Bái Zhù Sēnlín (White Pillars Forest), Ghost Realm
Hopping off the clouds, the Baize Beast landed on top of white rock amongst the vast number of white pillars, blanketing the luscious greenery of the deciduous forest. Located within the northern edge of the Ghost Realm, the ancient Bái Zhù Sēnlín (白柱森林, White Pillars Forest) came into existence 100,000 years after the eight realms were newly formed. Legend had it, before the first Clan War, the northern region had been an ivory gorge of high mountains, with transparent, sparkling water veins running through the inviting landscape. At the dawn of night, if one flew high enough, a liquid of heavenly blue stars could be seen from above. The bright water illuminated the gorge with flickering blue luminescence; depending on where the true heart of the water vein lay, the properties were known to enhance one’s cultivation. During those times, the region had been home to new and young species of ghouls and beasts. The high gorge mountain was a perfect place to cultivate for powerless creatures that wished to obtain human form.
Then one day, mysteriously, the white mountain range was no more. Left behind as shattered remnants, the white stone pillars scattered the landscapes for miles and miles, forever covering the precious water veins which used to give hope to the beasts that wished to experience a higher life.
A powerful battle must have taken place on that unfortunate day, the ancients said, yet there had been no eye witness, no residual auras to speak of. But rumors remained -- countless stories of demons and monsters, of heavenly punishment persisted, because a legend is never without its speculators.
Scanning the area, Baize took a sniff of the air. The beast still couldn’t sense what he sought. In the mist of mindless agitation, frustration, and fear, his senses were compromised.
Where could she be?
“Irritated” was probably an understatement -- he was infuriated. He would not have it! Being manipulated in such manner! But he couldn’t deny that manipulated he had been. He was still angry, but it wasn’t just anger this time. If only it were slashes from a blade or burns from fire magic, he would not have had to feel. He was a warrior, a general, a beast who had endured more than his fair share of heavenly trials. Heaven forbid, he was not a man to be easily trifled with. But she had targeted, taken aim like the true warrior she was, and directly, without holding back, shot. She must have relished the power of her words which had made him pause, made him think, made him wonder…
But...that door was locked. He was sure that it was. He had tried -- tried so hard to not let it be known, even to himself, that there was a key.
Was it obvious to everyone or just her alone?
Weakness...she had said. The beast within roared.
Weakness, a word he abhorred, despised. A word he could hardly utter with reference to himself. There was nothing he could do however. He was cornered the moment the two words that could stop even his bloodlust -- or at times ignite it -- had been uttered. If any harm had come to the one weakness he couldn’t accept...
Blood rushing, heart pounding, he flew above the white of the pillars, his large white paws lightly touching the top edges of the rock, propelling him forward. His blood orange eyes sharpened, all nine of them casting downward, searching every nook and corner of the valley below.
Searching, for the weakness he couldn’t help but continue to deny…
During times of peace, promotions were scarce. The chance to be recognized, to be acknowledged by the higher class had become limited due to the lack of major missions that could highlight one’s skills amongst others. So when Zhao Yan had heard of the many instances of wild beasts acting out of character, and the fact that some had gone missing altogether, he had been ecstatic. Not because he enjoyed their suffering in the least, no, he was not a cruel man by nature, but it had been too long since there had been special hard-earned missions with a silver lining of mystery to solve.
During the last mission several moons ago, he had not done his duty in preventing the Queen from joining their hunting party for the Qiong Qi Beast. As a result, she had gone missing for days before they had been able to locate her. Though the Queen had been miraculously unharmed, it had been his failure as her protector that had landed her in such a dire situation.
Zhao Yan had wanted to make amends, to prove to the Queen that he deserved a second chance. He had been sure he could. At the moment, he should have been leading the force to investigate the mystery of the missing beasts within their realm. With his many years of experience in battles and close relationship with a variety of creatures, he was the most suitable candidate. He was also the most eager. This was an opportunity of a lifetime, to solve the great mystery that plagued the eight realms, which no doubt would make him a Senior General, the youngest in history. But, instead, Zhao Yan had been assigned to playing bodyguard…no… nanny.
“Your Highness, Princess Qiao Xin, please return to Ziming Palace,” the stern General Zhao told the Princess Qiao Xin, who stood before the path not far from the eastern border of the Ghost Realm. “Without the Queen’s permission, you are not allowed to leave the realm.”
Her Majesty had only been gone for half a day. It was no surprise to Zhao Yan that the Princess took the opportunity of the Queen’s absence to make her move. But what Zhao Yan still couldn’t understand was why the Ghost Queen had decided to leave the Princess in his care in the first place. Did he not already have enough on his plate? Real missions to bring glory back to their realm, for instance? Most importantly, he was not one to meddle with Her Majesty’s personal business, unlike the other two hens who couldn’t stop playing matchmaker at their age. Proof that age did not correlate with one’s maturity. Because of their imposition, either due to boredom or lack of self preservation instinct, the Ghost Queen had set out to punish them all -- him included.
