Of the ancient gods only one remained in the world. This god lived alone for thousands of years and no longer had any desires. Legend had it that during the great war between the worlds he used his powers to turn the tide managing to seal the cataclysmic rift bringing order back into the three realms. Time flew by and hundreds of years passed in the blink of an eye.
In this time Shen Li was born into the demon world. Known as the Azure Sky King she was used to living a bright and dazzling life full of successes. Little did she know that her 1000th birthday would bring misfortune to her doorstep – a politically arranged marriage with her name on it. The Azure Sky King would henceforth marry the thirty-third grandson of the Heavenly Emperor, Fu Rongjun. This arranged marriage was meant to unite the Heavenly realm with the Demonic Realm, bringing the two together. Most would consider it good fortune to be related to the emperor.
Unfortunately Fu Rongjun was infamous throughout the two realms for his Casanova personality. As the King who called the shots in the Demonic Realm, she had the ability to quell uprisings and end wars with a swing of her silver spear – there was absolutely no way she would marry such a flirtatious idiot. She had to escape from this marriage somehow even if it meant death!
In her escape Shen Li, never expected to meet a man that didn’t belong to any of the three realms. This oddball was truly strange!
Summary Source: Novel Updates
Unless you’re interested in why I’m translating from the beginning, just skip the ... and tap on c4. Also please note that the original chapters do not have titles, the ones here are summaries I made, so if you are correlating the chapters just go by the c number.
So why am I starting from c4 instead of the latest released one? Because the set-up is very confusing! The translation started with Alyschu up to 26.1. Then Potatoes Have Eyes But Cannnot See Mt. Tai picked it up (and from what I surmise based on comments on the Moon Bunny Cafe) had wanted to start fresh. So Potatoes revamped it and got up to c3 before stopping. Then it was continued by ISOHungry Translations, who I think is Potatoes under another translation group. But, big BUT here, the link for 26.2 and 27.1 by ISO seems to go to a different story called “Phoenix Rising Over the World.”
Anyways I really enjoyed Potatoes’ translation. I’d read a bit before under Alyschu but never really got into it, the story just felt flat to me. Potatoes’ translations really brought the characters to life and I felt the story was more vivid because of it. So since Potatoes stopped at ch3 I’ll just pick up from there. I know, what you’re thinking.
Reader thoughts: I just want to read the NEXT calready! Why go back to the beginning. Damn it! I already know what happened before! Getting my hopes up. Seriously!
Translator thoughts: Wait. Which character is this again? Chen Lu, Shen Li, Shen Glass, Shin Glass, the glass stinking MTL. They’re all the same person. Stop interpreting the names in so many ways! It’s hard enough finding my bearing jumping in the middle of the story and getting a feel for the character voices. Now I have to figure out if the name is a bonafide new character or just a name reiteration. Ah forget it! Just suck it up and start from the beginning.
So that’s why. Plus my translation style is just too different from Alyschu.
So here’s the compromise: I will try really hard to translate up to the current chapters within the
next month and a half. Oh let’s be real. For my ability level, ATP is hella dense so maybe the next several months instead. So if you want to read it read it, if you don’t then don’t, but definitely don’t curse me out in your head. Thank you.
Shen Li had nothing to show despite trying all night. She finally called it quits at daybreak and was just about to rest her aching head when a sound jolted her alert again. She hopped over to the front yard and caught sight of an empty handed Xing Yun about to leave. That was strange. So she asked, “Oy, you’re not selling your ginseng today?”
“They’re not fully dried yet.” Xing Yun bent down and patted Shen Li’s head as he spoke. I’m going out to buy some things, so watch the house while I’m gone.”
“Hey, wait! I’m coming with!” After saying so Shen Li made a quick beeline to the yard and came back with a stone in her beak. So what if she wasn’t successful last night with the moon? She’d just keep trying. Maybe she’d have better luck under the light of the sun. If she succeeded they would be able to buy some good things! “Alright let’s go,” she muffled with a mouth full of stone.
Xing Yun looked at the rock in her mouth but decided not to ask. He only smiled and said, “Are you sure you want to go with me? There are a lot of people at the market so it can get pretty hectic. What if you get lost and get cooked into a pot of soup? Maybe I should tie a leash around your throat so you don’t get lost.”
“The nerve!” Shen Li flitted about with her two bald wings in a fit of fury. “I had good intentions. I was going to do something nice for you. You should be thankful! So... hurry and pick me up!”
Xing Yun looked at her flapping wings for a while before smirking and bending over to pick her up. She moved around a bit in his arms trying to settle into a good position. Once she found a comfortable spot she told him, “Alright, now just be careful and don’t move around too much.”
Xing Yun laughed. “Yes, of course boss chicken.”
Shen Li kept her spell-casting up the entire trip. Xing Yun didn’t know what silliness she was up to, but he figured he would just ignore it. Finally they reached the market and the sounds of vendors hawking their wares filled the air. Listening to the butchers advertise their meat prices, Xing Yun realized prices had gone up. This was no good. Prices went up by two whole xxx! At this rate he wouldn’t be able to afford enough meat to fill boss chicken’s huge gullet. Not to mention he still didn’t understand her fixation with the stone in her mouth. Was it a full moon or something?
Just as he wondered what to do a voice sounded behind him. “Hey now! Count out ten xxx.”
Eh? Xing Yun turned around to find two men speaking. The older of the two said, “This cross pattern here, shows you’re a blessed person.” He held a sign proclaiming his profession as a fortune teller in one hand while holding the young man’s hand in the other.
Xing Yun impulsively stepped closer to the two and abruptly interrupted them. “Hey brother. Your house is going to burn down this afternoon. You should head back right now, otherwise you’re going to really regret it.”
Both the fortune teller and the young man were shocked into silence at this revelation. Even Shen Li looked up from his arms as if to ask, “What’s up with that?”
The fortune teller was the first to gather his wits and react. He harrumphed and fiercely scolded Xing Yun. “What are you talking about? Don’t mess with this young man’s blessing. Spout your nonsense somewhere else!”
“It’s not nonsense.” Xing Yun faced the young man and spoke. “You, go home and see. I’ll wait here for you until the afternoon.”
The young man was one who believed in this sort of thing, after all he did come to the market specifically to have his fortune read. Xing Yun’s confident manner of speech threw his mind in turmoil and he hesitated for quite some time before pulling his hand out of the fortune teller’s grasp. Once he made up his mind, he turned around decisively and ran home.
Shen Li gently poked Xing Yun’s arm and asked, “This... what is this about? Were you lying?”
“Shush.” Xing Yun patted her head lightly as he spoke. “This is about us getting two ounces of meat.”
Xing Yun barely finished speaking when the fortune teller angrily spoke up. “I say! What’s up with you! You trying to steal my business?”
Xing Yun was unperturbed by the other’s anger. “I’m not stealing your business. I’m just speaking the truth. If you don’t believe me, just wait here till this afternoon. Let’s make a bet. If my words are proven true, then you need to pay me.”
“Ha! Alright, I see you and I speak the same language!” The fortune teller went on. “I’ve been in this line of work a long time and I don’t believe a word of what you say. So you want to wait? We’ll wait. If that boy doesn’t come back or if what you said wasn’t accurate then...” He paused and shot a meaningful look at Shen Li in Xing Yun’s arms. “You have to give me that broiler chicken there!”
At these words Shen Li broke out in a featherless fury, flapping wildly in Xing Yun’s arms.
“I’m here, don’t you worry. No one’s going to boil you.”
She didn’t know what strange powers his words held, but they made her feel oddly appeased and calm. Well fine, she’d choose to believe in him for now. He had a good track record of protecting and taking care of her. Hmm, honestly, to be protected by such a weak mortal... it felt kind of nice.
The sun slowly made its way up in the sky. By afternoon there was still no shadow of the young man from earlier. Wang Banxian, our fortune teller, was already thinking about what to do with his broiler chicken. Who knew what Xing Yun as thinking, but occasionally he would glance up at the meat shops intently listening to the prices. They hadn’t dropped at all since early morning. An hour later Wang Banxian felt it was time to call it. “Alright kid! Hand over that chicken.”
“Eh? Why should I do that?” Xing Yun appeared really carefree, completely unworried. “Isn’t that there the brother on his way back?”
Wang Banxian went to the side of the road to look. Not seeing anyone he proclaimed, “What nonsense! Where is the young man? I don’t see him!” Just as the words fell from his lips two people appeared. It was the young man from earlier. By his side was a small child. He immediately went to Xing Yun. “Brother! Thank you! If you hadn’t convinced me to go back earlier this child here would have burned to death in the woodshed!” He turned to the child next to him. “Go on. Thank this uncle!”
The small child bit his fingers and quietly gave his thanks. “Thank you uncle.”
The young man smiled at Xing Yun. “I don’t have much, but please accept this as thanks. It’s bacon that my wife hung on the rafters to cure for the past two years.”
Xing Yun noticed Shen Li’s eyes open wide at the sight of the bacon so he promptly accepted. He too was very interested in bacon!
After saying farewell and watching the father and son leave, Xing Yun looked down to see Shen Li gazing at the meat shop. He turned to Wang Banxian and spoke up. “I won’t be polite. Ten xxx please!”
Wang Banxian was truly stunned. He rubbed his forehead. “Aye... you really did the impossible. You’re words were true.” He reached in his purse and pulled out ten xxx to give to Xing Yun. Before he left he couldn’t help but turn and ask, “Can you give me a reading?”
Xing Yun laughed and said, “Today you’ll have familial troubles.”
This scared Wang Banxian so he hurried home.
“You’re really good at foretelling.” Shen Li was quite surprised.
“Yeah, I know a little bit.”
Shen Li silently pondered that for a moment before speaking. “You know that’s forbidden. The heavens will punish those that divulge such knowledge.”
“I know, that’s why I’m suffering everyday eating medicine.“
He saw that Shen Li was still staring at him. This made him laugh and he said, “There is nothing wrong. The heavens will always create a balance.”
Although Shen Li didn’t fully understand what he meant by that exactly, she did understand that he was special. To be a mortal capable of peering into the secrets of heaven was no ordinary feat. For him to be alive to the present day meant that he had to withstand and counter the heavenly backlash.She realized that this man’s sickly nature was probably due to this trauma. Xing Yun was an enigma to her. The more she learned, the more unpredictable he became in her eyes.
From that day onwards, gossip spread like wildfire in the capital about a celestial being who told fortunes and imparted knowledge. It was because of this that Shen Li learned about Wang Banxian’s fate when he returned home that day.
His wife was really angry and had scolded him fiercely for not earning any money. She slapped his face so hard that it broke the skin and left a permanent scar. The rumors circulating about the mysterious fortune teller grew more exaggerated as the days passed. It didn’t matter to Xing Yun though, he continued living his daily routine, guarding the yard, feeding the fish, and basking in the sun.
One day a bored Shen Li looked at Xing Yun and asked, “You have a knack for foretelling, why not make it your livelihood?” This skill that was akin to godliness would earn him quite a bit, certainly more than what he made selling ginseng. It would be easier too, even if he only worked one day a year he’d still make enough to live ten times more luxuriously than he did now. He was just too laissez-faire about it. Other than the time with the bacon, she hadn’t really seen him use it.
”It’s not a good ability and using it can bring harm. I don’t need to rely on it to live a good life.”
Shen Li raised her eyebrows surprised that he already understood this concept. Since he was so firm in his conviction, Shen Li decided to drop the matter. Instead she asked him, “What do you eat everyday? Do you use any ingredients that boost vitality? If you do let me see next time.”
Xing Yun snorted at that. “Do you think I can afford that kind of thing?”
True. He couldn’t even afford meat never mind expensive strengthening tonics. But then how did she recover so fast under his care? Lately she noticed that her inner strength had stabilized to the extent that she felt it would only be a matter of days before she could take human form again.
As they were talking, a series of loud raps came from the front door.
Xing Yun slowly got up and went to answer it.
This was strange. The only visitor Shen Li saw since moving in was the girl who climbed over the wall to secretly clean for him. She moved to follow him, her curiosity piqued.
She felt an inexplicable charge in the air as soon as Xing Yun started to open the door. Through the partial opening, she saw a dry withered hand snake out and grab onto Xing Yun’s arm!
The person on the other side then forcibly made her way in, pushing Xing Yun back, nearly making him step on Shen Li who was at his feet watching the show. With the door now completely opened Shen Li saw that the intruder was an old woman. In an excited and trance-like voice she grunted out, “Immortal immortal...are you the immortal that others say can understand the past and observe the future?”
Shen Li looked up and realized the strangeness in the air was coming from this person. Unfortunately she hadn’t recovered enough magic to probe the old woman for the cause.
“Oh... I am the person you’re looking for.” Xing Yun replied. “It’s just that-”
Before Xing Yun finished his thoughts a loud shout rang from the alleyway interrupting him. “Sister!” A middle-aged man, perhaps in his forties, walked out from the alleyway. He pulled the woman to him and said, “Sister! Don’t make trouble! Come back with me!”
She paid him no heed, instead keeping her eyes fixed on Xing Yun. She appeared to be in her fifties, with a face ravaged by a life of ill fortune. “Immortal help me! My husband has enlisted in the army for fifteen years now, but I have had no word from him. Please I beseech you! Divine his whereabouts.”
“Oh ye sister! Haven’t you been deceived enough by those quacks and fakes? Desist in asking. It has been so many years already...“
The woman’s pain burst forth when she heard this sentence. She shouted fiercely, “I’ll keep asking! I’ll never give up. It’s my husband! Even if I can’t find him today, I’ll hope for tomorrow! Everyday I’ll keep searching until I find him!”
It turned out she was the wife of a missing soldier. Shen Li shook her head. It was hard for those left behind. No matter how they searched, oftentimes they couldn’t even locate the bones for burial. This was a matter Shen Li keenly understood.
Xing Yun gently pried open the woman’s grip on his arm. He smiled slightly as he spoke. “Ma’am, I’m unable to help you. Please leave.”
“Aren’t you an immortal? Why won’t you help me? I just want to know where he is... If you won’t find him then at least tell me if he’s dead or alive.”
Xing Yun looked at the man. “I need to get breakfast ready.”
The man took the hint. “Sorry for the trouble brother.” He gave an apologetic nod and worked to pull the woman away.
Xing Yun made a polite farewell gesture and closed the door before proceeding to the kitchen to cook as usual.
Shen Li hopped around at his feet. “You saw right? Why didn’t you tell the woman. Is her husband dead?”
“No. I didn’t see anything.”
“But... but...“ She wanted to say something but couldn’t find the right words. She understood that Xing Yun was trying his best to not interfere with the lives of others through the use of his gift, and she did admire him for it, but under these circumstances she felt really stifled, like a heavy weight was on her.
If the soldiers she brought to battle died on the field she would do her best to notify their next of kin. She wouldn’t abandon them to linger in limbo!
Shen Li looked up at Xing Yun before silently walking back to the yard. This child was willing to save someone for two ounces of meat, yet was unwilling to help another find closure. He could stand by indifferently as an old woman wept broken-heartedly. What an unusual child... so aloof and detached.
That night, when all was quiet, Shen Li escaped through the unlocked gate. She used the bit of magic she regained from basking in the sun to locate the scent of the old woman from earlier. She rushed toward the alleyway.
Meanwhile in the courtyard a sigh blew out. “This chicken... such a busybody.”
Shen Li’s search led her to the door of a small courtyard. She was trying to figure out how to enter when a sudden and loud squeak sounded. Shen Li bustled out of the way trying to hide as the door was pushed open from the other side. A man dressed in uniform walked out holding a lantern. It seemed to be the same man from earlier.
“I’m going to work. Watch out for your sister and make sure she doesn’t run off to find some quack again.”
“OK. Be careful,” spoke the woman. She closed the door after he left, leaving the courtyard dark again.
Shen Li was anxious about finding a way inside when the woman came out again, this time with a cloak. “Da Lang, your cloak! It’s cold outside, be careful lest you catch a cold.”
While the two people were distracted, Shen Li snuck into the yard hopping from shadow to shadow. She looked around the yard and saw the old soldier’s wife sitting by a window sewing. The silhouette cast on the window looked rather lonely to Shen Li. She immediately detected the strange scent from before the moment she entered the cottage. She looked around and saw that the wife’s bedroom door was cracked open just enough for her to poke her head inside.
From her vantage point, she could see a young man dressed in a bedraggled uniform watching the wife as she mended the article in her hands. He looked at her with a gentle expression full of love. Shen Li was unable to see him earlier in the daylight because of the profusion of yang energy, but with the risen moon she was able to see his shape clearly. She realized it was his spirit that gave the woman that strange atmosphere earlier. Shen Li sighed. The woman didn’t need to go search for her husband, he was right there beside her, it was just that he was no longer alive.
The man’s dark eyes turned crimson at her sigh. He turned in her direction and expelled a large amount of Yin energy at her as he rushed forward. It happened so fast Shen Li didn’t have time to react. She flapped about uselessly with her featherless wings yelling, “Stop! Wait!” in her mind.
He rolled through her causing her to tumble backwards away from the door. She fell like a legless chicken rolling around helplessly, and only managed to stop after colliding with several clay pots.
“Stop! Stop it... cough!” Shen Li tried to shout through a fit of coughing.
He refused to listen and only stared at her malevolently, readying himself to attack again.
“I’m here to help!”
He finally stopped, allowing Shen Li a chance to regain her breath. Just as she was about to speak the front door was pulled wide open. It was the woman from the courtyard earlier. “How’d a bald chicken get in here?” The ruckus had alarmed her so she came over to investigate. She had only taken a couple of steps toward Shen Li when she was knocked out from behind. She fainted immediately and collapsed onto the floor.
“Why do you have to run around causing so much trouble?” - “How is it you’re here?” Both Xing Yun and Shen Li spoke at the same time.
Xing Yun tossed the stone in his hand to the side before answering. “I climbed the wall.” Then he stooped down to pick Shen Li up. “There’s a curfew at night you know. Let’s go back.”
“Wait!” Shen Li shook her wings in agitation. “Don’t you see him? He’s still there.”
Xing Yun held her wings down, she was hitting him in the face with them and it was annoying. “See what?”
Shen Li gestured to the man. “He’s so big and you don’t see him?”
Xing Yun frowned. “Do I look like a monk to you? I don’t have the ability to see ghosts. I’m a fortune teller. Hel-looo.” He tapped her lightly on the head.
Shen Li was surprised. Xing Yun was so mysterious she just made assumptions about him. She thought about how best to explain. “Earlier today I sensed something strange about the woman. At that time the sun was too strong and there was too much Yang energy so I couldn’t really figure it out. But when I came tonight to investigate, I discovered the soldier’s ghost. He carried a strong obsession at the time of his death. Because of this he became rooted to the earth unable to move forward and reincarnate. He returned here, and has been watching over her ever since.”
Shen Li turned to the soldier and he nodded his head in confirmation. “You knew she would wait for you, that she wanted to find you right?” The man had a bitterly sad look on his face as he gazed at the faraway bedroom door. Shen Li prodded further. “Do you want her to know you’ve been here this whole time?”
The glimmer of hope in his eyes was unmistakable and his fierce stare seemed to ask if it was possible.
Shen Li nodded then pointed her chicken chin at Xing Yun. “Xing Yun, relay it.”
Xing Yun sighed in frustration. “Huh? Stupid chicken. You want me to do some kind of communication dance with a ghost? What kind of language is that? Who would even believe it? Seriously, think it through here.” He put Shen Li down and then gathered up several stones, laying them in an array on the floor. With another sigh he said, “Since we’ve already intervened we might as well do our best. Just don’t go regretting it afterwards.”
Shen Li waited quietly while Xing Yun worked. He quickly withdrew from the array after using his finger to draw out a word in the center. “Tell him to float to the word in the center.”
The soldier did so and immediately the word lit up as if infused with light. The stones quickly followed suit, and soon the soldier’s body became the central focus. The man gained a clear silouette not long after. Xing Yun laughed and said, “Chicken, go get the ma’am and tell her that her husband is back.” He could now see the soldier’s form in the center.
Shen Li loudly pecked relentlessly at the door of the bedroom where she had seen the old wife sitting. Frowning, the old wife got up and opened the door. “It’s so noisy tonight. I didn’t get much done with my sewing either...” Her voiced faded away as she looked up. A light shone in her eyes, it was a mixture of excitement, relief, and amazement. She staggered forward quietly whispering, “San Lang.”
The man was equally helpless, not daring to move. He could only watch her as she awkwardly clenched and unclenched her hands not knowing what to do with them. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. She understood though. The words he wanted to say were “My Lady.” The last time she was called by this endearment was over fifteen years ago.
Her rheumy eyes filled with unshed tears as she spoke, “You... you’re finally back.” She was stunned with joy. Her wrinkled face broke out in a childish smile as she hurried the last few steps forward, but stopped just shy of touching him.
She trembled touching her hair then her face. “Here you are and I have nothing prepared for you, not even rice. It’s been so many years...” Her voice cracked as a sob wracked her body. “Where have you been all these years. Do you know how long I’ve waited for you? Do you know everyone thinks I’ve gone crazy? Even I thought I was crazy. I almost stopped waiting. I didn’t know if you were dead of alive. I couldn’t find a single trace of you anywhere. I sewed clothes with nowhere to send. I wrote letters with no one to read. Where have you been hiding this whole time?!” She couldn’t stop her tears from falling and her voice from rising as she spoke.
The ray of light seemed to unwind time for them. Standing there the wrinkles on her face smoothened, a becoming flush rose to her cheeks, and the lines that marked a harsh life left her face, revealing a beautiful youthful woman. Her husband also looked like a young man in the prime of his life, about to set out on his first military engagement. It was as though the fifteen years apart never existed, as though he never died on the battlefield.
The man’s face showed a deep sadness. He reached out to touch her face.
On the side, Xing Yun raised his finger to his lips and bit hard enough to draw blood. He held the blood over the array and let it drop. This action caused the array to surround the couple with a dazzling amount of light.
The hand that should not have been corporeal touched the woman’s face. The body that should have had no tangible form pulled the other close to him in an embrace. Shen Li was shocked as she watched. “This array... to be able to connect life and death, upturn the heavens, it is so powerful.” She gazed at Xing Yun a bit awkwardly, unsure how he was able to accomplish such a feat.
“The array isn’t going to hold for long. Finish what you came to do quickly.”
Shen Li was surprised to hear this from Xing Yun. It seemed he knew what she wanted to do. She had a vague guess that the woman was possessed by a ghost because of her obsession. She just hadn’t expected the soldier’s spirit to be so rooted as well. Since they were entwined for so long, it was inevitable that the woman’s life would be affected by his presence. This was dangerous in its own way.
She initially wanted the spirit to leave the woman, but now...
After waiting for Shen Li and seeing her not make a move, Xing Yun spoke again, “Why don’t you let them decide.” Shen Li glanced at him. He continued with, “These two are just ordinary people without access to the Way. They don’t understand how an imbalance in the Tao can affect them.[notes] Since this has already happened, why not just tell them everything and let them decide where they want to go?”
Shen Li opened her mouth, but still couldn’t say anything. She wanted them to have more time together, even if only for awhile. Xing Yun sighed. This chicken! He addressed the couple standing in the array as he spoke. “The two of you are from different worlds, but you’ve stayed together for over a decade already. Brother, if you continue to stay with her like this you will siphon away her life force and she won’t have many more years left to live.”
The man turned to look at Xing Yun. The woman clenched her fist and whispered, “You’ve been here with me this whole time? You...” She gazed at the man’s clothes and his appearance that hadn’t changed in years. She spoke as though mesmerized. “So that’s what happened...”
“If you continue to stay here, not only will you harm her physically, but you will also prevent her from ever finding peace.” Xing Yun spoke in a quiet flat voice. “Brother, it is your decision whether to stay or leave, but eventually the two of you will be together, after all death comes for everyone.”
The man turned and looked at his wife. The light in the array was dimming and his figure was becoming transparent. She too was returning to her original appearance, with a haggard face lined with wrinkles, as though her previous youthful look was nothing but a mere illusion. She became slightly panicked when she could no longer feel his hand on her cheek. In the end the man nodded his head, showing his intention to leave.
It was a good result, but Shen Li’s heart still felt restless.
Xing Yun interrupted her thoughts, “I can purify his soul, but I don’t have enough energy to guide him on the path of reincarnation. Can you do that part?”
“Uh, yes. Of course.” Oftentimes after a battle with the enemy crushed and the uprising quelled, Shen Li would assist in guiding the spirits of those who fell. “There’s no need for a purification array though.” The method she wanted to use wouldn’t fail no matter how injured the caster was. It was a method she used often to send the brothers who fell in battle onwards.
“Take your coat off Xing Yun.”
Although he didn’t know why she wanted him to do so, he obeyed without questioning. Shen Li walked into the coat and wore it around herself like a magnificent gigantic robe. A golden light shone through her naked body encompassing her completely underneath the coat. Xing Yun closed his eyes for a brief moment against the glare. When he opened them again he saw that she had taken human form and was now several steps closer to the array.
Xing Yun’s coat was very big on her so she had to brace her feet wide apart to maintain her balance. It didn’t slow her down though. She stood straight and tall, slowly moving forward with a heroic air.
“By my name will I guide you to the river.” Shen Li drew several symbols in the air before waving her hand toward the man. The imprint of her palm could be seen on his forehead and the glow of light slowly spread. It grew to completely encompass him in it’s brilliance, blending and merging with his entity until the two became one. Then just as quickly, his light started to fade. His form lingered momentarily near his wife, before completely dissipating away like dust settling on the ground.
“Ah.. ah...” His wife whimpered. Her hands trembled as she reached out to him, but all she grasped was emptiness. It seemed his bond with her had finally broken.
The only sounds left was that of her sobbing. “Madam. He left so you would be at peace. Do you understand his intentions?” Shen Li held her hand as she spoke.
“I understand...” She was silent for a moment lost in thought. “I do. I heard the song he used to sing when he would walk around the village too. It was a beautiful song.” She smiled reminiscing. “I know he wants me to be at peace.” Her tears kept falling like a steady stream as Shen Li slowly led her back to her room.
The woman was exhausted and fell asleep easily. Shen Li observed her for a while before leaving. Most of the qi she absorbed earlier in the day was nearly depleted, making her feel a little dizzy and unstable on her feet. Xing Yun reached over and gathered her in his arms for support. Ah that’s nice. But before she could thank him her heart thundered and her world grew larger before her eyes. Within the space of a few seconds her body shrank back to its original beast form.
Shen Li knew he was referring to the couple they just helped. “This result, since it involved a death, no ending is ever going to be satisfactory.” Shen Li shook her head.
“You seem to feel strongly about this.”
“I’ve watched too many souls die on the battlefield. I don’t know if I advised her correctly or wrongly, whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, but if it were me that passed on I’d want my loved one to forget about me and carry on. Hope for a past that can never be is hope made in vain, only by moving forward can a life be properly lived.”
Xing Yun glanced down with a complex look on his face. He laughed out loud, “Silly chicken. Living in the present is what living is all about.”
Shen Li blinked at that, then shifted to get into a more comfortable position. “You’re right. Let’s go back.”
“Mm right, let’s go back home.”
Xing Yun pushed open the courtyard gates and began the walk home.
