The peach tree forest was a place of unique beauty.
It may have only been a short walk away from the Fox Den and the border of Qing Qiu but Ye Hua felt like he was stepping into a completely different world when he followed Zhe Yan to the outskirts of the forest. The serene energy in the air surrounding the peach trees contrasted sharply with the mournful atmosphere lingering over Qing Qiu. The land of ever-flowering trees had been visited only rarely since the death of the Bai family but it did not feel lonely and forgotten to Ye Hua the way Qing Qiu had.
Ye Hua’s fingers itched to paint the wondrous landscape in front of him as he and Zhe Yan stood on the gentle rise of a hill overlooking the peach grove. There were ancient trees covered with pale pink blossoms stretching out before him for as far as he could see. A light breeze brushed against his face, bringing warmth and the sweet fragrance of peaches with it. He could hear the soft buzzing sound of bees flitting from one blossom to another, creating a perfect background harmony for the chirping birds that made the peach trees their home.
Ye Hua breathed in the refreshing air deeply, sampling all the subtle nuances of the scent of the forest. He felt himself relaxing as he gazed at the trees.There was an undercurrent of peace and tranquility here that rivaled that of the lotus gardens in the Heavens. He took a moment to relish in the soft ambience of the peach trees, appreciating the calm he felt inside after his earlier turmoil in the Fox Den. There was untamed magic emanating from the very heart of this forest; Ye Hua’s dragon sensed it and was drawn to it.
Would he be able to recreate all these different aspects of the forest accurately with paint and brush? It was a challenge Ye Hua was looking forward to undertaking. But only after he had finished his search for Bai Qian.
As he studied the expanse of peach trees, Ye Hua could understand why Bai Qian might want to continue to hide herself away in this undisturbed spot of land instead of venturing back out into the rest of the world. The serene atmosphere of the forest could serve as a soothing balm to help ease some of her agonizing sorrow. She would be able to find solace here within the solitude of the peach trees better than she would be able to anywhere else.
If Bai Qian were still alive…
Ever since finding the small memorial outside the Fox Den, Ye Hua’s instincts were telling him Bai Qian was alive and in hiding somewhere among these trees. He needed to keep reminding himself of the possibility his instincts may be wrong.
“When I told Father I wanted to study medicinal herbs and practice healing magic, his only response was to give me these peach trees. I have no idea why he did it or what he meant by the gift.”
Ye Hua detected a note of puzzlement in Zhe Yan’s voice as it broke the quiet between them and interrupted his thoughts. He glanced over at Zhe Yan to find a pensive expression on his friend’s face.
Ye Hua wondered how the conversation between Zhe Yan and King Zhao Hui had gone. Ye Hua knew Zhe Yan had been worried about his father’s response to his decision to discontinue his formal studies in order to further his knowledge of medicine. Zhe Yan’s cultivation was well-suited to the art of healing and Ye Hua knew he would be very good at it. But it was a much different path from the one of leadership the Phoenix King had wanted his son to take. Zhe Yan had never wanted to inherit his father’s position and had debated the best way to tell his father for years before making the final decision.
Ye Hua didn’t see any indications the discussion had been an unpleasant one in Zhe Yan’s expression. His friend looked a little perplexed when mentioning the talk with his father, not upset by it.
“This forest is sheltered from a lot of the troubles found in the other realms,” Ye Hua finally offered in response, turning back to look at the blossoming trees. “And the trees have a distinctive aura of energy all their own. Can you feel it?”
“Yes. It’s beautiful land.” Zhe Yan nodded before sweeping his hand in front of him, a careless gesture that drew attention to the uneven border of the forest. “But what am I supposed to do with ten miles worth of peach trees? Peaches, even ones containing magic, have only a few minor uses in medicine.”
“Maybe it’s not about medicine.”
Zhe Yan looked Ye Hua’s way, a curious frown on his face. “Father gave the peach trees to me after I told him my decision. What else would it be about?”
