In his life, she was a series of firsts. But of all the firsts, the first time he looked beyond his own world into hers, he distinctly remembered. How could anyone forget that first time? No one. Not even him. The first time she allowed him to gaze upon her true form. The unanticipated excitement, the surprise -- Die Feng remembered that first time like it was yesterday.
He could taste the stench in the air, feel the cool humid breeze against his skin. Behind the dark street of taverns and shops, hidden away from the mortals who would surely have been terrified had they witnessed the monster within the alley, the nightmare of adults and children alike.
Dark, primitive, dangerous…the creature had transformed before his eyes. The she-wolf was magnificent. Gorgeous, in fact. Her grey fur stood out against the ivory of the snow. And the violet and brown eyes -- he couldn’t look away from them as she scanned her surroundings, tasting scents, her primal nature taking hold.
The she-wolf, that was her. Commanding, majestic -- DEADLY. His own true form -- awakened by her presence -- called out in response.
He remembered, at that time, they had been in search of Zi Lan within the vast mortal realms. She had been insistent, helpful, and stubborn to a fault. There were hundreds and thousands of such realms, from different times, where past and future were just a fleeting memory for immortals from their passing visits. Myriad stories, countless fates…lost in the scattered memories from the many lifetimes which one had to endure to reach immortality -- if one was fortunate enough to reach immortality, that was.
Time. Time when she was lost...time when she was scared…when she was afraid.
It was an eternity for her, yet, he had not been there. 500 Celestial years for him was nothing compared to the time she had spent alone in the mortal realm.
He had been beginning to think it was hopeless…all those years of searching.
Praying for a sign.
For evidence that was erased through time.
But nothing could erase that first night, nor what was to come. Because he would not let go. Never again. Even if fate had other ideas.
He wouldn’t let fate take away his chance. Even if the angry creature before him refused to yield.
How would she receive him? Would she run away again? Hate him for what had been done to her people? Refuse to see him? He kept these thoughts at bay as he had walked and then run the last few steps towards the cave. He was here at last and she was within reach. At last, at last, his footsteps sang. And then, with his very first step at the edge of the den, the wolf had been upon him, fangs and claws flashing. Die Feng blocked her attacks with ease, yet he was unprepared for her response. His grey wolf, she did not recognize him, or if she did, he couldn’t tell.
The Grey Wolf receded, fearful she was. With each step towards the back of the dark cave, he could hear the screams of the past and present. Resonating within the walls, her cries, her sorrow, her nightmare.
He had to save her. He must.
The wolf was backed against the wall; she could retreat no further. Her only recourse, her only choice, was to attack. She snarled once again, eyes ablaze with killing aura. Gathering his cultivation, his hand waved, and Die Feng cast a spell to release her from her wolf form.
It did not work. Astonished, he paused. His spell couldn’t reach her soul at all. There was foul magic blocking him. In that moment, the grey wolf lunged at him again, forcing him to block her with his magic.
“Li Ying!” He called out her name over and over yet she didn’t cease her attack. He couldn’t draw his sword for fear of causing her harm.
Li Ying, the Princess of the forever lost Yellow Demon Tribe, had succumbed to her basic beast form. Hiding within a cave of the deep forest, she had remained here for who knew how many thousands of mortal years. Her mind not in charge, she was fighting with a fraction of her true strength, yet she was powerful all the same. In all the scenarios he had imagined, a mindless Li Ying attacking him, unable to become human again, had never occurred to him. Not even once. She might be angry, elusive -- that he had expected, but Li Ying not in control? Cursed?
She was the same, yet she was not.
Growling, the she-wolf flashed bright red with blood-lust. She pounced at him again. He was ready to block her next attack, but realized it too late as she flew even further, landing right behind him. Just as he turned, her large paws slashed his chest, sending him crashing across the small cave until the dark walls slammed into his back. Gathering himself upright, he faced his demon, his longing. The she-wolf moved in a zigzag pace, cornering the prey that had nowhere to go. Her predatory gaze heightened, her mouth salivating for the taste of the blood that had filled the air. The brown and violet eyes glared back, ready to make their move.
Instinctively, his hand fell on his sword, but he froze. He couldn’t draw.
“I saw her several times more in my lifetime,” the elderly mortal whispered, her eyes partially closed, reminiscing with a slight crooked smile.
