Ye Hua waited outside the cabin where Bai Qian was changing her dress for their walk to Qing Qiu. He had changed out of his formal robes and into a pair of black pants and tunic. Then he had sent a message to his parents to let them know Bai Qian was safe and unharmed followed by a message to Mo Yuan asking if he and Bai Qian could stay on Kunlun Mountain for a time if Bai Qian agreed to it.
Until the traitor was identified, Kunlun was the safest place for her. And it would allow her to avoid the worst of the gossip in the Heavens. But Ye Hua didn’t want to make a final decision without speaking to her about it first. It was a conversation that would have to wait until after their visit to the Fox Den; whatever it was Bai Qian needed to tell him was more important. All he knew right now was that it was about the night her family was murdered.
He glanced toward the still-closed door of the cabin, wondering if Bai Qian was okay. Ye Hua wanted to check on her but she had requested a few minutes alone to gather her thoughts.
Though he wore a calm expression, Ye Hua was actually filled with a torrent of emotions.
‘You’re my family now, Ye Hua. I love you.’
The memory of those two life-altering sentences spoken in Bai Qian’s shy voice brought excited joy bubbling up inside him. They were the greatest words he had ever heard. He and his dragon wanted to roar their happiness to the Heavens and beyond before soaring away with her to a secluded place where Ye Hua could fully explore the potent desire simmering between him and Bai Qian. Then they would be bonded in all ways possible.
After, he would hold her close, reassuring her he would never let go, no matter how difficult their circumstances might become. He intended to be with her and only her always. There was nobody else he wanted standing at his side going forward.
But along with the joy and desire, Bai Qian’s declaration of her love for him had also intensified Ye Hua’s primal need to protect her from harm. That included sheltering her from all things that could steal her happiness and peace of mind. Which was why their upcoming visit to Qing Qiu was weighing so heavily on his thoughts now.
Ye Hua would gladly give everything he had to spare Bai Qian the pain and sorrow reliving the night of the massacre would bring her even if she insisted it was important they talk about it. He was worried about her. And furious that present circumstances with Weisheng and the traitor helping him were forcing her to confront the past before she might be ready. He would kill them both for what they had done to Bai Qian.
Forcing his angry thoughts away, Ye Hua considered the rest of his earlier conversation with Bai Qian. Even after all that had happened in the Heavens yesterday, she had been the one reassuring him all was okay instead of the other way around. There was something different about her now, as if a fundamental part of her that had been buried away during her millenia of hiding had finally returned.
He had sensed this determined part of her trying to surface in recent days as they discovered more about each other. It had finally broken free.
Something had changed for Bai Qian while she had been hiding away inside herself. Ye Hua wondered what it had been. He had tried to reach her through meditation but had not been successful in making a connection with her mind. In the end, she had returned all of her own volition and had regained an essential part of herself in the process. He admired and loved her even more because of it, something he never would have thought possible.
The door to the cabin opened and Bai Qian stepped outside. She wore the grey dress his mother had given her; the muted color matched her serious mood. Her hair was unbound, flowing down her shoulders and back in gentle black waves. Bare toes peeked out from the hem of her dress as she walked over to him. Her expression was a solemn one but she still greeted him with a small genuine smile.
Sadness swept over Ye Hua when her beautiful smile faded away much too quickly. He reached out and took her hand with his, giving her slender fingers a light squeeze of support.
“Are you ready to go?” Bai Qian asked him, her voice soft.
Instead of answering her question, Ye Hua asked one of his own. “Are you certain you want to do this today?” He suspected he knew her answer but Ye Hua still had to ask. If Bai Qian was having any doubts about returning to Qing Qiu, he wanted her to know it was okay to wait.
“Yes,” Bai Qian responded with a nod. “After everything that happened yesterday, it must be today.”
“Okay.” Ye Hua caressed her hand with his thumb in what he hoped was a comforting gesture. “I’m ready.”
Matching his pace to hers, Ye Hua walked alongside Bai Qian as she led them down the forest pathway that would take them to Qing Qiu. There were no words spoken between them but there was no need for constant conversation between him and Bai Qian anymore. The silence surrounding them was a comfortable one broken only by the sounds of the creatures living in the underbrush and among the trees.
