“Are you certain you don’t want to wait in Xiwu Palace?” Ye Hua asked Bai Qian for what must have been the fifteenth time.
“Yes,” Bai Qian answered patiently, nodding her head with what she hoped was a confident smile to ease Ye Hua’s obvious worry.
Now that she was here in the Blessed Water Gardens, Bai Qian wasn’t certain at all. But she was determined to stick to her plan anyway. She was tired of hiding and wanted to explore more of the world. And more importantly, if she wanted to share a life with Ye Hua she needed to start learning how to interact with other people again.
I can do this. This first step was always going to be the most difficult. That had been the case when she had first tried to speak to Ye Hua. Now, they had grown so close Bai Qian couldn’t imagine going even a day without talking with him. She cherished all their conversations, even the simple ones where they discussed nothing more important than the weather or what to eat for supper.
“I will be okay,” Bai Qian added when Ye Hua still hesitated to leave. “You should go. Zhe Yan’s waiting for you.”
“Okay.” But he didn’t leave. Ye Hua searched her face as if trying to gauge her true feelings on the matter. Did he sense she wasn’t as sure as she sounded? “If you change your mind, the guard can take you to my palace. My assistant, Jia Yun, can help you get settled in the garden. Or any room there… Xiwu is open to you. Let the guard know if anything or anyone bothers you, okay?”
Bai Qian nodded.
“I will be here within seconds if you need me.”
“I know,” Bai Qian whispered in response, warmth filling her at the conviction in his tone. She lifted up onto her toes and pressed a gentle kiss to his lips, savoring the taste of them. “I’ll be alright, Ye Hua.”
Ye Hua nodded. “I’ll be back as soon as the celebration is over.”
Bai Qian watched Ye Hua turn and walk over to Zhe Yan who was waiting several paces away, standing with his back to them to give her and Ye Hua some privacy. Zhe Yan turned to wave to her before both he and Ye Hua vanished from sight. She stared at the spot where they had just been for a few minutes.
Silence crept in around her and Bai Qian sighed, the last traces of her earlier smile fading away. Now that she was alone, faint tendrils of unease trickled through her.
In the end, Bai Qian never had told Ye Hua about the dragon she had seen at the Fox Den that night. There just hadn’t been an appropriate time to bring it up. No, that was an excuse. She could have discussed it with Ye Hua at any time but she had never wanted to talk about it. Bai Qian didn’t want memories of the past to mar her present happiness more than they already did. Was that so unreasonable?
Did I make a mistake?
Her fox yipped impatiently, reminding Bai Qian that today was supposed to be about exploring the lotus gardens. If she continued standing here, they were going to miss their chance.
Smiling despite her misgivings, Bai Qian agreed. You’re right, she told her fox. What’s done is done. I can’t change it at this point even if I wanted to. I will have to tell him later.
Gazing out at the brightly colored lotus blossoms and breathing in the fragrant air, Bai Qian found a measure of peace in the moment. The atmosphere here was tranquil and had a calming effect that reminded her of the peach tree forest. She ambled along the stone pathway stretching out before her, always aware of the presence of the vigilant guard keeping pace with her from a distance. He seemed nice enough and Ye Hua trusted him.
It wasn’t long before she crossed paths with someone, an elderly woman. Bai Qian tensed at the elder’s approach, uncomfortable in the company of a stranger after so many years alone. She wanted to run and hide; the urge to do so was almost overwhelming. Bai Qian fought it back and dropped her eyes, staring at the rock under her feet, her pace picking up as she hurried by the other woman.
Nothing happened and Bai Qian released a pent up breath. Her shoulders relaxed a little and she slowed her steps back to a leisurely stroll, admiring the blooms in the large lotus pond next to her. The second person she came across was a young man. Bai Qian sensed his curious gaze studying her with interest and she lowered her eyes again, preparing to bolt if he tried to talk to her. He didn’t.