Ye Hua shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe he wanted to provide you with a quiet, secluded place for your studies, Zhe Yan. Your father has never had any qualms about offering criticism when he disagrees with you. So he would have told you if he didn’t support your decision. Did he try to change your mind or seem disappointed when you told him?”
“No. Father didn’t say anything at all about it. He just told me the peach trees were now mine and walked away. We haven’t discussed it since.”
“See?” Ye Hua reached out and squeezed Zhe Yan’s shoulder with friendly encouragement. “That means your father supports your decision. Which means the peach trees must be a gift intended to help you with your studies in some way.”
“Maybe,” Zhe Yan answered thoughtfully. “I still think I should be doing something useful with the peach trees. I just don’t know what that useful thing is.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” Ye Hua gave Zhe Yan’s shoulder one last squeeze before heading toward the edge of the forest. He glanced back at Zhe Yan over his shoulder. “Come. Show me around your forest of worthless peach trees.”
Bai Qian moved through the underbrush swiftly, the path under her four paws soft and well-cushioned from the fallen petals littering the forest floor. Her head and tails remained down and close to the ground, creating as inconspicuous a profile as possible, to avoid attracting notice.
Her pointed ears swiveled back and forth and her black nose twitched, her senses on constant alert for any possible threats, as she hurried from one dense patch of trees to another. She was ever mindful of how easily the snow white fur of her fox could be spotted within the shadows of the forest if she wasn’t careful. She needed to be especially careful when she was moving through areas where the trees grew more sparsely.
The trail Bai Qian followed was one she had traveled a thousand times before. She could walk it with her eyes closed, only using her sensitive whiskers and sense of smell to guide her, despite its winding, convoluted route.
Bai Qian had created the complicated trail herself when she was much younger, purposely weaving it through the thickest areas of the forest and including as many fallen logs to go under or over as she could find. For this was the path to her private living space in the peach tree forest. It was a hidden alcove, a small den of sorts, she had found in a secluded outcropping of rocks. The more difficult it was to follow the path to her alcove, the safer she would be.
Bai Qian had a set of strict rules she always followed, rules that helped keep her and her fox safe and protected. Safety was always uppermost in her mind when deciding on a course of action. She expected there would come a time when she would face an enemy trying to threaten her simple life in the peach trees. She needed to be prepared for that eventuality every second of every day. An attack could come out of nowhere.
Bai Qian never shifted into human form unless she was in one of only a few protected places because her cultivation could be detected more easily when in human form. It was difficult for others to feel when she was in fox form. She would allow herself to take human form in her den and certain secluded places within the forest where she could gather peaches.
For years Bai Qian had only eaten the meat of small prey her fox was able to capture within the dense areas of the forest. It had taken her many years to find the safest, most hidden areas of the forest to pick peaches she could snack on as well. And it had taken her even longer to find the courage to venture out beyond her den in human form. She visited these different places within the forest on a random schedule, never wanting her routine to become too predictable in case she was ever being observed.
Baths had become a special treat she only recently started allowing herself to enjoy. But only on rare occasions. She could use her power to keep herself clean but she really missed the relaxing sensation of being submerged in water. So every once in a while she would allow herself to visit the small lake near the abandoned cabin for a bath in the sun-warmed water. The water in the lake was always scented with the fragrance of fallen peach blossom petals. She loved soaking in the soothing peach-scented water. But only after she had spent several hours in the form of her fox assessing the forest near the lake for any potential threats.
Bai Qian always used only her own handmade trails when moving anywhere in the forest. The network of paths was complicated, challenging to follow, and difficult for anybody but her agile fox to travel. She made a point to never visit any one of her safe places too often and she always varied which trail through the peach trees she chose to reach them.
She had even mustered the courage one day to create a path leading to a small group of houses located just outside the forest. Her meager collection of human possessions had been obtained from scavenging for discarded items that still had some uses left in them. She had only done so twice because it was a terrifying ordeal to leave her forest and risk having the people living there catch sight of her. All it would take was one sighting and her whole world could come crashing down around her all over again.
She must never be found.
