Fanfiction: Ink in Water - Chapter 23 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 23. The Nine-headed Snake

written by Bunny
edited by kakashi
consulting by LalaLoop

Spears of sunlight whistled through the mid-afternoon air. The heat was making Bai Qian’s clothes stick to her uncomfortably. It wouldn’t hurt to cast a small cooling spell on herself, would it?

She raised her arm and was about to summon some magic when the two people walking ahead of her looked back.

“Are you sure you know where we’re going?” Zhao Ge asked.

“Yeah, Big Sis, are you sure we’re headed in the right direction?” the Little Brat also asked.

“...What are you doing?” they both asked.

They were looking quizzically at the hand she had lifted above her head.

“I’m… uh… waving… waving the mosquitoes away!” And wave it around, she did.

“Ahhh,” they both nodded.

After all this time of walking together in silence, now they wanted to start asking questions? Bai Qian looked around. Stalks of bamboo were starting to line either side of the trail they were on, which meant they were about halfway to their destination according to Tugong’s directions.

“Yes, trust me. We just need to get past this forest and then go towards a mountain,” Bai Qian answered.

“How much distance further?” Zhao Ge looked at her skeptically.

That was not something she had thought to ask the person who gave the directions. “Um… I don’t know… probably not that much.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?” the Magistrate raised his voice. “How am I supposed to believe you’re not just leading us nowhere? Maybe to our doom even!”

Being magnanimous was not easy when it came to dealing with an ungrateful person like this. Bai Qian really wanted to give this tyrant version of Yehua a piece of her mind, or better yet, just turn him into a toad and leave him on the side of the road. But right as her anger was about to erupt, her ears were perked by the gentle sound of a flute.

It seemed to be coming from somewhere up ahead on the trail. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she squinted into the distance. About a few stone’s throw away, seated on the side of the road, was a figure of a man wearing a straw hat.

Leaving the rest behind, Bai Qian walked a bit further. Maybe this was someone who lived close by and could help them navigate. Once she got closer and could see him better, from his simple clothing, it made sense to guess that the man was a local villager. Although the music he played sounded so elegant, it was almost not of this realm.

Errrhem,” Bai Qian cleared her throat. The Villager was still playing his flute as she arrived and stood in front of him. He did not acknowledge her presence in any way, and his song continued as though perfectly undisruptable.

“Excuse me, Mister,” she tried again.

No response. ...What if he’s deaf?

Louder this time, she yelled, “DO–YOU–LIVE–AROUND–HERE?”

Still nothing.

Just as Bai Qian was about to dip down to try and make eye-contact, the Villager lowered the flute from his lips and tilted his head up. She still couldn’t see his eyes by the way the large brim of his hat covered the top half of his face, but his lips bore a slight smile that seemed friendly enough.

“Err… Sorry to bother you… but we are looking for some people. Would you happen to know how much further down this road leads?”

“Keep going.” His voice surprised her. Its low pitch was as pleasing as the sound of his instrument. “You should be out of the forest by sundown.”

With this remark, Bai Qian looked up at the sky to find that the sun was already way past its highest point. In an hour or two, it would set. Thanking the man, she politely bowed her head and started to turn around when the urge to get a good look of his face simply overtook her. “Ah, since I have you here, would you mind taking a look at this map and telling me if we’re headed in the right direction?” Using it as an excuse, she pulled out the silk cloth Tugong had given her and squatted down to look under the brim of his hat.

Good Lord.

His facial features. Upon the sight of them, Bai Qian was speechless. If all mortals looked like this, there would be no need for gods. She could not recall the last time she had seen someone so good looking.

Because she was too busy gawking, Bai Qian hadn’t realized the Villager had been trying to take the cloth from her hands. When he cleared his throat, she looked down and released her grip. As he pulled away, she noticed a thick layer of bandaging around his hand and wanted to ask if he was injured, but decided against it.

The Villager took his time looking over the map. His long black eyebrows became more furrowed together the more he looked. She was certain he was having the same reaction she had had when she first saw Tugong’s handiwork. Finally, he folded up the cloth and handed it back to her as though it served no purpose.

