A real soldier has be obedient, dutiful and loyal to his leaders without question. A true warrior could not doubt, waver or be shaken.
At first, she thought that given enough time, she would harness the same bloodlust: the drive to fight, the urge to win, the will to die for the glory by one’s sacrifice for their kind. But year after year, she had come to the realization that Qiao Xin was none of those things.
Qiao Xin was forever grateful to be raised by her beloved tribe, her father’s people. But she was never meant to follow their path. Despite growing up in the Ghost Realm, Qiao Xin had always felt there was more to being a warrior. Vanguards of the realms had designated themselves to be among the best warriors in time of war. They fought for resources, for power, for wealth. And, most importantly, they fought for recognition. As soldiers, they braved endless battles to protect what was rightfully theirs.
Her Aunt, High Goddess Yan Zhi, made sure their kind would never bow to others. Her name alone made enemies quiver. No matter the multitude of transgressions Qiao Xin had committed, others eventually released her out of respect for the Ghost Queen. Thus, she was free to roam the realms without fearing for her life.
A habit that soon became a lifestyle. An escape like no other.
She had always wondered if she should blame the other half of her blood. It was no secret her mother was a fox. Their kind was free to roam like the wild creature they were.
Granted her maternal family wanted nothing to do with her, she still visited them after she learned to hide her aura and has occasionally watched them from afar. Many times, she wanted to approach. To make her presence known. To seek the warmth, the laughter, the bond of kinship from the other half of her blood.
Qing Qiu… This land, with its people and even the air itself, was a sudden influx of emotions flooding through her consciousness. Like the reflective tease of a lure at the end of a fishing line, it drew her ever so closer to the surface. But she was afraid, too afraid to meet the family who had disowned the mother she never knew.
That woman who threw away her past and her loyalty because of the man she loved, betraying her kind for the chance to be loved.
Her parents --- their light, their darkness... her life.
They’re all one and the same. One does not exist without the other.
Hence, she continued to come back. She had to know. She had to satisfy this incessant yearning to understand the mixed origin of her existence. Qiao Xin believed only the magic of Zhuī Mèng Zhě (追梦者, Dreamcatcher) could reveal the missing pieces. It was a theory she clung to.
Nothing could stop her, even if she had to face the Fox King again. This High God Bai Zhen always had a surprise up his sleeve. Yet she did not expect him stroll past her upon her arrival at his den without a backward glance, even informing her to put everything back in its original place when she was done. Flabbergasted by his lack of interest, she followed him as he caught a cloud and flew away with his familiar.
“Where are we going?” the Ghost Princess Qiao Xin asked as she floated beside the Fox King.
“You still won’t give up?” Bai Zhen arched his brow. With a wave of his hand, the bird headed West.
“Not until you let me borrow the Zhuī Mèng Zhě,” Qiao Xin insisted. “I know you have it with you, otherwise you wouldn’t have left me unguarded.”
“Like Mother, like daughter,” the Fox King replied with a smile. Her eyes grew large at the off-handed comment. Bai Zhen was rarely a physical fighter, reserving his energy to hit where it hurt most. And those lingering words made more impact than she had given them credit. “Zhuī Mèng Zhě is not something a child like you should possess,” he added.
“I’m not a child!” Qiao Xin snapped. Picking up speed on her cloud, her body turned to face the Fox King. “I am neither a sheltered Princess of the Fox Clan nor Celestial Kingdom, so don’t throw me in with the lot of them!”
“Princess, you could’ve fooled me. May I remind you I am far older than your Gugu.”
“Fine! Fox King, if you don’t let me borrow it, I’ll follow you wherever you go,” Qiao Xin threatened the High God.
His eyes twinkled with challenge, “Then you better keep up!” With that remark, he and the bird vanished among the clouds.
“Fox King! Wait!”
Qiao Xin chased after his aura but it was gone without a trace. Scanning her surroundings, she realized she was above of the Valley of Peach Blossoms. Just her luck. High God Zhe Yan, the keeper of the valley, was known to set up magic traps. Though it has been known as a hobby of his to keep intruders from breaking into his sought-after collections, extra measures were added since she had also broken in a few times to steal his most-treasured peach wines, rumored to be buried under thousands of years old peach trees.
Since time was against her, Qiao Xin had no choice but to float among the tall trees, increasing her chances of being caught. No matter though. At most, High God Zhe Yan would only make her water his newly planted peach trees for the next hundred days before setting her free.
Suddenly, something caught her left eye. Turning towards the sound of the water, she flew to the source.
Who’s that? Qiao Xin wondered as she landed softly and quietly, then steadily balanced above the large peach tree beside the spring. Pushing a branch away, she saw a figure within the misty hot spring. Her mind told her to retreat but her body inched forward to take a better look. Squinting her eyes, she tried to make out the figure.
The branch broke under her feet but her hand managed to cling to the tree.
Crack! The branch above broke too!
Qiao Xin fell. But before her body touched the water, she gathered her powers forward and blasted the water. Her body swung backward, landing above the hotspring with her feet barely touching the surface.
An attack immediately proceeded. Glistering like diamonds in front of the figure masked by the steam, water droplets carrying the force of hard iron rocks, blasted at her with full strike and shot straight for her pressure points. With her fist and feet, she blocked the Shuǐ Gōngjí (水攻击, Water attack). Ten blocks, twenty moves, thirty rounds. Qiao Xin continued to balance above the surface, avoiding the deadly shots. But she still missed to stop a few hitting the nerves on her left knee and her right shoulders.
Enough is enough! Defense is no offense.
