Wanting to use the cover of darkness to help conceal his presence, Weisheng waited until after sunset to step foot in Qing Qiu. And even then, he kept a barrier wrapped around him and didn’t stray far from the outskirts of the deserted Fox Lands, keeping to the depths of the deepest shadows. He knew Qing Qiu was still under Heavenly Father’s protection and there was no way for Weisheng to know what safeguards the ancient dragon may still have in place. General Jinjing had warned him about the protective spell cast over the entrance to the Fox Den but had admitted he couldn’t say with certainty whether or not there were any other defenses.
As Weisheng made his way toward the edge of the peach tree forest, he relished the hushed silence around him. Other than the soft noise of crickets chirping way off in the distance, there were no other indications of life.
Though he had only visited Qing Qiu a few times with his father before the war, Weisheng knew it had once been a lively place, often filled with the sounds of joy and carefree revelry well into the night. There were many stories from its past and they always spoke of the uplifting mood infusing every corner of Bai Zhi’s domain, brightening the spirit of those who entered its borders.
Pleased by the empty sorrow that had overtaken the area now, Weisheng grinned as he paused to study his surroundings. Those descriptions of the Qing Qiu of old couldn’t be further removed from its present reality. If he had his way, the glory and wonder of the Fox Realm would stay a forgotten relic of the past in honor of his late father. For here was the evidence of his father’s last decisive victory, the last demonstration of his unmatched cunning and overwhelming might. And his father’s last great act of revenge.
The desolate ruins of Qing Qiu were an enduring reminder to Weisheng and others that the previous Demon King had been strong, strong enough to eliminate one of the closest allies of the Heavens right under the nose of Heavenly Father. And the remains served as an effective example of what happened to those who dared to cross the Demons when at the height of their power. Everybody knew the only reason the Heavens won the war in the first place was because Heavenly Father had launched a sneak attack while the Demons had been celebrating their victory. Weisheng’s father never would have been defeated otherwise.
Under his reign, Weisheng would see the great power and influence of the Demons restored to its former level.
But first, Weisheng would ensure his father’s ultimate demand for vengeance was finally fulfilled. He wouldn’t allow anyone to stop him. Even if it meant he needed to move his people into hiding for a time until he could forge new alliances. For Weisheng had no doubt the Heavens would exact harsh retribution for what befell the bothersome Fox Princess, though an utter waste of time and effort it may be.
With the vow in his father’s name ever present in his thoughts, Weisheng approached Qing Qiu’s border with the peach tree forest on stealthy footsteps, enhancing the barrier around him. Coming here was a risk. He knew this very well. While Qing Qiu itself now belonged to the Dragons, the peach trees were rumored to belong to the son of King Zhao Hui. The Phoenix King was a close ally and friend of Heavenly Father. Weisheng chanced sparking the ire of both men by stepping foot in Qing Qiu and then the peach tree forest. But there were important things he needed to confirm for himself and could only do so by accepting the risk.
Examining the line of ancient peach trees before him, Weisheng considered the best way to enter the forest unseen while leaving no trace of his trespassing behind. Under normal circumstances, he would just destroy some of the trees to create a convenient path for himself but now was not the proper time for such a satisfying act. For he wanted to check for the Crown Prince’s presence in the forest without giving himself away.
Would he be able to feel Ye Hua’s cultivation in the forest?
Dragon cultivation, when present, tended to ruthlessly crowd out and dominate all other magic around it unless the dragon chose to conceal it. It was just another example of their domineering ways. The Crown Prince was just as arrogant as his father; he probably wouldn’t bother to keep his magic to himself. Why should he when his father ruled over all the realms with an iron fist?
And given what Jinjing claimed to have overheard, Weisheng expected the black dragon would want his presence felt by any and all who entered the peach tree forest to serve as a warning. Dragons were irritatingly protective by nature after all; they selfishly guarded those things they believed belonged to them.
Ye Hua now considered Bai Qian to be his; Jinjing’s missive had been very clear about that point. And Jinjing had insisted all along that this forest was where Ye Hua had found the wayward Fox Princess after weeks of searching for her.
If Jinjing’s information was as accurate as he claimed, Weisheng should feel lingering traces of the Crown Prince’s presence here among the peach trees. So before moving forward with his plans, Weisheng intended to find out how much he could trust the intelligence Jinjing was providing him.
