Ch 26: One Step at a Time

A gust of dragon magic and wind caressed her skin and hair as it brushed by her, a smiling Bai Qian breathed in the comforting scent of thunderstorms now infusing the warm summer air. She could hear his footsteps approaching from behind and happiness welled up inside her as he moved closer. The fluffy white clouds she had been watching all afternoon swirled around each other until a long misty dragon took shape above. An image of the black dragon… her black dragon. 

Ye Hua was announcing his presence though there wasn’t any need. Even without her fox’s eager excitement at the black dragon’s approach, Bai Qian would have known it was Ye Hua drawing near simply by his scent and the familiar sound of his footsteps. 

Touched by his thoughtful gesture, Bai Qian raised her hand upwards, imagining she could reach out and brush the cloud dragon with her fingers. Another burst of dragon magic raced by her, dancing around her outstretched arm and lingering around her fingers for a few seconds, before rushing up towards the sky. Bai Qian marveled at the strength of his power as she watched him pull more clouds in to join the dragon. Soon a smaller nine-tailed fox accompanied the great dragon stretching out across the cerulean backdrop, the two cloud beasts remaining very close to one another despite the steady breeze that had been blowing all day.

Charmed by the image of their spirit animals Ye Hua had created for her, a delighted giggle escaped from Bai Qian as she pictured the pleased grin he must be wearing on his handsome face right now. He seemed to have a definite playful side that surprised Bai Qian. Would she be able to see more of it as she spent time with him? 

“Qian Qian.”

Lifting into a sitting position on the soft grass, Bai Qian turned to face Ye Hua, a welcoming smile on her lips as he joined her. She scooted closer to his side, resting her head on his sturdy shoulder as she leaned into him. 

“Qian Qian.” Ye Hua’s voice was a soft murmur now as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her even closer, nuzzling her hair with his nose before pressing a gentle kiss to the top of her head. Bai Qian raised her head to look at him, her questioning eyes meeting his warm mahogany ones, mahogany with shades of black beginning to bleed into the irises. He turned his body towards hers, trailing his fingers along the slope of her cheek in a tender caress. 

“Ye Hua…no, don’t go! Please don’t…”

Groaning, Bai Qian tried to cling onto every detail of the lovely dream she could as it began to fade from her mind. She lingered in the strange transition from sleep to awareness for several minutes, trying to coax herself back into peaceful slumber. In the end, she lost the effort and the dream vanished from her memory. 

Except for the distinctive scent of thunderstorms. That detail lingered and made her think the dream must have been about Ye Hua. Her instincts told her this new dream had been more significant than the one from the previous night whose details she had forgotten as well. Had the other dream included Ye Hua as well? Yes. Both dreams felt special and Bai Qian wished she could remember them. Maybe with time they would come back to her.

Sighing, Bai Qian breathed in lightning and rain, knowing without even having to open her eyes and look that her fox had brought them back to the cabin to sleep next to Ye Hua again last night. Was it normal to dream about the person sleeping next to you? It seemed an unusual idea but it had happened both times she had slept next to him so maybe there was some truth to it.

Deciding not to worry about it any longer, Bai Qian remained motionless against him, enjoying the wonderful things she was quickly beginning to associate with Ye Hua–warm comfort, the sense of companionship, and safety. And that other more intense feeling that hovered just beyond her full understanding while piquing her curiosity to find out more. Bai Qian didn’t want to leave his side. And she didn’t for the longest time, refusing to open her eyes and break the quiet peace of the early morning. Instead, she stayed curled up and listened to the sound of his steady breathing.       

Only when she heard the soft cooing of doves greeting the first rays of dawn as they entered the peach tree forest did Bai Qian finally open her eyes and lift her head. She needed to leave before Ye Hua woke up. Her gaze was drawn to his face, visible in the weak morning light, lingering on his strong, handsome features relaxed in sleep. He exuded so much calm patience already when awake but his features took on a new tranquility when he was resting. Would she always be soothed by Ye Hua’s presence?

The overwhelming desire to reach out and touch him, to caress the smooth slopes of his cheekbones, to trace his full lips and explore the texture of his long hair, came over Bai Qian as her eyes gazed upon him. What did this sudden urge mean? Would he be angry if she gave into it? Bai Qian wanted to. She really did but to do so she would need to shift back into human form. Did she dare? No. Not yet… not until I can speak with him properly. Only then will I risk showing Ye Hua my human form again.

