An oppressive and unnatural silence descended upon them as Ye Hua and Zhe Yan reached the dark entrance leading into the main cavern of the Fox Den. Ye Hua saw Zhe Yan hesitate to move forward out of the corner of his eye. He turned to face his friend, seeing unease and something akin to fear take over Zhe Yan’s expression. Like the sadness from before, the fear he saw on Zhe Yan’s face was another emotion he had never associated with Zhe Yan before. The cultivation running through the Phoenix royal family was potent. Zhe Yan rarely revealed his abilities to others but he had recently ascended to high god status and Ye Hua knew his friend possessed great strength.
“What is it, Zhe Yan?”
Zhe Yan did not immediately respond to his question and Ye Hua felt unease beginning to stir inside himself. He moved closer, placing his hand on his friend’s shoulder with concern. Zhe Yan jumped slightly and the haunted look in his eyes receded as Ye Hua interrupted whatever troubling thoughts he had been struggling with.
“What’s wrong, Zhe Yan?”
“The heaviness is still here. I thought it would have faded away by now.”
Ye Hua’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Heaviness? Are you talking about the way this area suddenly became still and silent?”
“The silence is only part of it.” Zhe Yan frowned, his eyes looking remote for a brief moment. “Father brought me here soon after the war had ended so I could say goodbye to Zhen Zhen. The first thing I noticed was how much harder it was to breathe near the Fox Den….like the atmosphere was too thick. You don’t feel it? The heaviness in the air.”
Ye Hua shook his head. “I don’t feel it.”
Zhe Yan nodded. “Maybe I’m just remembering the terrible way it felt that last day. I used to love spending time with Zhen Zhen’s family but the Fox Den was different after they….it scared me that day. This is the closest I’ve gotten to it since then.”
Ye Hua opened his mouth to again reassure Zhe Yan he didn’t have to enter the den today if he wasn’t ready but Zhe Yan cut him off with an impatient frown.
“I know you can look around by yourself but I need to do this.”
Ye Hua did not argue with him. The decision was Zhe Yan’s to make.
Ye Hua turned back to the entrance and the dark cavern beyond. As he approached, he could sense his father’s barrier guarding the threshold. Heavenly Father’s barrier magic was intricate and powerful, allowing friendly visitors easy entrance into the Fox Den while remaining completely impenetrable to any who had hostile intentions or carried malice in their hearts. Ye Hua had practiced the magic but had not yet been able to perfect it. As far as he knew, only his father was able to erect such a discerning barrier. The barrier posed no obstacle to him or Zhe Yan, allowing them both access.
Ye Hua understood Zhe Yan’s unease better when he stepped out of his father’s magical shield and into the main cavern of the den. He suppressed a shiver as he sampled the large room with his senses, calling on his inner dragon to help him see into the deep shadows. His dragon’s eyes showed him what appeared to be a nondescript family room at first glance, the kind of room you would find in any private home. There was a small table and chairs in the middle of the cavern and the walls were decorated with a few personal effects. Nothing stood out at first glance. Heavenly Father and Zhao Hui had already cleaned up the destruction the demons had wrought on that night long ago.
But on second glance small things began to become apparent, disturbing things that indicated all was no longer right in the Fox Den. There were faint rust-colored stains on the cavern walls, places where the porous granite had soaked up swashes of blood. He could see the occasional gouge in the floor where a sharp blade had carved deeply into the rock, leaving branching hairline cracks where the demons’ icy cultivation had flowed through the steel and penetrated into the granite. And more unsettling still, he could see shallow claw marks in the floor. It was easy for him to imagine the piercing screech of fox claws scraping across the ground, the cries of a young boy desperately trying to fight back and gain purchase to escape the vicious attack against him.
Ye Hua lit several candles with a thought, illuminating the room with dim light. He stepped closer to one of the sets of scratch marks, crouching down to compare the width of the lines to his own hand and fingers. It confirmed the disturbing scene he was picturing. The scratches had been made by a hand much smaller than his own, either by the Fox Empress or, more likely, one of the children. Ye Hua’s gaze moved away from the scratches and immediately found traces of a large faded red stain in the granite floor. A pool of blood. He pulled his hand away quickly and stood, suppressing another shiver as dread settled inside his stomach. Whoever had left the scratches in the floor had likely bled to death in this very spot.
The subtle signs of cruel violence were everywhere once you knew they were there. These were things his father would not have been able to completely erase from the den, not like he could right the destroyed furniture and scattered belongings. The Fox Den would bear the stains and scars of the massacre forever.
