Ye Hua approached the border of the peach tree forest with single-minded purpose early the next morning. He stopped only when he had reached the top of the hill he had been standing on with Zhe Yan the day before, the hill overlooking his friend’s land. He took a silent moment to admire the peaceful beauty of the peach blossoms before him in the muted light of dawn.
He was alone this time and had spent a good portion of his evening the night before finalizing the strategy for his search for Bai Qian. He was determined to find her. He had learned over the years to always listen to what his instincts were telling him. And he had found other compelling reasons to think she was still alive. Even if nobody else believed she still lived, Ye Hua thought he had found enough evidence yesterday to indicate otherwise, enough evidence to support what his instincts told him to be true.
He knew Bai Qian was out there somewhere. It was only a matter of him finding her. It was a challenge he was suddenly eager to undertake.
Ye Hua was anxious to get back to the place in the forest where his dragon had sensed fear. It would be his starting point once the search began in earnest. He would fan out from that location and look for further evidence of Bai Qian’s possible whereabouts.
He had noticed the day before while exploring with Zhe Yan that there were no signs of her presence on any of the footpaths. So she had to have developed a different way to easily move through the forest. If he discovered one of her paths through the underbrush, finding her should be relatively simple. All the clues he needed would be there for him to find if he looked carefully enough.
But before he did anything else, Ye Hua thought he needed to know more about the layout of the land itself. His efforts to find Bai Qian would be more effective if he knew the forest better. He was on her territory after all. She had likely been living among the peach trees for fifty thousand years. And she had been familiar with the forest far longer than that. She would have a strong advantage unless he found a way to even things between them a little. The best way he knew to do that was to take the time to learn the terrain better.
Ye Hua’s dragon was becoming impatient with the wait and urged him to return to the spot of fear so he could track down and find the intriguing streak of white that had dared to run from him the day before. Ye Hua resisted the idea, reminding his dragon this was not a typical hunt. They weren’t tracking game to kill this time. Their quarry within the peach trees was much different than regular prey and more important. Care needed to be taken with this pursuit.
His dragon did not disagree with him, surprising Ye Hua. He had never known his dragon to hunt anything without the intent to kill since they had reached maturity. He didn’t understand what his dragon’s agreement might mean.
Ye Hua put the puzzling thought away to decipher another time when his dragon again prodded him to hurry and enter the forest. Ye Hua countered his dragon’s demand not with an argument but with a thought about his own plan instead. His dragon liked the idea and pushed forward inside Ye Hua, rising to the surface within him. Ye Hua did not stop him.
The shift from man to beast took no longer than a second as Ye Hua’s black-robed form disappeared to be seamlessly replaced by that of a long and sinuous black dragon. A wave of powerful energy pulsed through the atmosphere with Ye Hua’s change, intertwining with the natural energy of the peach trees and causing a frightened stir among the creatures of the forest. They all scurried to find hiding spots as the feel of a new dominant predator abruptly altered the character of the forest around them.
The dragon ignored the sounds of fleeing prey beneath him as he swiftly ascended high into the sky above the peach trees with graceful winding movements of his serpentine body. The rays of light from the rising sun appeared to be absorbed by the dragon’s scales, giving them the pitch black color of the dead of night, as he climbed higher and higher. There were glints of piercing light as the dawn rays reflected only off his razor-sharp talons with each of his gliding movements through the air.
Within seconds he was surrounded by white fluffy clouds. And still he climbed higher.
The black dragon relished the brush of air against his scales and the pleasure of unbridled movement he could only find when he was flying or when he was swimming through the deep recesses of the ocean. The thinner air of the upper atmosphere outside the Heavens did not hinder him. The dragon was built for flight. And it felt good to him after being restrained for so long. It was the perfect preparation for the hunt waiting for him on the ground.
Ye Hua never shifted into his dragon in the Heavens now. Not because he wasn’t allowed to. Heavenly Father had never tried to suppress the dragons contained within either of his sons. No…as a powerful dragon himself, Heavenly Father always encouraged them to allow their dragons the freedom they wanted and needed. Ye Hua never shifted anymore because the sight of the newly-named Crown Prince’s black dragon always created an unwanted throng of attention in the Heavens he didn’t like.
