That was the word that entered Ye Hua’s mind as he gazed thoughtfully out over the deserted land of Qing Qiu for the first time. Qing Qiu was a place that had been forgotten by the world of the living. He didn’t know the last time his father had sent scouts to Qing Qiu to assess the Fox Realm under his protection. And, other than the odd discussion now and then with Heavenly Father, Qing Qiu was rarely mentioned in conversation these days. When the name did come up outside the walls of the Celestial Palace, it was only mentioned in passing and always in whispered tones as if the name itself were cursed and people feared what could happen if they spoke it too loudly.
It had not always been that way. There was a time Qing Qiu had been the envy of all the realms.
Ye Hua had spent the past week searching through the historical archives of the Heavens for all the information he could find about Qing Qiu and its citizens, specifically the Bai family. He had hoped to know more about the object of his search. There had not been much to find. Bai Zhi had guarded the secrets of his family and his people carefully. But the tidbits of information Ye Hua had been able to learn painted a vivid image in his imagination.
Before Bai Zhi’s death, Qing Qiu had been the most prosperous of all the immortal lands. And it had often been considered the happiest. The land had been rich and fertile with hills of lush grass and bright flowers mixed in with fields of crops used for food and trade. A wide variety of wildlife had called the dense forests of Qing Qiu home and had provided a steady supply of game for hunting. Bai Zhi had often joined his people in the forests to help procure food for the families of Baihu village. The lake near the Fox Den had been filled with luminous pearls of all different colors and sizes, pearls that were famous across the immortal lands for their unique beauty. Bai Zhi had made sure the wealth he acquired from the pearls benefited not only his family, but also the villagers and the land of Qing Qiu itself.
Bai Zhi had cared about his people, had been a wise and fair ruler who had taken his responsibility to protect and guide those following him seriously. He had provided a safe and peaceful place for them to live, had worked to ensure they were happy and could lead fulfilling lives. He had given them a great deal in return for their loyalty and service to his family. And the people of Qing Qiu had adored Bai Zhi because of his kind ways. Ye Hua had been able to glean all of that from the bits of information he had found.
After discussing his plans for the search with his father, Ye Hua had also learned of Bai Zhi’s love for his family through stories Heavenly Father had shared with him. The nine-tailed fox god had not only been a staunch protector of Qing Qiu and its people; he had also been a loving and devoted husband and father.
The events of the past seemed more tragic after learning these things about Bai Zhi and the people of Qing Qiu. Ye Hua was beginning to learn just how tremendous a loss for the realms Bai Zhi’s death had been. Despite his initial lack of interest in the search for Bai Qian, Ye Hua found himself growing more curious about Bai Zhi’s life and the ways of Qing Qiu and the foxes. Could it be possible Bai Qian had survived the massacre of her family and hidden herself away from the world? Was she hiding there still? Or had she decided to keep running, always seeking an escape from the past in far-off lands? If she returned to Qing Qiu, could the land be returned to its previous brilliance?
The possibility of such an outcome and the chance to play a part in it intrigued Ye Hua and made the search for Bai Qian more agreeable to him. The distinct image of Qing Qiu in his mind, once described as a place of wondrous beauty, did not match the deserted, overgrown landscape he was looking at. It was obvious Bai Zhi’s careful upkeep and conservation of the land was no longer present. His death had stripped Qing Qiu of all its cultivated splendor and allowed it to become wild and unwelcoming.
The expanse of land in front of Ye Hua was overgrown with prickly weeds, the patches of grass growing sparsely as the invasive weeds took over. He could just make out the remnants of a narrow stone pathway leading the way through the field to the Fox Den. The stones had become worn with time, some of them cracked and broken, making the trail even harder to follow through the overgrown vegetation.
He knew his father was still preserving the Fox Den but it was obvious to Ye Hua his father was no longer trying to keep the rest of Qing Qiu looking the same as it had before the war. The question puzzling Ye Hua was why. Why was his father not doing more to preserve the land and structures of Qing Qiu as they had been under Bai Zhi’s rule?
