Ye Hua scowled when he checked the last of his snares for the day. It was empty just like all the rest had been. They had all remained free of paw prints or tufts of white fur for the last couple of weeks, ever since he had placed them throughout the forest. He continued to check them, magically jumping from snare to snare, while going about his normal search despite never feeling any tugs on his cultivation to tell him one of them had been triggered.
He always had hope that one of them had managed to snag a trace of Bai Qian’s presence without him noticing and he was always disappointed to find them empty. But he also found it suspicious he wasn’t catching more evidence from other woodland creatures. If Bai Qian wasn’t the one using the trails where his snares were placed, what animal was? All of it made his failure to find anything more frustrating.
Even though he tried to cling tightly to his hope of finding her one day, Ye Hua couldn’t deny he was starting to feel a little discouraged.
Ye Hua sighed, his shoulders slumping in defeat, when he looked up from the snare and noticed the flickering glow of fireflies blinking off in the distance. The flashes were the first sign of approaching nightfall. He glanced up towards the sky, watching as the first faint stars began shining in the twilight. Soon the chirping chorus of crickets would fill the air. The hour was growing late. He had spent the last several nights among the peach trees already. Did he want to continue his search overnight again?
The black dragon voiced his agreement to the idea in Ye Hua’s mind; he never wanted to stop searching for his white fox. Ye Hua was undecided.
The familiar prickling sensation of eyes on him abruptly raised chill bumps on the back of Ye Hua’s neck. He whirled around and gazed into the forest, studying the shadows for any small ghostly white figure hiding nearby. Nothing.
Ye Hua’s brown eyes darkened to black as his dragon surged forward inside him, helping his vision penetrate deeper into the encroaching shadows. He saw something shift in the underbrush and he stepped forward, scenting the air as he did. He took another careful step, testing the energy of the peach trees for anything different, knowing it was a long shot that he would feel any trace of Bai Qian’s cultivation. Ye Hua thought there might be something there…
A burst of small vibrations disturbed Ye Hua’s cultivation, interrupting his concentration. One of his snares had just been triggered.
Ye Hua straightened with a smile. Excitement coursed through him as he realized he may have finally captured the evidence he had been waiting for. The dragon urged him into action eagerly and Ye Hua disappeared as he jumped to the location of the activated snare.
The white fox emerged from her hiding spot and assessed the flow of energy in her forest, searching for the dragon’s new location. As soon as she discovered where his cultivation was altering the atmosphere, she sprinted after him, fluffy tails streaming out behind her as she hurried to catch up to him. She was curious about the sudden expression of anticipation on the dragon’s face; it was the first time she had ever seen him smile. The new expression had lit up his features, making him seem more approachable. It gave her hope the black dragon might be a friend, someone who could banish her loneliness, instead of an enemy.
Her path led her near several of the dragon’s traps. Knowing how important his traps were to him, she had memorized where all of them were located and she skillfully avoided them without even having to think about it. The entertaining game of sidestepping around them, even the ones that were placed right in the middle of her trails, had already become second nature to her. It had pleased her to find a way to follow behind him without interfering with his hunt.
The fox was panting when she finally caught up with the dragon and she took a few deep breaths to calm her breathing. She then crouched down and crept closer to him, careful to remain silent and stealthy. She wanted to get a good look at whatever he had caught in his trap but she wasn’t quite ready to make her presence known. She grew bolder with every day she spent trailing him. She had started taking more chances when near him; soon she would approach him. This was the closest she had ever allowed herself to get to him.
She knew Bai Qian would be angry and distressed with her actions. Bai Qian would scold her for being reckless and placing them in danger when she found out about the fox’s daily game of following the dragon. The fox didn’t care. Bai Qian refused to admit it but the constant loneliness was a detriment to both of them. The fox no longer wanted to continue living alone, hiding away from the world all the time. She had not realized just how much she hated it until the dragon had started prowling around her forest, keeping her company unknowingly.
As the fox watched the dragon, she realized he had not found what he was looking for yet. His expression was stern and displeased again. Despite her curiosity about the object of his hunt, a part of her was relieved to see him disappointed. He would continue coming back to her forest as long as he didn’t find what he was looking for. She watched him closely, wondering what his next move would be.
Frustration crashed through Ye Hua, crushing all his earlier elation. His snare had snagged a paw print and a clump of white fur but the print was too small to be that of a fox and the location carried the fresh scent of rabbit.