Driven by a new determination to relearn how to talk to another, Bai Qian forced herself to inch away from Ye Hua’s side, taking care not to jostle the bed too much and wake him. A sense of loss engulfed her when she reached the edge of the mattress and jumped down on quiet paws. Pausing when she reached the door, she looked back at him. Soon, she told herself. 

Soon what? 

Considering the question thoughtfully, Bai Qian pushed the door open with her muzzle, stepping outside before closing it with her magic. 

Soon I won’t have to leave him at all. She didn’t know where the thought had come from but it felt right and it lingered with her as she crept away from the cabin.

Opening his eyes as soon as he heard the door close, Ye Hua stared up at the rafters, a small smile crossing his lips. That had been Bai Qian just now and not Hu Mei; he was almost sure of it. It was getting easier for him to sense the difference between them. The black dragon rumbled a drowsy growl of agreement. Ye Hua’s smile widened at the confirmation from his beast. Maybe he hadn’t messed things up with her as badly yesterday as he had feared.  


Deciding she didn’t want to go all the way back to her den, Bai Qian stayed near the cabin and headed toward the small lake nearby. Glancing around a few times, she shifted into her human form once she had reached the shoreline. She intended to spend the morning practicing talking out loud in order to strengthen her weak voice. Then, she would return to the cabin later in the day. Her heart sped up with a bout of nervousness but she pushed it aside to deal with later. One step at a time.  

It took Bai Qian a few minutes of concentration to summon her jug of water and a scroll to read, having only really sent objects to her den up until now. She knew the magic simply worked in reverse for she had practiced it with her father long ago. The challenging part was making sure she was summoning the correct thing when she couldn’t see it. She had never quite gotten the hang of it when she had been a girl. She had always been too distracted by whatever fun plans she had made for the day. 

After a few tries, Bai Qian successfully summoned a peach for breakfast, which she devoured in a few bites since she was hungry. She was pleased to find summoning her clay water jug and a scroll was easier.    

Frowning when she saw the boring inventory list written on the bamboo, Bai Qian considered sending it back to try to summon a different scroll but changed her mind. She likely only had an hour to two at the most before her fox would be awake and impatient to return to the black dragon so she needed to start practicing. 

Bai Qian refilled her jug with the clear, clean water from the lake before stepping into the trees to sit among the shadows of the forest. She wasn’t ready to risk having Ye Hua stumble upon her in her human form just yet. Soon. 

The idea of one day feeling comfortable enough to spend time with Ye Hua in her human form was a powerful motivator for Bai Qian and she turned her attention to the scroll. She read over the list once silently in her head, stumbling over a few of the more complicated characters, to familiarize herself with what was written once more. I can do this. I know I can.

“I can do this,” she repeated aloud, her voice sounding hoarse and weak. Sighing her frustration, Bai Qian took a sip of cool water and cleared her throat. “I will talk to Ye Hua soon.” Her words were a bit stronger this time, the realization encouraging her to keep going and she looked down at the scroll again.

“Five barrels of wine. Four bags of millet. Seven sacks of rice.” Bai Qian’s voice cracked on the last sentence. She took another sip of water, letting its coolness soothe her already aching throat before making herself repeat the words. “Seven sacks of rice. One basket of corn. Two melons. Twelve heads of cabbage. Five portions of rainbow trout. Sixteen shoots of bamboo…”  

When she was done reading through every item on the list, Bai Qian paused to take a long drink of water. Her throat was sore but she made herself read the words over and over again, stopping for sips of water as she did, until her voice grew scratchy and finally gave out on her. Her throat was now aching and Bai Qian knew she needed to rest her voice for the day.    

Sending the scroll back to her den, Bai Qian stood and made her way to the shore of the lake, taking a seat on a warm boulder. She let her feet dangle in the calm water as she stared at her reflection in its smooth surface. This was the first time she had studied her appearance in a long time and the woman looking back at Bai Qian felt like a stranger, a stranger who happened to closely resemble her mother. I’m no longer a girl.

Bai Qian had known this, she had, but she hadn’t given much thought to what it really meant before now other than the time she had been forced to scavenge for a new dress that she could wear. Her days had been mostly the same for the last fifty thousand years, the earliest years in the forest a blur of pain and sadness, and she had never taken the time to think about her age.