The dragon’s knife-like fangs flashed and he roared his freedom only when he had finally broken through the uppermost layer of clouds. The deep sound echoed in the air around him like thunder. He had been suppressing the roar until he had climbed high enough to muffle the rumble in the forest below. He didn’t want to frighten the white fox any further than he already had with a threatening sound, the meaning of which she wouldn’t understand.
The dragon wasn’t sure if the white fox realized it but fear was her greatest enemy. Fear acted like a beacon for any predator in the area. The feel of it would alert her enemies to her presence and would lead them directly to her. He couldn’t let that happen which was why he and Ye Hua needed to find her quickly. The white fox was special. She needed to be protected and the dragon intended to do just that as soon as he found her. There was no other beast alive capable of challenging him other than his father. It was his responsibility to use his strength to watch over her, to keep her safe from harm. The white fox needed him.
The dragon was determined to find her no matter what it took.
Ye Hua was once again surprised by his dragon’s thoughts. He had never known his dragon to be this protective of anyone other than his family. And his dragon was willing to go to great lengths to find her, even hiding his cultivation from her if he needed to. The black dragon never wanted to hide from anybody.
Ye Hua had decided yesterday not to try and hide his presence from Bai Qian. She knew he had been in the forest and would be on the lookout for him. There was more to fear from a hunter using stealth and other sneaky means to flush out his quarry. Ye Hua hoped allowing her to feel him in the woods would help show his peaceful purpose. Was his dragon going to fight him over this decision?
Ye Hua remained quiet and lost in thought inside his dragon for several more minutes while the powerful beast released pent up energy with intricate turns, snaking through the air in smooth gliding motions. He followed a twisting pattern higher until he came to an abrupt stop, hovering momentarily before going into a freefall. He dived down to the tops of the clouds and barely brushed against them before swooping back up again.
Ye Hua took control back from his dragon easily after the series of aerial maneuvers had helped settle the beast’s agitated mood. He turned toward the Heavens, able to glimpse the majestic radiance of his father’s palace shimmering far off in the distance with his keen eyesight. Heavenly Father would still be able to sense Ye Hua’s presence despite the great distance between them. Ye Hua imagined his father’s pleased expression when he recognized the search for Bai Qian was beginning.
The dragon prodded Ye Hua impatiently. He was more than ready to track down the white fox.
Ye Hua turned his attention to the forest below once again and the black dragon descended back through the clouds, his movements more controlled than they had been earlier. He began circling above the expanse of pink blossoms when the trees came into view, carefully noting all the borders of the peach tree forest. There were no maps of the forest in existence so Ye Hua was going to chart out a map of the area. One day he would paint a replica of the diagram in his head onto paper but, for the time being, the picture in his mind would serve just as well.
Once he had a feel for the general outline of the forest, Ye Hua started meticulously filling in the small details his dragon’s vision helped give him. He marked where the clearing for the cabin and lake was located and then traced the small network of dirt walkways as they branched out around it. Every time he spotted a useful landmark he would note its position relative to the cabin and trails before filing it away in his memory.
After flying several slow passes overhead, Ye Hua finally had an accurate map of the forest’s layout to follow. Only then did he fully descend to the ground, shifting back to his human form as his feet touched the forest floor silently. The irises of his eyes remained black and inhuman as he studied his surroundings, noting the weathered wood of the neglected cabin across the clearing from him with vivid clarity. He turned away from the rundown structure and found the footpath he needed to follow.
Now Ye Hua was ready to begin his search, his dragon still very much engaged in the challenge before them. The black dragon was closer to the surface inside Ye Hua than he had been in the last several years.
Ye Hua had no trouble locating the landmarks surrounding the spot on the trail where he had glimpsed the flash of white. He moved off the trail and crouched down to examine the underbrush where he suspected Bai Qian had been hiding, sweeping some of the thick branches of the bush to the side with his hand. He leaned forward, gaze intent as he looked for any clues that confirmed her presence.
There was nothing for him to find. No pawprints left behind in the dark soil. No tufts of white fur caught on a twig. No scent other than that of verdant leaves mixed with the fragrance of peach blossoms. Nothing to indicate a white nine-tailed fox or any other creature had been hiding there recently. He looked beyond the bush to see if there were any damaged plants to show him the path Bai Qian might have used when she ran from him. Still nothing.