And Ye Hua could now feel the heaviness in the air Zhe Yan had described. It was harder to breathe when faced with the evidence of such horrible violence. It was as if traces of death still lingered in the atmosphere here. The scent of the cave was stale from disuse and a lack of circulating air but, just underneath the staleness, there was the faint stench of blood and steel. Ye Hua’s dragon stirred inside him with a low growl, on edge from the remnants of fear and anger he was able to detect in the den. Ye Hua pushed his dragon back, ordering him to stand down.
The Demon King had not merely murdered the Bai family. He had tortured them in their own home prior to butchering them. None of them had experienced a swift, easy death. The grim realization came as a cold shock to Ye Hua and it infuriated him. The demons had had no right to slaughter Bai Zhi and his family, to murder the innocent inhabitants of the village, or to destroy a peaceful land.
Witnessing for himself the echoes of the past that remained in the Fox Den gave new meaning to the stories his father had shared with him and Mo Yuan. The tragedy had now been brought to life for him in a way it had not been with just words alone. Heavenly Father’s rage toward the Demon King made more sense now. How had his father refrained from completely destroying the Demon Realm in retaliation?
Ye Hua turned, carefully keeping his face expressionless, to check on Zhe Yan who was still standing just inside the entrance to the den. The appearance and atmosphere of the Fox Den disturbed Ye Hua and he had not known the Bai family. How much worse must it be for Zhe Yan who had spent a great deal of his childhood here and had considered the nine-tailed foxes to be like a second family?
Zhe Yan’s face was paler than it had been before but he looked composed otherwise. Ye Hua felt a lot of newfound respect for his friend this day. It had taken a lot of courage for Zhe Yan to set foot back in this cave. Due to his usually jovial nature, many people failed to take Zhe Yan seriously. But Ye Hua knew his friend was much stronger than others gave him credit for and today was proof of Zhe Yan’s inner strength.
Zhe Yan pointed to a tunnel leading off the main cavern when he noticed Ye Hua studying him, making it clear he didn’t want to discuss the signs of violence. “Xiao Wu’s bedchamber is down that passage.”
Zhe Yan finally stepped forward and crossed the cavern to lead the way. Ye Hua followed silently, noticing the way Zhe Yan kept his eyes purposely up and centered on the tunnel doorway, avoiding the blood-stained ground and walls around them.
A spark of flames appeared in Ye Hua’s palm, casting flickering shadows on to the walls, as they moved further into the dark cave. The Fox Den was much bigger than it appeared from the outside. Ye Hua heard Zhe Yan inhale an unsteady breath when they reached a dead end. He could just make out two dark doorways leading to separate caverns on either side of them.
“That is Xiao Wu’s room.” Zhe Yan gestured to the right before turning to the opening leading off to the left. “This is Zhen Zhen’s room.” His voice was quieter, a little unsteady as he spoke Bai Zhen’s name this time. Ye Hua nodded sadly, watching as Zhe Yan stepped through the doorway, erecting a privacy barrier behind him. He offered his friend silent words of solace and encouragement, things Zhe Yan would never want him to say out loud, before he entered Bai Qian’s bedchamber.
The first thing that struck Ye Hua after he used the fire in his hand to light the candles in the room was how neat and tidy Bai Qian’s room was. After the memory of Bai Qian had surfaced in his thoughts earlier, he had expected to find her clothes and other possessions tossed haphazardly all around her room. But her dresses were all hanging in an orderly fashion on a wooden rack in the corner and her bed was neatly made. He spotted a small table with a comb and silver hair pins lined up in a row on the surface. Was the room tidy because his father or Zhao Hui had cleaned up? Or was Bai Qian somebody who liked order instead of chaos in her personal space?
The second thing that struck Ye Hua was how obvious it was the room had belonged to a young girl. He could see the small size of the brightly-colored dresses and skirts hanging up. He thought he even recognized the mismatched fabric of the dress she had been wearing the day she had kicked him in the shin and scolded him. He stepped closer to her bed and picked up a handmade doll that had been resting against the pillow, a doll that had clearly been well-loved if the wear and tear he could see were any indication. He carefully placed the doll back in its place before walking over to Bai Qian’s desk.
He opened a scroll that was rolled up and placed next to a brush and inkwell. The handwriting was childish but legible, obviously the writing of somebody still learning the different strokes forming each word. And yet, Ye Hua could see the beginnings of feminine gracefulness to the brush strokes, much different from his own bold and heavy handwriting.