The two were tired and did not notice a caped silhouette move out from the shadows. This person walked into the cottage and knelt down by the lady who was hit by the rock earlier. She got up woozily muttering, “An immortal! A celestial being! They were definitely divine somehow!”
White smoke twirled above a lighted incense atop a sandalwood desk. The man who sat behind the desk looked forward and asked, “Is it really true?”
The one kneeling in front of him trembled but answered honestly, “Even with ten lives this small one would not dare deceive My Lord. My sister-in-law was insensible the first few days directly after. It was only recently that she regained her senses. Although my wife was unconscious at the time the neighbors all say there was a bright light flowing out of my house. And also there is the robe...the immortal turned the chicken by side into a beauty, but he forgot the robe when he left.”
“How interesting.” His phoenix eyes raised in surprise. “Bring him here. I want to see his abilities.”
“Yes My Lord.”
The leaves grew thick and dense on the vines in the courtyard with each passing day. Despite the sweltering summer heat, the days were idle and calm for Xing Yun. He was lying indolently in the courtyard when a rocking chair suddenly hit him. He looked down to find Shen Li rolling on the ground.
“Ah! Why can’t I turn back?! I was definitely able to do it a few days ago for that couple.” Shen Li rolled around on the ground lamenting. “These past few days, my qi has definitely filled up again! So why can’t I turn back?!”
Xing Yun quietly looked at her for a bit before saying, “Stop screaming. And also get some clothes on yourself first.” It wouldn’t be good if she transformed in her current state. His voice fell as he remembered her glorious body in the light that day.
Shen Li stopped rolling around to listen to him. “The array you made that day was really powerful. Can you consolidate the essence of the sun and moon in an array?”
“All arrays obey certain laws. What you ask is a violation of those laws.” Xing Yun laughed. “You’ve been here so many days and you still haven’t noticed?”
Shen Li looked around, and it was only then that she realized the arrangements of the stones and grass were laid out in accordance to the laws of feng shui. This kind of layout must have taken a great deal of time to nurture, as even the trees were a part of the formation. It was hard to discern, but upon closer inspection it was clear that the grass grew all along the perimeter blurring the boundaries of the courtyard. Her confusion cleared. She understood it was the formation that allowed her to recover so quickly. The amount of qi it gathered had to be tremendous.
“Every time I learn something about you, you become more of a mystery.” She studied the courtyard carefully one more time before making her way over to him. “How do you know so much about array formations? How does a mere mortal like you have the ability to divine the heavens and foresee the future, and yet not have a shred of magical energy? Just who hell are you Xing Yun?”
Xing Yun smiled and nodded his head while saying, “I’m a good person.”
“Tch. You’re a weirdo.” Shen Li made a circle around him. “You have an odd temperament and you behave strangely. I mean, just look at me. I’m a bald talking chicken that can transform into a person. Yet you express no curiosity or fear of me, instead you chose to welcome me into your home and treat me like a member of your family. Unless... did you foresee something?”
“Just because I don’t like foretelling doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad skill to have. I didn’t question you because I didn’t want to pry. We only met recently. Just know that you and I are not inimical to one another.”
Shen Li was stupefied to hear these words. Her tone was stern when she spoke. “You must be the most unlucky disciple under the heavens, only slightly better than that loser bald donkey in misfortune.”
Xing Yun glared at her but didn’t say anything. He spent the rest of that afternoon eating the remainder of the bacon from the market. He refused to look at her after that, not even sparing her a glance despite her continuous pecks at the table legs. He knew she wanted some.
He only picked her up after he finished eating so he could show her the now mostly clean plate. Shen Li made a horrified face when she saw the complete absence of bacon. In fact, there were only two measly drops of bacon oil left on the plate! It was so clean...
Satisfied, Xing Yun smiled and said, “I just wanted to prove a point. I’m definitely not the second most unlucky loser under the heavens.... That’s all I wanted to say.” He reached over and wiped up the two drops with his finger before carrying the plate away, leaving a frustrated Shen Li on the table to kick her legs and flap her wings in anger.
“Spit it out! Spit it out now you bastard!”
A knock resounded on the door just as he reached the courtyard. With the plate still in his hand, he turned around to answer it. Upon opening the door, he was greeted by the sight of three men in royal brocade uniforms. One was dressed in red while the other two were dressed in blue. Each carried a sword at his hip and a solemn expression on his face. They appeared to be guards of some rank.
The one in red said, “Young Master, My Lord wishes to see you.”
Xing Yun smiled and said, “You have the wrong person.” He backed up a few steps after saying so, intending to close the door. The guard didn’t care what Xing Yun thought. Instead he reached over and roughly grabbed Xing Yun’s arm, causing him to lose his grip on the plate, dropping it to the floor.
“We’ll be the judge of that.”
Xing Yun lost his smile. “I dislike being forced.”
At this comment the red guard sucker punched Xing Yun in the abdomen causing him to double over in pain on the floor.
“And I don’t like people who talk back to me.” He looked contemptuously down at Xing Yun then told the other guards to grab him. They yanked him roughly to his feet with the intentions of pulling him out of the courtyard. As they did so, Xing Yun knocked a stone over. It flipped on its side, changing the formation in the yard.
Suddenly a bright light flashed and a measured voice rang out, “Beat him up and drag him away!”
Xing Yun laughed when he heard the voice.
“Who’s there?!” cried out the red uniformed guard.
A woman walked out while tying her hair up with a strip of cloth. The outfit she had on was smeared with dirt and quite bedraggled looking.
Although she spoke harshly earlier, she felt differently when saw Xing Yun bent over in obvious pain and the rough way the guards were holding him. “Who are you? Are you tired of living? How dare you come in here and behave like thugs provoking this K... er... girl.”
Back in the Demon realm, Shen Li had a reputation for being fiercely protective of her subordinates, not allowing anyone to punish or reprimand them. Although this was in part because she loved them like family, it was mostly because she had a reputation to uphold. How could she allow others to bully the subordinates of the mighty Azure Sky King?! However this didn’t mean she let her men do as they pleased. Anyone under her command caught committing misdeeds were swiftly punished by her, with some punishments being so severe the recipients were scared half to death. The Xing Yun in front of her was obviously being bullied. How dare these mortals!
Upon hearing the voice the red guard frowned. Although the owner of the voice dressed like a pauper, her eyes were sharp and she gave off an air of authority. This made him pause as he knew there were many crouching tigers and hidden dragons in the city. He decided to act with caution and pulled forth the golden ID tablet at his waist[notes] to show her. “I act on behalf of his Royal Highness My Lord the Crown Prince, who has requested that the young master go to the palace for an audience. Does the young miss understand?”
“Eh... do I understand?” Even without the ability to cast magic, she knew her martial arts would be more than sufficient to handle the three in front of her. She reached over and grabbed the ID tablet from his hand, and with a twist easily broke it in two, tossing the broken token at his feet. She glared at him. “Why don’t you spell it out for me?” She then attacked each guard in quick succession.
The guards were caught completely by surprise, only feeling their world fade to black after experiencing a sharp pain on the back of their heads. By the time they regained their senses they were lying in a heap outside.
Shen Li stared at the trio with narrowed eyes. “I don’t care what kind of royalty your master is, if he wants to meet my people he can come over himself!” She promptly slammed the door closed in their faces after saying so.
The guards stood up, dusted themselves off and looked at one another. They were unsure what to do and were considering their options when two objects suddenly shot out at them. One more inch and they would have been severely injured. Looking carefully at it they realized they were the broken pieces of the golden ID tablet. After a moment of silence the trio quickly left.
Back in the courtyard Xing Yun stood up, and while holding onto his abdomen looked over at Shen Li. With a smirk he asked, “So when did I become your “people”?
She ignored his question and instead asked one of her own. “What is that?” she said pointing to the stone that was overturned earlier.
She gave him a hard look. “Do you want another beating?”
“Uh... well... that is to say it’s a stone placed in the eye of the formation.”
“Why would you put a stone there?”
“... to suppress the power of the formation.”
“Why would you want to suppress it?”
Xing Yun looked at her and debated mentally for a moment before answering. “Because it would have given you enough energy to change form, which would have made it awkward to play with you. Plus an unwed man and woman living together in the same house... that’s just not proper. So I put the stone there the second night you showed up.”
“...what you mean to say is that by the third day you brought me back, I could have already regained my human form... When I ran out that day, if I could have done so as a person. I wouldn’t have been plucked by those mortals and nearly turned into stew!” She was still mortified just remembering it.
“Yeah about that... I am sorry.” Xing Yun gave a helpless sigh and said, “It has been difficult for me too. Another of my secrets has seen through by you.”
Huh? He had the nerve to apologize? The ordeal had been difficult for him? Come again? She was the one with the rights to be sad! With one rock this guy had managed to do so much damage to her dignity as the Azure Sky King. He must have done it on purpose, taking enjoyment from her struggles!
In her heart Shen Li had the strong urge to kill him, however she refrained and instead said through gritted teeth emphatically stressing out each syllable, “I... don’t... hate... you... e...nough... to... kill... you.” She looked at Xing Yun only to find him on the ground clutching his stomach. “Eh? Don’t bother! It’s too late to grovel now.”
Xing Yun grimaced and said, “No, just... cough!” Before he could finish his words he fell forward and fainted to the ground.
Shen Li immediately saw that Xing Yun was pale and looked quite weak. She realized the beating he suffered from the guards earlier must have done quite a number on him. He already had a weak constitution to begin with. Seeing him like this took the wind go out of her sails, leaving her anger completely deflated. She reached for his pulse and saw that his face had lost all the blood in it, leaving him as pale as a ghost. His pulse was incredibly slow as well.
What should she do? Toss him into the yard? Prop him on the rocking chair? She felt there should be some payback for the jokes he’d played on her, but he looked so close to death she really wasn’t sure he’d survive. She came to a decision and walked to the kitchen to prepare the medicine she usually saw him take. After it was finished she brought it over and forced his jaw open. She was about to pour the piping hot liquid down his throat when a cry rang out.
“Stop!” Sensing the impending danger Xing Yun opened his eyes, and though still pale managed to cough a few times. He gently pushed the glass of medicine away. “I can do that myself.”
“Oh? Were you faking it?”
“No, no. I just had a momentary dizzy spell. I woke up just now, but was hoping to enjoy the ministrations of a fair maiden. Though it seems I was hoping for too much there.”
“Tch! You used me for entertainment, dared eat all the bacon, and you still have the temerity to expect me to nurse you?!” Shen Li was extremely irritated. She was about to flip her clothes up and sit on the ground when she remembered she was not in her beast form, resulting in her posing in an awkward half up half down position.
The sight made Xing Yun laugh. “Haha! See? It’s more comfortable being a chicken right?”
Up close Xing Yun’s facial features were really quite remarkable. If she wasn’t so angry it may have moved her heart. “Can you give me a reason to not kill you right now?”
Xing Yun paid her words absolutely no mind at all, and instead changed the topic. “Don’t make a fuss. Just give me the medicine. There’s still some bacon left, I’ll make some good broth with it for you.”
Turned out there wasn’t a reason to kill him after all. Her heart no longer clenched painfully at the thought of bacon. At this she realized her thoughts and behavior were slowly moving farther and farther away from that of a king. Shen Li wondered if he had put some sort of strange array in the house, affecting her mood.
She also wondered when she should leave. Xing Yun’s array was very effective in gathering qi and although she had recovered enough qi to change into human form, the amount she gathered was nowhere the amount she normally held. The longer she remained in place, the higher the likelihood she would be found by the Demon Emperor. And if that happened then...
“Hey, the bacon piece is too high for me to reach. Come here and help me get it.”
Shen Li looked at Xing Yun and sighed at his frail frame. Only one punch and he nearly died. How would he fare if the Demon realm were to pursue him? She sighed, shook her head and went inside.
She entered the kitchen and saw the bacon hanging by a string under one of the beams. Xing Yun handed her a pole, but she rejected it. Instead she picked up an empty plate and threw it like a frisbee at the string, severing it easily. The plate curved after the strike and turned around to catch the bacon before flying back to land in Shen Li’s right hand.
Shen Li was quite proud of herself and so glanced at Xing Yun to see his reaction. She expected to see admiration and maybe even awe from such a fine display. Instead of amazement, Xing Yun passed her a bunch of dirty rags and said, “Since you have such a handy skill, use it to help me dust the beams. Make sure to give them a good cleaning.” The reality was not at all satisfying!
It made Shen Li distort her face in an ugly way. The rags in her left hand were so dirty that she couldn’t discern their original colors. In an even tone she asked, “Do you know who you’re talking to?”
“I never asked who you were... so how would I know?” The ugliness in Shen Li’s face only increased upon hearing his reply. Xing Yun shook his head. “Okay okay, if you don’t want to dust then you don’t have to. Instead, if you can, can you help me by bringing in two buckets of water?”
Shen Li put down the plate of bacon and gritted her teeth. She went to leave, but because the kitchen was so narrow she ended up bumping him on the way out. It was just a casual brush across the chest and not much should have resulted from it, however, because she was not used to wearing his overly large clothes, the bump caused the hem of the robe to catch on a burr in the door. This made what was supposed to be a haughty exit turn rather awkward for her.
“See? Didn’t I say it was inconvenient?” Xing Yun stepped aside so she would have more space to maneuver.
“It’s not that inconvenient. Stop making a fuss.” Although she said this, inside she did somewhat agree with him. After pulling the fabric free she promptly left the kitchen and went to the well. She stood bent over the well for some time, but didn’t scoop any up any water. There is definitely something wrong with this courtyard! she thought. Looking at her own reflection in the water she could clearly see two pink blotches on her face. In disbelief she reached out and poked at her reflection. Ugh! Still there! How did these blotches get there? Who dared paint them on her?! How could she be blushing because of a mortal?
Back in the kitchen Xing Yun leaned against the stove for support until the heat in his chest faded. Looking outside he could see Shen Li standing by the well just staring off into space.
Xing Yun tilted his head and rubbed his chest unconsciously. It didn’t look like he was going to get his water anytime soon. Might as well just fry the bacon then. Sometime later Xing Yun hollered, “Cluck cluck! Chicken, time to eat.”
Shen Li, who was lost in thought, finally came to her senses. The flush on her cheeks vanished instantly replaced by her usual rancor. This... Shen Li was a girl ok?! Do not refer to her by an animal sound! She turned around ready to engage in battle and saw that Xing Yun was standing by the door with a plate of vegetables in his hand. His frame cast a long shadow into the backyard as the sun set behind him. Shen Li wasn’t sure why, but she suddenly felt really embarrassed and so she ended up with a strange complicated look on her face.
After a moment Xing Yun laughed and said, “Shen Li, time to eat.”
Shen Li was distracted and in her mind what she heard was, “My lord, it’s dinnertime,” so she replied with, “OK I heard, I’m coming!” They were such ordinary words, but no one had ever spoken them to her in that combination before. To put her name and those words together... it made her unexpectedly feel like she had found a home.
Shen Li went over. “If you ruined the bacon, you’re going to have to replace it.”
“What if I cooked it deliciously? How will you pay me?”
“Well... hm... if it’s delicious then you can be my cook.”
Xing Yun laughed at that. How could a person that could make even the most rubbish of vegetables tasty not be able to cook meat deliciously? Of course his food was wonderful!
After Shen Li had some, she had to admit his cooking was indeed great. As a result the next day when Xing Yun was about to set out for his daily ginseng foraging in the mountains, Shen Li ambushed him and refused to let him leave until she had her say. “Buy more meat!” She resolutely stuffed two gold xxx into his pocket.
However he refused. How could he go to market and buy meat with two gold xxx? He was afraid he’d get arrested for suspicious behavior! He was trying to take the gold pieces out when there was a loud knock on the door. Xing Yun frowned. He tossed the two pieces of gold xxx on the ground. As soon as they hit the ground they lost their luster and turned into two pieces of stone.
“I’ll go.” She didn’t wait to hear what he would say, and instead stepped over and immediately answered the door. Standing outside were two guards in dark blue uniform each equipped with a large sword at the hip. They greeted her with a clasped fist salute before speaking. “Our family’s lord wishes to visit the two of you tonight. We ask that you remain at home so that you may receive him appropriately. In the meantime we will remain here to prepare for his arrival...”
“Why does he need a reception if he wants to visit?” Shen Li frowned. “There’s no time today. Tell him he’ll have to keep waiting.” She closed the door after saying this.
The two guards had never been treated this way before! They reached out to force the door open only to find a strong pressure forcing them back. The woman from earlier looked like a lightweight so they were surprised. They turned to look at each other and seemed to come to a mutual agreement when suddenly the door opened again.
Xing Yun kept Shen Li behind him as he opened the door. He had overheard the conversation so he knew what they wanted. With an air of cooperation he told them, “You want to arrange a few things. Sure, come in.” He took a step back to let them in. Although the abrupt change in attitude caused the guards to frown suspiciously, they still stepped inside. Xing Yun led them to the kitchen and pointed to the beams. “Do you see those beams? They’re very dusty so make sure you give them a good cleaning. Here I’ll give this one to you.” He handed the rag in his hand to the guard closest and patted him on the shoulder saying, “Extra rags are under the stove if you need them.” He led the other guard to the hall. “This hall hasn’t been cleaned in a long time. Help me clean it up and I’ll receive your master in the evening with a good meal.”
He turned to Shen Li and said, “Shen Li, you supervise. I’m going to collect ginseng in the mountains.” He quickly gathered his materials and left. Shen Li stared at his retreating back thinking: this guy is so strange!
Later that night, Xing Yun surveyed the front courtyard while waiting for the water for tea to boil. He got extra labor and everything looked clean. He was quite satisfied! Just as he was thinking this, he heard heavy footsteps coming from outside. He could tell Shen Li heard it too as her face took on a long mournful appearance. “You’re going to meet this country’s crown prince. Why do you look like you’re going to cry? ”
“Tch. Who’s crying?” Shen Li retorted. “Both sets of subordinates that came were rude and disrespectful. How can the master be any different?” Xing Yun laughed but didn’t reply, only taking a sip of his tea. Shen Li walked into the house and opened the front door to take a look.
Outside a large sedan chair pulled up in front of the house. It was so large it literally took up all the space in the alley. A figure dressed in red and gold silk slowly descended from the sedan. He was so bright looking Shen Li had to blink a little from all the glare. After her eyesight adjusted, she saw he had a set of phoenix eyes and red rouge lips. That was normal, but what was up with the rest of him? He was almost like a completely round ball.
The crown prince looked Shen Li up and down before moving his gaze to the entrance. He walked over to where she was. A green robed guard made a move to follow but was blocked by Shen Li. “There’s only one cup prepared. Only one person is invited.”
He immediately reached for his sword but was stopped by the prince.
Shen Li was surprised at his action and her face took on a more amenable look.
Once the gates were closed the three were alone in the courtyard, however everyone present knew they weren’t really alone. The prince spoke as he took a seat on the stone bench, “You’re a difficult person to meet Young Master.”
“I am not as hard to meet as Your Highness,” was Xing Yun’s reply.
Shen Li left for the kitchen to look for something to eat. She had been a military officer in the Demon realm for hundreds of years, and in all that time she met many officials and civil servants. The ones that annoyed her the most were the those who failed to recognize other people’s time. She didn’t appreciate the crown prince’s attitude and wasn’t interested in listening to him mouth off.
“I hear that Young Master can communicate with the spirit world and foresee the future. This prince is very interested and is curious. Can Young Master divine using a trigram?”
“No.” Xing Yun flat out refused. His decisive answer disappointed the prince and his face sank. Xing Yun didn’t notice though and continued, “It’s not that I can’t, it’s just that I don’t like to. Divining is not a cheap and causal thing to do. If this is your wish then please find someone else.”
“Oh.” The prince sneered. “So Young Master has a price tag. If you can read the affairs of my heart, then this prince will give you prestige and wealth. Once I ascend the throne, you can hold the prestige and not even need to perform the functions of the office.”
Xing Yun still shook his head. “Not interested.”
“Young Master must not know how to appreciate favors, preferring vinegar over honey.” The prince gave the courtyard a cursory glance. “It would be an easy task for me to flatten this courtyard.”
Xing Yun was confused by the prince’s words for a moment, however he soon understood. After taking a sip of his tea he smiled and spoke. “Your Highness came all this way to learn when your ascension will happen. It is not that I am unwilling, however the lifespan of the emperor is fated by the heavens and not something that should be calculated. Also Your Highness is mistaken if you think you can crush this courtyard so easily. Although if you tried to flatten it by sitting on it... that’s a possibility.”
The crown prince rushed at Xing Yun and shouted, “You have some guts!” This shout alerted the guards outside and they immediately rushed in. One came at Xing Yun from behind and pressed a sword to his neck forcing him to remain still. The prince was so angry that he picked the teapot on the table and splashed the hot liquid at him.
Shen Li heard the ruckus and turned to look only to hear Xing Yun’s cry of pain. An intense anger welled up in her heart making her want to do someone bodily harm. Two guards stepped forward to block her path and pulled out their swords as they sneered at her. She aimed a fierce kick at one of the guards knocking him into the one behind Xing Yun. This caused the two to collapse sideways into each other. Another guard moved to take the place of the fallen guard, brandishing his sword in front. It was easy for Shen Li to reach over and grab the blade, gripping it lightly between her finger and thumb. The guard felt a cold shiver run down his spine as he watched the blade crumble like paper in her bare hand.
Once done with the sword she dropped it to the ground, and ignoring the astonished guard she flashed over to the well, scooped up a handful of water and flicked it at the crown prince. Although it was only water, the speed she used caused it fly with the sharpness of an arrow. It was so strong that it knocked the prince off balance and he had to quickly sit back down on the bench to regain his equilibrium.
“Ah! Ow!” The prince’s head was drenched causing his hair to plaster wetly to his forehead. Only a few seconds had passed from when the prince initially poured the boiled water on Xing Yun to when Shen Li soaked the prince with water. No other guards in the courtyard approached her. It was as though they were all afraid.
She walked over, picked the crown prince up by the collar and looked him directly in the eyes. “Leave and live or stay and die? Choose.” Her eyes glowed terrifyingly red with the intensity of her emotions.
“You... you have big guts evildoer!” The prince tried to sound calm but it was obvious from his quivering body and trembling voice that he was quite frightened. Seeing her eyes turn a deeper shade of red at his words he immediately shouted, “Leave! I’ll Leave!”
Shen Li dragged him by the collar to the courtyard door, opened it, and tossed him out. Those outside caught him while the guards drew their swords and pointed them at Shen Li.
After getting his bearings the prince shouted, “It seems you want to die here!” He climbed into the sedan chair and spoke to the bearers ordering them to bring him back. “As for the rest of you, stay here and destroy this place! ”
The guards promptly attacked but Shen Li easily defended. This battle went on for some time in the dark night but eventually everything settled down and the courtyard returned to its former peacefulness. Shen Li closed the courtyard door satisfied. Her satisfaction left when she saw Xing Yun standing in his wet clothes obviously shivering in the cold. Sighing she said, “Are you stupid? Normally you’re so unpredictable and haughty, how could you let them bully you so easily?”
Xing Yun smiled gently. “I’m not as powerful you seem to think I am.” He - like any other mortal being - was not immune to injury and death. There really was no way for him to avoid the situation with the tea earlier.
Shen Li’s heart felt choked at the sight of his pale lips and the red burn mark on his face. She didn’t know what to say. It was true... he was an ordinary person, so of course he would be burned by hot liquids. At the time he was restrained from behind with a sword at his neck, so moving would have been dangerous. Although Xing Yun must have known he would be injured by the water, he didn’t have the power to avoid it. Despite knowing all this, he still remained completely calm and unruffled.
Where does your confidence even come from? Shen Li wondered. Shen Li sighed and sat down on the stone bench. She sat silently for a long time lost in thought. Finally she asked, “Today... what I did... will it make more trouble for you?” Although she felt pretty refreshed after exercising and beating up the guards, now that things had calmed down she realized she may have created some problems.
“I was the one that dug the hole for myself, you just made it bigger.”
Shen Li was curious and so asked, “What did you say to him anyway?”
“Roughly speaking he asked me to be his person. I didn’t want to serve under him so I said no. We went back and forth a few times. He got angry and threatened to destroy my courtyard. I didn’t really know what to do so I just smiled and told him that maybe if he used his body he could flatten the courtyard, but otherwise it wouldn’t be possible. Apparently this really annoyed him and that’s probably when you saw him pour the water on me.” Xing Yun shook his head helplessly, “I guess it’s a big taboo to talk about a person’s body.”
It’s not taboo, you just have a smart mouth...
Xing Yun’s smile faded. “That man is cruel and arrogant, wishing his own father an early death. Leaving the country in the hands of such is person... I’m afraid the people will not have it easy.” He gazed at the stars for a long time. “The world will suffer under this new emperor.”
“I thought you didn’t like to divine the future.”
“This isn’t about divination, it’s about the fate of the nation. I can’t just stand still and not do anything.” Xing Yun got up and went to the kitchen. His voice came from far away, “I see the quality of his character. As for the future... I can make it slowly develop in the direction I want.”
What the hell?! Shen Li grumbled to herself. She couldn’t figure out if Xing Yun was really weak or really strong.
“Shen Li draw some water for me. I want to make an ointment. The mark will leave a scar if I don’t tend to it soon.”
“Ordering people around as though you’re their master! Why should I help you?” His tone of voice rubbed her the wrong way. This guy was too overbearing. This was his business. Even the affair with the crown prince, that was all him. Why should she butt in? What she needed to be concerned about was when to leave! Suddenly two coughs in quick succession came from the kitchen. Shen Li’s angry expression faded somewhat at the sound. She went to the well and drew some water with a pail, brought it over and told him to go and lie down. Then she tried to edge him away from the stove saying, “I’ll take care of it.”
Xing Yun heard, but refused to move. He watched as she pulled the medicine pot down and turned to ask him, “So how do I prepare it?”
Xing Yun smiled, “Here I’ll do it.”
Shen Li could only back up to the side and watch quietly. It was a rare moment of tranquility between them - normally their bickering was nonstop. After seeing that the medicine was coming along just fine, Shen Li opened her mouth and asked, “What would you have done if I wasn’t here today? Obviously you can’t fight. For that matter, you can’t even fake them out by pretending to know how to fight.”
“If you weren’t here I would not have been so brazen.” He continued stirring the medicine. “But, you were here.” He spoke as though her presence was a given. It surprised her. He continued, “You’re so crazy that next to you I look easy-going. You have an impressive spirit. It makes you very beautiful.”
Beautiful.... Beautiful? What man had ever complimented her like this? She’d get so vicious when she became angry that even the devil would be hapless in front of her. Who would ever dare praise her like this?! She looked at Xing Yun’s smiling face. The mark from earlier didn’t lessen the impact of his appearance at all. Her heart was definitely affected!
“...hand me a piece of cloth for the pot. It’s too hot to handle directly.” Apparently Xing Yun had been speaking for some time. Shen Li heard the words, but they made no sense in her confused state. She noticed he had stopped talking and was now looking expectantly at her and the pot. She turned away from his stare and reached for it. Before he could stop her, she had already gripped the handle and poured the entire contents into an empty bowl.
She only noticed a burning sensation spread on the palm of her hand after she placed the pot back on the stove. “OK it’s been poured.”