A flock of birds erupted from the encroaching forest, grabbing Ye Hua’s attention. He could hear the crash of a large animal moving quickly through the thick undergrowth of the ancient hardwood trees. He closed his eyes and scented the air, detecting the musty odor of a stag. Ye Hua’s dragon stirred inside at the smell of prey, demanding to hunt. Ye Hua pushed the urge away and forced his dragon back before opening his eyes once again. He brought his focus back to the heart of Qing Qiu where he knew the Fox Den was located off in the distance.
His gaze found the still, dark surface of Qing Qiu’s lake. The lake that had once been famous for its shining waves as the water had been illuminated from below by the luminescent pearls. The water shone brightly no more. Either the light from the pearls had been extinguished or the pearls had been buried deep in the thick mud of the lakebed. Ye Hua wondered if his father had played a role in dousing the lake’s light as a way to discourage would-be thieves from raiding the water for the precious pearls.
“I feel a little sad every time I see Qing Qiu now.”
Ye Hua startled at the sudden sound of Zhe Yan’s voice next to him. He had been too wrapped up in his thoughts to notice his friend had joined him. He silently scolded himself for his careless inattention. As the future Emperor of the Heavens he needed to remain vigilant and be aware of his surroundings at all times.
“I imagine it is very different from what you were expecting,” Zhe Yan continued, drawing Ye Hua’s attention back to him.
Ye Hua nodded. “Yes. It is not like the descriptions I read in the archives. Qing Qiu is still beautiful but the land is wild and untamed now. It is hard to tell Qing Qiu was once the home of the mighty Fox Clan. Soon, it will look like a place that has never been touched by human hands.”
As he said the words, Ye Hua realized he had the answer to his earlier question. He suddenly understood why his father was not doing more to preserve Qing Qiu. Heavenly Father must have decided not to use Qing Qiu for Celestial purposes if Bai Qian was never located. He was giving the land back to nature and the wildlife instead.
And if Bai Qian were found? He imagined his father would say that by letting Qing Qiu revert back to its natural state, he was providing her the chance to start anew without the weight of the past hindering her. If she wanted to recreate her father’s vision of Qing Qiu, she could do so easily. But if she wanted to create her own vision instead, she would be more comfortable doing so if she started fresh with a clean slate. Only the Fox Den and her family’s personal possessions would be waiting for her. The items preserved in her childhood home might help her confront the pain of losing her family so she could move beyond the past. And she could then pick and choose which memories she wanted to keep safe and protected.
“Never touched by human hands.” Zhe Yan repeated Ye Hua’s words somberly after a few minutes of quiet. “It’s a shame. Father always claimed Qing Qiu was the most carefree land in all the realms, a place where everybody was happy. It certainly felt that way whenever I would visit. There was often one festival or another being celebrated in the village. The market was usually crowded, filled with people talking and laughing. There were always children running around and playing games. Qing Qiu felt like a magical land, the ideal place to grow up, when I was young.”
Ye Hua glanced at Zhe Yan’s face when he detected a wistful note in his friend’s voice. Ye Hua couldn’t remember a single time when Zhe Yan had not been cheerful and full of good humor. But Zhe Yan’s expression right now was grim and unsmiling as he stared out at the land. Ye Hua also noticed his friend had chosen to wear robes of a light gray color instead of his usual peach or pale pink. This serious version of his friend was one he didn’t recognize. Zhe Yan finally acknowledged Ye Hua’s worried scrutiny, offering him a sad smile of reassurance.
“I can’t help but think of the past when I’m here.” Zhe Yan’s voice was soft and thoughtful before he took a deep breath and forced some false cheer into his voice instead. “Are you ready to visit the Fox Den?”
“You don’t have to do this, Zhe Yan. I can look for myself and then meet you in the peach tree forest after.”