Finding a useful break in the trees, Weisheng stepped into the forest, wrapping an extra barrier around himself as he did so while using his cultivation to muffle all the noise he was making as he walked over the fallen leaves and dead peach blossoms. The night sounds of the forest continued unabated as he moved deeper into the peach trees undetected, leaves and branches brushing against his concealment barrier without a sound.
Only when he reached the extra cover provided by a dense thicket did Weisheng pause to finally check the atmosphere of the forest. And he did so very carefully, removing his protective barrier from his hand alone while leaving the spell wrapped tightly around the rest of him.
The annoying sting of powerful dragon cultivation, the purest light magic in all the realms, prickled against the skin of his fingers and palm; it matched what Weisheng always felt when he visited the Heavens. Ye Hua had indeed been in this forest. Frowning at the unpleasant sensation, he moved a few more steps towards the heart of the peach trees, stopping again when he realized the prickle was gaining in intensity.
His gaze constantly wandering back to the spot where he had seen Bai Qian before she shifted back into her fox, Ye Hua couldn’t suppress the soft smile on his lips as he dried the bedding he had washed earlier with a wave of his hand. Carrying the quilt and blankets back into the cabin to make the small bed, his mind strayed back to earlier in the day.
Today had been so much more successful than he had even dared to hope for. Ye Hua would have been happy just to catch another quick glimpse of Bai Qian’s fox as she watched him from a spot of concealment; he never would have imagined that she would come out of hiding and spend the day with him.
It had been a wondrous feeling, having her nearby and unafraid of him. He had hardly known what to say to her or whether he should even say anything at all. Yet, he had sensed that his attempts at casual conversation helped Bai Qian relax and it would help to establish a foundation of friendship between them from the beginning, something Ye Hua felt was important going forward.
Which was why he had made the bold decision to address her in a familiar way despite having not been invited to do so. Calling her ‘Qian Qian’ had felt right to Ye Hua the second he decided to do so. And it had certainly caught her attention. But he needed to be careful there, Ye Hua reminded himself as he shook out the wrinkles from the second blanket before spreading it out over the mattress.
There had been a lot of uncertainty in Bai Qian’s eyes when that moment of tense awareness had snapped into place between them. She had been uncomfortable with the feeling and he thought she had been preparing to run from him. But Ye Hua had found himself unable to look away from her or break the spell connecting them.
Turning away from the bed, Ye Hua thanked his dragon again for altering the air currents in the clearing to distract Bai Qian’s attention before she bolted from the cabin.
Stepping outside to collect the spoon, plate, and bowl Bai Qian had cleaned and left on the table for him, Ye Hua lingered outside. His eyes straying back to the place Bai Qian had been while she shared the meal with him, he easily imagined he could still see the beautiful white fox sitting there.
Watching Bai Qian eat the food he and his dragon had provided for her this first time was one of the most important moments in Ye Hua’s life; he knew it always would be. It showed she was beginning to trust him. And there was something uniquely satisfying about taking care of her, a sense of fulfillment he knew he could find with nobody else. The memory of it strengthened Ye Hua’s and his dragon’s instinctive need to keep her safe and to make her happy; it drove their longing to have her close to them once again.
Ye Hua hoped to one day have not only friendship with Bai Qian but also so much more. His dragon had been correct. He and Bai Qian were supposed to take care of each other.
His gaze now wandering back to the place where he had seen Bai Qian standing before she disappeared into the peach trees, Ye Hua sighed, tempering his yearning for more with a reminder that today had been a first step only. Above all else, he needed to be patient when it came to Bai Qian.
The most important thing Ye Hua had learned today was that allowing Bai Qian to come to him on her own terms was crucial. He had gained so much more by keeping everything between them as laid-back and easygoing as possible. He hadn’t understood that about her before but it made sense to him. She had suffered a greater loss than any person should ever have to at a time in her life when she had been at her most vulnerable; the traumatic experience had made her wary and rightfully so. Ye Hua knew if he pushed for more too soon he would lose all the ground he had managed to gain.
