Fanfiction3: A-Li's Three Lives, Three Worlds - Chapter 69 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 69

written by LigayaCroft
edited by kakashi

When Huo Zheng woke up that morning, she felt refreshed by a dream she had just had, of walking down a peach grove holding the small hand of a beautiful child— a head strong girl’s and a delicate boy’s— in each hand.

They bickered incessantly but not even their verbal attacks nor their frequent physical swipes at each other distracted her from enjoying the scenery before her. The whole grove’s grounds were littered with peach petals but the trees never seemed to lose their beautiful foliage, each branch still plump with the fragrant peach blooms she so loved.

The dream had left her optimistic about her husband's return. A-Li often talked about his other grandfather's peach blossom forest; maybe she could request to bring her there first and if she liked it enough, maybe they could build their first home there instead of staying at Jiuchongtian. The environment and a farmer’s lifestyle would ease her transition back to an immortal life. Besides, she thought as she rubbed her belly and felt her child kick again in response, it would be a good place to bring up their children. A girl then a boy, walking hand in hand with her, just like they had in her dream.

But those were dreams and dreams were often perfect.

Reality was not.

***

Run. Run.

She could hear the sound of hounds barking in the distance to her left and it spurred Huo Zheng with hope that her hunters were still far beyond. Nobody would think she would head for the most hostile place in all of Huicūn to make her escape.

The moon was faint overhead, providing her with scant light to make out real branches from their shadows. Huo Zheng stopped to take a deep breath and assess the obstacle that lay in front of her.

The Zhao Jia Grove was deceptive in the dark, its usual sinister form looking kinder and more welcoming. But as every local knew, it was not.

Still, what other choices did she have?

Huo Zheng looked back toward the valley below. With her eyes fixed on the burning remnants of what used to be a very lively town, the sound of tortured screaming from its inhabitants drowned out her own pants and sobs. Not only that but the smell of smoke filled the air as houses, establishments and the farms continued to burn to the ground. Ash particles floated in the air, clogging her breathing and tasting awful in her tongue.

Thirsty. She was thirsty. It didn’t help that it was almost winter and the air was also dry, making the fires burn faster, choking the air even more so. Breathing hurt as each inhale brought with it a sharp, ticklish bite — the kind that made one want to pinch one’s nose for relief.

It had all happened so fast. The bandits had arrived in the village earlier that afternoon. This was a new gang, not the ones who usually dropped by to forcefully partake of their food, rob them of some of their wares and then left. This new one was bigger, numbering to hundreds and it didn’t take long to know that they were the bloodthirsty kind. The village men were separated if not killed on the spot, the women dragged unwillingly to be abused while children could hear their parents and relatives’ screams for help and reprieve.

As village leader, Huo Zheng was separated from Huo Mao early on, to be a present to the leader of the bandit tribe. She was confined to her house where measly food was offered and she was kept under guard. Although she had no appetite, for the sake of her child Hua Zheng drank some of the soup and millet that had been dropped haphazardly in front of her. Her stomach hadn't stopped contracting since the bandits had arrived and even though she had been doing her best to stay calm, Huo Zheng knew she wouldn't survive the night if she didn't find a way to get out.

She had found her opportunity when the bandits suddenly rushed out of her house to meet their leader. Huo Zheng hurriedly snatched several incense and sulfur-dipped sticks and escaped through a side door of the house. On her way out, she had spotted the man the bandits called their leader and shuddered, noting his tall, muscular appearance, his wicked-looking scars, and the absence of humanity in his eyes.

It hadn't taken long before the alert over her disappearance was raised. By that time, Huo Zheng had broken through the last rows of unburnt tea shrubs leading to Zhao Jia Forest. Her heart broke for her people but as a mother, she had… other priorities. She had to flee for the sake of her unborn child.

And so, Huo Zheng entered the grove.

It was as treacherous as she remembered it to be from when she used to play in it when she was young. The trees grew close to one another and the shadows hid the thorns so cleverly. They ripped through her clothing and her skin, especially her hands and forearms which she had wrapped firmly around her belly.

But pain was an infinitesimal worry when one was fighting for another's life. Huo Zheng ploughed on and only when she walked into a small clearing did she pause for a moment to light a sulfur-dipped stick.

The fire cast its calming glow. The smell of burning sulfur has always been strangely addictive to her nose and Huo Zheng borrowed some of the comfort it offered. For several breaths, her worry disappeared as her world shrank down to the size of the flame in front of her. Still, soothing or not, she shook her head to break out of the trance then proceeded to transfer the fire to the incense sticks before it went out.

It was a spur of the moment idea inspired by the instances she had seen Mei Lin light an incense to communicate to who turned out to be her Father. The copper mirrors might not work in Huicūn but surely incense…?

