The mask glinted in the candlelight. It was roughly hewn from bronze, with no paint and no ornamentation. Two eyes, two ears, a nose, and a mouth – a face, empty of expression, still, utterly still. A dead face, made to be buried with the dead eons ago. No power radiated from it, no hint of secrets held within. Nothing but emptiness.
Rui Fan had said it would help.
The Deer Tribe have guarded it for millennia.
Die Feng didn’t know why he trusted the word of someone who had no tribe and no verifiable allegiance. It was not in his nature to let his guard down. Except it was not just her word. It was known around the realms that none surpassed the Deer Tribe in soul searching magic. Stealing the mask had not been easy but steal it he had had to. Apprehensive of being seen and identified, Rui Fan had refused to do more than give him directions to the cave.
His illusion had kept the guards from being alerted but he couldn’t be certain he hadn’t triggered any other safeguards. He’d made himself invisible, making sure no trace of his aura was left behind. The mask had been on a rock island inside the cave, surrounded by a lake. Easy enough for him to fly across the mirror-like surface of the still water without disturbing it. The hard part had been the guards outside. They couldn’t be touched by any kind of magic. The air around them could be manipulated though, say, if an illusion were cast. Luckily for Die Feng, he was one of the few people in the realms who could do illusion magic. He wove his spell carefully, making the world around them seem as it had been, not as it was. After that, floating past them in his true form, keeping his size to that of a tiny snake, had been easy enough.
Too easy. Die Feng couldn’t shake off a feeling of unease. It would be no minor diplomatic crisis if the West Sea Crown Prince Die Feng were to be discovered stealing the Deer Tribe’s most sacred artefact to aid the Yellow Demon Princess Li Ying. Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that. After all, he was only borrowing it. The mask would be back inside the cave much before anything was discovered amiss.
But he was willing to take the chance. For her. For her.
Die Feng sat on the floor in front of Li Ying’s cage. Immobilised, she eyed him with fury. Except for the time it took him to get the mask, he hadn’t left her side since bringing her to 14th’s den. He couldn’t stop drinking in the sight of her. With a wave of his hand, the golden cage disappeared. Li Ying growled.
This had to work.
It had to.
Holding the mask in both his hands, he closed his eyes and entered the soul dimension.
A red haze formed a barrier in front of him. There was a foul yet strong energy everywhere, suffocating. Cheng Yin’s aura. Die Feng gathered his strength and directed a blast of energy at the barrier. He had tried the same thing several times before but this time he had the mask. The barrier had to break.
The barrier remained intact. Trying not to panic, Die Feng tried again.
“It won’t work,” came a voice from behind.
Die Feng spun around.
A man stood there in black robes. An immensely beautiful man, with red lips, piercing blue eyes and unbound black hair falling to his feet. Silver embroidery snaked around his collar and cuffs. A white belt was at his waist and his hand held a delicate black and golden fan. The same emptiness as that of the mask defined the air around him.
“Why?” asked Die Feng.
“She has to make the choice herself, Sea Prince.” His voice was smooth and melodic, like a flute’s.
“What does that mean?”
The man tilted his head. “It's her own fear keeping her imprisoned.”
“It’s Cheng Yin,” Die Feng ground out.
The man shook his head. “The curse draws power from her fear.”
“Who are you?” asked Die Feng. “How do you know me?”
“I am the deity who resides in the mask. Did you not call for me?”
“Can you help me?” asked Die Feng. “I have to reach her. Talk to her.”
“To step through the barrier will require powerful and ancient magic, Sea Prince. Magic that has a price.”
“I’m willing to pay the price. Anything.”
“It might be uncomfortable.”
“Anything,” Die Feng repeated.
“Very well,” the man smiled. “Give me your hand.”
Die Feng extended his hand.
“Remember, you might reach her but she has to make the choice herself.”
Die Feng nodded.
The moment the man’s fingers touched his, Die Feng felt himself being drawn forward, to the emptiness that radiated from the spectre. His hand merged with the man’s and then his arm. Possession magic, said a voice inside his head. This is the price. He almost snatched his hand back. Instead, he tipped forward, further and further until he and the man were one, an alien presence melding with his, entering his head. Don’t be afraid, rang the man’s voice in his ears. I will soon leave. As the presence flowed through his body, Die Feng felt a coldness seep into his limbs. And then it settled and he couldn’t feel it anymore. It was unnerving how something so foreign could so easily become a part of him. And then everything became dark.
Die Feng blinked. Once, twice. His head throbbed. Slowly, he lifted himself off the ground. He was still in the soul dimension. How much time had passed? There was no sign of the deity. But the barrier—Die Feng looked around—the barrier was behind him! There was menacing red fog everywhere, floating in thick clumps.
