Chapter 21 - White Forest
written by LalaLoop
edited by Kakashi
consulting by Bunny
For a long while, he had been nothing but a shadow. A spirit wandering back and forth in a pitch black tunnel, unable to see his own shape. Perhaps he had been walking in circles. All he knew was that he had asked to be imprisoned here. It had been his choice.
There were distant familiar voices. He racked his brain, whose were they? There were tears – he felt them – blazing flames, prickling cold, and the consistent feel of someone’s skin against his own. An invisible hand was firm around his wrist, not letting go.
No one was there, of course. He strode back and forth, feeling the air around. There was no one. Whose presence was it that he felt? It struck him that he remembered nothing of his life before this tunnel. Was this the beginning or the end?
Somewhere in the void of his memory was a trace of happiness, a joy intertwined with agony.
I must get back. But where?
The dark wore him out. The nothingness drove him mad.
Then all of a sudden, violent forces somewhere outside began to thrash at the dome. One of them – as brutal and fast as a serpent -- found its way inside and grabbed hold of him, like a giant palm smashing down. The last thing he heard was the shattering of his own consciousness; and the last thing he could feel was the millions pieces of his soul being sucked into a blinding vortex.
Something is not right.
Moyuan’s hand slightly moved, touching the rough surface he was lying on. He could hear things: the rustling of leaves, the very faint crackling of fire. With difficulty he inhaled, surprised that he was even able to do so without dying from the heavy pain that was pushing down on his lungs.
Kunlun? There was no mistake about it. He knew Kunlun’s Divine Air with every fiber of his body.
This was all very wrong. How in the Thirty-Six Heavens could he be alive?
Moyuan grabbed the fabric of his blanket and began to hoist himself up. A pair of hands came at his shoulders then, and eyes like his own were staring at him.
“Yehua?” his voice came out like a grunt. “Either we are both dead or I was terribly wrong about the Theory of Balance and someone else had to pay for my mistake.”
His twin let go as Moyuan was able to balance himself. “Only you would speak of being alive in such a negative light, High God.”
So they were alive. The view of his own meditation room was becoming clearer. He breathed in the familiarity. Moyuan could tell by the tone in his brother’s voice, they had won. But at what cost? And why was he here?
“How?” he uttered.
“It is a long story,” said Yehua, settling at the side of the thickly cushioned meditation platform Moyuan was sitting on. “And quite impossible, in fact. I will tell you when there is time.”
“Just tell me… my disciples—”
“On their usual missions under High Immortal Changshan’s instruction.”
“And Bai Qian?”
“Very busy with her new responsibilities at Qingqiu.”
Moyuan let out a breath of relief. He had always trusted that she would survive. In fact, her record of surviving was much better than his. But he’d needed to hear it, because, by the gods, what was the point of returning to a world without her?
“Where is Zilan?” he asked.
“He’s here,” Yehua replied. “I believe he should be…”
“Shifu,” Zilan burst through the entrance. He came striding in and quickly bowed to Yehua. “Your Majesty.”
“Majesty?” Moyuan looked briefly at his brother, Yehua nodded in response. It seemed they had much to catch up on.
Zilan quickly made his way to the meditation platform and began to speak excitedly as soon as he knelt down. “We won the battle, Shifu. It was more chaotic than anything I’ve ever seen, but we won. Also, I know you have to rest, so I will be leaving in a moment. Second Senior left me in charge so I just needed to make sure you don’t need anything.”
Moyuan nodded. His youngest disciple -- mischievous and too curious for his own good. They had been through more than he could imagine. Moyuan had regretted his decision to let Zilan come along everyday, every time they had been on a mission. But in the end, he would always make that decision again.
He placed his hand behind Zilan’s head.
“Are you well?”
“Thoroughly well, Shifu. Senior Difeng got a lot worse than I did. He managed to drown a lot of Demons, though.”
“Yes, Shifu, Senior is a great Water Bender. I can’t decide which was better – Senior controlling the river or the King of Xunzhua breaking a snow leopard’s jaw.”
“I meant it’s good that you are well. No significant damage to your immortal power, I hope?”
“Oh,” Zilan grinned. “No, not at all. I’m glad you’re back, Shifu. We all are.” He then glanced up at Yehua and rose. “I apologize for interrupting. I’ll be going back to work now. Your attendants from the Nine Heavens have just arrived, Your Majesty. They would like to remind you of the time.”
“I am sorry they have bothered you so,” said Yehua. “I will go down and speak to them myself.”
Moyuan watched as his sixteenth disciple dashed out of the room. Now he could finally appreciate the fact that he was alive, though the gods knew he still could not understand why.