He read over the words, a small smile crossing his lips as he read about a strong-willed, stubborn princess who brandished a sword in defense of her handsome prince. He imagined a young girl sitting at the desk, two long messy braids constantly getting in her way as she leaned over the scroll and concentrated on carefully recording the words on the strips of bamboo. Was this a story of her own creation? Or had she been writing down a copy of one of the stories her father had shared with her?
As Ye Hua rolled up the scroll and placed it back by the inkwell, the subtle sweet fragrance of peaches reached his nose. He followed the scent to a wooden trunk placed against the wall. The creak of disused hinges filled the room as he lifted the lid to peer inside. The smell of peaches intensified and was joined by the floral scent of other flowers. He found piles of carefully pressed and dried flowers filling the trunk. The predominant blooms were those of the light pink blossoms from the peach tree forest but there were stacks of painstakingly preserved yellow and purple blossoms as well.
Ye Hua spotted a small jade box tucked into the corner of the trunk, partially hidden by the dried blooms all around it. He reached for it but hesitated, suddenly realizing he might be invading Bai Qian’s privacy.
His curiosity got the better of him and he picked up the jade box, spotting a nine-tailed fox carved into the side. He lifted the top and found a silver dagger placed inside. The blade was sharp and the hilt made from a carefully-crafted leather with Bai Zhen’s name etched into it. There was a folded piece of paper with “Si Ge” written on it under the dagger. Ye Hua carefully unfolded the paper after he set the box and dagger back down. There was a letter written in the same graceful brush strokes he had seen before. The dagger was a birthday gift for Bai Zhen.
The Bai family had been preparing to celebrate Bai Zhen’s birthday.
There had been no indications of the violence from the past in Bai Qian’s room so Ye Hua had been temporarily distracted from everything that had disturbed him earlier. It all came back to him with a vengeance. The Demon King had mercilessly killed a close-knit, loving family, a family that had been preparing an upcoming celebration for their youngest son. The realization made it all feel so much more brutal somehow.
He hurriedly put the dagger and piece of paper back in the jade box before placing the box back in its hidden corner of the trunk. He looked around Bai Qian’s room after closing the wooden lid, again remembering the girl who had yelled at him and Mo Yuan that day.
Had she tried to stand up to the demons in defense of her family? Had Bai Qian’s hand been the one to leave the claw marks he had traced with his fingers earlier? Had those scratch marks actually been the sign of an innocent young girl being dragged away from her dying family, being dragged away for the demons to use and then discard when they were done with her? That was what most people believed had happened to her, even Mo Yuan. It was a dreadful thought. A menacing growl rumbled up from deep in Ye Hua’s chest and he clenched a fist tightly with rage. He needed to get out of this room, out of the Fox Den. Now.
When Ye Hua stepped out of the den and back into the daylight, he closed his eyes and breathed in deeply to fill his senses with something other than the disturbing scents and sights contained inside the cave. He forced himself to concentrate on the smell of the nearby lake, to listen to the soft sound of the leaves moving in the forest, to feel the warmth of the sun on his skin. These things helped him calm the anger inside and better settle his dragon. He stood quietly for several minutes until the wind shifted. A new scent reached his nose, the acrid smell of smoke. His eyes opened with curiosity as he went to investigate.
He found the source of the smoke in a small hidden crevice within some boulders near the entrance to the Fox Den. The smoke was coming from a smoldering candle that had nearly burned down to nothing more than a small nub of wax. He could see abstract patterns dancing within the wisps of smoke. The candle had been lit very recently. Had somebody been here while he had been inside?
Ye Hua crouched down to get a closer look inside the recessed nook. It was a sheltered area, protected from the wind and the rain. When he looked inside he found a small painting, a portrait of the Bai family carefully propped up against the granite. He also found a small jade token with a nine-tailed fox carved into the smooth surface. The image matched the carving he had found on the jade box in Bai Qian’s room perfectly. But the object that captured most of Ye Hua’s attention was the small pile of fresh peach blossoms scattered near the portrait.
He stared at the peach blossoms thoughtfully, considering their possible significance. Many immortals knew the forest of peach trees had once belonged to Bai Zhi and Qing Qiu. Was this a shrine created by one of the few survivors from the village? A place for a former citizen of Qing Qiu to pay homage and show respect to the family he or she had once followed loyally? Or was it more personal than that? Was this a private place for a young woman to show her love for her deceased family and to honor their memory? A place for Bai Qian to quietly mourn the loved ones she had lost?
Ye Hua reached out to touch one of the soft petals but pulled his hand back. He should not disturb this small, sacred place. It was obviously very important to somebody.
