The softly-spoken words lingered in the still air between the fox and the dragon as they faced each other for the first time.
A multitude of thoughts raced through the fox’s mind and her heart sank as she realized what his words meant; the dragon knew who she was. Bai Qian had been correct about the dragon’s reason for prowling through her peach tree forest. He had been hunting for her all along. She hesitated as she gazed back at him, no longer sure of her plan to approach him.
The fox knew she should probably flee from him as fast as she could, catching him unaware in an attempt to outrun him. But the longer she watched him the more the fox found herself unable to turn away; nothing about the dragon seemed threatening. He was smiling, an open and friendly expression on his face. He looked happy, a glint of excitement in his brown eyes. It made her want to move closer to him instead of pulling away.
She stood her ground when the dragon took another measured step toward her, choosing not to run and hide. There had been too much running and hiding in her life already. She wanted to give the dragon a chance to prove he could be trusted, to show he wasn’t planning to harm her or Bai Qian. The fox wanted to trust him.
Just as she decided to close the distance remaining between her and the dragon, the fox felt Bai Qian stirring. Her muzzle lowered and her ears flattened slightly as disappointment rushed through her. She needed more time; Bai Qian wouldn’t understand yet.
The masculine voice speaking her name pulled Bai Qian out of the carefree family memory she had been wrapped up in. She tried to shrug off the sound, wanting nothing more than to remain focused on the past. But it was the first time she had heard her name spoken aloud in fifty thousand years. The deep cadence of the voice was impossible for her to ignore. And something about the sound tugged on a part of her buried far down inside; it called to her and she found herself helplessly responding to it when it spoke her name once again.
Bai Qian floated out of the comforting haze of her past and surfaced inside her fox, confused at first but then horrified to find herself looking up into the eyes of a man, the man who carried the scent of a thunderstorm.
The dragon had found her.
She froze. Only a small distance separated them.
Her heart stopped beating for a few tense seconds before stuttering into a fast and unsteady rhythm. Bai Qian’s mind was unable to process the attempts her fox made to reassure her there was nothing to worry about. She failed to see the man’s happy expression, didn’t notice his smile faltering with concern and confusion. The only thing Bai Qian knew in that moment was fear; it gripped her and wouldn’t let go.
“It’s okay, Bai Qian. I’m not going to hurt you.”
The meaning of his words didn’t reach Bai Qian but the sound of his voice broke the spell holding her paralyzed. She scrambled back away from him, her paws tripping over her tails clumsily, as panic engulfed her.
“Wait! Don’t go, Bai Qian.”
Bai Qian bolted, sprinting towards a denser area of the forest in order to escape him. The heavy thud of his footsteps chasing after her spurred her on. She picked up her pace, ignoring the desperate pleas her fox made to stay and give the dragon a chance.
“Bai Qian! Wait!”
She squeezed her small form through a narrow gap created by two peach trees, darting her way into an area of thick underbrush. Bai Qian started weaving a convoluted path through the forest, recklessly careening around tight turns without slowing her speed. Terrified the dragon intended to capture and kill her, she couldn’t allow herself time to stop and think of a better plan.
The sound of his voice behind her had become fainter now. Bai Qian was losing him but she knew she wasn’t safe yet. She needed to place more distance between them before she could run back to her den. Again the fox begged her to stop running from the dragon but Bai Qian ignored her.
Bai Qian grew more alarmed when the energy of the forest pulsed with a burst of power. The dragon’s cultivation rolled over her, the atmosphere becoming heavy and charged with electric currents. Her fur stood on end as Bai Qian was reminded of a strong thunderstorm moving in; the man must have shifted into his dragon. The changing air currents told her he was rapidly gaining ground on her again. The fox no longer encouraged Bai Qian to stop now. The feel of the dragon chasing them down even worried her a little.
Her claws extended as Bai Qian raced through the trees, digging into the soil to gain traction so she could pick up more speed. The sound of her heart pounding in her ears drowned out all other noise around her and her chest started aching as she panted from the exertion of continuing her breakneck pace. She didn’t feel it when a large clump of fur was ripped from her skin when one of her tails became snagged on a branch. The pads of her paws became scraped and torn, one of the front ones splitting wide open as she stumbled over a pile of sharp rocks laying in her path. None of the pain mattered because she could still sense him moving closer.