“Your attendants need you,” he asked his brother. “Is it something urgent?”
“Not exactly,” Yehua said. “I planned to make a trip to Xunzhua but then received news from Kunlun. It is nothing urgent.”
“Xunzhua? What for?”
“Just a… diplomatic trip. I had some unfinished business there last time.”
Moyuan nodded, noting the reluctant tone in his brother’s voice. Heavenly Emperors rarely had the luxury of time to be on diplomatic trips, that much he knew.
“I have sent the physician back to the Nine Heavens,” Yehua continued. “As long as you don’t require their service, I believed it was best not to have this meditation room crowded when you woke.”
“Thank you. You are right,” Moyuan responded, grateful for his brother’s thoughtfulness.
He closed his eyes briefly, calling on his healing power. Only then did he realize something was wrong. He flexed his hand, aiming at the flickering candles and attempting to summon magic. Nothing happened, the candles burned on unaffected.
“Our physician did say that years and decades of healing meditation are ahead of you,” Yehua explained.
Moyuan had been through something similar before when he had come back from the prison of Donghuang Bell. Although, the loss of his power and cultivation had not been so severe at the time.
He suspected his ability to be airborne had also been hindered. How long did it take one to travel to Qingqiu on foot?
They both sat at the side of Kunlun’s lotus pond, as last time when Yehua had come back from his mortal trial. Mid-spring – Moyuan observed. He had been unconscious for quite some months, an insignificant amount of time for immortals like them. Yet this time, the world had changed while he slept.
The pain in his lungs had eased somewhat. Moyuan looked at his much younger brother. The golden embroidery on Yehua’s collar and sleeves glittered against the black fabric, the pendant attached to his belt now bore the crest of the Heavenly Emperor. Too heavy a responsibility for too young an immortal, Moyuan thought. No matter how much faith he had in his brother, he could not abandon his worry.
“What caused the burn?” asked Moyuan quietly. Now that he could see better, the severity of his brother’s injury was like a jab in his eyes.
“The collision of the Golden Core and the Sword of Balance,” Yehua replied.
Moyuan said nothing more. Certain subjects, certain pains – especially those that belonged to a war survivor -- were better left untouched.
“It doesn’t matter. It will heal with time,” Yehua’s eyes traveled toward the edge of the mountain. He then stood up and took a few steps away. “My coronation was two months ago.”
He fell quiet for several seconds, as though debating whether to continue. Duties, and more duties – that was what his twin’s life had always been about. Moyuan too rose from his seat. He understood the burden this kind of life brought and was not going to wait to be asked. He was only sorry he had not been able to be there sooner to suppress Haode’s influence on his brother and prevent all that had happened.
“I am sorry, Yehua.”
“Sorry?” his brother looked puzzled.
“Of course I am. I have failed to offer my counsel when you most needed it and I’ve also failed to be at your coronation. But like I said before, I trust you are the leader the Celestial Court needs. Here at Kunlun, we prefer to stay out of matters concerning the eight realms unless trouble arises. But rest assured, it is different with you on the Celestial Throne, you can always find assistance at Kunlun if you require it.”
“That is… good to know, but I’m not meant to bother you with the eight realms’ affairs right away.”
“No. In truth, I am still processing the fact that we all managed to stay alive. And… I’ve been wanting to talk about what you did – for the Sword of Balanced to be forged, that is.”
“The Sword of Balance,” Moyuan repeated. Now it was clearer to him what the discussion was to be about.
“Yes.” Yehua nodded.
“Of course,” he cleared this throat. “I understand that the information I left in your charge that night was quite bewildering. The technical side of it, though, is not impossible to explain in detail.”
Yehua let out a small sigh and slightly dropped his head.
That frustration, Moyuan understood. After all, he had brought them one unpleasant surprise after another during the war.
“My past secrecy has caused you inconvenience,” Moyuan said. “The risks I took didn’t allow me to share more information than I did, but now that it is all over, I’m glad to answer any questions you have. Now, weaponry is a complicated subject, more so when presented to someone not himself an expert in the field, but I will try my best. What exactly is it about the Sword of Balance that you still find –”
“Thank you,” Yehua interrupted.
The words put an immediate stop to Moyuan’s thinking. He found himself quiet, perhaps he should have been all along.
“That’s what I wanted to say,” Yehua continued at a prompt speed. “Our lives, my coronation, the respect we’ve earned from the eight realms – it was due to you.”
For a long second, Moyuan was puzzled, partly by his own misperception and partly by the fact that anyone thought he should be thanked at all. He had played a dangerous game and had been ready to pay the price should mistakes happen. They owed their lives to him? The opposite sounded much more logical.