Xing Yun watched as she hid her hand behind her back like a child. “Honestly, you’re a girl but you still try to act like such a tough guy.” He gently pulled her wrist from behind her back and examined her hand carefully in the light. If she had been a regular mortal her hand would have been scorched, but since it was Shen Li, there was only a bit of redness and swelling. “Stop acting like a man. Make sure you put some ointment on once I’m done.”
Shen Li’s wrist felt strange in his hand. It flustered her greatly. Not knowing what to do she settled on a topic of conversation. “So yesterday I compared you to the bald donkey. Then to piss me off you pretended to eat all the bacon. After that you suffered two injuries from the crown prince. Aren’t you angry? Do you feel that I’m making you suffer and am bullying you?”
“How do you know I’m not angry?” Xing Yun crushed the left over bits of medicine with his other hand as he spoke. “There are just more urgent things to take care of right now, like clearing out scumbags by deposing a certain someone.”
Shen Li glanced at him. “You? Take care of the prince? The crown prince?”
Xing Yun smiled shallowly. “I may not be able to do it, but I can sure try. Shen Li, tomorrow accompany me outside.”
“Wait. What? Why do I have to go with you?”
“I need you as a bodyguard of course. The prince isn’t going to let this slide. He’ll definitely send assassins after us, but since what he wanted to find out was of a blasphemous nature, he’ll have to keep it from the emperor and work in secret.” It was obvious to everyone yesterday that between the two, Shen Li was the stronger adversary. Therefore the best course of action would be to get rid of Xing Yun first, then focus on Shen Li after. Whether or not they had the ability to take care of her was a whole other story. Xing Yun was able to understand this, so of course he would drag her along with him!
Shen Li read the placard sign in front of her, “Rui Palace?” She creased her brow puzzled.
Xing Yun nodded his head. “The emperor has seven sons, and although the crown prince is the first-born from the empress, he is not the oldest prince. That title belongs to Prince Rui, whose mother is the current favored imperial concubine. The strength of his family is strong with many ties within the government and the imperial palace. Currently he’s the only one with the potential to stand against the crown prince.
“You are surprisingly well-versed in the politics of the royal family.”
“I didn’t know anything before last night, but if I want to clear out a certain scumbag then I have to gather my information properly.” Xing Yun stopped talking when he heard the sound of whips approaching. Soon a carriage appeared under heavy escort. Xing Yun slowly approached and in a clear voice he said, “Foreteller Xing Yun seeks an audience with Prince Rui!”
After a moment of silence a voice spoke out in a derogatory sneer, “Fortuneteller? You are bold to dare approach. The people consider tricksters that swindle and cheat others to be despicable. This king feels no different.”
“In that case Your Highness can think of me as a tactician instead. I know of a plan that would be beneficial to Your Highness. Would Your Highness be interested?”
“Why should this lord trust you?”
“Last night the crown prince came to me in search of a plan...” Xing Yun trailed off purposefully. Then he laughed and said, “If Your Highness wishes to know more, may we speak privately inside?”
The curtain was pulled aside and a man in purple stepped out. He had a trim figure but his face had a terrible scar that ran from the top of his forehead to the corner of his mouth. Shen Li thought that the emperor must have done something grievous to elicit such a retribution upon his son from the heavens.
Prince Rui gave Xing Yun and Shen Li a once over before speaking in a husky voice. “Bring them to the inner courtyard.”
The palace was extremely large with many richly decorated pavilions and courtyards. There were numerous statues, acres of beautifully planted flowers and shimmering clear lakes throughout. Everywhere she looked screamed “Big! Beautiful! Rich!” It was nice and all, but Shen Li felt the display was deliberately ostentatious in order to cover up the atmosphere of death and repression that permeated throughout.
Back in the Demon realm, she lived at the base of the Ruins. The air was filled with thick miasma that blocked the sunlight creating a sky all year round. Naturally greenery didn’t exist as plants weren’t able to take root in such an inhospitable land. It wasn’t as beautiful as the palace but there was a sense of freedom that existed in the air. Even Xing Yun’s courtyard, although tiny in comparison, was much lovelier than this palace.
The two were led to a center pavilion to await Prince Rui. It wasn’t long before he appeared in a different outfit to meet them. After the ceremonial greetings Prince Rui and Xing Yun began to talk about court affairs. Shen Li decided to escape since their talk was boring and she needed to relieve herself. With her abilities she was able to easily evade the palace guards. She eventually came upon a pond with a beautiful lotus flower floating in the center. It was so eye catching she decided to pluck it for herself. Just as she reached over a voice rang out from behind. “What are you doing! Don’t touch my flower!”
Shen Li turned to the side intending to see who was calling out to her. At the same moment that Shen Li moved, a figure dashed forward to where she had been standing. Unfortunately without Shen Li there to act as a barrier the person bulldozed forward teetering on the edge of the pond. The short fence did nothing to to keep her back. Shen Li reached for the girl grabbing her belt and yanked hard. She succeeded in pulling her back from the edge, but unfortunately she pulled so hard that the belt tore loosening the girl’s robe and causing her pants to nearly fall. The girl quickly grabbed onto her clothes and squatted down hiding her head in her arms in shame and embarrassment.
Shen Li awkwardly looked at the torn bit of fabric in her hand. “Ah... sorry. I didn’t think your clothes would be so... fragile.”
The girl looked up and stared at Shen Li. “Are you a woman?”
Shen Li looked down at her own chest. “Isn’t it obvious?”
Without realizing it Shen Li had recovered more qi in the days since regaining her human form. As a result her strength had also increased and she hadn’t reverted to her beast form since. She was also too lazy to change clothes, so was wearing the same dirty robe from earlier. She didn’t mind since back on the battlefield her clothes would be ten times dirtier than this. Xing Yun had tried to find some better clothes for her for the meeting with Prince Rui, but unfortunately he had no luck. In the end he just gave her one of his long coats to wear over top.
The girl shook her head and in a soft voice said, “It’s obvious looking at you from the front but from behind...”
Hm. Yes, Shen Li thought, from behind I do look like a slender handsome young man don’t I? She studied the girl in front of her. She had creamy pale skin and straight eyebrows above peach blossom shaped eyes.[notes]
It was such an enchanting combination that Shen Li unconsciously reached out to touch the girl’s face. The girl in question blushed even more deeply, and while still in her crouched position, crab walked to the side to avoid Shen Li. Shen Li thought it was really amusing, so tried twice more. The girl fed up finally spoke, “Auntie... auntie... please stop playing. If you are kind, then please pass me something to use as belt. I can’t get up looking like this.”
Two family servants walked by and saw Shen Li and the girl crouched on the ground. “Thief! How dare you try to use Xiao He as a hostage!”
“Eh?-” The servants didn’t wait for Shen Li to finish speaking. One immediately ran away to call for backup. Shen Li felt a little sour in her heart. The girl looked up at Shen Li with a murderous glare as if to say, “This is all your fault!”
“Why don’t I get you out of here?”
Xiao He, who had broken out in a cold sweat the moment the servants showed up asked, “To where?”
Just then a group of guards showed up escalating Xiao He’s anxiety. She pulled the hem of her clothes around her nervously. “Ah! This is no good!”
As they were talking a husky voice rang out, “What’s the commotion?!”
Upon hearing the voice Xiao He’s face perked up, but it quickly quickly dropped in nervousness upon remembering her predicament. She bit her lip and grabbed onto the hem of Shen Li’s coat to hide behind.
Shen Li looked out and saw the crowd gathering. Among them was Prince Rui and Xing Yun. She could already guess what he was thinking from the expression on his face.
Xing Yun shook his head and sighed. How did she get into trouble already?
Prince Rui first looked at Shen Li before glancing down and noticing Xiao He who was sitting on the ground obviously hiding behind her. His tone considerably softened at the sight. “What happened?”
Xiao He refused to speak. Shen Li looked down and sighed. “Tell your guards to retreat first.”
Xiao He poked her head out from behind Shen Li and nodded emphatically at this.
Prince Rui waved his hand and the crowd quickly dispersed. Shen Li noticed Xiao He no longer had a death grip on her coat so she quickly took the opportunity to step aside. She cleared her throat about to speak when Prince Rui bent down to Xiao He. After a few whispered words his face broke out into a smile softening the scar on his face considerably. He took his outer robe off and placed it around Xiao He before picking her up. After taking a few steps he turned around. “It will be better if the young master stays here.”
The two had only spoken for a short period of time, but from his polite manner of speech it was obvious he intended to offer Xing Yun his protection.
Shen Li thought it would be fine for Xing Yun to remain. As long as he stayed in the palace she would be able to leave without any worries.
Xing Yun shook his head. “I thank Prince Rui for your kind intentions, however I only came today to present my plan. I fear my presence, should I remain, will only bring unnecessary trouble. Besides this, I also prefer to live in my own peaceful courtyard. So please allow me to say my farewell for today.”
Since Prince Rui didn’t feel that strongly about it he didn’t insist. He nodded his head and gave Xing Yun and Shen Li permission to leave the palace.
“Hang on a minute.” Shen Li walked up to Xing Yun frowning. She glanced back at the palace with a complicated expression.
“What’s the matter? Do you fancy the girl or something?”
“No, I was just wondering why a prince would raise a demon spirit.” She turned around to face Xing Yun and waved her hand. “Ah forget it, not my business. But why did you not stay at the palace though?”
“Stop talking so much. Prince Rui gave me some coins. I’ll buy a bit of meat today and we’ll have a nice dinner later.”
Shen Li opened her mouth then closed it. She did this once more before firmly closing her mouth. Just wait and see how it all blows over. If need be just stick around a little longer to keep him safe.
The room had a stifling feeling with the windows firmly shut and talisman paper taped all over the walls. The lack of air circulation also served to intensify the smell of incense in the room. Behind his desk the crown prince sat with a cold expression on his face.
“Prince Rui’s Palace... to think they’d actually go to such a place.”
A sapphire bead shot out onto the table shaking the tea cup with it’s force, rippling the water inside. The black clad assassin by the table spoke up saying, “This time I won’t leave them any room to maneuver. Where are the hired warriors and spell-casters?”
“Your Highness, they have returned and are outside waiting your command.”
The crown prince nodded in satisfaction. “Good. We’ll see what abilities that evil enchantress has.”
Shen Li watched the grape leaves flutter in the wind and idly wondered if they were edible. The things Xing Yun made were always delicious so the fruits of the trees he tended must also be wonderful and sweet. She didn’t think she would be around long enough to harvest the grapes though, thus her thoughts about the leaves.
The threat of the crown prince would be nullified if Xing Yun stayed at the palace, however the threat of those from the Demon realm... that was not something a mortal could contend with. No matter Xing Yun’s condition she had to leave soon, at most she could stay for three more days, any longer than that would just complicate things.
“Sha sha.” Shen Li looked over toward the sound and saw Xing Yun moving a rock. He was apparently laboring very hard judging from the sweat dripping off his forehead. The combination of his serious expression and the somewhat muffled words from his lips gave him an air of seriousness that was unusual for him. She was used to his default idiotic smiling expression. Seeing him like this made her wish the marriage contract didn’t exist. Then she wouldn’t have to leave and feel so anxious. She could... she could...
When Shen Li realized her train of thoughts she was quite stunned. What could she do exactly? Her heart felt strange and conflicted with these unfamiliar desires.
“Shen Li.” His call from the front yard interrupted her thoughts. She walked over to find several stones arranged on the ground and Xing Yun standing in front of a large water barrel that stood up to his waist in height. “Help me lift this up.”
Shen Li grinned. She walked over and easily lifted the barrel with one hand and asked, “Where do you want it?”
“Over there in the corner.”
Xing Yun watched as Shen Li moved the barrel over. “OK I’ve rearranged the array so its strength is considerably increased, especially at night. The battle array is very very powerful. Remember to not go out the front yard, and if you want to leave make sure you leave with me.”
Shen Li knew that Xing Yun was talented when it came to arrays and building them in alignment with the sun and moon, but she had strong doubts about his battle array formation abilities. Fierce eh? Could they really rival those in the Demon realm? Shen Li didn’t really think so. She listened to what he had to say but didn’t really take it seriously.
“How come you wanted to change the pattern of the array?”
“In case of attacks. This way you and I can sleep soundly.”
In fact that very night proved the sagacity of his words. It wasn’t long after the lights were extinguished that chanting reverberated in the small courtyard. Xing Yun sighed and burrowed deeper under his quilt trying to cover his ears. “Ugh. I overestimated the crown prince. Seriously what a poor move on his part.” Suddenly a distinct sharp sound disrupted the chanting. Xing Yun immediately got up and grabbed his robe putting it on as he rushed out to the hall.
Normally he’d find Shen Li sleeping on the bench, using it as a makeshift bed. Despite no longer being a chicken she still kept to the habit of sleeping outside, only now instead of being on the floor she slept on the bench. Whenever he wanted a drink in the night he’d get up and find her there. She’d awaken, glance at him, then go back to sleep. It really reassured him and put his heart at ease.
So his heart clenched a little when he didn’t see her there now. He quickly turned to look in the courtyard. There he saw five people sprawled unconscious on the ground - three men dressed in black and two spell-casters. They looked pale and breathless. Shen Li stood above them like some crazy magnificent warrior, completely untouchable. It didn’t look like they were able to lay a hand on her.
Just as Xing Yun sighed in relief, Shen Li closed her eyes and a trail of red tears flowed down her cheeks. She stood with her hands tightly fisted at her sides, her lips pressed firmly together in a grim line.
Although the array he made was a battle array, it wasn’t designed to physically harm people. What it would do instead was attack the psyche and bring their fears forward, ultimately crushing their will to fight. However if a person were to struggle and resist then the strength of the array would intensify eventually breaking that person’s mind and shatter their sanity. He didn’t expect Shen Li to resist so hard. If he kept watching... Following his impulse he stepped forward into the array just in time to see her unclench her fist and fall down. Closing his eyes he adjusted his breathing, moving forward one step at a time slowly and surely.
When he opened his eyes again the world around him felt like a dream. He was witnessing her illusion. This Shen Li stood in front of him with her fists at her sides and blood marks on her face.
She was bound and unable to move. All she could do was watch as her brave and fierce soldiers one by one disappeared into the crimson lava flows, their hands outstretched to her pleading for help. From this distance she could see the Demon Emperor’s castle burning, crumbling, turning to dust. She wondered about the welfare of her lord and hoped he was safe. It was as though she conjured him by thinking about him for from behind she felt a strong presence. She turned her head to find him there dressed in a black robe. He was the one binding her wrists. In a cold voice he said, “This place should not exist. Nor should you...”
Shen Li’s stomach dropped at the words. She opened her mouth to speak but before she could the other party bit her neck and tore away her skin with his teeth, eating her alive.
“Shen Li!” A shrill voice called out her name. It sounded like it was coming from a great distance away. “Wake up!” Who was calling her? She felt pain in her eyes as they were forced open. In front of her was a familiar face. The person spoke, “It’s just an illusion. It’s not real.” The chaotic blood filled scene and the sense of being bound gradually faded replaced by the small courtyard. Xing Yun pressed his fingers against her eyelids keeping them open. “Hey! Wake up soon OK?!” He blew a breath into her open eyes.
Shen Li’s eyes felt really dry. She wanted to close them and with great difficulty was finally able to do so. Xing Yun saw she was still out of it so he pried her eyes open again. He took a deep breath intending to blow into them again, harder this time, when Shen Li spoke up. “Stop. No more. You’re gonna blind me.” She rubbed her eyes with her hands.
Xing Yun laughed. “Didn’t it help to blow your nightmares away?” Grabbing her hand he said, “Let’s get out of this array first.”
Shen Li followed behind him. Looking down she was surprised to find bloodstains on the back of her hand. She stumbled. Was the array really that powerful? Looking up at Xing Yun’s back she asked, “Are you not affected by the array because you made it and it recognized you?”
“No it’s just a battle array. How could it recognize people?” His voice was faint as he continued speaking. “It’s an array that touches people’s fears. If I have no fears how can it harm me?”
Nothing to fear? It’s not so much that you have no fear, you’re just... too indifferent. Shen Li looked down at their clasped hands. Oddly enough despite this you somehow have the ability to put others at ease. Hm.
Xing Yun didn’t bring up the vision he saw in the array once they made it back into the hall.
“What should we do with them?” Shen Li pointed to those lying in the array.
“Wait till dawn, then drag them out.”
“What about those chanting outside right now?”
The chanting stopped as he was thinking what to do. A loud voice from outside yelled. “Useless trash!” It was a young and cold sounding voice. “Just burn the whole place down!” Immediately a rain of flaming arrows shot into the courtyard setting everything in contact aflame.
Shen Li frowned. “They would do this while their people are still in here?!”
Xing Yun didn’t answer. He was too busy looking at the backyard and the damage already done by the flames. Every object in the courtyard was a part of the array, so damage to one part would affect the whole. The fierce atmosphere around the house began to fade as damage around the yard compounded, in fact he could already see the grapevine trellis sagging. The grim situation didn’t alarm Xing Yun, in fact he was smiling.
The courtyards in the cul-de-sac were all connected to each other. Looking at the flames he knew they would quickly spread to his neighbors if not extinguished soon. It was beyond his expectations that the crown prince would endanger so many lives in order to get to him. It was also clear the disregard the royal family had for the lives of the common people. “All these years I’ve been considerate of the people and their wishes. But it would appear I didn’t plan well enough and now I’ve brought them harm.”
Shen Li glanced over at him. “You feel guilty?” The smile he had on clearly didn’t reach his eyes, it was just a curve of the lips with no soul behind it. She wiped at her face to clear away the bloodstains on her cheeks. She spoke with a heavy heart as she walked over. “I can help you one last time before leaving. I strongly recommend you go to Rui Palace tomorrow. This courtyard... I don’t think it can be saved.”
This was the first time she spoke about leaving. Xing Yun had a blank look on his face as he watched her walk to the gate. She waved her hand and a bright silvery light appeared. It started small but continued to condense until a flash erupted and a long incredibly cold looking spear appeared. It had a lustrous body with red tassels that burned like flames at each end, emitting a murderous aura.
Shen Li pushed off from her feet and jumped into the air landing on the roof. She used the spear to draw four arcs in the air creating a seal. After whispering into it the walls collapsed and Xing Yun’s courtyard was pulled away from the surrounding area by about two feet. Without the wind blowing the chances of the nearby residences catching fire would drop significantly.
As soon as she finished she dropped down into the courtyard. Without the walls acting as a barrier she was able to clearly see her opponents outside. The dozen guards beyond the courtyard held their bows in trembling hands, taking a few steps back upon seeing her. The only one unaffected was a young man who looked at her with cold eyes.
Shen Li unceremoniously kicked the five unconscious people in the array out. “This king does not want to see bloodshed today. All of you retreat.”
The young man was about to speak when the guard next to him moved forward, “Be careful Lord Fu Sheng, this person...”
The crown prince was uneasy but his trusted aid, Fu Sheng, sneered at Shen Li. “The emperor only has seven sons. I know all the kings. How is it that you claim to be a king as well?”
Shen Li’s smile was even colder than his. “I am a demon king!” She waved her silver spear as though it was a knife and she was using it to cut through air. Everyone below felt a cool breeze as their belts fell down in unison. A slight panic ensued as everyone bent over to grab their pants. The only one not affected was the crown prince. His belt was different from the others, a strong and reinforced type. Shen Li was just enjoying herself and smiling when a pair of warm hands covered her eyes.
Xing Yun said, “Don’t look. It’s inappropriate.”
Shen Li was so surprised she forgot to give him an attitude. Despite the many things she’d done, he insisted on treating her like a regular person, like a woman whose eyes were innocent.
The crown prince looked at Shen Li thoughtfully no longer saying a word, instead he turned and walked away leaving the burning house behind. Shen Li retracted her spear but did not pry Xing Yun’s hands away, she only said, “Come on I’ll bring you to Rui Palace.” After that she would leave.
“Yeah OK,” Xing Yun answered loudly, letting go of Shen Li as he did so. Glancing around he said, “But let’s wait for bit.”
Shen Li looked at Xing Yun and saw the fire reflected in his eyes. Suddenly she remembered what he said yesterday at Rui Palace about wanting to stay in his little courtyard because it was his home. Now he had to watch as it all burned down. She could only imagine the sense of loss he felt at the moment.
Were it not for the fact she needed to conserve her energy to evade her pursuers she would have settled the score with the crown prince once and for all. But recklessly using her energy in the situation would only complicate things and allow those chasing her to pinpoint her location. Her heart felt stifled as she looked at the small courtyard turning gray in places as the ashes settled down. She could not stay any longer.
“I don’t know how long the fire will burn for. I wonder if the fish in the pond will still be edible. It’s a shame after all the time I spent raising them.” Xing Yun sighed thinking about his lost fish.
“You-- this is what you’re thinking about?”
“Yeah. What else would I be thinking about?”
Shen Li glared at Xing Yun before taking a deep breath and grabbing him roughly by the collar. In a silvery flash they reappeared in a quiet garden. Xing Yun looked up at the moon and sighed. “Wow... a transporting spell sure is convenient. But why did you send us to this deserted garden?”
“You think I wanted to? I don’t know the exact location of Prince Rui’s residence inside the palace.”
“Xing Yun laughed. “Well we’re gonna have to find it then.” He barely took two steps forward before Shen Li yanked at his wrist.
“Don’t move. Can’t you sense how strange it is here?”
“Strange? What strange?” Xing Yun couldn’t detect anything odd. The sounds and sights were all ordinary night time sounds found in any garden - the insects were chirping, the flowers were swaying in the breeze, the leaves were rustling. Nope. Nothing strange here.
Shen Li waved her hand and grabbed at something in the air. “I didn’t see it before during the day, but this Prince Rui, to raise so many unformed demon spirits...” She opened her palm to show some condensed light as tiny as fireflies.
Xing Yun raised his eyebrows at it. He took advantage of Shen Li’s distraction to pull his wrist free. Before she could stop him he had already walked several steps away from her. “There’s no maliciousness in the air. Even though I can’t see them I can feel them.” He opened his arms as if to demonstrate.
Xing Yun couldn’t know that there were hundreds of shimmering spheres like tiny soap bubbles in the air. The full moon’s light reflecting on them only served to further the ethereal effect. Nor did he know that in the moment he opened his arms wide they gathered and sparkled all around him, creating a dazzling effect as though he was a god embracing the world. The vision was so blinding Shen Li had to blink a few times to readjust her vision and come back to her senses.
This was the same man who had pulled her from her nightmare, the one who held an umbrella and shielded her from the rain, the one she saw under the grape trellis bathing in the sun. Despite being indisputably weak, he somehow gave off an air of reliability.
“Let’s go.” Xing Yun extended his hand to Shen Li. “You can hold onto me if you’re afraid.”
He really did treat her like some weak woman... Shen Li grabbed his hand and yanked him up forcing him into her arms.
He looked up and asked, “What’s up?”
“Do you know who’s standing in front of you?”
After a long pause Xing Yun replied, “M.. yes King Shen I apologize for underestimating you.”
“You. Pay attention to what I’m about to say. I like you.” Shen Li stared intently at him as she spoke next. “Seems I’ve taken a fancy to you.”
Xing Yun remained silent after that declaration letting the buzz of the insects in the garden fill the space between them. Then he grinned, “Oh, OK. Let’s go.”
Eh... was he toying with her? What was up with that perfunctory reply? And that grin? What the hell?! Even ridicule would have been a better reply than this ambiguous one. Shen Li’s hand trembled for a moment. Fortunately for Xing Yun, before she could unleash her anger she detected a faint whiff of something in the air that distracted her and put her on alert. Although light, she could tell there was magic in the air. She released him and turned toward the sky, but the tiny spirit demons flying in air blocked her vision. The only thing she could tell was the direction of the magic - somewhere from the southeast direction. The scent disappeared before she could analyze it further. Shen Li furrowed her brow in thought. Although it was a magical scent it was not the same as those of the demon troops. Something was off...
Suddenly the air changed dramatically. Shen Li pulled Xing Yun behind her scattering the tiny demons. The demons stopped clustering together and instead spread apart, their bodies buzzing, slowly turning a reddish hue. “What’s the matter?” Even Xing Yun could feel the sudden hostility vibrating in the air.
“I don’t know, but it’s not good. Let’s find Prince Rui first.” She knew that if something happened to Prince Rui then Xing Yun would be out of luck with nowhere safe to go. She barely finished speaking when a scream rent through the air. It was a terrifying scream filled with unrestrained anger and resentment. The flying demons seemed to be stimulated by this and began to twitch and buzz even more fiercely making sounds that resembled a wailing baby. It was sharp and penetrated to the bone.
“Let’s get out of here.” Xing Yun also heard the wail.
Shen Li brought some qi up into her hand and used it to forcefully clear a path. She grabbed Xing Yun and quickly walked into the clearing. As they continued farther into the palace they heard more terrifying sounds. Screams of, “Monster!” and, “Help!” rang out. Once they passed the garden walls they could see that the whole palace was filled with bloody spirits.
Shen Li kept Xing Yun behind her as they walked. Some of the lesser spirits had morphed into malformed small children, a few had even taken the form of disfigured newborn babes. They squatted and crawled on the ground latching onto anything they could get their chubby deformed hands on. They cried piteously. Their acidic tears flowed unchecked, eroding everything around. Their poisonous fumes filled the air. The guards and maids were in a panic, clearly in pain as their skin came in contact with the demonic fluids. It reminded Shen Li of the hell in her nightmare from earlier.
Shen Li muttered to herself, “We’ll have to find the lord of the demons here and defeat it if we want to clear this. Let’s find Prince Rui as soon as possible.”
The odds of finding a sentient fully formed demon spirit amongst all the nascent souls was one in a hundred million. These were obviously very poor odds, but then the alternative wasn’t that great either. Even if a really talented person painstakingly cultivated a spirit and managed to help it develop a physical form, there was no guarantee it could reach the next evolutionary step and form a soul. Mostly likely it would turn into a spirit that lacked any spiritual essence, an empty vessel.
The only demon that could take physical form in Rui Palace was Xiao He. Something big had to have happened for her to manifest such a strong sense of resentment against her lord and betray him.
“Shen Li.” Xing Yun pointed to the distance.
Shen Li turned to look in the direction he was pointing. “That’s Prince Rui’s residence.” There was a swarm of bloody malformed baby demons crawling all over it completely obscuring the building from view. All she could see was a pulsating blob of red as the babies moved around the exterior like worms underneath the skin. It made her flesh crawl just looking at it. “Don’t stray more than three steps away from me,” she told Xing Yun as she watched several babies crawl toward them. She originally planned to leave him here, but with so much danger all around she couldn’t risk it.
Honestly, Xing Yun didn’t want to be left behind either. He watched as several babies tried to make their way toward them. “How could I? Your grip is so fierce.” His vision turned dark for a moment as they transitioned from one location to another. Once they landed he could see they were in middle of a traditionally styled room, only this one had blood oozing over all the surface areas. A drop landed on his hand creating a burning sensation. Looking down he saw the blood quickly sizzle away at his flesh eating a hole in his hand. Because he didn’t make a sound Shen Li wasn’t aware he was injured.
Shen Li led them to a bookshelf, the kind that screamed “I’m a secret door!” and pushed at it. Sure enough it opened to reveal a hidden passageway. It was dark so she formed a flame in her hand to light the way. They walked inside with Shen Li in the front taking each step carefully.