Ye Hua was not surprised to find Bai Qian had left no signs of her presence behind. He had not expected it to be that simple. Many highly-trained soldiers had thoroughly searched the peach tree forest in the past and none of the search parties had ever found any trace of her. She had proven herself skillful at hiding. The important question was why?
Why was she still hiding after all these years? Why didn’t she go to King Zhao Hui for help? The Phoenix King would have done anything to help one of Bai Zhi’s children.
The appearance of the abandoned Fox Den entered his mind. A very grim scene played out in Ye Hua’s imagination as he remembered the disturbing remnants that had been left behind from the brutal past.
A young fox kit returned to Qing Qiu, exhausted from a day spent exploring. All she wanted was to curl up in her warm, comfortable bed within the safety of the Fox Den. But safety and comfort were not waiting for her as she approached her home. There was blood and pain and terror pervading the air instead, a horror beyond anything she could have ever imagined. The fox kit found a place to hide as she felt and heard the lives of her loved ones being violently extinguished without mercy, helpless to do anything other than stand witness to the atrocity. Then, when an opportunity presented itself, she ran. She ran to the closest familiar place she knew: the peach tree forest. And she stayed within the peach trees because she believed nobody could find her there. It gave her the best chance of escaping the torture her family had had to endure.
Ye Hua’s heart felt heavy as he looked back down at the underbrush before him, the memory of the fear he had felt the day before on his mind. There was no evidence of Bai Qian’s presence now but he could suddenly see the nine-tailed fox in his mind. There she was, curled up in a tight ball of white fur, terrified she might have been found. The bush with its dense leaf cover was the only place she could find to hide. Then, when his attention had been diverted, she had taken off, escaping from a potential threat.
Ye Hua’s eyes again followed the path he thought Bai Qian had taken the day before when she had run from him. This time he imagined a small scared fox running through the forest in a panic, nine tails streaming behind her. The image was a vivid one.
Fear. It was a strong emotion, one of the strongest. And it was capable of overwhelming rational thought. Bai Qian had continued to hide away because of fear. She never reached out for help because she was too scared to reveal her whereabouts to anybody.
Ye Hua stood, face serious, as he briefly wondered if it would even be possible to find Bai Qian if she was bound and determined not to be found. Was he doing her a disservice even by looking for her?
The dragon immediately protested the thought, angry that Ye Hua might be thinking of giving up before they had even gotten started. He would find the white fox even if Ye Hua could not.
Ye Hua reassured his inner beast he was not giving up; he was simply considering all possibilities. The dragon still insisted on moving forward within him to feel the energy in the air for himself and Ye Hua did not stop him, closing his eyes and giving the beast control momentarily. His dragon was able to sense the many subtle variations in the atmosphere better than he was.
Ye Hua’s eyes were even less human than they had been before when they opened again. The dragon weaved his own cultivation through the strands of energy within the forest itself, searching for a wisp of nine-tailed fox cultivation. He had never felt fox power before but he only had to find a trace of immortal magic in the air. There should be no other immortal creatures in the forest other than the white fox and himself.
The dragon found a few remnants of the fear he had felt yesterday still lingering in the area but he was unable to find any other energy that didn’t belong to the forest and the natural creatures living there. After several minutes of sampling the waves of magic around him and turning up empty-handed the dragon gave control back to Ye Hua.
Again, Ye Hua was not surprised there was nothing there for his dragon to detect. Nine-tailed fox magic was extremely difficult to feel unless a person had been taught how to find it by one of the foxes. As long as Bai Qian remained in her fox form her cultivation would be almost impossible for him to sense. It was another advantage Bai Qian possessed.
Ye Hua turned his attention beyond the underbrush before him to the spot where he had seen the glimpse of white. That was the direction he would walk first. He thought he could make a pretty good guess which way Bai Qian had run based on the terrain. He started moving further away from the path, taking slow measured steps as he looked all around him. His dragon gaze noticed every small detail as he made his way deeper into the forest of peach trees.
The fox remained safely hidden inside her den while the predator was roaming around in her forest. She finally stepped outside only after she could no longer feel his power altering the flow of energy surrounding the peach trees.