Bai Qian passed by several more people, relaxing a little more each time. As Ye Hua had said, this area of the Blessed Water Gardens wasn’t crowded and everybody followed an unspoken rule to keep to themselves out of respect for those who were visiting the lotus ponds to find peace and solitude. While Bai Qian suspected some of those people who spotted her were curious about who she was, they made no move to speak with her.
Her fox jumped with excitement as Bai Qian explored. Her spirit beast was happy to finally be out of the forest. Optimism for the future welled up inside Bai Qian as she shared in her fox’s joy.
This is fun. It’s not so bad being near other people again. Maybe I’ll even try to greet and show my respect to an elder. The idea would have made her father proud and that helped Bai Qian’s determination to do so.
Walking towards an area that was less secluded, she paused when she spotted a carved statue of a dragon. She moved closer to it, drawn by its appearance. It was small but the details carved into the stone were realistic. Bai Qian was reminded of the black dragon… my dragon. Ye Hua had always agreed that the black dragon belonged to Bai Qian and her fox. She ran her fingers along the regal head of the beast, the smooth stone cool against her skin.
My future lies with Ye Hua and his dragon. The past should stay in the past.
The thought surfaced in Bai Qian’s mind and she clung to it as an easy out, deciding there was no reason to ever mention what she had seen in the Fox Den that night. She had almost allowed thoughts of the past to ruin this wonderful day.
I’m not going to tell Ye Hua about the dragon in the Fox Den.
The war had ended and everything that had taken place when she was a girl suddenly seemed like it had happened a lifetime ago. Ye Hua knew the basics and that was enough. There was no reason to bring the past back into the light by sharing all the horrible details with him.
Bai Qian began walking again. The past no longer matters. I’m ready to let it go.
Resembling a predator stalking his favorite prey, Weisheng’s eyes locked onto Bai Qian as she drew closer to him. He grinned, his expression filled with malicious glee. She had no idea he was there. Weisheng wanted her to know. He wanted to watch as she realized he was a demon and then as abject terror fell across her beautiful face. He would not deny himself that pleasure but there were too many people within sight for Weisheng to drop his camouflage barrier now.
An elderly man approached from behind Bai Qian, an important elder based on the small group of servants accompanying him. And right behind them stood Bai Qian’s guard.
Weisheng’s grin turned even crueler. This was the opportunity he needed.
Stepping closer to one of his guards, Weisheng gave the magical signal for the demon soldier to use the elderly man’s group to create a diversion. Though he couldn’t see the soldier’s movements, Weisheng could sense his location. He was moving towards the group.
Weisheng waited, his gaze fixed on Bai Qian. Her steps slowed. Did she sense him watching her? Was she feeling uneasy or maybe even a little scared? The thought delighted him.
The demon soldier created an invisible obstacle in the path, one that would vanish within seconds in order to make its origins difficult to trace. The elder tumbled to the ground along with half of his entourage. Bai Qian’s guard looked away from her and hurried to the group to help the elder up.
This was his chance. Weisheng sent a wave of demon magic towards Bai Qian, hoping it would drive her off the main path to a place with no witnesses.
Bai Qian startled at the abrupt sound of a commotion behind her. What is going on? An icy, malevolent chill prickled over her skin before she could turn to investigate the cause of all the noisy excitement. Bai Qian froze, her stomach dropping like a dead weight. Fear surrounded her.
Her fox whined uneasily, urging Bai Qian to run. Somebody bad was near them. Bai Qian looked around her frantically. I don’t see anybody. There’s nobody there.
Her fox whined again when a second chill enveloped Bai Qian. All thoughts fled her mind except one. Demon magic. She would never forget how it felt after that night in the Fox Den. The air in her family’s home had been saturated with that same cruel cold. Where is it coming from? I don’t see any demons. She remained in place, too scared to move, her heart pounding a fast, deafening beat.