Bai Qian’s steps didn’t falter a single time as they drew closer to her family’s land. When they reached the border of Qing Qiu and the peach tree forest, she crossed that invisible line separating the two without hesitation and started across the meadow that would bring them to the Fox Den. They created a trail through the long, overgrown weeds as they walked, following the broken remnants of the stone walkway.
Ye Hua understood, at least in part, how difficult this task must be for her and he respected Bai Qian all the more for facing it so bravely while also wishing he could help her find a way to avoid it altogether. But there was no other way. Hadn’t he been thinking just the other day that Bai Qian could find peace by talking about what had happened in the past? That it would be a freeing experience for her? The time had come to see if this idea was true; it was happening much sooner than he had expected but maybe that was for the best.
When they reached the still dark waters of Qing Qiu’s lake and passed by the falling wooden shelter with its rotting table, Bai Qian finally stopped. She tightened her grip on Ye Hua’s hand and he glanced over to find her complexion had taken on an ashen hue since leaving the forest.
“I’ll be right back,” she whispered, pulling her hand away from his.
Ye Hua wanted to protest and stay close to her. Instead, he bit his lip and didn’t say anything, watching Bai Qian walk over to one of the wooden posts that was still supporting the roof of the shelter, if only barely. She placed her palm upon that decaying post and stared at the table without saying a word. Was she remembering all the stories her father had told her over tea? Or was she thinking about special family meals shared next to the lake, its glassy surface shining with the illumination from the magic pearls?
She turned back to Ye Hua after several silent minutes. There was moisture welling up in her eyes now and her expression had become more somber. She returned to his side and grabbed his hand again. Her fingers trembled ever so slightly against his but her tears did not fall. Bai Qian’s quiet composure hurt Ye Hua’s heart more than it would have if she had started crying.
Let all the pain and sadness out, Qian Qian. Don’t keep it bottled up inside. The words were on the tip of his tongue but Ye Hua held them back. This was her task and her journey back to the past. He would be here if she needed him but he wasn’t going to interfere. Not unless she asked him for his advice.
They continued on along the broken path until reaching Bai Qian’s small garden. The weeds had mostly died off. The plants were alive and now laden with bright yellow blossoms, a spot of happy color in an otherwise muted and unhappy landscape. She stopped again, a spark of surprise chasing away some of the sadness in her eyes.
“My flowers,” she murmured in amazement. “They’re still here and they’re blooming. I can’t believe it. Last time I looked they were being choked out by the weeds.”
Dropping Ye Hua’s hand, Bai Qian hurried over to the garden, kneeling next to the stone border. He followed her.
She caressed the petals of one blossom, her eyes widening in shock at what she must have felt when she touched the flower.
“You did this,” she said, voice faint with wonder. She turned to look at him; tears were streaming down her face now. But it wasn’t sadness Ye Hua saw in her eyes. It was love and affection. “I can feel your cultivation here. It’s your mother’s spell. You saved my flowers.” Ye Hua nodded, feeling a little self-conscious about it just as he had the day he had performed the spell. But then Bai Qian smiled, a genuine smile that was all the more beautiful because of her earlier sorrow, and his discomfort vanished.
Ye Hua had forgotten all about the flowers and his decision to save them until now. It had seemed like such a silly, pointless thing to do at the time. But now he was grateful he had taken the time to do it because it had given Bai Qian a moment of joy during this painful return to her home. Her happiness was worth the embarrassment he had experienced that day when Zhe Yan had guessed his purpose behind the gesture. Ye Hua would do anything he could to make Bai Qian happy.
Bai Qian stood, wiping away her tears before wrapping her arms around his waist, giving him a tight hug that he returned. She looked up at him. “Thank you, Ye Hua. I can’t…. Those flowers mean a lot to me. Mother and I planted them together after Father built the bed for them and…” She paused. “I feared they were lost forever. Thank you for saving them.”
“I’m glad I was able to revive them for you,” Ye Hua responded, pressing a light kiss to her lips.
She gave him another small smile before pulling out of his arms with a deep sigh. Her smile faded and her expression grew serious once more.