The scream was like an arrow in Shen Li’s heart. If anything happened to Prince Rui... They finally reached the end of the passageway. The only thing separating them from the room proper was a paper screen. Shen Li kicked it out of the way revealing a room lit with candles.
Floating in the air, with her hair scattered about like an incensed demon filled with static, was Xiao He. “Zhu Chengjin![notes] I’m going to kill you then kill her. You can just both die together!” In front of her was a bloodied Prince Rui. He was holding a sword facing her for all the world looking like he intended to protect the bed with his life. Aside from Prince Rui there was only one other occupant on the bed. Like a certain fairy tale, a woman lay fully dressed, pale and beautiful, appearing as though she had been slumbering for years.
Shen Li and Xing Yun's arrival surprised Xiao He. She turned to them with bloodshot eyes. “Dare to get in my way? You’re dead!” Qi rushed out of her mouth cutting with deadly intentions toward Shen Li and Xing Yun.
Shen Li raised her hand and the force of the qi halted as though hitting an invisible wall. Although they were safe, the collision created a thick miasma in front of her. “I liked you better as the blushing shy maiden. Why don’t you change back? If you don’t I’ll have to kill you.” It didn’t look like Xiao He was going to back down so she raised her hand and coalesced her spear intending to launch it in a killing strike. A cry interrupted her before she could.
“No! Don’t hurt her!” Prince Rui interjected. Although his voice was extremely hoarse, his meaning was clear.
Shen Li began to wonder if he was Xiao He’s lover, why else would he be so reluctant to hurt her given the situation at hand.
“Don’t hurt me?” Xiao He cried out. “Zhu Chenglin... Zhu Chenglin! Are you being cruel or are you being merciful?” Her body trembled even more violently. “Fine! You can all just die together!”
The ground underneath shook and a loud crash came from outside. Shen Li guessed that the demon baby spirits must have overwhelmed the residence. The tremors caused rubble to dislodge and block their only exit out. This was good because it meant they would be safe from the babies, but it also meant they were effectively trapped inside. Eventually they would run out of oxygen and suffocate so they needed to get out.
“Since you want to guard her so much, you can just guard her forever then!” Xiao He’s figure began to fade as she said, “I’ll leave and destroy your entire palace.”
Shen Li knew that the lesser demon spirits outside were affected by Xiao He’s mood fluctuations. If she killed her then the rest of the palace would return to normal. Shen Li reached out to grab Xiao He but forgot that Xing Yun was still holding onto her hand. The extra weight hindered her and Xiao He disappeared before she could reach her. It felt like he was pulling her arm back on purpose. Shen Li turned to look at Xing Yun in anger.
Xing Yun smiled innocently. “You said to hold onto you tightly.”
She glared at him with fire in her eyes. She looked at Prince Rui’s bleak expression and Xing Yun’s stupid smiling one. “I’ll send you two out first. Come back later for the woman.”
“No.” The two men both spoke in unison. The surprised Prince Rui looked over at Xing Yun.
“There’s a soul anchoring array here. She’ll definitely die if you take her out.”
Hearing this made Shen Li really angry. She turned to Prince Rui and demanded, “Speak! What are you really up to here?”
Prince Rui struggled to sit upright. Despite her disrespectful tone he didn’t reprimand her, instead he stared at the woman on the bed. “This is my wife Princess Rui. Three years ago there was an assassination attempt on my life. I would have died had my wife not shielded me with her body. In the end she used her last remaining strength to lead the assassins away. As a result I survived with just this scar on my face. I found her at the end of a ravine when I went back to search for her. I brought her back here waiting for her to wake up.”
“If all you did was wait then why are there demon spirits in your residence. Explain Xiao He’s existence and her reason for turning on you.”
Prince Rui was silent for several seconds before speaking. “Everyone said she was dead when I brought her back, that I just needed to grieve properly, but... Ye Shi... a woman like her... can she really die so easily? I searched and searched for a way to wake her up...”
His voice trailed off but Shen Li didn’t need him to continue. She was very clear on the method he found because it explained Xiao He’s existence. That method was to feed the soul of an evolved demon spirit into the one to be revived. In essence it was exchanging one life for another. In the meantime the body needed to be kept in stasis with a formation like the one here. This explained why Ye Shi, his princess, couldn’t be moved.
Shen Li couldn’t keep the derision out of her voice when she spoke. “Not only were you unable to protect your wife, you let her die for you. Instead of accepting her death you chose to oppose the heavens and tie her soul to this array for the last three years for your own selfishness? Then you raised a demon spirit with the intentions of sacrificing it to wake her back up? You’re a real piece of work you shit bag.”
Silence filled the room before Prince Rui asked defiantly, “So, what about it? I’ll do whatever it takes to wake her up.”
Shen Li narrowed her eyes at him. If it weren’t for the fact that she needed him to keep Xing Yun safe she would have left right then and there. She sighed. “So how did Xiao He turn out like this?”
Prince Rui shook his head. “I come here every night to sit with my wife. Tonight out of nowhere Xiao He appeared in front of me. I don’t know where she got her information from or even how much she knows, but whatever it was, it made her really angry.”
Of course she would be angry! “She gave her heart to you, but you gave your heart to another. Not only that, you want to sacrifice her for that other person.” Shen Li didn’t expect to have to explain this but apparently she did. “Of course she’d have issues with it. There’d be something wrong with her head if she didn’t resent it. Not to mention...” Did Xiao He even have a chance? It was obvious the only person in his heart was his Princess.
The ground trembled reminding everyone of the predicament they were in. Shen Li thought about what to do then said to Prince Rui, “I don’t care how you do it but the situation today needs to be resolved. If you can’t do it then I’ll do it my way. I’m going to find Xiao He. If she refuses to cooperate then I’m going to kill her. Just know this: If Xiao He dies and your Princess suffers for it, it is I, Shen Li, who is responsible. No one else.”
She was aware Xing Yun had turned his head to look at her when she said this so she turned her gaze away avoiding his eyes. “The passageway is blocked so the baby demons won’t be able to come in, however the air supply is limited. You,” Shen Li said as she nodded to Xing Yun, “come out with me and take care of the baby demons. Take those alive out of the palace. Once the place empties out we can search for Xiao He.”
Xing Yun nodded in agreement. Shen Li wasn’t sure if he would agree so when he nodded his head she was relieved. With that settled she grabbed his hand and teleported them to the front of the residence. The sky was already lightening up with the faint beginnings of dawn. Although there were only wan strips of pale blue in the sky, it still had a strong effect on the baby demons. They became lethargic and less dangerous. The damage had already been done to the palace though - ruined bodies littered the ground with eroded bones and skin peeking through acidified clothing, while nearly all the pavilions were damaged with blood and fluids dripping everywhere. It was a gruesome and disgusting sight to behold.
Shen Li’s scalp tingled despite being used to seeing dead bodies. She brought out her spear and used some qi to sweep a path for them. She said to Xing Yun, “Use the rising power of the sun to suppress the rest of the demons. After that help those that are still alive get out of the palace.”
“You think making an array is a simple matter? I don’t know the layout of the palace. I can’t help.”
Shen Li turned on him. Clearly aggravated she said, “Why didn’t you say that earlier? If I knew you couldn’t help I would have left you in the underground room.”
Xing Yun coughed twice before saying, “I didn’t hear everything you said earlier. I just agreed out of habit.”
Didn’t hear my ass! If this was a battlefield and he was under her command he would have been dragged and whipped for being useless and a hindrance. What a stupid soldier!
Originally she’d planned on leaving Xing Yun in the palace, but unexpected things kept happening and the whole ordeal kept dragging on. She ended up staying much longer than she should have. The longer she stayed, the higher the odds of being discovered by those sent to track her. The damage from such a battle would not be minor! At that moment it was as though her thoughts summoned them for she smelled a faint magical scent on the wind. That it was a demonic scent made her stomach drop. She looked up in the direction it was coming from and finally recognized it.
“Mo Fang!” It was one of her subordinates. A mass of black fog descended and landed in front of her, gradually the from of Mo Fang emerged. He knelt down on one knee and respectfully saluted her.
Shen Li was grateful to him ever since he helped her escape. It wasn’t his fault that her escape caused her to go through the inhumane ordeal of being plucked and nearly stewed. She knew his loyalty was unquestionable. She patted him on the shoulder and told him to rise. However Mo Fang refused to get up and instead prostrated even further on the ground. “This subordinate wounded Your Highness several days ago. This subordinate deserves the death penalty!”
Seriously? Shen Li didn’t have time for this! “Get up you! You know that what this king finds most annoying are those that continually kneel and kowtow.”
Xing Yun had taken a few steps back the moment Mo Fang arrived and had been quietly watching the man. Shen Li noticed how alert he was so told him, “There’s no danger. He is my subordinate.”
Something big must have happened for Mo Fang to come find her and reveal himself in front of Xing Yun. It was dangerous for mortals to know about the Immortal realms. Xing Yun already had abilities and knowledge he shouldn’t have. More knowledge would only be a burden to him. The heavens might even strike him down with lightning. The less he knew the better.
Shen Li looked around and after seeing that the baby demons were no longer an immediate threat told Xing Yun to give her a moment with her subordinate. She handed him her spear just in case. “Here take this. The spear has a strong demonic aura so the baby demons shouldn’t dare approach you.”
Before Xing Yun could say anything she had already shoved the spear into his arms. He didn’t think he needed it since the baby demons were already immobilized by the sunlight.
Mo Fang glared at him with a look that seemed to say “How dare you hold the king’s spear! You bastard!”
This look made Xing Yun change his mind and he gripped the spear to his chest. He walked away leisurely several paces before turning around and giving Mo Fang a self satisfied smirk over his shoulder. Ha! Suck it!
Mo Fang gripped his hands into a tight fist and stood up. As he did so Shen Li slapped him on his arm. “Good job! If it weren’t for you injuring me back then I would have surely been caught!” Since Mo Fang was taller than her she had to tilt her head up a little to look at him. She could clearly see the scar on his neck from the cut she dealt with her spear. It was inevitable that a scar would form, it was a wound from her silver spear after all. Although Mo Fang came from a clan of magic practitioners with strong healing abilities, he still couldn’t completely heal the wound.
Shen Li sighed. “After the marriage contract is abolished I will return and make sure I compensate you appropriately.”
Mo Fang immediately cried out, “I wouldn’t dare!” Then he stopped wasting time and went straight to the point. “Yes! Last night Your Highness used magic to cast several seals. Those above noticed. Even as we speak an army is on its way to apprehend Your Highness. Your Highness! Please leave! I’m afraid the longer Your Highness lingers here the more difficult it will be to escape.”
Shen Li understood this as well as he did but the current situation was beyond her control. If she left now and Prince Rui died then there would be no one to stand against the crown prince, which meant Xing Yun would have no backer for protection. She couldn’t leave...
“I can’t.” She looked around at the baby demons and the devastation they had wrought. “There’re still some things I have to do here.”
Seeing Shen Li struggle made Mo Fang wrinkle his brow involuntarily. He didn’t want to push her but this matter could not be delayed! He decided to prioritize the latter. Saluting with his fists in front of him and his head bowed he said, “My Lord the matter of leaving can no longer be delayed! If Your Highness is caught, another escape will not be possible. The Heavenly realm has already prepared for the marriage ceremony, so...”
You didn’t have to tell her twice. Shen Li understood this matter better than anyone else. It was just that she really couldn’t leave! She looked to Xing Yun and watched as he used her spear to poke at a baby demon’s bottom. He reacted with surprise when it dissipated before it even had a chance to cry out. He sighed and turned the tip of the spear towards his face studying it closely.
Shen Li turned to Mo Fang. With a complicated expression on her face she rubbed the space between her brow. Sighing she said, “I know, but I can’t leave right now.”
“My Lord?” Mo Fang was really confused. He didn’t think the Azure Sky King had the word “can’t” in her vocabulary. It was either “do” or “don’t.” Where did “can’t” even come from? His brain was simply unable to compute what she said. He couldn’t help but continue to stare at her with a blank expression.
“After spending time here in the mortal world... I have fallen for someone.” She looked at Xing Yun as she spoke.
Mo Fang turned to follow her gaze. What he saw was a distracted looking man, disorderly attired, pale faced, weak looking, and very importantly - mortal. This vision only made him more confused. Huh? This guy?! He’s so... meh. I don’t get it.
The two watched as Xing Yun lost his grip and dropped the spear. It rolled on the ground and hit several baby demons, immediately causing them to dissipate on contact while a few others dissipated simply by proximity. Xing Yun chased after the spear but the constant coughing that wracked his body would make him stumble and accidentally kick the spear making it roll away again. It took him three tries before he finally grasped it.
Mo Fang couldn’t help but wonder. This person captured the king’s heart?
Shen Li sighed watching him. “Yes, he is the one. I would never have expected either...” She shook her head. Looking up she saw Mo Fang’s frown. “He is different from us. His body is worn out and will not be able to withstand too many ordeals. As things stand, it is not safe for him here. I must put things in order for him first before leaving. Although I have taken a fancy to him, I know that as a demon I walk a different path than him. A mortal’s life is short and their memories do not carry forth from one life to the next.” Shen Li’s voice was gentle but firm. “I won’t stay with him, but I will give him a safe life.”
Mo Fang silently looked down averting his gaze. After hearing the resolution in her voice he knew she had made her decision. Once she set her mind there would be no swaying her so he said, “This subordinate will share in Your Highness’s worries, and will do as commanded.”
“Half a day.” Shen Li walked to Xing Yun. “Stall them for half a day. I will finish this matter then.”
“As Your Highness commands. I will try my utmost to do so.”
With the decision made Mo Fang didn’t linger. He disappeared like the wind, intent on his mission.
Shen Li took the spear from Xing Yun’s hand. When she did so he told her, “Your spear is really powerful.”
“That you could hold onto it for so long is impressive. You are also quite powerful.” Her spear was obviously no ordinary spear. It had taken countless lives with an aura that was enough to intimidate and instill fear in most creatures. Just seeing it would make people’s emotions fluctuate. Xing Yun appeared utterly unaffected by it though, so in a sense he was a martial master.
Shen Li changed the topic. Looking around in a circle she whispered, “Xiao He should not have gone far. Where could she be hiding?”
“Well just ask yourself, where would a child who is beaten and wounded go?” Xing Yun smiled. “Where else but back home?”
“The lake!” Shen Li exclaimed. Xiao He’s true form was a lotus. Since she wasn’t out causing damage she had to be hiding there. Shen Li was very happy to have the mystery solved. She stepped forward about to head over when she realized something. She turned to Xing Yun and suspiciously asked, “You wouldn’t have told me if I hadn’t asked would you?”
“How could that be?” Xing Yun smiled slightly. “You’re thinking too much of it. I just thought with your intelligence you would have already figured it out...”
Shen Li gave him a look but decided not to say anything. She had a strange feeling. Whether intentionally or not, it felt like Xing Yun was hindering her progress and forcing her to stay longer than necessary.
She walked towards the lake with the lotus earlier. The unopened lotus tonight was no longer pink like yesterday. From stem to bloom, everything was dyed a deep red as if blood was flowing into it.
She picked up a nearby stone and flicked it into the lake. “Come out.” There was no response. “If that’s the case then don’t blame me for my actions.” With a murderous glint in her eyes she formed the silver spear in her hand. Just as she finished forming it Xing Yun grabbed her hand. She frowned and asked, “What are you doing?”
Xing Yun whispered as he let go, “I didn’t expect you’d go directly to taking her life. If you look at it, she’s just an innocent. She’s just a child. If you kill her now, I’m afraid that when you look back on this you’ll regret it.”
“Oh? You suddenly have the heart of a Bodhisattva?” She stared at him. “I’m going to end this now. If she doesn’t cooperate I will take the most direct approach.” She pushed past Xing Yun. Her voice was cold as she spoke, “I’m not that kind-hearted. For the sake of my objective I will put my conscience to the side. Now get out of the way.”
When facing the enemy Shen Li was never kind or merciful. She was always decisive even if it meant being cruel or being indifferent. These were traits a leader had to have. Xing Yun stopped trying to block her. In his mind he was thinking: This girl sure has a lot of different sides to her. Interesting.
The surface of the water rippled as a shrill scream came out of the lotus flower. Xiao He slowly emerged, slowly taking human form. If it weren’t for the resentment dying her face red she would have looked like a beautiful fairy transforming. “Why?! Why would you help him?!” She raged at Shen Li her eyes bloodshot and senseless. Once fully transformed she rushed at Shen Li.
Great, saves me time, thought Shen Li. She grabbed Xiao He by the wrist and in one smooth motion pushed her out and twisted her arm behind her back. She dismissed the spear in her other hand and forced Xiao He’s neck down onto the fence, completely immobilizing her.
Xing Yun watched fascinated by her speed. Then something completely unexpected happened. He watched as Shen Li smacked Xiao He’s bottom fiercely with her hand. Is Xiao He getting spanked?
“Admit your wrongs!” Shen Li yelled.
“Me?! Wrong?! The one in the wrong is Zhu Chengjin!”
Shen Li wasn’t in the mood to argue. “Patah! Patah!” The sounds of fierce bottom smacking repeatedly echoed in the courtyard. Xiao He screamed as she struggled wildly to escape. She was in so much pain her body kept twitching involuntarily, but Shen Li showed no mercy.
“Zhu Chengjin betrayed me! I will kill him and not leave him a burial place. I’ll destroy his entire palace!”
“Admit your wrongs!”
“Why are the heavens being so heartless?!”
“Admit your wrongs!”
“I’m not wrong!” Although Xiao He was still adamant, it seemed she had at least returned to her senses and calmed down.
“Admit your wrongs!”
Finally with a whimper, “I admit. I admit. Please stop!” Xiao He finally succumbed.
“How are you wrong?” Shen Li halted her hand in midair. She didn’t pull any punches when she went at it so her palm was red and smarted quite a bit.
Xiao He’s clothing returned to their previous colors and the lotus flower in the lake also regained its pink tone. All the baby demons throughout the palace reverted back to their spirit form. They turned invisible and floated harmlessly in the air.
“I hurt others! I was wrong! I won’t do it anymore!” Xiao He slumped to the ground once Shen Li released her. She didn’t stay down for long though, quickly running back to the lake in tears.
Xing Yun was once again really surprised. “Wow. So spanking also work - a simple yet effective method.”
“Weren’t you the one that reminded me she was just a child?” Shen Li looked at the weeping Xiao He in the lake. “She has the temperament of a child, wanting revenge when wronged. But in the end she didn’t really intend to kill Prince Rui, just hurt him a little. Like in the room, she could have killed him at anytime, but all she did was block the exit.”
Shen Li sighed. “She ran back home the moment she got injured. If it weren’t for all the unformed demon spirits in the yard, she probably would have just hid in her lake and not caused any trouble. Of course a spanking would work on a child like that. Don’t get me wrong, if she didn’t come out I would have destroyed her, completely and utterly without any mercy.”
Xing Yun laughed. “Very militarily minded of you.”
Shen Li let Xiao He cry for awhile. Then she walked to her and patted her on the shoulder. “I understand where you’re coming from, but this is the end of the matter. Crying more isn’t going to do anything. You should leave here and go somewhere else. I’ll go back to Prince Rui and tell him I killed you. There won’t be anything he can do about it.”
Xiao He was still sniffling but she stopped crying. She said, “I don’t... I still don’t believe it,” and fell to the ground as though all her strength evaporated. “He was so good to me. But he only saw me as a cure for her, as hope for her. In the end I wasn’t an alternative... just a temporary substitute to groom into medicine for her.”
Not knowing how to comfort the girl Shen Li could only remain silent and watch. Xing Yun was the one to speak up. “Well yeah, you do smell like a medicinal herb. There’s nothing wrong with stewing you.”
Shen Li slapped him for speaking.
Undeterred he continued with, “You’re still alive, not to mention you’re clever, so instead of being turned into medicine for someone else, why not leave?”
After thinking a bit Xiao He finally replied. “From the moment I gained cognizance of the world to now, he has always been the most important person to me. If I leave I won’t be able to see him again. Even though I’m nothing to him, I still want to see him.” Her eyes started tearing up from memories of the past. “I worked so hard to become a person, to speak, to learn the rules, so I could please him... only him... not so I’d be killed by him. Sob!”
Shen Li sighed and looked down at her. “My words may sound cruel but you have to listen to them. That Prince Rui, he raised you with one goal in mind. And that was to use you for his wife’s resurrection. That is the only value you have to him. No matter what you do or how much you try, that won’t change. Do you understand?” Shen Li cupped Xiao He’s face in her hand and wiped the tears away with her thumb. “So be good to yourself and let’s leave here. Forget about him. There are so many other wonderful things out in the world for you to explore.”
Xing Yun looked at Shen Li while Xiao He stared at them with a conflicted look. She lowered her head in between her knees and spoke with her head down like that. “I want to see what kind of woman this Ye Shi is, that he would be willing to spend so much effort for. I want to know the difference between us.”
Shen Li looked up at Xing Yun looking for help. He obliged with, “I guess sometimes reality has to smack you really hard before you can accept it.”
Shen Li’s heart was filled with things she wanted to say. She knew that even if Xiao He was a better woman than Ye Shi, Prince Rui would still not choose her. It was as simple as that. But seeing Xiao He be so persistent she swallowed the words in her heart. Instead she said, “Alright. We’ll go together, but you’ll hide in the passageway until I can get rid of Prince Rui. Once I do you can stare at Ye Shi as much as you like. It shouldn’t do any harm since the woman is dead. Xing Yun, you keep an eye on her until then.” Shen Li figured this was the best course of action.
With that said Shen Li teleported them back to the passageway. Once there Shen Li made eye contact with Xing Yun nodding her head. He picked up on her cue and used his body to block Xiao He, being sure to keep her behind him.
Shen Li walked into the room and announced, “I’ve killed Xiao He.”
Prince Rui didn’t turn his head at her voice, instead he remained stiff and silent.
“The resentful spirits have also turned back to normal. Come. I’ll escort you out.”
Prince Rui smiled coldly and only said, “Why go out?” He leaned over and kissed his wife’s forehead. “Ye Shi isn’t going to wake up, so what does it matter if I live or not?”
In the passageway Xiao He fisted her hands when she heard him say this, the light in her eyes dimming.
“I, Zhu Chengjin, was greedy and asked for too much, wanting both the throne and military power. I thought Ye Shi was just a woman, but who knew that she had already worked her way into my heart. These last three years, all I’ve dreamt about is her waking up. But everyday I wake up disappointed. I had all my hopes pinned on Xiao He. With her gone I have nothing left.” Prince Rui smiled. “You go, I’ll remain here and keep Ye Shi company.”
Shen Li was stunned by his words. His face looked empty, his eyes dead. To think that someone can really die from a broken heart. But if he dies here, who will shelter Xing Yun?
Before Shen Li could think any further Xiao He rushed passed her and slapped Prince Rui in the face. “I hate you!”
Prince Rui stared blankly at her. Shen Li watched as Xiao He’s figure turned into a ball of white light and floated into Ye Shi’s body while the remnants of her tears fell on Prince Rui’s hand. From the bed Ye Shi coughed lightly getting everyone’s attention. Prince Rui immediately lost his dazed look and flicked the tear droplets off his hand.
Shen Li sighed softly. Silly girl. She could still hear the sounds of Xiao He’s cries ringing in her ears, her questions asking, “Why me? If I’d never been human I would never have met him.” She was only a supporting character in Prince Rui’s story. Why did she sacrifice herself for a man like that?
“Cough... cough...” Ye Shi was coughing more violently now. Prince Rui’s eyes were bright and filled with joy. He kept saying, “Ye Shi. Ye Shi. Hang on I’ll get you out of here.” He carefully picked her up and turned to Shen Li. “The exit is blocked. Will you unblock it for me?” It was only for this woman that Prince Rui bowed his head and asked for help.
Shen Li grabbed his hand and whispered, “Xiao He worked so hard for you. You know she was devastated when she found out why you were raising her. She didn’t want to be killed by you but in the end she sacrificed herself for you anyway.” Prince Rui listened to her silently. “Blame me for being careless. You raised her from the very beginning how could you not detect her presence. Prince Rui... you played your hand really well. It’s just that...” Although she didn’t finish her sentence he could guess what she wanted to say.
Xiao He saw through him as well, but ultimately still chose to follow her heart. Her “hate” wasn’t just meant for him, but also for herself and her inability to escape from him. She was truly a silly lovesick fool.
In the silence Shen Li turned to Xing Yun and said, “I’ll send them out first. Wait here for me.”
Xing Yun hid his hand behind his back, leaned against a wall and nodded his head. Shen Li was so intent on wrapping things up she didn’t notice Xing Yun’s odd behavior or the heavy shadows under his eyes. She grabbed Prince Rui’s hand and teleported them outside.
The palace had an unnatural stillness to it. Looking around Prince Rui saw the bodies of several guards and servants lying about on the ground and floating in the lake. He turned to Shen Li intending to ask about the situation, however she disappeared before he could say anything. Ye Shi coughed harshly again. He looked down at her and hurriedly walked across the bridge over the lake. Involuntarily his eyes strayed to the lotus in the center.
Now that it’s owner was dead, the leaves and flowers withered and shrunk, lacking color and vibrancy. The memory of a pink dressed girl came to mind. She flew over to him and he embraced her in his arms. She couldn’t speak but her feelings were conveyed by the genuine smile on her lips and the radiance of her eyes. She alternated between pressing her cheeks against his chest and lifting her head up to gaze at his face. Finally she was able to stutter, “Zhu... Zhu, He[notes] likes. Zhu likes?” He had replied without hesitation. “Yes.” The lie that rolled so easily off his tongue deceived the girl and captivated her heart. She smiled a devastatingly bright smile. It was so pure it made him realize how dark his own heart was. Liar. Big fat liar! That girl is gone forever. Zhu Chengjin hated himself, but he knew he had to keep moving forward.
Once Shen Li returned to the underground room she walked to the stone bed and slammed her hand on top of it, smashing it into pieces, destroying the soul anchoring array. This inevitably created quite a bit of dust causing Xing Yun to cough several times in an effort to clear his throat.
“Why take it out on the bed?” Xing Yun continued with, “I was the one that suggested you bring her here. If you’re angry about it, just say so. You’ll feel better afterwards.”
Shen Li closed her eyes and gradually began to calm down. “If I were her I’d kill that man for toying with my affections.” She continued on coldly, “A man like that is not worth dying for.”
“It’s not up to the observer to decide the value.” Xing Yun said, “As long as she is willing, no one else is qualified to say whether the choice she made was a poor one or a good one.”
“That man didn’t know what he just destroyed.”
“How could he not know? It’s just that for him, Xiao He was not as important.”
“This kind of emotionally manipulative man is the most despicable type!” Shen Li yelled in anger. She remembered the rumors about her own betrothed, Fu Rongjun, and how he was a philanderer flitting around every which way. Thinking about this made her seriously annoyed. “Any man I like better have eyes only for me. I’ll crush every single bone in his body if he dares to engage other women.” She was so inflamed by the whole subject that her voice rose without her realizing it.
“My, such passion.”
Shen Li scratched her head self consciously. “Naturally this doesn’t include you. For although I said I liked you, I know we do not have a future together. Therefore you are free to see and marry whoever you wish. “
Xing Yun couldn’t help but laugh as he listened to her speak.