“Who are you looking for?” he asked.

“Well… that’s…” Was it a good idea to reveal the details to this stranger?

“Big Sis!” Shu Long was now making his way over to her. Crouching down beside them, he glanced over at the Villager and asked, “Big Sis, who’s this man? You know him?”

“I’m just asking him for directions,” she clarified.

Suddenly, like the possessed, Shu Long began firing off. “Mister– have you seen a group of men walking with a group of small children? You must have, right? They must have crossed by here! Do you know which way they went?!”

Bai Qian wanted to pinch his little mouth off. The brat had no tact whatsoever. What if this was one of the kidnappers?

The Villager simply responded to Shu Long by shaking his head.

He then got up from his seat and began to gather up his things, his frame towering over them. Bai Qian felt a little guilty for having disrupted him. He had probably been enjoying a nice and peaceful rest before they came along. As she watched him, she was awestruck by the way he moved. So refined and graceful. Even the cheap wool clothes he had on looked like they could be the finest of silks by the way he wore them. It was shameless how much she was staring. When he caught eyes with her, she blushed.

“Good luck to you,” was the last the Villager said to them before walking in the opposite direction.

Going back to the group with her newly gathered intel, Bai Qian informed Zhao Ge that they would be out of the bamboo forest by sunset. But since there would be no sunlight after that, they needed to speed things up as it would be no easy task to locate a cave entrance in the dark of night. Although the information had curbed the Magistrate’s bad mood some, he was still about as amiable as a rose bush.

She had decided that walking alongside him in silence had made her uncomfortable enough. So this time, Bai Qian attempted the only solution she could think of: small talk.

“So… Magistrate… you said you were married, what was your wife like?”

Zhao Ge’s eyes glanced at her sideways, then went back to staring straight ahead.

Bai Qian was certain he was refusing to engage with her when about a minute later, he responded. “She was… a loud and extremely talkative person. Like a little bird you can’t get to quiet down. Especially when she would get excited or angry about something,” he chuckled briefly, “and there was hardly anything she wouldn’t get excited about. I’ve never met anyone who could be so easily amused.”

Was this the first time she had seen him crack a genuine smile? Looking carefully at his face, the tenderness that hid within the creases at the corners of his eyes made her feel something strange. One could hardly call it jealousy, for what reason did she have to be jealous? Perhaps it had more to do with the way in which it made her contemplate the future… When one day, the two of them were to be married to one another, would he ever think of her and smile this fondly? Or would he prefer to think back to this life and the person he once shared it with?

Would that hurt me?

Bai Qian was about to look away when a glimmer of what could only be described as grief showed itself on the margins of his smile and caught ahold of her.

“How did your wife die?”

It was a question she had wanted to ask, but had not dared. Now, she had blurted it out without thinking, and it was not exactly a well-formulated question for such a sensitive subject.

The pause he took was double this time, but eventually Zhao Ge did reply.

“She died by fire.”

What a horrible way to go. For a moment Bai Qian could not think of what words would be fit to comfort him. All she could muster was a quiet “I’m sorry”.

It was indisputable, mortal lives were way too fragile. As an immortal, it was hard for her to grapple with the knowledge that something like a fire could put an end to everything. But in thinking more about it... Could this woman’s death have been anything more than the product of a Star Lord’s fanciful script? It was hardly implausible that the entirety of her life was just an obstacle to further along the Heavenly Crown Prince’s mortal trial. How would Yehua deal to know the truth of that one day? Would he feel wronged for her, or would he simply acknowledge that she had served her purpose?

Perhaps, that too was an inherent test of all their trials.

Just as the Villager had said, by the time they had made it out of bamboo forest, the sun was already tucked away on the horizon, but a clear moon was high in the sky. The narrow dirt path they were walking on had opened up to a large field. On the other side of which, a mountain rose like a needle into the sky.

“Big Sis...” Shu Long spoke up, his hand reached out to gently grab ahold of her arm. “It looks like we’re almost there. You must stay behind when we go in. It’s dangerous.”