He stood and stepped back, frowning when he noticed he had left footprints in the dark soil. He felt like an intruder stepping somewhere he had no business being. He started to erase his prints from the ground but stopped. He narrowed his eyes at an almost imperceptible indentation in the dirt near his own much larger ones. He crouched down once again and stared at the spot. Was that a pawprint? He couldn’t be sure. It was too indistinct. It may be nothing more than his overactive imagination creating something he wanted to find.
In that moment, Ye Hua realized how much he wanted to find a way to give the sad tale of the Bai family some semblance of a happy ending. The only way to achieve his goal was to find Bai Qian alive, to bring her back to Qing Qiu. But was that really a happy ending? It was naive of him to think it would be.
If Bai Qian had survived, she would have had to live through the death of her entire family. Had she witnessed the massacre for herself? If by some miracle she had avoided actually witnessing the horrific events of that night, she had most definitely found her family’s remains. It was something she had learned on her own. Otherwise, she never would have known to take off and go into hiding. What would discovering the bodies of her loved ones have done to her emotionally? She had still been so young. It would have been terrifying for her, a traumatizing moment in her life. She would no doubt have been left scarred by it. Not to mention the impact living in isolation would have had on her mental well-being. Did he really want her to still be alive knowing these things? But then there were the vile things she would have been forced to endure before her death if the demons had taken her…
“Did you find something?”
Ye Hua stood at the interruption, quickly waving his hand over the area to erase his footprints. He was glad Zhe Yan had interrupted the dark turn of his thoughts but he found himself strangely unwilling to share his discovery with his friend. He turned to find Zhe Yan watching him curiously, all signs of his earlier unease and fear gone now that he had left the Fox Den.
“What were you looking at?”
“Nothing.” Ye Hua kept his voice light and nonchalant as he walked over to his friend’s side. “It’s not important.”
Zhe Yan nodded with a small shrug. “Are you ready to see the worthless land Father gave me?”
Ye Hua smiled slightly, giving Zhe Yan’s shoulder a quick squeeze as they started walking back the way they had come. He was relieved to hear his friend making an effort to sound more like himself now. Whatever Zhe Yan had set out to do today with this visit, he had accomplished it during his time in Bai Zhen’s room. Ye Hua suspected Zhe Yan had finally said goodbye to Bai Zhen properly. He could see Zhe Yan’s good humor returning with every step he took.
Ye Hua could feel his own dark thoughts receding as he moved farther away from the Fox Den, listening to Zhe Yan share a story in an obvious attempt to lighten the mood further. When they passed the overgrown garden, Ye Hua stopped.
“Wait here,” he said abruptly, interrupting Zhe Yan’s story. “I’ll be right back.”
Ye Hua hurried back to the small abandoned garden. He felt the urge to correct one wrong thing for Bai Qian. It didn’t matter whether she still lived or not; he wanted to give a kindness to the brave young girl who had fearlessly stood up to Mo Yuan and him all those years ago.
He held his hand out over the tangled plants, sending his cultivation streaming into the soil the way his mother had patiently taught him to do when he had been a boy. He weaved his power through the roots, feeling for the subtle differences between the weeds and the flowering plants Bai Qian had planted. He used his cultivation to strengthen the roots of the flowers, creating a powerful spell of preservation around them. He then carefully burned the roots of the weeds, watching them start to wilt before his eyes. He lowered his hand once he was sure he had done enough to help the flowers flourish and fight off the weeds.
Ye Hua noticed Zhe Yan watching him with questioning eyes when he walked back to the broken path now leading them away from the Fox Den. He shrugged carelessly like his actions had been a normal everyday occurrence.
“Mother would have been disappointed in me if she knew I didn’t do something to help that poor garden. It was being taken over by the weeds.” He fought the strong urge to look back at Bai Qian’s garden one last time as they walked away.
Ye Hua could see the disbelief in Zhe Yan’s eyes. “What?”
Zhe Yan didn’t respond. He just continued watching Ye Hua silently.
“Why are you looking at me like that? You know how much Mother enjoys flowers.”
Zhe Yan faced forward again. “There’s nothing wrong with saving the garden in memory of Xiao Wu, Ye Hua. She would have been very happy to know somebody helped take care of her flowers after her death.”
Ye Hua didn’t respond and Zhe Yan finally launched back into his story. He thought back to the smoldering candle and the pile of fresh peach blossoms. He wondered why Zhe Yan was suddenly so certain Bai Qian was dead. His own instincts were telling him more clearly with each passing minute she was still very much alive.
⇛ Next part: Ch 4: A Forest of Peaches
⇚ Previous part: Ch 2: A Forgotten Land