Ao Wushuang stared the woman at their door through the peephole. Mo Ahshi, the eldest disciple of the Fox Zen School. Despite Chan'er's account of what happened a few days ago, Ao Wushuang was, admittedly, still having difficulties seeing Mo Ahshi in a new light. Nevertheless, after spending a whole day yesterday brooding over the incident, Ao Wushuang had decided to give Chan'er's story a chance. In hindsight, Ao Wushuang shouldn't have doubted Chan'er to begin with, shouldn't have accused the girl of lying to her. For all she knew, the decades' worth of respect she had for Mo-shijie might've been misplaced all along. Even more so considering she had neither seen nor interacted with Mo-shijie for over ten years. A lot could happen in ten years. Hearts could be swayed. Bonds could be severed and trust broken asunder, leaving the old alliance in shambles. People change. But Chan'er? For as long as Ao Wushuang could remember, Chan'er had been nothing but loyal to her. She owed it to Chan'er to at least look into the matter.
Ao Wushuang swung the door open and gave Mo-shijie a cordial smile.
"Mo-shijie. What can I do for you today?"
Mo-shijie was immaculately dressed in her usual Daopao (T/N: A Taoist robe). Her dark tresses were held up by a golden hairpin, which, according to Chan'er's narrative, was probably the same one Mo-shijie had used to murder Gu Feng.
Gu Feng, who was still alive and well last time Ao Wushuang checked. The apparent discrepancies in these events rubbed Ao Wushuang the wrong way. Ao Wushuang hated not knowing.
Mo-shijie's face looked as dignified and gentle as ever when she returned Ao Wushuang's smile.
"Can I come in, Wushuang?"
Ao Wushuang was so glad right then that Chan'er had decided to obey her order and remain inside the bedroom. Ao Wushuang couldn't afford any distractions right now, not when she still hadn't figured out the best approach to get to the bottom of this mystery.
"Of course," Ao Wushuang said amicably. "You know you're always welcome, Mo-shijie."
Ao Wushuang stepped aside to let the other woman in. After Mo-shijie entered, Ao Wushuang closed the door and led her to the living room.
"Make yourself at home," Ao Wushuang said, waving at one of the stools beside the square table.
Mo-shijie stopped beside the table. For a fleeting moment, Mo-shijie's eyes darted around the living room. That subtle movement right there was enough to raise a dozen of alarm bells inside Ao Wushuang's head.
She's looking for something…
Mo-shijie's gaze lingered on Chan'er's bedroom before returning to Ao Wushuang's face.
"The place is to your liking I hope?" Mo-shijie remarked.
"Of course," Ao Wushuang answered, making sure to keep her smile in place. Right now, the best approach was to play dumb, at least until Chan'er was completely out of harm's way. Let them think that she was still clueless, that she still hadn't suspected anything yet. All hell would break loose if Ao Wushuang decided to act now. The last thing Ao Wushuang wanted was to diminish Chan'er's chances of escaping.
Ao Wushuang tried to recall where she had left Bahuang.
"Would you like some tea, shijie?"
A tiny smile graced Mo-shijie's features. "Why, yes. Tea sounds delightful, Wushuang. Thank you."
Ao Wushuang turned around and strode into the kitchen.
I bet she just wants to poke around the place without me watching.
Inside the kitchen, Ao Wushuang grabbed Bahuang's hilt. She looked past the kitchen door, making sure to keep Bahuang concealed behind the kitchen counter. Mo-shijie was no longer standing beside the table; instead, she was moving back and forth inside the living room, inspecting the place as she went.
Ao Wushuang was now convinced that Mo-shijie was indeed here to look for something.
Without further ado, Ao Wushuang lifted her skirt and slid Bahuang into her thigh holster. This was the best way she could think of to stay armed without appearing hostile. It was best to let Mo-shijie think that Ao Wushuang was still unsuspecting. Once Bahuang was in place, Ao Wushuang smoothed down her skirt and started preparing two cups of tea.
When Ao Wushuang exited the kitchen with a tray, Mo-shijie had reclaimed her spot beside the square table as though she hadn't been snooping around earlier.