“Then,” he took a brief pause. “I suppose you do not need…”
“No, I do not need to discuss in detail about the Sword of Balance.”
“I see.” Moyuan nodded, surprised at himself for being this slow in generating an appropriate response to a simple expression of gratitude. “Your victory was not due to me entirely, I’m quite sure. But you are welcome, of course.”
When his twin said nothing, Moyuan continued. “My apology for the assumption.”
“For someone who strategizes on a daily basis, that was a rather poor assumption. Why did you think I wanted to discuss weapons at this time?”
Moyuan smiled. “I know you to be extremely work-oriented.”
“With all due respect, Brother, you have not known me for long.”
It was a brutal reminder of how little time they had spent together despite their family bond. And had it not been for the magic that had saved his life this time, they wouldn’t have had the chance again.
Moyuan took a step toward his brother as Yehua did likewise and they pulled each other close.
His father’s words flashed through Moyuan’s head. Yehua’s existence – a force against Natural Laws, something Fuxi and Nuwa had stolen back from Death itself. It was fragile, a thread constantly threatened by the sharp blade of Fate. And Moyuan had always protected Yehua as such, or wanted to.
But perhaps they had survived enough ordeals for him to accept the fact that Fate was beyond his control, even with Yehua, if it even existed at all.
Not the helpless and clueless lotus floating in Kunlun’s pond anymore, Moyuan reminded himself, but a leader of the Celestials, perhaps even the next Supreme Immortal.
Simultaneously they let go.
“Speaking of discussions,” Yehua said. “The next time you ask someone to kill you behind my back, I will drag you back from hell for a discussion.”
Bringing his arms back to his sides, Moyuan chuckled. “I have no doubt that you will, Heavenly Emperor.”
Bai Qian dipped her pen into the inkstone, finishing the letter to her parents, occasionally glancing around the cottage to admire the result of her work. She had swept the floor, washed the curtains, rearranged the books, dusted the shelves, and refilled the sweet jars.
The Peach Blossom Forest’s cottage now looked its best.
It was only her and Fengjiu now, she said to herself again with a heavy heart. No Zheyan, no Fourth Brother. The forest may have lost its color, the air may have lost its sweet fragrance, but the trees survived. This cottage was still here; and as long as it was, she would always keep it this way – warm, clean, and full of food, the way it had been with Zheyan here.
Not that she would have the luxury of lounging here as much anymore. Work was demanding, and her Second Brother was not one to tolerate laziness.
“You want the crown? Be ready to defend it!” he had shouted at Bai Qian for no reason. His counsel was very much different from her Fourth Brother’s: more reading, more frowning, more brutal stories of what could happen if the shield was breached. Bai Qian suspected he enjoyed scaring her and Fengjiu.
Or maybe deep down Second Brother was as afraid as they were, too afraid and bewildered by the loss of a brother on the battlefield to keep things running the same way, to continue placing confidence in their tribe’s defense magic.
Today, though, she had earned a break.
Bai Qian sealed the letter, then quickly stood and headed out. Time to tend to the garden, she flexed her arms. Where was that lazy Fengjiu?
“Gahhh!” Bai Qian yelled when the whole spiky hat of the little sprite crashed into her forehead. “What… oh! Apologize, you little…”
She picked up her skirt and raced down the stairs, that sprite was impossibly fast. “Come back here! I swear I will educate you today!”
She chased the creature almost a mile deep into the peach blossom forest. It kept bobbing up and down, zooming left and right, as if looking for something.
When it suddenly stopped, Bai Qian reached up and tried to grab the tiny legs but again the sprite was too quick for her.
“Chirp,” it gestured down at a tree branch.
“What!” she put her hands on her hips. “Come down or you’ll regret it when I jump on my sword!”
The sprite dived down and disappeared into the thick blooms of the nearest tree, but its twittering was louder than ever. Bai Qian squinted, what is he up to now?
“Chirp,” the spiked head motioned for her to come closer.
Bai Qian tiptoed and peered down into the tree, half expecting a mud cake to be thrown at her face. Instead, she found the sprite hovering at the tip of a little branch, just above a tiny peach blossom flower.
Above her head, the clouds randomly parted, letting a sunray directly into her view. And it struck her.
She reached forward as the sprite got out of the way.
It was a small blossom like all the others. Except… faint hues of pink dyed the base of its petals.
Color? Bai Qian swallowed, her heart sped up, her stomach in knots. This forest had been nothing but white since the day the Old Phoenix died. She pulled the branch a bit closer to her face, inhaling.
It was there, the familiar sweet fragrance that had been her comfort for so long. Faint, but present. At once all of her senses seemed to be awakened, sharpened.