“I think you know that I can take care of myself?” She poked his forehead with her index finger, slightly peeved. She would have to enlighten him that women didn’t like to be told what to do, it would make his life easier.

“That’s what they all say,” the boy said bitterly and Bai Qian suddenly felt sorry for not being more understanding. He had just lost his loved ones. The little ones, they had been his family for so long. And the girl! The one with the child… his child? Zhao Ge’s grandchild? Were they even still alive?

“He’s right,” Zhao Ge said, slowing his steps. “Once we get to the cave, you will keep watch outside.”

What? Now father and son were partnered up against her?

“On second thought, the both of you will stay outside,” Zhao Ge corrected himself, and went on firmly, “This is not a mission for women and children. You will have both served your purpose as soon as we locate their hideout.”

“No!” she protested, “didn’t I tell you I have special skills? I can fight!”

Completely ignoring her, the Magistrate continued his commands to the rest of the crew.

“We don’t know what kind of enemy we’re up against, but there’s a good chance they’ve already detected our presence. If we get ambushed, the plan will be to split up. You two,” his eyes shifted back to Bai Qian and Shu Long, “just run back through the bamboo forest and into town. At least you can call for backup. The last thing we want is for the whole lot of us to end up dead here.”

Unfortunately for them, Zhao Ge’s prediction came to fruition too soon.

She had been watching him give the orders, and within a blink of an eye, she was watching him clash swords with a group of attackers who had seemingly dropped out of the air. These people were dressed in all white, and moved so swiftly to surround them that it was hard to pinpoint just one attacker – the feeling was like being trapped by a shapeless cloud.

Bai Qian’s first instinct was to summon the Jade Purity Fan, but she hesitated. No matter what, she wasn’t supposed to use her magic to harm anyone here. But…

There was no more time to think, a blade was coming down on her left side. Just before she could summon a shield, Zhao Ge had swooped in between and blocked the attack with the sword he wielded with his one arm. All the while, yelling at her to go away. But how could she? There was blood on him. Was he hurt? Even if he and his men were strong fighters, they were clearly overpowered. Was she really supposed to just follow the rules and let them gamble their lives?

A hand clasped onto her wrist.

It was the boy’s. A fierce and adamant grip that left her no choice as it pulled her away and through the cracks of the ongoing brawl.

With their feet darting through the grassy field away from the fight, Bai Qian took one last look back at the Magistrate and his troops. Was this where Yehua was meant to finish his trial? Would he die here? She hadn’t thought about that.

“Over here!” Shu Long said, taking Bai Qian with him as he made a swift turn behind a rocky crevice. After all that running, they had finally arrived at the base of the mountain. The boy clearly did not wish to follow his father’s previous instructions to go back to where they had come from.

“Big Sis, I’m going to go and try to find that cave entrance. It should be around here somewhere–” he was still catching his breath “–You stay here. If anyone comes, just run, alright?”

“You mean that cave entrance?” Bai Qian asked, pointing toward the gaping hole just a few steps behind where he stood.

The little brat’s eyes went wide.

“Come,” Bai Qian gently shook her wrist, which he was still holding onto. “We’ll go together.”

“No,” Shu Long gritted his teeth and shook his head.

He was being stubborn. How did one deal with stubborn children exactly? “Look, if anyone comes while you’re in there, Big Sis is gonna have to fight them alone. I won’t have you to protect me, will I? Do you really want to come back here just to find me dead?”

A deep frown formed on that little face of his. The brat seemed to have totally bought her lame excuse. And as though he had decided on something, his eyes became firm. “Don’t worry… Big Sis, no matter what, I won’t let you die.” He grasped her wrist more tightly and pulled her along.

What the heck was that expression? Bai Qian’s heart shook.

Shu Long had not taken two steps, when he turned around. His face hardened even more now as he looked at Bai Qian. “If we get the opportunity in the future… I… I will discuss it with you in more detail.”

Bai Qian narrowed her eyes. “Discuss what?”

“The details regarding our marriage of course.”

“......”

He had said it so confidently, why did it take less than two seconds for his face to turn bright red like an apple? Shu Long turned around so fast after that and simply dragged her toward the mouth of the cave without daring to look back.