His shoulders slumped in defeat once again. Maybe Mo Yuan had been right about Bai Qian all along. Maybe she had died as a child like everybody other than his father insisted. Maybe all the times he thought she might be near were just wishful thinking on his part, wishful thinking born from his hope that a young girl had managed to escape being brutally violated and then murdered. Was it time to call off the search? As much as he hated to admit it, Ye Hua thought it might be time to acknowledge that he wasn’t going to find her here in the peach tree forest.
The black dragon voiced his protest violently inside Ye Hua, stirring forcefully and growling his anger at Ye Hua’s thoughts. His white fox was out there. He had found the evidence of her travels through the forest all over the place. He knew she was hiding somewhere among the peach trees and he refused to give up. He needed to find and protect her. He would never stop hunting for her.
Ye Hua sighed as his dragon insisted they keep looking. The black dragon didn’t possess the same doubts he was beginning to. Ye Hua struggled to disregard his dragon’s instincts when they had always been correct in the past, especially when he found himself hoping to find Bai Qian alive every time he stepped foot in the forest. But he also couldn’t continue searching for a limitless amount of time when he wasn’t finding anything. At some point, his father would expect him to return to his responsibilities in the Heavens.
An angry growl rumbled from Ye Hua’s chest as his dragon shoved forward inside him. Ye Hua didn’t try to stop him, allowing the transformation into his beast to happen though he did not relinquish control to his dragon this time. He needed to talk to his brother, the one person he could share all things with….even the black dragon’s strange possessive attitude toward the white fox. His dragon had never been this obsessed about anything before.
The fox’s heart skipped a beat when the dragon abruptly shifted, a wave of his cultivation rolling over her and making her fur stand on end. She watched in awe as his massive, serpentine body took to the skies; a torrent of fragrant peach blossoms mixed with his lightning storm scent raining down on her in his wake. Her ears perked up with curiosity when she heard him roar furiously above her, the sound reminiscent of thunder rumbling in a turbulent sky.
She raced after him, skidding to a halt when she reached the northern border of the peach tree forest. The fox wanted to try to follow the dragon’s flight but she didn’t dare step outside the safe cover of the trees without Bai Qian’s knowledge. She gazed after his sinuous form, following his agile winding movements as he soared higher, until his black scales finally blended into the night sky and he disappeared from her view.
She hoped he would return to her forest soon.
Ye Hua circled among the clouds far above the summit of Kunlun Mountain several times to release some of his dragon’s frustrated energy before descending to the mountaintop. He shifted in midair, his black robes ruffling with the breeze when his heavy boots touched down on the silent grounds surrounding his brother’s temple. The night mountain air was refreshingly cool on his skin as he looked around him.
Kunlun Temple had not yet been completed the last time Ye Hua had visited Mo Yuan so he took a moment to admire the coarse basalt facade of the imposing structure. An exact replica of the dragon gracing the wall of Heavenly Father’s private study was carved into the dark gray surface, eyes always guarding the temple entrance. The Taoist symbol of yin and yang was carved above the massive doorway. And off to the side of the door was the blank section of wall where Mo Yuan wanted his personal seal located, the symbol of Kunlun Mountain. Ye Hua just needed to finish it. It was almost done and he was pleased to see it would blend well with the other carvings already present.
Ye Hua’s eyes returned to the doorway where a lone figure clad in white robes now waited. One of Mo Yuan’s disciples. There were only five of them currently but many prominent families were awaiting the word that their sons or nephews had been accepted to study under the War God’s tutelage.
“Welcome to Kunlun Temple, your highness.” The young disciple bowed a polite greeting as Ye Hua climbed the stone staircase leading to the entrance. The boy straightened, his eyes widening with nervousness when Ye Hua reached his side. “I…I will let Shifu know you are here.”
Ye Hua attempted to push his dragon back to put the boy at ease but the beast was too tense to settle. “There’s no need. Mo Yuan already knows I’m here.” The boy nodded wordlessly as Ye Hua strode passed him and entered the main chamber of the temple.
The glow from several flickering torches was the only source of illumination. The dim light obscured many of the details of the room from view but posed no difficulty for Ye Hua’s dragon. And Ye Hua already knew the basic layout of Mo Yuan’s home. He located the shadowed corridor leading to his brother’s private study and bed chamber easily as he crossed the gathering hall without making a sound.
Mo Yuan stared at the scroll spread out in front of him. He was wearing maroon robes, his hair unbound and hanging down his back. He frowned, writing brush in hand, as he contemplated the close of the letter he had just completed. Was it too much too soon? He had altered the end several times already but he still wasn’t sure how to say what he wanted. His hand waved over the letter and some of the fresh ink disappeared. What was the best way to show his interest without scaring…?