"I hope oolong is okay?" Ao Wushuang lowered the tray onto the square table, then waved a hand at one of the stools.
"Oolong is fine," Mo-shijie said, reaching for one of the cups.
Mo-shijie didn't sit down.
Don't want to leave yourself vulnerable, I see… Well. Two can play this game.
Ao Wushuang reached for her own cup.
"So. What can I do for you, shijie?" Ao Wushuang asked after taking a sip.
From a few feet away, Ao Wushuang watched Mo-shijie take a sip from her cup before placing the cup back onto the table.
"I found something yesterday." Mo-shijie paused to look at Ao Wushuang. "A paper crane."
It took Ao Wushuang everything to maintain her poker face right then.
"A paper crane?"
Forget about travelling under the cover of the night. Chan'er had to make her escape right now.
Mo-shijie nodded. "Found it in the backyard, lying on the ground."
"I see," Ao Wushuang said, taking another sip of tea. "Outbound or inbound?"
Ao Wushuang nodded. "Must be one of Grandmaster Liu's, then." Ao Wushuang glanced at Mo-shijie. "He collects those cranes as I recall."
Mo-shijie smiled and held her gaze for a brief moment. "Indeed. But I heard he gave one to Su Chan recently."
Ao Wushuang's fingers tightened around the tea cup.
"Is that so?" Ao Wushuang said, feigning a look of surprise. "I had no idea." Ao Wushuang paused for a few moments, then let out a huff. "Tsk! That foolish disciple of mine must be up to no good again."
Mo-shijie chuckled. "Rest easy, Wushuang. No harm was done."
Ao Wushuang rolled her eyes. "Well. You've got no idea the kinds of mischief that girl is capable of, shijie." Ao Wushuang raised a brow at the other women. "No idea."
Mo-shijie let out a noncommittal hum.
"Where is she, by the way?" Mo-shijie glanced around the room a few times. "I didn't see her here."
Alarm coursed through Ao Wushuang, but she tamped it down lest she give the whole game away.
"That useless disciple." Ao Wushuang released a huff of annoyance. "I confined her to her room after she insulted you and Gu Feng the other day." Ao Wushuang shook her head. "Insolent girl."
Mo-shijie chuckled. "You shouldn't be too hard on her, you know."
Ao Wushuang snorted. "It's not like I can stop her though."
"Oh?" Mo-shijie raised a brow. "What do you mean?"
"Why, I'm pretty sure she snuck out of her room ages ago!" Ao Wushuang said in a loud voice, hoping that Chan'er would get the hint. She rolled her eyes. "I didn't seal the window after all."
"Anyway, I hope she doesn't come back after she left this time," Ao Wushuang said, once again raising her voice so that Chan'er could hear her from inside the bedroom.
She just hoped that Chan'er would get the damn hint.
"Honestly, shijie," Ao Wushuang continued with a sigh. "I've had enough of that girl's insubordination."
Mo-shijie hummed. "Too bad, then. I was actually hoping to see her today."
Oh, I bet you are, Ao Wushuang growled inwardly. It was beyond obvious at this point that Chan'er had been discovered when she was spying on Mo-shijie the other day. On the flip side, Mo-shijie's current behavior also implied that Chan'er was right to some degree; something did happen inside Mo-shijie's quarters that day.
That was the real question.
What exactly happened?
The things that Chan'er had witnessed couldn't possibly be the whole truth, since Gu Feng was very much alive when Ao Wushuang last saw him.
Damn it, Mo-shijie… What the hell are you up to?
Whatever it was, Ao Wushuang was determined to find out.
"Oh, come now, Mo-shijie." Ao Wushuang smiled amicably at Mo-shijie. "Surely you didn't come all the way here just to see that pesky little disciple of mine." Ao Wushuang paused, using the brief lull in their conversation to study Mo-shijie's expression. "You know you can always speak freely before me, shijie."
Mo-shijie hummed, then nodded a few times. That calm face betrayed absolutely nothing.
"Actually..." Mo-shijie began. "I do have some matters to discuss with you."
Now that's more like it...
"Well, then. I'm all ears." Ao Wushuang took a step towards the square table and then lowered her tea cup back onto the tray.