Thus the life of a nanny had begun -- with a runaway charge at that.
“General Zhao, this game has been played for far too long. Wouldn’t it be easier to let me pass?” Her Highness suggested cheerfully, without hiding that rebellious tone of hers. The Princess Qiao Xin, just like the Ghost Queen, was unpredictable, uncontrollable, forever out of reach for those who tried to tame their fiery nature.
“Not today. I am in no mood to banter with you,” Zhao Yan said indifferently, yet his voice held a dark warning underneath. “Please return, or I will have to use force.”
“Force, you say...” Qiao Xin smiled, not at all concerned by the fact that her powers were not on a par with his; he was after all one of her many masters. He knew her skills. But her eyes narrowed, her head slightly cocked. Her Highness strolled towards him, without reservation, without fear, with each step, her posture relaxed.
“Why are the men of our people so keen on fighting every chance they get? But then again, what kind of pupil would I be if I backed down from a challenge from one of my masters in arms?” her voice drawled, with the hint of a challenge that quickly went away. “But I doubt we’ll fight today,” she said with confidence, too much confidence. And he had realized it too late.
“If you turn a blind eye -- correction, nine of them, I will tell you where Xiu Zi is,” Princess Qiao Xin said nonchalantly.
His heart skipped at the familiar name. Zhao Yan stared at her, perplexed, not believing his ears. “What are you talking about? Xiu Zi should be training today at the arena.”
“No,” Her Highness shook her head, “she’s not.”
His eyes flashed red orange, alerted -- the color of sunset horizon -- his expression darkened. “Your Highness, what have you done?”
“Xiu Zi is safe, at least for the moment,” her head cocked to the side, her smile brightened -- the worst sign of all.
“Tell me where she is!” He growled under his breath, trying to contain his emotions to no avail.
“I will, only if you to promise to let me go,” she bargained, with the same aura as that of the Queen he knew so well, the late Queen Xuan Nu, her mother. “Time is not on her side. The further we drag this conversation out the less safe she grows.”
“You planned this,” Zhao Yan whispered, both angry and impressed. He did not know which feeling dominated but the former was growing on him.
“To win against a powerful opponent, one has to think at least ten moves ahead. You’re the one who taught me that,” she explained, her attempt at flattering his ego never failing.
Zhao Yan always knew that despite her age, the Princess would make any General proud of her tactical skills. She never forget her lessons, not even one. Worst, she took after Hu Wan when it came to manipulation. General Hu had taken a liking to the Princess from a young age. The glint in her eyes was just like Hu Wan’s when he knew he had won.
“Fine! I will let you go today, but only today. Your Highness, please tell me where Xiu Zi is,” he replied through the gritted teeth of a furious beast who was a hair thread away from transformation.
“General, at least put up more of a fight. Your weakness is showing,” she taunted, a trait that was unlike any of her masters’. This was innate, all her own. The Princess of the Ghost Tribe, who took pleasure in poking the beast.
“Princess Qiao Xin, if you don’t tell me where Xiu Zi is, I will make it my mission to keep you within my sight for all eternity,” Zhao Yan threatened, his control finally snapping. “Do not test my patience!”
“That’s more like it, the fiery fire of our finest warrior,” Her Highness said in a mocking tone, though her eyes softened with her next words. “It’s a pity you’re still clueless regarding yourself.”
Clueless? What in the blazes was she talking about?
This scent...she’s here…
His nostrils flared, the Beast stopped mid-flight and landed upon a large pillar. His nine eyes scanned again, but there was still no sight of her. His anxiety rose, his heart hammering. During his search Zhao Yan had seen what he suspected to be poachers on their land, yet he couldn’t stop to investigate -- an opportunity missed, because only she was on his mind. Zhao Yan cursed himself for not detaining the Princess longer to learn more of Xiu Zi’s situation.
“Xiu Zi! Xiu Zi! Where are you? Are you here?” the Beast roared, his voice echoing through the valley, knowing his presence probably scared off the intruders, but Zhao Yan could not care less for the lost chance to capture those involved. Who knew how long it would take him to find her. Worse, if the poachers were to find her first...
“Jie Fu! Jie Fu!” his mind snapped at the sound from the west.
“Xiu Zi?” Zhao Yan flew to the source until he landed on top of the pillar. Staring down from above, he caught a glint of amber against the white rock at the bottom of the forest.
“Jie Fu! I’m down here!” she called out again from below.
“Xiu Zi? Are you alright? What are you doing down there?”
“Jie Fu! I’m so happy to see you!” she called out, relief in her voice. “Can you help me? I’m covered in the amber of the Jiǎchóng Beast.”
