“Ye Hua, about this perfect plan of yours. Are you absolutely sure that’s the approach you want to use? Maybe you should think it over a little more.”
“Why? You don’t think it’s a good plan?”
“No, I think it’s a terrible plan.”
“What’s wrong with it? You just said yourself that women like taking care of things. I’m using that idea to get close to Bai Qian without scaring her again. It’s perfect.”
“Ye Hua, that’s not quite what I said. I said some women like taking care of things. But that’s not really my point. You’ve created this outlandish scheme that doesn’t make a bit of sense. Who would ever believe you would choose to go to a peach tree forest that has been deserted for millennia when you’ve been injured? And you have no idea how Bai Qian will react to finding you…if she even notices you at all. She may not care. Or it may scare her even more. She probably won’t have any idea how to help you. Then what are you going to do? Just continue to lay there bleeding before you eventually pretend to die?”
“She won’t need to know how to help me, Da Ge. I can heal myself as she tries to take care of my wounds. It will give me an opportunity to talk to her. She can get to know me.”
“Get to know …get to know you?! You’re not exactly dropping by for tea and gossip, Ye Hua.”
“You know what I mean. It will work, Da Ge. You’ll see. She’ll be too worried about me to think about those other things. And then when I start to heal, she will be relieved she’s helped me and she’ll feel more comfortable around me. You’re overthinking it, Da Ge.”
“Overthinking? You’re not thinking it through enough, Ye Hua. There are too many parts of your plan that are left entirely up to chance. When is that ever a good strategy to use?”
“And it’s deceitful.”
“And? There’s no reason to stop now, Da Ge.”
“And I think it will accomplish nothing more than making you look foolish.”
Determined to put his plan into effect despite all of Mo Yuan’s doubts, Ye Hua made a point to wake up early the next morning. Even after staying awake long into the night so he wouldn’t miss feeling a repeat of Bai Qian’s soft touch against his cultivation. In the end, he had felt nothing, much to his disappointment. He didn’t let his lack of sleep slow him down this morning however; he wanted to be in the peach tree forest at dawn and he needed the extra time to get ready for the day.
He spent several minutes searching through his old robes, surprised when he felt the black dragon assessing his unusual actions with quiet curiosity. Ye Hua’s initial surprise led to relief. His dragon was finally taking an interest again. The emptiness inside had disappeared. He reached out to the black dragon. While the beast acted more reserved than normal, he did return Ye Hua’s greeting without retreating back into silence. Optimism filled Ye Hua with the return of his dragon; he felt complete again, his senses more closely attuned to the world around him, now that his dragon spirit was back with him.
After discarding several options, Ye Hua decided to wear a tan robe. Blood would show up very well against the light-colored fabric.
Slipping on the robe and tying the sash, Ye Hua hurried over to the mirror in the corner of his bedchamber. He secured his hair up in a tight knot on top of his head, frowning when he realized it looked too neat. His topknot needed to be loose and messy, similar to the way it looked after a round of vigorous sparring with his brother. He reached up and loosened the knot, scrutinizing his appearance afterwards. That was better but it still didn’t look quite right. He needed to look like he had just been fighting for his life.
He pulled a few strands out of place here and there, the loose hair hanging messily around his face and shoulders. He frowned again before smiling at his reflection. He looked half-insane with his hair arranged in such a haphazard fashion. But once he added the finishing touches to his appearance, it would work well enough. With any luck, Bai Qian would be too worried about him to pay much attention to his hair.
The black dragon’s presence within Ye Hua grew even stronger as the beast wondered why Ye Hua was acting so strangely. He knew it had something to do with finding his white fox again but he didn’t understand the full extent of Ye Hua’s plan.
Unsure how his dragon would react to the idea, Ye Hua chose not to elaborate any further. The strategy would be revealed soon enough and the next part would be much easier with his dragon’s cooperation. He took one last look at his reflection. Satisfied with what he saw in the mirror, Ye Hua summoned his sword in its scabbard and strapped it on. The weapon felt good resting in its rightful place at his back. When was the last time he had worn it? It had been too long.
Wanting to avoid raising the alarm in the Heavens, Ye Hua jumped to a patch of fluffy clouds hanging high above the peach tree forest. He looked toward the eastern horizon to gauge the time. He could just make out the first few rays of the morning sun. Perfect. He still had a few minutes before dawn.
The sound of ripping fabric broke the peaceful silence when Ye Hua grabbed his robe at the shoulder and tore it apart at the seam, leaving his sleeve dangling by a few threads. Long sharp talons lengthened from the tips of Ye Hua’s fingers, his eyes turning black with his dragon essence. Still curious, the black dragon did not fight Ye Hua on the use of his talons.
