Bai Qian squeezed between two trees before sneaking under a dense patch of underbrush, ignoring the small tug on one of her tails when it became caught on an exposed twig. Her deft movements were graceful and stealthy as she effortlessly traveled the forest floor, her fox focused intently on the scent trail left behind by the rabbit. She instinctively side-stepped around a dry branch in her path, avoiding the mistake of stepping on it and the abrupt crack of dry wood that could give her presence away.
The scent trail had circled back around and led them close to the eastern border of the peach tree grove, the border it shared with Qing Qiu. Bai Qian had not wanted to visit this section of the forest so soon after her afternoon trip to the Fox Den but she did not try to stop her fox. Her fox was a predator and she enjoyed the hunt. Giving her fox this kind of freedom on occasion helped keep her content which usually helped Bai Qian remain calmer inside.
Bai Qian also found herself thinking less about the distressing memories the visit to her family’s memorial had rekindled as she concentrated more on her surroundings. The need to remain vigilant for any unusual scents or sounds within the forest was a welcome distraction from her troubled thoughts. If she had gone straight to her den as originally planned, she would probably be dwelling on her sorrow and loneliness right now.
Bai Qian veered off the pathway as the scent of the rabbit swerved to her right. Leaving one of her trails was often a necessity while hunting and Bai Qian had learned to accept it as long as she didn’t have to stray too far away from one of her established paths.
This particular scent trail suddenly had Bai Qian moving a little farther away than she was comfortable with when it turned sharply to the right again, leading her fox along a zigzag pattern through the underbrush. Unease sprung up inside Bai Qian when she recognized exactly where the rabbit’s scent was taking her fox. She was getting too close to the wide footpath that cut through the peach trees.
The footpath had been there for as long as she could remember. She had walked it so many times in the past.
Bai Qian clearly remembered walking it with her father and Bai Zhen one day when she was a young girl, her hand clinging tightly to her father’s as she told him about her new plan to use dried flower petals to give the rooms of the Fox Den a nice floral fragrance. Her father had listened patiently, scolding Bai Zhen when he called her plan a dumb idea. They had been going to visit King Zhao Hui and his son. It had been a beautiful summer day and they had been so happy. Would she ever have that carefree feeling again?
Bai Qian forced the ill-timed memory away before she gave in to the temptation to lose herself in it and become even more distracted. Panic tried to take hold of her when she realized her fox had used her few seconds of inattention to move closer to the path.
The footpath led straight to the lake and abandoned cabin but she never used it because it was too open. If there were ever intruders in the forest, Bai Qian knew that path was one of the places they would likely be. It was an easy way to travel through the forest and a place she avoided at all times. There was too much of a risk she could be spotted when near it.
Bai Qian tried to slow her fox’s pace but her fox wouldn’t listen. The enticing scent of rabbit had just intensified. They were nearing the rabbit’s burrow and her fox was determined to track it down.
“The beginning of the path should be right around here somewhere but I don’t see it.”
Zhe Yan’s voice held impatience as he walked along the edge of the forest, his robes brushing against the underbrush growing along the line of mature trees. Peach blossom pollen from low hanging branches covered his shoulder, decorating the gray fabric a speckled reddish-yellow. “It’s too overgrown to see anything.”
Ye Hua moved closer, searching intently for any places where new growth looked like it might be covering a break in the trees. He didn’t spot anything obvious.
“Are you sure this is the correct spot?” he questioned Zhe Yan with a skeptical voice. “I think you’re confused and remembering it wrong.”
Zhe Yan frowned at the doubt he heard in Ye Hua’s voice. “Yes, I’m sure. It should be right here.” He pointed to a place right in front of them, a place that appeared no different from the rest of the forest edge. He sighed. “I think it’s right here.” His voice sounded less confident this time. “It was a long time ago.”
Ye Hua watched as Zhe Yan started walking along the forest border headed in the other direction. He followed behind him, amused when he overheard Zhe Yan mutter, “Maybe it’s over here instead.”
