NSFW - Graphic Violence
The room was dank and dark. The magical energy binding his limbs was the work of no common immortal, Jiang Cuo could tell. All his attempts to break the bonds had been useless so far. Like any Demon, Jiang Cuo had gained cultivation through battle. And with battle came injury. He was no weakling and no stranger to pain. Being captured and possibly tortured by a powerful immortal did not scare him. What it did was make him angry. When he got his hands on the one who had dragged him here, by Pangu’s balls, he would—
His train of thought was broken by the door opening. A sliver of light fell across the floor.
“Let me talk to him. I’ll know what to say,” came the lowered voice of the one who had knocked him out. A low growl rose in Jiang Cuo’s throat.
“No, I will do this myself,” said a second voice in a tone that brooked no argument. Someone stepped inside, closing the door with a decisive snap, and the room was dark again. Jiang Cuo squinted, trying to make out the features of the man. The newcomer took out a glowing pearl from his pocket. The pearl floated to the ceiling, flooding the room with light.
“Soft lighting,” Jiang Cuo noted wryly. “Why, sweetheart, if you wanted a romantic interlude you should have bought me dinner first.”
The person snorted in response.
Blinking, Jiang Cuo’s wolf eyes quickly adjusted. As the face of his captor came into view, all traces of humour vanished from his mind.
“You!” he hissed.
Celestials. He had been caught by a pair of Celestials. He had been living in a backwater village on the edge of the Blue Demon King’s territory. He had kept his head low, gone about minding his own business and managed to remain undetected. Nothing happened in that village, though one could never be too careful. It was just his luck to be ambushed on the one evening he had decided to let his guard down and drink wine for the first time in half a millennium. Even a fugitive grew bored sometimes.
The stranger who had joined his game of Tien Gow had the aura of a Demon for sure. Jiang Cuo remembered getting more and more drunk as he lost money, the evening ending with the stranger escorting him home, and the stranger snapping his fingers in a spell right before everything went dark. How a Celestial could have tricked him so was impossible to say. It must have been the drink.
“Jiang Cuo.” The man strode forward. “I have questions.”
Jiang Cuo forced his face into a grin. “Little sea princelings should not be poking big wolves.”
The man ignored the jibe. “You were a guard in the Yellow Demon King’s inner palace for many years. In fact, you were there right until the end.”
“I don’t think you have the right man, my lord,” Jiang Cuo drawled.
The man ignored that too. “You were assigned to follow the Yellow Demon Princess.” His eyes glinted. “Some would say right until she disappeared.”
“Why, is the lovesick seahorse pining for its mistress?”
The man’s face darkened. His hand involuntarily balled into a fist, Jiang Cuo noted with satisfaction. “How did you escape the purge?” asked the Celestial.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Jiang Cuo with exaggerated innocence. “I’m just a trader from the Blue Tribe.”
The man raised an eyebrow. “Then I’m sure you wouldn’t mind appearing before the Purple Queen who is treaty bound to execute any surviving men from the Yellow Demon Tribe.”
Jiang Cuo knew he would be long gone before then. How hard could it be to take on a pair of Celestial pretty boys? But for letting his guard down that night, he would never have been caught so easily. “Appear before the Queen as opposed to what? You neglecting duty and letting me go?” he sneered. “Uptight Prince who breaks no rule?”
“Answer my questions now and I will be lenient. You and,” the Prince paused a moment before continuing, “whoever else you may be hiding will come to no harm, I assure you.”
“Look at you, trying to be intimidating. I have no answers for your kind, Celestial,” Jiang Cuo spat in the Prince’s face. Celestials had no honour, whatever they may like to pretend. Annihilating an entire tribe? The Ancestor wouldn’t have let it happen. “Filthy cowards, the lot of you! Take off these bindings and then face me.”
“You will answer me,” said the Celestial in that tone that brooked no argument. It was a voice used to commanding and being obeyed.
“Go away now,” Jiang Cuo waved the Celestial away, trying to sound more at ease than he felt. “I’d like to nap.”