Yet the more she looked, the more familiar traits she found in her changed appearance. Her reflection was not really that of a stranger. The villagers of Qing Qiu had always commented on how much she looked like the Fox Queen and now Bai Qian could see that for herself. She did look a lot like her mother and the realization was comforting. But the gleam of curious mischief in her brown eyes matched that of her father’s. Her mother had always been quick to add that point whenever anybody mentioned how much Bai Qian looked like her. Bai Qian smiled at the memory, finding strength in the fact she would always have this connection with her parents. A part of them would always be with her. 

I’m going to be okay. This wasn’t the first time Bai Qian had tried to convince herself of this but it was the first time she believed the words.

Noticing that her fox was now awake, Bai Qian kicked her feet in the water, disturbing the surface of the lake. She watched, amused as her reflection became distorted with the waves she created. You brought us back to Ye Hua last night.

Bai Qian waited for her fox to share the memory of why she had done so and was surprised to learn her fox had sought Ye Hua’s company because of Bai Qian’s restless sleep. Bai Qian couldn’t deny she seemed to rest better when near Ye Hua and she was comforted by her fox’s consideration. But she knew her fox wasn’t telling her the whole reason and she waited, surprised when her fox hesitated to share more.

There was something different about her spirit animal this morning. Bai Qian could sense it. Her fox felt more at peace than she ever had before and… Bai Qian struggled to come up with what else it was that felt different about the white fox. Then it hit her. The yearning was gone; that constant longing for something more was no longer there. The constant loneliness in her fox was truly gone to be replaced by content fulfillment.

Wondering at this profound change in the animal spirit she shared her soul with, Bai Qian’s attention returned to the cabin when she heard the door open in the distance. Ye Hua must be awake. And, just like that, understanding dawned on Bai Qian. The black dragon. Her fox had met Ye Hua’s dragon.

The fox yipped softly, a happy sound that shared her joy with Bai Qian. Bai Qian could feel the love in her fox’s heart as she finally shared her memory of the events of last night with her. 

Amazed at the intensity of the moment her fox shared, Bai Qian watched the dragon’s gentle care for her fox with awe. And her instincts told her that her fox had forged an unbreakable bond with the black dragon last night, something Bai Qian hadn’t realized could even happen. There was no way her fox would tolerate being away from Ye Hua’s dragon for long now; maybe a day or two at the most. That was very clear to Bai Qian. What would happen next for her and Ye Hua now that their spirit animals had bonded? She envied her fox’s sense of fulfillment and longed to experience that same closeness with someone. 

With Ye Hua.

Shying away from the idea and not fully understanding what it meant, Bai Qian looked down in embarrassment. Her cheeks burned. She was getting ahead of herself. Even though she had spent the last two days with him, she still barely knew Ye Hua. I have to figure out how to talk to the man. One step at a time.

Knowing Ye Hua was awake, Bai Qian dried off her feet. She shifted back into her fox form just as she felt the presence of another appear in the forest. Sticking to the trees, Bai Qian snuck her way closer to the cabin, catching sight of a man bowing to Ye Hua before the unknown person disappeared from sight. A soft dragon growl rumbled through the air and her fox jumped with excitement, urging Bai Qian to leave her hiding place. 

Bai Qian intended to step out into the clearing but the memory of the debacle from yesterday made a sudden appearance in her mind and she hesitated. She wanted to spend the day with Ye Hua but her nerves were back with a vengeance now. Will Ye Hua think it’s weird I’m staying in my fox form? Maybe I should shift. But I can’t. Then I will need to talk to him. She stayed in her spot, hovering on the edge of indecision, her fox encouraging her to move forward.  

Growing more impatient, the white fox whined with frustration when Bai Qian continued to hold back. Deciding that Bai Qian needed a gentle nudge in the right direction, the fox jumped forward and took control from Bai Qian.


Ye Hua had been filled with nervous energy starting from the second he had realized Bai Qian had been the one to delay leaving his side when she awoke early this morning. And she had stayed close after leaving the cabin; he and the black dragon had been able to feel her presence by the lake and had chosen to stay inside longer than they normally would have to give her some privacy. Ye Hua suspected this meant that she had no plans to steer clear of him today as he had feared she might. It was a wonderful gift he was very thankful for after what had happened. But he also worried things would be awkward between him and Bai Qian, something he desperately wanted to avoid.   