Zhe Yan stopped abruptly and shrugged his shoulders in defeat. “I don’t know where the path is. Maybe it doesn’t exist anymore.”
Ye Hua had to stop short to avoid running into his friend as Zhe Yan turned back to face him.
“I think we might need to cloud-jump to the cabin, Ye Hua. It’s too difficult to travel through the forest without a path. I’ll show you the way. We can just look for the path once we’re…” Zhe Yan’s voice trailed off as he stared intently at a spot over Ye Hua’s shoulder. He smiled with satisfaction as he pointed. “There it is. I found it. I knew I could remember.”
Ye Hua spun around to follow where Zhe Yan was pointing. “Where? I don’t see anything.”
“Right there. See the unusual shape of the trunk of that tree over there. That tree marks where the trail begins.”
Ye Hua squinted as he looked over the line of blossoming peach trees, trying to find a spot where the forest edge looked different in some way. All the trees still looked the same to him, just as they had when he and Zhe Yan had originally walked by that part of the forest border a few minutes ago.
“I still don’t see it.”
Zhe Yan walked back the way they had just passed. Following him, Ye Hua finally saw the unusual tree Zhe Yan had mentioned.
Zhe Yan reached a hand out and cleared some of the dense undergrowth and young saplings out of the way with a stream of his power. A break in the trees became apparent as densely-packed leaves and thick foliage gave way to Zhe Yan’s magic, moving off to each side. Ye Hua could now follow a wide dirt path stretching out before them, leading into the heart of the forest.
“There’s the path,” Zhe Yan declared in a pleased voice. “Now I can show you around the peach grove.”
Ye Hua waited for Zhe Yan to enter the forest first before stepping onto the path himself.
The heat of the day was a little cooler under the canopy of the trees. Ye Hua noticed the change in temperature immediately when he moved into the dappled shade created by the blossom-laden branches hanging overhead. His thick black robes absorbed the heat from the sun’s bright rays so the shade felt refreshing after standing outside most of the afternoon. He followed Zhe Yan further into the forest, looking all around him with curiosity.
The ground beneath Ye Hua’s feet was peppered with fallen peach blossom petals, the brown soil a contrast to the fading pink. His and Zhe Yan’s footsteps sounded muffled to his ears as they walked along the path. The sweet scent of peaches was much stronger while standing under the trees themselves and his sense of smell felt off until he adjusted to the fragrance.
There was a hushed stillness in the immediate area surrounding him and Zhe Yan as the birds and small forest creatures became aware of their presence. Ye Hua could hear bird song tentatively start back up and grow louder behind them as they walked, the birds relaxing as the visitors moved out of their vicinity. The wildlife here was no longer used to the presence of people within the forest.
The further along the trail they walked, the more signs there were of the forest’s effort to take the cleared area back. Ye Hua spotted many young peach tree saplings sprouting up in places where the sun reached the ground. And there were clumps of lush green grass encroaching onto the path as well.
He slowed his pace as he studied the branches of one tree off to his left. There were a few bare branches that appeared to be dying. Ye Hua didn’t see as many peaches as he had expected given the amount of blossoms there appeared to be. The trees were overgrown in sections and needed pruning. These were the small signs of neglect not readily apparent from outside the forest. The trees of the peach grove were healthy overall but still needed some care and attention.
Ye Hua stopped with a thoughtful frown on his face. He approached the tree and leaned toward it to examine the dying branches more closely. Conversations with his mother about the care of fruit trees came to his mind as he reached out to test the strength and pliability of the nearest branch.
Bai Qian’s fox followed the scent of rabbit to a fallen trunk littering the forest floor, sticking her muzzle down into a small hole in the ground hidden by the rotting wood. She had found the entrance to the rabbit’s underground burrow. While Bai Qian’s fox was excited by the find and intent on locating her prey, Bai Qian herself was anxious. The forest path was well within sight of this location. She wasn’t safe here.
Bai Qian urged her fox to hurry, listening closely to her surroundings.
The birds were quieter than normal, an early warning sign for all the forest creatures.