The feel of Ye Hua’s cultivation followed by the muffled sound of his brother’s familiar footsteps approaching his study interrupted Mo Yuan’s train of thought. Mo Yuan sighed. He had been so distracted with wording his letter just right, he had missed his brother’s initial appearance on Kunlun Mountain. He really wanted to get his letter sent out tonight. Ye Hua had the worst timing sometimes.
Mo Yuan scrambled to hide the now unfinished letter as his study door swung open. Ye Hua also had the annoying habit of barging in on Mo Yuan without knocking when he had something important on his mind. They had gotten into many arguments about it over the years. But no matter how many times Ye Hua promised to always knock, Mo Yuan had finally been forced to accept that his twin would likely forget when he was preoccupied.
“Yes, Ye Hua. Please come in,” he muttered under his breath with irritation as he fought back another sigh of impatience at the disturbance. Luckily, Ye Hua had not noticed the letter Mo Yuan had been writing. One day soon he would share the identity of the letter’s recipient with his brother. Ye Hua would be the first to know but Mo Yuan didn’t feel ready to take that step yet.
Mo Yuan’s dragon grew restless as Mo Yuan watched Ye Hua pace back and forth in front of his desk without saying a word, telling Mo Yuan his brother’s dragon was near the surface. Their dragons called to each other; they always had. Even when they had been infants their dragons had greatly influenced each other. Heavenly Father had never been able to provide an answer for why their dragons looked so different from each other despite being twins but there was no denying a unique bond existed between them.
“Ye Hua.” There was no response.
“Ye Hua.” Still no response.
Mo Yuan summoned two cups and a jug of wine, strong wine that had been a gift from King Zhao Hui and Zhe Yan. They appeared before him on the desk.
Mo Yuan hid his amusement when Ye Hua startled and stopped pacing at the sound of his raised voice. He was not surprised to see Ye Hua’s eyes were a darker shade than normal when Ye Hua turned to face him with a glaring frown. Yes, his brother’s dragon was very near the surface.
“You don’t have to shout, Da Ge,” Ye Hua grumbled. “I’m right here.”
“Wine?” Mo Yuan ignored Ye Hua’s irritated frown and words. “You look like you need a drink.”
Ye Hua took the offered cup gratefully, gulping the alcohol down. It burned as he swallowed but filled his stomach with a mellow warmth he enjoyed.
He nodded and finally took a seat opposite Mo Yuan, holding his cup out for a refill. When Ye Hua’s eyes met Mo Yuan’s he could see wild streaks of gold glinting within his brother’s brown irises, evidence his brother’s dragon was responding to his own dragon’s agitation. Ye Hua drained his cup once again, working to calm his beast. There was no reason to force Mo Yuan into experiencing his own inner turmoil. He had partially succeeded by the time he finished his third cup of wine.
“How is the search for Bai Qian going?”
Every bit of Ye Hua’s hard-fought calm disappeared with those words. Frustration welled up inside him again. He stood and started pacing once more. Leave it to Mo Yuan to sense the reason for his visit and then get straight to the point without preamble. Ye Hua would have preferred to ease into the conversation instead, had wanted a moment more to gather his thoughts.
“Well?” Mo Yuan prodded when Ye Hua did not immediately respond.
Ye Hua stopped and faced his brother but he remained standing this time. “I haven’t been able to find her.” His disappointment bled into his tone.
“You were never going to find Bai Qian, Ye Hua. We both knew that ahead of time.” Ye Hua remained quiet. “You’ve spent more than enough time looking for her. Go talk to the hunter who thought he saw her and hear the story for yourself. Once you’ve done that, you can tell Father you put forth your best effort to find her but the rumor is not true, that the hunter must be mistaken. There’s no need for you to continue looking and there’s no reason for you to be upset you didn’t find her.”
“I can’t stop looking for her, Da Ge.”
A tense silence filled Mo Yuan’s study after Ye Hua’s announcement. Ye Hua could feel Mo Yuan studying him with surprise.
“Bai Qian is out there, Da Ge.” A sudden confidence filled Ye Hua in the face of his brother’s doubt. “I know she’s out there and I know I can find her if I can just figure out the correct strategy.” Ye Hua started walking the length of the room again. “I’ve been over my plan many times but I feel like I’m missing something important….”
“Your common sense?”
Ye Hua growled at his brother. “Very funny, Da Ge.”
“I’m not joking. Bai Qian is dead, Ye Hua. You and I both agreed on that fact not too long ago. There is no way she would have survived such a violent demon attack.”
“What if you’re wrong?” Ye Hua stopped in front of his brother’s desk.