Ye Hua smiled; the dragon’s cooperation did indeed make this part easier. He had been able to summon his dragon talons last night when his dragon had still been in retreat but it had taken a great deal of his magic to do so.
His smile faded as he turned his attention to his next task. Before he could put too much thought into it and change his mind, Ye Hua swiped his talons across his chest and stomach first and then across his bare shoulder, hissing through his teeth as the dagger-like claws easily sliced through fabric and then deep into his flesh.
The black dragon growled with disapproval and pulled back from Ye Hua, again questioning Ye Hua about his actions. What did any of this have to do with finding his fox?
His robe now hanging in tatters, Ye Hua could see blood welling up from the deep lacerations he had made, rivulets of crimson running down his skin. Ye Hua frowned, ignoring his dragon’s protests and questions. He needed more blood, a lot more blood, if Bai Qian was ever going to believe his life may be in danger.
Beginning to understand more about Ye Hua’s plan, the black dragon refused to cooperate for a second time, grumbling his displeasure deeply. He thought this idea of Ye Hua’s was terrible. It would do nothing more than make them both look weak… and foolish.
Ye Hua sighed. Why did his dragon think along the same lines as Mo Yuan? It didn’t matter; he refused to let the black dragon’s opinion deter him from carrying out his plan.
Discovering it became nearly impossible to use his talons with the dragon fighting him, Ye Hua reached for his sword. Taking care with his next injury, Ye Hua ran his blade across the side of his neck, opening one of the large vessels pulsing there. Blood poured from the wound, quickly saturating the front and back of his robe.
Once he thought he looked bloody enough, Ye Hua healed the vessel. He did nothing to lessen the throbbing burn of his lacerations. With any luck, the combination of blood loss and pain would lend his complexion a deathly pallor that would add an element of realism to his appearance. He just needed to add one more detail and then he would be finished.
Ye Hua sent his cultivation streaming into the air, watching with satisfaction as the clouds under him thickened and more clouds gathered around him. They became dark and dense with moisture as he continued to energize them, disturbing the calm of the atmosphere but stopping short of creating a storm. He wanted a steady rain, not enough to wash the blood away but enough to make his hair and robes damp while under the cover of the trees. And enough to cool the temperature of the air.
Immortals rarely became ill but now that he appeared weak from blood loss, Bai Qian would worry he might catch a chill while cold and wet. Maybe she would even take him back to wherever it was she called home in the forest to dry off and warm up. He could find out where she had been hiding all this time.
Excited by the idea, Ye Hua ran through his story one last time. Bai Qian would eventually want to know what had happened to him. He needed to have all the details straight.
The attack had come out of nowhere, a giant beast catching him unaware while he had been investigating unusual claw marks found in the forest on the outskirts of King Zhao Hui’s territory. He couldn’t retreat and leave the hideous creature alive to hurt others. So despite his grave wounds, he had fought the beast off valiantly, managing to kill it before the last of his strength had disappeared. But now, he felt too weak to make it back home to the Heavens.
With one last burst of cultivation he had managed to make it to the peach tree forest, where he decided to lay low to heal and try to recover some of his depleted power. But then the rain had started to fall, chilling him down to the bone and sapping away every last bit of energy he had left.
What creature wounded him?
Ye Hua frowned when he imagined Bai Qian asking him this question. He didn’t have an immediate answer. He thought about it for several seconds before he grinned. He had no idea what the hideous creature had been; the battle had happened too fast for him to identify it and the beast had disappeared into wisps of gray smoke after dying.
Feeling good about his chances of success, Ye Hua jumped to the forest floor, making sure to stagger weakly when he landed. He wrapped a barrier around most of his cultivation to make himself feel depleted of energy before stumbling along the blossom-covered dirt path, ensuring splotches of blood were left in his wake wherever he walked. He left an occasional smear of blood on various tree trunks. He wanted Bai Qian to have a good trail to follow.
The rain falling through the canopy of trees dampened Ye Hua’s hair and clothing as he made his way further into the forest, just as he had hoped it would. The changes he had created in the temperature and pressure of the atmosphere stirred up a brisk breeze, helping spread the scent of his blood throughout the trees. Everything was falling into place perfectly…except for the black dragon who voiced his protest to Ye Hua’s plan with annoyed growls and roars of frustration.
The black dragon wanted to show his white fox that he was powerful and very dominant in the realms, capable of taking care of her, providing for her needs, and protecting her from all threats. How else could he convince her to stay near him at all times? He didn’t want to make himself look weak and vulnerable in front of her; she would never trust he could look after her. Why didn’t Ye Hua understand this?