Shen Li did not take too well to that so she brusquely said, “I don’t have time to linger here. Come on I’ll send you out.”
“OK.” Xing Yun intended to reach out for her hand but before he could a wave of pain hit him so hard it forced him to crouch down and groan involuntarily. He grabbed his belly and vomited a large amount of black blood.
Shen Li was shocked. “What’s wrong?”
He wanted to answer her but his mouth kept filling up with bile and blood, forcing him to vomit again and again.
Shen Li hurriedly moved to support him. Once she had him leaning on her shoulder she pulled his arm intending to check his pulse. When she did so she saw the burn hole in the palm of his hand. “When did you get this injury!?” Shen Li was furious. She recognized it for what it was, a burn made by the fluids from the demons earlier. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier!?”
The circumference of the wound had festered through the course of the night and had expanded. Demon babies were transformed by resentment so their bodily fluids were not only corrosive but extremely toxic as well. Even for ordinary people this type of wound would be considered a serious one. So for Xing Yun who was already weak to begin with... how was he able to withstand it without saying anything for so long?
Shen Li had to refrain herself from beating him. She knew if she started she might lose it and really kill him. Instead she could only gnash her teeth and teleport them out into the palace grounds. “Poisoned and vomiting blood! You must really want to kill me with worry huh?”
Xing Yun truly looked terrible with black blood residue on his lips and his skin such a pale color he was nearly translucent. He smiled a tiny smile as he said, “I was trying to hold it back but in the end I couldn’t.”
“Just shut up already! Showing off and trying to be a hero when you’re already so weak...”
“Uhn..” Xing Yun barely had the strength to mutter a reply but he still sighed and spoke. “I didn’t abandon you when you were down.”
Shen Li was afraid physical exertion would make the poison spread even faster, so she wasn’t too picky and chose the first room they came across to rest in. She laid Xing Yun on the bed and looked around. There wasn’t a single soul in sight. She could only clench her teeth and do what she could to alleviate his pain. Picking up his hand she quickly bit the back of it.“This will help to alleviate some of your pain. I don’t know how to heal you and the doctors around here won’t have the ability. I’ll have to leave the city and search in the outskirts of the wilderness to find one of the local land gods to heal you. It may take me some time, so just be patient and wait here for me. Don’t move or go anywhere.”
“Where would I go? Besides, look at me. It’s not like I can move anyway.”
Shen Li stood up and looked down at him silently. “I... I may not come back. But rest assured that the one I send will cure you.” She turned away before speaking again in a much more somber and grudging voice. “The distance between us...is as wide as the mountains and as deep as the lakes. It is doubtful we’ll ever meet again...Take care of yourself. For these past days... thank you for your care.”
And just like that Xing Yun was left alone in the room. He was silent for some time. Then he smirked and spoke to himself, “Using that kind of voice to thank me. You sure are unwilling...” The cold air blew into the room despite the closed windows making the small hairs on his body stand up. He pressed his lips tightly together and sighed. “Woman, even after all this time... you still didn’t look properly at me.” Always making other people feel like they’re on the losing end.
Originally Shen Li commanded Mo Fang to stall her pursuers for half a day. She knew he would try his best, but she didn’t hold out much hope. He wouldn’t last long against the elites in the demon army. This was why she had to leave the palace as soon as possible. If the army found her here it would only bring trouble to Xing Yun, then all the effort she put in would have been wasted. Although she was unlikely to escape from their pursuit, she could at least better her odds by fighting in the forest. She was going to give it her best, even if her strength was only 70-80% recovered.
Shen Li didn’t waste any time. She sped through the capital and the outskirts of the city and didn’t stop until she reached the wilderness. She found a mountain and perched on top of it to better survey the land. By this time the sun was shining almost directly overhead and she could see the morning dew and fog had completely dissipated, giving her a clear view ahead. A quick glance around and she was able to find the place with the most spiritual energy. She leapt up, her robes fluttering with the speed of her movement. With her palms out she commanded, “Come!”
Light poured out of her outstretched palm spreading quickly around her entire body. The rocks shook and all the wildlife nearby, fled sensing danger. She landed easily in a clearing in the forest. In this clearing were many figures of different forms and genders, some human shaped, some not. They stood looking in fear at her waiting for the light to disperse.
Shen Li knew that the demonic aura she unleashed would scare them but she had no time to explain. Their fear was also useful so she put on a cold expression. “Who here knows how to heal?”
The local land gods looked at one another before a young man with antlers on his head finally stepped forward. “...I...” The moment Shen Li’s eyes fell on him he immediately cowered covering his face with his arms and screamed, “Ah! Don’t kill me!”
Shen Li’s lips quirked up on one side. She resumed speaking once she felt her facial expression was more neutral. “In the capital in Prince Rui’s palace you will find a person lying in the westernmost room. His name is Xing Yun and he was injured by some demonic spirits filled with malicious grievances. His body is weak and he is currently dying. I’m here to find someone to save him.”
After this explanation everyone sighed in relief. So that was why. An old man with a white beard stepped forward. “I see. Hu Lu, you go with this person.”
Hu Lu quivered uncontrollably and looked at Shen Li.
Shen Li said, “I can’t go. You’ll have to go and find this person alone.” She stared at Hu Lu coldly before continuing. “How long will it take to heal this type of wound?”
“A... about half an hour.“
“Good.” Shen Li waved her hand and her spear appeared. She raised it up then slammed it down with a thunderous bang, burying the hilt three inches deep into the ground.
Hu Lu couldn’t help but raise one leg up to his belly and wrap his arms around his chest before screaming again. A cold sweat had broken out on his forehead and he became even more nervous. Sssss... scary!
“If you’re not back in half an hour I will use this spear to kill everyone here within a three hundred mile radius.”
Hu Lu’s legs went soft and he could only lay petrified on the ground.
Shen Li looked up at the sky. “Time starts now.”
The bearded old man angrily stepped forward and shook Hu Lu. “Still not leaving?!”
Hu Lu came to his senses and burrowed into the ground. Shen Li could see that the small gods were visibly afraid of her but she was too lazy to bother with them right then. Her attention was on the dark clouds forming in the sky. They covered a large area and was clearly in the direction of the capital. If she was correct, then the cloud represented the number of people sent to bring her back. Such a large number? The Demon Emperor must really be hell bent on getting me back.
She clenched her hands into fists really hating Fu Rongjun with all her heart. The Heavenly Emperor wasn’t exempt either. But the one she hated the most was that unknown idler who proposed the marriage alliance between the Heavenly realm and the Demon realm. As if a marriage would really bring the two realms closer. Please. It was a joke she wished she wasn’t a part of. If those in the Heavenly realm could make the lives of demons living in the Demon realm better that would be great. But instead what they had were immortals with too much free time on their hands playing matchmaker to consolidate a “friendship” between the two realms.
From her vantage point she could see that the black clouds had reached the capital. It made her frown. She was afraid those pursuing her would hurt Xing Yun. But then again she was probably just thinking too much. They shouldn’t know about her relationship with him. Besides she was here in the woods and she had just used her powers to summon the land gods, so they should be heading in her direction soon. All the same she would stop worrying once they moved away from the capital.
The little god from earlier, Hu Lu, seemed like an honest type. She believed he would heal Xing Yun without any shenanigans. She could finally stop worrying about Xing Yun, and instead start figuring how to escape her own marriage.
As the minutes ticked by she began to get a bad premonition. The clouds remained above the capital for too long. They should have moved toward her by now. Why hadn’t they?
Suddenly the ground shuddered and Hu Lu emerged from the ground his clothes in tatters, his eyes red with tears, and his nose dripping with snot. He went to Shen Li with his face in his hands. “Please don’t kill me! Please don’t kill everyone here! I tried. I really tried!” He sniffled. “But I was blocked by the people there. The guys in black were all strong and fierce. I was no match for them. They beat me up real good.”
Shen Li’s face changed slightly. “Speak clearly!”
Hu Lu thumped his butt on the ground and wiped the snot from his nose. “I went... I found the one you call Xing Yun. He knew I was there to help him. He smiled at me and even said thank you.” Hu Lu looked at Shen Li. “I really wanted to save him!” He sniffled again. “I was about to start when a guy in black armor and another guy in a red robe showed up. He asked me why a local god like me was in the city. I answered them straight away... but as a result they wouldn’t let me heal the man! The one in red told me to come back and tell you to go to them... otherwise... otherwise they will kill the one called Xing Yun.”
Shen Li grimaced. A man in black armor and a man in a red robe huh? She had a good idea who they were. To have the black and green general appear... The emperor had to be really angry. She hesitated knowing those two were in the picture. In her current condition she really wasn’t sure she could escape unscathed. Aside from the two, she wondered who else had been called in to capture her.
“What about the man, Xing Yun?”
“He’s dying. I took his pulse and found that his body is naturally weak, combine this with the exhaustion he’s suffered the past few days and his ability to fight the poison... well it’s not good. The poison has already made its way into his internal organs. He will die soon if no one saves him.”
Shen Li looked in the direction of the capital, raised her arms and called for her spear. She jumped and her figure immediately disappeared in a blast of air.
The local gods started talking as soon as she left.
“This fella... so scary!”
“Must be a person of the Demon realm. So overbearing and mean. Are you hurt Hu Lu?”
“Uh...” Hu Lu wiped at his tears. “I’m OK.”
Someone noticed something on his elbow. “Hey. What’s that there on your elbow?”
“Eh. What?” Hu Lu kept turning around trying to see what was on his elbow.
“It says “escape.’ Who would use blood to write that on your elbow?”
Hu Lu scratched his head. “Uh! That man named Xing Yun. He must have wanted the woman to leave but she didn’t see it.”
Inside the palace Xing Yun sat quietly on the bed letting the man in red look his fill at him. He didn’t appear angry and only smiled before saying, “You’re so calm. Aren’t you worried about the situation you’re in? For a guy who looks like he’s about to keel over any second, you don’t look too concerned.”
“Will worrying let me live longer?” Xing Yun laughed. “If so I’ll give it a try.”
This gave the man in red a laugh. “You are certainly someone the Azure Sky King would fancy.” He turned to the door and waved his hand to the person there. “Hey Qing Yan! You have to come over here and chat with this guy. He’s pretty fun to tease.”
The one at the door didn’t move. He only spoke from the doorway. “You should stop molesting him. You know how the Azure Sky King is.”
Chi Rong was just about to tap Xing Yun on the nose when his hand stopped mid-air at those words. He immediately took his hand back. “Thanks for the warning. That guy can be real vindictive.”
Xing Yun looked at the scene without saying anything, just smiled his usual smile.
Suddenly the feeling in the air changed, making Qing Yan turn his head up. There was a shimmering light in Chi Rong’s eyes as he spoke loudly into the sky. “The Demon Emperor has declared that if the Azure Sky King, Shen Li, refuses to return to the palace, then we are authorized to use excessive force, to break your hands and feet, to cripple and break your bones, in order to tie you up and bring you back to the palace. I’ve always been soft hearted when it comes to dealing with good acquaintances. So to force your hand, my only recourse will be to kill this man...”
Before his voice even faded away the roof split and a red tasseled silver spear pierced into the ground near Chi Rong’s feet. The murderous aura emitted made him take a cautious step back. This was followed by the louder sound of the roof crashing in as Shen Li descended. She struck out with two strokes of her spear forcing the unarmed Chi Rong to further retreat.
She went to stand next to Xing Yun. Lifting the dazzling spear up she demanded, “With this king here, who would dare?”
The atmosphere in the small room turned dangerously tense. Although Chi Rong still had a smile on his face, he had taken out his fan. Qing Yan likewise had also drawn his sword from its scabbard. Even though they were brothers in arms, both sides knew that if a fight erupted it would be a fierce battle without mercy.
“Your Highness.” Chi Rong shook his fan and laughed. “You have given the emperor quite a bit of trouble. He is furious and has even called on all four generals to search for you.” He looked at Xing Yun behind her. “Your Highness can keep yourself safe, but the one behind you is a different story. I hope that Your Highness can properly read the situation and cooperate with us.”
Shen Li ignored his words. Instead she glanced at Xing Yun out of the corner of her eye. “You still alive?”
“Yeah.” Xing Yun nodded his head and smiled slightly. “Not for long though.”
“You’re not allowed to die.” Shen Li switched the silver spear to her left hand and sliced her right palm with the blade.
Qing Yan frowned. He was about to approach her when she scattered the blood in an arc on the ground. Qing Yan stepped on the blood and felt like his body was encased in flames. He immediately used his power to scatter the heat and used his hand to protect his eyes before jumping back.
At the same time, Shen Li flipped her spear upside down and slammed the blade into the floor letting her blood run down into the ground. A golden light flashed and Shen Li and Xing Yun were encased within the light, creating a barrier of two feet between them and the other two. Shen Li tore a strip of cloth off her garment and used it to wrap the cut on her hand. She looked at Xing Yun. “You’re not allowed to die if I’m here.”
Despite the fierceness of the flames and the light all around them, Shen Li’s figure was the most dazzling sight in Xing Yun’s vision. In fact it was so mesmerizing he almost forgot himself. He was brought back to his senses when Shen Li lifted him up by the armpits, propped him up then lifted him onto her back. Her body heat radiated itself into him, warming up even his internal organs. He barely had enough energy to curve his lips in his characteristic smile. His dark ambiguous eyes didn’t reveal his thoughts.
“Highness!” Qing Yan was shocked. “A blood sacrifice can injure the soul. Your wedding is so close at hand. Please consider your health.”
Shen Li sneered. “You two were going to break my limbs and deliver me tied up to the wedding. Compared to that, this is just a bit of soul injury. No big deal.” She couldn’t physically see outside house but she could use her senses to explore the placement of the soldiers outside. She wanted to force her way out so she needed to find the direction with the least surveillance. She also wanted to limit the amount of bloodshed.
Chi Rong and Qing Yan were quick and picked up on her plans instantly. They shared a look and reached the same understanding: they could no longer delay. Both readied their weapons. Then they decisively cut an opening in the flames and charged forward. The collision of qi between the parties instantly turned the room into ashes. Before the dust even settled, countless arrow rays of light shot down from the sky. In the chaos a figure in red and another in black jumped out.
Qing Yan fell to one knee and had to brace his hands on the ground to keep from being pushed further out. The armor on his shoulder cracked with a loud bang. Chi Rong on the other hand had slammed into the pillars supporting the bridge. He turned his palm into talons and grabbed onto a pillar to pull himself out. He wiped the blood off his face and smiled. “This is my first spar with Her Highness. Her power is truly formidable.”
A golden light flickered through the settling dust as though on the verge of extinguishing. It quickly regained its strength and glowed more brightly and magnificently than before. Shen Li stood in the light with Xing Yun at her side, one hand holding onto her shoulder. He wasn’t injured, but the toxin invasion of his body had weakened him so much he could barely stand. In fact he could barely even speak, having to whisper in Shen Li’s ear. “Why...”
His breath moved the tiny hairs on her temples and blew blood into her face. “Cut it out and stop talking so much.” Her voice was low as she wiped at the blood on her face. Unlike him, she was injured.
Xing Yun grinned at that. “Shen Li... life and death are fated... It doesn’t matter what you say and it doesn’t matter what I say.” He sighed. “You...”
Before Xing Yun could labor through the rest of his speech Qing Yan attacked. Shen Li embraced Xing Yun’s waist with one hand and used her other hand to swing her silver spear, sending a sharp blade of golden qi at Qing Yan. He easily dodged it thinking that her attack was really too simple. Seriously? A full on frontal attack? Where’s the finesse? Who knew it would suddenly shift directions and slice through the sky. A feeling of foreboding gripped him. Not good! Not good! It was too late for him to stop it. The qi force struck the black cloud overhead forcing the soldiers there to scatter for cover, creating the exact opening Shen Li needed.
She grabbed her chance and flew to the opening with Xing Yun in her arm. Qing Yan sneered. “Highness thinks too little of us!” He disappeared only to reappear directly in front of her. “To attempt to outrun me even with a burden by your side?”
Qing Yan wielded his sword in an arc and a powerful force slammed into Shen Li. Though she blocked it, she was forced to take several steps back. Suddenly Xing Yun’s grip on her shoulder loosened and his body began to slide down her side. She squeezed him tightly to keep him up. “Don’t add to the confusion.”
“That was unintentional. My back just really hurts.” Xing Yun reluctantly squeezed out a reply.
Shen Li still had a lot of spiritual energy so it was no problem for her use one arm to hold him up by the waist. But without the ground for support she had to use more force to do so. The pressure was really killing him! There was no helping it though, she couldn’t very well put him down. She could only grit her teeth and tell him, “Bear with it.” With that she waved her spear, piercing it through the sky.
“Watch the west where the land gods are! She’ll want to head there!” shouted Chi Rong. Since she wanted to heal Xing Yun, he was pretty sure she would head in that direction.
The black clouds holding the soldiers quickly reassembled in the west.
Shen Li charged forward, the golden light encompassing her and Xing Yun. The silver spear in her hand gave off a murderous aura with an oppressive amount of killing intent. “Out of my way or die!”
The soldiers in her way had blood in their eyes as they waited for her to attack. Suddenly a strange force came from the black cloud. It pushed her back several feet and it felt like she was being held in place.
Droplets of sweat formed on her forehead as she tried to press against the force binding her. “This power...ugh...” Her voice trailed off, her golden light shield shattered, and an invisible force hit her square in the face. Her body shot out, knocked back to the palace grounds and hit the stone floor with a deep impact. After the dust settled she looked down to find Xing Yun on top of her, unconscious, but otherwise uninjured. Shen Li dropped her bloody head back down on the ground. The dizziness overwhelmed her and she could only lay on the ground. It was some time before she recovered.
Chi Rong and Qing Yan made their way to the pit created by her fall. Next to them stood another man. Dressed in a robe of gold decorated with black trim, he stood with the sun at his back, letting the wind toy with his hair ribbon, causing them to flutter loosely in front of him.
“To dare lay hands on your comrades, you’ve grown bolder.” Chi Rong and Qing Yan couldn’t help but kneel at the sound of his voice. The tone was a commanding and majestic one that demanded immediate obedience. From his voice the two knew he was very angry.
“Your Majesty we beseech you to calm your anger.” It appeared that the Demon Emperor personally came to fetch Shen Li.
As for Shen Li, her focus was on Xing Yun. His breathing was more shallow and his body had considerably cooled. Her heart felt cold and a sense of powerlessness came over her. To have to fight such a power...
“Out.” The emperor ordered.
Shen Li wiped the blood from her lips, grasped Xing Yun firmly, and leapt out of the pit. She laid him down gently and felt for his pulse. Weak, but still alive.
“Explain to me what is wrong.” This time the voice that came through the silver mask the emperor wore was a little flat.
Shen Li looked at Xing Yun. “I don’t know. I don’t know what is wrong with not wanting to marry someone I don’t love. I don’t know what is wrong with fighting back when forced. I don’t know what is wrong with not wanting to be confined to heaven. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.” She looked at the eyes behind the silver mask defiantly.
“Emperor has submitted to the will of the heavens for more than a thousand years. Those idle immortals while their days away in leisure enjoying themselves in the Heavenly realm while those in the Demon realm shoulder the burden of overseeing the spatial temporal rifts. The miasma that flow from the rift create a perpetual cloud of darkness destroying the vegetation, leaving the land lifeless and barren. It is a miserable life for those in the Demon realm. As royal aristocrats, are we not responsible for our own people? Why must we spend so much effort to guard the rifts in the Burial Ruins and subjugate the malevolent beasts for them?” Shen Li sneered. “I have no respect for that kind of heaven. What’s wrong with not wanting to marry into it?”
Both Chi Rong and Qing Yan were silent. The emperor was silent for a moment as well before speaking. “There is nothing wrong with you holding your view, however you violated my commandment.” With that the emperor waved his hand. “Bring her for her punishment.”
Qing Yan moved to obey the command but Shen Li spoke out before he could. “This king will move of her own accord!” She stared at Xing Yun. Perhaps her gaze was too fierce for it caused him to open his eyes.
Seeing her look at him he cracked his usual smile. “Shen Li, why are you looking at me like you want to start something?”
“Yeah just think of it as me messing with you.”
Ignoring everyone there, she leaned over and kissed Xing Yun on the lips. Her hair piece had cracked from earlier leaving her hair unbound to be scattered by the wind. The cool strands draped across his cheeks, a direct contrast to her hot lips on his. The sensation gave rise to a strange feeling inside him, making him dizzy almost to the point of blacking out. Shen Li didn’t have experience kissing so her kiss was more of just a fierce pressing of her lips against his. The force she used was so strong it was a little unbearable for him.
While kissing him she reached for his injured hand, placing her index finger just at the edge of the lacerated hole. Her fingertip glowed and a bead gradually formed at the tip. It slowly seeped into his skin merging with the hole until it was completely filled.
“I said you weren’t going to die.” Shen Li said after pulling away from the kiss. “Although you may not live well, you will at least live peacefully.”
She didn’t have the skills to cure the poison in his body but she did have the ability to lessen the potency. The glow she infused into his body earlier was a portion of the magical essence she had cultivated. By adding it into his body, there would be a natural counter to the toxin, preventing it from spreading further. He would live in pain for the rest of his life, but at least he would live.
She straightened her clothes, patted him on the shoulders and said, “When I said I fancied you, I meant it. It’s just that I am betrothed to another and can not stay with you. Take care.”
Shen Li turned and left without a backward glance, taking the other three with her. The dark clouds soon dispersed after their departure.
Xing Yun laid on the ground feeling uncomfortable because of the conflict inside his body from Shen Li’s magical essence and the poison. Despite this he was feeling much better than before with some color returning to his lips. He unconsciously looked up at the sky and touched his mouth. He smirked and whispered to himself. “You want to be with me... I also wish to be with you.” As he finished a strand of hair landed on his face. He pinched it between his fingers but couldn’t quite find the wherewithal to laugh.
He didn’t have the ability to be with her huh.
In time the clouds and mists passed by.
“Why did you expend five hundred years of cultivation for him?” The emperor asked as he stepped onto a cloud. “An ordinary mortal... In a hundred years he’ll enter into the cycle of reincarnation and forget all about you.”
Chi Rong and Qing Yan were surprised when they heard this. Although demons lived a long time and it was possible to regain cultivation through training and study, five hundred was still a lot. It was especially significant for Shen Li because she was a commander. For those who staked their lives in battle, where the distance between life and death was razor thin, five hundred years of cultivation strength was no small matter! However most shocking to them was the recipient.
Shen Li’s hand was bound by a chain and her hair was scattered loosely giving her an untidy and disheveled appearance. Her eyes though were full of conviction. “I wanted to.”
The Emperor’s face under his mask resembled a sneer. “You’re just worried I’ll send someone to kill him.” He looked at her very coldly before continuing with this thoughts. “But really why would I need to do something like that? In a year or two he’ll forget all about you, get married, have kids, and live a completely normal mortal life. Be at ease. I will not act against him.”
Shen Li was silent but in her head she was thinking that the scenario the emperor posed was not bad. She thought about the courtyard and the time she spent there. The feeling and the sound of the breeze as it blew through the trellis, the warmth of the sun and the smell of food wafting in the air. She remembered the first time she woke up there and the sight of Xing Yun that greeted her that day. He was lounging in the rattan chair with his eyes closed and the sun on his body. Those were peaceful days. She hoped Xing Yun would continue like that. She hoped he would find someone to share it with, to accompany him through life, even if that person wasn’t her. Living in solitude would be too lonely. She took a deep breath and gazed out into the distance, suddenly understanding how Xiao He must have felt. It wasn’t about whether something was worth it or not but more so about whether you were willing or not.
The ice and cold made the doors stiff and hard to move. Once opened a harsh blast of frigid air gushed out, revealing a cavernous room within. An ice stalagmite stood at each corner, reaching nearly ten feet high. Bound in the center was a spherical crystal ball of ice. It was completely clear allowing for an unobstructed view. Inside a woman lay curled up with her eyes closed as though in deep slumber. She was clad in a dark robe while her hair was unbound in loose waves around her.
The sound of footsteps in the room broke the frozen silence and the woman inside immediately opened her eyes. They were bright and clear without a hint of confusion.
The messenger knelt on one knee and kowtowed in salute. “Your Highness. Your confinement has been lifted.” He uncorked a small vial of blood and poured the liquid on the floor. This made the four ice stalagmites in the corner glow and the ice crystal in the center to gradually melt. After shrinking to half its original size the crystal lost its suspension abilities and plunged down, disturbing the layers of ice and snow on the floor and making heavy gusts of white matter flutter in the air.
Shen Li needed his help to get up because her limbs were stiff from being frozen for so long. After standing up she brushed off the large flakes of ice still clinging to her body. “They sealed me in the Cold Palace of Atonement[notes] and dare to only call it a confinement?”
Like the temporal rifts in the Ruins, the Cold Palace was a forbidden place, however there were two major differences between the two. The strength of the seal over the Cold Palace was stronger than the one over the Ruins. But unlike the Ruins which held countless entities sealed, the Cold Palace could only hold one. This meant that demons too powerful for normal imprisonment were executed instead of imprisoned in the Cold Palace - the space was simply too precious. In fact it had remained unoccupied until Shen Li’s confinement.
Shen Li never dreamed she would be confined there. To think that an endowment of marriage was the cause of it. Wow. For the Demon Emperor to seal me away in the highest confinement, he must have been really worried about me running away again. It went to show just how important the marriage was.
“So the emissaries from heaven are here? I have to leave now?”
He respectfully answered with, “Please be patient Your Highness. They will not arrive until next month.”
“How long was I out for?” She still remembered the day she was ordered into her “confinement.” Back then she had not been told how long her punishment would last. While inside the Cold Palace she had completely lost track of time, a day was the same as a year to her.
“His Majesty has a deep and benevolent heart. It is now January.”
January… so it has been thirty days.
The gates slammed closed behind them. Shen Li looked around and saw a figure in dark uniform not far away. He came forward and bowed to her.
Ah Mo Fang.
He spoke to the one behind Shen Li. “I will escort Her Highness back. You may return to your normal duties.”
Mo Fang knelt down on one knee after the other man left. “This subordinate was unable to help Your Highness escape. Please punish me accordingly!”
Shen Li looked down at him, sighing just a little. She patted him on the shoulders signaling him to look up. “I know you must have tried until you were completely exhausted. You kept them at bay for nearly half a day. That was enough. It was my lack of abilities that prevented me from escaping. I was unable to properly meet your expectations.”
“Let us return home.” Shen Li stretched her hands up to the sky. “I haven’t been home in such a long time.”
“Your Highness… there is something else I must say.” Mo Fang paused for a moment before finally saying, “The one in the Mortal realm… he passed away.”
“Yes. I figured as much.”
One day here was the equivalent to one year there, so thirty years had passed. It was expected Xing Yun would pass on. Besides, how else could the Demon Emperor feel free enough to release her? The Emperor who raised her knew her personality too well.
“Let’s go back home.” Shen Li walked only a few steps forward before she turned around. “Were you there when he died?”
Mo Fang nodded. “He was calm and peaceful.”
“Of course he would be… he’s like that.” No matter the situation he never seemed affected. “He’s probably somewhere laughing right now.”
Mo Fang paused for a moment remembering Xing Yun. The last time he saw him the man had been calmly lying in bed. He had looked at Mo Fang for a several seconds before speaking.