The hushed air unnerved Bai Qian and she finally wrestled control back from her fox and lifted her head. Something was very wrong. She needed to get back to one of her trails but she was too far away from any of them. And she had no idea where the potential threat was coming from. To move now might mean giving her location away. She fought back panic as fear skittered down her spine, her fur standing on end with her agitation.
She silently flattened her small body and tails against the soft cushion of fallen petals and dead leaves on the forest floor. She took a deep breath, holding it as she closed her eyes and listened. Her pricked ears swivelled all around as she desperately searched for any sound that didn’t belong. There was only silence, the unnatural silence that only occurred when something had changed in the peach grove and upset its inhabitants.
But it wasn’t the silence alone that alarmed Bai Qian. Something else was different, something much more disturbing than the lack of forest noise. Bai Qian tried to empty her mind of the whirlwind of thoughts spinning around in her head and focused on nothing more than the feel of her surroundings, searching for the answer the forest was trying to give her.
Bai Qian’s eyes popped open and her heart started racing wildly when she finally understood what was really bothering her. She sensed a change in the atmosphere of the forest. The air around her felt different, more charged with power than it typically did. Somebody was here, somebody with cultivation potent enough to alter the powerful energy from the peach trees themselves.
Bai Qian released her pent up breath, inhaling deeply to sample the scents around her. Nothing. Yet. The wind must be moving in the wrong direction for her to catch the scent of the intruder.
She hesitated with indecision, unsure of her best course of action. She didn’t know if she would be able to move from this spot quickly while still staying hidden and without making noise. She cursed herself for allowing her fox to take her so far away from a safe place in the forest, knowing she needed to come up with an alternate plan now.
Maybe it would be better to remain perfectly still. But she was too out in the open here and the pathway was only a few feet away from her. Her white fur would stand out like a bright beacon for anybody walking through the forest. She must not shift because then her own cultivation would be immediately apparent to the intruder. She didn’t trust her ability to create a barrier strong enough to hide her presence in human form.
Then she heard it, the whisper-soft swooshes of fabric brushing against skin. That frightening sound was soon followed by the muffled clodding of boots walking along the ground. Two sets of boots. The heavy footsteps of men walking the earth was a sound Bai Qian had not heard in a long, long time. She whined low in her throat as terror gripped her. She lifted herself from the ground and frantically searched for a place to hide. She was running out of time. The men were almost upon her.
Bai Qian scrambled to hide herself under the thick leaves of a nearby bush, lowering herself into a crouched position within the dense branches. She curled her tails tightly around her body to ensure they didn’t stick out. She could hear herself panting raggedly with fear and she desperately tried to steady her breathing while her heart pounded loudly in her chest. She wondered if the men would be able to hear it for themselves as she saw them move into her line of vision through the trees.
Bai Qian’s eyes were helplessly drawn to the imposing figure of the man dressed in heavy black robes as he looked in her direction. Her muscles tensed and she curled into herself even further as he walked toward her hiding place, a stern frown on his hard features. Even with the distance between them, he appeared to tower over her small frame. She felt very exposed and vulnerable despite being hidden as she was under the cover of the thick vegetation. Did he know she was there? What would he do to her if he found her?
Bai Qian held her breath, her heart jumping in an unsteady rhythm, as he leaned closer to one of the nearby trees. Dread settled in the pit of her stomach as she found herself trapped with no way to get out of this dire situation. She was frozen with fear but her entire body felt poised for flight as he reached out in her direction. She wanted to run but was unsure she would be able to move if she needed to.
Then all rational thought fled Bai Qian’s mind when the scent of lightning and rain-laden thunderclouds swirled around her. She bit back a whine of fear. Panic overwhelmed her entire being as she breathed in the smell of a powerful storm again, finally recognizing what the terrifying black-clad man was.
Ye Hua’s dragon stirred inside him as he broke a small twig off the dead branch he was examining, manipulating the brittle wood between his long fingers as his eyes wandered over the underbrush of the forest. His dragon sensed terror….a lot of it. The sensation gave Ye Hua pause as he ignored his dragon’s instinctive predatory urge to chase down the source of the fear. Was there a frightened animal nearby?
