Ye Hua sat at the desk in his study, silently brooding over his lack of progress in the search for Bai Qian. It had been three weeks since the search began. Ye Hua had walked every part of the forest that was accessible to him and had found nothing other than a strange nagging feeling that she was near him every once in a while. He had no idea if it was all in his imagination or not. He needed something more than a vague feeling.
The dragon stirred inside Ye Hua, reminding him of the time. The sun would be rising over the peach tree forest any minute now. It was time for the hunt for the white fox to begin anew. He knew she was out there and it was crucial they find her. Every moment they didn’t find the white fox was another moment she was alone and vulnerable.
Ye Hua frowned in irritation and pushed his dragon away. He knew all this but he wasn’t ready to leave yet. The dragon prodded Ye Hua again, putting more urgency behind the demand this time. Ye Hua pushed his dragon back more forcefully. His dragon would have to wait…something the powerful beast wasn’t always patient enough to do.
Ye Hua looked down at the map spread out before him on the polished wooden surface of his desk. He had stayed up all night working on it. He could still see spots on the paper where the ink had not completely dried as he studied the lines again for what felt like the thousandth time.
As his eyes traced the lines of black ink, he imagined the forest around him. He knew the footpaths and the forest surrounding them well now; he had explored them many times. However, he had never felt a vague sense of Bai Qian’s presence in any of those locations.
An abrupt knock on the door interrupted Ye Hua’s thoughts. He bit back a deep growl of annoyance at the interruption, ensuring the menacing noise was soft enough it would not be heard by the person standing outside the room.
Ye Hua used his cultivation to see who was standing outside his study. It was Jia Yun. His trusted manservant would understand if Ye Hua didn’t want to be disturbed by his lack of response to the knock. It was a system they had developed a long time ago to avoid all the polite greetings and niceties that were expected in the Heavens. Neither of them cared for the formal routine and the system to avoid it worked well for both of them.
Sure enough, after a minute of silence, a stack of scrolls appeared on the side of Ye Hua’s desk with a note from Jia Yun on top. Ye Hua ignored the scrolls and immediately returned his attention back to the map of the peach tree forest.
Ye Hua started marking every place he thought he had felt that vague sense of another’s presence near him, looking for a pattern on the map. The black dragon pushed forward inside Ye Hua to see what was taking so long. He was growing very impatient with all the waiting and he snarled angrily when Ye Hua chose to disregard him.
Every place Ye Hua noted on the map was near an area of the forest he had explored very little, locations where the forest was too overgrown to walk.
Ye Hua again imagined Bai Qian running from him, imagined a small white nine-tailed fox darting quickly through the underbrush before easily slipping beneath a rotting log. He could see a clear picture of the graceful, dainty fox disappearing into the trees.
There was his answer.
He had been going about the search all wrong.
Ye Hua stood from his desk, carefully rolling up the map before storing it away for safekeeping. The black dragon impatiently urged Ye Hua to hurry. The one thought on Ye Hua’s mind as he disappeared from the room was how to best search all the hidden places tucked away within the shadows of the peach trees. His dragon promptly provided him with the answer as he cloud-jumped to the forest.
The dragon was late.
The white fox waited for him to appear in her forest every morning. The rising of the sun had brought his presence with it every day since she had first felt his power rush through the air. Then he would stay all day, roaming through the trees until nightfall when he would leave to return to wherever it was a dragon rested for the night.
Bai Qian had not provided an answer for where a dragon’s den would likely be located when the fox had wondered where the dragon went after he left at the end of the day. In fact, Bai Qian had not been present with the fox very often these last few weeks. Bai Qian surfaced within the fox from time to time because of the promise she had made to the memory of her family. But she wanted nothing to do with the dragon. She feared his intentions, still convinced he was there to hurt her, and continued to hide away most of the time.
The fox hadn’t told Bai Qian she had started trailing the dragon as he prowled through the forest.
She had been curious about what he was doing as he wandered around her home. And his presence among the peach trees broke up the monotony of her days, giving her something new and interesting to do. She was extra careful not to get too close, though, following him from a safe distance and always staying in the dense undergrowth where she would be difficult to spot. The fox knew she needed to avoid capturing the notice of a predator as powerful as the dragon but that didn’t mean she had to avoid him altogether. She just needed to ensure he never knew she was there.