A sharp, anxious yip from her fox finally propelled Bai Qian into action. Fighting back the urge to shift because she didn’t want to risk giving her identity away, Bai Qian darted towards a side path and hurried down it, stealing glances behind her every other second. She wasn’t being followed and the icy demon magic had dissipated. Still, she continued on. It was only after she had made several confusing turns that she remembered the Celestial guard. He was her only way of getting in touch with Ye Hua.
Frustrated with her hasty decision to leave her only source of protection, Bai Qian stopped and looked around. She hadn’t walked by these ponds earlier. She had no idea where in the water gardens she was; they were vast with a complex network of pathways. I need to get back to the guard. Her fox could lead her back there. Is it safe?
The demon chill was no longer in the air. She was alone for the moment. Maybe I should stay here and wait for Ye Hua to find me. No. I don’t know how long I will be safe here. I need to get back to the guard so he can alert Ye Hua.
Her fox was reluctant to guide her back, still whining with unease. But after some coaxing, her fox told Bai Qian which way to go.
Bai Qian didn’t make it very far. After only a few steps, she came to a terrified halt. A man was standing in her path, blocking her. She had no idea where he had come from but she knew what he was. His cold, green eyes were staring her down silently. There was a cruel sneer on his face. The demon.
For a terrifying second, Bai Qian was transported back to the Fox Den, paralyzed and helpless from fear as she got her first glimpse of what the demons had done to her family. Then her present circumstances came rushing back to her when the demon spoke.
“Hello, Bai Qian.”
He knew her name. Shaking her head in denial, Bai Qian backed away from him before turning to run the other way. But her path was blocked by another demon and her steps faltered. I’m trapped. She turned back to the demon who had spoken. He seemed to be the more dangerous of the two.
“Do you know how long I’ve waited to meet you, Bai Qian?”
Bai Qian said nothing. She couldn’t speak; her voice had fled without her.
“A long time,” he answered for her. He took a step closer. “I’ve always wanted to meet the little fox who got away. How did you do it, Bai Qian?” He took another step. “How did you, a young, helpless little fox, escape the wrath of my father? He and his advisors had planned it all so well. I’ve always wondered.” Another step, and then he was right next to her. “Perhaps you’d like to visit my realm and explain it to me? I can take you there.”
Tears trickled down Bai Qian’s cheeks as she remained frozen in place. This man with his cruel, cold gaze and terrifying smile was the Demon King’s son. She shook her head violently at the idea of going anywhere with him. He was going to kill her. Bai Qian backed up a step but the demon followed her, reaching for her arm. He stopped short of grabbing her, looking at something over her shoulder instead. Angry frustration flared in his green eyes.
Confused, Bai Qian turned to look. A group of young men was approaching, their steps slowing as they looked at Bai Qian’s tears with curiosity and the demon next to her with suspicion.
The demon’s whole demeanor changed in a heartbeat as the men walked by. He rubbed Bai Qian’s shoulder in what was meant to mimic a polite, soothing gesture. She flinched away from his touch. There was a facade of concern on his face now.
“It’s okay, my lady,” the demon crooned in a softer voice. The vicious edge in his tone had disappeared. “Please don’t cry. It’s easy to get lost in these gardens. It’s happened to me more than once. I’ll be happy to show you the way back to the palace.” He stroked her back now before his hand returned to her shoulder.
Her stomach knotted with nausea. His unwelcome touch left Bai Qian feeling violated and vulnerable, but the group of men either didn’t notice her worsening distress or misunderstood it. They relaxed and continued on their way, apparently satisfied with the demon’s kind act. They were going to leave her with him. No! Help me! She wanted to scream the words but nothing more than a desperate whisper came out when she opened her mouth.
Her last chance to get away from the demon was walking away. As soon as they were alone, he would grab her and whisk her away to the Demon Realm. Despair crushed her. There would be no escape for her after that. She would never see Ye Hua again. No!