A faint light trickled out from the inside. Looking in, all Bai Qian could see were a set of curved steps leading downwards. Thankfully, there was no one standing guard outside. Their enemies were overconfident. They must have thought the ambush from earlier would be enough defense. But were there more of them down here?

Voices! The moment she and Shu Long had crept halfway down the steps clinging to each other, they could hear the conversation going on down below.

“Hurry up and get those kids out of those dirty street clothes. And make sure you clean their bodies thoroughly before Master comes. They can’t have any impurities on them.”

What was the meaning of those disturbing words? Bai Qian couldn’t fathom. As they were rounding the corner on the last few stone steps, she had to pull Shu Long down with her to duck behind a large rock. With their eyes peeking out just enough, they were able to survey the large cavernous space before them. At one corner, a long row of bodies were laid on the ground – the children from the temple. They seemed to all be unconscious.

Shu Long’s body began to writhe beside her like he was about to rush out there to get them. Bai Qian had to snatch up his arm to hold him back. Was he that stupid? Could he not see that standing right over the bodies were three figures in the same attire as the mob that had attacked them earlier in the field?

Upon closer inspection, Bai Qian was startled. The white clothing these three had on, were they not the same ones worn by those people who were occupying the tea house back in the city? Disciples of that Burning… whatever… Mountain... Sect.

“Hey, what are you hesitating for? I said hurry up and undress them!” One of the three was currently snapping at the other.

“But… Senior Brother… they’re just children… Do we really have to…” This one seemed to have some good sense in him.

“Do as you’re told! Are you trying to revolt?”

“Senior Brother, please don’t be angry at him. He’s still new here. Let me talk to him,” the last of the three now spoke up – a woman’s voice. “Listen Junior Brother, although it may seem like what we are doing is a mistreatment to these children, that is not the case. You see, it is their blessing to be of service to our Master in this way. Their life source will be the key to Master’s ascension.”

Life source? She couldn’t possibly mean their mortal essence… the thing which kept all mortals alive and was also needed for reincarnation.

“Once Master ascends, us disciples will finally all have our opportunity to do the same,” the woman went on, “we will take our rightful place in the Heavens, and displace those whom we are currently forced to acknowledge as Gods.”

“But Senior Sister… can we really… go against the Gods?”

“Why not? How often have they failed us? How many times have they wronged us? Even try to harm us. You know this fact, you’ve experienced it firsthand. What happened to your family... isn’t that why you joined us, Junior Brother? The world will be a better place by the will of our Master. These children will help us get there.”

As confusing as her long-winded words were, it didn’t take long for Bai Qian to process the gist of things. It was evident that this group of people, this Sect or whatever they were called, was not exactly the regular bunch of god-worshipping mortals she was used to dealing with. In fact, the antithesis.

The thing they were discussing just now – was it not mutiny against her own kind? But the idea was absolutely laughable. A pack of mortals who were still cultivating to ascend... actually wanted to take over the Nine Heavens? On whose watch? And what of this ‘Master’ they spoke of? Likely just another crazed mortal who grew up unloved and spent way too much time fantasizing about playing god. Get enough of the same like-minded to follow you around and suddenly you had yourself a “Sect”.

The bigger problem was the way in which they were trying to carry out this deranged plan of theirs. What they were planning to do with these innocent children, it was going too far.

“Senior Sister, you’re right. Forgive me for my nearsightedness.”

It sure didn’t take long for this junior disciple to throw his conscience out the window. Soon, he was bending down and grabbing ahold of one of the unconscious little girls.

“STOP!”

Bloody hell.

Shu Long had somehow escaped her hold and was lunging forward out into the open space, yelling at the top of his lungs. “DON’T TOUCH THEM!”

“Who’s there?!” The three were now turned around facing him, their swords drawn.

You’ve got to be kidding me. She really had to give him credit, the little brat was brave. Although he didn’t have a single ounce of tact, at least he wasn’t a little wimp. Problem was, he also had no weapon! Of course, now, she had to go and rescue him.