Ye Hua sighed, trying to soothe his angry dragon while stumbling around, looking for an appropriate place to collapse. He couldn’t give up the act for even a moment. If Bai Qian were watching, he needed to look like he could walk no further.
He spotted a large tree just off the path and staggered his way toward it, letting his legs drop out from under him when he reached it. He slid clumsily down the trunk to the ground, his sword resting near his right hand. He let his head drop back and closed his eyes as if weary from too much exertion. He concentrated on making his breathing harsh and labored and he focused on his pain. He wanted his scent to carry the stench of pain and blood for authenticity.
And then Ye Hua waited, reminding his dragon this plan was meant to bring Bai Qian close to him. They needed to look as harmless as possible so she would feel comfortable approaching them. It would work…he knew it would. His dragon just needed to trust him.
The black dragon grumbled his disagreement but, otherwise, settled quietly inside Ye Hua to wait with him. The dragon still thought this plan of Ye Hua’s was a terrible idea.
Bai Qian crept out of her den at daybreak, all her senses on high alert as she trotted toward the grass clearing on silent paws. Why had the vexing dragon stayed away from her forest yesterday?
Armed with her small dagger and her newfound knowledge of the true extent of the dragon’s power, Bai Qian had been fully prepared to start scouting out her enemy from a distance when she went out to patrol the peach trees the day before. Her life in this forest was hers to defend and she fully intended to do just that. All she needed was enough information about him and his habits so she could come up with a more definitive plan to get rid of him.
But then the vexing man hadn’t even shown up! She had waited all day, feeling tense, dreading the moment he would appear but also ready to just get it over with. All that anxious waiting had been for nothing.
Knowing he hadn’t missed a day in months, his absence made no sense to Bai Qian. Her fox had worried about him, wondering many times throughout the day if something serious had happened to her dragon. Bai Qian had scoffed at that idea; if only her dragon problem would resolve itself so easily. The sudden change in his routine had her feeling suspicious instead. She thought he must be up to something. But what?
Was he trying to trick her into lowering her guard? Bai Qian would never let that happen. The trick was on him. Even if it took the dragon one thousand years to appear in her forest again, she would be ready for him. She had spent the last fifty thousand years watching for an outside threat. Remaining on guard at all times was a habit she couldn’t break even if she wanted to. Which she didn’t.
A sudden drop in the pressure of the atmosphere when she reached the edge of the clearing made her pause, her fur ruffling when the wind picked up, bringing the scent of rain with it. She looked up toward the sky, surprised to see clouds building rapidly. That was strange. The air had been calm and dry only moments before. She knew the typical weather of the peach tree forest very well. Sudden storms did happen from time to time but they still took a little time to form in the sky. She had never seen one just appear in a matter of seconds like this one had.
The rain began to fall in earnest as Bai Qian started across the clearing. Not allowing the abrupt change in weather to deter her from keeping watch over her forest, she dashed through the tall grass to reach the cover of the peach trees on the other side, grumbling to herself as she shook herself off. She disliked the feel of damp, frizzy fur. A wave of her cultivation rolled down her body, drying her from the tip of her nose to the tips of her tails and creating a barrier around her. Satisfied with her protection from any drops of rain that might make it through the branches to the forest floor, Bai Qian crept further into the forest.
After only a few minutes, a pulse of power rippled through the air before disappearing. Bai Qian’s ears perked up with interest but then dread settled in the pit of her stomach as she recognized the dragon’s cultivation. The fox jumped inside her with joyful excitement while Bai Qian’s heart clenched with apprehension. The vexing man had decided to make an appearance today. The time had finally come.
Shoring up every bit of courage she possessed, Bai Qian altered her path to take her to the part of the forest where she had felt his cultivation coming from, reminding herself as she moved from one hiding spot to another that his presence was a nuisance she had vowed to get rid of. She wasn’t going to run from him, not this time. Clinging to the spark of renewed anger her thoughts kindled for strength, Bai Qian’s pace picked up, her resolve growing. She could do this.
No. She would do this.
Then the scent of blood and pain flooded her nose, stopping her cold in her tracks.
Her muzzle twitched as she sniffed, attempting to gather more information about what could be happening while also trying to convince herself she was smelling nothing more than the dragon killing some prey he had caught in the forest. But she knew better, unease wrapping around her as she acknowledged she was detecting something much worse than that. It was not the scent of rabbit or squirrel blood she was smelling and there was a lot of it. Whining low in her throat, Bai Qian struggled with encroaching flashbacks from the worst moment of her life, feeling for a moment like she was back in the Fox Den that horrifying night.