Reaching for the plate and bowl, Ye Hua paused when his dragon stirred. A threatening snarl erupted from the black dragon followed by the low rumble of a deep growl. The menacing sound filled the air as Ye Hua turned his attention to the reason behind his dragon’s sudden warning. Something wasn’t right.
Somebody was in the forest.
Eyes narrowing, his irises darkening to black, Ye Hua and his dragon scanned the surrounding area, seeking the source of the black dragon’s unease. Extinguishing the fire still smoldering in its circle of stones with a thought, Ye Hua frowned, his gaze intent as he searched the darkness more thoroughly. It was too faint for him to determine where it was coming from or who it might be.
Faster than the blink of an eye, Ye Hua’s human form vanished to be replaced by the long, sinuous length of his dragon.
The need to protect his fox and her home driving him, the black dragon’s scales blended into the deep shadows of the forest as he started winding his way through the trees with agile turns of his powerful body. All his predatory instincts were flaring and Ye Hua was right there with him as they both began to hunt down the person who dared intrude into Bai Qian’s safe haven.
Long after Bai Qian had fallen into a peaceful sleep, the fox lay awake in their den, savoring the memory of eating venison for the first time in thousands of years, a memory made better by the fact she hadn’t had to hunt for the meal herself. She had not wanted to leave Ye Hua and the black dragon earlier in the evening but Bai Qian had insisted despite all of the fox’s protests. And Bai Qian had not allowed them to go and visit one of Ye Hua’s traps on the way home even if they had both been tempted.
Sighing, the fox tucked her paws under her and wrapped her tails around her body before stretching her chin out on the thin blanket spread out on the granite floor, still feeling disappointed. Bai Qian could be so stubborn about things sometimes.
Closing her eyes, the fox wondered what the black dragon and Ye Hua would be doing tomorrow. Would Bai Qian allow her to go and visit them again? Spending the day with Ye Hua and his dragon had been one of the best days she could remember; the fox liked having somebody around for company. And the meal Ye Hua had provided was delicious. Mouth watering, she imagined there might be another meal of venison waiting on her if she did visit them. Or something equally inviting.
She was looking forward to seeing the black dragon and Ye Hua again already.
With that thought in mind, the fox tried to settle into sleep only to open her eyes when a whisper soft call of warning from one of the forest inhabitants reached her sensitive ears. Ears perking up and forward, she lifted her head and listened more closely to try and decipher from what creature it had come from and from what direction. But she didn’t hear anything other than the regular sounds of the night.
Still feeling wary, the fox stood and walked over to the entrance of her den, pausing only for a moment before creeping out. Her movements were quick and silent as she sought to better assess what might be going on. She sensed it immediately upon stepping outside.
Despite hearing no other noises of alarm, something about the forest didn’t feel right. The fox could not have explained how she knew this for she found no unusual sounds or scents in the air. But she knew; her instincts were telling her something was wrong.
A gentle breeze picked up, ruffling her fur as she crept toward the forest glade near her den. The charged sensation of electric currents crackling in the air reached her with the wind; this surge in dragon cultivation tugged on her intuition and told the fox something very important.
The black dragon sensed there was something hidden in the darkness too. Something that shouldn’t be there.
Instinct driving her decisions, the fox dashed across the clearing, seeking one particular path that would lead her to the cabin. It was a critical trail the fox and Bai Qian had created in the early days but used very little now for it followed a winding, convoluted course through some rough terrain and dense underbrush. But it would provide the fox good cover while she made her way to where she needed to be. While Bai Qian still wouldn’t admit it, the fox knew one thing very well– their small den was no longer the safest place in the forest.
The safest place in the forest now was by the black dragon’s side. Every instinct the fox possessed urged her to reach the protection only he could provide as quickly as she could. It was the only thought on her mind as she cautiously crept through the night.
Eyes widening with shock, Weisheng took a step back when the irritating sting of dragon cultivation prickling along his skin intensified into something more painful. He quickly wrapped his hand with the concealment barrier once again when the surge of dragon magic reached him.
Ye Hua was still in the forest! And he had shifted into his dragon form.
Weisheng imagined he could feel the great, black beast bearing down on him; his heart started pounding with alarm.