They sat in the center of her courtyard, surrounded by overgrown weeds that covered the once lucious vegetable gardens. The early morning rained bright rays of sunlight through the autumn trees. After pouring him mint tea, the lady lowered herself back on the old bamboo chair that creaked lightly as it took her weight. Her family was all gone, most had moved away while the rest had died. Living alone within the village, she looked content.
“The second time, I was a young woman, who was unfortunate enough to be accosted by bandits on the way to my wedding. The Grey Wolf saved me that day, slaughtering the true monsters of the forest. With the same brown and violet eyes, the grey wolf, my Grey Wolf, the nightmare of my people. Though she had saved me from ruin, the harm had already been done. Gossip and whispers are more damaging than the act of violation itself,” she gave a choked laugh, her eyes reflecting the horrors of her past.
“My fiance’s family wouldn’t allow the marriage to take place because I was considered damaged goods. Whether I was intact or not, it did not matter. My stepfather was livid, he was profiting from my marriage, since my mother was gone that year.”
“I’m sorry you had to endure that,” Die Feng said, his hand grasping hers.
“My stepfather drove me out -- not in words, but in his daily acts. He took everything that belonged to us, I was given less food, more chores, and nothing to hem even my tattered clothing with. But I remained lively, fortunate that I was alive everyday, and I did not lower my head to those who threw dirt at me. Eventually, my step-father took a boat, and paddled me to the island on the lake not far from the village. It was a punishment island to leave damaged women, those who lost their chastity, or got pregnant, even when I had done neither.”
“How did you survive?”
“I ate tadpoles, and the mosquitoes and the ants that dared to bite me. I drank the lake water, and remained in the shade during the day, so that I wouldn’t be dehydrated. Even the tree barks and leaves were my nourishment those endless weeks. In order to keep my spirit up, I thought about the wolf of my soul, the kindred of my spirit. I was very much like her; I would do anything to survive.”
“What happened after?”
The elder lady’s laugh was interrupted by a cough. A slight blush appeared on her cheeks, unusual for a woman her age. “Then one day, a handsome fisherman from the village appeared. He was poor, you see, despite his great looks. Tan through and through, unlike the spoiled fairy sons of rich families. He could only manage to provide for himself and his mother, who had passed away recently. He paddled to the island, and asked for my hand. He did not force me, awkward and silly that he was. He offered to take me back to the mainland even if I refused to marry him.”
“But you chose to marry him?” Die Feng made an educated guess, and the elder mortal blushed even more.
“What woman wouldn’t, when not forced, ordered or threatened? I have to admit, there was not much of a choice, but it was the best choice I made in my life. We were happily married, and had many children, he and I. He was loving, more than I could have ever asked for...until…” she grasped for words.
“You met her again?” he asked.
“I met the Grey Wolf a third time, my protector, my other soulmate, when I became the mother of four,” the elder mortal smiled. “My children, you see, were just like me: adventurous and curious, even about the danger beyond the forest. They were lost for days venturing out to pick hard sought pine nuts for the new years’ mooncake we would have made. For days we searched for them, until we found the cave deep in the forest. At first, we were fearful to enter, not because of the beast that may reside there…but--but of what we might find...”
“Did she harm them?” he asked tentatively, fearing the worst.
“No! She would never!” the old lady shook her head. “The Grey Wolf would never harm them, because she must have known, known they were mine,” she said more to herself than to him as if trying to convince herself. “She chased them away when we arrived. She wanted them to be fearful of the forest…of her. She did not want them to venture into the unknown, like I had.”
Eyes closed, Die Feng took a breath of relief, only to realize the true meaning of her actions. As he listened to the stories of the many encounters, he knew it was her, deep within his being, he had no doubt. He just knew.
“Even now,” the elder mortal’s voice once again broke into his thoughts, “she continues to protect me. Keeping the bad people at bay. That’s why I could live peacefully here, on my own, with no one left by my side.”
Then unexpectedly, the elder mortal caught his hand in hers. Her frail calloused fingers, which had stood the test of time -- pale though they were, he felt her warmth grasping ever so gently. With a maternal smile he rarely saw in his lifetime, her words were soft like graceful clouds of the moving sky.
“She is still there, my child. Go find her. You are her mate, are you not?”
Her mate…her mate…
The elder mortal’s words continued to ring in his ears like pebbles skipping across water. Die Feng let go of the sword handle, then made his approach.
“Li Ying,” he called out. Taking several more steps towards her, he tried to beckon, “It’s me. Come back, please, come back to me.”