“What if she wasn’t home that night?” Ye Hua continued before Mo Yuan could answer him. He saw disbelief staring back at him from his brother’s eyes but he forged ahead anyway. “Zhe Yan told me Bai Qian loved wandering the peach tree forest; she spent a lot of her time there. What if she was out exploring and wasn’t in the Fox Den when the attack happened? Are you going to tell me it’s impossible she survived if that were the case?”
“Not impossible,” Mo Yuan admitted with a sigh before draining his cup of wine. “But very unlikely. She was young and it happened in the middle of the night. The chances are slim she was out of the den at that exact moment.” Mo Yuan paused to offer Ye Hua more wine.
Ye Hua declined. He wanted his head to stay clear because it was important he convince Mo Yuan the possibility of Bai Qian being alive was at least plausible. If he could convince practical Mo Yuan it was possible, it would lend more credence to his theory.
“If Bai Qian avoided the attack, why hasn’t she made her presence known? Why remain in hiding all these years?”
“Fear,” Ye Hua answered simply. “She may not even know the war ended. Maybe she thinks the demons are still looking for her so she’s too scared to reveal herself to anybody. At least, I think that’s the reason. The only person who can really answer that question is Bai Qian.”
“Wait.” Ye Hua held out a hand to halt his brother’s next argument. He took his place at Mo Yuan’s desk once more, leaning forward to make sure his brother was paying attention to him. “I know what you’re going to say, Da Ge, but hear me out first. I have reason to believe Bai Qian is alive.”
Mo Yuan nodded after a moment and Ye Hua relaxed at his agreement. He could see doubt in his brother’s expression, knew Mo Yuan was humoring him, but he didn’t let that deter him. Mo Yuan was a skeptical person by nature. He often needed tangible evidence to be convinced of anything and Ye Hua had become skilled in laying out his points when debating with his brother.
Ye Hua summarized all the things he had seen over the last several weeks but stopped short of revealing much about his dragon’s emotional responses to the white fox. A part of him wanted to hear Mo Yuan’s interpretation of what it might mean but he didn’t feel ready to reveal it to anybody just yet.
He felt even more sure of his conviction that Bai Qian was still alive after laying out everything he had found but he could tell Mo Yuan wasn’t convinced. It was clear Mo Yuan thought Ye Hua was imagining connections where none existed just by looking at the expression on his face.
There was a hushed stillness within the room for several minutes after Ye Hua finished speaking. Ye Hua stared at his brother expectantly, waiting to hear what he had to say in response. Irritation coursed through him when Mo Yuan said nothing, choosing to pour himself and Ye Hua more wine instead.
“I’m not imagining things, Da Ge,” Ye Hua muttered defensively after the prolonged quiet coming from his brother started getting on his nerves.
Mo Yuan lifted an eyebrow. “Did I say you were?”
“You didn’t have to.” Ye Hua glared at his brother before gulping down the wine sitting in front of him. “I can tell that’s what you’re thinking.”
Mo Yuan sighed, taking a measured sip from his own cup. “I know you’re not imagining things, Ye Hua, but I don’t think it means Bai Qian is alive. It’s all circumstantial evidence at best. There are other, more likely explanations for everything you’ve described.”
“The shrine at the Fox Den?”
Mo Yuan set his cup down. “One of the few surviving citizens of Qing Qiu paying homage to the memory of the royal family he once followed.”
“All of my snares remaining empty except one? You don’t think it’s suspicious normal woodland creatures avoid the paths?”
“Your dragon found old game trails that are no longer in use.”
The black dragon grew agitated and growled at his brother angrily. Ye Hua saw streaks of glinting gold swirl in Mo Yuan’s eyes as the golden dragon responded. Ye Hua pushed his dragon back; he wasn’t looking to start a fight with Mo Yuan. Neither brother commented on the interruption. It was a part of life when sharing a soul with the spirit of a powerful beast like a dragon.
“The terror I sensed that first day?” Ye Hua continued.
“All creatures are terrified when a large predator enters their forest.”
“Regular forest animals can’t mask their scent, Da Ge,” Ye Hua argued right back, holding out his cup for Mo Yuan to refill it once again. “Especially the stench of fear.”
“The wind currents were moving in the wrong direction.”
Ye Hua narrowed his eyes. “That’s a weak argument and you know it.”
“The terror was coming from a wood sprite,” Mo Yuan countered with a grin. “They smell too much like a forest to be able to detect their scent.”
“A wood sprite?” Ye Hua laughed. “That’s a stretch, Da Ge. They’re rare. Besides, wood sprites have no reason to fear a dragon.”
“The peach tree forest has been deserted for a long time, Ye Hua. There might be wood sprites living there. And any visitor appearing suddenly could be a cause for alarm. A wood sprite is more likely than Bai Qian still being alive and could also explain why you sometimes feel like you’re being watched when nobody is around.”