Qiao Xin whipped out her Butterfly Swords and, while blocking further attacks, provided herself with just enough opening. Though she leapt forward across the steam, the figure behind the fog did not move, awaiting her offense. Her swords rose to strike but she saw something familiar… his eyes, his face? Her body froze momentarily. It was an opportunity. And he did not hesitate.
He blasted her another series of full-forced Shuǐ Bàgōng (水罢工, Water Strike). Qiao Xin managed to block the first set but, on the second round, his tactic changed. The water targeted her wrists. Her butterfly swords dropped, splashing into the the water below. Another shot at her ankle, causing her to fall forward. Without balance, Qiao Xin crashed into the man who did not step aside. And, together, they went under the water.
“Uuurghh,” sputtering the water from her mouth as Qiao Xin resurfaced with arms locked on her attacker. She stared up at the man who happened to be without clothes. Not surprising. This was a hot spring after all. She mentally cursed herself for intruding on a man’s bath time. Coming from a warrior clan, she had seen a number of clothless men in her life. She was not the type to stare, yet she couldn’t look away. His shoulders were broad, his chest solid. A well-built man with the masculinity she had seen all her life. A stranger, an attacker and a handsome one at that. Not the usual beauty that turns heads, but the one that leaves a mark in one’s memories.
His eyes stared back, searching, questioning -- when had she met him?
“Are you done staring?”
“I...I…,” Qiao Xin stuttered.
“Yes?” his head arched to the side, his dark eyes now captured hers. Realizing how close their proximity was, it finally hit her. His arms were around her waist; her body pressed against his of its own will.
A cold splash of reality hit! She’s sitting on his lap! A naked man’s lap!
Gasping, she hurriedly pulled away from the stranger. In a heated but embarrassing situation, Qiao Xin could only clamor a few words of defense. “Why did you attack me?!” she accused him, moving a further arms length and being silently grateful for the mist surrounding them.
The man leaned back against the rocks and stretched his arms over the edge with casual ease like a king sitting at his throne. “Pardon my Lady, you were the one who spied on me.”
“I didn’t,” she denied. “I-I was lost.”
“On the tree?” he glanced at the tree above them.
“Yes! I was searching for someone. How else could I have the highest vantage point?” she argued pointedly.
“Vantage point?” his eyes narrowed at her excuse. “This Valley is full of shields and magical traps. This is no place to be lost. How did you get in here?”
“Ha! It’s not a hard place to break in.” Qiao Xin rolled her eyes at the statement, “For your knowledge, Demon Palaces are much more secure.”
“So you admitted for breaking in?” the man smiled.
She liked his smile. Where had she seen him smile before?
Realizing he caught her staring again, she snapped out of her distracted thoughts. “It’s not breaking in when I came with a friend. Besides, I’m not stealing anything this time.”
“This time?” he asked incredulously. “You stole items from his Valley? Do you not know who resides here?”
“The High God Zhe Yan is well aware of my visits,” Qiao Xin replied promptly, quickly turning away from the soaked man thus avoiding his gaze. “And I don’t have time to talk to you. I have to go.”
“Wait,” his hand grabbed her upper arm. “What’s your name?”
Turning her back to look at the stranger, he was ernest indeed, strangely so. She wanted to give him her name. She wanted to know his.
“My name? Why?”
“I'd rather this not be a dream,” his hand tightened on her arm.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course, I’m real!” she scowled. Then, her eyes widened, “On a second thought, I take it back. Pretend you never met me.”
Like I’d leave my trail for another 100 days of watering the High God’s peach trees.
“Master!” a voice calling from the distant. “Master Shang Ling!”
Pulling her arms, “Let this be a dream.”
And she cloud jumped away.
For over 20,000 years, the unfamiliar faces had grown. As the aftermath of the induced slumber to heal his broken body, shattered bone by bone by the Monster of the Past, his memories were not at all the same. He’s only been back to full consciousness for a little more than 10,000 years though much of that time was spent on recuperating at various locations around the realms. With his family’s connections as the vastly wealthy and most powerful merchants of the Celestial Tribe, his recovery became faster than anyone had anticipated.
This month, he had the opportunity to receive treatments at High God Zhe Yan’s abode, the Valley of Peach Blossoms. While recuperating in one of the many hidden hot springs, the last thing he had expected was a spy from another realm. Her martial arts were outstanding, being able to counter 30 rounds without a sweat.
A petite lady with round facial features, she also had sharp wide eyes which seemingly spoke volumes of knowledge and held a gaze that demanded more as he stared into them. Shang Ling was sure he had never met the intruder before. He was also not one to seek connection with others. Though, at that moment, his body moved with its own will. His hand captured her arm, half believing she was a figment of his imagination.
Yet, she was no dream.
“Master Shang Ling! Forgive me! I left you unattended. Are you hurt? Please accept my apologies! Was it an assassin? Where is he--?”
“I’m alright, Xi Feng,” Shang Ling cut him off, knowing his servant would never cease voicing his worries.
Xi Feng, a young Cricket who gained human form after residing beside Shang Ling in his 20,000 years of slumber, had never left his side. The boy would soon reach full adulthood but his mind was still that of a young child. His Master spent years to cultivate him to become a half-acceptable servant. It was fortunate Shang Ling rarely attend formal events otherwise poor Xi Feng would not survive the harsh Celestial gatherings at his current state.
“It was not an assassin,” Shang Ling assured his anxious follower. After a pause, he stared at her direction and light-heartedly added, “But something else entirely.”
The girl looked familiar but he still couldn’t place her as he stared at the empty water surface she had disappeared to. The only evidence was the lingering scent of peony which had now mingled with the spring’s fog.