Which was why Bai Qian always, without fail, masked her scent. That was one of the most important rules. All of her efforts to hide her existence from others would be useless if she inadvertently left a scent trail in her wake.
Even with all her rules, Bai Qian never completely relaxed until she was settled in her den. Her protected alcove was the only place she truly felt safe and, in the past, she had sometimes spend days holed up within its small confines, too scared to venture out. During her early days of living in the forest, there were long periods of time when she would only leave the den when she allowed her fox to take over for her. As she had formulated her list of rules, leaving the den when she herself was in control had slowly become easier for her.
Bai Qian slowed her pace, every muscle tensing with wariness, as she reached the part of the trail leading to her den she always dreaded. Bai Qian hated crossing the forest clearing, hated feeling exposed and vulnerable while she traversed the portion of open land leading to her private corner of the forest.
There was tall grass for her to move through but it wasn’t enough for her peace of mind. She had searched many times but had been unable to find a way around it. The only trail she had been able to make to reach her alcove needed to cross the clearing.
Bai Qian could feel her fox’s excitement as she remained hunkered down behind some underbrush and carefully studied the open field in front of her. Her fox thought of their complicated trek through the forest as a fun game and she loved making the mad dash across the clearing.
Bai Qian urged her fox to be cautious, fighting back the instinct to retreat further inside herself and allow her inner beast to take over. It was always a temptation when she faced entering the open clearing but she knew she needed to be careful how often she retreated inside herself for escape.
She had allowed it to happen more often than she should have in the beginning. The painful memories from that night would take hold of her thoughts frequently, no matter how much she tried to bury them away in the dark recesses of her mind. She was unable to forget. The ache in her chest would become agonizing and then completely unbearable as she remembered the horror of losing her family and her safe world. She would be consumed by inescapable loneliness and deep despair, the grief of living without her loved ones too much for her to face.
During those times, Bai Qian had retreated from the anguish the only way she knew how. She would hide away and let her fox take over for her. It had given her a welcome respite from everything she felt incapable of handling on her own. There were weeks and even months of time she had lost track of how long she stayed hidden within herself. The more she escaped the pain and heartache with blissful numbness, the more difficult she found it to force herself to surface back to awareness.
A memory of her father and his love of storytelling had been what saved her from disappearing completely. He had once shared a story with her about an immortal who had lost himself inside his inner beast by using the very strategy she was using to numb her pain. His familiar voice had entered her mind unbidden one lonely night, reminding her of the dangers of giving herself over to her fox completely.
The memory of her father had shifted something inside of Bai Qian and she had vowed to take care from that day forward. She didn’t want to lose her humanity. Her human side was the only way she could hang on to many of the memories she had of her family. The family memories her fox clung to were meaningful but they were vague and hazy. Many of the small details were lost.
Her fox was untamed and functioned more on instinct. She didn’t allow so many painful human emotions to get in her way. Bai Qian knew her fox missed the love and affection of their family but she also knew her fox lived more in the present than she did the past. Bai Qian had once depended on her fox’s ability to ignore everything but the need to survive in the present to make it from one day to the next. It had been easier to escape reality but the consequences of doing so too often would have been severe if she had continued.
After hearing her father’s voice that night, Bai Qian had immediately forced herself to make the trip back to Qing Qiu and the Fox Den the next morning. She had welcomed her fox’s company on the walk but had not let her lead the way no matter how tempting it had been. Bai Qian had then created the small memorial dedicated to her family outside her old home, promising to visit periodically and take care of her family’s memory. She could never allow herself to break that promise and it had pulled her back from the brink of self-oblivion.
The harrowing trek she had made to Qing Qiu and back that day had also provided her with the idea that she needed a concrete plan in place to keep herself safe in the future. Bai Qian’s list of rules had begun taking shape, all originating from the lessons her parents had shared with her about tracking and catching prey. Once she had modified those lessons to make herself harder to track and find, travel through the forest felt less risky and she had started venturing away from her den more often. She never felt completely safe while away from her den but the rules helped. She had been following them ever since. She also depended less on her fox and more on herself these days.