He had not expected Ye Hua to have moved into the peach tree forest already and had even wondered if Jinjing might have misunderstood the conversation he claimed to have overheard. Weisheng was ill-prepared to face a direct confrontation with the Crown Prince tonight and he couldn’t risk having his presence discovered here in the forest. It would alert Bai Qian to the danger she was in and ruin his chances of getting his hands on her successfully.
With quick planning, Weisheng cast a difficult spell his father had taught him long ago. If performed correctly, it would erase all signs of his presence right down to his footprints and scent and, as long as he left immediately, would allow him to disappear without leaving any trace of his cultivation behind.
Finding the spell easy to complete since his barrier meant there was little evidence of his presence to begin with, Weisheng wasted no time in leaving the forest to cloud-jump north to the Demon Realm. Once there, he hastened to his palace and the safety of his study, irritated to find his heart was still racing over his near miss with Ye Hua. He needed to find a way to place himself in a position where he could stand his ground the next time.
Staring at the scorched surface of his father’s old desk, Weisheng brooded in silence as he considered the information he had just confirmed.
Jinjing was indeed a master of spycraft as he had boasted in his messages.
Few family secrets involving the celestial royals ever made it out of Heavenly Father’s inner circle; the ancient dragon guarded his personal privacy and that of his family well. The whole family did.
But Jinjing was in a unique position. The celestial general could use his finely-tuned skills in stealth and concealment for eavesdropping on a family during their most private moments, moments when they were not expecting trouble. He could learn more by being nearby when they were relaxed and unguarded in their words and actions. The celestial royals were often well-protected but Jinjing could be seen in many places around the Heavens without raising suspicion. There were few who would ever have such an unprecedented opportunity and almost none who would take advantage of it.
Luckily for Weisheng, Jinjing’s ultimate objective aligned with his own; Jinjing needed the troublesome little fox silenced while only her death would fulfill the vow Weisheng had made in order to honor his father’s memory.
But for Weisheng, it wasn’t as simple as just finding Bai Qian and killing her. There was also his desire to utilize the powerful magic preserved in the heart of the late Fox King, the magic he couldn’t figure out how to access. She didn’t know it yet but Bai Qian was going to help Weisheng solve that problem before meeting her untimely death.
He grinned. It was just a matter of time now.
Grin fading, Weisheng’s thoughts turned back to the events in the peach tree forest and Jinjing’s most recent information. There was still one big problem that needed to be solved in order for Weisheng to get his hands on Bai Qian. Ye Hua and the black dragon. They were a powerful obstacle to Weisheng’s plan, a seemingly insurmountable barrier surrounding Bai Qian to keep her safe from the rest of the world. Weisheng reminded himself again that Jinjing had been very clear about something else he had overheard; Ye Hua thought the little nine-tailed fox belonged to him. There were personal feelings fueling the Crown Prince’s desire to protect Bai Qian.
Frowning to himself, Weisheng thought through the problem for several more minutes before his expression brightened. What he needed was a weapon sharp enough to pierce the scales of a dragon. There were stories of such weapons and rumors of where one or two of them could be found despite the forbidden nature of their existence. Weisheng’s father had claimed to be close to tracking one of the blades down, a blade created from the discarded talon of a dragon.
Summoning several scrolls to his hand, Weisheng unrolled the paper of one and flattened it onto the wooden surface of the desk, reading the words written there with an eager glint in his eyes. It was time to find out just how accurate the information his father had gathered really was.
Frustrated when he failed to find the intruder, the black dragon soared above the peach tree forest, his pitch-dark scales concealed by the midnight sky as he continued to hunt, his gaze piercing sharply into the deepest shadows. Despite searching near the cabin in ever widening circles, he had not found a scent trail through the trees to follow. Nor had he discovered any residue from recently used magic to tell him and Ye Hua who may have been there. He had taken to the air next for dragons were more powerful predators in the skies and oceans than they were on land.
The black dragon knew somebody had been there, hiding in his fox’s forest. Nobody other than himself and his fox should be here at this time of night. He had sensed the presence of another for a brief moment only but that had been enough to alert him to the trespasser.
He needed to find that person.
Tracking down the intruder was the only way for him to protect his fox because the black dragon had no idea where she slept at night. So he couldn’t position himself near her home to look after her as his instincts urged him to do. This fact combined with his certainty someone had been in the forest troubled the black dragon a great deal and it drove him to keep searching. He wouldn’t rest until he knew the entire forest was safe for his fox.
