Valley of the Moths, Residence of High God Ruo Tzu - 20,000 years ago
The creature’s feet stomped, white ears flickered, upper lips curled in heavy breathing, its sharp gaze dark, alert. Impulsively, her hands reached out, wanting to bring solace to the beast; no doubt it had seen more than its fair share of hell. But the creature snorted. Body tensing, side pushing against the bamboo stall, its tail made quick flaps before clamping down between its hindquarters. All the indications of fear and frightful memories were contained in its eyes. What it had gone through was horrific, she could tell from the still visible scars left by harsh cuts. With burn scars on the left side of the beast’s face, the once magnificent creature cowered in fear, desperate to avoid any physical contact, distrustful of the world that had brought it harm.
How High God Rou Tzu of the Ghost Realm had saved it was a mystery. He hadn’t told her the full story, she knew, but didn’t push him for further details. The beast, Qian Li Ma (千里馬, Thousand Miles Horse), was a rare find indeed. This species of ivory colored horse was thought to have been extinct for 200,000 years. Its smooth solid body had been covered in bloody cuts, she could tell by the slash markings that still marred the once beautiful coat. Who could have committed such an unimaginable deed? Its powers and skills were sought after by those who wished to tame the powerful beast. The creature could travel a thousand Li without effort. According to legend, as a familiar, Qian Li Ma would always bring victory to any owner it wished to serve. A blessing to the leader of the realms it chose them as its master.
Yan Zhi had wanted him from the moment her eyes set upon the forgotten beast from eons ago. Retreating slowly out of the stall so that the horse would not be agitated by sudden movement, she turned to High God Rou Tzu. “What happened to him?” she asked, her eyes never leaving the creature, whose gaze remained sullen.
“Poachers…worst of their kind. They bled him repeatedly for heavens know how many years, and sold the blood to those who wanted his powers but were unworthy. Worse than any known demons, the vile creatures,” he answered softly, containing his rage beneath serene composure. “Bottom feeders of the realms, taking pleasure in exploiting the weak for profit.”
The lover of all creatures, the soft spoken High God may be an Elder of the Ghost Tribe, but Yan Zhi could tell from the first moment they met that he was not originally from that realm. His language was always gentle, his posture unthreatening. Only a certain person could rattle his nerves. Though powerful in magic, he was a fighter, not warrior, and had no wish to be one. He was as much of a mystery as the beast inside the bamboo stall. The unusual High God made the choice to reside there. His powers were largely unknown but she knew firsthand he was an expert in medicinal skills. There was nothing he couldn’t treat, given the many occasions she had to seek his help for her injuries. He had been the creator of the elixirs for her internal injuries during her training days to get to the Elders’ valley. His home was filled with injured creatures of all kinds, his shelves full of valuable herbs and rare ingredients known to be extinct in other realms.
The most fascinating find was behind his residence--a hidden hot spring, where he planted medicinal herbs: food for rare luminescent fungi. The fungi attached themselves to the herbs, feasting on the medicinal roots and releasing healing essence into the earth. This allowed the spring in the surrounding area to soak the properties from the roots and fungi and the water glowed at night, changing color into red, yellow, orange, green, and blue. Wǔ Yánsè Quán Shuǐ (五颜色泉水, Spring of Five Colors), as the Elder called it, could treat any type of injury, but it depended on the concentration of the type of herbs in the soil at any given time as indicated by the spring’s color.
The Elder had called her today asking for help in treating the injured beast. His request only brought puzzlement. “Elder, I will be pleased to help you anyway I can but you should know by now that I do not possess skills in this area, considering I cause more injuries than I heal. Why did you bring me here?” Yan Zhi asked, turning her gaze from the beast to the High God.
Elder Rou Tzu showed his usual elegant smile, “I didn’t bring you here to treat the physical ailment of this rare find of mine.” Her brows arched questioningly at the statement. The High God continued, “His injuries healed long ago but as you saw from his reaction earlier I can’t release him given his trauma. More importantly, without the protection of a powerful owner, he might be captured again. What he needs is a guardian, someone he can grow to trust and serve.”
Yan Zhi smiled, her excitement rising at the prospect of taming the creature. It was a delightful opportunity. Her attention went back to the frightened beast. “And you thought of me?” she asked, as her expression transformed with wonder.