The fox left her den once she was sure Bai Qian wasn’t going to make an appearance anytime soon. She was disappointed to find the atmosphere of the forest around her felt peaceful and undisturbed as she quickly crossed the grass meadow and scurried into the shadows of the peach trees on the opposite side. The sun was well above the eastern horizon now. She should be able to sense the dragon’s cultivation altering the energy of the woods but she didn’t. The dragon wasn’t here yet.
The dragon had arrived in her forest every morning without fail except for this one. She didn’t understand why his routine had suddenly changed.
When the fox noticed he was roaming aimlessly around her territory she eventually realized he must be looking for something. She had no idea what a dragon would bother hunting for in her forest though. There were no large prey animals here and there was nothing interesting or of value hidden within the peach trees. Did his absence now mean he had realized as much for himself and decided to take his hunt elsewhere? Or had he found what he was looking for without her realizing it? Had yesterday been his last day visiting her forest?
The possibility slowed the fox’s steps until she stopped, moving her fluffy tails so they fanned out behind her as she sat upon a soft cushion of fallen peach blossoms. She was upset she might never know what the dragon had been hunting for. And she would miss having the presence of another with her in the forest. Even though she had never planned to risk directly interacting with him, the dragon had still kept her company these last few weeks. She hated being alone all the time and yearned for someone to spend time with.
The fox decided to return to the rabbit burrow she had found recently to do some hunting of her own. Rabbits were her favorite prey to hunt and catching one would be a good way to distract her from the disappointment she felt because of the dragon’s absence. She stood and started stealthily moving in the direction of the burrow, muzzle lowered to sniff the ground for the fresh scent of rabbit.
The fox made it halfway to her destination before she felt a wave of powerful cultivation suddenly crash its way through the energy of the forest. Her pricked ears perked up with excitement as she turned to face the direction it was coming from. The dragon had decided to visit her forest today after all. She started running eagerly in his direction, wanting to find a hidden vantage point to track him from.
The fox didn’t slow her pace when his now familiar thunderstorm scent reached her sensitive nose; she had been testing the gentle breeze for his scent as it brushed through the tree branches accompanied by the whisper soft sound of swaying peach blossoms. She did slow to a walk, however, when an unusual shift in the air currents soon followed.
She could feel a strong gust of wind suddenly ruffling her whiskers and fur, a wind that was charged with power and gaining strength. Her fur stood on end, tails puffing up to make her appear larger than she was as a jolt of fear rushed down her spine. Something big was moving through the forest rapidly and it was headed in her direction. Had the dragon brought something else with him this time?
No…the fox quickly realized it was the dragon she was feeling. His hunt was much different today.
She darted to the closest hiding place she could find, seeking refuge under a large log. She curled into a tight ball, instinctively surrounding herself with a barrier of imperceptible fox magic, and forced herself to remain as calm as possible. She knew allowing her fear to get the better of her would lure the predator right to her. She couldn’t allow the dragon to detect her presence, especially when he was in his beast form. All his senses would be enhanced considerably.
The fox saw the ground around her abruptly darken as a large shadow moved above her hiding spot. She dared to glance up from underneath the log, her entire field of vision engulfed by a long serpentine body covered in pitch black scales. She could see the play of his lean muscles as his sinuous form moved with agile turns through the air, catching a quick glimpse of one of his razor-sharp talons as he glided above her swiftly.
She waited until he had passed over her before sneaking out from under the log. She remained crouched close to the ground as she watched the dragon fly away from her, deftly winding his long body around the trees without touching a single one. The fox hesitated with indecision no longer than a few seconds before tearing off after him, sprinting from one bush to the next as she followed in his wake. Maybe today was the day he would find what he was looking for. She didn’t want to miss it though she also felt a bit of sorrow and regret when she realized that likely meant she wouldn’t see the dragon again.
The black dragon was finally getting his chance to hunt for the white fox in his own way, something he had wanted Ye Hua to let him do from the very start. He didn’t intend to let this opportunity go to waste and he relished the freedom he had to explore the forest without his senses muted by his human counterpart.
The dragon and Ye Hua were two parts of a seamless whole. They had always been a formidable combination starting from the moment they were conceived but there were still times the dragon needed his senses open completely. He couldn’t accomplish that within Ye Hua’s human form; while it was very powerful in its own right, it still limited the dragon’s ability to detect some of the subtle details of his surroundings.
The majority of the time those small limitations didn’t matter to the dragon and he could still give Ye Hua and himself the information they needed. But their white fox was proving herself to be a much bigger challenge to find than he had anticipated.
But the dragon would find her. And once he did, she would be his to protect.