“It’s time. Part of me wants to turn around and go back to the forest,” Bai Qian said. “But I know I can’t. Not this time.” Ye Hua didn’t say anything, sensing she wasn’t looking for an answer from him. Her eyes met his. “I don’t know that this is something you can ever truly be ready for. I think you just have to make yourself do it when you’re ready to move forward.”
Ye Hua nodded, clasping her hand with his. “I’ll stay with you, Qian Qian.”
Bai Qian didn’t say anything as she walked the short distance to the Fox Den with Ye Hua, finding a small measure of comfort from his warm presence. He would stay right next to her the whole time, lending his caring support in that patient, selfless way of his. But she needed to spend a few minutes alone in the Fox Den. She needed to face it on her own before finally sharing the memory of what had happened.
Her stomach clenched into a painful knot when they reached the entrance. Bai Qian’s fox was anxious yet still and silent, waiting and dreading to enter her old den.
They had only been back inside their childhood home once since their family had been killed. It had been the day Bai Qian ran in to grab the portrait of her family and the jade nine-tailed fox token for the memorial she had created. She hadn’t stopped to look around, had kept her eyes closed almost the whole time, navigating her old den based on memory alone. She had avoided looking at the traces of violence left behind; had breathed in shallow breaths to avoid detecting the lingering scent of death. Today would be very different. Bai Qian’s fox whined softly and then became silent again.
Taking a deep breath, Bai Qian tugged her hand out of Ye Hua’s.
“I will go in with you.” There was worry in his tone.
Bai Qian kept her gaze on the dark entrance to the Fox Den, avoiding his eyes. She might falter if she saw Ye Hua’s concern. “I need a few minutes alone, Ye Hua.”
Ye Hua didn’t respond right away and Bai Qian sensed his desire to protest the idea. But he didn’t. “Okay. I’ll be right out here if you need me.”
“Thank you,” Bai Qian responded softly, walking toward the Fox Den entrance.
The magic of Heavenly Father’s barrier brushed over her as she approached, assessing her intentions just as it had the last time she had crossed this threshold. It felt very similar to Ye Hua’s cultivation, only ancient and even more powerful. Because of the similarity between the two, the magic was reassuring this time when it had not been previously. It welcomed her as she stepped through it.
A hushed whisper greeted Bai Qian as she entered the main room of the Fox Den. Only a small amount of light from the sun reached in, leaving the room and most of its contents hidden in dark shadows while her eyes adjusted to the dim interior. The stone floor was cold against her bare feet. The air smelled musty and disused with a faint underlying scent of something else that she shied away from exploring further without conscious thought.
Heart pounding with nerves, Bai Qian lit a single candle with her magic, bracing herself for what she would see. At first, nothing out of the ordinary appeared. The gathering room looked as it always had, as if a moment from her childhood had been frozen in time.
Her mother would often sit at the small table in the evening while mending clothes. She always insisted on doing the chore for the family herself whenever she had the time. Bai Qian imagined her mother sitting there now, repairing a dress Bai Qian had ripped while out exploring the forest. There would be a lecture to follow about how she needed to take care with her things and start acting more like the lady she was. Her mother had often instructed Bai Qian on the proper behavior for a princess but the words were always underlined with love and concern.
Bai Qian smiled fondly at the thought before her eyes wandered to a large oak chair in the corner near the hearth. Her father’s favorite chair though he would always give it up for her mother on cold nights. He would sit with a cup of wine, tending the fire while sharing some outlandish tale to entertain the family.
Her mother would interject with a correction every now and then when she thought he wasn’t telling it correctly or was exaggerating too much. Bai Qian liked to sit on a small cushion nearby to fully absorb his words, imagining the places he described with wonder. She would often pretend to be the brave heroine of one of her father’s stories when she was out exploring.
After she and her brothers were supposed to be asleep, Bai Qian would sometimes sneak out of the Fox Den. She had caught her parents sitting together in that chair several times when she did, her mother perched on her father’s lap while they talked quietly.