“I think of it as hitting two birds with one stone. I won’t have to continue treating you so often, knowing he will keep you from harm,” Rou Tzu chuckled lightly, his hands touching the door of the stall as he watched the creature, his eyes determined, his words solid. “If you can tame the beast, he’ll become your biggest ally while he will have the protection of the Queen of the Ghost Tribe. No one would dare touch what’s yours, even the vile poachers.”
“That is a tempting offer…” Yan Zhi turned back to the High God, slightly hesitating to accept the unexpected gift.The High God indeed had thought things through. A gift this grand, how could she repay him, she thought. But he read her mind before she spoke.
“Protect him, that’s all I ask,” the Elder told her with trust in his eyes.
And at that time, Yan Zhi promised she would. And she thought she really could.
Valley of the Blue Moths, Residence of the High God Ruo Tzu - Present Day
On the floor of the bamboo stall, over thick yellow hay, Qian Li Ma lay on his side with his head resting in Yan Zhi’s lap. His intake of breath was smooth and even, so peaceful his slumber that if not for the herbal scent coming from his body, she would not be reminded of his heavy injury. Her hands continued to stroke his mane, bringing comfort to the hibernating creature, reminding him that she was there as she softly sang the lullabies she used to sing for Qiao’er. Then her hands stopped, her throat caught at the sight of the injuries on his side. It must have been painful for him. Yan Zhi really thought she could protect him from all harm, yet who knew it was he who would risk his life to protect hers when Qiong Qi attacked them that day at the bottom of the Canyon. But it was no surprise he was loyal.
He always had been. He had been her shadow, her guardian these 20,000 years. It took over ten years for the him to trust her touch. Then another ten for Li Ma to allow others besides her to come near him. Li Ma’s spirit was damaged for thousands of years under the imprisonment of those who treated him as an object for profit. By showing she had no fear because beasts could always sense fear from others, with patience and care, she finally won his trust.
To tame a great beast, one had to remain calm in any given situation, no matter how frightful the circumstances might be. But that day at the Green Canyon of the South, she had experienced fear, only slightly, due to the mind control powers of the Qiong Qi Beast. Normally, his powers would have no affect on her, but his focus of attack were her own people, and that distracted her enough for the Beast to knock her over the ledge. Once she reached the bottom of the Canyon Qiong Qi didn’t waste time in attacking her. She held up a great fight against the creature but at some point she lost consciousness. Li Ma must have sensed she was endangered, because he did not leave, remaining by her side. When she finally awoke, the Qiong Qi beast was nowhere in sight. Qian Li Ma was next to her, his body shielding her from the elements.
Since then her familiar had remained in deep slumber. It had been over one moon cycle and he had not yet opened his eyes. Heart clenching, Yan Zhi rested her head over his, her fingers continuing to run through his thick silk-like mane. She listened to his soothing breathing that gave her hope that he would wake up soon, that his stubborn eyes would stare back at her again.
“We’re one of a kind, you and I. Creatures of the land, who spent a great deal running away from those who preyed on us,” she whispered, eyes closed. Her face flushed but there were no tears to shed, as much as she felt the wave of emotions, she couldn’t muster the human response she craved.
“I’m sorry, you had to protect me. Li Ma, you have to stay strong, please, for me,” Yan Zhi begged her companion. “I’ll give you all the snacks you want, as many rice buns as you please. Wake up soon, my friend,” she told him.
Yan Zhi wanted to stay longer, but she had to leave to pay respect to the Elders who resided within the Valley of the Moths. In the hidden sacred place, there were two High Gods and one Goddess. They shared the Valley which, given the amount of traps and magical suppression on the land, others had been afraid to venture near for hundreds of thousands of years. Her Tribe called them Elders, and rightfully so. They had resided on the land since even before the time of the First Demon War. Much like the Fox Tribe, they lived in peaceful coexistence with nature, but like the Demons they were feared by others for the dark powers they possessed.
While Elder Ruo Tzu resided in the East Valley, where Li Ma was currently recuperating, High God Guo Zhu lived in the West Valley. The two High Gods’ personalities were like night and day. From mannerisms to speech, the soft spoken Rou Tzu was nothing like the rough straightforward Guo Zhu. In fact, they fought at least once a moon as Yan Zhi had observed during her stays. Usually over their mutual affection for the one and only female of the Valley, Li Hua, the first Spider High Goddess of the Ghost Realm, and the most powerful between the three.