"Here's the thing, Wushuang," said Mo-shijie. "I heard something from Grandmaster Liu about Wang Yuanshan."
Tea spilled across the tray when Ao Wushuang's hand jerked sideways.
"W- What did you say...?"
Ao Wushuang's fingers gripped the table's edge.
Ten years. Even after ten years, the mere mention of his name could still make Ao Wushuang weak at the knees.
"Mmm..." Mo-shijie said. "Grandmaster Liu had some news about him that I thought you should know."
"N- News...? B- But that's not… That's just not possible… How could there be news when… I thought he's..."
(T/N: Recommended soundtrack for the following scenes are available in Google Drive; see track label 243_t1)
The attacks were so swift that Ao Wushuang didn't even notice their execution until they were coming straight at her.
Ao Wushuang raised both palms by instinct and parried the finger strikes that were aimed at two important acupoints on her chest: the Huagai and Shenfeng.
Having successfully parried the strikes, Ao Wushuang leaped backwards to put some distance between herself and Mo-shijie.
"My, my, my... Ao Wushuang."
The eeriness in Mo-shijie's voice made Ao Wushuang look up.
Mo-shijie's dark tresses had come loose during their brief scuffle; Mo-shijie's hair was now floating around her head, fanned out like she was wearing a spiky headpiece.
And that face. Heavens, that face.
Gone were those dignified features that resembled a Bodhisattva; in their place was the visage of a female rakshasa, the manifestation of everything evil and sinister.
"Even with your defenses completely down, you were still able to parry my attacks like they were nothing," Mo-shijie continued in that eerie tone which sounded completely foreign to Ao Wushuang. There was a sneer. "You really are the Fox Zen School's greatest, Ao Wushuang."
Ao Wushuang slowly rose to her feet.
"Then again…" Mo-shijie continued. "No matter how good you are, you'll never be able to fend off an attack that you never saw coming!!"
Something struck Ao Wushuang's lower belly before her hand could reach Bahuang. The next thing she knew, her Zhenqi was thrown into a state of utter chaos.
Oh, no, no, no... Not like this!
Some kind of foreign aura was threatening to infiltrate her Vital Orb.
Mustering her willpower, Ao Wushuang regained control of her Zhenqi within seconds and then used it to resist the aura.
"Oh, wow! Look at this! Hah!" Mo-shijie laughed smugly. "You never fail to impress me, Ao Wushuang."
Ao Wushuang gritted her teeth and glared at Mo Ahshi.
That damned bitch!
"I can't believe you're still standing even after taking a direct hit from the Threaded Hairpin of Traversing Soul. Tsk, tsk, tsk. And you were struck at the Qihai no less! As expected from the great Ao Wushuang, I suppose!"
Mo Ahshi stretched her arm forward.
Ao Wushuang groaned in pain when a long hairpin withdrew itself from her lower belly. Once it was fully out, the hairpin floated back towards Mo Ahshi and hovered beside her head.
"Looks like it's the right move to take you out first," Mo Ahshi said.
"What is the meaning of this, shijie?" Ao Wushuang said coldly.
Mo Ahshi sneered. "Isn't it obvious?"
Traitor. Betrayer. Treacherous bitch.
"You won't get away with this treachery, Mo Ahshi," Ao Wushuang growled.
"Oh? Is that a threat? Are you threatening me?" Mo Ahshi laughed out loud. "Might I remind you that you're in no position to threaten me, Ao Wushuang." Mo Ahshi smiled tauntingly. "I mean… Look at you. The great Ao Wushuang. The master of 18 classes of major spells and 36 classes of minor spells… Torn to shreds simply because she was rendered incapable of using any of her precious spells."
Mo Ahshi burst into laughter.
Ao Wushuang clenched her jaw. The goddamned bitch was right. That strike on her Qihai had disrupted her Zhenqi so much that she could barely hold her Vital Orb together let alone perform any spells.
She couldn't even use Bahuang, since it would require her to channel her Zhenqi into the blade.
"That's right, Ao Wushuang," Mo Ahshi taunted. "You're nothing without your arsenal of spells. Nothing."
Has Chan'er left Mount Tianlong yet? God, I hope she's okay...