There was a vast array of new aspects of the forest for the dragon to explore as he easily entered the areas that had been inaccessible to Ye Hua. He could see the varying shades of pink blossoms as he looked from one group of trees to the next; the blossoms in different parts of the forest were not as identical as they had first appeared. The dragon could feel Ye Hua making note of all these differences and where they were located.
The dragon disregarded the rush of countless sights, scents, and sounds he could identify as belonging to the regular inhabitants of any forest. He would not be distracted by the creatures scurrying out of his path. He could smell and sense their fear as he snaked his way deeper into the trees, something that would typically arouse his predatory instincts and entice him into chasing them down. But he ignored it and pushed it into the background along with the rest of the information that had nothing to do with the one creature he needed to find.
The only thing that mattered to the dragon was picking out that one particular scent or noise that didn’t belong to a regular forest animal; sighting a few tufts of white fox fur or just one small change in the forest that could only have been made by his white fox, sensing the tendrils of her fear in particular within the energy field of the forest like he had that first day here. When he found one of these specific things, the dragon should be closer to finding her.
It took him several hours but eventually the dragon glimpsed something on the forest floor near a large log.
He stopped and hovered over the area, inspecting the spot closely. It was very subtle, difficult even for his sharp eyes to see, but it was definitely there. The area of soil was smooth, packed down as if stepped upon repeatedly, and appeared to tunnel underneath the fallen tree. Was it a small portion of the white fox’s trail through the forest? There were no fresh scent markers from a rabbit, squirrel, or other forest animal. The dragon couldn’t tell for sure but he thought it was possible the path belonged to the white fox.
The dragon could feel a thrill of anticipation from Ye Hua as he explored the location further, looking to see if there was anything else there to discover. This was the closest they had gotten to finding something that might be connected to their white fox.
He looked closely for a paw print left behind on the ground but was unable to find one. There were too many leaves and blossoms covering the forest floor; finding an area of soil exposed enough to capture a print would be difficult. But he would continue to look for one. The small place he had already found was enough to drive his determination to find the white fox higher.
Making tight twists and turns around the trees, the dragon looked around the area several times but was unable to find the remainder of the path. He spotted a few more hidden places where he could imagine the trail might continue but there was nothing to confirm his suspicions. When he and Ye Hua had determined there was nothing more to find in that location the dragon moved on to another part of the forest.
The dragon never saw the curious white fox cautiously trailing far behind him with fascinated interest though he did sometimes think he could just barely sense her presence. When he turned his head back to look there was never anything there.
The black dragon spent two full days combing through the peach tree forest looking for his white fox’s trail. He never found enough of it to be able to trace it in its entirety. But once he had learned better what to look for he had located several more places where he thought she might have been.
It was more than Ye Hua and the dragon had known only days earlier and both of them were excited by the prospect they might be getting closer to finding her. The last two nights, Ye Hua had been up late marking the locations on his map. There may not be a complete trail for them to follow but Ye Hua finally had a better idea of some of the ways Bai Qian was traveling through the peach trees.
The dragon finally gave control of the search back to Ye Hua on the afternoon of the third day.
The long, massive body of the black dragon disappeared to be replaced by that of Ye Hua’s tall, lean form dressed in one of his usual black robes. His eyes were human, the irises a dark mahogany brown, as he assessed the peach trees around him. The beauty of the forest had taken on a whole new vivid dimension now that his dragon had searched through it with all his senses unimpeded. There was a depth of power to this forest that rivaled that of the Heavens; it was just much harder to see.
All the new aspects of the forest were in the forefront of Ye Hua’s thoughts as he cloud-jumped close to the northern boundary. He had a plan.
Ye Hua was going to set some simple snares. They weren’t designed to capture Bai Qian herself. He didn’t want to risk frightening her. Both he and his dragon were in agreement she needed to be approached slowly and with great care once they found her. The snares were going to collect the proof he needed to show his father she was still alive and to confirm that his dragon had in fact discovered small parts of some of her trails through the forest.
Ye Hua appeared next to the fallen tree where the dragon had first thought he found something. He could see the smooth, tightly-packed area of dirt leading under the log when he leaned over for a closer look. He waved an open hand over the area, moving some of the leaves and blossoms off to each side with his magic, clearing a bare spot on the forest floor.
Then he sent a tiny pulse of his power toward the ground. It was energetic enough to shake and loosen the soil but not strong enough to disturb the outward appearance of it. It was now an ideal spot for Bai Qian to leave a paw print behind if she stepped on it.