Die Feng took quick steps forward. In the corner, he made out a figure. Sitting curled into a tight ball, still as death.
“Li Ying!” Die Feng ran until he was crouched before her. “Li Ying!”
Her head was on her knees, her arms over it. The first thing Die Feng noticed were the scars on her bare arms. Skin clawed at. Bruises. Blood underneath her fingernails.
She slowly lifted her head, eyes uncomprehending.
“Li Ying, it’s me!”
Her gaze remained blank.
“It’s Die Feng!”
“Die Feng,” she whispered. Her voice sounded so far away.
“Yes,” he said, reaching forward. Her hands were so cold. Like a marionette, she let him lift them.
“Die Feng,” the ghost of a smile passed over her lips. It was as if she was looking beyond him, as if she was looking at a memory.
“Li Ying, look at me. Please. Li Ying…”
Her eyes rose to meet his.
“You’re here? You’re really here?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes—”
With strength he couldn’t have believed she possessed moments ago, in one swift motion, she shoved him away and rose to her feet. “Get out!”
No braids, no flow-ey yellow dress. Her waist length hair cascaded around her body in tangles, hanging in her face. Her grey robes hung in tatters. Her face was thin and haggard and pale, her lips open in a wolfish snarl.
“Get out!” she shouted.
Stunned, Die Feng began, “Li Ying, you know me. I’m—”
“An intruder. Leave now!”
“There is no place for you here. Leave!”
Frowning, he extended his hand. “This is no place for you either. Come with me.”
She laughed a horrible banshee-like screech. “Go with you? Where?”
“Back,” he said, more and more puzzled. What was going on with her?
“Back? Where is back? What is there to go back to? You want me to go back with you? Why? What will happen if I go back? Do you imagine I will marry you and we will go play house in a glass palace?” her voice rose. “The glass will shatter before I touch it. We have no future. I have revelled in the blood of mortals and enjoyed it. And more death I crave still. Like my brother, I will make the sky rain brimstone and make the earth bleed if I go back.”
What could he say to that? She sounded so certain yet made no sense. “You’ve grown quite dramatic,” he remarked.
“You think I jest?”
“I am not leaving without you,” he said, going back to the one thing that mattered.
“Who are you? Who are you to ask me to leave?” Who who who echoed around them and Li Ying clutched her head. Die Feng reached out in concern.
She flung his hand away. “Get away!”
“No,” he said, flatly. She was deluded if she thought he would just leave. He was finally with her, face to face. Despite his bafflement, despite her words, she was there, finally. The hope in his chest refused to sputter out. His heart felt like it would burst with emotion and he was not sure whether to laugh or cry. “I have lied and stolen and tortured for you and I am not leaving you here to be damned alone in eternal misery.”
“Do you take me for a sweet girl or an innocent lamb?” she threw at him. “I am neither. You have some image of a pure docile creature that needs to be protected and I am nothing like her. Who do you expect me to be when we go back? A doll with a smile painted on her face who will bear children and bend over when you feel like rutting? Why are you smiling?”
“I have missed you,” he said marvelling at the fact that they could actually talk.
“Who gave you the right?” she demanded.
He chuckled. “You did. When you barged into my life with your demands for candy and your kisses and your teasing. I have missed arguing with you and I have missed you trying to shock me with your words.”
She backed away, as if by putting space between them, she could escape his words. “Noble, righteous Die Feng,” she spat the words as if they were curses. “Why are you not repelled? Why are you not running away?”
“I need you,” he stepped forward.
She took a step back. “I don’t believe you.”
He continued towards her, “I love you.”
The sneer slid off her face. She certainly hadn’t expected that. A sharp intake of breath and then her expression hardened again. “Can you love a monster, Die Feng?” she spat. “Can you?”
“I can love you,” he said. Her back hit the wall.
“Liar,” she said in a vicious whisper and cut him off as he began to protest. “But you know what? I hate you.” Her voice broke, “I hate you.”
He reached out a hand to caress her cheek. She remained still, her chest heaving. “Hate me all you want. I am not letting you go.”
A tear slid down her cheek. “Why?” Roughly wiping her face with the back of her hand, she closed her eyes. “Why won’t you?”
“For an infinite number of reasons which the curse is not letting you see right now. You’re only seeing the bad but there’s good in you, Li Ying. You are good, I promise.” If only he could make her see what he saw.
“I have tainted blood. My father was a monster and so was my brother. How can I be any different?” she argued in desperation.