Huìhuà Shān Gǔ, Demon Realm
Scaling the edge of the marbled hillside, one could hear the roar upon the dry desert air, enveloped by the cool breeze, arriving much earlier than the loud thunder brewing on the horizon. The humid gust of air rose beneath, creating whirlwinds of rising sand and dust.
The cries...the moans...and worst of all...the fear, resonating from the creatures struggling to be set free. Magic silver chains they must be, because Nian Beasts were not easily tamed. It was anomalous to see the sheer number of mythical Beasts in one location. Even more unusual was that they were in the barren land of the Painted Hills Valley (绘画山谷, Huìhuà Shān Gǔ), thousands of Li away from their own habitat. Depending on the species, these creatures normally lived under the sea or the high mountain, where they remain in solitude due to their aggressive nature. With the body of a bull and the head of a lion, they came in a multitude of sizes and forms. Orange, green, yellow and blue were the dominant colors of these mythical creatures.
Now trapped -- the creatures bemoaned their fate. Louder and louder, although muffled by metal muzzles, the agonized cries and painful squeals could still be heard the closer she approached.
It was fortunate Yan Zhi had left the Nine Heavens a day earlier than she had planned. Her meeting with the Celestial King propelled the need for the investigation concerning the missing Mythical Beasts within the four major realms. She had spent the latter part of her visit with the Celestial Queen, the High Goddess Bai Qian, with whom her friendship had grown over the years. Bai Qian even addressed her as Sǎozi1 during their private time, with respect towards her late senior. Their time was cut short when Bai Qian insisted on playing the matchmaker, when Yan Zhi had thought she could find some reprieve at the Nine Heavens. She should’ve known the Celestial Queen was bored out of her mind these days, since her children all resided at Kunlun Mountain. Instead of heading back to her Realm, Yan Zhi decided to visit a few known locations where mythical Beasts were spotted beyond their hunting grounds. If Yan Zhi had arrived any later, she would’ve missed the march, hidden behind a sharp cliffside of the barren valley and located West of the Demon Realm.
Setting the triple arrows on her Whistling Night Raven, the crossbow leveled over her leather strapped forearm, Yan Zhi eyed the targets from above. The sensible thing was to stand down, until further intel could be gathered. Should she call for reinforcements before taking action against the army of poachers? But the opportunity was too huge to let go. When the prize was in sight, her mind wandered…her arrows took aim at the purple-clad hidden figures a few dozen scores away. There were maybe a hundred men marching next to the Beasts, who were now in chains. The numbers didn’t matter to her, they never had.
She was a High Goddess, and had been living for the last 30,000 years. Her people followed her not just because of the blood that ran through her veins,but because she never backed down from any challenge, any fight, or any danger that fell in her path. She was sensible compared to her brothers and her father; yet, blood was still blood. Yan Zhi could only hold back her blood lust so far. She was raised to fight, raised to die, raised by the High God who regarded his children as nothing but power vessels upon their deaths.
Her birth mother was Yan Wu, the third Consort of the High God Qing Cang. He held her even more dear than Li Jing’s mother at the time. When she was 15,000 Celestial years old, her mother stole her away while her father and brothers were on their hunt. They traveled beyond mountains and rivers, further and further away from the Ghost realm as possible. Yan Zhi didn’t understand why they had to hide, but it didn’t take long for her father to find them, within this very Valley. He was livid, angry that they had run from him. Her parents had exchanged chilling words which Yan Zhi could not understand at the time.
They fought, like she had never seen them in battle before. It was a match to the death, causing the sky to roar from the power that had released on both sides. Despite her mother’s true powers, the last and only known White Crow of the Ghost Realm, she was no match for the Ghost King, who possessed unprecedented High God powers.
As a last resort, the third Consort of the High God Qing Cang did something not many mothers would have done. When she realized she could not defeat him, she aimed her blade at her own daughter. With a deadly strike, the short dagger was embedded in the side of Yan Zhi’s chest, sending her to the hard, yellow brittle ground. The young Yan Zhi gasped for breath, suffering both from the pain of the wound, but more out of shock. Mother? Paralyzed, she stared at the deadly woman -- the maternal figure who had held her with comfort all her life, was charging her with killer aura, ready to take her life.
“I would rather have her dead, than become your power vessel!” Her mother cried, her sword rose to strike down her own child, her only daughter.
“Yan Wu! Stop!” Her father cloud jumped in front of her to block her blows, but she stabbed him with the hidden blade at her side. Her bright magic forced him to his knees, leaving him to grunt in pain.