The Celestial took out a glass bottle from his pocket and held it under the light. Jiang Cuo peered at it. A number of leech-like slimy creatures with suckers undulated inside. “You see these slugs?” asked the Celestial. “They are special. Only found in the West Sea.”
Despite himself, a chill ran down Jiang Cuo’s spine.
“They like to slither onto immortals and nip away at their flesh in small excruciating bites. Something about immortal qi excites them.”
Jiang Cuo had to give him points. The Yellow Demon King himself would have approved of his technique. Perhaps it was the desperate gleam in his eyes that drove home the point. The first pang of fear hit Jiang Cuo. Get a grip! he told himself.
“You want to know the best part?” the Celestial continued. “Their venom prevents the wounds from healing. No magic, no potion, no healing technique will regenerate the flesh they eat. You will spend eternity in agony with pieces of your body missing and no cultivation.”
The pretty boy surely didn’t have the stomach for this. He must be bluffing. “Never attempted this kind of thing before, have you?” Jian Cuo somewhat succeeded in keeping the panic out of his voice.
“I will ask one last time. You disappeared shortly before the purge. Did the Princess leave with you?”
The bastard couldn’t possibly be serious. “This kind of joke doesn’t suit you, Sea Prince,” he said with false bravado. “You Celestials don’t have the—”
The stench hit his nose in a nauseating wave. A shudder ran through him as cold slimy creatures crept onto his skin, one by one. He felt it as they slithered onto his throat. He felt it as they probed with their suckers and latched onto his skin. He felt the pull as they began drawing blood. And then the pain that tore his neck was unlike any he had ever felt before. He was being ripped apart. Being stabbed, being burnt, breaking bones...they were all nothing compared to this. This was pure, unbearable agony. He could feel every single point at which the things were attached to him. Shudder after shudder convulsed his frame. He jerked, struggling against his bonds.
“Do I seem like I’m joking?” rang the Celestial’s voice.
And now...and now they were moving, gnawing through skin, muscle, bone. He was yelling, cursing. Swearing to dismember the Celestial bastard in a thousand different ways. The pain, the white hot pain would not stop.
The creatures sucked upward, moving over his face towards, he realised with horror, his eyes. No! He renewed his struggle, trying to shake them off, squeezing his eyes shut. He felt their cold probe slide between his eyelids, wrenching them apart, latching inside. He screamed, half out of his mind. They began sucking on his eyeballs and the world went red in a haze of pain. And then the lights went out. He could barely feel the warm blood flowing down his face as he thrashed. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t think. They were everywhere, all he could smell, feel.
In animal-like cries he scarcely recognised as his own, he somehow formed words. “STOP! STOP! PLEASE! NO NO NO! STOP!”
And then the creatures were gone. The pain remained. And the world was dark. He couldn’t—he couldn’t see. Retching, he sobbed uncontrollably.
“Where is the Yellow Demon Princess?!” snarled the Celestial.
Jiang Cuo whimpered.
“ANSWER ME!” the Celestial bellowed.
Jiang Cuo flinched. “I—I don’t know.”
“Do not provoke me again,” the Celestial said in a lower voice.
“I swear!” he forced out. “I—I was the last one to see her, yes. But I don’t know where she is,” he managed, taking gasping deep breaths.
“When did you see her?”
Swallowing, he continued, “I was at the Obsidian Palace when I saw her leave with the Demon Ancestor. The King, he—he was furious. He went after them. When he came back he was changed. There was...” he shuddered. “There was a madness about him. He told me to go to a cave and keep watch over it and let nothing leave. I got there and she—I think it was her; it happened too fast—she was in her true form. She attacked me before I could move. When I came to, she was gone.”
“Where was the cave?”
At this point, Jiang Cuo would have told him anything to not feel the probing coldness of the slugs again. The cave’s location was a simple matter.
“Then what happened?” the Celestial asked.
“I made myself scarce,” Jiang Cuo mumbled through his pain.