Before she could utter a word, the skin at the nape of her neck prickled even before she heard the sound of leaves crushing beneath the weight of booted feet. She turned to face the direction of the sound just as wind rushed past her. Then everything… slowed… down.

The next thing she knew she smelled horse and human sweat so close to her she almost gagged at first whiff. On instinct, her chin rose so she could see the shadows that played on the face of this towering hulk of a man she had only seen from afar.

He did not smile as he stepped back and only then when she staggered to regain her balance did Huo Zheng realize one of his arms had been supporting her back. The man looked down at her, tipping his head from side to side, and so she followed his gaze on her body. Her hand touched something familiar and cold, and in pure disbelief she looked up again at this man who had destroyed her town — the leader of the Jingxing Pass Bandit Tribe.

The sensation of wet warmth alarmed her as it trickled from her belly down to her thighs, snaking its way down her knees, her legs, toward the soles of her feet until it soaked her shoes.

The healer in her shouted instructions. Look down. Blood. You got stabbed! Run away. Get to the ground. Apply pressure. Ask for help—
Except the Huo in her told her that her fate was already inevitable… for the bandit leader had used Huo Mao’s dagger on her.

As if her mind finally recognized the finality of her situation, excruciating pain hit her so hard that her vision momentarily turned white.

Huo Zheng staggered and sank to her knees. Cold fire consumed her from her belly outwards, leaving her trembling and uncontrollably shaking. But even though she knew she was moments away from death, she still fought its hold over her, crawling on her hands and knees on the cold, uneven ground for several pain-riddled breaths. The bandit leader followed closely behind, like an owner taking his pet out for a stroll.

Finally, she collapsed on her back, spent, each breath shallower and more difficult to draw out than the last.

It was hopeless. Even though she still has to see a death god, she knew… she wouldn't make it.

Fear clouded her mind as it raced through possibilities.

Would her baby be reincarnated? Would she be able to see A-Li again? What if this was her last mortal life? If she returned to the immortal realms, would A-Li know her? Would she remember him? If she didn't return, where would she go?

The scent of incense tickled her dimming senses, reminding her of its presence, her opportunity to send a message out to A-Li. It had been over a month since the Three Monkeys had left Huicūn. His great-grandfather’s party must still be underway. Would he be able to hear her?

She looked at the form of her murderer, shadowed as he stood with the waxing moon behind him. Was that a play of light or were those tears flowing down his cheeks? She reached her hand up, wanting to touch them.

But just as she did, she remembered her A-Li.

Would he be crying too if he saw her like this?

And at that very moment when her breaths were all that stood between the worlds of the living and the dying, it dawned on Huo Zheng that she loved her husband enough to not bind him to her. Because what if she didn't come back? Would she really subject him to immortal eons looking for her like he had for a thousand years after Xue Jiaolong’s death?

“Grandson of the Nine-Tailed Fox Emperor, oldest son of the current Heavenly Emperor, and Grandson of Father Immortal, the One who created us all —”

No, she would wish freedom for him to follow his destiny as future ruler of the Celestial Realms, her blessing for him to be able to secure his line with noblewomen to bear his children and live the life Huo Zheng aspired to live.

Her mortal life may have handed her another gruesome death but she was thankful to have the dignity to say goodbye on her own terms. Because if she came back, she wanted to be the one to find him, not the other way around. And if that time blessedly came, she would work just as hard as he had done to win her heart.

If she was given another chance.

If.

She chuckled, looking at the small crowd of dirty, smelly bandits who had gathered around her and felt oddly grateful that their leader did not let their dirty hands on her.

I have lived a good life. I was educated at the expense of my father’s life, helped a lot of people in need, fell in love, married and had a baby— well, almost.

The savage pain that wracked her entire body soon dissipated into a soothing ocean of calm. The sensation transported Huo Zheng back to that time after their wedding when she and A-Li had spent a few days by the sea, snuggled together as they listened to the sound of waves slapping on the beach. She remembered thinking what she would have missed telling A-Li had that moment been her last.

So one night when she thought he was fast asleep, she drew even closer and whispered “I love you too,” in his ear.

She had never regretted saying it.

How wonderful it would have been to instead die in that immortal Peach Blossom Forest, rather than here at Zhao Jia Grove. Huo Zheng let her imagination run free, pretending the thorny branches above her blossomed with pink and violet flowers, its petals falling, drifting toward where she lay.

Maybe fate would give her one more life, and she resolved to use it to find A-Li and be with him forever, raising a family in that Peach Blossom forest.

Maybe. But that's what hopes were for. They're the only thing stronger than fear, and in facing imminent demise what else did she have?

At peace with this life's destiny, with Huo Zheng’s last shaky breath she traced the outline of the moon behind her murderer’s back, whispering the same last words she had uttered during her first life with her husband — “A-Li, live well—” before finally giving up her spirit.

* * *