Hugging her knees tight to her chest, Bai Qian huddled in a defensive position in the middle of a meadow. The air was unnaturally still and stagnant; not a single blade of grass stirred. The sky was a blank, uniform grey with no breaks in the cloud cover. Ye Hua’s customary spot next to her was empty. She was all alone. How had she gotten here? She didn’t remember anything.
Bai Qian was too scared to move as she stared sightlessly at the dull, green weeds cushioning her bare feet. If she looked up, she would see a shadowed forest of dead trees shrouded in a dense fog. To her left was a wall of impenetrable flames that flickered wildly and cast an eerie demonic glow. Shrill, terrified howls of agony along with the putrid stench of death pierced her senses from the right; she didn’t dare lift her gaze to look in that direction.
It was what lay behind Bai Qian that frightened her the most–a thick, black void of nothingness. And yet, something evil and unknown lurked in that void. It watched her, waiting for her to come closer.
Terrible, threatening things surrounded her on all sides and she had nowhere to go. So Bai Qian remained motionless. Her small area of the meadow was the only place that seemed safe. How long would it remain that way? Would anybody come to rescue her? She lost track of time, those two questions circling through her mind in an endless loop with no answers.
Without any warning, Ye Hua appeared next to her. His sudden appearance and the accompanying pulse of dragon cultivation startled Bai Qian out of her almost trance-like state. She jumped with surprise but relief washed through her. She was going to be okay.
“Ye Hua, I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, turning to face him. “Do you know where we are? How do we get out of here?”
Ye Hua said nothing nor did he turn to look at her. He just stared silently out at the dead forest with its pall of fog. Bai Qian frowned, confused by his silence. Unease chased her relief away before settling over her. Fear would soon return.
“Ye Hua?” she whispered in a small voice. He didn’t respond. “Ye Hua? Please answer me!” Bai Qian’s voice was louder the second time but Ye Hua still didn’t acknowledge her. She studied his face more closely. Lines of grief were etched into his somber expression. His sadness made Bai Qian’s heart hurt and for a moment she forgot about the dangers around them. Ye Hua needed her help.
“What’s wrong?” she asked him, keeping her tone calm out of respect for his mood. “Is there anything I can do?”
“I miss you, Qian Qian,” Ye Hua said, finally breaking his silence. “Please come back to me.”
Bai Qian’s frown deepened. “I’m right here next to you.” She reached out to place her hand on Ye Hua’s but her skin never made contact with his. There was an invisible barrier around him; she couldn’t touch him. She fought off growing panic as fear began to creep back upon her. She pushed it back and concentrated on pushing through the barrier separating him from her to no avail.
“I’m right here,” Bai Qian repeated, defeat audible in her dull voice. Ye Hua had no idea she was there and she didn’t have the power to reach him. She dropped her hand and looked at the ground, losing track of time again until Ye Hua stood. He started walking and the panic Bai Qian had been pushing away broke through, flooding through her with a strong undercurrent of despair. She began to cry.
“Wait, Ye Hua!” She leapt to her feet and followed behind him, tears streaming down her face. “Please don’t go! Don’t leave me!”
“I miss you, Qian Qian,” was his only response as he continued to walk away. “Come back to me.”
“Don’t leave me here!” Bai Qian begged, watching helplessly as his form faded into nothing. She dropped to her hands and knees. “Please don’t leave me,” she whispered. “I don’t know how to get home.” It was no use. Ye Hua was gone. She was alone again in this horrible place.
The shrieking, agonized cries filtered back into her senses, louder than before, as Bai Qian sat there, struggling to think through her terror. The demonic fire’s heat gained intensity, burning her skin. The evil skulking in the blackness pressed into her back with increased urgency, prodding her to join it. She didn’t know what to do. Was she doomed to stay here alone forever?
Then, Ye Hua’s sad voice echoed through the meadow. “I miss you, Qian Qian. Come back to me.” It tugged on Bai Qian’s heart and soul. She couldn’t give up now.
“I’ve got to find a way out of here,” Bai Qian whispered, finding strength by speaking out loud. “Ye Hua’s waiting for me… he needs me. I’ve got to get out of here.” Ye Hua couldn’t help her this time. She would need to figure it out herself and she would because she had promised to stay by his side. She had every intention to keep her vow. But it was more than just a promise motivating her.