“You’re Shen Li’s subordinate.”
It was obvious he had very little energy, barely even able to speak. He took three more breaths before gasping out a question. “Shen Li, how is she?”
Mo Fang didn’t answer him and Xing Yun didn’t press further. Instead Xing Yun looked at him with a smile before closing his eyes and resting. He was indeed the image of indifference. Still, he had kept Shen Li in his thoughts even after thirty years. Mo Fang didn’t tell this to Shen Li though. He only asked, “Will you look for him?”
“No.” Without turning around Shen Li stepped onto a cloud. “I took a fancy to the Xing Yun of 30 years ago. Any future reincarnations of him has nothing to do with me.”
The Azure Sky King’s residence was not far from the Imperial City so Shen Li would able to return home quickly. As she flew there were groups of people on the ground who looked up at her passing by. She was used to the onlookers watching so paid them no mind. Once she reached home she stepped off the cloud. Shen Li barely regained her footing on solid ground when a figure dashed so madly towards her that the sound of wind breaking could be heard. This person only paused momentarily to kneel in greeting before throwing herself onto the ground and grabbing onto Shen Li's legs and crying piteously.
“Highness! You’re finally back! Oh Highness!”
Seeing this sight made Shen Li rub her eyebrow. “Get up. Prepare water. I want to take a bath. Is Cook here? Have Cook prepare a meal too.”
The chubby big bottomed girl tearfully looked up at Shen Li her eyes bright with hope.
“General Mo Fang told us earlier that Highness would be returning home today. Water has already been drawn for your bath and Cook has some hot steamed rice ready as well.”
Shen Li was surprised Mo Fang had the foresight to prepare for her arrival. She turned around and looked back at Mo Fang.
“If there is nothing else Your Highness, this servant asks to be excused.”
“Yes.... That’s fine.” Shen Li walked into the inner courtyard with the girl intending to go and rest.
Shen Li didn’t like having too many people around so the residence was mostly empty with just a skeletal staff on hand. This was how she liked it. Mrs. Zhang handled all the housekeeping. She was a married woman with a reticent manner about her, rarely speaking much and instead preferred to hide and avoid others.
Rou-ya, the noisy girl from earlier, acted as a personal maidservant waiting on Shen Li and bringing her her meals.
Aside from these two there was one other staff member in charge of the kitchen. Cook was an easy going person with a very simple and straightforward personality, however it was rare to see this person leave the kitchen.
As for the final member of the household…
“Ah Highness! Ah! Lord came back! Highness!” In the corner of the room was a large parrot perched inside a cage making a tremendous racket.
“Hey shut up!” Shen Li looked at the bird with a fierce stare before walking behind a screen to take her clothes off. Then she got into the tub and made herself comfortable. She kept her head just above the water and was about to take a nap when from behind the screen the parrot started up again.
“Highness ran away! Highness! Highness got caught! Must marry! Ah Highness! Sad! Sad! Highness? Highness?! HIGHNESS?!!”
Shen Li mouthed something while waving her hand. With a clang the door of the bird cage opened. Then she formed her hand into a claw used some qi to pull the bird out. With this the parrot was caught. She pinched its wing and lifted it up to eye level.
“Say, I haven’t seen you without feathers before.”
This sounded like a threat. Parrot immediately became still before erupting again. “Eh?! What? No! Highness... ah! Ah! MERCY! Spare me HIGHNESS!”
Rou-ya, who was keeping watch outside, heard the commotion and wondered what was happening. Her Highness seemed to be having a good time playing together with Parrot.
She barely cracked the door open when a bird was flung out through the gap, its bottom scraped smoothed. It looked like Parrot was trying to dig a hole to bury himself in... The scene left the her somewhat stupefied.
“Eh? … Parrot?”
In an indifferent tone Shen Li said, “Don’t bother with it. It can’t fly anyways.” That last part was spoken with a bit of a smirkish undertone shining through.
Rou-ya felt that perhaps Her Highness had had a rough time in the Mortal realm and that maybe her experience had distorted her personality a little bit...
After her bath Shen Li sat down to have a meal. While in the middle of it a messenger from the Imperial Palace came to deliver a message. The Demon Emperor wanted her to come to the palace in order to select the style of her wedding dress later in the afternoon.
After hearing the command Shen Li continued to pick at the dishes in front of her in a leisurely fashion. Once the messenger left Rou-ya, who was fanning her at the side, expressed her grievances.
“Pick what dress? Fu Rongjun, that playboy! It’s his good fortune that Highness is willing to come back and marry him. Would you believe he tried to engage the Heavenly Emperor in a battle of wits, as if he could really win. He kept running back to the Heavenly Emperor to make a fuss about how he was unwilling to pledge his love and didn’t want to take a wife. Acting as though Highness would demand his affections. Tch!”
Shen Li heard this and shot a glance at Rou-ya. “How many times did Fu Rongjun complain to the Heavenly Emperor?”
Rou-ya seriously considered the question then scratched her head and began to count on her fingers. “Ah… a lot! While Highness was in the Mortal realm Fu Rongjun visited the Heavenly Emperor so many times that this servant has lost count. This servant heard that the Heavenly Emperor wouldn’t allow him to go out and play.”
“Oh, seems I’m not the only one suffering. I feel better then.” Shen Li’s heart relaxed a bit knowing the other party was suffering too.
“Completely shameful! Utterly disgraceful!” Fu Rongjun whipped his sleeves around angrily causing a square shaped mahogany plate to crash onto the floor. The servants nearby immediately knelt on the ground in fear.
“Your Highness, please calm your anger.”
Fu Rongjun, resplendent in a white robe trimmed with gold, kicked the plate away. It didn’t ease his anger and he continued ranting. “Isn’t she supposed to be fleeing from the marriage? Why the hell is she here trying to pick out the sort of wedding gown she wants? I don’t want to see that kind of thing happening!”
The servant knelt down and whispered, “The Azure Sky King was brought back a month ago.”
“Isn’t she supposed to be really good at combat? Why is she so useless now?!” Fu Rongjun gritted his teeth. “No! I have to beg the emperor. I can’t marry that woman!” After saying so he rushed out intending to do just that.
“Ah! Your Highness you can’t go! You’ll anger the Heavenly Emperor again!”
Fu Rongjun refused to listen and instead hurried to the Heavenly Palace Hall. Once there he pushed past the attendant without allowing the man to properly announce his presence. He shoved the hall doors open with a "putong!" and stepped inside.
Once in he threw himself on the ground and sobbed huge alligator tears, making quite a ruckus. “Grandfather, this grandson is very bitter!” Usually he would be scolded immediately for making a scene. It felt odd that the emperor wasn’t saying anything. Not hearing a sound he looked up only to be incredibly surprised to find a figure beside his grandfather. “Eh?!”
A man was standing to left of the emperor. His hair was bound in a jade hairpin yet several strands still escaped loose and fluttered lazily around his head. The pure white robe he wore didn’t have a speck of dust on it anywhere. He was standing as straight as a board and his entire body emanated a dense amount of qi.
Fu Rongjun felt a sense of impending danger. He stared blankly.
The Heavenly Emperor suppressed his anger and spoke from his seated position on the throne. “Are you just overly emotional because Lord Xing Zhi is here?”
Fu Rongjun stared at a loss for words, although he was wanton and negligent of his duties, even he knew the name of the deity of the ancient past - the only deity still walking the realms, Lord Xing Zhi.
Fu Rongjun hurriedly stood up and wiped the tears and snot off his face before brushing his robe down and making himself more presentable. He bowed properly to his grandfather then to Immortal High God Xing Zhi. “What an unexpectedly joyous occasion to have Lord Xing Zhi here with us.”
Xing Zhi lightly smiled and said, “Young people are so energetic.”
The Heavenly Emperor heaved a sigh out of helplessness. “This person is behaving disgracefully.” He stopped talking and looked at Fu Rongjun with a solemn expression. “Well, what happened to make you come all the way here?”
“Grandfather…” Fu Rongjun was so aggrieved he couldn’t keep his eyes from tearing up again. He tried to speak but knowing a stranger was present in the room made him feel deeply embarrassed and made him think twice before continuing. Upon reflection he realized it would lower the likelihood of him being scolded. He glanced up before plowing ahead in a more formal tone.
“Imperial Grandfather, this grandson simply can not take the Demon realm’s Azure Sky King as a wife!” He cried bitterly before continuing. “Ah! This grandson is sick. It will adversely affect the relationship between the two realms.”
At this the Heavenly Emperor slammed his hand down and stood up. He was livid with anger at his grandson. “You must take me for a joke. What kind of flimsy excuse is that!?” He pointed to Fu Rongjun. “Sickness indeed! Considering the way you behaved before. You…you...”
The Heavenly Emperor gritted his teeth and stopped himself from saying anything more in front of Xing Zhi. Unable to vent, his anger only grew and his heart became stifled; so much so that he had to grip the edge of the table to remain still. Finally unable to endure, he grabbed a book on the desk and threw it at Fu Rongjun.
“Disgraceful! The wedding date is already set. You dare try to interrupt it? You listen to my words. Even if you have to break a leg, you are going to get married, make a proper House with your wife and give me a great-grandchild. That’s that!”
“Imperial Grandfather!” Fu Rongjun cried out. “The Azure Sky King is also unwilling! You saw. She ran away to escape the marriage. If this grandson marries her, she will surely vent her anger on my person! This grandson won’t be able to take it!”
“You-!” The Heavenly Emperor felt like exploding! He hated that this grandson never seemed to live up to expectations!
“Heavenly Emperor.” Lord Xing Zhi broke into their conversation. “This…”
The Heavenly Emperor laughed a bit nervously before saying, “Lord Xing Zhi you were amusing yourself in the Mortal realm these last few days so you’re probably not aware, but your proposal for the Demon realm and Heavenly realm be joined by marriage... ah… the two youngsters who are to wed… they have some resistance to the marriage. The younger generation, they’re frivolous. When difficulty arises they tend to run away creating a disturbance for others. Both sides have already discussed and settled the matter. It’s definitely not a problem! Since it’s Lord Xing Zhi's suggestion neither parties will dare renege. Both will live together and start a family. Naturally over time they will develop affection for one another.”
At these words Fu Rongjun swore to himself that he would absolutely not have children with that tigress the Azure Sky King, nor would he ever develop any affections for her. Wait. Backup! The marriage was Lord Xing Zhi’s idea? He was the one who came up with it? This revelation completely stunned him. But he’s lived in solitude for so long, does he even know who’s who in heaven anymore? Never mind heaven. What does he even know about the residents of the Demon realm! Ah! What criteria did he use to choose the candidates?! This lord… ah... His random proposal just ruined my life… thought Fu Rongjun. But since it’s him I can see why grandfather was angrier than usual. Probably just doesn’t want to offend Lord Xing Zhi and go against his intentions. But since I know who’s behind it now... I can just beg him directly right!?
Fu Rongjun gathered up his courage and bowed deeply to Xing Zhi before saying, “Lord Xing Zhi I am incredibly honored that you personally chose to bestow a marriage to me, however the Azure Sky King and I do not have fate together. I heard the silver spear the Azure Sky King carries is so powerful it’s aura will oppress your heroic spirit! I… I’m afraid I’m not ready to marry this type of ferocious wife. ”
“Impudent!” The Heavenly Emperor scolded. Fu Rongjun’s entire body trembled from head to toe when faced with his grandfather’s ire. He immediately stopped talking and knelt down.
Just then another voice lightly spoke up. “Would it be convenient to delay it then?”
Fu Rongjun glanced up at those words. He saw Xing Zhi standing there with a his lips slightly hooked up in a gentle smile. Fu Rongjun was stumped at this image and could only stare like an idiot. Xing Zhi turned and spoke to the emperor.
“Heavenly Emperor, since the two are so resistant to the idea, why don’t we delay the marriage for while and let them adjust. I’m afraid if we force this situation…” His gaze dropped to Ru Fongjun and his smile grew wider. “... there may be bloodshed and murder.”
Ru Fongjun’s body turned cold and his face paled dramatically at these words.
Blood… murder? Fu Rongjun was scared to be caught by a woman like that. He could practically feel her cold spear piercing his flesh turning him into a sieve! With tears in his eyes to looked to the emperor.
This look put the emperor in a bind and made him feel rather complicated. With difficulty he said, “The date has already been agreed upon by both sides, to change it now would be inappropriate.”
Xing Zhi laughed and said, “It can be said that it was my fault. I saw the registry and mistook the Azure Sky King for a man. The name Fu Rongjun was so feminine I mistook it for an immortal woman. The names, one soft and flexible the the other hard and unyielding seemed to make a good match. It seemed I misunderstood. Since the fault was mine please accept my request to give them more time to ease into the marriage so as to understand each other better. Would the Heavenly Emperor be willing to accede to my request?”
How could the emperor not agree after hearing Xing Zhi’s words? He turned to Fu Rongjun and in an annoyed tone asked, “What are you doing spacing out?! Pay your respects and leave!”
Fu Rongjun hurriedly said his salutations and withdrew. He intended to go and nap in the palace. Stepping down the stairs he met up with his attendant who immediately asked him, “My lord, did it go well?”
Fu Rongjun scratched his head and muttered, “Yeah it went well. It’s just... a little odd. Since he acknowledged fault why not just nullify the engagement instead of letting it drag on?” He continued walking forward a few more steps. “Ssss… back then, was he making fun of my name, suggesting it was effeminate?”
This baffled his attendant as well as he couldn’t quite make out what Fu Rongjun said. “What was that My Lord?”
Fu Rongjun flipped his hair and yawned. “Don’t worry about it. Anyways this lord has a few days free so it’s time to go and play with the pretty ladies!”
My Lord wait! Ah! The emperor will get angry!”
Shen Li was at the castle holding a meeting with several high ranking generals about the Burial Ruins. The troops garrisoned there had noticed a slight fluctuation in the area. The seal had held for over a thousand years without a single disturbance, so although minor, this fluctuation was taken very seriously and made all those present extremely concerned.
After deliberation everyone agreed to send Mo Fang and Zi Xia to the boundaries of the Burial Ruins to investigate further. Should they detect an anomaly one of them would immediately return to report while the other would stay behind to assist the troops stationed there.
An imperial edict from heaven was received just as the meeting was winding down. The edict stated that the marriage between Shen Li and Fu Rongjun was to be postponed. Without exception the faces of all the generals present became rather dark.
“Huh? The whole marriage thing was their idea to begin with. Now they want to postpone it? Does the big boss up there know what he’s doing?”
Shen Li sat down to the side without saying anything acting as though it had nothing to do with her. Feeling the mood in the room take a dive for the worst the Demon Emperor waved his hand and said, “Well whatever, for the time being everyone just go back about your business.”
The group heaved a sigh but did as they were told and filed out one by one. Mo Fang glanced at Shen Li, and upon seeing her look of indifference, wanted to go over. However the Demon Emperor beat him to it.
“Shen Li-er, wait a moment.”[notes] The Demon Emperor used this term of endearment to call out to her showing he did not intend to lecture her nor was he angry. Hearing the emperor’s tone Mo Fang lowered his eyes and left.
Once alone in the hall the emperor asked Shen Li, “What do you think of this Fu Rongjun person.”
“Fu Rongjun is the type of person who likes to spread his grace around indiscriminately.” Shen Li spoke with disdain in her voice. “Just the sound of the name alone tells me he’s the type to surround himself with female companions.”
The Demon Emperor glanced at her surprised at the accuracy of her assessment. “I’m surprised that you have such an accurate insight into this character.”
“It’s not that insightful.” Although she feigned an air of indifference about the whole affair Shen Li actually nursed a giant dissatisfaction in her heart. She rushed to reveal her thoughts on the matter. “Actually it’s just that Ru Fongjun’s reputation is well known. The gossip about this type of person is incredibly prevalent and not at all hard to come by.”
“Li-er do you resent me for forcing you into this marriage?”
Shen Li turned her head before saying, “I wouldn’t dare.”
Seeing her behave this way, he knew she had to resent the imperial edict. Although she didn’t show it in her expression or in her words, the emperor knew she had to be suffering the blow to her self-esteem in silence.
“Li-er, do you know who suggested the marriage?”
“You mean aside from the Heavenly Emperor and his entire family, who are apparently bored senseless from having too much free time on their hands? Who else could it be?”
In a heavy voice the Demon Emperor said, “There is Lord Xing Zhi. He is the ancient high deity who has been living in solitude for these past eons beyond the Heavenly realm. Your marriage bestowment was his benevolence.”
This revelation surprised Shen Li. The stories of Xing Zhi were well known throughout the three realms. At this point the man was more myth than reality. Legend had it he was the only one of the ancient immortal high gods to survive the great calamity. A thousand years ago he held the calamity at bay and kept the demons and beasts in check by imprisoning them in the abyss. In fact he was the one who created the seal over the Ruins.
His strength was incredible. Compared to everyone alive in the modern day his powers would be considered a monstrosity of epic proportions. However no one had seen him in so long that his existence had practically passed into legend, making people wonder if he was truly a real person or just a fictional character from a story. Was there anyone who wanted to torture themselves enough to actually study it and try to find proof of his existence? All of a sudden the Demon Emperor was telling her that he was a real person.
To top it off he’s the one responsible for my marriage? Shen Li sighed. “So Lord Xing Zhi is just as idle and free as the Heavenly Emperor. He must have been bored and needed something to kill his time with.” Shen Li laughed before continuing. “Without knowing anything he did what he wished and just picked two names at random didn’t he? Then that group of imbeciles in heaven just took what he said seriously treating it as a decree.” She paused for a second before saying, “So this delay must be his idea as well.”
Those in heaven wouldn’t have changed the date on their own. Lord Xing Zhi must have told them, maybe even in person, to change it. They venerate him so much of course they would do it. There's no way they would have instigated a change without his approval first. When Shen Li realized that her fate relied on the whims of such a person, and that he could change her life with just a sentence, an intense anger rose in her heart. She slammed the table with her hand and stood up.
“He thinks that just because he sealed some animals away forever in the Ruins he can dictate my marriage? To alter it as he please and expect me to just comply! Does he think I’m a pushover?”
Seeing her become agitated the Demon Emperor calmly told her to sit down.
Even though she was still unhappy she did as told, her hands remaining clenched at her sides.
“It is because of Lord Xing Zhi’s kindness that the three realms still exist today. Those in heaven aren’t the only ones who respect him. I also have a great deal of respect and admiration for him.”
“Why?!” Shen Li was really dissatisfied with this. “So he waved his hand at the Ruins and sealed it away? So what?! We’re the ones that have kept guard over it for the past thousand years. Now he’s back and he thinks he can just dictate my marriage and take me away from my people?!”
Voicing aloud her grievances made her more aware of just how much the Demon realm operated under the thumb of the Heavenly realm. Her heart was full of fury. “Why do we need to defer to them?! Suffer their will and desires? Our people are brave and strong. We’re mighty warriors. Why do we have to bend to those in heaven as though we’re inferior? We should attack the Heavenly realm and not let them know any peace!”
“Shut your mouth!” The Demon Emperor severely rebuked her.
There was more that Shen Li wanted to say, but she stopped her words in the presence of the anger radiating from the emperor. She didn’t want to quarrel with him so tried to restrain herself and get a firm hold on her temper.
“Is it so easy to wage a war? You who have never fought in a genuine war before, do not speak so lightly of this matter Shen Li.”
Although Shen Li fought numerous battles, all her experience had been against goblins, demons and other assorted monsters. In reality her battles were more like large scale hunts. She had never actually gone into combat against another military army. It was true she didn’t have the qualifications to speak about a real war, however she was unwilling to just sit there and take it. Even though she had overstepped her bounds she refused to change her opinion or acknowledge what the emperor said.
After a moment of silence the emperor sighed and rubbed the top of her head with the palm of his hand. “Go back home and vent your anger there. I didn’t expect that you would feel so stifled about the whole matter, that you would feel even more provoked and sullen after learning all this.” The emperor’s voice had considerably softened.
The corner of Shen Li’s mouth turned down in a rare pout for having been wronged. “Master I don’t want to marry.”
The Demon Emperor silently continued to rub her head. “Go back home OK?”
At home Shen Li lashed her foot out at the sand dune in front of the lobby as she walked by it. This kick forced a small bare body to flip out of the dune. It landed face up in the middle of the scattered bits of sand making Shen Li raise her eyebrow in surprise. It hurriedly move to speak.
“Ah! How embarrassing to meet others with no feathers on. Lord! So shameful I could die. Ah lord! It’s just disgraceful lord! Lord has such a ruthless heart! LORD!”
Shen Li lifted it up by it’s ankles, stood back up and asked it. “You’re filthy aren’t you? Come to think of it I’ve never seen you bathe before. Rou-ya! Prepare the water!”
“Ah! Spare me lord! Consider I’ll drown lord! Ahhhhhhh! Lord’s in a bad mood! Lord lord lord! Don’t vent your anger on Parrot! Ah! How unfortunate to be stripped of life!”
“Oh but I want to see all the different sides of you.”
Rou-ya was astonished to hear Shen Li’s words as she got the barrel ready. “My lord, what did you just say?”
“Haha. It was nothing important.”
Rou-ya was seriously beginning to wonder about Her Highness...
The marriage delay was a hot topic of discussion in both realms. In fact it had practically become a joke. On the tenth day of postponement a shocking event occurred. General Zi Xia, who had been sent to the borders by the emperor, had desperately ridden back and relayed news that frightened everyone. The seal over the Ruins had ruptured, releasing many minor yao shou. [notes]
Fortunately the only major monster to escape the rift was a barely formed scorpion-tailed fox. However even with just the one, the army barracks and troops garrisoned suffered serious damage and injuries. General Zi Xia’s condition was so poor that he couldn’t even make it into the palace, taking his final breaths seated on his mount after passing on the information.
General Mo Fang remained behind to defend the border, refusing to allow any of the yao shou entrance into the Demon realm. The situation was grave and urgently needed to be dealt with.
After being informed, the emperor immediately gave the order to properly bury General Zi Xia. He also dispatched a messenger to notify heaven.
Shen Li was in the palace discussing official business so it was impossible for her to not overhear. She slapped the table in anger while saying, “Why wait and inform heaven! Our troops will suffer while we wait for that useless group. Shen Li requests permission to take troops for reinforcements!”
The emperor remained silent not saying anything.
In the hall were also three veteran generals. One with white hair weighed in on the matter saying, “Your Majesty, I understand your misgivings about sending Her Highness out, what with the impending marriage, however the situation is urgent. Although there are many generals who can fight, not many of them have experience fighting the yao shou. Her Highness is one of the few who does. I would ask that Your Majesty agree to her request to bring troops to guard the boundary.”
The emperor tapped his finger on the tabletop. “Shen Li.”
Shen Li immediately knelt down and saluted. “Yes!”
“You are not allowed to set foot out of your residence for this month.”
Shen Li couldn’t believe what she just heard. She raised her head and glanced at the three old generals hoping they would intervene. They looked back at her but remained silent. Unresigned she said, “Your Majesty, the border!”
“Regarding the chaos at the border, General Shang Bei will go and investigate and if the yao shou can not be subdued, then they will delay long enough for heaven’s dispatch to arrive…”
“Ah! heaven this! heaven that! Does Your Majesty really want to be heaven’s puppet?!” Shen Li exclaimed indignantly. Then she completely disregarded etiquette and slammed the door on her way out.
The hall remained in shocked silence until the emperor asked, “Three generals, do you think I made an error?”
“Your Majesty has misgivings,” sighed one of the old generals. “Her Highness is young and reckless and does not take the time to consider things thoroughly, but Your Majesty should rest assured that Her Highness will one day understand.”
“Hm.” The eyes behind the mask were exhausted. “One day.”
General Zi Xia’s coffin had not been sealed yet so Shen Li took the opportunity to look inside. She could see blue greenish lines marking his face and black discoloration on his fingertips. The medical doctor said they were caused by the poison from the scorpion-tailed fox. With Zi Xia’s ability it should not have been fatal, but because he pushed his body to the brink, refusing to rest in order to make it and relay the information, the poison was able to reach his heart and turn fatal.
Shen Li clenched her teeth and listened to the analysis in silence. My brother staked his life to bring the news back. He exchanged it in order to get our brothers at the boundary reinforcements, but instead of immediately setting out with help they want to wait for heaven! Zi Xia wouldn’t have wanted this! Just reacting to the news a little sooner and sending help now, perhaps we’d be able to subdue the yao shou. If our speed can save even one life it would be worth it.
Her hands clenched into tight fists as she looked at his stiff frozen lips. She understood how he must have felt, the relief of having completed the mission before dying on his mount. But the emperor… Shen Li ground her teeth.
The person in charge of the mourning hall wanted to lift the coffin and move it to the center but Shen Li held onto it from one side preventing him from doing so.
Shen Li bit her finger until the skin broke and blood came out. Then she clapped her hand on top of the coffin leaving a heavy smeared bloody print on the outside of it. “Shen Li will fulfill your wish.” With that she turned and resolutely left.
Shen Li made a beeline for the birdcage the moment she entered her residence. She threw the door open and pulled Parrot roughly out practically suffocating him. Rou-ya was standing to the side when all this happened. Upon seeing it she braved death and grabbed Shen Li’s arm to stop her.
“Ah! Highness! Parrot will die!”
“The bird I raise wouldn’t be so useless as to die. Leave, close the door and keep watch.”
Rou-ya looked at Shen Li oddly. She was frightened but in the end did as commanded, exiting the room and standing guard by the door. Shortly after she saw a brilliant light peeking through the slits in the door frame, following which she heard Shen Li speak.
“I am going into seclusion starting today. It doesn’t matter who they are, refuse anyone who wants to meet with me. I will not be coming out early for anyone.”
Why the sudden desire to go into seclusion? Rou-ya thought it was strange and she scratched her head puzzled. She somehow found the courage to push the door open, thinking that she would just take a quick peek inside. Suddenly she felt something squeeze by her foot! Looking down she saw that it was a featherless Parrot! He seemed much more spirited and was bouncing his way to the living area.
Eh?! Isn’t Her Highness sorting out Parrot? She pushed the door further and was about to step inside when she noticed Shen Li’s figure seated on the couch in a meditative pose. She was indeed meditating in seclusion. Not wanting to disrupt her, Rou-ya quickly retreated and closed the door behind her. She looked around for Parrot but couldn’t find him anywhere.
What she didn’t know was that at that very moment Parrot was getting ready to meet the troops. He had ambushed a low ranking soldier and took the other’s clothes and command token, leaving the soldier confused in a corner. Parrot changed his appearance to that of the soldier and left.
Concurrently Chi Rong was at the Demon Emperor’s castle giving his report. “Your Majesty, Her Highness has left the city walls. Qing Yan is trailing her. Does Your Majesty want us to bring her back?”
The lips behind the silver mask were still for a moment before sighing and saying, “Just follow her.”
Although the army’s pace was fast it still took them two whole days before they reached the border. Despite only being a small crack in the seal, there was still enough miasma leaking out that the entire camp was shrouded in the mist. Those with weaker qi could only vomit. They were unable to fight, and with difficulty were forced to stay behind. This left them with a sense of guilt for not contributing.
Mo Fang’s troops had kept the scorpion-tailed fox about three miles from the border by surrounding it and hindering its movements. Even those seasoned soldiers long accustomed to killing monsters became weak at the knees when they heard the howl of the scorpion-tailed fox for the first time.