Still rattled by the deep change from the gentle figure she had known since infancy, the young Yan Zhi could only watch the nightmare unfold. Her mother leapt over her spouse, her blade aimed for the killing strike. In fright, her young self shut her eyes instinctively, yet the blade never came. Eyes fluttered open, the tip of the blade was mere hair thread away. But there was blood, so much blood. Dripping from mouth and chest, raining over the yellow clay stone surface -- her father’s blade was embedded through her mother’s heart.
Yan Zhi remembered...remembered the moment she had caught her mother’s body, before she touched the ground. The triumphant….no, the defeated man who was her father -- held the one he once cherished against the backdrop of colorful shades of clay rich hills, until his beloved consort drew her last breath, still cursing his bloody name.
These recollections, they came as short bursts of flashbacks. Like paint brushes scattered over ivory paper, until the whole painting was restored. Those stolen childhood memories -- had crushed her world, shattering what remained of her ice cold heart.
Since that tragic day, her childhood became a blur with fragmented joy and anxiety -- until the day her Goddess powers awakened. Her whole life Yan Zhi had believed what she was told, yet there was always something missing. The nightmares that was devoured by General Hu Wan, the Banku Beast who could eat memories and dreams. Yan Zhi understood now, why her father hardly laid a hand on her all those years, treating her like his previous jewel, despite his wrath. Yet there were times he looked at her with his usual suspicion. Yan Zhi was the very image of her mother, Yan Wu, the woman he had once loved.
The one he had killed with his own hands.
Spouse murdered spouse...parent killed child….sibling slaughtered sibling -- kin’s homicide, the long forgotten bloody reign of Ghost Tribe King’s. The history that was so gruesome, immoral, detached from humanity -- during the time of High God Qing Cang -- their father, their leader -- who sought to destroy them all.
There was no escape for those with the same blood running through their veins.
The Elders were right - he had only lived for others, for her family and now her kind. Never were there moments when she had lived for herself, because she did not want to shatter the illusion of kin’s bond, which she had spent her whole life chasing.
Their mothers who tried to save them, had all died from the knowledge - knowledge that was kept hidden until it had come to light. But the price was their lives.
The old saying went: the karma of the parents reflects in the fate of their children. Within each child, the scars remained. The destiny was forged without their knowledge, without their choice, the karma which they might never escape.
The bloodline continued to seek its own destruction.
But when would it stop? She no longer wanted to chase what was not there. Yan Zhi had refused to let others dictate her life as they once did. Yet, she had done the unthinkable: laying her hands on changing the destiny of others, a power only the heavens should possess. For her selfish action, the blood debt forged when she used Qiao Er’s premonition to win the war. Her life, for the countless lives she stole. But who would have guessed that her destiny was stolen by none other than the man she couldn’t live without.
It was a fitting punishment because heaven did not tolerate interference and deception. Instead of allowing her to die as she was predestined to, she was granted the ultimate power any Immortal would dream to possess. Powers she had longed for….the powers she needed.
Like a twisted joke played by the ancient Gods, her Goddess powers were gained by her beloved’s sacrifice. After the many lives and trials they had endured, fate had taken the one happiness she tried to cheat to obtain. The merciless heavenly trial, which could grant the ultimate powers, was not without a price. A cruel reminder every time her hair turned pearl white.
A life for a life…if only fate was so benevolent.
Others may believe she sought death’s door by her fearless actions -- unhinged by any danger around the corner -- but they were mistaken. Death was never an option, because fate would not allow her to escape her damnation. Yan Zhi had learned this after many close calls, from countless of battles, myriad missions -- where her life could’ve been taken, yet she was still standing. Growing stronger in fact, as the passage of time continued to move like the eternal winter that would never cease within one’s soulless heart. She finally realized the true meaning of her heavenly sentence.
Like the never ending loop of the 18th level of hell, her punishment was to go on living -- without him.
Yet, to this day, Yan Zhi could neither blame her father nor her brothers, nor her ancestors’ deeds. It was she who chose the forbidden path. It would be she who would pay the price.
This time, the karma was all her own.
Smiling ruefully at the lusterless thoughts, her blue flame arrows flickered with the bright fire of her ancestor. Harnessing the eternal energy of the Goddess powers, her raven hair glowed white once more, remnants of her maternal line. Grasping the trigger of her crossbow, she eyed the moving target with precision, aiming at the dark purple-clad poachers walking beside the chained Nian Beasts below in the canyon.
It was now or never.
Her triple arrows were released, splitting in midair as they headed to their target. The six arrows shot through their sides -- necks, arms, and legs .The blue flame ignited, the men screamed, falling to the ground in agony. The rest turned towards her as the next set of arrows hit another half dozen targets. Now fully alerted by her presence, the surviving poachers formed defensive stance, blocked the rest of the arrows with the blades of their sickle swords. She raised her brow, astonished at their skills. It was unusual for poachers to have such tactical skills. Yan Zhi descended below the canyon, with a swing of her crossbow, she projected a wave of bright crescent moon blast at the purple-clad formation, sending the opponents to the ground.