Bai Qian made a move to follow the group but the demon tightened his grip on her shoulder. His fingers brought pain as they dug into her skin. Anger rushed through her at the domineering gesture, breaking the fear holding her still. She reacted without thinking, kicking him sharply in the shin, using as much force as she could muster. It was all Bai Qian could think to do.
It was enough.
The demon released his grip on her shoulder with a cry of pain and Bai Qian darted away. He reached for her but she evaded his grasp, desperate to get away before her burst of courage failed as it was trying to do already. His thunderous steps pounded behind her as the demon gave chase with a roar of rage.
“I’m afraid the damage was quite extensive, your Highness. I have started making lists of…”
The black dragon grumbled, distracting Ye Hua away from the Trade Minister’s words for the umpteenth time since the discussion had started. The beast was growing more restless and unhappy by the minute, insistently urging Ye Hua to go and check on Bai Qian and Hu Mei since they were not in his personal territory. His dragon had been acting this way throughout the whole celebration and Ye Hua was losing his patience with the beast. He also would have preferred Bai Qian stay in Xiwu Palace but he respected her ability to make her own decisions.
Phoenix fire burned along the skin of his hand, the sudden sensation startling Ye Hua. He looked up to find Zhe Yan hastily walking towards him, pushing people out of his way as he struggled to move through the crowd. There was a panicked expression on his friend’s face and Ye Hua immediately looked for Weisheng. The Demon King was nowhere to be found.
Ye Hua glanced at Mo Yuan. His brother was talking to one of his disciples, looking angry at whatever news the boy was sharing. Nobody had been watching Weisheng.
A message from Bai Qian’s guard appeared in Ye Hua’s hand. There was one sentence written on the paper– I’ve lost sight of Bai Qian.
His heart jumped into his throat and icy fear ran through his veins. This was a setup to get to Bai Qian. Ye Hua’s gut told him the truth of what had happened. An angry snarl from the black dragon tore through the room and the music came to a screeching halt. Silence filled the air as those nearest Ye Hua dropped their eyes away from him.
In a split second, Ye Hua was gone.
“Wait, your Highness! Where are you going?! I need to tell you more about the fire before you investigate!” The Trade Minister looked around him in bewilderment.
People watched with amazed curiosity as the serpentine length of the great black dragon circled over the Blessed Water Gardens. It didn’t take Ye Hua and his dragon long to spot Bai Qian… and Weisheng. Bai Qian bolted away from Weisheng and the demon followed after her. She shifted into her fox, ignoring the people she passed as she ran at a faster pace.
The black dragon roared with fury and dived towards them, determined to keep the Demon King away from his fox and Bai Qian. Ye Hua took control back and shifted in midair, sword in hand. He landed in front of Weisheng, blocking his path to Bai Qian; a blast of his magic sent the demon flying back violently. Weisheng staggered to his feet and froze when the tip of Ye Hua’s sword pressed into his neck, piercing the skin.
Ye Hua glared at the demon; irises turned the black of a moonless night clashed with the demon’s cold green gaze. Neither man said a word as they stared each other down.
Weisheng’s demon guard tried to sneak away, headed toward the same path Bai Qian had used to escape. Without taking his eyes away from Weisheng, Ye Hua sent a rush of magic the guard’s way, forcing the soldier to the ground on his hands and knees. He pressed the man’s forehead into the ground and kept it there in a posture of humiliation and forced supplication. A second demon guard appeared from nowhere and also took a step in the same direction.
“The next person who tries to follow the lady will die,” Ye Hua said, the promise of harsh punishment beforehand filling his calm tone. The second soldier stopped and made no other move.
People in the vicinity gathered around the confrontation, drawn with morbid curiosity by the sight of an angry Crown Prince flying overhead in his dragon form and a nine-tailed fox dashing through the Blessed Water Gardens. They wanted to be the first to find out what was going on. Ye Hua ignored everybody but Weisheng and his guards.
“They were only going to check on her,” Weisheng finally spoke. “To make sure she is alright. There’s no need to threaten them. Your Highness.”
