The world was suddenly in sharp focus, closing in from all sides. Reality slammed into Li Ying like a sledgehammer as she returned to her full senses. As if a film had been removed from her eyes, she could see clearly again. She was free, finally, free. He had come for her. He had come for her. Why did it have to be him? But she was powerful. She felt more powerful than she had ever felt. She could fly to the moon and back. Drunk on the surrounding sounds, the smells, the colours and textures she felt like laughing, dancing. Fighting. Elation, relief and anger mingled.
Rage radiated off of Li Ying in waves. Die Feng had deliberately provoked her and it had worked. Why it should have was beyond her except that the whole situation was enraging. Being released from the curse did nothing to ease her anger. Locked inside her own head for what couldn’t possibly be less than eternity, by her own brother, alone, so alone, darkness surrounding her. The whole world was a threat, everyone coming for her, and the cornered wolf had to kill or be killed.
And then Die Feng barged in, giving orders and thinking he knew her. How dare he say that she wanted to be there? How dare he imply, even for a second, that it was easy for her? What did he know of the things she had been through? Just like her brother, thinking he knew what was best for her.
No, not like her brother, said a sneaky voice inside her head. Not at all like her brother. She firmly tamped the voice down.
It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t break down. She was the one like her brother. Selfish. Weak. Of course Die Feng saw that, the bastard. Well, no more. He wouldn’t be seeing anymore weakness from her.
A chill gripped her at the thought of her brother. If he found out she was back…he would come looking and there would be nothing to save her. Why had Die Feng brought her back only to be killed? Fear threatened to overwhelm, despair choked.
“Where is my brother?” Li Ying demanded. Die Feng stood there without replying.
“Answer me!” she cried, flying at him. And then her head swam and she crumpled, coughing. The last thing Li Ying saw was the blood on her fingers as the world went dark.
She drifted in and out of consciousness. Nightmare and reality, she couldn’t tell apart. Sometimes months would pass and sometimes mere minutes. People would come and go. A palace guard with a familiar face wiping her brow. Sometimes her brother would come for her and she would wake up screaming, and Die Feng would be there, holding her. She would cling to him and then push him away, despising the fact that he saw her in such a state.
During moments of lucidity Li Ying wouldn’t be able to tell how much time had passed. She could only rely on the word of those around her and this helplessness was too much to bear.
“It has been two days since the curse broke, my lady,” said the palace guard whose name she couldn’t recall, one evening when she was awake. “Do you remember?”
Li Ying nodded uncertainly. Her voice was low as she spoke, “I’m sorry, but I don’t remember your name.”
“She doesn’t even remember your name? You said you were close!” exclaimed Die Feng from the other side of the room.
“I’m Rui Fan, my lady,” said the palace guard as she mopped Li Ying’s brow before turning to Die Feng with her nose in the air. “We were in close enough proximity at the Palace.”
“As if that counts,” muttered Die Feng.
“It counts,” whispered Li Ying. “Rui Fan has been a familiar face for centuries.”
“Ha!” exclaimed Rui Fan, throwing Die Feng a triumphant grin.
“If you say so,” said Die Feng dubiously, walking over. “Li Ying, your soul essence is damaged. You need time to recuperate and heal.”
Li Ying sat up slowly as Rui Fan propped pillows behind her. “I have been doing nothing but resting. It chafes my mind.”
“Come with me to the West Sea.”
“Certainly not!” interjected Rui Fan. “Do you think I will let a Celestial take advantage of my lady just because she is friendless and unprotected?”
Li Ying ignored both to ask again, “Where is my brother?”
Die Feng and Rui Fan exchanged glances before Die Feng’s expression hardened. “Your brother will never hurt you again.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“Li Ying, he’s gone…”
Li Ying held his gaze as a mix of feelings enveloped her. “The Ancestor. She defeated him.”
Die Feng nodded.
“Well then,” she said briskly, flinging away the bed covers as she got to her feet. “Thank you for your hospitality. I should return to my own realm now.”
Die Feng and Rui Fan exchanged alarmed looks.
“What?” Li Ying turned to face them, hands on her hips. “I cannot impose on you any longer.”
“You had no trouble imposing on me when you wanted candy. Li Ying don’t be silly, you know very well we are past such formalities.”
“And you were far less eager for my imposition back then. What is it that you two are not telling me?”
“Come to the West Sea,” said Die Feng. “The hot springs will help repair your soul essence. As you heal, I will fill you in.”