Every interaction with Bai Qian right now felt crucial to Ye Hua. Their growing bond still felt fragile and he wanted to do everything he could to strengthen it. She trusted him, something he had scarcely dared to hope for just a few days before. He would do whatever it took to keep her trust. And she had just started to relax around him, to show signs she felt comfortable when he was near until yesterday evening when everything had gone wrong. Ye Hua was determined not to let that happen again which meant keeping his cool even if she appeared in her human form.

Would she? A vivid image of the enchanting woman who had rendered him speechless appeared in his mind. Ye Hua would always be happy just to have Bai Qian near him no matter which form she chose to take. There was nothing more important to him than having the chance to spend more time with her. But he couldn’t deny there was a part of him that yearned to gaze upon her human beauty once more.

Knowing Bai Qian wasn’t likely to reveal her human side to him today, Ye Hua reminded himself it was important to remain patient and give her the time she needed, difficult as it may be sometimes. 

The sound of Jia Yun clearing his throat pulled Ye Hua’s attention away from his thoughts of Bai Qian. “Will there be anything else, Your Highness?” 

Ye Hua caught the amused expression in his assistant’s eyes before the other man could hide it and he smiled briefly in return. Jia Yun had known Ye Hua most of his life and likely guessed the reason for his wandering thoughts even if he didn’t know the identity of the woman. “No, Jia Yun. That will be all. Thank you.”

Gazing into the peach trees after Jia Yun had left, Ye Hua felt one source of concern evaporate. At least he had everything all set to accompany Zhe Yan when his friend went to the Demon Realm. He just needed to tell Bai Qian that there would be a day next week he would be leaving the forest and reassure her that not only would he be coming back, his mother would be in the forest to spend time with her while he was gone. He sensed that being left alone again was something Bai Qian feared and he couldn’t blame her. Anybody would feel the same after having lived alone for fifty thousand years.

Sensing his fox’s presence just beyond the edge of the clearing, the black dragon rumbled a growl, inviting her and Bai Qian to join him and Ye Hua. Ye Hua tensed as he realized this was the moment he had been looking forward to and worrying about. This was his moment to put Bai Qian back at ease in his presence. Would he make another misstep?

Remaining as patient as he was able, Ye Hua waited for her to step out from the cover of the underbrush and trees, his heart beating a little quicker with nerves and anticipation. She was there; he could feel her presence. But she was obviously unsure about seeing him this morning because she remained hidden from sight for several minutes. 

Then, he saw her–his beautiful white nine-tailed fox. She burst out into the open with none of her usual grace, her steps stilted and awkward, her reluctance visible, before she froze in place. Not even the tips of her tails twitched, a gesture Ye Hua was growing used to seeing when Bai Qian was undecided about something or when she seemed deep in thought. He immediately guessed what had happened. Hu Mei.

Ye Hua understood the little fox was his greatest ally in matters involving Bai Qian. Her spirit animal would instinctively know when it was a good idea to push Bai Qian into a course of action and when it was not. She was always aware of Bai Qian’s thoughts and mood. Ye Hua found reassurance in this because her decision to nudge Bai Qian out into the clearing revealed to him that Bai Qian did indeed want to see him. Hu Mei had gotten her out into the open. Now Ye Hua needed to find a way to help her feel comfortable again when she was near him.

Sending a silent word of thanks to Hu Mei, a renewed sense of calm washed over Ye Hua. He no longer felt nervous; he knew what to do.

“I’m glad you’re here, Qian Qian,” Ye Hua said, his tone friendly as he pretended not to notice her reluctant entrance. He knew it was crucial to act like their awkward parting the evening before had never happened. “I need your help with something important.” He gave her a warm smile when she eyed him with curiosity and suspicion, the posture of her tails relaxing as she tilted her head slightly, her ears perked in his direction.

Walking back over to the cabin, Ye Hua summoned a large pile of smooth polished stones cut from one of the quarries his family owned. They were the perfect size and shape needed to form the border for a flower bed. He pretended to study the rocks as he waited for Bai Qian to join him, which she did in just a matter of minutes. Ye Hua was glad to see all traces of unease had faded from her expression. Now there was a spark of bright interest in her eyes when he looked her way, his gaze meeting hers. 