Ye Hua nearly growled at Weisheng’s mocking tone when he added the title. Every part of him wanted to run his sword through the demon’s neck for daring to go anywhere near Bai Qian. The black dragon urged him to do it, demanding that they end the threat to her here and now. Ye Hua’s grip tightened on the hilt of his longsword.
As if reading Ye Hua’s intention in his eyes, Weisheng plastered a contrite expression on his face. The show of remorse infuriated Ye Hua especially because he could sense the change in the demeanor of the crowd around them. They believed the Demon King’s act.
“I never meant to scare her, Crown Prince,” Weisheng said. “I only tried to help her.”
A young man stepped forward from the crowd. “Your…your Highness.” Ye Hua glanced at the man approaching him. There was fear in the man’s expression and scent. “He is telling the truth, your Highness. I passed by him just minutes ago and he was offering his help to the lady. She was lost and frightened. None of us knew she was under your protection and wasn’t to be approached.”
“You expect me to believe that?” Ye Hua directed his question to Weisheng.
“It’s true, your Highness,” another voice said. A second man stepped forward. “I heard him offering to help the lady too.”
“It’s true,” Weisheng added in a scared voice that rang so false it made Ye Hua grit his teeth with renewed fury. “I know what you must be thinking but I had no idea she was Bai Qian at the time.” Excited whispers worked through the crowd at this new revelation; the nine-tailed fox running through the gardens was indeed the lost Fox Princess of Qing Qiu. Ye Hua wanted to squeeze the life out of the demon for giving Bai Qian’s secret away. His instincts and his dragon demanded he do so.
“I was walking through the gardens to get some fresh air and to speak with some of the other guests I’m acquainted with. You can ask around. There are plenty of people I talked to. I happened upon Bai Qian by chance. She was lost and looked frightened. So I offered to help her find her way back to the palace. I had no idea who the lady was until she ran off and shifted into a fox. Surely, you can’t fault me for trying to help her.” He paused, a smile creeping across his face. “After all, it’s the least I could do after what happened to her family.”
His grip tightened on his sword again with a growl. Ye Hua had never wanted to kill somebody so badly in his life. Weisheng deserved to die for his last comment alone. It would be so easy.
Mo Yuan stepped out from the crowd where he had appeared minutes before and moved to Ye Hua’s side with a single shake of his head. Ye Hua wanted to rage at his brother for staying his hand, but he didn’t because, in the end, Mo Yuan was right. Weisheng was lying but nobody witnessing this understood that. He had no way to prove otherwise. They saw a man being threatened when he had done nothing more than offer help to a lost and frightened lady. To them, Ye Hua’s anger appeared as nothing more than petty jealousy.
To strike out against the Demon King now would be viewed as an act of war by the demons and all the other northern tribes who had a tenuous alliance with the Heavens. There were multiple witnesses who would testify the attack had been unjustified and unprovoked. The northern tribes could walk away from the current alliance and join with the demons. Heavenly Father would be required to forfeit all of his advantages in the war that would follow per the terms of the treaty and Mo Yuan would be the one leading soldiers in a battle that would be difficult to win. Ye Hua would bring disaster upon thousands of people.
Not for the first time, Ye Hua cursed his position and how it often forced him to make decisions he didn’t want to for the good of the realm. He didn’t even have the freedom to protect the woman he loved without first having to consider the political consequences of his actions. If they had been alone, Mo Yuan would have counseled him to wait and find evidence of Weisheng’s true intentions. Then, Ye Hua would be able to go after the Demon King without being the one to break the terms of the treaty.
He lowered his sword; it was the most difficult thing he had ever done.
“If you or any other demon comes near Bai Qian again, I will kill you,” Ye Hua bit out angrily. “This is your only warning, Weisheng. Go. And take all your guards with you.” Ye Hua released the magic binding the one soldier to the ground.