Before the white-clothed trio could launch their attack, Bai Qian had sent out the Jade Purity Fan. The fan spun in the air and looped around its targets. She had tempered it with just enough power so that as it struck each one of their sword-holding wrists, it only knocked the weapons out of their hands.

“You– who are you?! How did you get in here?!” the eldest of the three bellowed out as he quickly scrambled to pick up his sword from the ground.

His two Juniors were still standing frozen in disbelief.

“What kind of magical… artifact...” the woman mumbled as she eyed the Jade Purity Fan that was being summoned back into Bai Qian’s hand.

For a moment, Bai Qian had to think of what she could or couldn’t do next. These people didn’t seem like the type to reason with, especially since they were crazy enough to spout off all that she had heard earlier. She couldn’t exactly kill them. She couldn’t injure them too much either. It looked like they were going to have to go to sleep. Bai Qian proceeded to cast a sleeping spell on them, but as her energy was circulating, out of the blue, she was hit with painful pressure in her chest. Enough to make her drop to the ground.

Something was interfering with the powers in her body. As though they were being suppressed. She could sense the sensation of another’s spiritual power acting on her. Whose? Who could be here that was strong enough to oppose her?

Bai Qian became anxious. As she looked around, a flash of white light came jutting out from her periphery, so fast, she couldn’t react. All she managed to do was close her eyes. Expecting a painful blast, what she received instead, surprised her. A pair of arms wrapped around her in a tight embrace. There was no pain.

When she opened her eyes, Shu Long’s forehead was rested snug against hers.

“Big Sis…”

What’s this? Little Brat, was this really the time to be flirting?

“Are you alright?” he asked. His whole face was now nuzzling hers. This little perv, was he asking for a beating?

“Hey, what are you doing? Get up!”

“Big… Sis…” he kept repeating. But his voice was now so quiet, like it had become drained of all energy. “It’s good… you’re… alright.” Why did he sound so weak?

“Shu Long?”

“I... said... I would protect you… didn’t I...”

Hearing his words, Bai Qian simply felt a buzz in her mind, as though something that been clamped together tightly, broke.

Wait.

“Shu Long?” She began to cradle her arms around his scrawny little body that now fell limp against hers. “Hey. What’s the matter? Are you messing with me again? Shu Long!”

No.

“I… am sorry… I cannot… keep my other… promis–” He started to cough up blood. From the corners of his mouth, blood was dripping out in two thick red ribbons, refusing to cease, pooling into the crook of her collarbone where his face had fallen to.

Bai Qian’s vision instantly began to turn blurry.

He’s hurt. The little brat is hurt. How?

There was seemingly no one else in the cave except the sleeping children and the three White Robes that had been put to sleep. She tried to feel around on Shu Long’s body for a stab wound, some visible or palpable injury, but there was nothing. His injuries were internal. He seemed to have been on the receiving end of a violent blow of energy, far beyond anything a mortal could withstand.

Who did this?

In the palm of her hand, Bai Qian had already started to channel a bit of her spiritual energy. She wanted to give it to Shu Long. It would heal his injuries. It would keep him alive. But it was also the last thing she was allowed to do.

Don’t interfere.

Moyuan’s voice resounded in her ears.

I know I’m not supposed to, Shifu, but how can I let this child die because of me? She could not think of any other option. With her hand pressed to his chest, she began inserting her essence into him. But before barely any of it could be absorbed, Bai Qian’s concentration was broken by the sound of footsteps that besieged the entrance of the cave, many of them.

It was difficult to see through the tears that were filling up in her eyes. She sensed a body moving next to her and instinctively lifted her hand to defend herself, but the sound of Zhao Ge’s voice stopped her.

“What happened?” he asked in shock at the sight of the boy in her arms. She couldn’t answer him. When did he make it in here? The mere blurry shadow of him looked like death itself.

Shu Long’s body had become still. His breathing slowed down. She held him more tightly. Little Brat, you can’t die… you can’t die… you can’t die… In her mind, these words kept repeating over and over.

Meanwhile, all around them, the sound of clashing weapons filled the cavern. The White Robes from the ambush earlier must have chased Zhao Ge and his men here. His troops had been reduced to half. The enemy, on the other hand, were tripled in numbers. But this was far from what Bai Qian was truly concerned about.