“I told Zhe Yan I would build some flower beds to decorate the cabin,” he explained, forcing his eyes away before he became lost in hers. “But I’m having trouble deciding which design will look best. I’ve drawn some sketches matching some ideas I have in mind. Will you give me your opinion?”

Bai Qian nodded, her expression excited, undeniable eagerness in her eyes. Ye Hua wanted to jump for joy at his success in erasing the last bit of awkwardness lingering between them. He hurried over to the table, summoning his sketches to its surface, taking a seat there before looking up at Bai Qian expectantly. 


Following Ye Hua over to the table at a slower pace, Bai Qian wanted to laugh. She had always loved flowers and thought the idea of planting a variety of them near the cabin a wonderful one. She never would have guessed that Ye Hua would be so exhilarated by the idea of building flower beds though. But he was clearly very happy about this new project of his. Maybe he was one of those people who always approached creative projects with a lot of enthusiastic energy.

His good mood was contagious and the memory of her awkward embarrassment became less important as she watched him sort through various sheets of paper. Bai Qian had worried about this first meeting with Ye Hua after running from him but he seemed to have forgotten all about the incident. She knew that couldn’t be true. So she was grateful he had not said anything to her about it, fearing it would change things between them and hinder their new friendship in some way. She could forget all about it if he was willing to do so.

“These are the three possible ideas I’m undecided about,” Ye Hua said, spreading the three rough sketches out on the table for Bai Qian to see. “Which one do you like?” 

Each paper held an aerial view of the clearing, a general outline of the cabin included in the middle for orientation. Ye Hua had drawn three different possible shapes for a pair of flower beds, one of each located on either side of the cabin. Studying them closely, Bai Qian immediately discarded the set of rectangular gardens. She didn’t like the rigid structure of them as much. 

The tips of her tails now twitched as she debated between a pair of oval flower beds and a pair that were outlined in gentle curves without a definite shape. It didn’t take Bai Qian long to decide on the amorphous outlines; she liked the more natural look she imagined they would have. Lifting a paw, Bai Qian placed it on the sketch she liked best, glancing Ye Hua’s way to see his reaction to her decision. 

He wasn’t paying attention to the sketch she had chosen. He seemed to be focused on her, a gentle smile on his face. Bai Qian tilted her head. Was he studying her tails? Why would he do that? He knew very well she had nine of them. Maybe it was something else…

As if sensing her questioning gaze, Ye Hua’s attention moved away from her tails. Bai Qian noticed his smile fade as an indecipherable expression fell over his face. His eyes caught hers. As his gaze grew more intense Bai Qian squirmed in place as she felt the return of that warm flutter in her middle she always seemed to feel when he stared at her like that. What was he thinking during these moments when his eyes refused to release their hold on hers? Would she ever work up the nerve to ask him about it?

As if just realizing what he was doing, Ye Hua looked away and toward the sketch she had chosen. The powerful connection between them was broken. Bai Qian felt a real sense of loss at its disappearance that conflicted with her initial feeling of relief. 

“I thought you might pick that one,” Ye Hua said, his voice soft and deeper than it had been before. The gruff sound of it sent a shiver down Bai Qian’s spine and gave her the almost overwhelming urge to move closer to him. “That shape matches the untamed look of the forest best, doesn’t it?”

Nodding her agreement, Bai Qian didn’t miss the way his voice returned to normal as he continued to speak.

“I’ll show you what I have in mind for the flowers themselves.” A set of paint jars and a mixing palette appeared on Ye Hua’s other side. He began mixing dabs of different colors together to create shades of blue, red, and yellow. Fascinated, Bai Qian watched as he then mixed different blends of blue and red to create purple followed by him mixing blends of yellow and red to create orange. She moved closer, sitting right next to him so she wouldn’t miss anything. Finally, she was getting her chance to watch him paint something up close.  

Bai Qian’s gaze never left his hand as he painted quick pictures of different colored flowers clustered together. He made it look easy. Bai Qian admired not only how he created a vivid painting of flowers but also his talent for knowing which color scheme would look best. The garden he had in mind came to life right in front of her eyes. Bai Qian loved it and she was eager to tell him so with an enthusiastic nod when he asked her opinion, pleased he wanted her help with planning the garden.