He sheathed his sword only after they had disappeared. Ye Hua needed to find Bai Qian and make sure she was alright. But he also needed to start gathering evidence before it could fade. The fire needed to be investigated. How had Weisheng known where to find Bai Qian? Somebody had been helping him. That was the only explanation that made sense.
“Weisheng knew Bai Qian was here, Da Ge,” Ye Hua said, turning to face Mo Yuan. “Somebody told him.”
“Yes,” Mo Yuan agreed. “Go. I’ll take care of things here.”
The anger burning inside him hidden behind an impassive mask, Mo Yuan watched his brother shift and take to the skies. He despised the circumstances that forced him to urge Ye Hua to hold off while he also admired Ye Hua’s restraint. The black dragon had almost certainly been demanding Ye Hua kill the demon threatening Bai Qian. It could be difficult to ignore one’s spirit beast.
Though he had been the one to urge Ye Hua to back down, Mo Yuan wasn’t sure he could have stayed his hand if the situation had been reversed and Meixiu had been threatened in a similar way. And Meixiu had been trained to defend herself. Bai Qian had not. If Ye Hua had ignored his counsel, Mo Yuan would have understood and supported him.
While Ye Hua’s fury was likely apparent to everyone, his twin’s underlying fear and pain were clear to Mo Yuan alone. That fueled his own rage. He could never sit idly by and allow others to hurt his brother. Weisheng would pay dearly for approaching Bai Qian, the rightful Queen of Qing Qiu and an ally of the Heavens. Mo Yuan wouldn’t rest until he had helped Ye Hua find the evidence he needed to formally charge the Demon King with breaking the peace treaty. Then his brother would be free to protect Bai Qian using whatever means necessary.
Zhe Yan and a couple of Celestial guards were currently searching Kunlun Mountain for the intruder. After his brother’s snarl of rage had caught his attention, Mo Yuan had noticed Weisheng was gone and his suspicions had been raised.
Wanting to provide backup for his brother if needed, Mo Yuan had sent a reluctant Zhe Yan to accompany the disciple back to Kunlun. As important as his mountain was to him, guarding Ye Hua’s back was most critical to Mo Yuan. But it had taken him a minute or two to convince Zhe Yan to go in his stead. His friend had agreed only after Mo Yuan had assured him he trusted him as much as he did Ye Hua to protect Kunlun Mountain and its temple when he couldn’t be there to protect it himself.
The fact an intruder had snuck onto Kunlun Mountain at the exact same time the Trade Minister had brought some sort of critical news to Ye Hua’s attention was indeed suspicious. Weisheng’s decision to leave the palace at that moment and walk through the Blessed Water Gardens where Bai Qian happened to be waiting made it more so. That Weisheng crossed paths with Bai Qian “by chance” during his stroll, as the demon had so innocently insisted, was the least believable of all.
None of these events were a coincidence. It was all the result of careful planning. And Weisheng could never have pulled it off without help. He wasn’t even supposed to know Bai Qian had been found, much less that she was in the Heavens today.
There was a traitor hiding in the Heavens. It was time to hunt. Mo Yuan’s eyes glinted gold. The place to begin was with the convenient timing of his disciple arriving right as the Trade Minister needed to speak with Ye Hua.
Mo Yuan thought it likely Heavenly Father was already speaking to the Trade Minister. Heavenly Mother was no doubt doing her best to quell any gossip or speculation being raised by Ye Hua’s abrupt departure.
So first, Mo Yuan wanted to find out how Weisheng had been able to get close to Bai Qian.
Sending a message to Meixiu to let her know his evening visit would be delayed, Mo Yuan turned to the shamefaced guard staunchly avoiding eye contact with him. He gestured the guard over to him. The man hurried to Mo Yuan’s side with a deep bow, still refusing to look up. The guard finally spoke when Mo Yuan remained silent to find out what the man had to say without being prompted.
“I deserve to be punished for my failure, War God Mo Yuan,” he said quietly.