Bai Qian wanted to be with Ye Hua; it was as simple as that. She couldn’t stay here.
She pushed to her feet, wiping away the moisture from her cheeks with trembling fingers as she looked around. Terrifying sights met her eyes yet they seemed muted somehow. She still didn’t want to get any closer to them than necessary. Bai Qian ignored them as best she could, searching for a safe pathway out. There was nothing there. Was she going to have to create her own path? Did she have the power needed for that?
A different idea crossed her mind and Bai Qian looked up to the sky. A uniform blanket of grey clouds still hovered above, never changing as she gazed at it. She hoped a break in the cloud cover would allow light from the sun to shine through but one never appeared. The sun had to be up there though. Didn’t it? Or the moon and stars if it were actually night here in this strange place?
There was only one way to know for sure. If Bai Qian could manage to get above the clouds, maybe she could find her path back home to Ye Hua. It was better than trying to fight through the hellish landscapes encompassing the meadow.
Taking a deep breath to settle her anxious nerves, Bai Qian gathered her magic and guided it under her feet. She lifted into the air, her heart pounding fiercely as she ascended high enough to touch the clouds.
Soon, Bai Qian was enveloped in a thick damp mist. She couldn’t see or hear anything. There was nothing but blank grey around her. She was more isolated than ever. Still, she kept moving upward, not allowing any doubts to work into her mind. She was committed to this path now despite the weariness winding through her. Just a little bit further. The clouds couldn’t last forever. Could they?
Just when Bai Qian was about to give up in despair, the mist thinned and a blinding white light reached her. She closed her eyes to block out the bright rays and gave a final push upward…
Bai Qian awoke with a startled yip, unsure where she was at first. The nightmare still clung to her like wet clothes trying to drag her down. She wrapped her tails tightly around herself in a protective gesture, her claws digging into soft dirt. Her muzzle twitched, fearing she would smell blood and death once again. The familiar scent of peach blossoms mingling with that of thunderstorms filled her nose instead, easing away her fear.
The soft rustle of leaves reassured her she was safe in the heart of the peach tree forest. A gentle growl greeted her, calming her further. Another soft rumble encouraged Bai Qian to open her eyes. She did, relieved the bright light was gone. It was night and she was curled up in a comfortable position, surrounded by warm, black scales. The black dragon… my dragon. I made it back to him and Ye Hua.
Her eyes met worried black ones in the dark. The traumatic events from earlier in the day slammed into Bai Qian, reminding her of what had taken place in the Heavens. She vaguely remembered fleeing the Heavens with a panicked cloud-jump.
After that, it all grew hazy because she had instinctively retreated. Her fox must have brought her here to the heart of the forest and Ye Hua had followed her. She waited for her earlier fear to come back now that she remembered what had happened but exhausted confusion filled Bai Qian instead.
Had it really been so short a time since her visit to the Heavens? Her nightmare had seemed to go on forever while she was trapped in it. But now, Bai Qian’s memory insisted her encounter with the demon had happened just hours ago. The protective posture of the black dragon curled around her supported it.
The black dragon’s snout caressed the fur of her back, interrupting her thoughts. Bai Qian sensed he was checking on her just as she sensed Ye Hua was in a deep meditative state, deep enough the dragon seemed unable to alert him to Bai Qian’s presence. Is that why she had heard Ye Hua’s voice so clearly in her nightmare? It had to be. Ye Hua had been reaching out to her in the only way he could.
Bai Qian shifted into her human form and wrapped her arms around the black dragon’s neck to better reassure him she was unharmed. A gruff affectionate croon brought a genuine smile to Bai Qian’s face and she tightened her hold.
“I’m okay,” she whispered to him. But for how long? She had been found by a demon. What was she supposed to do now? “I’m okay,” she repeated. There was less conviction in her voice the second time.
A tendril of fear wrapped around her and Bai Qian shivered, trying to push the feeling back. The black dragon growled soothingly before pulling away from her hold. He nudged her shoulder gently with his snout and Bai Qian couldn’t help but smile again as she allowed him to guide her head to rest on his foreleg where her head and shoulders were cradled by a soft cushion of dragon magic.