She stayed close to Ye Hua’s side the entire day as he stacked the stones he had summoned on top of each other, using his magic only when it was needed to help them stay in place. As Ye Hua worked, he shared descriptions of his mother’s private gardens in the Heavens and then told Bai Qian how he, Mo Yuan, and Zhe Yan had spent many an afternoon playing games in them as children. It led to stories of how the three of them had been prone to getting into things they weren’t supposed to.

Bai Qian listened to him with rapt attention. Happy to take this chance to learn more about Ye Hua, she wanted to make sure she didn’t miss anything. And she had been correct a few days ago. He did make a great storyteller; she found his tales entertaining to listen to. And she felt like she got to know Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan a little as well. 

Ye Hua finished the one flower bed by the evening. Now all it needed were the flowers.

“What do you think, Qian Qian? Do you like it?” He gestured to the completed stone outline filled with rich dark soil. Bai Qian nodded eagerly and enjoyed the pleased smile Ye Hua gave her in return. “I’ll build the second one tomorrow.” He paused as if choosing his next words carefully and Bai Qian wondered what he was about to say. 

“I would like for my mother to be the one to plant the flowers. She has a lot of skill when it comes to taking care of plants. I’ve asked her to transplant some flowers from her gardens in the Heavens and she’s happy to do so but I just realized I should have asked you about it first.”    

Bai Qian waited, watching Ye Hua as he crouched down to her level. “I’m sorry I didn’t ask you ahead of time. Is it okay if my mother visits the forest, Qian Qian?”

Appreciating his consideration, Bai Qian hesitated for only a minute or two. Ye Hua bringing more people to her forest and the subsequent consequences had once been one of her greatest fears but she found herself curious about Heavenly Mother now. Bai Qian had not had the opportunity to meet her when she had visited the Heavens with her father as a girl. She had once listened to stories about Heavenly Mother’s kindness in the past. And Bai Qian trusted Ye Hua. If he thought it safe for his mother to visit the forest then she was okay with it. Bai Qian nodded her agreement to the plan. 

“Great! I’ll let Mother know.” Ye Hua gave Bai Qian a happy smile. “It’s late, Qian Qian. Would you like to stay and have supper with me?”

Her stomach growled loudly, eager at the idea of tasting more of Ye Hua’s home cooked food. Bai Qian nodded with a small groan of embarrassment that her stomach had betrayed her once again while her fox yipped with excitement. Bai Qian didn’t miss Ye Hua’s soft chuckle as he stood. “I’ll get it started right away.” 


The small stone dwelling had been built somewhere on the edge of the vast frozen tundra that made up the bulk of the Demon Realm beyond the towering mountains. The ice-covered snow covering the land was deep and Weisheng frowned as he searched for the house. He was forced to use streams of warmed cultivation to help him trudge through portions of it, keeping his shaggy bear skin cloak wrapped tightly about him to protect himself from the strong gusts of frigid bone-chilling wind. 

Like most demons, Weisheng was accustomed to the harsh weather of the Demon Realm. But there were places within the realm inhospitable to even the hardiest of demons and the edge of this desolate plain was one of them. Which was precisely why the old hermit had chosen to build his dwelling there. 

Weisheng’s patience was wearing thin but he continued on, an angry scowl now on his face, because all credible inquiries into the whereabouts of the forbidden sword with the dragon talon blade led to the old reclusive demon. There were also rumors circling that he had once been a great warrior but Weisheng found that difficult to believe. Why would one once renowned amongst demon soldiers for his skills as a swordsman choose to live in this wasteland?

Warming himself with a wave of cultivation, Weisheng grinned when he finally spotted a thin column of wispy smoke rising into the air. He hurried toward it and spotted a small house off in the distance, faint flickering candlelight visible through its frosted windows. Now he would be able to get the answer he had been seeking. 

Using his magic to reach his destination more quickly, Weisheng made a mental note of some of the landmarks. Now, if the need should arise again, he could use his cultivation to jump to the house directly.

He banged on the wooden door with a heavy fist, preparing himself to kick the door open and enter on his own should the old hermit take too long in responding. Weisheng would give him no more than five seconds.

