not control it well. But it made her unafraid… Yes.
Launching forward, she aimed at the Kirin’s neck. Her sword plunged into its scaly skin, rearing it away from Pojing and the hounds. Black blood flowed from the Kirin’s wound and its long, shrill shriek pierced through her head.
Every inch of her groaned in pain, her right arm felt as though it was on fire, but Bai Qian kept pushing her sword forward until the Kirin suddenly swayed.
It sniffed a few times and with a ground-shaking thud, lay flat on its side amidst the trampled hedges. Bai Qian too fell from the air, left arm clutching the right, chest heaving for breath.
Tears suddenly burst from her eyes, perhaps from the realization that she was still alive, or perhaps the shame of having been a humiliating spectacle for the eight realms to see.
The howling and shredding sounds of the other battle had also stopped. The next minute, Pojing was kneeling in front of her, scratches lay fresh against the sides of his face, blood staining his robe.
“I’m sorry,” she said, very much ready to collapse.
“Get up,” he hoisted her roughly from the ground and sealed the bracelet.
“Which arm?” he loosened his grip.
“The right… Something bit me earlier –”
“All right — let’s get Nalan and get out of here.”
He clasped her shoulders, soaring upward. Upon landing they stood in the center of the hall again, in front of countless unblinking eyes.