Dropping to the ground, Bai Qian covered her muzzle with her paws, cutting off the traumatizing scents inundating her senses as best she could. She concentrated instead on the sweet fragrance of fallen peach blossoms mixed with dark rich soil, scents that were comforting to her. They soothed her anxiety and helped her remain in the present. As did her fox, who reassured Bai Qian she was no longer a helpless child lost in a never-ending nightmare. And reminded her the dragon might need their help.
Bai Qian found strength in these things and pushed the memories back to the dark recesses of her mind, no longer willing to allow herself to get caught up in the past so easily. With her fox urging her on, Bai Qian made herself follow the scent of dragon blood, finding each step easier to take than the last until she finally caught sight of a prone form sitting weakly against a tree. The man appeared injured. She crept a little closer and then scurried into some dense brush to better assess the situation from a hidden vantage point, ignoring her fox’s pleas for her to run over to the dragon.
Never in a million years would Bai Qian have expected to find the man seriously wounded when he returned to her forest. His robe was torn in several places, the whole front of it nothing more than shredded fabric. His skin had an unhealthy pallor to it and she could hear his ragged breathing. He was covered in blood; it was everywhere. His hair was wet, damp strands clinging to his pale face. Was he shivering? It was hard to tell but he looked dreadful.
What should she do?
Bai Qian’s mind raced as she hesitated with indecision. The fox urged her to hurry and help him but Bai Qian didn’t budge from her hiding place. Not yet. What if whatever had injured the man had followed him into the forest? She would be no match for anybody or anything capable of wounding a Dragon God so severely. And the dragon himself might instinctively lash out at her in self-defense if he still thought he might be under attack. That could be just as bad if not worse.
But she couldn’t leave him there to die either, could she? What if others came to her forest looking for him? She studied him. Did the man with his always angry demeanor even have friends? Probably not. But he likely had a family who would miss him. Did she want more dragons traipsing around her forest looking for him? Definitely not. And what if he had already told somebody about her presence here in the peach trees? They might blame her for his death once they found his remains. She couldn’t allow something like that to happen; then they might never stop looking for her.
Bai Qian swallowed hard, her heart pounding in her chest as she made the terrifying decision to go help him. Even if the man lived his life as alone in the world as she did and there was no chance others would come looking for him, this was still the only choice she could make. She couldn’t just walk away from somebody so severely injured, not when she may be able to help. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself after making such a heartless decision. She didn’t know much about healing magic but she could still tend to the worst of his wounds, get him warm and dry, and maybe help him gain enough strength to reach a healer.
Maybe she would demand that he stay away from her and the peach tree forest in return for her helping him. Yes… that’s exactly what she would do.
Crouching her body close to the ground, Bai Qian began to make the trek toward him, slinking from one bush to another, feeling more apprehensive with every quiet step she took. Her fox’s immense relief at the decision filled Bai Qian and she sighed to herself. How had her fox become so attached to the dragon so quickly? She never should have retreated inside herself and left her fox alone for such long periods of time, not when she knew how lonely her fox had been recently. Bai Qian could admit a big part of this mess was her fault. Maybe if she had confronted the problem with the dragon to begin with, she wouldn’t be in her present situation.
A sudden gust of wind blew through the branches, startling Bai Qian. She almost jumped out of her skin, her fur puffing up in reaction. She grumbled to herself. Why, out of all the places in the realms, had the vexing dragon decided to come here when injured? There were better places to go for help.
Bai Qian stopped short, the question repeating over and over in her thoughts. It was a good question. Why had the dragon chosen to come to her forest? When she was a girl, there had been very few places in the immortal realms that wouldn’t welcome a Dragon God into their midst with open arms. Had that changed over the years? She doubted it. The dragons ruled the Heavens. Even if he couldn’t make it back home, there were better places near here for him to go in search of help.
Eyes narrowing with renewed suspicion, Bai Qian once again studied the wounded body of the man in his spot propped up against the tree. The scent of blood mixed with pain was very real so the wounds were legitimate.
Closing her eyes, Bai Qian listened closely, trying to hear the beat of his heart underneath the sound of his ragged breathing. She had hunted with her fox enough times to know what a wounded animal’s heart sounded like when dying from blood loss. If the man were critically wounded, his heart should be beating very fast and the rhythm should be unsteady and erratic. It wasn’t.
Bai Qian’s eyes popped open. His heartbeat sounded strong and steady. He wasn’t mortally wounded.