There was some other entity here. A much stronger foe, who had tried to target her earlier, who had yet to come out of the shadows.

She tried to probe around for another immortal essence, but the feeling was like being caught in a net. Her powers were still being restricted. Whatever or whoever it was, was suppressing her again. Out of blind rage, Bai Qian pushed back with her might. The blood rumbled within her. She closed her eyes and focused on her meridians, channeling against anything that felt foreign. Until finally, her energy was released outward in a wrath so intense, it had knocked out all the bodies in the room flat to the ground.

All except for one.

Now she could see him. A tall figure dressed in all black, unlike the white that the others wore. He also had on a cloth that covered up most of his face, leaving only his eyes. There was something about him that seemed familiar to her, even if she couldn’t see his face. Bai Qian couldn’t place why. All that she was certain of was that he was the one. The one who had been able to use his powers on her. The one who had hurt Shu Long this badly.

He was no regular mortal.

Was this their so-called Master? The Sect Leader?

As he approached her, Bai Qian felt an irregular fury surging from the depth of her heart.

How dare you…

If what he wished for was a fight, then she would not deprive him of it.

Placing Shu Long’s body gently onto the ground, Bai Qian immediately summoned her Fan. She took a step forward and with a flick of her hand, began to cast her spells at the man in black. One after another, she shot at him. But he was dodging each one of them without any difficulty by barely moving. When her attacks let up for a mere moment, his figure disappeared entirely.

Bai Qian whipped around and suddenly, standing there surrounding her were nine of him.

So he knew how to cast an illusion art...

What kind of mortal or immortal was he? She couldn’t get a read on his energy at all.

Turning her Fan into a sword, Bai Qian sprang forward and tried to aim for one of the nine identical copies. Her sword passed directly through it. Then, she tried another. It vanished completely. Mirages...
Reappearing, the figures started to spin around her. Faster and faster.

She had to close her eyes eventually to prevent dizziness and as soon as her lids clamped down, she felt a hand grab ahold of her shoulder from behind. It dragged her backwards. The force it imparted was so brutal, it sent Bai Qian crashing to the ground. A second later, the man appeared in front of her again. Just one of him this time, towering over her, only an arm’s length away. She watched him raise a hand to channel a pulsing white light, the same as she had seen earlier. All she could imagine was breaking his arm off right then.

Apparently, someone else also had the same idea. Out of nowhere, Zhao Ge’s body leapt up in between her and the man in black. His sword drawn with unbelievable speed. He slashed it down.

The man’s hand was sliced cleanly from his wrist.

Bai Qian was waiting to hear a scream, a cry, some sound of anguish, but even with a limb severed from his body, this person still did not make a single noise.

It shocked her. Her feet instinctively retreated. One second, she was still gaping at his blood stringing in the air, and in the next, she was watching him lift Zhao Ge up by the neck. By the savage look in those eyes, Bai Qian knew if she didn’t act fast, the Magistrate’s neck would soon be snapped in half.

The Jade Purity Fan was launched at the man. Perhaps, because of his new injury, her powers had more effect on him this time. When her spell hit him, Zhao Ge was released from his grasp and fell to the ground. The man staggered a few yards back. Now clutching the oozing stump of his wrist, he struggled to regain his footing. For a moment, he simply looked at her dead in the eye. What was he hesitating for? Bai Qian instantly summoned another spell. Instead of hitting him though, it passed directly through the air, slamming into one of the large stalactites hanging from the ceiling.

The man in black had disappeared yet again.

He seemed to be gone truly this time. She could not sense him any more.

“Yehua...” Bai Qian muttered, her eyes switching back to the ground. Zhao Ge was sitting there, glazed over, clutching his neck as he stared back at her.

“Are you alright? Let me see–” Dropping down, she pried his hand away and saw that there were black finger imprints on either side of his neck. “Does it hurt?”