“I know.” There was another long silence before Zhe Yan spoke again. “Your father once told me confronting a painful piece of the past directly is the best way to avoid further pain in the future. Helping you now is my way of heeding Heavenly Father’s advice.” He stepped away from Ye Hua and started walking along the broken path stretching out in front of them. Ye Hua watched him walk away for a moment before hurrying to catch up, his black robes snagging on the thorny weeds as he moved.
The two men settled into pensive silence as they made their way further down the path leading into the heart of Qing Qiu. They did not stop until they reached the shore of the lake. Ye Hua found himself instinctively using the keen vision of his dragon’s eyes to search for one tiny spark of light within the depths of the water. Just the tiniest hint of luminescence from a pearl would do. That was all he wanted to find. But the water remained dark and ordinary.
Zhe Yan pointed to the remnants of an old dock jutting out into the center of the lake. Ye Hua’s dragon receded inside him as he looked at the weathered and rotting wooden boards with the eyes of his human form instead. The dock appeared poised to sink beneath the water at any moment.
“Zhen Zhen and I used to spend a good deal of time swimming in the lake when I would visit. I don’t know how many times I jumped off that dock into what used to be clear, sparkling water.”
“Zhen Zhen?” Ye Hua was curious to hear more about the Bai family but had been hesitant to ask for fear of upsetting his friend. This was the opening he had been waiting for. “Father mentioned you were once close friends with Bai Zhen, but I don’t remember you talking about him when we were younger.”
Zhe Yan seemed to search carefully for the appropriate words for a minute before explaining. “My friendship with Zhen Zhen always felt too personal to share with others. He was…a special friend.” Zhe Yan frowned slightly before offering a small sad smile of apology to Ye Hua. “Don’t misunderstand me, Ye Hua. You and Mo Yuan will always be like brothers to me. Zhen Zhen was different than a brother…I think there would have been something much more than friendship between us eventually. The feelings were there. We both felt something significant building between us but we were too young to understand it fully at the time. I will always regret…” Zhe Yan cleared his throat as though suddenly embarrassed by all he had revealed.
“Never mind,” he continued sharply. “It’s not important.” He started walking again, his steps a lot quicker this time as if he were trying to escape the difficult memories.
Ye Hua gave Zhe Yan his space as he followed behind him at a slower pace. This was the first time Ye Hua had heard his friend admit out loud something he and Mo Yuan had long thought to be true: Zhe Yan was attracted to both men and women. The subtle signs had been there all along. He respected his friend’s privacy, however, and did not question him further on the subject. Zhe Yan’s sexual preferences and his past relationship with Bai Zhen were two things Zhe Yan was obviously not comfortable talking about, not even with Ye Hua. Maybe one day Zhe Yan would open up about it more but, in the meantime, Ye Hua decided he would keep the personal information Zhe Yan had shared to himself.
“Xiao Wu is the one you really want to know about.” Zhe Yan stopped next to a table positioned on a knee-high platform overlooking the lake.
“Xiao Wu?” Ye Hua stopped next to Zhe Yan.
“Bai Qian. Her family always called her Xiao Wu.” He gestured to the low, long table. “This was one of her favorite spots in Qing Qiu.”
Ye Hua studied the rotting wooden table, the top tilted to one side where the short legs had collapsed. He could see seven piles of tattered, fading cloth where cushions had once been arranged for the family. The wooden overhang constructed to protect the table from the elements was decaying and falling apart without a magical barrier to preserve the wood. One part of the roof had been ripped away completely.
“Xiao Wu loved to listen to stories, especially stories from the Mortal Realm.” Ye Hua could hear the fondness in Zhe Yan’s voice. “She was rarely still. She would often wander off to explore new places on her own or meet new people. She could talk a person’s ear off when she got going. And she was constantly trying to keep up with her older brothers, following them around and joining in their games. But if you started telling an interesting story you could capture her undivided attention. Xiao Wu would sit and listen quietly to a story for hours. I remember seeing her and Bai Zhi sitting together at this table, sharing a pot of tea and talking with each other. Bai Zhi would often tell her about plays he had seen performed in the Mortal Realm. She loved to listen to her father share a scandalous tale.”