Today was no different upon her arrival; the two men were in the middle of battle once again under the White Blossom Mulberry Trees in front of Li Hua’s residence. It was a beautiful pavilion surrounded by acres of Mulberry blossoms. While the High God Guo Zhu used his zither for battle, Ruo Tzu used his medicinal smoking pipes to deflect the musical resonance that came from his opponent, creating a vortex of white petals around them. Their weapons and technique changed every so often, the two never ceased to gain new techniques. In the past, Yan Zhi had used the opportunity to hone her skills as she watched them fight a battle that resulted in no winners. But over time she had learned to stroll past the two unrelenting High Gods, since their battle could last several days if not weeks.
Yan Zhi had come to offer flowers to the High Goddess Li Hua who greeted her upon her arrival. The Goddess was dressed in white with dark green lining, the soft silk fabric flowing gracefully against her petite body. She looked younger than even Yan Zhi, who was in dark purple riding gear, black lace and embroidery lining her collars. The High Goddess’ age was beyond 350,000 years and, given her extraordinarily youthful appearance, her powers were no doubt comparable to the High Gods and Goddesses in other realms.
“Good child, the roses I requested. These will do well for my new dye for the silk this season,” the Goddess said gracefully, with a voice as smooth as the sound of a zither through the air. The High Goddess always sought new flora to expand her dye collection. Her favorite pastime was cultivation of silk, made by special large moths, the size of hens, which she raised and nurtured.
“Elder...are you going to stop them?” Yan Zhi asked teasingly, referring to the battle behind them as they went through the main entrance which was hung with transparent flowing green and white silks, the spring breeze lifting the light fabric like waves of the sea. With a quick glance at the two men who were still surrounded by swirling mulberry petals, she handed the basket of flowers to the Goddess.
“Not today. They’re letting out steam as usual, you know how men can be when they have nothing to do during times of peace,” the cheerful Goddess shrugged, leading Yan Zhi to the back sitting area. The tea table was in the centre of the room, surrounded by shelves of dye concoctions of myriad colors. The scent of dyes could be overwhelming, but the airy room was enclosed by sliding doors which, when opened, helped alleviate the strong smell. They settled on soft white silk pillows across from each other around the oval ivory marbled table. While the Goddess began to sort the flower petals into white ceramic bowls for grinding, Yan Zhi prepared their tea.
“What are they fighting about this time?” Yan Zhi asked calmly to ease the transition into what was to come. Over the years, they had grown accustomed to their routine; despite her casual indifference around the subject, it wouldn’t take long for the Elder to ask about the outside world.
“Who knows,” the Goddess shrugged with a short laugh. Her focus remained on the rose petals, eyeing the colors with the attentiveness of a master. “It’s not the bedroom schedule, at least. I am sure of that.”
“You have a schedule?” Yan Zhi tried to suppress her smile. Their arrangement was never clear, and though they were open at times, she was not the type to pry into others’ business.
“If we don’t have a schedule, I will have no time to myself. Men are like children, always demanding one thing or another. You should have have known by now, considering how many are under you,” the Goddess remarked. Her petal arrangement completed, Yan Zhi poured the warm mulberry tea for the Goddess.
“Elder.” Yan Zhi respectfully handed her the teacup.
The Goddess lifted the teacup, inhaling the soft fruity scent, her face radiant, her eyes closing for a second before she spoke again. “Speaking of men…” her brows arched at the thought, her lips pursed, taking a sip. “Have your meddling Generals completed their candidate search yet?” Unfortunately, at that moment, Yan Zhi took a sip of her own. The statement was so unexpected, she choked. Coughing, she covered her mouth as her face turned scarlet from the change in topic.
“Elder…how did you--”
“Not too long ago, your Second-in-Command dropped by. His worried pleading was hard to ignore. With his constant babbling, I almost suffered a headache from his visit.”
Yan Zhi had to take a breath to contain her mild irritation with their meddling. Even after her reigning for so many years, they believed they could control her fate. Rippling waves of rage began to rise, but she suppressed the feeling for the moment. They would pay at a later time.
“I apologize for his disturbing you at your residence, Elder. I will handle the matter once I return,” Yan Zhi said quickly, her hands reaching for the teapot again as her thoughts turned to the appropriate punishment for her overprotective, overbearing Generals. Knowing his relentless personality, General Hu Wan had sent General Yang Jie most likely.