Ye Hua kept his expression carefully neutral as he took deeper breaths, scenting the air around him. Fear had a distinctly bitter smell and was typically easy to detect and track. The area should be flooded with the strong unpleasant odor given the amount of fear his dragon sensed. It should be so potent he could imagine the bitter taste of it on his tongue. Yet, he smelled nothing more than peach blossoms and fertile soil. That disparity raised his suspicions more than anything else. No common animal was capable of masking its scent in such a way.
His eyes narrowed in concentration, his irises darkening from deep brown to pitch black as he called on his dragon senses to search the thick vegetation before him. His field of vision widened as he searched around him. Every detail in his line of sight took on a new crisp clarity, every color becoming more vivid while revealing a myriad of subtle hues not detectable by human eyes. His gaze carefully moved from one area of thick vegetation to the next. Ye Hua’s dragon could see deep into the shadows and he lingered over every shaded area he found.
Ye Hua took a step off the path when his eyes landed on a large bush close to his right. There was something there. He was sure of it. He took another step closer.
Ye Hua startled, his focus broken, at the sound of Zhe Yan’s voice calling his name impatiently. He looked back over his shoulder and then turned without thinking as his friend approached. A loud rustle of leaves sounded behind him.
Ye Hua’s head and body whipped back around at the noise, eyes urgently searching for the source. He spotted nothing more than the slight movement of leaves swaying on the bush he had been inspecting. His eyes lifted to look further beyond the swaying vegetation and into the dense forest, catching a brief flash of white in the shadows out of the corner of his eye. His gaze quickly shifted to focus on the flash but it was nowhere to be found, disappearing as swiftly as it had appeared.
Ye Hua’s dragon pressed forward, eager to follow whatever he had seen. Ye Hua pushed his inner beast down with disappointment and frustration, the black color of his eyes fading back to their usual calm brown, as he turned to face Zhe Yan again. Had the fleeting glimpse of white really been there? Or had he only imagined it because he wanted to find something? But the terror he had felt had been real. His dragon’s instincts were never wrong. Which meant…
“Ye Hua?” Zhe Yan repeated, giving him a questioning look. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Ye Hua shook his head with a frown. “I just thought I saw something.”
“What was it?”
Ye Hua hesitated, finding himself reluctant once again to share his suspicions with Zhe Yan for reasons he still couldn’t define. He sighed before feigning a nonchalant tone. “It was nothing important. Probably just a rabbit or squirrel moving through the underbrush over there.” He nodded his head slightly to his left, a purposely vague gesture that told Zhe Yan absolutely nothing.
Zhe Yan studied him for a long moment and Ye Hua fought the urge to fidget nervously under his friend’s knowing scrutiny. It was difficult to hide things from somebody who had been his closest friend for as long as he could remember.
“Are you sure that’s all it was? You weren’t even aware I was behind you, Ye Hua. I had to call your name several times to get your attention. I could have snuck right up on you without you noticing. It’s unusual for you to be that distracted.”
“You have no idea what it’s like to be a powerful predator, do you Zhe Yan?”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Zhe Yan asked with annoyance, crossing his arms with a glare. “My phoenix can track and catch prey just as well as your dragon can.”
Ye Hua smiled as Zhe Yan took the bait like he had known he would. He started walking, carefully memorizing landmarks as he did so he could find this spot later when he was alone.
“Yes,” he agreed, hearing Zhe Yan’s fast steps behind him as his friend hurried to catch up. “But it’s not the same. A dragon lives to hunt. It’s been too long since I’ve let mine free to track down prey. He wanted to go after that squirrel.”
“Well, while you were busy hunting down a tiny rodent in your head, I thought I was talking to you,” Zhe Yan responded drily. “Turns out I was talking to myself instead.”
Ye Hua laughed. “It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.”
Zhe Yan glared at his amusement, making Ye Hua laugh even harder. Zhe Yan grumbled under his breath with annoyance.