Imagining she could feel the dragon’s strong jaws and razor-sharp teeth clamping down on her tails, Bai Qian was driven to make the desperate decision to jump to a different location in the forest. It was a risky move; she had little practice cloud-jumping and had never attempted it by herself. And there would be a brief moment when she would no longer have the cover of the trees obscuring her from view. But she didn’t know what else to do. She couldn’t let him catch her.
Struggling to take a deep breath to control some of her panic, Bai Qian called forth her cultivation and pictured herself up in the clouds the way her mother and father had once taught her. It worked much to her surprise. The trees faded around her and she found herself high up in the sky where she promptly jumped back down to the forest in a spot very far from where she had just been. She could hear an intimidating growl rumbling from the dragon way off in the distance. Now that she had lost him, Bai Qian sprinted towards the safety of her hidden den in the forest.
The black dragon pulled up short when his small white fox vanished from view. He suspected she had cloud-jumped and he wanted to soar up into the clouds to see if he could pick up her trail again. He circled over the area he had last seen her instead, grumbling because Ye Hua suggested it was not a good idea to keep chasing her. She was obviously still terrified of them and if they pushed her too hard she might leave the peach tree forest altogether. It would be better if they could coax her to come to them.
Despite understanding Ye Hua’s reasons, it was difficult for the dragon to stay still and let his fox go. He didn’t want her moving further away from him. Now that he had found her, had gotten close to her, he wanted to keep her near him always. And the realization he may have just frightened her even more distressed him. He would never harm his fox; he only wanted to keep her safe. Why didn’t she understand that? There had to be a way to show her he intended to protect her but he needed her to give him a chance to do so, needed her to let him near.
The black dragon knew without a doubt the white nine-tailed fox belonged to him, every instinct he possessed told him it was true. Were her instincts not telling her the same, that he belonged to her? They should be. Or was she just choosing not to listen to them? But why would she ignore them? Instincts were there for a reason and should be followed closely. He was certain he could help his fox realize a connection existed between them, that she had no reason to fear him, if he could only spend some time close to her. But she always avoided him.
A low, sad growl escaped the dragon’s throat as he settled to the ground on the very spot the white fox had jumped from; the mournful noise echoed through the forest. He repeated the dejected rumble again before resting his head on the soft soil, inhaling deeply, hoping to catch a hint of his fox’s scent. There was nothing other than the scent of earth and peach blossoms.
His head shot up as the unmistakable iron-tinged scent filled his snout again. There was a wild and sweet scent mingling with it that teased his senses. The scent of his fox intertwined with the smell of blood. She was bleeding. His fox had been injured. The need to seek her out, to find her injuries and soothe them in some way, overwhelmed him. His long body lifted up into the air as he had every intention of continuing his quest to find her once again. She needed him now.
The dragon had barely started moving before he abruptly stopped when he spotted smears of crimson drying to a dull rust color on an area of rocks scattered across the forest floor. The upsetting sight of her blood reminded him that his fox had hurt herself trying to get away from him. What would happen if he moved too close to her again? She would try to flee and she might end up injuring herself further in the process. He couldn’t allow that to happen.
One more growl of sorrow rumbled from the dragon before he sank back down to the earth, eyes locked on the stained rocks. The fox needed help and there was nothing he could do for her. The dragon slowly receded into himself, dissolving out of sight with a shimmer.
The crouched form of Ye Hua appeared in his place. He reached out and brushed his fingers against a sharp point on one of the rocks. Her paws had been torn.
Ye Hua stood with a serious expression, troubled by the sight of Bai Qian’s blood while also very confused about his dragon’s strong response to Bai Qian’s fear of them. He had never heard his dragon make such a sad sound before and this was the first time his dragon had initiated the shift back to human form on his own. It was not at all like him.
Ye Hua was certainly disappointed Bai Qian had fled and upset she had hurt herself while doing so. But his dragon seemed almost depressed by it. It was very strange and he didn’t understand what it meant any more than he understood the reasons for his dragon’s possessiveness over Bai Qian. The strong emotional attachment the black dragon felt for a woman he had never met puzzled Ye Hua. He tried to reassure his dragon that Bai Qian didn’t know them well and they needed to give her more time. The black dragon remained quiet inside him and Ye Hua decided to leave him be.
His thoughts turned back to the moment he had first spotted Bai Qian. Her white fox had been a beautiful sight to behold, had taken his breath away when he saw her. And the excitement he had felt at finally finding her had been almost overwhelming. He hadn’t felt so happy in a long time. She had allowed him to get closer to her than he had expected. He had been on the verge of a breakthrough but then something had changed.