Exhaustion pushed Bai Qian’s fear away before it could take hold again. The black dragon was right, she should try and get some more sleep. She would talk to Ye Hua in the morning about what had happened and they could decide together what to do going forward. She curled up next to the great beast. The warmth radiating from her dragon’s body and his protective presence eased Bai Qian into a restful sleep.
Phoenix fire… the damage to the warehouse was extensive because of it. Mo Yuan surveyed the black, smoldering ruins with a critical eye, noting there seemed to be multiple ignition points. Phoenix fire was difficult to put out but this fire had been allowed to burn far longer than it should have been.
He assessed the Trade Minister and Deputy Trade Minister standing nervously off to the side with suspicion. Had there been a barrier in place preventing the Deputy Trade Minister from sensing the fire right away? Or had the delay been deliberate to increase the damage? A greater amount of destruction would have raised the chances that Ye Hua would leave the Heavens to investigate it himself. And it would have taken him longer to do so as well. Mo Yuan frowned.
Did either minister have the malice or forethought needed to plan something like this?
Mo Yuan had spoken with both men separately earlier in the evening, comparing the details of their stories. He had found no evidence of deceit; only an air of incompetence as both ministers admitted the Deputy Trade Minister shouldn’t have tried to handle the fire himself and should have called for help sooner than he had. Though he couldn’t rule them out completely, it was unlikely either man was directly involved in the plan. They were more likely unwitting participants.
As he looked for anything useful in the charred remains, Mo Yuan considered the evidence he had found during his earlier search of the vast fields surrounding the warehouse.
There had been a shattered clay jar several miles away, hidden in a dense thicket. The clay still bore the scorch marks of the phoenix fire that had been contained within it. Mo Yuan had collected the shards to show Zhe Yan. There weren’t many potters skilled enough to create a container powerful enough to effectively hold phoenix fire. Either Zhe Yan or King Zhao Hui would know who did have the capabilities.
The only other thing Mo Yuan had managed to find was a clump of coarse brown fur snagged on the branch of a tree near the edge of the forest bordering the southernmost field. Bear fur. He was almost sure of it. But he had been unable to find any trail left behind by a bear spirit. The fur along with the lack of other signs of a trail were both suspicious.
There were no bear clans living near the warehouse and bears didn’t often stray far from their dens. It was possible a bear had had business in one of the nearby villages recently. But why would a bear on routine business go through the trouble of erasing all traces of his passage through the area? Bears weren’t typically careful by nature. They were large in stature and had a lot of brute strength so there was no need for them to hide. They tended to leave behind plenty of evidence of their presence when they moved through a field or forest.
He had hoped to find more evidence but what he had found was enough to help Mo Yuan get started. Maybe Zhe Yan had found something during his search of Kunlun Mountain. Tracking down the smaller participants in the scheme would lead to the traitor helping Weisheng.
Mo Yuan’s eyes narrowed into a dangerous glare, gold flashing in his gaze. He would find the traitor responsible for revealing his brother’s most precious secret to the Demon King, hurting Bai Qian and then Ye Hua as a result. That person would pay dearly. Mo Yuan would make sure of it.
Bai Qian awoke from a dreamless sleep to the sound of birds chirping their joy with the new day. The gentle light of morning illuminated the ancient peach grove, creating soft dappled shadows on the forest floor. She lay on a thick, comfortable blanket spread out upon the ground. Her shoes had been removed. A protective arm held her close to a strong chest; Ye Hua’s warmth surrounded her as he slept. Bai Qian smiled. For one perfect minute, everything was right in her world. This was the way she always wanted it to be.
Her smile vanished as the events from the day before came crashing back to her mind, disturbing the peace of the moment. The past had caught up with her despite her doing all she could to evade it. Then she remembered bits and pieces from her nightmare, both Ye Hua’s sadness and her determination to find her way out despite her fear. It was a lot to consider.
Though he didn’t wake, Ye Hua’s arm tightened around her as if he somehow sensed the change in her mood. He’s worried I’m going to run again.
If she were honest, a small part of Bai Qian wanted to. She had spent most of her life avoiding both real and imagined dangers. Running had become an ingrained response over the years but she wasn’t leaving this time. To run would be the same as giving up everything without a fight and choosing to start anew. She had lost everyone she held dear once; Bai Qian wasn’t going to allow it to happen again. I’m not leaving. But she did want a few minutes alone to think.