Mo Yuan didn’t respond, thinking of his own diverted attention during the celebration. They all held some responsibility for what had happened. The guard looked up.
“Is… is Lady Bai Qian okay?”
“I don’t know,” Mo Yuan answered, hoping for his brother’s sake she was. He suspected Ye Hua would lose all control if she had been harmed and Mo Yuan would not step in to try and stop his brother a second time if that were the case.
“I alerted the Crown Prince as soon as I lost sight of her,” the guard continued. “I hoped it would be enough to make up for my failure.”
“Walk with me to the palace,” Mo Yuan ordered. “Explain what happened.”
“Yes, sir,” the guard responded, falling into step with Mo Yuan.
The black dragon circled through the Heavens twice, winding his way down various paths with a hurried glide as he desperately searched for his fox and Bai Qian. Both he and Ye Hua ignored the attention of the people who stopped to stare. Right now, the only thing that mattered was finding Bai Qian and Hu Mei and making sure they were unharmed. Everything else could wait.
When the black dragon was certain they were not hiding somewhere in the Heavens, he rushed to the peach tree forest, using magic to hasten his flight as the sun set behind him. He rumbled a distressed growl when he did not immediately sense them upon his approach.
Ye Hua shared his dragon’s fear. Where could Bai Qian be? He had expected to find her in the Heavens. There were plenty of places a small fox could hide but she wasn’t there. What if he didn’t find her in the forest either? She wouldn’t choose to leave him and disappear again… would she? It was unthinkable and yet she had proven herself skilled at vanishing without a trace when needed.
The possibility spurred Ye Hua and his dragon on, their actions growing frantic as they continued to search. They would never stop looking.
When the black dragon failed to sense his fox’s presence while circling above the forest, he swooped down towards the cabin with a mournful roar. Ye Hua shifted to his own form as they descended, sprinting across the clearing to the cabin entrance. He didn’t sense Bai Qian or Hu Mei inside but he needed to be sure.
“Qian Qian! Hu Mei!” He wrenched the door open, fervently hoping a small white nine-tailed fox would be waiting inside for him. The shadowed interior was still and empty of life. Ye Hua’s chest ached at the sight, especially when his eyes landed on the mirror where Bai Qian had been standing just hours before, nervous excitement in her eyes. She had trusted him to keep her safe and he had failed…
No. Don’t think about that right now. I need to concentrate on finding her.
Where was she? Her den. Maybe Bai Qian was hiding there instead. He needed to get to her den! What if she wasn’t in her den? Where would he look next? Ye Hua was letting his growing panic jumble his thoughts which delayed him. He was helpless to stop it.
Pausing for a fleeting second to take a calming breath, Ye Hua hurried toward Bai Qian’s den. Please let me find her in her den.
“Qian Qian!” Ye Hua stumbled through the underbrush, tripping on obstacles in his haste as he ran along the forest path. He didn’t want to jump directly to her meadow for fear he might miss her hiding in the trees. The black dragon urged him on the whole way. “Qian Qian! Hu Mei!”
The branch of a peach tree snagged the sleeve of his robe. Ye Hua pulled his arm free without slowing, tearing the heavy fabric as he did so. Another branch snagged his other arm and Ye Hua glared. You can’t stop me! I will find her! He yanked his arm free, angry with the forest for slowing him down. A shower of peach blossoms fell in his wake as he picked up his pace. “Qian Qian! Hu Mei!”
The path became more and more overgrown and harder to traverse the closer Ye Hua came to Bai Qian’s meadow. He had lost sight of the trail altogether but that didn’t deter him. He pushed his way through the stubborn branches and dense underbrush with determination, only to find his way to the meadow and Bai Qian’s den blocked by a screen of peach trees.
Ye Hua’s anger ignited into rage with a threatening growl. He didn’t want to harm the forest that was protecting Bai Qian but he refused to allow it to keep him away from her. He would do whatever it took to reach her. Lifting his hand, Ye Hua prepared to blast his way through the trees with his magic so he could reach the meadow.