He straightened and stepped back to assess his work to make sure there was no obvious evidence he had tampered with the spot. Ye Hua was pleased to find none of the changes he had made should alert Bai Qian to what he had done.
He then sent out small wispy tendrils of his magic toward the area and weaved them throughout the soil and fallen blossoms. Now he would feel if the area was disturbed and the tendrils of his power would capture a few tufts of fur should Bai Qian brush against them. And Bai Qian would never notice what he had done unless she stopped to inspect the spot very closely.
Ye Hua stepped over the log so he could set up the same trap on the opposite side where he thought the path likely continued. He planned to place them throughout the area.
The fox watched the dragon curiously from her hidden spot off to his side. This was the closest she had dared get to him but she was tempted to creep even closer. She tilted her head slightly with her ears perked as she gazed at him thoughtfully.
What was he doing?
Whatever it was, she thought it must be very important to his hunt because of the intent expression on his stern face. Bai Qian had been correct. The dragon didn’t look very friendly. He was always frowning slightly and his eyes were often dark and serious. Was he always displeased about something? Or did he only wear such an expression when he was prowling around in her forest?
The fox had a better vantage point to watch him when the dragon moved to the other side of the log. He made the same sweeping motion over the ground with his hand like he had earlier. She really wanted to know what he was doing. She leaned forward onto her front legs trying to see him better, taking a single step closer to him. Her paw landed on a small branch and the dried wood cracked when she stepped on it, abruptly disturbing the quiet of the forest.
The fox froze in her crouched position, not daring to move a single muscle but poised to take off running if needed. She wrapped a barrier around herself. The fox didn’t take her eyes off the dragon, waiting to see what he would do next in response.
Ye Hua’s attention was immediately focused on the sound of something moving off to his left. He turned in that direction when he heard the sound of wood breaking, trying not to make any sudden movements. His eyes scanned the area, his dragon surging forward to help him look. He didn’t see anything. He moved a few steps further towards the spot where the noise had originated from but then stopped.
He was being watched.
Ye Hua felt the prickling sensation along his skin that told him somebody was watching him. It was the first time he had noticed the distinctive feel of eyes on him here in the forest. It must be Bai Qian. Anticipation flooded through him as he took several more steps in the same direction, looking everywhere for a small white fox. She had to be there.
He looked carefully all around the area, inhaling deeply to test the many scents in the air, but found nothing. The sensation of eyes watching him had also disappeared.
Disappointment crashed over him and chased all of his initial excitement away. He forced himself to turn away, refusing to give into the urge to start chasing down the noise. If it had been Bai Qian, she was likely gone now. It made more sense for him to finish placing the snares he had planned.
The dragon grumbled inside him when Ye Hua decided to go back to what he had been doing and finished adding his magic to the second snare. He didn’t like all the waiting but he settled when Ye Hua reminded him of the importance of not doing anything that might scare the white fox. In the long run, that would only make her harder to find.
The fox opened her eyes only when the dragon’s thunderstorm scent had faded, telling her he was no longer near her. That had been a close call; she had realized he might be astute enough to sense her gaze only at the last second.
She had been worried he would find her but now that he was no longer near, a small part of her wished he had. Bai Qian would be very distraught if she found out about the risks the fox was taking. But the fox was lonely and wanted to know if the dragon might be a friend, someone safe she could spend time with. The only way she could find out was to learn as much as she could about him from a safe distance.
With that thought in mind, the fox slowly crept toward the first place on the ground the dragon had altered in some way. She stopped a few feet away from the area, and sniffed the air. She could smell the faint traces of his cultivation he had left behind. He had taken a good deal of time arranging his magic just the way he wanted it and the fox suspected it was an essential part of his hunt for whatever it was he was looking for here in her forest.
After careful inspection, she thought it must be a trap of some sort. She should be on the lookout for other areas like it so she didn’t trigger them and interfere with his plans. She wanted to help the dragon not hinder him.
The fox thought it very inconvenient that he had placed it right in the way of one of her favorite paths though. The second one on the other side of the log was in her way too. She would just have to adjust her route a little to avoid messing them up.
The fox walked a wide path around both places on either side of the log, keeping a good distance between herself and the dragon’s traps. She was pleased she had realized what the dragon was doing. Now she would be sure to tread carefully when moving through the forest so she could dodge them.
The fox’s pace picked up as she ran in the same direction she could feel the dragon had jumped but she remained vigilant to avoid the places where she detected traces of his cultivation. She was excited he had given her a new game to occupy her time.
⇛ Next part: Ch 8: A Renewal of Hope
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