“My lady, I think he is right,” said Rui Fan. “We should go to the West Sea.”
“You changed your tune quickly enough,” Li Ying arched an eyebrow at her.
“I had not thought of the hot springs. And it might be safer than returning to the Demon Realm.”
“Safer? What do you mean?”
Die Feng and Rui Fan exchanged another glance and Li Ying lost it. “WILL YOU TWO STOP THROWING EACH OTHER CRYPTIC LOOKS?”
“Things are not the same as you left them,” Die Feng hurried to explain. “You’re in more danger than you know.”
“Danger from whom?”
“His kind,” sneered Rui Fan.
“You’re not making any sense,” said Li Ying. “Why will I go to the West Sea then?”
“I promise I will explain everything,” said Die Feng. “But please don’t delay treatment.”
“Die Feng, I can’t accept any more favours from you.”
“Li Ying, what good is this stubbornness? We can’t stay here forever.”
Well, forgive me if I’m not ready to jump to your instructions without learning what’s been going on first. The last time she saw him their kingdoms had been at war. And Rui Fan she barely knew except as a distant figure. For all she knew the guard could be one of her brother’s numerous spies.
Li Ying looked around. The entire room seemed to be hewn out of rock. Some kind of cave system. “What is this place anyway?”
“It’s a safe hideout in Zhu Long Gu. 14th generously allowed us to use his base but it has limited resources.”
Li Ying considered her options. She wouldn’t get any information out of either of them if she openly expressed her distrust. At any rate, she did need the hot springs. She looked from one to the other. “All right. Rui Fan, help me get dressed.”
Li Ying kept up a steady stream of chatter as she got ready for the journey. She had to or her mind would tear apart. The Ancestor had defeated her brother. There was no doubt about what
that meant. Did she have the right to grieve? Why did tears threaten to spill at any moment when she should be angry? Could one be angry at someone who was gone? Li Ying smiled and laughed a little too hard as she pushed these thoughts away and told Rui Fan how excited she was to be in Zhu Long Gu and how eager she had always been to explore it. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Die Feng was silent, a troubled look on his face as he left the room.
Li Ying was taking the news of her brother’s death quite well. Too well. But Die Feng didn’t know how to help her. There was a barrier between them that hadn’t been there before the war when they were at Kunlun. With the war, the easy playfulness had dissipated. And now, the gap between them was wider than ever and Li Ying kept pushing him away.
Then there was the issue of the shattered mask. The Deer Tribe had no way of knowing that he had stolen it. That would buy him some time until he could find a way out of the mess. At least his replica would hold until someone tried to use it. The more immediate concern was getting Li Ying her treatment and ensuring her safety. When it came to Li Ying, he couldn’t really trust his own people. And the guard was a complete wildcard. Mentally sorting through the tasks at hand, Die Feng dragged Zheng You to a corner.
“What is it?” Zheng You asked.
“You have to come with us,” said Die Feng.
His Junior raised an eyebrow. “Senior, you’re out of favors.”
“I need your help keeping an eye on the guard,” he replied.
“Find another Junior to help this time,” said Zheng You, attempting to leave.
Die Feng held him back. “I thought you liked women.”
Zheng You threw up his hands. “I do! Women of all shapes, sizes, and flavours! But she’s no woman. Do you see how she dresses and talks?”
Die Feng almost rolled his eyes at the theatrics. “You’ve been around female guards before.”
“Yes, but they blush when I’m near. This one didn’t even blink.” Zheng You almost seemed to take it as a personal insult.
This time Die Feng did roll his eyes. Not very princely of him, but he was short on patience. “I am not asking you to seduce her. Just keep an eye.”
“Senior…” Zheng You moaned.
Die Feng lost his patience. “My Kingdom is not safe for Li Ying. I can’t keep an eye on everyone’s assassins coming after her. I trust you, who can sense hidden Demon aura. And now I know you will keep a cool head since you won’t be distracted by the guard. If not for me, then do it for Li Ying. You, of all people, should know what being hunted by your own kind is like.”
Zheng You’s shoulders slumped in a sigh and Die Feng knew he had won. “I want my own island when this is over.”
“Done,” Die Feng smirked.
Author's Note: Hi folks! Sorry about the slow updates for Die Feng and Li Ying’s story. I joined graduate school which has been keeping me super busy. We are definitely going to keep writing them and complete their story but chapters will take longer to be completed. Please bear with, and thanks for reading.
P.S. Please Read Die Feng & Li Ying: The Dragon and the Wolf Vol.1 for reference