Chapter 26: Metalsmith
When Bao awoke, she recalled a strange dream, a dream of meeting a young man, and of fighting him. The more she contemplated the dream, the more clear the details became, until she suddenly realized it might not have been a dream.
She was lying on her back, staring up into the sky. At first, she was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t notice how strange that sky was. It was pure white, with pink clouds that streaked by in an arcing trajectory, moving so fast it was dizzying.
She slowly sat up.
She was on the peak of a mountain. Further below, thick fog stretched out in all directions, as far as the eye could see. The fog was black, and churned like boiling water.
There was no sound except for a faint hum that almost bordered on music.
Bao closed her eyes and shook her head, but when she opened her eyes, the scene was just as it was before.
At this point, she noticed a woman sitting on a rock, several meters away.
As soon as Bao laid eyes on her, she gasped. The woman wore pure white robes embroidered with blue, and was without a doubt the most beautiful woman Bao had ever seen before in her life. In fact, she was so beautiful that she didn’t even seem real. Her hair was white, but not from age. It was a pure, like silver, but brighter, so dazzling that it almost hurt one’s eyes to look at it.
Pure white eyebrows arched above the woman’s closed eyes, on on her forehead was a strange glowing symbol.
The woman sat there silently, motionless, her hands resting on her thighs.
Who is she? What is she? An Immortal? A Goddess?
Bao struggled to her feet, then clasped hands and bowed respectfully. “Greetings, Senior, I am Bao. May I ask, where am I?”
In response the woman sighed. In the noiselessness of the world, that sigh resounded like the rumble of distant thunder. Bao felt as if storm winds were battering against her face, and she almost took a step back.
“So weak,” the woman said, and then she opened her eyes.
Yet again, Bao gasped.
The woman’s eyes were pure white, even whiter than her hair, and when she stared at Bao, it felt as if daggers were piercing into her mind, as if a mountain were crushing down onto her from above.
Gritting her teeth, Bao clasped hands again. “Senior? I don’t understand.”
The woman took a deep breath, and the pressure faded away. “You’re weak. Like all humans. I tried to give you a taste of my power, but you could barely handle it for the time it takes an incense stick to burn. Weak. Very weak.”
Bao thought back to how she had fought with the young man. She remembered grabbing the fallen star, and then suddenly being filled with a sensation of utter power. She remembered ordering the young man and his followers to leave, and she remembered how they had followed her instructions without the slightest hesitation.
“Senior, are you the fallen star?” she asked.
The woman laughed. “I am no star. But I do come from the upper realms. What fell into your hands is… well, it’s difficult to explain to someone with a mind so limited as yours. Let’s just say it’s a sliver of my will. I had a little fight with that bastard Yu. Such an uptight, boring fellow, always running around enforcing some law or another. Unfortunately, he’s very strong. Quite the opposite of you. I knew I was losing, so in the chaos of the fight, I managed to slice away part of my will and send it down here to this pitiful place that you people call Qi Xien. Thankfully, that bastard Yu didn’t notice. I was aiming for you, you know.”
“Aiming for me?” Bao replied.
“Yes. The Perfect Realm has been boring recently, and I’ve been paying attention to your little Pure Phoenix Sect. Such a name… suits me. Anyway, I need your help, and I’m prepared to reward you.”
“You need… my help?”
The woman chuckled. “Yes, someone like me, asking for help from a mortal like you. Funny, I know. I need to borrow your body for a bit. You’re weak, but I can mold you into something stronger.”
“Borrow my body?”
“Yes. For only a few hundred years or so.”
“Few hundred years?”
“Can you do anything other than repeat my words?!” the woman asked, her white brows furrowing into a frown. “Are all humans this stupid and weak? Yes, a few hundred years. Once I’ve finished everything I need to do in this cesspit, you can have your body back, and it will be much more powerful than it is now. By that time, you’ll already be Immortal. A nice exchange, wouldn’t you say?”
Bow was so taken aback that she was at a loss for words.
The woman began to tap her finger on her knee. “Girl, do you know how many people in your world pray for power? Do you know how many people light incense in the hope of gaining blessings from the upper realms? Do you know how many people offer sacrifices to lower realms hoping to gain even a fraction of what I’m offering you?
“I will make you more powerful than any human alive. Even that boring, so-called Demon Emperor will shake in his boots at the mention of your name, although by that time, I’ll most likely have killed him already anyway. Just help me achieve my goals, and you can have power beyond your wildest dreams.
“If you want to, you can ascend to one of the upper realms, maybe even the Perfect Realm. You can live forever, be a god! All for simply giving me a bit of help.”
Bao’s eyes narrowed. “What exactly are these goals of yours?”