You can’t keep me away from her. I won’t allow it. Let me through!
A brisk wind started blowing through the trees, stirring Ye Hua’s hair as it brushed his face with a strangely soothing effect. The rustling whisper of leaves and peach blossoms filled the night air as the wind gained intensity, stirring the whole forest to life. Ye Hua lowered his hand as his dragon urged him to stop and listen. The forest was trying to tell him something important.
All the branches around and above Ye Hua were blowing wildly in one direction, opposite to the way Ye Hua was trying to go. He turned and saw a clear path laid out before him. The branches were pointing him to the trail. Qian Qian’s hiding in the heart of the forest! The trees had been trying to guide him to Bai Qian, not stop him.
Murmuring a quick word of gratitude, Ye Hua raced along the path. The strong wind pushed him forward, hastening his progress. The way was free of all obstacles that might slow him down. The forest was exerting a great deal of its magic to alter the terrain to help him. He reached his destination at a record pace.
The trail vanished behind him, returning to its natural appearance as Ye Hua stepped underneath the canopy of the ancient peach grove. The underbrush grew denser to block out any others who may approach. The wind died down and the atmosphere became still and quiet. The heart of the forest was hidden now, wrapped in its ancient magic. Ye Hua had the thought it would remain that way forever, only allowing him and Bai Qian to enter from this day forward.
“Qian Qian?” Ye Hua whispered when he didn’t immediately see her.
The brush stirred as something crept out from hiding. A blur of white shot across the grove, a small fox leaping into his arms. Ye Hua caught her and cradled her to his chest tightly, only sensing Hu Mei with him. Her entire body trembled from lingering fear and the weakness that follows a strong burst of adrenaline. Her tails wrapped around him and she whimpered softly, burying her muzzle in his neck after licking his skin many times.
“It’s okay, Hu Mei,” Ye Hua murmured. He stroked the soft fur of her back and the top of her head in a gentle caress, scratching behind her ears the way she always liked. She whimpered again, trying to snuggle closer to him. Ye Hua tightened his hold, taking care not to squeeze too much. She seemed especially fragile tonight. “It’s okay, Hu Mei. You’re safe now. I won’t let anything happen to you. I’ve got you.”
Ye Hua walked to the nearest tree and slid down the trunk to sit, carrying Hu Mei with him the whole time. She continued to shake and cling to him as best she could and Ye Hua didn’t loosen his hold.
The black dragon crooned a soothing growl and helped Ye Hua calm their fox, while also sharing Ye Hua’s worry about Bai Qian’s glaring absence. The fox’s trembling slowly eased away as Ye Hua and the black dragon spoke comfort to her, each in his own way.
Hu Mei was going to be alright. But what about Bai Qian?
After Hu Mei had settled and was curled up on his lap, Ye Hua raised the question to her. “Is Qian Qian there with you?”
The fox’s ears lowered and she shook her head with a soft, mournful howl. Ye Hua’s heart shattered and the black dragon’s distressed growls joined Hu Mei’s haunting howl.
A few tears streamed down Ye Hua’s face before he wiped them away, lifting Hu Mei to his chest to hug her close again, both giving and receiving comfort. He would protect and care for Hu Mei and he would wait for Bai Qian. It doesn’t matter how long you need, Qian Qian. I will wait for you to come back to me.
The black dragon surged forward and Ye Hua let him, placing Hu Mei onto the ground while he shifted. The dragon’s snout rubbed against his fox, sharing more soothing croons and his warmth with her. She licked his scales with affection before curling up next to him in the crook of his neck. He wrapped his long body around hers, surrounding her on all sides so anybody who approached would be forced to go through him before reaching her.
The ancient peach trees kept a watchful vigil as their branches swayed with a tranquil rustle of leaves.
⇛ Next part: Ch 36: Forging a New Path
⇚ Previous part: Ch 34: A Visit to the Heavens