“You’re just lucky Mo Yuan isn’t with us, Ye Hua. He would have taken you down in a heartbeat if he noticed you not paying attention. He wouldn’t have been able to pass up such a perfect opportunity.”
Ye Hua dismissed his words with a grunt of disagreement. “Da Ge can’t take me down that easily and you know it. It doesn’t matter if I’m paying attention or not.”
“Are you willing to bet some gold pieces on that?”
Ye Hua grinned. “Of course I am,” he answered without hesitation. “Name your price.”
Zhe Yan gave him a sly look out of the corner of his eye. “Fifty pieces of gold if Mo Yuan takes you down.”
“And if I get right back up? That shouldn’t count.”
Zhe Yan sighed. “Fine. Fifty pieces of gold if Mo Yuan takes you down and keeps you down for two minutes or longer.”
“You’ve got yourself a deal.”
Zhe Yan laughed gleefully. “It’s been awhile since I last visited Kunlun Mountain. I’ve been meaning to drop by and see how Mo Yuan is doing. Looks like I now have some important things to discuss with him.”
“Good luck getting Da Ge to leave his mountain. It’s a challenge these days.”
“He’s always enjoyed peace and quiet. I think that’s why he meditates all the time.” Zhe Yan laughed lightly. “Either that or meditation is his way of getting out of doing things he doesn’t want to do.”
“That’s definitely the reason. Da Ge has everybody fooled. Even Father won’t interrupt him when he’s meditating.”
Ye Hua smiled, feeling like he had stepped back into the past, back to a time when he didn’t have the immense burden of knowing he was the future Emperor of the Heavens weighing him down constantly. Back to a time when he had simply been one of Heavenly Father’s sons and had had the freedom to spend time doing nothing more than talking with a close friend without worrying he was neglecting his responsibilities. It felt good.
The two lapsed into comfortable silence for a few minutes as they walked. Ye Hua glanced Zhe Yan’s way to find a thoughtful expression on his friend’s face. “What were you discussing with yourself earlier, Zhe Yan?”
Zhe Yan sighed, a pensive sound that indicated the seriousness of his thoughts. “I….I don’t think I want to keep the peach tree forest. I might give it away.”
Ye Hua stopped, shocked by the idea. “What?” He stared at Zhe Yan’s back incredulously for a minute before jogging to his side. He fell into step with him again. “Why would you do that, Zhe Yan? These peach trees have belonged to your family for almost a hundred and fifty thousand years. And they belonged to King Bai Zhi before that. You can’t just get rid of them like that. They’re a symbol of the friendship between your family and the Bai family. That may even be part of the reason your father gave them to you.”
“I know but I don’t have a use for them, Ye Hua.”
Ye Hua looked around at the beautiful fragrant blossoms surrounding them. There was so much potential here. “Yes, you do. You told me you could feel the peaceful atmosphere within this forest. You can turn it into a quiet place for patients to rest and heal. Herbs and magic can heal their bodies but the beauty and tranquility of this forest will calm their troubled minds and heal their spirits.”
Zhe Yan hesitated before responding. “Maybe…The peach trees need a lot of upkeep. I’m not sure I have the time for it.”
Ye Hua searched for another reason to give Zhe Yan. He wasn’t sure why it felt so crucial to him that Zhe Yan keep the peach trees but it did. He thought back to the pure terror he had felt earlier, then the glimpse of white. This forest was a safe place within the realms and it needed to stay in the hands of somebody who would take care of it. Zhe Yan was the perfect person to maintain and protect the peach trees if Ye Hua could just convince him to hang on to them. What about…?
“Wine,” Ye Hua blurted out abruptly. “What about wine?”
“Wine?” Zhe Yan looked at him like he was crazy.
Ye Hua ignored Zhe Yan’s skeptical expression as he continued. “Yes, peach wine. Your family is famous for its wines, Zhe Yan. You could make peach wine.” He paused, eyes lighting up with the idea. “Peach wine flavored with a hint of peach blossoms.”
Zhe Yan’s face held disgust as he looked at Ye Hua. “Peach wine? That doesn’t sound very good. Peaches are too sweet. I bet it would taste terrible.”