“You made yourself scarce.” The Celestial’s voice was ice.
“You don’t understand! I couldn’t report to the King. You can’t imagine what he did to incompetent servants. You have to believe me; I have no idea where she is. I never saw her again.”
“I believe you,” said the Celestial, moving away. His footsteps paused. “I am sorry for the pain.”
Jiang Cuo barely registered the bindings around him loosening. “My eyes,” he gasped, too terrified to raise his hands to his face. “My eyes...”
And then light stabbed Jiang Cuo’s vision and he cried out in pain and confusion, eyes watering. Slowly, the walls of the room took shape. There were sacks in the corner and a workbench and his hands could feel his neck and his face, there was no wetness of blood, the pain was gone and...and...he could see. He could see? He could see! As realisation dawned, his scream of rage was inhuman. “It was an illusion?! You bastard! You Celestial bastard! I will—”
The Demon’s screams ringing behind him, Die Feng shut the door and slumped against it, hands pressed against his eyes. The bottle of slugs sat heavy inside his pocket. The Demon had no idea how close Die Feng had come to actually opening it. At first, he had wondered if Jiang Cuo was refusing to answer to protect her but he soon concluded it was highly unlikely that her brother’s spy would develop loyalty towards Li Ying. Die Feng realised he was trembling. With anger or disgust, he couldn’t say. And whether he was more disgusted with himself for what he had done inside that room or angrier at Jiang Cuo for driving him to it, he couldn’t say. Die Feng swallowed back the bile in his throat.
“Filthy cowards,” the Demon’s accusation rang in Die Feng’s ears along with his screams. It would be a long time before Die Feng forgot those screams. Drawing blood on the battlefield was one thing but this...There was no honour in doing this. However he put it, the responsibility for his actions was his. In that moment, all he had known was that Li Ying was out there somewhere and the only people looking for her apart from him wanted her dead. He was running out of time and growing more desperate by the minute. Jiang Cuo was his last lead. Die Feng didn’t know what he would do if it was another dead end.
Taking a deep breath, Die Feng steadied himself enough to focus on the task at hand. 500 years. She had been gone 500 years. And no one knew where she was or in what condition. Whether she was even alive. 500 years was a short time for immortals yet for Die Feng each day of uncertainty had been agonising. The Demon Ancestor was gone, along with Cheng Yin. Shifu had been in seclusion ever since. The Purple Queen was no help.
At the time of the purge, Die Feng had tried to question every Demon from Cheng Yin’s household. Either they hadn’t seen her before she disappeared or they were too terrified of Cheng Yin to answer or too contemptuous of Celestials to cooperate when they knew they were in line for execution. And if Li Ying were found to be alive by Tianjun she would be executed as Cheng Yin’s sister. There was no doubt about the fact. She was wise to stay in hiding, if that was what she was doing. But was she in hiding? Or had something worse happened? Die Feng couldn’t shake off the feeling of unease.
He had searched hundreds of mortal cities, looking for her in crowds, imagining her living out adventures as a mortal. The Li Ying he knew would always be where people and laughter were. But assuming her true form...he hadn’t thought of that. It would be a clever way to remain undetected, he had to admit. And if it was true, he would have to do the opposite of what he had been doing; search forests and secluded areas instead of populous ones. Starting with the worlds near the cave.
As Die Feng decided upon his next course of action, Zheng You, 5th Junior, burst into the room, calling out, “Senior, I couldn’t stop him!” followed by—Die Feng frowned—Xian Cai.
“Your Highness, I apologise, but it is an urgent matter,” said Xian Cai.
“Wait outside,” Die Feng told him.
“Xian Cai,” said Die Feng. His bodyguard reluctantly bowed and left.
“The door is sealed,” Die Feng said to 5th, gesturing towards Jiang Cuo’s room. “Take him back. Make sure he remains undiscovered.”
5th’s eyes glinted. “Will do.”
Die Feng walked out, readying himself for whatever bad news Xian Cai had brought. It looked like it would be another long day.