The woman’s eyes flared with brilliant light. “Destroy the world! Kill everyone! Rain destruction upon the mortals!!!”
Bao’s eyes widened.
The woman cleared her throat. “Sorry, a bit of a joke. In the upper realms we say things like that sometimes as a form of humor. I don’t want to destroy the world, just reshape it a bit. It’s not like I want to wipe out all humankind or anything. Lots of people will survive.”
“No,” Bao said.
The woman’s eyes widened. “No? Did you just say no? Do you know who I am? Do you know how powerful I am? I don’t need to ask your permission, did you know that?! I can take over your body if I feel like it. I just that I don’t want to go to the trouble. Do things the easy way, do you hear me? Give me your permission! NOW!”
“Or what? OR WHAT?!” The woman threw her head back and screamed, clenching her fists at her side. The entire world began to tremble as she rapidly grew larger, and simultaneously transform into something far from human. Her neck stretched out, and her head transformed into that of a beautiful, fierce bird. Enormous wings took the place of her arms, wings with long, white feathers tinged with a multitude of colors. A tail of feathers spread out behind her, long and draping, and her legs stretched out and were soon covered with silver scales. At their ends were enormous talons with long, curving, razor-sharp claws.
In the blink of an eye, the woman was a hundred times her original size, towering over Bao, glaring down at her. It was then that Bao realized there was one thing that was exactly the same about her, and that was her eyes. They were exactly the same shining silver color, and were even the exact same shape.
A silver talon shot out and wrapped it around Bao, although didn’t actually touch her.
“You call yourself the Phoenix? You are no Phoenix. I AM THE PHOENIX! Do you hear me? Your Pure Pheonix Sect is a joke! You are a speck of dirt on the leg of an ant compared to me.
“You want to know what will happen if you refuse me? I will make you SUFFER! Yes, THAT is what will happen. I will crush you and flay you and slice you and burn you a thousand times over. You WILL give me what I want!”
Bao looked into those burning silver eyes, and smiled confidently.
“You're bluffing,” she said. “If you could take over my body without my permission, you would have done so already. The answer is still no. Let me out of this place.”
“No? No?!” The phoenix began to laugh, and the sound grew louder and louder until even thunder and lightning would cower in fear beneath the sound of it. “How DARE you!”
Massive pressure crushed down onto Bao, and her mind trembled. And yet, she gritted her teeth.
She’s trying to scare me, that’s all. This place isn’t real. It’s my mind. She’s here in my mind, and she’s trying to trick and threaten me!
“No! Back off, you oversized chicken. This is MY mind! GET OUT!”
Mao Yun carried Bao in his arms for the entire ride back to the forest stronghold. They tried to pry the fallen star out of her hands, being careful not to touch it, but the task proved impossible. Her fingers were like bands of metal that refused to budge.
Her hand was bone white, with white streaks running up her arm toward her shoulder. As they rode along, those white streaks grew longer and wider. By the time they got back to the fortress, her entire arm was white, and Mao Yun could only presume that the color was spreading to the rest of her body.
A Yen-Li priest was called up, but he proved no help. A priestess of Hen-Shi came, but offered no solutions, although she was able to confirm that the whiteness was not spreading any further past Bao’s shoulder.
Her grip on the fallen star never loosened.
A week passed. Two weeks. A month.
They tried to feed her, but her mouth wouldn’t open. At first Mao Yun was worried, but as time passed, it seemed that her body was in a strange state that didn’t require sustenance.
Gradually, day-to-day affairs returned to normal.
With the cooperation of Third Zhou and Li Runfa, rumors were intentionally spread that, according to the Hen-Shi priestess, Bao was on an astral journey to the Perfect Realm. That caused a bit of a stir, and actually raised morale temporarily.
The effect lasted for only a month. Then, whisperings floated that Bao was sick, or even dead.
Another month later, and people were complaining openly. Morale was beginning to plummet, and Mao Yun wasn’t sure what to do. Third Zhou and Li Runfa had no ideas.
Mao Yun even considered cutting her hand off to separate her from the fallen star, but couldn’t quite bring himself to do something so drastic, not when it was clear that her body was in no danger because of the passage of time.
One night, Mao Yun was standing watch over her and was nearly frightened out of his skin when she suddenly sat straight up in bed and then opened her eyes. They were glowing white.
She turned her head to stare at him, and then suddenly, the whiteness began to fade. Then, the whiteness that had gripped her shoulder and arm for the past months faded away. The fallen star dropped to the ground.
Bao shivered and looked down at the rock. “Oversized chicken,” she muttered. Then she looked up at Mao Yun. “Find me a metalsmith.”