“Maybe,” Ye Hua agreed with a casual shrug that didn’t match his mood at all. “But….what if it tastes really good? It would be your own personal creation. You might become renowned throughout the realms as not only a skilled healer but also as the maker of a uniquely flavored wine. A wine that could rival the popularity of any vintage your family has made. Then you have a use for the peach trees, a use your father will undoubtedly approve of, and you will have a peaceful place to bring patients to rest when needed.”
Ye Hua smiled to himself as he saw Zhe Yan was giving the idea serious thought.
“Why not?” Zhe Yan finally declared. “It certainly couldn’t hurt to at least try it. And you, my dragon friend, are the perfect person to taste the wine for me.”
No. No. No.
That single word was a mantra running repeatedly through Bai Qian’s mind as she leaped into her small den. She had no memory of making the mad dash through the woods and then the frantic trek along the nearest trail to reach her safe place. Her thoughts were a hazy blur of fear, panic, and disbelief.
There were men invading her forest. And not just any men. One of them was a dragon.
She had hoped never to see a dragon again. Dragons had brought the demons and death down upon her family. They had brought nothing but destruction to her safe and happy world. Her father had met with multiple dragons just hours before life as she knew it had been ripped away from her. Everything had been perfect until dragons came to visit Qing Qiu.
The dragons had brought the demons. The demons had brought death. And then there was the man cloaked in black….
Bai Qian whined sadly, the sound small and broken, as she curled up into a tight ball on the stone floor of her cave, tucking her paws up under her. She shivered, feeling ice cold all over, and wrapped her nine tails around her body tightly to try and find some warmth. She buried her head under her tails and squeezed her eyes shut as unwanted memories careened through her thoughts.
She remembered the stench of blood and death that long-ago night as she had returned home in fox form. The sound of weapons striking stone and cutting through her father’s flesh echoed in her mind. She remembered the terror and agony running through her as she watched her father die, helplessly unable to do anything to save him. The desperate need she felt to go to his side warring with the certainty that she would die painfully as well if she moved from her hiding spot.
Then there had been nothing but eerie silence. She remembered reaching out to her family with her cultivation and feeling only grim nothingness, a blank space, where they were supposed to be. It had broken her heart to find herself completely alone in the world.
The bodies of her family had been cold and lifeless when she finally mustered the courage to enter the Fox Den. She had still curled up next to her father’s broken remains for comfort, unsure what she was supposed to do without her family by her side. She had felt lost and untethered. Her fox had wanted to howl her anguish to the night but Bai Qian had held the mournful noise back, whining quietly instead as she tried to figure out what she should do.
It was the sound of boots hitting the granite floor of the Fox Den entrance that had spurred her back into motion. She had managed to hide herself in time to avoid notice when the cloaked man had entered the cavern of the den. A dragon come to gloat over the remains of her dead father before searching through her family’s ransacked belongings for something. She was unsure what he had been looking for or whether he had found it. All she knew was his search stopped and he had started moving in her direction, cold dark eyes locking on to her hiding spot. Then he had jumped away before reaching her.
She had raced to the peach tree forest the second he abruptly disappeared from the den.
Bai Qian felt sure the cloaked dragon had been able to sense her presence that night….just like the dragon in the forest had been able to today. The cloaked dragon had been drawn to her hiding spot in the Fox Den just like the dragon invading the forest had known which bush she was hiding behind. Was there a connection between the two? They both had been able to sense her in her fox form. She knew it couldn’t be her cultivation they were sensing. What was it? And what would the dragon do to her if he caught her?
Panic gripped Bai Qian again as she realized her peach tree forest no longer felt safe to her. She felt lost and untethered all over again.
She finally gave in to the need to escape her horrible thoughts and memories, disappearing into the blank numbness inside herself.
The fox lifted her head and looked toward the entryway of the den. She felt and understood Bai Qian’s despair. But she was also curious about the new visitors to her forest.
⇛ Next part: Ch 6: The Dragon Begins to Prowl
⇚ Previous part: Ch 4: A Forest of Peaches