Bai Qian took a tentative sniff of the air around her, checking for any unusual scents. She listened closely for several minutes to ensure there were no sounds near the clearing that shouldn’t be there. She glanced all around her, watching the field closely. The tall grass was swaying gently in the breeze but, otherwise, there was no other movement.
Bai Qian’s heart started pounding as she took a tentative step out into the open clearing, automatically lowering her body into a crouched position and pulling her tails down so she could better hide within the tall grass. She started slinking through the thick vegetation, angling her path off to the right as she entered the small stretch of land. She always crossed the clearing on a slightly different path in order to avoid forming an obvious line of broken stalks leading through the grass. An outsider could follow such a trail and come closer to finding the entrance to her den.
Bai Qian’s fox urged her on eagerly. Bai Qian checked for any evidence of a nearby intruder once again, relieved when all felt as it was supposed to. She finally picked up her pace and started running stealthily toward her destination on the opposite side of the clearing. The objective was to cross as quickly and quietly as possible without creating the risk of attracting attention. She had become quite skilled at running while keeping her body and tails tucked close to the ground.
She had almost reached the far edge of the clearing when Bai Qian spotted a single red wildflower, the bright color contrasting sharply with all the green around it, growing off to her left. She had never seen a flower in this field and it grabbed her attention.
She altered her path to take a closer look at it. She loved the peach blossoms that grew on the trees of the forest all around her. Their pale pink color was beautiful but she sometimes missed having the chance to see other more brightly colored flowers. There were few growing in the forest.
Bai Qian moved next to the flower, catching a hint of its floral fragrance. She considered picking the blossom so she could decorate her den with it but changed her mind. It would be better to leave it here where it could continue to grow. It was also challenging to pick something so delicate with her muzzle. Her fox’s sharp teeth often caused unintended damage.
She turned to leave, not wanting to linger too long in an open area. As she moved away she caught a whiff of the scent of rabbit as the breeze changed directions. There was a rabbit trail running right beside the small flower. Her fox immediately zeroed in on the scent, urging Bai Qian to follow the smell of prey.
Bai Qian balked at the idea of hunting. She had already visited Qing Qiu to burn a candle by the Fox Den in memory of her family today. Those visits were like a return to her tragic past and often left her feeling off balance and worn out emotionally. She was ready to try and find some inner peace in the safety of her secluded den.
And leaving the forest to visit her childhood home was always a huge risk, one that typically left her feeling tense and more worried than normal about threats in the area. The increased worry combined with the emotional strain was a lot for her to deal with. She wasn’t sure she wanted to take any more chances today. One big risk in a day was more than enough. She turned her body back in the direction of the den but her fox protested her decision.
Bai Qian sighed and glanced in the other direction with indecision. She had stayed in her den for the last few days and it had been at least a week since she and her fox had eaten meat. A rabbit for supper tonight would be a welcome change from the peaches. And her fox was growing restless from the constant hiding. She enjoyed hunting and was always careful to stick to the certain safe portions of the forest Bai Qian had already scouted in the past.
Bai Qian weighed the pros and cons in her head briefly. The rabbit trail was headed in the direction of a part of the forest she had not traveled through in recent months. And she had one of her established trails running through it so she had already determined there were safe hiding places in that patch of the forest. It was a good area to hunt in for that reason and it would be a change to her routine. Was she really going to pass up a chance to capture an easy meal just because of her earlier visit to Qing Qiu?
Bai Qian finally relented, allowing her fox to come to the forefront of her thoughts more fully. She would be able to rest more peacefully later if her fox was allowed to release some of her built up energy now. Everything around her felt normal. She detected no threats nearby. She reminded her fox to only hunt near the trails and only in the safe areas of the forest before stepping back inside herself a little further.
Bai Qian’s fox took the lead happily, pushing her muzzle and nose close to the ground to follow the scent of rabbit into the forest.
⇛ Next part: Ch 5: A Fleeting Glimpse
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