The monsters sealed in the Burial Ruins were indeed far more difficult to deal with.
Shen Li clenched her hands into fists as she remembered Zi Xia’s appearance in the coffin.
“Line up!” General Shang Bei shouted. The recently arrived troops from the capital immediately lined up in formation. One soldier at the end of the line disobeyed and instead walked over to Shang Bei. ”Failure to obey commands. Thirty lashings!”
Shen Li took off her helmet and looked up at the general. “General Shang Bei, Shen Li requests permission to join the battle.”
“High… Your Highness?”
Her appearance immediately caused a commotion and an uproar went through the troops. Everyone knew the identity of the Azure Sky King; it was a name synonymous with victory. The troop's morale immediately rose.
Although seeing this made General Shang Bei happy he knew Shen Li was currently engaged to be married. On top of that the emperor had emphatically refused to let her fight and everyone knew it. This put Shang Bei in a bind.
“Your Highness, the emperor did not give permission for Your Highness to enter battle. This servant does not dare…”
Shen Li didn’t give him a chance to finish before interrupting with,”General Shang Bei I’m already here and I refuse to leave empty handed. In a few days the yao shou’s skull shall be mine to grind into the ground.”
This speech completely stunned the troops into silence. Shang Bei too was silent for a moment before coming to a decision. He reigned in his mount and shouted, “To battle!” while raising his sword in the air.
Shen Li rode by Shang Bei’s side. “Many thanks to general for allowing me to join.”
“Your Highness, if this servant had not agreed what would have happened?”
“Knocked you out and commandeered your troops to fight the yao shou.”
Shang Bei laughed bitterly. “As I thought...”
The miasma became thicker the farther into the Burial Ruins they moved. The roar of the demon beast ripped through the shrouded atmosphere becoming clearer as well, greatly shocking everyone. When the troops were finally in sight of General Mo Fang they saw a gigantic fox like beast with a tail like a scorpion. It was brandishing its tail attacking Mo Fang in an attempt to inject him with poison. Upon seeing the oncoming troops it hissed then roared displaying its mouth full of sharp jagged teeth. It drooled and the saliva that dripped to the ground sizzled through the sand and stones corroding the earth underneath, leaving behind an overpowering thick greasy smell.
The troops surrounding the scorpion-tailed fox were clearly exhausted and barely able to stand with their bodies covered in blood. The only still mobile figure was Mo Fang. He stood at the front taking the initiative to attack.
General Shang Bei yelled, “To battle!”
Shen Li had already materialized her spear and launched herself forward in the direction of the scorpion-tailed fox before he’d even opened his mouth.
Her aim was true and the spear embedded directly into the center of the fox’s forehead jamming an immense amount of magical energy straight into its brain. In pain it hissed up at the sky and whipped its tail toward Shen Li trying to stab her. She pulled the spear out and flipped over in midair immediately using it to block the attack. After landing she circled back around and stabbed the fox in the belly.
It’s responding howling was so sharp and piercing it nearly broke the eardrums of those present.
Mo Fang barely missed being squashed by its claws as it slammed it down in rage. Shen Li vaulted over and shoved Mo Fang hard sending him nearly three feet away. She steadied her stance and crouched down in a half squat. Then with a roar she stabbed her spear through the fox’s foot, causing blood to spray out and dying her red. It managed to retreat in the confusion.
From the rear Mo Fang stared at the scene distractedly, his face full of hope. To Shen Li he said, “Your Highness.”
Shen Li tilted her head slightly and glanced over at him. She could see that his armor was completely destroyed and his entire upper body was encrusted in blood, yet he looked on with hope. Every soldier there had the same look in their eyes as well. Looking down she could see the ground was littered with the cold dead bodies of her brothers in arms.
Shen Li clenched her teeth. She held her spear so tightly her knuckles were white. “I’m sorry… I arrived late.”
This negative mood didn’t last long. Shen Li strode forward and with the silver spear in hand stood in the wind on the sandy ground silently for a moment before declaring, “To all you insignificant lesser demons who dared to intrude, this king will annihilate each and every one of you!”
The scorpion-tailed fox breathed deeply as it went through the process of healing its wounds. It watched Shen Li closely, following her every move. The feathers on its body bristled up and down as it breathed in and out, expanding its body almost to the brink of explosion before abruptly contracting and shrinking in on itself.
Shen Li was also eyeing it carefully. She had used her red tasseled silver spear to take the lives of countless yao shou. A direct hit would normally take a considerable amount of time to heal. This one though…
“Your Highness, be careful!” Mo Fang yelled out from behind just as the scorpion-tailed fox whipped out its tail. Shen Li raised her spear and sliced the barb tip off leaving behind the hardened the root. Without stopping she rushed forward, her vision focused. She shouted out in surprise as her hand snatched at empty air. She had intended to grab the fox’s tail but it exploded before she could. The resulting spray of poisonous fluid shot out towards the troops. Shen Li reacted quickly and drew out a gale with a wave of her hand, pushing the spray back towards the fox.
“Hahaha!” The scorpion-tailed fox threw its head back and laughed towards the sky. The sound bearing a marked resemblance to a human voice. Shen Li wrinkled her brows. The closer a yao shou resembled a human the more powerful and difficult it would be to deal with. This one could use poison and had incredibly strong healing powers. On top of that the troops were fighting at a disadvantage in the miasma. The situation would only worsen as the battle prolonged.
The fox didn’t wait for Shen Li to sort it all out. It interrupted her thoughts and said, “Didn’t expect the Demon realm to have such a good successor. Given time you would surely become a force to be reckoned with. It’s a pity though you won’t get that chance.”
The fox moved forward in Shen Li’s direction. The grievous gash she cut into its paw just a moment ago had already healed. There was barely a scar left to discern the injury. It stuck its entire neck out and let out a ferocious roar. Then it sucked in a deep mouthful of miasma and looked around with its bloodshot eyes as though it had tasted something delicious. It gave a sharp piercing hiss that stabbed the eardrums of everyone present. The soldiers behind her let out a cry of pain as their legs trembled and they were forced to kneel down.
At the same time a new sharper firmer tip sprouted at the end of its tail. Its body also underwent a change. With a whoosh its gray feathers exploded outwards and the audible sounds of its muscles and flesh expanding could be heard.
Its body completely transformed into a larger version of its former self. Shen Li clenched her teeth but smiled as Mo Fang came up to her. “Your Highness, this yao shou has strong regeneration abilities and is also very good at using poison. On top that it can also absorb magical attacks.”
His words shocked everyone. Did that mean the magical attack Shen Li used earlier was actually absorbed? Shen Li knit her brows and muttered. “You’re really an annoying beast.” Shen Li raised her spear up overhead and yelled, “General Shang Bei! Auxiliary attack!”
Shang Bei looked over in shock and horror at the monster in the center. He quickly regained his senses and shouted, “Battle formations!” Those soldiers that could move reacted immediately.
The fox watched them with hungry bloodshot eyes in order to keep everyone in its line of sight. It didn’t watch long as its vision was almost immediately blocked as Shen Li leapt up and lashed her spear out. With a loud “ding!” the fox’s newly formed tail clashed against her spear. This time however she to failed to sever the tip. She had used most of her magical energy earlier, so this attack was much weaker than the one before. She knew she was not its opponent, so right after crossing blows with it she retreated. Her intent was only to stall and give the soldiers time to ready themselves.
With the time she bought them they were able to get in position, ready their crossbows and surround it on three sides. Every arrow notched was barbed at the tip with a strong iron chain attached at the end. The moment Shen Li retreated they let loose a volley of arrows embedding them sharply and deeply into the flesh of the fox’s back. Soldiers on all three sides simultaneously yanked the trailing chain hard, forcing the metal barb to pull flesh away from bone, rendering the fox immobile. The only thing left was to find a way to decapitate it somehow...
The scorpion-tailed fox sneered saying, “To think that your formations haven’t changed even after a millennium.”
Shen Li had leapt up but stopped mid-air when she heard this. The words made her uneasy. She watched as the yao shou shook its body, risking everything to fling off its restraints. It forcefully tugged and pulled at the chains, exposing its pure white bone as its flesh pulled away. It howled and hissed in pain and swung its tail in every direction trying to hit a target.
The power of the restraint lay in the triangle formation. If any one point were to break then the yao shou would be freed. Currently it was unbroken, but it would be difficult if any of the men holding the line were to be struck down. Shen Li tried desperately to think of a way to counter the problem.
While she was doing this the scorpion-tailed fox swiped its barbed tail to the left side and sent some of the men there flying. Despite knowing that their bodies would be torn and their bones crushed, the men refused to let go and maintained their hold on the chain in order to keep the yao shou contained.
Shen Li stepped forward and in one swift motion leveraged the spear between her body and her right arm to wrap the chain around the body of the shaft. She intended to use the spear as an anchor for the chain. Just as she was about to complete the action by driving the spear deep into the ground the scorpion-tailed fox aimed its poisonous tail at her. She eyed it knowing its impact was inevitable. But she never felt the barb’s puncture because a figure rushed out and pushed her out of the way. She ended up rolling out of the strike zone completely with the person on top of her.
“Mo Fang?” Shen Li stared blankly at the man.
It was obvious Mo Fang’s battered and bruised body had been pushed to the limit after so many days of fighting. He was exhausted beyond belief, barely even aware of the wounds on his body. He only knew he needed to support Shen Li and so had rushed in to protect her. Although there was a burning pain in his back he was relieved to hear her voice, to know that she was safe.
He didn’t understand why she had such a shocked expression until he saw the poisonous barbed scorpion tail in his back. It was embedded so deeply it nearly pierced through his shoulder blade. Huh. I didn’t even know I was hit… Unable to endure anymore his eyelids drooped and he promptly lost consciousness.
The image of Zi Xia’s discolored body laying in the coffin flashed through her mind causing a coldness to grip her heart. She turned her gaze to the sandy soil around her. Her eyes were greeted with the broken and mangled bodies of those already fallen. Every one of them had someone back home - a relative, a lover, a friend - waiting for their return. It was like that old lady in the Mortal realm, waiting day after day, year after year. But now that hope would be gone, none of them would return home. None of them. The deaths of so many, this was a crime that could never be forgiven! It was all because of the abyss that opened up, because of the beast in front of her.
Shen Li turned her gaze to the scorpion-tailed fox. She watched as with a whoosh it sprouted a new tail just as sharp as the one it stabbed into Mo Fang. Its eyes were next to change after its tail, gradually shifting from pitch black to crimson red.
Shen Li gently pushed Mo Fang’s body off of her. “Withdraw the troops.” Her voice wasn’t loud but it was clear and carried across the field like a wave.
Shang Bei yelled, “Withdraw!” without hesitating.
The troops immediately retreated. This made the the scorpion-tailed fox laugh, a sound that came from deep within its belly. “To still serve that incompetent monarch, a puppet of heaven for over a millennium. Instead of being tamed by that slave, be good and fill my tummy up!”
In a sinisterly cold voice Shen Li said, “You’ve insulted my monarch. You’ve killed my men. You’ve ignited the fires of my fury.” Her words echoed across the battlefield.
In response the scorpion-tailed fox flung its head up causing its dripping saliva to spray outward.
Without bothering to brace herself, Shen Li grabbed the chain and twisted it around the shaft of her spear. In the blink an eye she raised the spear and rotated it above her head spinning it so fast it became a blur. This created a barrier against the poisonous saliva. Once done she held her hand, palm facing outward above her spear. A golden light erupted.
Shang Bei frantically shouted in shock, “Your Highness! Stay calm! This monster can absorb magical attacks and use it for its own!”
Shen Li opened her mouth and said, “Yeah? That’s great.” In a flash she jumped onto the fox’s back. “Let’s see it take this!” She rammed her spear right into one of the holes left from the crossbows, ruthlessly injecting it with her qi. A glow of golden light shone from its belly and it screamed out in pain. The spear was sticking out of its back like a skewer and Shen Li was shoving and pulling left and right as if to cleave the fox’s body in half.
Eventually the intensity of the golden light began to wane until it completely faded. Just as before the fox’s body underwent a change, expanding so much that its muscles and tendons popped before shrinking and collapsing. Standing on its back Shen Li could see its muscles already reknitting around her spear, closing up the gash from earlier.
The scorpion-tailed fox let out a loud, “Hahahaha! You’re a child who still stinks of breast milk, yet you have such audacity.” It turned around and spread its bloody mouth wide open while at the same time whipping its tail at Shen Li, an attack in two directions.
Shen Li was forced to retreat a few steps. In so doing she sensed something above her head. A rotten putrid smell rushed up her nose. She turned around only to face rows of sharp jagged teeth dripping with blood and poisonous fluids. The fox’s opened maw came at her and before she knew it she was engulfed in darkness.
“Your Highness!” Shang Bei cried out in alarm. The sight left the ground troops in disarray, one thought ringing through their minds - The Azure Sky King… the invincible Azure Sky King was just swallowed!
The scorpion-tailed fox’s body grew large again and in an exceedingly smooth hiss it began to speak in a tone that terrified the troops. “Hahaha! I will release my brothers and together we will shake up the Demon realm again! Hahaha!”
Suddenly a violent sound erupted from its body causing it to tremble. The explosions erupted incessantly building in crescendo causing its stomach to undulate in waves. The soldiers were rooted to the ground as they watched with horror and panic in their eyes. The fox did not seem to have control over its own body as violent tremors shook its flesh.
Shang Bei’s gaze was drawn to the abnormal distention in the fox’s throat. It swung its claws angrily all around as if it was trying to get rid of some great pain.
Shen Li’s spear suddenly disappeared from its back and a thorn like protrusion appeared at its throat. A golden light radiated from the point, shining bright enough to illuminate the dulled eyes of the troops on the ground. The fox could not make a sound despite opening its mouth wide. It seemed to be struggling with the light inside it.
Finally the red tasseled spear poked through its throat, allowing a stream of intense golden light to escape untethered by flesh. This started a domino effect and a loud bang sounded. The fox’s head began to loll to one side. The spear punctured through severing muscles and tendons as it went, only stopping with the complete decapitation of its head, which fell to the ground with a “plop.”
Standing in place of its head was Shen Li, her clothes and body dyed a deep red, her hair scattered loosely. Unknown fluids dripped from her skin as a murderous aura emanated from her. With a disdainful look on her face, she slowly made her way out of the fox’s body and over to its head. In the dense miasma fog the red eyes were even more horrifying.
“Not… possible…” The fox was still able to speak.
“What? No one told you?” Shen Li stepped on its nose. “You should watch what you eat.” With that said she rammed her spear directly between its brows and watched impassively as its eyes reverted back to its original color.
As it died the corners of its mouth trembled. “...a mere girl…” It glanced at Shen Li’s red spear and finally understood. “Ah… so that’s... how it is…”
Unexpectedly it was because of that.
Once the fox’s eyes closed Shen Li pulled her silver red tasseled spear out. Raising it to the sky she yelled, “The yao shou has been slain!”
The short silence followed by her proclamation was broken by the sounds of cheering and shouts. “Azure Sky King! Azure Sky King!” the soldiers jubilantly yelled at the top of their lungs.
Despite the raucous noise Shen Li’s world was very quiet, her vision dimmed and blurred. She slowly turned around intending to head back to camp. As she did so she glimpsed of a figure in white robe staring intently at her.
With great difficulty she walked forward to that figure in the fog. The skin on her cheeks had burned away from the venomous fluids and the bones in her left hand were broken from the battle. The grip that held her signature weapon loosened and her spear dropped to the ground without her realizing it. With every step she lost more awareness of her surroundings and the battleground around her faded away like an illusion. The only concrete thing in her world was the figure clad in snow white.
Finally she reached her destination. Shen Li strained to raise her hand, to move her fingertips to touch the body in front of her. Her fingers grazed his fair cheeks leaving a smudged bloody print behind. Was someone speaking to her? She heard a familiar voice. In her mind she saw a soft smile.
“Shen Li, time to eat.” Yes that’s right.
She did miss eating his food. She also missed being with him.
Her fingers slid down and she fell forward into a warm embrace. There was no sweeter drug that the scent that engulfed her.
As she lost consciousness and began sliding down, he ignored the acid and filth on her body and wrapped his arms around her waist and held her in a firm embrace. The hand Shen Li laid on his cheek dropped. He grabbed it mid-fall and pressed his fingertips to her pulse. Something about it made him frown and furrow his brow. "Where's your camp?"
General Shang Bei jogged over. He knew Shen Li was engaged and soon to be married, so the sight of her held in a strange man's embrace put him in an awkward position. He wanted to demand her release, but the strong magical aura the stranger emitted gave him pause. Perhaps he was the envoy from heaven? If so then he could help bring her to the camp. It was just... did the Heavenly realm really only send one person to help them with the seal?
"This distinguished gentleman, may I ask who you are?"
"Beyond the Heavens, By the Water Pavilion, Immortal High God Xing Zhi."
The people of the Demon realm weren't familiar with those in the Heavenly realm, never mind those Beyond the Heavens or Water Pavilion whatever... But they were familiar with the ancient celestial being called Xing Zhi who bestowed the marriage to Shen Li.
Shang Bei's face took on a respectful look. If his words were true then it made sense heaven only sent over one person.
"I apologize. I haven't spent much time in the lower realms so became lost and only found my way here a moment ago."
Shang Bei remained silent. It wouldn't do to criticize an ancient high god. He turned around and yelled out an order, "Clear out the battlegrounds and help the injured back to camp!" He walked to one side of Xing Zhi and said, "Beyond the Heavens Lord Xing Zhi, I wouldn't want to trouble you. Please allow me to support Her Highness." He reached his hand out to Shen Li as he spoke.
"No." Xing Zhi angled Shen Li's body away from Shang Bei's reach. "It's no trouble. She came to me of her own accord so I'll carry her." With that said he ignored Shang Bei, forcing the other man to follow behind. Both walked forward several paces when suddenly Xing Zhi turned his head and asked, "Oh that's right. Where is the camp located?"
A speechless Shang Bei could only stare at Xing Zhi thinking: this person... this person is indeed special...
A cold breeze swayed the sunny world outside. Inside, the sweet smell of medicinal herbs hung in the air and entered Shen Li's nose as she slowly sat up. All was quiet except for the creaking noise of the rocking chair that rocked back and forth nearby. In it sat a man in white. Nearby was another person in black. At her movement the chair stopped and the man in it turned to look at her asking, "What? Hungry?"
"No." She sat up straight and forced a smile before saying, "Just... tired."
He lightly rubbed her forehead with the palm of his hand. "Then relax and rest."
She closed her eyes for a moment before opening them back up abruptly, completely awake. She grabbed at empty air. "Wait! Hold on!" The wounds on her body also woke up aching badly. Her left side, shoulders, fingers - everything ached. She clenched her teeth but a groan of pain still escaped.
"Your Highness... what is it?" The person in black nervously asked.
Shen Li looked at the foot soldier's obviously panic-stricken face before turning her head left and right looking at her surroundings. It was only the two of them in the tent and she was lying on a cot. Her body hurt all over. She didn't have to look down to know she had to be bandaged up like a plump round glutinous rice ball. Her head was so confused and dizzy she had no choice but to lie back down. Wasn't there another person here just now?
"Help me up."
The soldier waved his hands left and right frantically in front of him. "Your Highness you mustn't. That... that person said... you can't move."
Must be those annoying doctors, making a fuss over every little thing. Although Shen Li was disdainful of them and their orders, she nevertheless stopped trying to move about and instead asked, "How many casualties did we have in battle? Have the rituals for the deceased been performed? What is General Mo Fang's condition?"
The foot soldier was dumbfounded by her series of questions. Instead of answering he got up and rushed out of the tent, yelling as he did so, "I'll call for the generals!"
Shen Li smashed her fist against the cot. "Geeze it's not like I'm going to eat you. Sssss... that hurt."
A light breezy laugh came out of nowhere startling Shen Li. Her brows creased as she couldn't see anyone else in the tent with her. She was about to raise her voice and ask when the tent flap suddenly parted.
Mo Fang, heavily bandaged and leaning on crutches, stepped inside. He made his way slowly towards Shen Li, his eyes on her the whole time. After releasing a long held breath in a sigh he asked, "Your Highness... is OK?"
Shen Li stared at him blankly for a moment before smiling and speaking, "Shouldn't I be asking you that?" He was obviously severely injured.She looked at his sorry figure and easily imagined the pain he had to be in.
"You know, I remember it was only a few days ago that I was arguing with the Demon Emperor, trying to persuade him that the One Beyond the Heavens, Immortal High God Xing Zhi was nothing amazing. Only sealing a few minor animals. It was us in the Demon realms that did all the heavy labor, guarding over the seals. Thinking about it now, after experiencing that battle, it really is amazing that he was able to seal away the countless thousands that he did. It was indeed fortunate he graced the three realms with his presence!"
Before Shen Li could finish her rueful monologue, Mo Fang suddenly dropped his crutches and knelt down in front of her, causing his wounds to reopen dangerously. He bent his head down and said, "To allow Your Highness to be injured, Mo Fang deserves death!"
Shen Li stared blankly, completely stumped for words at his actions. Her silence stretched on for some time before she finally spoke in a cold voice. "According to your reasoning I am just as deserving of death for failing to protect my brothers on the battlefield, for allowing them to fall in battle, for allowing the yao shou to take their lives."
Mo Fang raised his head and declared passionately, "Of course not Your Highness! Your Highness cut the head of the yao shou. Such a meritorious thing, how could anyone hold Your Highness responsible...?"
Shen Li sighed. In a gentle voice she said, "Then you can't be blamed either. Now stand up."
Mo Fang could feel his eyes heating up and filling with tears. He bit his lip to keep it in, tucking his head back down. He bent forward and pressed his forehead against the ground, remaining in that oddly bent position for some time refusing to raise his head. "Your Highness doesn't understand... I... I can't forgive myself."
Once he regained consciousness and found out how seriously injured Shen Li was, that she'd fallen into a coma, he became frantic with worry and rushed over immediately to see her. Her entire body was covered in blood and her life energy was so weak he could barely discern it. In an incredibly small voice Mo Fang said to her now, "I can't forgive myself specifically because it was Your Highness that was injured."
Understanding finally dawned on Shen Li. She breathed the cold air in slowly as she stared at Mo Fang. "Mo Fang, you... you can't be..."
"Your Highness! Your Highness is the only one in my heart! Your Highness has been there for a long time now."
The declaration from Mo Fang stunned her. She might as well have seen a ghost, she was so shocked. "...you... is your brain perhaps damaged? Your body, is it OK?!"
Shen Li stopped dressing in femininely after she earned merit for her her first successful campaign. She briefly had the desire to dress more womanly, but that desire died a quick death the one and only time she acted on it. A group of officials were so startled and shocked at the sight of her in an embroidered skirt that they had to give her the once over twice. The horror on their faces was unforgettable. That was the end of that and the thought of dressing femininely never entered her mind ever again. Considering how manly she normally behaved, she didn't think anyone would have romantic interests in her.
"I am quite lucid." He looked like he wanted to cut his heart open so Shen Li could see. "I feel deeply for Your Highness. I like Shen Li."
Shen Li breathed in wrong and nearly choked herself at his words, stopping herself from vomiting only by a narrow margin. Looking at Mo Fang and his lowered head, she didn't know what kind of expression to put on her face. Finally she put on a stern respectful one and spoke. "That won't do."
Mo Fang raised his head at her words, looking her square in the face and the grim expression there.
"This matter... it won't do. I have to ask you to purge these emotions. Destroy them completely. This is a military command." She enunciated each word of the last sentence clearly and slowly.
Mo Fang silently kowtowed several times before declaring, "As commanded!"
Silence reigned inside the tent until it was broken by the sound of General Shang Bei's voice. He was frantically shouting, "Immortal High God Xing Zhi! Please don't go in yet..!"
"Why?" The person being addressed asked as he used his finger to lift the flap of the tent open.
Shen Li looked over and saw a man dressed in white, the sun casting a golden halo behind him. His robe dragged on the dusty ground as he moved, giving the impression that it was excessively superfluous, but at the same time it was exactly this excessiveness that gave him an air of untouchable aloofness. He had his head turned back to address General Shang Bei so she couldn't see his face.
"This, this..." General Shang Bei craned his neck around Xing Zhi trying to see inside the tent. Inside he saw Mo Fang kneeling on the ground while Shen Li laid on top of the cot. He sighed in relief at the sight. "Ah... it's nothing. Nothing at all."
At that Xing Zhi stepped fully inside the tent.
Shen Li's mind was blown away the moment she got a good look at Xing Zhi. A foolish expression replaced the stern look she had earlier as memories of the battle aftermath came back to her. She thought the white silhouette was just a dream, a hallucination. Unexpectedly it was real. She unconsciously spoke out the name on her mind, "Xing Yun. You..."
General Shang Bei rushed forward to Mo Fang and lent his hand to support his friend up. He let out an exclamation of surprise when he felt how ice cold Mo Fang's hand was. He turned to Shen Li. "Your Highness this is Beyond the heaven's Immortal High God Xing Zhi. He came to reinforce the seal on the Ruins."
"Immortal High God Xing Zhi?" Shen Li struggled to sit up as she asked her question.
Xing Zhi stepped forward and lightly pressed his finger on her shoulders to stop her. "Your wound will open."
"Have you ever gone to the Mortal realm?" Shen Li asked. "Do you know Xing Yun?"
In an indifferent voice Xing Zhi said, "No," as he pulled the quilt over Shen Li. After covering her properly he reached for her wrist and spent a long time holding it to measure her pulse. "Better. Your internal flow finally smoothed out."
Shen Li quietly gazed at him, their eyes locking until Xing Zhi broke the connection with a light laugh. "I heard the Azure Sky King was brave and excellent at fighting. Witnessing that bravery in the action, I must admit those words were accurate. Very admirable. However no matter how good your physical foundation is, Your Highness must take care of yourself and not be so reckless."
This type of polite speech was really pleasant on the ears. Shen Li blinked her eyes as a sense of quiet calm came over her. With her eyes down she said, "Sorry to have troubled Immortal High God Xing Zhi."
He's not Xing Yun. His facial features are sharper and he's taller too. His entire body exudes this cold aloof air Yun never had. Yun was indifferent to those around him, but he always behaved appropriately according to the norms. This man... this man on the other hand, based on his recent behavior, entering without invitation, acting as he wished, is definitely the kind accustomed to doing what he pleased, like a tyrant.
"I haven't been here in over a millennium so I'm no longer familiar with the landscape. I'll need to explore the topography to see if there are any irregularities before going into the Burial Ruins to reinforce the seals. I will have to trouble Your Highness to guide me."
His words left everyone in the tent speechless. Shang Bei was the first to recover saying, "Immortal High God Xing Zhi, if you need someone to guide you, there are others more familiar with the grounds around the Ruins. Right now Her Highness is too injured... I'm afraid she will need more time to rest."
"General need not be worried. Her Highness's body is healing fine. I will take care of her, in three days she should be able to move about normally. Acting as my guide will not interfere with her recuperation. In fact moving around will be good for her body."
Mo Fang wrinkled his brow. "Immortal High God Xing Zhi, I would like to humbly substitute for Her Highness and be your guide."
Xing Zhi stared at Mo Fang for the longest time before replying, "No I will have her lead the way."