Ye Hua frowned as the encounter played through his mind. He had obviously made a mistake. He didn’t know what his misstep had been but he had seen the change occur within her, had seen the difference in her eyes. It reminded Ye Hua of the way glinting swirls of gold would bleed into Mo Yuan’s brown irises when his brother’s dragon was active. And Ye Hua had been told many times his own eyes looked darker, almost black, when his dragon was stirring inside him and close to the surface. Was he seeing something similar taking place in Bai Qian’s eyes? Was there a difference between the eyes of the woman and the eyes of her fox? If that were the case, which part of her was scared of him? Was it possible to first reach out only to the part of her that wasn’t afraid?
He needed a new plan. Again.
A large clump of white fur caught Ye Hua’s eye as he was walking back to the place he had first seen Bai Qian. He plucked it from the branch it was clinging to, rubbing it between his thumb and fingers thoughtfully. It was silky and soft to the touch just as he had imagined it would be. But its presence bothered him just as much as the blood-stained rocks did because he knew Bai Qian had been so terrified that the pain of losing the fur had not slowed her down even for a moment. Not even torn paws had been enough to stop her. She had been running for her life.
Ye Hua didn’t want that to happen again; he wouldn’t let it happen again.
He carefully tucked the clump of fur into a safe spot in his robe before jumping away from the forest toward the Heavens. He wanted to go and have another chat with his brother but first he needed to tell his father he had found Bai Qian.
Bia Qian erected a privacy barrier over the entrance to her den as soon as she darted through it, her injured paws now throbbing with pain as they came in contact with hard stone. She shifted into human form, the sharp pain from her torn paw pads fading to a dull ache as her change from fox to woman partially healed them. It was a trait unique to nine-tailed fox magic, the ability to jump-start the healing process for minor wounds by shifting. More serious injuries still required the intervention of a healer.
Her long tangled tresses whirling around her body, Bai Qian glanced all around her small cave frantically. Her heart was still pounding in her chest and her mind raced with desperate thoughts of escape. She had to get out of here. The peach tree forest wasn’t safe for her anymore now that the dragon had seen her. It was just a matter of time until he found her den and dragged her out of it to kill her or hand her over to the demons. She couldn’t allow that to happen. She had to get out of here.
She grabbed a frayed threadbare quilt from a corner of the den, her only means of warmth other than the few ill-fitting, worn dresses she had scavenged from the nearby village, and spread it out over the stone floor. She started hastily collecting her meager possessions, tripping over the hem of her white dress several times as she scrambled around the room, and placed them into a small pile in the middle of the quilt. Her limbs shook, fatigued from a combination of adrenaline, pain, and exertion, as she tied the quilt around her things.
Her fox begged Bai Qian not to leave the forest but Bai Qian refused to listen. She wanted to scream with frustration. None of this would be happening if her fox had simply listened to her and stayed away from the dragon in the first place. Now she was being forced to run again. She had no other options. But where was she supposed to go?
Bai Qian picked up the quilt, intending to magically hide it on her person, but before she lifted it more than a few inches her legs collapsed under her from exhaustion. She dropped the quilt and cried out as her knees collided painfully with granite. She fell back against the cold stone wall of her den and hugged her legs tightly to her chest, burying her face against her knees.
Her slender shoulders shook as she started sobbing, tears streaming down her cheeks before landing on her knees, seeping through thin fabric to the scraped skin from her fall. The stinging pain of the salt on her wounds finally reached her notice and she took a few shuddering breaths in an attempt to calm herself down. Crying wasn’t going to fix the mess she was in but it had helped her release some of the pent up emotion that had been building up inside her. She needed to stop and think before taking off haphazardly without a destination in mind.
She lifted her head, looking around her den with red and swollen eyes, tears clinging to her full lashes. Where was she supposed to go? It was a question Bai Qian couldn’t answer. Nowhere else would be as safe for her as her forest.
Bai Qian remembered how quickly an attack could come from out of nowhere; the knowledge was ingrained within her very being. At least here she knew the peach trees well, knew all the best places to hide should she need to. And she knew how to get to them without being seen. Nowhere was completely safe. Bai Qian knew that very well but she had spent thousands of years learning how to make life in the forest as safe as it could possibly be. The thought of having to learn all of those things all over again somewhere new overwhelmed her.