“I’m fine,” Zhao Ge slowly responded, his hands pushing hers away. “You… why were you... what... are you…”

Bai Qian heard the question, but did not respond. While looking down, her attention had been abruptly diverted just now by the sight of the thing that was currently staining the ground beside them red. All that was left of their enemy - his hand.

Looking at it, she saw that there was something on its back surface. An image. Was it a birthmark? Or a scar? The design was very intricate...

A snake with nine heads.

Bai Qian couldn’t look away. As she stared at it, the air shook a little and the hand began to disintegrate.

In an instant, even the ground shook. The earth rumbled. She looked up. There were fragments of rock falling from the ceiling. The entire cave was on the verge of collapse. Could this be the result of her earlier blast?

“Big… Sis…”

Shu Long!

The boy was still where she had last set him down. Bai Qian hurried over him. “What is it?” Lifting him slowly, she placed him back into her arms. “Shu Long, how do you feel? Listen to me, you’re going to be alright. Just stay awake, I’m going to get you out of here!”

“No… the kids… help... them… please...”

Glancing up, Bai Qian saw that Zhao Ge and his men had woken up and were already scrambling to carry the children out of the subsiding cave. Bringing her arm up, she casted a large shield around them as well as a temporary seal on the structures above. That should hopefully dampen the damage enough to allow them to escape.

“Don’t worry,” she told the boy, brushing away the strands of hair that were now stuck to his pale, clammy forehead. “They’re in good hands. They’ll be safe.”

But what about him? Holding him this close, she could feel the lack of mortal essence Shu Long had left in his body. He became colder by the second. Even if she were to insert her spiritual energy into him now, would his body even accept it?

He really was dying.

But how could he die?

This clever, prideful, brave child. She thought of the things he had missed out on in his childhood. A mother. A normal home life. All the good things he had yet to experience. Was it worth it? What kind of fool gave his life away this easily? Why would he use his own body as a shield for her? They’d only known each other for a few days. Where was his common sense?

What about her? What of this grief in her heart? Watching him, counting his breaths as they slowed one by one, the emotion she felt could not be summed into words. He was a stranger to her too, but why did he feel like someone she had known for an eternity? She could not bear the thought that this mere mortal, flesh and blood, would soon cease to exist. Her heart hurt so much, it wanted to choke her.

Alive one day, dead the next.
Wasn’t it she who was once so accustomed to that notion?

“Big Sis... you… have to… leave,” that little mouth pressed out. “Please…”

“You idiot,” she sobbed, rubbing his cheek.

Her seal was undoubtedly breaking. The rubble started to plummet around them. In the distance, Zhao Ge’s voice could be heard, frantically yelling for everyone to get out. He was also calling for her, telling her to hurry and get to safety. But even if this cave were to swallow Bai Qian whole right now, she wanted to stay and be a shield for this person. She wanted to give him a bit more warmth. Anything.

“Please… go…”

“Little Brat, worry about yourself for once,” she murmured.

“Don’t cry…” he continued. This time, coughing up more blood. “You’re not... very... pretty... when you... cry.”

“Shhh,” she tried to hush him, using her sleeve to wipe the fresh blood off of his chin.

His hand reached up and held hers still.

“I’ll… come... back... for you,” he whispered, so softly Bai Qian thought she was imagining it. Then, more loudly, he begged: “Wait for me.”

A very familiar pain that was even more severe than torture, suddenly enveloped her. Those words, why was it those words? She could not endure them.

“Xiao Wu!” A voice penetrated the clouds of dust and raining rocks. Before she knew it, she was being hauled upward onto her feet. Shu Long’s body dropping away from her. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?!” It was her Fourth Brother.

“No, no!” She struggled against his hold, trying to break free. “I can’t leave him here!”

The mountain shook. The walls around them were letting out a series of violent, imploding shudders as the cavern ceiling began to drop inch-by-inch in ear-splitting fury. Refusing her pleas, Bai Zhen quickly summoned his energy to cloud jump and Bai Qian was forced along with him.

One brief look back at the person lying still on the ground was all she got.

His face, so white. The light in his eyes nearly gone, but he kept looking at her. Looking at her for as long as he could.

Her, just her.

“Wait for me.”