Bai Qian had surfaced once or twice during the day, struggling to keep her promise not to ever disappear for too long when she sought the comfort of the nothingness. The fox had tried to reassure Bai Qian during those times she was present with her that they were safe in their den. The predator would not be able to find them as long as they stayed inside. But Bai Qian had retreated again when she felt the cultivation of the predator prowling through the forest.
Bai Qian was terrified of the predator. She was convinced he was there to either kill her or to drag her out of the peach tree forest and shatter the small amount of peace she had managed to create for herself into a thousand pieces. The fox was less sure of these things.
The fox knew she needed to be wary of the predator because he was more powerful than she was. But she also wanted to know more about him. She was curious about the man who carried the distinct scent of rain and lightning with him even on a cloudless day. The dragon. Bai Qian had called him a dragon.
The fox possessed only one or two vague memories of dragons from her past, memories that seemed to tell her not all dragons were a threat. Was the dragon in the forest today a threat to her? Was he similar to the frightening dragon who had entered the Fox Den that long ago night? The memory of that dragon had been weighing down Bai Qian’s thoughts every time she had surfaced since yesterday. Or was the dragon today very different? The fox wanted to find out.
Dusk had started settling over the forest as the fox crept out of her den and crossed the open grass field cautiously. She had no trouble moving through the tall grass in the dim light, her whiskers and sense of smell guiding her through the thick vegetation without much effort on her part. She reached the opposite tree line quickly.
Her paws and the layer of fallen peach blossoms covering the ground allowed the fox to move through the forest quietly. The whisper-soft sound of her quick steps was drowned out by the crickets chirping in the grass and underbrush all around her. She picked up her pace
The fox carried her nine tails low to the ground in order to move across the forest floor more swiftly. She ignored the sounds of the night creatures around her as she slipped into the deeper shadows brought about by the twilight. With the dragon gone from her forest, the fox was once again the most powerful predator in the land. She moved with confidence now, gracefully weaving between the trees as she focused on trying to determine what the dragon’s intentions were.
Her intended destination was the bush Bai Qian had used to hide from the dragon. She would follow his trail starting from the spot where she and Bai Qian had first encountered him. The fox knew she was venturing into a part of the forest Bai Qian never allowed her to go but her curiosity drove her to ignore the rules Bai Qian had put in place.
Night had completely overtaken the peach trees by the time the fox was within sight of the footpath running through the forest. She snapped at a blinking firefly that brushed against her whiskers, tickling her muzzle, before yipping playfully as it escaped her sharp teeth. She did not give in to the temptation to chase the teasing insect down as it flew away from her despite the fun she could have with the game.
The fresh night air had the fox feeling carefree and invigorated. It had been many years since the fox had last wandered the night so freely, something she and Bai Qian had done frequently when they were young. There were so many interesting scents and sounds to find in the forest at night. And the sights within the dark forest were fascinating when seen with the aid of her keen night vision. Her familiar surroundings seemed new and very different at night.
The warm night breeze finally brought the scent the fox had been searching for as she approached Bai Qian’s hiding spot under the canopy of trees. That distinct scent of lightning and rain. Only it was more potent than it should be if it were merely lingering in the air from his visit the day before. The dragon had been at this location again today. She lowered her muzzle to the ground, black nose twitching as she followed his thunderstorm scent along a fresh path on the ground.
After only a few steps, the fox stopped and sat down, her nine fluffy tails splaying out behind her. The dragon’s scent trail was leading her in the same direction Bai Qian had taken when she had escaped the day before. The tips of two of her tails twitched thoughtfully against the petals of fallen peach blossoms on the ground as she considered the path he had taken into the forest.
Bai Qian had made the mistake of allowing her fear to overtake her yesterday and the dragon had been able to sense it. Prey running away in fear was a powerful lure for any predator. The fox herself had given in to the excitement of chasing a rabbit or squirrel running from her in fright many times. The temptation of it could be difficult to resist. Was the dragon merely looking for prey that had escaped him? There was only one way to find out.
The fox stood and lowered her muzzle to the ground once again. Her small white form disappeared into the shadows of the night as she followed the scent of lightning and rain further into the peach tree forest.
⇛ Next part: Ch 7: Trying a New Approach
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