And she had fond memories of time spent exploring this area when she was a girl both by herself and with her family. She still felt a connection to her past life while living here, a connection she was scared to sever. It would make the memories of her family feel even further away. She needed to stay here. Her cave may be small and bare but it was her home now. The entire peach tree forest was her home. She had already said goodbye to one home. Why should she be forced to say goodbye to another?
Bai Qian knew others didn’t live the way she did, alone and hiding away from the world. She didn’t expect others to understand if they ever found out about her. But this had become her way of life now. She no longer knew how to live any other way. She had stayed here quietly for thousands of years. She wasn’t bothering anybody by choosing to remain here, wasn’t causing trouble for anybody. She had seen what getting involved with others could cause. All she wanted was a place where she could be alone and safe and could find some small measure of comfort in her life. She didn’t need anything else and this forest with her small den was the perfect place for her. Was it too much to ask that she be allowed to live here peacefully without being threatened by intruders?
Apparently, for the dragon it was.
Bai Qian wiped the tear stains from her cheeks, a new emotion building up inside her. It was something she hadn’t felt in a long time and it was powerful enough to rival that of her fear.
It was anger she felt churning inside her.
She stood on trembling legs and clenched a tight fist at the unfairness of it all as she looked around her den again, this time with determination sparking in her eyes instead of despair. Why should she leave just because a nosy dragon had decided he needed to find her? He had no right to prowl around her forest the way he had been doing the last couple of months. She had done nothing to him, had not harmed him in any way. She had been here first. He was the trespasser invading her land.
This was her home and she wasn’t leaving.
“I’m not leaving.” Bai Qian hadn’t spoken aloud in fifty thousand years. Her voice sounded like little more than a whisper, weak and hoarse from disuse. She dug her nails into her palm, feeling a flare of pain as she pressed against what remained of one of the deeper wounds to her paws. The lingering ache in her hand brought new clarity to her thoughts and it helped drive her determination to overcome the problem she was now facing. She cleared her throat, forcing herself to talk louder.
“This is my home and I’m not leaving.” The determined words filled her cave. Her voice sounded foreign to her own ears, much different than it had the last time she had heard it. Hers was the voice of a woman now and not that of a young girl. She fell quiet once again and looked down at her small bundle of things.
Feeling stronger inside now that she had made the decision to stay, Bai Qian untied the quilt and placed her few possessions back into their rightful places. She had always liked for her surroundings to be tidy and neat. She then folded the quilt to create a soft cushion for her to sit on. She needed a plan. Now that she wasn’t leaving the peach tree forest she needed to come up with a way to make the dragon leave. But how?
Bai Qian could feel her fox protesting the thought of chasing the dragon away. She urged Bai Qian to try to make friends with the dragon instead. She pointed out how the dragon had changed his appearance so he would look less threatening and reassured Bai Qian the dragon had not once shown any signs of aggression directed toward her or any other creature in the forest.
As she listened to the fox’s thoughts inside her head, Bai Qian was horrified to realize her fox had been spending a lot of time following the dragon around. She questioned her fox, wondering how many times the dragon had seen her. Did he know where their den was?
The fox was quick to show Bai Qian in her mind that she had been following the dragon without being spotted until today. And though he had come close to the location a few times, he had not yet found the hidden alcove of rocks making up their den. But even if he did know where their home was, she didn’t think he would hurt them. He would be a powerful friend and ally to have. Nobody would dare hurt them while the dragon was around.
She brushed off her fox’s arguments, countering them with some thoughts of her own. The dragon was trying to lure her into a false sense of security by changing his appearance to look friendly. Dragons were not to be trusted. The fox protested this idea again but Bai Qian refused to be persuaded by her inner beast. She understood the fox was lonely and longed for the company of someone else. Bai Qian often felt lonely too but that didn’t mean it was a good idea to try and get close to the dragon. She wanted to figure out a way to get rid of him without placing herself in harm’s way. She just didn’t know how.
A thought surfaced in Bai Qian’s mind and refused to leave as she stared sightlessly at the far wall of her den. It was an old adage she had heard repeated many times in the stories she had listened to as a child. Whenever a group of people was facing an outside threat, one bit of helpful advice always seemed to be mentioned.
Know your enemy.
⇛ Next part: Ch 11: A Son’s Comfort
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