Inflamed by the power that engulfed her body, blue fire rose from her hands, bright arrows conjured at her fingertips. Setting the arrows on the crossbows, Yan Zhi released them as the targets began to stagger to their feet, hitting them point blank at their chests. The army in front, alarmed by the loss of life, rushed towards the middle, their sickle swords by their sides. With the speed she had achieved by practicing thousands of times before, arrows after arrows, Yan Zhi hit each target without fail, dropping bodies engulfed in flame. The remaining poachers struggled to get back into defensive formation.She leapt behind the half circle formation, spun upon landing, blasting them away with her crossbow until their lifeless bodies dropped to the ground. Delighted that there were only a few dozen more poachers left she had spotted out of the corner of her eye, she fired relentlessly before deciding she needed to take a few prisoners. Left, right, front, back -- her crossbow aimed at each target as if it was an annoying fly, her eyes barely blinking as they burnt to ashes.
“Just a few more,” Yan Zhi told herself, but it was too early to celebrate. She heard the angry familiar roar of the Nian Beasts. Turning to her side, she watched in alarm when the poacher took the magic chains off the Beasts. Before she made sense of their tactic, the poachers had all disappeared, leaving her alone at the center of the encircling three Beasts who sought nothing but revenge on the humans that had held them hostage.
It was not the first time, Yan Zhi had fought with such creature, but three would be a challenge, especially without backup. Unleashed, Nian are known to be creatures with a temper, with killer instinct. The first orange Nian Beast launched an attack, forcing Yan Zhi to back-flip to safety. The second, smaller green Nian, took that opportunity to aim at her side, forcing her to retreat again, her blocks hardly phasing the creature. She cloud jumped to high ground, but the largest yellow Nian blocked her escape. Yan Zhi launched her arrows at the creature, but his large teeth caught the weapons, crushing them in his mouth.
They needed to be contained, but there were no magic chains nearby. Realizing what she had to do, she released the red silk ribbon. Charging the animal, she wrapped the silk around the front foot of the Green Nian - the smallest among the three. The Beast yelped in frustration, but Yan Zhi held on. As she leapt over its body, she wrapped the red ribbon around its back leg. With great speed, Yan Zhi slid under the creature’s belly, wrapped the other back leg with ease. With her right hand on its back, she propelled her body over the Beast, securing the front leg sending the creature crashing to the ground. Using the rest of the fabric, Yan Zhi covered his eyes to calm the creature from struggling. The silk ribbon was woven by the High Goddess Li Hua herself -- not many can break the silk from the large moths she nurtured, but a dire creature would do anything to be set free. Luckily, red is the color Nian most fear.
Before Yan Zhi could conjure another silk ribbon in her hand, the largest Nian descended from the sky, she had to retreat back from the danger zone. Too late, the Orange Nian Beast snuck from behind and took hold of her leg in it’s mouth. With a cry, she blasted the creature away with her powers. Limping from pain, she faced the two creatures who began to circle their prey. Mythical Nians were fast learners. They wouldn’t give her the opportunity to secure them like she did with their younger friend. She didn’t want to hurt them, but she would have to resort to more drastic attacks if all else failed.
Conjuring her arrows, her crossbow aimed at the largest Beast, her attack barely made a dent in its thick skin. This time, as the orange Nian tried a full frontal launch attack, Yan Zhi was ready to blast the creature away with her magic, but a white flash of light sent the creature to the ground on the left. Blinking once...twice, she could hardly believe her eyes. The speed of the white lightning was so fast, sending a relentless barrage of attacks against the orange Nian Beast at it’s vulnerable spots on the front, sides, back, and head -- until the tired creature fell to the ground.
Yan Zhi was still dazed from what had occurred when she noticed magic chains had already secured the orange Nian Beast in place in the blink of an eye. Where did the chains come from? The figure suddenly stopped, turning to face her. Instead of using his speed, he strode in her direction, most likely his next target.
Retreating a few steps back, her crossbow aimed at the white-clad warrior making him pause. His face was hidden almost completely. “What are you doing with the Beasts?!” she demanded. But the stranger did not respond, his dark eyes narrowed between the thin layer of white fabric.
Taking no heed of her threats, he turned around, facing the largest, angry snarling Beast, its face flushed with bloodlust. The Beast launched forward, but the white warrior swiftly disappeared from its path and reappeared behind the Nian Beast a second later in a white flash. The Beast growled in frustration. It was not prepared. Magic chains suddenly secured around its back legs and the Beast cried out, but this time in fear as more chains secured his front legs in place.