Ye Hua did not argue with the black dragon, the two of them working in seamless unity to ensure Bai Qian’s haven remained a secure and peaceful place.
It was only when he spotted a group of teenage boys gathered around a small campfire just beyond the outskirts of the peach trees that Ye Hua finally allowed himself to relax. There was a small phoenix village nearby and Ye Hua suspected the boys were from that village. If one of the boys had wandered into the peach trees for a minute, that could be what his dragon had sensed. This location was far enough from the cabin that it would make it difficult even for him and his dragon to determine the true nature of the person who entered the forest. This explanation made the most sense to Ye Hua.
The black dragon remained unconvinced and it took Ye Hua several tries before he successfully coaxed the great beast into returning to the cabin, reminding him that they had searched the area several times and found nothing out of the ordinary. And if Bai Qian felt threatened she may look for them at the cabin. They may not know where she was but it was important they remain in a place where she could quickly find them if needed.
As he suspected it would, the final point Ye Hua made was the one that convinced the black dragon to turn around and head back to the cabin. He allowed Ye Hua to take control again though the beast continued to grumble his concern for his fox’s safety as Ye Hua flew them back to the clearing in the heart of the forest.
Shifting back into his human form before landing in the cabin’s small front yard, Ye Hua studied his surroundings, searching for anything that seemed out of place since he had left. Everything looked the same as it had when he took off to hunt the intruder. Yet his unease, that nagging sense that something wasn’t right, refused to go away. It was difficult to disregard that feeling when Bai Qian’s wellbeing might be at stake.
Could the trespasser have been one of the boys sitting at the campfire?
It was possible. Ye Hua’s dragon was very protective of Bai Qian and her fox so any person stepping foot in the peach tree forest would likely trigger his instincts; whether the person was a real threat or not, the black dragon may take them as such even in circumstances where he would not have in the past. And there had been nobody else anywhere near the forest. The simplest explanation was usually the correct one.
Yet, Ye Hua’s dragon continued to insist it had not been one of the boys encroaching into the peach trees he had felt. His dragon remained concerned about their fox and would not settle down. After everything Ye Hua had recently learned about his dragon’s awareness of things that he may not yet understand, it was impossible for Ye Hua to ignore the possibility he was wrong about this. He would need to be more careful from now on.
Frowning when his dragon urged him to track down where Bai Qian lived with a growl for emphasis, Ye Hua walked over to the table to collect the plate and bowl Bai Qian had left there. He agreed it was important they find out where her home was but he knew he couldn’t push her to reveal its location. He was sure that if he were to press her for information she wasn’t ready to give him, it would only raise her suspicions of him again and drive her further away.
Bai Qian was just beginning to trust him and the thought of doing something that may break that trust in some way upset Ye Hua. He wanted to be patient and wait for her to share the place she called home with him when she was ready and not pressure her to tell him sooner. But Ye Hua would do what he must if it was the only way to keep Bai Qian safe. He would wait for as long as he could for her to volunteer the information but if circumstances demanded it, he would find the location of her home by other means if necessary. He would deal with the consequences afterwards.
His dragon only somewhat appeased by this plan, Ye Hua approached the closed door to the cabin, wondering how much sleep he would be able get tonight with his dragon’s unease fueling his own worries about Bai Qian. They were both still on edge.
As if his thoughts had reached out to her, Ye Hua abruptly felt Bai Qian approaching from behind him. Surprised, he turned to face the forest, scanning the darkness for her whereabouts. A rustle of leaves on the opposite side of the glade from where he had seen her step into the forest earlier caught his attention. He looked in that direction, his eyes greeted by the sight of a white nine-tailed fox step gracefully out of the underbrush of the peach trees.
The first thing that struck both Ye Hua and the black dragon as they gazed at Bai Qian was the realization she was safe and unharmed. His dragon calming for the first time since feeling the intruder, Ye Hua took a step toward her, unsure how to react. While it was an immense relief to see her, Bai Qian’s visit was unexpected. It had caught him off guard. Crouching down to her level, Ye Hua’s eyes met hers, carefully searching for any signs of fear or distress.
“Is everything okay, Qian Qian?”
⇛ Next part: Ch 22: A Wonderful Dream
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