The door opened with a creak and Weisheng’s gaze landed on a fragile old demon, his hair long and white with a grizzled beard. The hermit’s slight shoulders were stooped and Weisheng saw he walked with a noticeable limp in his right leg. The elder turned and led him into the warm interior of the home without a word of acknowledgement for his superior or even a greeting.

Frowning at the hermit’s rudeness, Weisheng stepped closer to him, prepared to give him a painful example of what could happen when you disrespect the king. But he changed his mind when he found shrewd, calculating eyes staring back at him from a wrinkled and weathered face.               

“What brings you to my humble dwelling out here in the middle of nowhere, Lord Weisheng?” The hermit grinned but the expression held no humor. “Forgive me… King Weisheng, I believe it is now. Is it?”

Ignoring the perceived slight, Weisheng decided to get right to the point. He didn’t want to linger here any longer than he needed to. “I think you know why I’m here. I’m looking for a particular sword.”

The hermit didn’t say anything for several minutes. He simply stared back at Weisheng with knowing eyes. Glaring at the silent demon, Weisheng opened his mouth to demand a response. The old demon interrupted him. “You seek what your father sought.” He turned to tend the fire, hands trembling from the weight of the iron poker, before facing Weisheng again. “I will tell you the same thing I told your father. I can’t help you.”

“You knew the swordsman who last possessed the dragon talon sword. You once trained under him.”

“Yes.” The hermit shrugged, limping over to take a seat at the small table situated in the middle of the room. He gestured for Weisheng to join him. Weisheng did so, reluctantly. “But he knew the consequences of being caught with such a weapon and hid it long ago.”

“Where did he hide it?” Weisheng leaned into the table as he asked the question, unable to keep the eager curiosity out of his expression and posture. 

“Why do you want the sword, Weisheng?” The hermit grinned again when Weisheng narrowed his eyes at the familiar address. “Forgive me. King Weisheng. I forget things so easily these days, you know. It happens with age.”

“I want to finish an important task my father started and I need a weapon capable of piercing the scales of a dragon to do so. That is all you need to know.”

“Hmm…you would risk bringing the wrath of the Heavens upon us all for reasons that ceased to matter ages ago? Your people have no desire for another war with the dragons. The last one was bad enough and they are still recovering. You know this as well as I do.”

“I didn’t come here for you to lecture me, old man. Where is the sword?” 

“I don’t know for sure.” Those disconcerting eyes of his were locked on to Weisheng’s now. There was no missing the disapproval in his shrewd gaze. “The only person who could tell you the exact location of the sword died, his soul passing into the Nothingness a long time ago. He was old when I was still young. I can only give you its general whereabouts.”

“Tell me!” Weisheng ordered, slamming his clenched fist against the top of the table. He was so close to having everything necessary to put his plan into action; his patience was gone. “I want to know now.”

“It is hidden somewhere in the great pine forest that grows on the boundary between the Immortal and Mortal Realms, in a place where the magic of our world bleeds into mortal lands. That is all I know. The forest is vast and would take many years to search. You would need a dragon willing to help you find it. Only they can sense the presence of a dragon talon. It is beyond your reach.”

But it wasn’t beyond Weisheng’s reach. Not at all.

Already making plans in his head now that he had this new information, Weisheng wrenched the door open and left the hermit’s house in a whirlwind of cultivation, jumping back to his mountain fortress. It was time for Jinjing to take a more active role in their partnership. The information he had provided Weisheng so far had been valuable but now the Celestial General was the key to getting the one thing Weisheng needed above all others to accomplish their mutual goal.

The door of the stone house swung back and forth violently along with the raging wind outside, icy air flooding the interior of the dwelling as it was now open to the elements after Weisheng’s abrupt departure. Muttering curses to himself, the old demon stood on shaky legs, his right knee aching as it always did these days. His cultivation was no longer what it used to be and he could not muster enough of it to close the door. Shuffling to the entrance, he glared angrily out at the frozen landscape surrounding his home for a second before slamming the door closed.

“Foolish, headstrong boy,” he grumbled to himself as he headed back to the table with a disgusted shake of his head. “He’s just like his father. And he will share his father’s fate, one way or another, sooner rather than later. Mark my words.”

⇛ Next part: Ch 27: Flowers of Wisdom

⇚ Previous part: Ch 25: The Love of a Dragon

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