Remaining motionless, Bai Qian assessed him with more suspicion than ever. He wouldn’t actually pretend to be wounded, would he? That would be ridiculous. She didn’t take her gaze off of him, watching for some sort of sign this whole thing was an elaborate act. Much to her annoyance, she didn’t have to wait long before she saw his eyes open and glance all around him before closing again. His eyes were bright and searching, not dulled from pain and weakness.
A trap. This whole bloody thing was a trap.
Lifting her lips, Bai Qian bared her sharp teeth in a silent snarl as she watched him from her hiding spot. She couldn’t believe he would go so far as to fake being injured just to lure her to him. Her ears pinned back and the tips of all nine of her tails started twitching sharply as she continued to glare at him.
Did the vexing man really think she was gullible enough to fall for his ridiculous charade?
Ignoring the small voice in the back of her mind reminding her she almost had fallen for it, Bai Qian settled in to watch him. She tucked her paws underneath her, creating a small hollow in the soft soil for comfort. How long did the vexing man intend to just sit there on the ground of her forest, pretending to die from blood loss? He groaned lightly and Bai Qian’s tails began to twitch all over again as she listened to him add some dramatic flair to his act. Her fox was noticeably quiet now, likely unsure just how to take her dragon friend’s new tactic.
Rolling her eyes when she heard him groan again, this time a little louder, Bai Qian felt the unexpected urge to laugh at him. Did the vexing dragon not realize how foolish he looked right now? She had to admit he no longer appeared a serious threat. The angry prowling Dragon God of the last few months had all but disappeared to be replaced by something rather amusing. She had to give him some credit; this new tactic of his had been unpredictable and maybe just a little bit creative. It had certainly caught her off guard.
She tilted her head as she studied him, ears perked in his direction now, curiosity trickling through her as she wondered what his ultimate goal was in trying to find her. Who was he? Did he have an interesting story to tell? Her paw tingled with the sudden memory of alluring warmth tickling along her skin. How did he make his cultivation feel so good? Her eyes widened with surprise as she realized where her thoughts were going. Maybe his new strategy wasn’t quite as ridiculous as it seemed at first glance. She pushed her curious thoughts away but found the task more difficult than she would like; the vexing dragon was indeed a very dangerous enemy to have.
Having sat in one position without moving for most of the day, Ye Hua couldn’t remember a time when he had felt so miserable. The wounds he had given himself still burned. His skin was sticky and tight where the blood had dried. And his shoulders and neck ached with stiffness as a result of sitting in his awkward pose for hours. He should have collapsed into a more comfortable position. He tried to ignore the angry demands his muscles were making for him to move. It was becoming more difficult with every passing minute.
The rain had stopped falling awhile ago, but Ye Hua’s robes and hair were still damp without the sun to dry them. If he weren’t so worried about giving himself away, he would dry them quickly himself.
Had Bai Qian even noticed he was here? He frowned. If she had, she was choosing to let him bleed to death. He had honestly not expected that result. He had been so sure she would offer to help him if she found him. She must not realize he was in the forest yet.
He snuck a quick peek at his surroundings for what must be the thousandth time. All remained still and quiet around him. Did his dragon sense any sign of Bai Qian nearby? The black dragon had long since given up his grumbling protests and had fallen asleep sometime during the long, boring wait. Ye Hua prodded him for an answer anyway. He received an annoyed growl in the negative before his dragon drifted back to sleep. Worried the black dragon would retreat back into absolute silence again, Ye Hua chose not to push the irritable beast any further.
The droning buzz of flies hovering around Ye Hua, attracted to the scent of his blood, finally broke up the monotony of the afternoon. He grumpily flicked them away with streams of his cultivation, gaining some small sense of satisfaction as he did. He sighed, the feeling of accomplishment not lasting very long.
He had set everything up so perfectly and he hated to abandon his plan. Maybe if he stayed here just a little longer, Bai Qian would finally find him. Trying to relax his body in an attempt to ease some of his discomfort, Ye Hua imagined painting an image of Bai Qian’s beautiful fox in his mind. He quickly became lost in the vivid picture taking shape in his imagination.
The sudden sound of a foot scraping lightly against the dirt startled Ye Hua back to his present surroundings. He fought back an excited grin, plastering a pained expression onto his face instead and making sure his breathing sounded very labored again. Bai Qian had found him. Finally. Any second now she would run over, gentle concern evident in her eyes as she kneeled next to him to check the extent of his injuries.
Struggling to turn his head, Ye Hua squinted his eyes open, unable to resist the chance to watch her as she approached.
⇛ Next part: Ch 14: The Good Intentions of a Friend
⇚ Previous part: Ch 12: Making Plans