Her mother had called moments like that ‘adult time’ when Bai Qian asked about them. ‘Adult time’ had always seemed boring to Bai Qian and she hadn’t understood why her parents insisted on having it so often. Now that she had met Ye Hua, she understood better why they had enjoyed spending time alone together. She was happy to know her parents had truly loved each other.
Two faded cushions grabbed her attention as she continued to examine the room. Her two oldest brothers would play Go in that spot, the board and pieces set up on the floor between them. They often argued about not only the game itself, but a wide variety of other subjects that came up during the course of the game. Zhen Zhen would sit across the room, glaring if they disrupted his writing with one of their boisterous disagreements.
Thoughts of her closest brother brought another smile to Bai Qian’s lips and she turned to look towards his usual place. There were spatters of faint red staining the wall, a rust color she recognized even if she didn’t want to.
Bai Qian froze, her smile vanishing as her happy memories snuffed out to be replaced by the violent memories of pain and death now flooding through her.
It was as if that terrible night were happening all over again. Everywhere she looked, Bai Qian saw splashes of blood, bright red and congealing as it seeped into the granite. The awful metallic stench of death permeated the air, assaulting her senses every time she breathed. The atmosphere was heavy with the deadly chill of demon magic. Bai Qian started shaking, her breaths coming in terrified gasps.
Her brother, Zhen Zhen, lay in a collapsed heap, his fox claws torn and ragged where he had raked them against the floor as he died. The gouges he had left behind would forever scar the Fox Den. Her father lay sprawled out in the middle of the room, his chest a mangled mess of exposed muscle and bone and gore, blood oozing from his clawless fingers. Her mother’s body lay a few feet away, her lifeless face would almost be peaceful were it not for the large volume of blood soaking through her ripped nightdress and spreading out in a pool beneath her.
Bai Qian managed two unsteady steps before her legs gave out and she sank down to her knees on the ground. She covered her face with her hands to block out the horrible images. She wanted to scream but nothing came out other than a few pitiful gasps of air. She wanted to cry but the tears wouldn’t fall. She was weak and unable to save them.
She would always be unable to save her family.
The black dragon growled when Bai Qian entered the Fox Den alone. He didn’t want to let her out of his sight and he made sure Ye Hua knew how he felt. Ye Hua agreed with his dragon but said nothing. Nobody with ill intent could cross his father’s magic but there were other reasons to be concerned about Bai Qian’s well being.
After ten minutes, the dragon growled again and Ye Hua fought off the urge to start pacing with worry while he waited. How long should he give her? He turned and looked around at the land of Qing Qiu, trying to find something else to think about but his mind wandered right back to Bai Qian in the Fox Den. His gaze wandered back along with it.
He stared at the entrance. Was she okay? His father’s barrier made it impossible for him or his dragon to sense her mood. Maybe he should go in and check on her. If she needed more time, he would give it to her after ensuring she was all right. The protective instinct urging him to check on her was one he could no longer ignore.
Ye Hua passed through the barrier and into the Fox Den on silent steps, trying his best not to disturb Bai Qian. A single candle burned in the cavern, it’s flame creating flickering shadows along the walls. The interior looked the same as it had on the day he visited with Zhe Yan.
His heart dropped when his eyes found Bai Qian. She was on her knees, head buried in her hands. Her fear struck him sharply; its scent filled the room.
“Qian…” He started to say her name and took a step to rush over to her. But he stopped short when she took a steady breath. Her fear diminished. Then she took another breath and lifted her head.
Bai Qian struggled against the memories of her family’s murder. She was lost in the past with no sense of the present nor how to get back to it.
Her fox whined softly before yipping at her, the sound urgent and scolding. Her fox’s voice broke through to Bai Qian and she clung to it like a lifeline, suddenly remembering the terrifying events of her dream from the night before. She had let fear and panic trap her then too. She could overcome this panic just as she had in her nightmare.
The fox yipped again, encouraging Bai Qian to fight through it. Bai Qian breathed in a deep breath, letting it out slowly, forcing herself to focus on what scents were actually there and not what she had been imagining was there. She smelled musty, stale air again. The stench of blood and death had faded back into the background, only lingering from the past. It was barely detectable now.