Shifting into her fox form so she could slip out from under Ye Hua’s arm without disturbing him, Bai Qian wriggled free of his hold, disappointed to lose his touch. She shifted back into her human form, her expression one of gentle affection as she gazed at Ye Hua. His countenance appeared troubled, even in sleep, and that bothered her. He moved, a worried frown crossing his face as his sleep became restless.
Bai Qian kissed the tips of her fingers and then brushed them softly against his lips, sending a wave of soothing magic his way. Her mother used to do that when Bai Qian was upset as a little girl and she thought it might ease him into a more restful sleep. It seemed to help; Ye Hua’s face relaxed and he looked peaceful.
“I will stay with you, Ye Hua,” Bai Qian whispered before standing. “I’m not leaving. I just need to think some things through.”
Ye Hua didn’t stir as Bai Qian stepped away on silent feet to find a quiet place to sit. She didn’t want to go far and chose a mossy spot near one of the largest peach trees in the ancient grove. Tucking her legs under her, Bai Qian leaned her back against its sturdy trunk. The branches of the tree swayed, its leaves and blossoms rustling a soothing lullaby to comfort Bai Qian as she considered some difficult truths.
The past wasn’t ready to stay in the past. Yesterday’s events had made that painfully clear while demonstrating she couldn’t expect Ye Hua to be there to defend her every second of every day. He would try as best he could but it just wasn’t practical. Nor did Bai Qian want to spend her life depending on Ye Hua for everything. She wanted them to protect and take care of each other the way she remembered her parents had when they were still alive.
The past isn’t going away…not yet. If I’m not going to run from it then I need to turn and face it along with Ye Hua. But how?
She summoned the dagger she had salvaged and studied its worn handle and improperly sharpened blade. Now that Bai Qian had been face to face with a demon, it was laughable to think she ever could have used the weapon to defend herself. Her foot had been a more effective weapon than this pitiful dagger would have been. But kicking the demon had only worked because he hadn’t been expecting it. Next time, she wouldn’t be so lucky.
I need a better weapon than this and I need to know how to use it. Would Ye Hua be able to teach her how to defend herself? She would ask him about it.
But first, Ye Hua needed to understand everything that had happened in the Fox Den the night her family was massacred. He didn’t have all the information because she had been too afraid to talk to him about it. Bai Qian could avoid it no longer.
I will tell you everything today, Ye Hua.
Bai Qian’s stomach churned as she prepared herself for the ordeal to come but she didn’t allow the sick feeling of dread knotting her insides to change her mind.
The branches above her swayed with more force and a burst of peach blossoms drifted down along the air currents to settle around her. Their fragrant scent surrounded Bai Qian and calmed her, helping her find a measure of peace with her decision. She relaxed and her mind drifted to more pleasant things as she waited for the day to begin in earnest.
Ye Hua woke with a startled gasp. “Qian Qian!”
There was panic in his voice and Bai Qian called out to him softly. “I’m over here, Ye Hua.”
He reached her side in seconds, dropping to his knees before her. He studied her face but hesitated to touch her. “I feared you were gone,” he murmured.
“I’m not leaving.” Bai Qian reached for Ye Hua’s hand and his fingers met hers halfway. He cradled her hand between both of his, brushing her skin with his thumb. The gentle caress warmed Bai Qian’s heart. “I’m tired of running,” she added, “and I want to stay with you.”
“Are you alright? He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
Bai Qian shook her head. “No. I’m alright. He scared me but he didn’t hurt me.”
Ye Hua’s eyes met hers. There was remorse in his gaze and Bai Qian moved closer. “What’s wrong, Ye Hua?”
“I’m sorry he found you, Qian Qian. I’m sorry he was able to get close to you. I didn’t…” Ye Hua trailed off.
“Why are you sorry? You’re not responsible for the actions of others.”
“I’m supposed to protect you, Qian Qian, and I failed. I thought you would be safe in the lotus gardens. I thought…”
“You wanted me to stay at Xiwu Palace,” Bai Qian interrupted, refusing to allow Ye Hua to blame himself for what had happened. “I was the one who insisted on waiting for you in the Blessed Water Gardens. That’s not your fault.”