Her eyes paused, he saw a slight glint of recognition. Filled with hope and joy, without reservation, he moved forward to touch her, but her eyes flashed red once more at his abrupt approach. The wolf leapt forward, aiming her jaw at his neck before he could back away. He cloud jumped and reappeared behind her. Why wouldn’t she recognize him? She had to know it was him. The thought of Li Ying not knowing him was a painful stab. Surely she would pull back at the last moment? He would make her acknowledge him. This time Die Feng stayed put as the wolf turned around with extraordinary speed and flew at him again. His eyes locked onto hers, daring her to go all the way. And then something pulled him away from her deadly fangs, throwing him back against the other side of the wall. Once again, Die Feng got to his feet, slightly disoriented by the impact.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” a female voice snapped loudly. All he saw was her warrior’s garb, yellow and black, a color combination that had not been seen for hundreds of years. Her hair was pulled into a loose tail from behind. He couldn’t see her full face as she turned back to the Grey Wolf, blasting it back with her magic, but Li Ying was too powerful; the magic hardly phased her.
“Don’t hurt her!” Die Feng shouted in a voice that would make anyone pause.
“I’m not hurting her, I am trying to save you -- you, reckless man,” the warrior shouted back, blocking the large claws of the wolf. Though her frame was slender, she was powerfully built. Her strength was obvious, countering the blows from the wolf without hesitance, pushing it further back. “Can’t you tell how dangerous she is?”
“She won’t hurt me,” Die Feng ground out, ignoring the growls and snarls of the creature that was ready to tear them to pieces on the opposite side of the cave.
“The hell she won’t. She obviously doesn’t recognize anyone, not even you.” Her fingers forming a spell, she started to chant. “Now make yourself useful!” The warrior commanded.
Without further words, Die Feng pulled the wolf’s attention to himself. A bright glow appeared above the wolf.
“Li Ying, you know me,” he called out. “Don’t move.” The wolf growled at him.
“Steady,” Die Feng said, keeping his eyes locked with the wolf’s. He kept his voice low and soothing, casting a sleeping spell. “We’re not here to hurt you.” The wolf’s eyes began to droop.
The bright glow expanded outwards into a net before falling onto the beast. Snarling again, the wolf tried to tear through the net, but the warrior cast another spell, immobilizing her.
Crossing the cave to where Li Ying was subdued, Die Feng knelt before the wolf. Her eyes threatened to retaliate given the chance. Stopping short of touching her, he scanned her body for injuries. Thankfully, there were only a few minor ones.
He then turned to face the uninvited visitor, who had slid her sword back into the sheath. “Who are you?” Die Feng demanded to know, consciously standing in front of the wolf, shielding her with a protective stance.
“I’m Rui Fan, former guard of the Demon Clan,” the warrior announced as she approached. “I’ve been searching for the Yellow Demon Princess since her disappearance.”
Die Feng eyed her, his mistrust remaining. “You’re no Demon. Why were you searching for her?”
“Neither are you. So why would a Celestial Sea Prince, who participated in the genocide of her people, be here?” Rui Fan countered. “Who are you to Her Highness?”
Die Feng flinched at her words. His nerves crawled with the awareness of his clan’s past deeds, which couldn’t be justified no matter how he looked at it. He focused on her second question. What had they been? Friends? Don’t make me laugh, he almost heard Li Ying’s voice. Lovers? Less than lovers. Something nameless. “What I am to her is my business,’’ Die Feng told her firmly. “All you need to know is that I mean her no harm.”
“Really now, I should be satisfied with an answer as vague as that?” Rui Fan looked him over skeptically. “Do you take me for one of your brainless subordinates who heeds all your demands because of your royal status?”
“I could say the same about you,” he returned her questioning glance, eyes narrowed. “I’ve never heard of you from her before, why should I answer to your demands?”
“Doesn’t matter if you know who I am,” she shrugged, with a confident ease he rarely saw in Celestial women. “The Yellow Demon Princess is coming with me.”
“I beg your pardon. I am not handing her over after spending 500 years looking for her,” he answered impatiently. The woman was keeping him away from Li Ying, wasting precious moments. Annoyance must have showed on his face but she did not back down. Toe to toe, standing her ground, Rui Fan stared up at him.
“It was not only you who searched every nook and cranny within these endless realms, Your Highness,” she said with an edge of distaste, her eyes flashing red. Demon she may not be, but the bloodlust was the same. “You can’t possibly expect me to hand her over to the same tribe who called for the slaughter of her people? How do I know you won’t deliver her like a prize to the Celestial King?”