She breathed in again before taking her hands away from her face and opening her eyes. The bodies of her family were gone. The red splashes and nauseating pools of congealed blood had reverted back to faint, rust colored stains in the granite. Relief washed over Bai Qian. She had found her way back to the present.
And to Ye Hua. The scent of thunderstorms was now mingling with the others. She looked toward the entrance. He was standing there, watching her with a concerned expression on his face.
“Ye Hua,” she murmured, grateful to find him standing there. How did he always seem to know when she needed him?
“Are you all right?” His voice was soft and hushed, no more than a whisper.
“Yes,” she responded, standing. “And no.”
Bai Qian walked over to a large area of dull red in the middle of the cavern. She kneeled next to it and Ye Hua joined her there without saying a word. Placing her palm on the faded blood stain, Bai Qian sighed, a sorrowful sound of acceptance.
“My father died right here,” she said quietly.
“Tell me what happened, Qian Qian.”
She nodded. She would look back to the past again but she would remember to stay in the present this time. Ye Hua took her free hand in his, holding it tightly and anchoring her to the here and now.
“It started with a fun evening,” she began, her voice wavering just a little. “All of my brothers were home so Mother was in an especially good mood when we sat down to eat supper. My eldest brothers were away from the den more and more as they got older, doing who knows what. They would rarely tell me.” She gave Ye Hua a sad smile before looking back down at the stain under her hand.
“Mother and Father let me stay up late because I wanted to spend time with everybody. So I didn’t go to bed on time. Otherwise, I might not have been away from home when…” Bai Qian’s voice caught and she stopped.
Ye Hua gave her hand a supportive squeeze. “Take your time,” he murmured.
“I waited until everybody had finally gone to bed before sneaking out. There was a full moon that night. I always loved exploring the forest at night by the light of a full moon. I had snuck out countless times in the past so I didn’t think anything about it. I didn’t know I would never…” Bai Qian took an unsteady breath. Her hand was beginning to shake.
“It was when I returned home that I realized something was terribly wrong. There was a horrible glow lighting up the night in the distance.”
“The fires in the village,” Ye Hua whispered.
Bai Qian nodded. “I didn’t know what it was at the time. I just knew it was bad. I could hear screaming and the shrill clanging of metal… angry shouts. The air smelled of blood and death. And fear. But worst of all was the still silence coming from inside the den. Father and my brothers would have been doing something to help. If there were injured people, Mother would have been tending their wounds. But they weren’t. I could hear violence all around and people were dying but my father was doing nothing about it. It was… I knew something was wrong.”
She stopped and looked up at Ye Hua, compelled to explain further and defend the memory of her father. “Father wasn’t weak. He wouldn’t have stood by, doing nothing to help his family and people.”
“I know that, Qian Qian. Nobody thinks he was weak.”
She shook her head. It was important that Ye Hua of all people understand the kind of man her father had been. “People must say it. They said it back then so they must say it even more now. But he wasn’t. He was once a great swordsman. He just… he had lost too many people to battle. He hated violence of any kind and he always insisted it didn’t really solve anything in the long run. He tried to solve problems using peaceful means but that didn’t make him weak.”
“Anybody who says your father was weak doesn’t understand that only the strongest people have the fortitude to follow their convictions to the very end.”
“Even with his beliefs, Father never would have let the demons kill his family and people, Ye Hua. And my brothers were not pacifists. They would have stopped it. They all should’ve been able to stop it. I’ve never understood what happened. Why didn’t they fight back?!”
“It was a sleeping spell,” Ye Hua told her gently.
“What?” Bai Qian whispered, surprised to learn Ye Hua knew the answer to a question that had haunted her most of her life.
“A written account of what happened is included in the records of the Demon King’s trial and sentencing. The demons entered Qing Qiu in the dead of night with overwhelming numbers, catching everybody completely off guard. They started with the advantage from the very beginning. Before most people had even realized they were there, the Demon King and his generals cast a strong sleeping spell over your family and the men in the village, a spell rooted in death magic. Your family tried to fight despite its effect but it would have made them sluggish and incapacitated while they struggled to counteract it. There wasn’t much they could do.” Ye Hua looked down at their clasped hands. “It was never a fair fight, Qian Qian. The Demon King and his generals paid for it dearly. Father made sure of it.”