Yan Zhi took her chance, cloud jumped behind the man and pressed her blade against his neck. “State your name,” she ordered authoritatively. “I don’t like to kill those without titles.”
With no response, Yan Zhi reached for his white silk covering. He blocked her wrist and captured her other with the blade in hand. Then he forced her wrist down, and dislodged the dagger with a jerk from his knee. Yan Zhi swung her fist, which he caught neatly. With a yank, her body turned, her right arm twisted behind her back. His strong grip secured her wrist. Infuriated by his upperhand, Yan Zhi turned to face her opponent, only to be met with dark fierce eyes she had not known before. But...those eyes...why…?
“Who are you?!” Yan Zhi choked, suppressing the pain from her wound, refusing to show how weak she felt. The earlier movements had aggravated her injury. The stranger must have taken notice, his eye alerted to something she couldn’t decipher. His grip loosened, the other hand reached for her face.
“Don’t touch me!” She gasped, immediately back-kicked with a yelp -- realizing too late that it was her injured leg she had used. Losing her balance, Yan Zhi felt the ground give way, the world shifted. She suddenly realized he had caught her in his arms. Filled with unfamiliar vulnerability she had not felt since she became Queen of her Tribe, Yan Zhi began to struggle, but his body felt like iron that refused to budge. Caught within his embrace, she felt the ground beneath her, as he placed her down in sitting position.
When the stranger settled in front of her,Yan Zhi was puzzled by his action, yet she did let the opportunity slide. She reached for his silk covering, but was hindered again by his unnatural speed -- her moves blocked with the back of his wrist! Her left hand released the blue flame, but he dodged the attack on his left with the swift speed he possessed. She saw the moment his tactic changed, when his hand rose to cast his spell -- he planned to knock her out!
“Don’t you dare!” Pulling herself higher over the stone ground in a defensive stance, she gasped between unsteady breaths. His eyes looked puzzled and his hand stopped mid-spell. “If you’re going to do anything to me, I’d rather be conscious.” Simmering with rage at her own helplessness, she glared at the man who still would not speak. “The more reason for me to kill you later,” Yan Zhi clarified indignantly.
With a reluctant sigh, his attention dropped to her injured leg. “Don’t struggle,” he finally spoke, “You can’t fight me at your state,” he advised in a low unfamiliar tone.
“So you can talk?” she snapped, more harshly than she intended. He did saved her after all.
“Stay still,” he mumbled quietly, his hand caught her injured leg. Her body tensed, yanking her leg closer to herself, but he held on. He glanced up from the blood soak wound from the sharp teeth of the Beast. “Have no fear, I’m only tending to your wounds,” he explained calmly. As if to prove his point, a spell was cast and the bleeding immediately ceased. The pain subsided somewhat. The quiet stance of the man was irritating, she could not remember another time when someone left her this speechless.
No one had dared treat her as such, or held her like that -- because there was only one person who was allowed such privilege.
Friend or foe, Yan Zhi had not yet decided -- her eyes remained guarded when he examined her wound. Wiping away the fresh blood, his fingers graced her flesh -- in suspense, her skin began to sizzle from the delicate touch. Confused, mostly by herself, because she allowed him the control over her as he did. He ripped off the white fabric from his outer garment, he was covered in layers of them. Silently, he started wrapping her wound with the torn garment. There was something familiar about the stranger, yet the aura was not of which she had known.
Who was he? This white clad warrior? He was not one of the poachers, she had concluded.
Where had she met him before?
Then, like an awakening from a slumberless dream -- all was clear. The white flashes….it was him.
“I met you before, haven’t I?” Yan Zhi asked abruptly. His body froze at her statement. She was right. Her eyes softened, then widened with curiosity, her head tilted to look at him more closely. “At the Southern Green Canyons….you fought the Qiong Qi Beast that day. You are the one who saved me and Li Ma before?” she asked the warrior. It was more of a declaration than a question.
Yan Zhi had always knew someone was there that day, despite the haze of scattered memories. Her wound was dressed when she awoke, but there was no one in sight - only Li Ma, her familiar at her side. Clearly, this stranger was the same source of white light, who flashed brightly around the Qiong Qi Beast before it collapsed. Proven by the fallen Nian Beast, the same martial technique was used.
As she expected, the stranger admitted nothing, but his silence was enough. His hands relaxed as he returned to wrapping her injured leg with the same delicate care. “We should leave now,” he said promptly, as he secured the knot over her leg, without making further eye contact.