“No need,” Li Hua raised her slender hand. “I agreed with him,” she said matter-of-factly.
“What?!” Yan Zhi dropped the teapot this time, the tea spilled over the table like her crashing life. Her head shook in surprise. “But Elder, I’ve taken my responsibility--”
“Yan Zhi, your responsibility was never the question. But they all know, if you were allowed to take the path you desired, you would have followed your unfortunate husband long ago -- you didn’t, couldn’t, because of the curse of the royal blood. Your people are aware of your sacrifice for them, but times have changed. This is another matter,” the Elder said bluntly, her straightforward attitude apparent even when it came to this sensitive subject. “Child, you can’t continue living the half life of a widow,” Li Hua chided.
Her body stiffened, Yan Zhi turned away, eyes shut in response to the brusque statement that pierced her heart. It made her feel more than she wanted to feel, to acknowledge. Their marriage was not made public, but Yan Zhi had recorded their Marriage by Capture ceremony, the old custom of her people, with the Priestess of Books soon after the day of their vows. Years later, after Zi Lan’s death, the record was discovered by General Hu Wan, one of the only few who knew about what happened back then.
“Do they really think that?” Yan Zhi whispered, glancing back at the Goddess, her fist clenched, angered by the betrayal.
“Yan Zhi, the loss you endured was visible whenever they gazed at their Queen. For years they did not push you out of respect for your loss, but that’s no longer enough given the current situation. They almost lost you a few days ago, and that doesn’t count the number of occasions you allowed yourself to cross paths with death in the past, given your frequent visits to Rou Tzu for treatment. Your people need, require, a royal heir due. And since you have refused to let your niece become one, they are at their wits end.”
“Qiao’er must have her life,” Yan Zhi stated firmly. “I owe her that much.”
The Goddess chuckled at the statement. “The very reason you never trained her to become an heir. Not only does she lack the discipline of an heir, she hasn’t taken up any responsibilities for her people.”
“She suffered enough for our cause,” Yan Zhi replied, her gaze darkening possessively as haunted memories returned. “I won’t put her through what happened 30,000 years ago again.”
“All the more reason why you should meet these suitors,” the Goddess countered.
“Elder…” she began to protest, but the Elder was not having it.
“Yan Zhi, this is not a negotiation. I’ve given my blessing for your Generals to select the candidates. They’re afraid you’ll severe their heads for their actions, that’s why they came to me, wise men that they are. When the time comes, choose whoever catches your eye.”
“Elder, it’s not that simple,” Yan Zhi scowled as panic set in. Bewildered by the loss of power and control within a short time, she was helpless once again. Even with her current status, Yan Zhi couldn’t deny a request from the Elders; the Generals knew, and they took advantage of this weakness of hers, manipulative as they were. The Elders were her people’s saviors, her masters, whom she’d forever be in life debt to.
“Child, life is never simple, but you still have to live it,” Li Hua advised gently, her lips curving into a mischievous smile. “If you heed my advice, take a few mianshou for your pleasure if the candidates you meet do not meet your expectations of a Prince Consort,” Li Hua suggested, making Yan Zhi’s eyes widen in surprise, struck speechless.
Unlike the uptight Celestial, or devoted Fox, Mianshou (面首,"prime faces”, lovers of honored women) was not an uncommon position in the Ghost or Demon Tribes. Yet, though the blood of Ghost royalty ran through her veins, despite her past, she couldn’t imagine a partner other than him, her husband, her one and only.
Yan Zhi’s expression must have been self-evident, because Li Hua, the indifferent High Goddess, the sole person Yan Zhi could never deny, did something out of character at that moment. Her body rose, Li Hua’s hand crossed the ivory table, a touch of fingertips soft as petals grazed Yan Zhi’s cheeks ever so slightly. Li Hua’s vibrant dark green eyes softened with wisdom beyond her youthful appearance. Appearance under which harrowing memories spoke from the distance of a former time.
“Remember…” the Goddess spoke smoothly, yet the presence of the unspoken past hovered over the light air of spring. “Fate is what allows them to enter your life, but you choose who may stay. An heir is all that your people require. So, choose wisely, because the future of the tribe depends on your choice.”
Her choice, her life...if only it could be that simple...