Time. Ao Wushuang had to buy Chan'er more time.
"Why?" Ao Wushuang said in a strained voice. "Why are you doing this?"
The taunting look vanished from Mo Ahshi's countenance; a vicious glare took its place. "Enough chatter!" Mo Ahshi flicked her sleeve. "Where is Bahuang? Hand over the sword!"
"Bahuang?" Ao Wushuang sneered. "I see. So that's what you're after, isn't it?" Ao Wushuang smirked, secure in the knowledge that sword was now hidden under her skirt.
"That's right," Mo Ahshi growled. "Hand it over! You have no right to wield that sword. No right!"
And you do?
"You'll never have it," Ao Wushuang said.
"I'm not giving you a choice!"
Ao Wushuang chuckled snidely.
"My, you're a little dense, aren't you, Mo Ahshi?" Ao Wushuang taunted.
"Do you really think I'd leave Bahuang lying around when I had all but smelled your treachery from miles away?" Ao Wushuang said in a smug tone, pausing to give Mo Ahshi a condescending look. "You're out of your mind."
"That's a lie!" Mo Ahshi yelled. "You're bluffing!"
"Take a look around, then," Ao Wushuang said casually. "Do you see any signs of Bahuang? Surely you can detect its presence by now if it was here."
Good thing Bahuang wasn't active right now.
Ao Wushuang was very much aware that she was in no shape to fight. She couldn't even move her arms, for Heavens' sake.
"Ah." Mo Ahshi sniggered. "So you've hidden it somewhere…" Mo Ahshi's expression morphed into a glare. "Where?"
"You'll never find it," Ao Wushuang said.
Wang Yuanshan had entrusted Bahuang to her. She'd rather die than let this treacherous woman take it away.
"Give it up, Ao Wushuang! Tell me where it is!" Mo Ahshi roared. "That sword is mine!"
"Over my dead body," said Ao Wushuang.
A derisive look spread across Mo Ahshi's face.
"You? You think you can stop me?" Mo Ahshi released a dark chuckle. "What can you do? You can barely move!"
Ao Wushuang ignored the taunt. "So you're in cahoots with the Great Six now? Is that it?" A wave of disgust welled up in Ao Wushuang's stomach. "What did they promise you, Mo Ahshi? That Bahuang is yours as long as you help them take me out?"
That could explain Mo Ahshi's motive if true.
All of a sudden, Mo Ahshi burst into laughter.
"What on earth is so funny, Mo Ahshi?"
"Hah! I suppose not even the great Ao Wushuang can figure out the true extent of my plans." Mo Ahshi's mocking gaze settled on Ao Wushuang's face. "I've been planning this for nine years after all. I've been thorough, you see?" Mo Ahshi's eyes glinted maliciously. "I've been meticulous…"
Ao Wushuang's mind raced as she tried to come up with ways to gain some sort of leverage. Right now, she was in a position of severe disadvantage, and she had to admit that her chances of escape were pretty slim. She couldn't use any of her spells, nor could she transform into her fox form. Hell, she couldn't even move!
I have to at least find a way to pass a message to Liu Ye...
"Oh? And what kind of plans do you have?" Ao Wushuang asked, stalling for time.
A smirk spread across Mo Ahshi's face.
The next thing Mo Ahshi did made Ao Wushuang's blood run cold.
Mo Ahshi rotated her wrist to reveal a tiny object hidden under her sleeve: a purple clock.
"Where did you get that?!"
A round of laughter escaped Mo Ahshi's lips. "Tsk, tsk, tsk. No, no, no. That's where you're wrong, you see." Mo Ahshi laughed snidely. "I don't have to get it from elsewhere, Ao Wushuang. It's mine to begin with!"
Horror coursed through Ao Wushuang.
The clock shot out from under Mo Ahshi's sleeve, increasing in size as it flew across the air. Then, when the clock had expanded to about the same size as Ao Wushuang's body, some kind of complex transformation process was activated: the whole contraption unfolded, then refolded itself into a box.
The box enclosed Ao Wushuang's body like a coffin, sealing her inside.
Ao Wushuang knew right then that there was no way for her to escape now.
She was trapped.