Bai Qian let go and stood up straight, staring at the flower as tears pricked her eyes, feeling out of breath all of a sudden.
She cast a long look around the garden. What did this mean? Her memory filled with the ruthless cold of the Arctic Prison that one night. She had seen him; he had spoken to her, told her not to lose hope.
I never did.
Zheyan had always said the Peach Blossom Forest had been his life; his soul, even. It had died the day he’d disappeared from this world.
“Zheyan,” she whispered, looking to either side, searching for something else – a sign, a difference.
Instead, her eyes landed on an approaching figure she had not expected.
And the world around her dissolved as the tear she’d been holding back silently rolled down her cheek.
“What is the matter?” Moyuan asked her.
The gentle voice was like a touch upon her pounding heart. For a second Bai Qian was unable to respond, even unsure whether someone was playing a trick on her.
But there was no such thing. Moyuan came to her side – as calm and sure as the ocean’s surface after a maelstrom.
“What is wrong?” he asked again.
And still she stared.
“It’s me,” he chuckled with a hint of confusion. When she didn’t reply, he added, “From Kunlun.”
Bai Qian blinked. Of course, the God of War she knew had a habit of disappearing for days and months on end and then quipping about it with the people he had worried to death.
“Yes, I know who you are,” she said. “Master of Kunlun – the world believes you are indifferent to all things but you secretly don’t like being bored, you strategize because you can’t help it, you think death is a joke, and you think everyone shares your sense of humor.”
He stepped a bit closer, hand reaching to brush away that lingering tear on her face. “I think I have learnt enough from Death to exclude it from my strategies from now on.”
“That’s a promise you cannot keep.”
Another step and he was holding her tight with both arms. The world collapsed and she saw nothing, felt nothing but him.
The empty space within her rang with more pain than ever. Bai Qian hadn’t known how unbearable it had been – losing him – until he had come back.
How had she survived without him? Why had she even wanted to try?
She clung to him. How many times since his death had she pleaded to the gods for this moment? I would gladly send my soul to hell for it, she had thought. But neither of them were in hell. He was here, solid and real.
She said his name.
Every heartbeat beneath his robe, every rumble of his voice filled her with life. She heard his repeated promise, smiled as she felt the gentle strokes of his hand down her hair.
The past war was not going to be the last. The dangers they had faced, the loss they had suffered – no one knew if they would repeat themselves in the future. Moyuan… he would always make the choices that served the world he protected.
She could not change that, and she wasn’t going to.
The next war, the next enemy, the next life-and-death decision – they would all come when they did, and she would live the life they had chosen and walk the path she was on until then.
Slowly they broke apart.
“What made you cry?” Moyuan asked, still holding her by the shoulders. “Besides having to see me again, that is.”
Bai Qian let out a small laugh and prompted him closer to the tree branch, pointing out the pink-centered flower.
“Look,” she lowered her voice. “There’s color, isn’t there.”
Moyuan too gazed at the blossom for a minute, then glanced around at the trees nearby.
“Zheyan usually said you could not separate him from this forest,” she went on. “That if the peach blossoms were well, so was he, wherever he might be in the eight realms. Tell me you see this color too, Little Sprite found it,” her voice quavered.
Moyuan’s hand lingered where hers was, over the flower. Whatever she had been feeling was mirrored in his eyes. Then he said with a smile, “I see it.”
“What does it mean?”
“I can’t be sure. That Old Phoenix loved to tease, that much we know.”
“This is too cruel a joke, even for him.”
Moyuan brushed over the fragile petals. “For now, we’d better keep this one safe.”
Bai Qian nodded.
A shade of color in a forest of white, no matter how faint, it gave her hope, the same way Zheyan had.
She felt Moyuan’s hand enclosing hers. They stood there for a long while, savoring the fresh winds flowing through the forest. The little sprite’s transparent wings sparkled above their heads as it flew back and forth and out of sight among the vast white.
“Tell me everything,” Moyuan asked.
There was so much to tell, where should she begin? The Dark Immortal, Ironfeather, their trip to the Demon cave, that clever Man in the Moon?
Bai Qian looked ahead. The Peach Blossom Forest spread over ten miles. They had time. And even if they walked every bit of the way to the last tree, there would still be time.
To Kakashi and Bunny, thank you for sticking with me to the end.
Thank you all for reading.
(If you are on the Bai Qian / Pojing ship, stay tuned for an alternative ending :)
#3310Fanfic22 #ThreeLivesThreeWorldsTenMilesOfPeachBlossoms #BaiQian #YeHua #三生三世十里桃花