“Mortal Realm stories,” Ye Hua repeated thoughtfully. “Had Bai Qian been to the Mortal Realm before?” He wondered if the Mortal Realm had been an unexplored avenue of escape for Bai Qian. Demons looked no different from other men and women in appearance but had trouble hiding their dark cultivation from mortals even when using seals and barriers. Many mortals could sense something was different about them. A demon would often cause panic among them. He doubted the demons would have followed Bai Qian into the Mortal Realm for that reason. The Demon King had likely wanted to avoid capturing Heavenly Father’s attention until after the murders had been committed.
Zhe Yan shook his head. “I can’t say with certainty, but I don’t think so. Zhen Zhen told me his father rarely allowed him and his siblings to go to the Mortal Realm. It was one thing Bai Zhi was strict about because nine-tailed foxes are considered very seductive among the mortals and can have an almost enchanting effect on them.”
Zhe Yan smiled briefly. “Not that Xiao Wu always listened to her father. She had a rebellious streak, more so than any of her brothers. And Zhen Zhen always complained that Xiao Wu got away with a lot because she was the baby of the family and the only girl. But I don’t think she would have disobeyed her father in regards to the Mortal Realm, not when he was extra careful to keep his family away from the mortals.”
Ye Hua nodded, filing the information away. He wasn’t completely ready to discard the possibility yet.
“Xiao Wu’s other favorite spot was over here,” Zhe Yan added as he led Ye Hua away from the table and further down the broken path.
Ye Hua recognized the stone border of a raised garden. He was very familiar with gardens because of his mother’s love for plants and flowers. There were only a few yellow blossoms in this garden however. Many of the delicate flowering plants were dead or wilted because they had been choked out by the weeds that were taking over everywhere.
“Bai Qian liked flowers,” Ye Hua observed before Zhe Yan could make the comment himself. A long-forgotten memory suddenly appeared in his thoughts, the memory of a ruined painting, a braid being yanked on, and a bruised shin. And an insincere apology that had irritated him to no end at the time he reminded himself. He had forgotten he had met Bai Qian once when he had been young. She had insisted his ruined painting had been nothing more than an accident. He had not believed her then but now he wondered. He had been painting by the lotus gardens. Had she been distracted by the lotus flowers when she bumped into him?
“…used to like to explore Father’s peach tree forest because of all the blossoms. Bai Zhi built her this garden to try and keep her away from Father’s land. Father never minded her exploring however. Bai Zhi worried about it when he didn’t need to.”
Ye Hua came back to the present, only catching the end of what Zhe Yan had been saying.
“My peach tree forest now,” Zhe Yan amended. “I keep forgetting Father gave the ten miles of blossoming peach trees to me.”
“Bai Qian spent a lot of her time in the peach tree forest?”
“Yes. She loved taking care of her own personal garden and spent a lot of time with her flowers but it never kept her away from the peach trees for long.”
“Do you think it’s possible Bai Qian could have escaped the demons’ notice in the peach trees?”
Zhe Yan nodded after a moment of thought. “Yes. Xiao Wu knew the forest very well, probably better than anybody else. She would have had the advantage over the demons if she had reached the forest that night. She could have followed a hidden trail only she knew about to safety. And once they lost sight of her, the demons would not have been able to detect her cultivation in her nine-tailed fox form.”
“If she did find a way to evade the demons, do you think she could have survived all this time living alone among the peach trees? She was very young.”
Zhe Yan sighed heavily. “I don’t know. She was very close to her family. Foxes are affectionate by nature and like to spend time with others. They especially like to be surrounded by their loved ones. I’m not sure how well Xiao Wu would have managed to live all alone for so long without the support and love of her family. I worry the isolation would have eventually weakened her.”
Ye Hua filed this information away along with everything else about Bai Qian he had discovered as he followed Zhe Yan to the entrance to the Fox Den.
⇛ Next part: Ch 3: The Abandoned Fox Den
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