Tears welled up in Bai Qian’s eyes and slid down her cheeks. She suddenly felt the loss of her family more acutely now that she knew the full extent of what had happened. They had struggled to fight back and had been unable to.
“So that’s why,” she murmured, wiping her tears away. “I knew everything was wrong that night.” She inhaled a shaky breath. “I didn’t know what to do when I arrived home. I was too scared to go inside the den but I didn’t want to leave.” Her breath hitched. “I felt so helpless. All I could do was hide. It was… awful.”
“You were just a girl,” Ye Hua said. “There was nothing you could have done. If you had tried to help, you would have died along with your family.”
“I know.” Bai Qian’s voice was small as she stared at the stained granite, seeing her father lying there again for just a second. “There were times that I wished I had.”
“No,” Ye Hua said, raising his voice for the first time. “Don’t say that, Qian Qian. Look at me.”
Bai Qian looked up, unable to stop herself. There was fury in Ye Hua’s eyes but there was immense pain in them as well.
“Don’t ever say that. Do you understand? Your family never would have wanted that for you. The knowledge you were away from the den and safe that night must have given them hope at the end. They would have wanted you to go on living.”
“Yes,” Bai Qian murmured before clearing her throat which was tight with emotion. “Yes, they would have.”
“And my life wouldn’t be the same without you, Qian Qian. I want you with me always.”
Tears welled up in Bai Qian’s eyes again. “I…” She cleared her throat a second time.
Her voice was stronger when she started speaking again. “I’m grateful I’m alive now. There were many times in the past when I was not. But I am now. There are so many things I still need to experience. Places I want to see. And I’m happy I lived so I could meet you again, Ye Hua.”
Ye Hua pulled her close to his side, keeping an arm around her shoulders for support.
“I watched the demons leave,” Bai Qian continued, determined to finish it. “From my hiding spot. I don’t know how long I waited afterwards before going inside. I saw them…” she stumbled over the words as tears started streaming down her cheeks.
“I saw my family. I wanted to try and help them but I had to stay in my fox form in case the demons came back. It wouldn’t have mattered. They were all dead. There was blood everywhere I looked. Their bodies were… Father’s chest was…” She shuddered as the memory of her father’s mangled chest flashed through her mind. “I didn’t know what to do. The pain and sadness were overwhelming. I felt lost and scared. And then I felt alone. So alone… in a way I never even knew existed. All I could do was curl up next to my father and cry.”
“I miss them so much,” Bai Qian choked out on a sob. She started to cry in earnest. “I miss them so much. There are so many things we never got to do. I never had the chance to say goodbye. And I never had the chance to tell them all how much I loved them. I always thought they would be around forever. But then they were gone.”
Bai Qian broke down in sobs, her entire body shaking as grief poured out of her. Ye Hua lifted her onto his lap, wrapping his arms around her to hold her tight. She hugged him back, clinging to his warmth and sturdy strength. His cultivation swirled around her and she reached out to it with her own, wanting to create that powerful connection with him again to ease her pain and sorrow.
“It’s okay, Qian Qian. Let it all out.” Ye Hua rubbed her back, providing comfort. “It will be okay.”
Soothing waves of love and protection surrounded her. Bai Qian focused on it and slowly regained her composure. She opened her eyes to meet Ye Hua’s. He knew about that night in the forest when their cultivations had connected. The knowledge of it was in his eyes. He had experienced it along with her.
“You felt it too,” she whispered, voice hoarse and weak from crying. Her whole body was weak and trembling. “You felt our connection that night.”
“Yes,” Ye Hua responded. He wiped her tears away with the pad of one of his thumbs before pressing a soft kiss to her lips. “That’s when I knew we were destined to spend our lives together.”
Bai Qian sank back against him, taking the love and comfort he always offered without ever asking for anything in return. There were still important things she needed to tell Ye Hua. Her ordeal wasn’t over yet. But, right in that moment, she felt complete peace for the first time since she had lost her family.
⇛ Next part: Ch 38: The Light of Tomorrow
⇚ Previous part: Ch 36: Forging a New Path