“I should have told you Weisheng would be there,” Ye Hua insisted, shrugging off her explanation. “But I didn’t want to spoil the day for you. And I never imagined Weisheng would know where you were. He wasn’t supposed to know you had been found much less that you were in the Heavens.” His expression darkened. “I intend to find out how he knew.”
If Bai Qian had had any lingering doubts about sharing details of the past with Ye Hua, they would have evaporated right then and there. He needed to know the whole truth of what had happened. She filed the name Weisheng away to ask Ye Hua about the demon after she had told him her story.
“We have to assume Weisheng also knows you live in this forest,” Ye Hua continued, sadness on his face now as he looked at their linked hands. “It’s no longer safe for you. The peach tree forest has been your haven for millennia mostly because nobody knew you lived here. I feel like I’ve taken that away from you.”
All the times her fox had stubbornly insisted the safest place in the forest was next to Ye Hua and the black dragon surfaced in Bai Qian’s mind. Even though Bai Qian had denied it for longer than she should have, Bai Qian’s fox had been correct all along.
She pulled her hand away from Ye Hua’s hold and wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him close for a moment before responding. She pulled back just enough to meet his warm mahogany eyes; she kept her arms draped over his shoulders in a loose embrace. She was relieved to see some of the remorse in his gaze had been replaced by hopeful affection. She smiled at him.
“I no longer need the forest to be my safe place,” Bai Qian said, her voice firm for emphasis so Ye Hua would hear and believe the truth in her words. “You are my haven now, Ye Hua. I will always love this forest. It will always be a part of me. But next to you is where I want to be… wherever in the realm that may be.”
“You really mean that?” Ye Hua asked with wonder. Bai Qian nodded before pressing her lips against his in a gentle kiss.
“Yes,” she whispered, moisture welling up in her eyes.
“You’re not upset that I disrupted your peaceful life here? I’m sorry I barged in the way I did in the beginning and…”
“Don’t you dare apologize for pushing your way into my life,” Bai Qian scolded before giving him a tearful smile. “My life may have been a lot quieter before I met you but I wasn’t happy, Ye Hua. Not really. I am now. You make me happy.” Ye Hua wiped the moisture off her cheeks with the back of his fingers. Bai Qian savored his gentle touch.
“So very happy it overwhelms me sometimes,” she added with a whisper. “You’ve filled the lonely places inside me, reminding me how important it is to have a family and loved ones in my life.”
Ye Hua sucked in a surprised breath. “Qian Qian…”
“You’re my family now, Ye Hua,” Bai Qian continued shyly, feeling her face flush with heat. She didn’t let the faint blush deter her from sharing her feelings with him. “I love you.”
Bai Qian squeaked when she was abruptly yanked forward into Ye Hua’s strong embrace. His mouth captured hers, leaving Bai Qian breathless. She wrapped her arms around his neck once more as he deepened the kiss. Her eager tongue met his, sharing her passion with him as he groaned and tightened his hold, sitting back off his knees so he could pull her onto his lap.
After a few minutes, Ye Hua softened the kiss, nibbling on her lips with his before he pulled away. His breathing was ragged and there were banked flames of desire burning in his dark eyes, promising Bai Qian something wonderful she yearned to discover. But his smile was warm and affectionate as he waited for her to recover her breath.
“I love you too, Qian Qian,” he murmured softly. “I am honored to be your family… more honored than I can ever say.” He intertwined his fingers with hers and lifted her hand to his lips to press a gentle kiss there. She smiled at him.
“Whatever happens in the future,” Ye Hua continued. “We will face it together. I promise.”
Bai Qian nodded, her happy smile fading as she remembered the trouble awaiting them and what she needed to do today. It could be delayed no longer.
“There is something I need to tell you, Ye Hua… something really important I should have told you before now.” Her stomach churned with anxious dread and she looked down. Ye Hua’s fingers squeezed her hand comfortingly as if he sensed her sudden disquiet.
“You can tell me anything, Qian Qian.”
“This isn’t the place to talk about it though.” She lifted her eyes to find Ye Hua watching her with concern. “There’s only one place that will help me remember everything I need to say. Will you walk with me to Qing Qiu and the Fox Den?”
⇛ Next part: Ch 37: The Shadows of Yesterday
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