“It’s annoying the way you always have a logical answer for everything,” Ye Hua grumbled but his small smile revealed there was no real malice behind his words. “Have I ever told you that?”
“Many times,” Mo Yuan responded with a good-natured laugh. “And yet you always seek me out when you need advice about something. That is why you’re here, right? I know this unannounced visit isn’t just because you wanted to hang out with your irritating brother.”
Ye Hua nodded with another smile when he heard Mo Yuan put emphasis on the unannounced nature of his visit to make a point. He reached to pour himself another cup of wine while he gathered his thoughts.
“My dragon insists Bai Qian is hiding in the forest, Da Ge.”
“Your dragon also once insisted we raid the kitchens during one of Mother’s summer solstice celebrations,” Mo Yuan pointed out drily. “Remember when the head chef caught us sampling the desserts?”
“We were only 1000 years old,” Ye Hua protested. “That time no longer counts.”
“And your dragon insisted that Zhe Yan and I needed to join you in tasting all the different wines in King Zhao Hui’s wine cellar. That one was more recent.”
“It wasn’t that recent,” Ye Hua responded with a glare. “We were still children. Raiding the wine cellar wasn’t even my idea, by the way. Zhe Yan put me up to it. He wanted me to convince you to join us. Did he tell you it was my idea?”
“Then there was the time…”
“I’m being serious, Da Ge.”
Mo Yuan’s face lost its teasing smile and turned more serious. “I know you are, Ye Hua. I was only kidding. I’m listening.”
“My dragon tells me Bai Qian is out there, alone and vulnerable. Every time I start to have doubts he argues that we can’t give up because he needs to find her. That means something. Are you telling me I should ignore what my dragon’s instincts are insisting is true?”
“No,” Mo Yuan admitted. Ye Hua heard the trace of reluctance in his brother’s tone.
Ye Hua tossed back more wine before standing. He heard Mo Yuan sigh behind him as he started pacing again. “I know she’s out there. I just have to figure out how to find her. I think I’m missing something.”
The room was silent except for the soft sound of Ye Hua’s robes brushing against his legs as he walked across the stone floor. Ye Hua could feel Mo Yuan watching him thoughtfully and he wondered what his brother was really thinking. Most of the time he knew but there were rare times he had trouble figuring it out. This was one of those times.
“Is that how you’ve been searching the peach tree forest?”
Ye Hua stopped, confused by his brother’s question. “What do you mean?”
“I mean…is this how you’ve been searching for Bai Qian?” Mo Yuan moved his hand up and down, gesturing to Ye Hua’s appearance. “Have you been walking around the forest dressed in formal black robes and wearing a stern expression on your face the whole time? The crown prince focused on a serious problem that must be solved?”
“Yes,” Ye Hua answered slowly, still unsure what Mo Yuan’s point was. He looked down at his robes and then back up at his brother. “What’s wrong with my appearance?”
“Nothing…when you’re stalking through the Heavens, chasing away anybody who wants to talk to you,” Mo Yuan answered with a smirk. “Then the persona you’ve created works to your benefit.”
Ye Hua didn’t immediately respond as he finally caught on to what Mo Yuan was telling him.
“You don’t even realize you do it anymore, do you? You’ve spent so much time making yourself appear intimidating it’s become a habit. And you do a great job making yourself unapproachable. If Bai Qian is living in the peach tree forest and I still say it’s a huge “if”. But if Bai Qian is living in the peach tree forest she may never let you find her if you continue looking like an angry predator prepared to attack anyone who comes near you. You’re probably scaring her away without even realizing it.” He paused to let his words sink in. “It shouldn’t be the stern and unfriendly crown prince searching for Bai Qian. You should just relax and be yourself.”
Ye Hua felt like a stubborn candle had just caught flame as the full impact of Mo Yuan’s meaning hit him. It was so obvious, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t realized it himself. He felt a sudden renewal of hope inside. He joined Mo Yuan at his desk again. “This is why I seek out my irritating brother when I need answers. Once you get all the logical arguments out of your system, Da Ge, your advice is usually helpful.”
“You owe me big, Ye Hua. I was in the middle of something important when you barged in….without knocking. Again.”
Ye Hua grinned, curiosity piqued. “What was it?”
“It’s nothing you need to know about. You’re intentionally missing my point.”
“We should do this more often, Da Ge,” Ye Hua declared with a laugh, nodding his thanks when Mo Yuan poured him more wine with a growl of disagreement.
⇛ Next part: Ch 9: A Beautiful Fox
⇚ Previous part: Ch 7: Trying a New Approach