Still in Baize Beast form, Zhao Yan landed on the forest floor. He stared at the large amber cocoon. Xiu Zi was completely encased, with only her head and hands exposed.
“Jie Fu?” she said anxiously.
“Close your eyes,” Zhao Yan instructed. Her eyes closed trustingly, his beast form took a fews steps back. His mouth opened, releasing the Baize’s blood orange fire directly at the center of the hardened amber. Destroying the amber of Jiǎchóng Beast was no easy task because the amber itself absorbed cultivation. Only a few beasts like himself were up to the task. At the sound of the amber cracking, his fire ceased. Zhao Yan immediately transformed to human form, his body cloud jumped forward as the amber exploded, sending thousands of crystal pieces in all directions. Xiu Zi’s eyes remained closed as her body dropped, but Zhao Yan caught her in his arms -- in spinning motion, propelling the shattered pieces away -- his body shielding her as they descended to the forest floor.
“Xiu Zi, are you okay?” Zhao Yan asked, her arms still wrapped around him as he settled her feet on the ground. Xui Zi’s eyes fluttered opened, a smile crossed her face.
“Jie Fu, I’m fine,” Xiu Zi nodded assuringly, quickly removing her arms from his shoulders, but he held on to her. “The Princess told me only your fire can melt the amber. I’m glad she found you so fast.”
“Xiu Zi, why did you end up caught? Shouldn’t you be training in the arena, preparing for next month’s festival?” Zhao Yan asked.
“Oh that…” Xiu Zi smiled brightly, her hands unconsciously gripped his arms for support, her body swayed slightly. “This morning the Princess said she wanted to collect gǒu qǐ berries for Ma Li, who still hasn't woken up from his injuries. Since gǒu qǐ berries only grow in Bái Zhù Sēnlín, I came to assist her. Fortunately I did, because Jiǎchóng attacked us soon after we arrived.”
“You mean you came here willingly? Alone? With the Princess?”
“Yes...what’s wrong? We didn’t expect the beast to show up while we collected the gǒu qǐ berries,” Xiu Zi explained earnestly, her expression becoming worried. “Thank goodness it only had interest in me, and not the Princess. But I did end up caught. Fortunately, the Beast left soon after. The Princess was unharmed, so she went to look for you.”
His hand rose to touch her face, a mere feather’s caress away, the scent was undeniable. “Xiu Zi, you smell like--”
“Smell like what?” she repeated, her wide eyes caught him off guard, his hand pulled back reluctantly. Breaking his gaze from hers, Zhao Yan collected himself.
“It’s not important,” Zhao Yan replied brusquely, his brows furrowed at the knowledge. Her Highness must have placed the yángméi berry powder on Xiu Zi to attract the beast before they arrived. The Princess was clever indeed, guaranteeing her escape every step of the way. Not as ruthless as her late mother, but ruthless nonetheless. His expression turned grim as he picked Xiu Zi up in his arms again, and flew to the top of the pillar.
“Jie Fu?” Xiu Zi immediately blushed, the contact seemed more intimate this time now that the danger was over. “I-I can walk, Jie Fu, you can put me down.” Flustered as she tried to struggle, but without strength her efforts were futile.
“Did you forget that the amber of Jiǎchóng beast absorbed cultivation? Jiǎchóng only left to give the amber time to extract your cultivation. You’re not ready to walk yet,” he told her firmly. “That’s why you’ve been leaning on me, or haven’t you noticed?”
Stopping her struggle, she lowered her head, not meeting his gaze. “I’m...I’m sorry you had to come rescue me. Again,” Xiu Zi apologized softly, with half voiced disappointment in her voice. Xiu Zi was still young, they often told her, only 65,000 years of age. Among the Xiu Sisters, Xiu Zi was the weakest despite trying her hardest to achieve their level of cultivation and skill at her age. No one faulted her, only she herself, and she took every opportunity to prove herself without a second thought to the danger it may hold.
“Promise me, you won’t go anywhere with the Princess in the future without consulting me first,” Zhao Yan told her in his usual disgruntled tone.
She turned to look straight at him, fear in her eyes. “But Jie Fu, I did my job of protecting her,” Xiu Zi said quickly, “Her Highness was not--”
“It’s not the Princess I am worried about,” Zhao Yan snapped angrily, his arms held her closer, tighter than he had intended.
“Jie Fu…” a surprised gasp escaped her lips, eyes like a frightened dove. Zhao Yan realized he had lifted her close without thought. Her cheeks flushed again, the color of scarlet hibiscus of the morning dawn. Heated gazes locked -- their beating hearts synced. Time stood still, ignoring the cold breeze from the high valley above the pillars, he couldn’t look away. Her lovely fragrance had overpowered the scent of the yángméi berries, making him remember, making him crave. He did not want to break the spell that was cast within her dark purple rimmed eyes, or the magic of her voice when Xiu Zi called out to him -- with the endearing address only she used these thousands of years.