At those words Mo Fang's fist clenched tightly. The sight made a big smile break out on Xing Zhi's face. Shen Li hurriedly rushed in with, "Then for the next three days I will have to trouble Immortal High God Xing Zhi."
"Then it's settled."
Everyone left to let Shen Li rest. General Shang Bei and Mo Fang parted ways by the side of the tent, while Xing Zhi wandered around the camp on his own. Eventually he found himself in front of another tent. Standing there he felt a presence behind him. Turning around he found a foot soldier staring at him with panicked expression. The soldier abruptly made a u-turn and was about to flee but was stopped almost immediately by Xing Zhi's command of, "Stop."
The soldier stood still completely passive like a stone. Xing Zhi walked over and patted him on the head lightly saying, "Forget," as he did so.
A new memory flashed through the soldier's mind. In it he had gone to Her Highness's tent to clear out some things, but when he got there he found a man in white sitting beside her cot. He had witnessed:
"Take a break then." Xing Zhi stroked Her Highness's forehead. "You have free time," he quietly ordered.
When the man in white noticed him, that man had turned around and placed a finger to his lips. "Shhhh." Then the man in white disappeared and Her Highness woke up and yelled out, "Wait!"
He blinked and stared. A man dressed in white walked in front of him. He had some vague images in his mind but he just couldn't remember anything clearly. This left him feeling strange as though something was weird, but he couldn't put his finger on it. He blinked a few times and scratched his head, unable to remember anything else other then the back of the man as he walked away. It was only then that he remembered he was supposed to clean up Her Highness's tent.
Three days later...
Xing Zhi undid Shen Li’s sling and dismantled her splint. Then he applied pressure above an acupuncture point and concentrated on treating her injury. Shen Li suddenly smiled and asked, “Earlier you said you left behind four items in the area around the two seals in the Ruins. But none of the soldiers on patrol have ever encountered them. Do you still remember where they are?”
“Mm. One is on a hill top, another is in a lake, another...hm,” Xing Zhi replied as he released her hand. “Move your arm now.”
Shen Li sat up as she obediently moved her arm first bending it a bit before stretching and turning it several times in a circular motion. Her body was unexpectedly loose and pain-free. This kind of recovery speed was astonishing. An injury like this would normally take at least two weeks of rest.
Yet it only took Xing Zhi three days to heal her.
“It seems like the issue is resolved,” he grabbed her hand and held it in his own, palm to palm.
Shen Li automatically pulled her hand back without thinking. Xing Zhi looked at her confused. It was an awkward moment and Shen Li coughed before saying, “Yes? What is it?”
Xing Zhi gave an easy chuckle. “The formidable Azure Sky King is unexpectedly shy?” He grabbed her hand and entwined his fingers through hers. “Simply examining your joints. Try to grip my hand as hard as you can.”
This earned him a fierce stare from Shen Li but he didn’t notice, so she quickly glanced downwards. No pressure came. They were like that for some time until Xing Zhi asked in confusion, “Are you hurting somewhere?”
“No...” Shen Li pulled her hand back and rubbed the space between her brows. “I was just worried I’d break your hand if I put pressure into my grip.”
Xing Zhi gave her a blank stare. He laughed out loud after a second. “Your Highness can be at ease. Please feel free to grip my hand as hard as you want. I promise I won’t break.”
These words reminded her that the man in front of her was Beyond the Heavens Immortal High God Xing Zhi, a person with an immortal body. It wouldn’t be like gripping that mortal man’s hand. Despite knowing that the man in front of her wasn’t Xing Yun she still hesitated, her heart still unsure. Their attitudes were so different but their faces were so similar. That laugh and that smile... Shen Li found it hard to control her emotions. She angrily grabbed Xing Zhi’s hand, laced her fingers through his, and gripped hard.
The moment she did Xing Zhi said, “Mm. Good. You’ve recovered well.” He pulled his hand back after saying so. “Your Highness is healed enough and should be able to guide me around the area later this afternoon.”
“This evening would be fine as well.”
“No, this afternoon works.” He completely suppressed her. This Immortal High God Xing Zhi was seriously hard to deal with.
“The only thing around here are the destroyed barracks and camp for the soldiers, but farther south is a tall hill. No matter what we do, we can’t get anything to grow there. Before, hundreds of years ago, miasma would flow around the borders, but the hills blocked it from entering the land. It’s too late for us to go to the lake, so we’ll investigate the hills first.” Shen Li took out a map one of the soldiers earnestly drew for her. This was what she used to guide Xing Zhi.
Shen Li turned to find him slowly fidgeting with his robe. She was really annoyed and had to restrain her temper before speaking to him, “Immortal High God, we should head out to out soon.”
“Mm,” was his reply. He was focused on the hem that trailed in the dirt. He grabbed it and seemed to weigh his options while swinging the hem in his hand. He fingered it briefly before tearing off a strip and tossing it toward the boundary of the miasma. The silky white fabric rode on the wind as it slowly drifted away from them. “Let’s go.”
Shen Li followed the fabric with a thoughtful gaze, momentarily unable to turn away. Even the Demon Emperor couldn’t wear such fine material. To think he discarded something like that so easily. Shen Li turned around and studied Xing Zhi’s clothes from behind. Even though he’d been in the Demon realm for several days, his clothing was pristine.
That day with the Scorpion-tailed fox, I remember before fainting, I smeared blood all over him. He managed to launder it clean with just water.
In contrast the men guarding the boundary were filthy, their entire bodies covered in grime. Shen Li’s eyes hung down as a strong feeling of displeasure came over her. The urge to express it overcame her. It was unfair he could stay so clean!
“What?” asked Xing Zhi in bafflement when he saw her remain unmoving.
“It’s nothing.” Shen Li shook her head and walked toward him without saying another word.
It took them all afternoon to reach the hills. By then, despite the daytime sun, a dense layer of fog and miasma settled all around. Because the fog was so thick, their visibility was limited to a perimeter of five paces. Shen Li led the way holding the map in one hand while clearing vegetation away from her path with the other. The miasma already eroded and weakened the plants in the area, so the branches and twigs crumbled easily under her.
“Where we are, we’re still close to camp. The officers and soldiers don’t come by this way often so the map only has trails up through parts of the hills not far enough to get to the Ruins. The miasma obscures everything, so even if we fly up, we won’t be able to see. We’ll have to find our own way up on foot.”
She felt uneasy when he didn’t reply to her after some time had passed. She finally turned around only to find dense fog. She strained her eyes but still couldn’t find him. She heard the immortal high god lost his way en route to the Demon realm. Could he be lost again?
“Immortal High God Xing Zhi?” Shen Li called out as she retraced her steps. “Immortal High God!” A burst of cool breeze suddenly blew by, dispersing the heavy fog and clearing her vision. With the fog gone, she could easily see a celestial being in snow white robes slowly walking toward her. The miasma entrenched in the area dissipated with every step he took. It was as if a rainstorm came by and washed it away. Despite the lack of vegetation, the air felt fresh and clean.
The breeze caught the fabric of Xing Zhi’s robe and made it lightly flutter around him. The sparse light in the Demon realm reflected off the fabric as it flowed. Shen Li stared blankly at him mesmerized, as the image imprinted in her mind. Her mind cleared and the heaviness in her heart eased.
Ah! This… so this is an ancient high god!
To cleanse the air no matter how contaminated…clearly an ancient god was different from the demons whose only innate ability was to fight.
Xing Zhi shook out his sleeves as he walked up, stopping two steps ahead of her. He turned around and faced her before saying, “Which way?”
Shen Li blinked, slowly coming back to her senses. As she raised the map up to take a look, something rammed fiercely into her foot, making her grip loosen. The wind picked up the dropped map and sent it flying away before Shen Li could react. She wanted to chase after it but something circled around her legs, hindering her movements. Looking down she saw a four eared wild boar biting her ankles. It wasn’t enough to actually injure her, but it was enough to block her from chasing after the map.
She angrily stooped down and picked the wild boar up by the tail. Then she gave it two firm slaps across its butt. “Getting in the way!”
The wild boar furiously wiggled trying to break free of her grasp. Xing Zhi watched Shen Li closely as she shouted at the wild boar. He wrinkled his brow and said, “It’s been infected by the miasma. Put it down; I’ll burn it.”
“No need,” Shen Li said as she pitched her arm out and tossed the wild boar into the forest. The wild board screeched like it was about to die before disappearing into the woods. “The miasma has been infecting things in the Demon realm. Lower life forms will become aggressive and try to attack, but they’re weak, so their attacks are harmless. Even the common people can deal with them easily.”
Shen Li recalled enough of the map to bring them back to the path. She climbed up the side and said, “Life here is hard enough. That wild board didn’t do anything to deserve death. Until it does something bad, we shouldn’t punish it.”
Her words startled Xing Zhi. “Ha. The Azure Sky King is unexpectedly so merciful,” he said after sizing her up from the back. His moodiness from earlier settled down. He talked to her as he followed behind. “If it were up to me, I’d nip it in the bud before it became an issue.” He paused again and stared at her from behind, his eyes thoughtful.
“If that’s the case…” Shen Li shot a glance behind her just missing the fleeting look in Xing Zhi’s eyes. She gave an unrestrained confident smile. “Today must be really boring for you huh?”
After a short silence Xing Zhi said, “It has been incredibly boring, yes.”
Shen Li became more unsure of their path the farther up they walked. She constantly glanced up at the sky feeling more jittery with each passing minute.
Xing Zhi said, “It’s good that we have the moonlight.” He walked forward like he was walking in his own backyard, carefree and slowly.
Shen Li knew better than to urge him to hurry. She could only accompany him as he slowly strolled passing by thickets of dead trees.
The two lost track of time and the sky darkened without Shen Li realizing it. Her eyes widened in amazement and her jaw dropped at the sight in the sky. The moon shone like a huge orb above her. How long had it been since this kind of clear moonlight shone in the Demon realm?
“We’ve reached the top.” Xing Zhi came up from behind Shen Li and stood by a dead tree. The image of his silhouette outlined by the moonlight reflected in her eyes.
The tree he stood next to was different from the rest. Although it was withered like all the others, it had green leaf shoots at the tips. The baby leaves rustled in the wind as though they were going to fall.
Xing Zhi stretched his hand out to the trunk of the tree. It trembled at his touch and made sounds like it was weeping, lamenting in grief.
This made Xing Zhi furrow his brow. He sighed and in a placating voice said, “You must be exhausted.” White light rippled from the palm of his hand and into the trunk of the tree traveling all the way down to its roots in the soil.
Shen Li could almost make out the light as it spread over the scars of the ground underneath.
The ground shook as though the spirit of the hill was coming to life, casting away the mist that enveloped everything. Shen Li stood looking over the edge of the hill and stared at the path they took up. It was lit up in the outline of a character, like an imprint of a word on the hill top.
As a matter of fact, everything from the moonlight, the dead trees, the path they took, it all linked together to join the earth and heavens, completely dispelling the miasma. He had calculated everything from their first steps.
They had drawn the character for the seal with their path up the hill, borrowed the strength of the moon to dispel the miasma, then finally activated the seal once they reached the top. Such a well thought out plan, yet he didn’t tip his hand at all.
Xing Zhi waved Shen Li over as he pulled down a tree branch. She cautiously approached as she watched him stand on tiptoes and pull a huge leaf off a branch. He held it out to her and smilingly said, “The foliage in the Demon realm grow so large.”
Shen Li took the leaf and stared at it blankly. Slowly she pressed it against her cheeks. Feeling its coldness, she marveled at its existence, a leaf that managed to grow in the Demon realm. She was astonished at its vitality. If the children could share in such a sight, how wonderful would it be?
Her gaze softened and the corners of her mouth rose up. She was so lost in caressing the leaf she missed the look of tenderness in Xing Zhi’s eyes and the smile on his lips.
“Do you want to sit in the tree for a while?”
Shen Li looked at him stupidly as she asked, “Is that even possible?” She carefully fingered the trunk of the tree, barely daring to touch it. “Won’t it break?”
Xing Zhi was amused. “I’ll take responsibility if it breaks.” He held Shen Li’s waist as he brought them both up onto a sturdy branch. The moonlight filtered through the leaves and shined down on them, making it feel as though they were sitting in their own secret hiding place.
Shen Li’s eyes widened at the view. She sighed and spoke with a wistful tone in her voice, “It’s so beautiful. It’s like there’s music in the air.” She stared mesmerized at the new shoots springing from the branches.
Hearing this, Xing Zhi pulled a single leaf to his lips and blew, making a melody. Shen Li was pleasantly surprised. How easy. All he did was blow at a leaf. She mimicked his actions, grabbing a leaf and blowing fiercely on it. The result was less than stellar. The leaf shot out of her hand like an arrow and jabbed into the ground below.
“Eh?!” The music in the trees stopped. Stunned she turned to look at Xing Zhi. “Immortal High God, are you laughing at me?” She narrowed her eyes about to get up.
“No I was just thinking,” Xing Zhi laughed as he turned to look at the moon, “that the moonlight this evening is really nice.”
A crisp refreshing wind blew down the hills into camp, cutting through the miasma and clearing the air, allowing the bright moon to shine gloriously down from the sky. Everyone in camp looked up in amazement at the sight. How long had it been since any of them enjoyed such a sight?
Mo Fang sat on the white stone training platform quietly gazing at the character imprinted on the hill. He was in a contemplative mood.
“Here.” Shang Bei tossed a jug of wine at Mo Fang. He jumped up on to the platform and made himself comfortable next to the other man. “Injured people shouldn’t drink liquor straight so I cut it with some water. Hahaha!”
Mo Fang shook the bottle. “No. Drinking leads to mistakes.”
“OK. Even if you won't drink it, just take it anyway.” Shang Bei raised his head and poured a mouthful down his throat. Then he glanced at Mo Fang and said, “Do you still think Immortal High God Xing Zhi was bullying Her Highness?” Silence met his question. “Hahaha!” he laughed at Mo Fang’s refusal to answer. “Immortal High God’s personality is really strange, but if you look at his aura, it’s insanely pure. An aura of that magnitude, neither you nor I would have been able to withstand it. I’m sure our legs would have turned to jelly had either of us switched places with Her Highness.”
Mo Fang nodded. Even if he didn’t understand it then, he did now. The moon’s glow, the fresh clean breeze, he could feel Immortal High God Xing Zhi’s consideration for them in these actions. It was just that…
“Hey! The moon’s been out for so long. Shouldn’t they have finished what they were doing and be back already?”
Mo Fang gripped the jug and uncorked it. He chugged down the wine trying to drown his sorrow. The first mouthful was immediately followed by a second, then a third, until his face blushed red.
Shang Bei laughed mischievously at the sight. Shang Bei understood, after all he felt the same way. He wanted to say something heartfelt and wise but what came out was, “What about Her Highness do you like?” Such a direct question. He wanted to slap his mouth the moment it came out.
The drunken Mo Fang looked at the moon in a daze. “What I like?” he whispered as if to himself. “Is there anything I don’t like?”
“Oh…” Shang Bei, stumped for words, scratched his head at the tricky dilemma. “You’ve got it bad.”
As if on cue, a light streaked across the night sky landing somewhere on the other side of camp. Mo Fang got up, leaving Shang Bei behind as he walked over weaving around the tents. He saw Xing Zhi grab a leaf from above Shen Li’s head in front of one of the tents.
She snatched the leaf back. “Another day, I will blow a melody from this leaf for you to hear.”
Xing Zhi smiled and said, “I will await that beautiful melody then,” before turning to leave.
Shen Li was intent on doing the same. She turned around and was about to enter her tent when she caught a glimpse of Mo Fang out of the corner of her eye, making her pause. “Mo Fang,” she called out.
With his head hung low, Mo Fang obediently walked over. Shen Li said, “The Demon Emperor doesn’t know I’m here. Return and report my presence and the events that happened here to the emperor. Returning early, it will also be good for your recuperation.”
This… was this her way of making him leave? Clenching his jaw, Mo Fang knelt on one knee to accept the order. “As commanded.”
Shen Li smelled alcohol on his body when he came over. She wanted to remind him not to drink while his body was still recovering, but with things the way they were, she changed her mind part way through. It was better to not say. She turned around to head back into her tent. After she left, Mo Fang didn’t get up, but remained kneeling like that for a long time.
Shen Li saw Mo Fang off the next day. Sighing, she thought about his confession. She had never met someone who had the courage to confess to her. Unfortunately, Mo Fang had lousy timing.
She wanted to give the person she liked her whole heart and mind, but the current her couldn’t do that. Even though Xing Yun died, his presence still loomed large in her mind, preventing her from returning anyone’s affections. She didn’t know if things would change in the future, but she knew she didn’t have space for anyone right now. Not to mention there was her fiancé, Fu Rongjun. Just thinking about him gave her a headache.
She turned her head up to the sky and the clean air helped relax her heart. She would lead Immortal High God Xing Zhi to another of the seals later today. The continued improvement in air quality would uplift the soldiers’ mentality. She smiled. It had been a long time since she’d looked forward to doing something.
It wasn’t until late in the evening that Xing Zhi leisurely walked up.
Shen Li calmed herself before speaking. “Immortal High God, do you know what time it is?”
Ignoring her provocation Xing Zhi asked, “How’s the leaf blowing going?”
Shen Li’s face stiffened as she recalled her efforts with the leaf yesterday. She coughed, embarrassed. “We should take care of business first. Yesterday, you said there were several seals. The one on the hill, we already fixed. Let’s use today to go to the lake in the west. Thanks to the purification of the hill yesterday, the air cleared a lot. We’ll be able to see the ground even if we fly high up.”
Their trip over was smooth without any problems. Upon landing the appearance of the lake made Shen Li frown. The miasma had left its imprint leaving the lake looking more like an overgrown swamp than anything else.
Xing Zhi was unphased by the filthy water. “Let’s go in.”
Shen Li was stunned. “Go in?” She shook her head immediately. “The foot soldiers never patrol this area and they’ve never gone into the lake. We don’t have a map of the region underneath. I won’t be able to assist you with the path. Immortal High God Xing Zhi will have to go in alone. I will wait here on the banks for your return.”
That made Xing Zhi laugh. “Does Your Highness not know how to swim?”
Shen Li was born with a natural aversion to water. Her water magic was abysmal. Of course she didn’t know how to swim! She’d nearly drowned that day when Xing Yun tossed her chicken form into the tiny pond in his backyard. Now Xing Zhi wanted her to go into a lake so muddy that visibility was practically nonexistent… of course she’d be unwilling! She was loath to expose her weakness in front of him but without an alternative…“No.”
“What about water repellent spells?”
Xing Zhi nodded. At that Shen Li retreated a few steps, however his next words froze her.
“That’s fine. I’ll lead you then.”
“Huh?” Did she hear correctly? “Wait, hold on…” She was about to refuse, but before she could even open her mouth, Xing Zhi moved his fingers and instantly a black sheet of darkness covered her vision. Although her vision was obscured, she could hear vague “glu glu” sounds of water bubbles around her. She knew she had to be in the water. Knowing this made her heart tighten. She reached out and her hand touched Xing Zhi next to her. She was forced to grip onto that hand like her life depended on it, her own body rigid with tension.
“Don’t be so nervous.” Xing Zhi’s voice sounded faintly from in nearby. “Down here you can breathe the same as up there. My water repellent spell isn’t so weak it would fail so easily.”
Shen Li breathed in hesitantly after Xing Zhi spoke. The success encouraged her to take another deep breath in and out. She really could breathe underwater! She was so relieved; however this relief was quickly replaced by rising anger. “That was completely uncalled for!”
“The water repellent spell will stop working if you let go of my hand.”
His words put her on alert and she immediately became obedient. Though she tightened her hold on Xing Zhi she was still resentful enough to yell at him. “It’s pitch black here. You dragging me with you, what’s the use? Let me go back up!”
“But I’d be afraid to go in alone.”
What a ridiculous sentence! How could he spout such nonsense?! Shen Li was practically choking on the curses threatening to erupt from the fire in her belly. Although she kept them from coming out, her thoughts were unkind: Your respectful venerable self resided Beyond the Heavens for how many years now? What hardships, what disturbances have you not faced?! To dare say you’d be afraid of a small lake… aren’t you just messing with me here?!
But remembering yesterday and the character outline on the hill, Shen Li reasoned he had to have a plan and a reason for dragging her along. She decided to play whatever role he had in mind for her. Just as she hardened her resolve she was thrown for a loop by Xing Zhi’s next words. “We’re here.”
Suddenly a beam of blue light flashing ahead caught her attention. Looking at it she saw it was coming from a strangely shaped stone statue. Xing Zhi placed his hand on the topmost part of it, closed his eyes and chanted an incantation that Shen Li couldn’t understand. Whatever it was, it made the water around them ripple and shake.
A part of the statue crumbled away revealing a sparkling translucent disk that emitted a light bright enough to hurt Shen Li’s eyes. More parts of the statue crumbled and turned to dust, the speed ever increasing, until its insides were completely revealed. A solid bright pillar of ice lay inside. Xing Zhi poured his energy into it causing the surrounding temperature to drop, making a frigid cold invade the area.
Water passed through the ice pillar in an unceasing flow and emerged on the other side free of murkiness, shining clear and crystalline. The once pitch-black lake turned translucent and sparkled gloriously.
Shen Li raised her head and stared at the top of the ice pillar as wave after wave of water rippled through it on its way into the lake, filling the bottom with water warmed by the sun. A hard to come by feeling of serenity blossomed in her chest. It was like the water was rushing through her own heart clearing away all the fear that had gathered over time, unwinding her and making her relax.
“Fish should be able to spawn in the lake now.”
“Naturally,” Xing Zhi replied.
She turned around to look at him. “Aren’t there two more seals? Let’s find them quickly,” Shen Li excitedly said.
“Your Highness doesn’t have to worry about the other two seals.” Xing Zhi patted the pillar of ice in a gesture that appeared placating. He pulled Shen Li along with him as he circled it. “There’s one located below the training platform back at camp. When we return, just tell everyone to stay away from the area while I mend the seal. After that will be the steel chains in front of the Burial Ruins.”
Shen Li realized Xing Zhi had always known the location of the seals. She thought out loud, “The hilltop for wood, the lake for water, the camp for earth, the Burial Ruins for metal. These are the four of the five elements.” She frowned as she continued, “We’re missing fire. Where would that be? The seals won’t be as powerful if the five elements are not aligned."
Xing Zhi smiled, “We’ll handle those two seals together, but the fire one I’ll do alone. Your Highness doesn’t need to be worried. Since I, Xing Zhi, am here the borders will be purified.” Xing Yun[notes] turned around to walk back. Unexpectedly his robe wrapped a bit and got caught on the ice pillar. He automatically reached down to fix it, letting go of Shen Li’s hand in the process. He caught Shen Li raising her eyebrows while looking at the hand he just released.
Xing Zhi shook his head and laughed as he said, “Busted huh?” He raised his head to look at her, expecting her to give him a piece of her mind. But instead when their eyes met, she appeared distracted. Xing Zhi took advantage of the situation. Smiling he said, “Let’s go back.”
Based on Xing Zhi’s words, of the two seals remaining, one was guarded by the stone statue below the training platform at camp. Once they returned, she ordered the troops to vacate the vicinity, leaving about a mile between them and camp. She turned to follow the troops out after giving her orders, but Xing Zhi beckoned her over before she could escape.
“It will take some time to manage this seal. Stay and guard over me; ensure that I’m not disturbed.”
The troops already left the area. Which one of them would dare disturb you? thought Shen Li. The words were there, but she choked them back as she stood motionlessly watching Xing Zhi.
He pressed his hand on top of the statue’s head. As with the previous seals, a gradual light spread out while the land underneath trembled. Shen Li focused solely on Xing Zhi’s face, trying to size him up.
The once dry soil gradually darkened with moisture, and tiny green sprouts wiggled out of the dirt even between the nooks and crannies of the tents. The air cleared. Unlike with the previous seals, this time Shen Li’s heart didn’t feel light and free but was instead heavy and weighted down by the clean air.
It was fleeting feeling so she didn’t dwell on it. She sensed Xing Zhi was almost finished, so she walked towards him while avoiding his eyes. “Once matters regarding the Ruins are complete, I will return to the palace to receive my punishment.” She turned and walked away after saying this.
Xing Zhi’s eyes darkened following her receding back.
[Some time later in front of the Ruins.]
The spot Shen Li battled the scorpion-tailed fox was some distance away from the Ruins, so this was her first time being so close to it. She was shocked at the dark crack in the air above the chain.
Dense black miasma seeped out of it, spreading all around. Very quickly the three seals activated and stopped the spread, roughly keeping the miasma contained. However the miasma still managed to affect the emotional state of those nearby in the short time it flowed unchecked. It was fortunate the seals activated so quickly, else the impact would have been devastating.
Unlike the Cold Palace of Atonement, which was created naturally through the forces of nature, the Ruins were an immense artificial space created by tearing out a piece of the world and isolating it in its own space. It was a cage created by Xing Zhi designed to hold monsters hundreds of times more powerful than the single scorpion-tailed fox she fought against.
Shen Li’s eyes took on a grim light. She glanced to her side as Xing Zhi stepped over to her. The miasma scraped against his clothes and hair, yet his expression remained calm and unworried.
This man… he really is the same.
She came out of her daze when she noticed a furrow creeping up on his brow. “What is it?”
“Nothing. It’s just this place is in worse condition than I thought.” Xing Zhi took two steps forward after speaking. He raised his right hand and slowly curled his fingers closed in a fist as he said, “But it doesn’t matter,” while smiling. A rattling rumbling sound came from the ground as a bright beam of light shot out, fiercely slamming into Xing Zhi’s fisted hand and wedging itself inside his grip.
Shen Li stood transfixed. It was a chain completely covered in rust. Xing Zhi held one end while the other end lay anchored in the ground. He moved his wrist and recited something to cause the rust to fade away and the chain to become taut in his hand.
Shen Li heard an explosive rumble from deep underground. Chains rose on either side of the crack. They further blocked the miasma, thinning it out and preventing it from obscuring their vision. With a clear view she was able to see that the gash in the air was about two feet wide and slowly decreasing in width as the chains squeezed in on it.
An ear-piercing shriek shot out from the Ruins inside the crack. Shen Li summoned her spear to her hand, her mind on alert and her body tense.
Seeing this Xing Zhi calmly said, “Don’t worry. They can’t come out.”
He barely finished his sentence when another shrill scream rang out. Things crashed and the earth around the Ruins trembled unendingly. Shen Li could feel the powerful killing intent of those trapped inside. Caged for over a millennium, their hatred for Xing Zhi was beyond the bounds of rationality; they wanted to kill him.
Shen Li frowned and the hand gripping her spear whitened in a fierce grip. Xing Zhi’s hand holding the chain shook. The yao shou’s voices before were indistinct and fuzzy, as though they were coming from a great distance, but a new voice rang out powerfully distinct and clear.
Xing Zhi mouthed something, making his entire body and the chains held in his hands radiate an intense light. The ground shook even more violently.
Shen Li’s heartbeat sped up in sync with the tremors in the ground.
“I will kill you god of gods! I will kill you!” screamed the one inside the Ruins. The sound was so clear it felt like the words were spoken directly in her ear.
It had a powerful impact, sharp like a drawn bow on a string. It reverberated in her head after drilling into her ears. Try as she might to withstand it, she finally succumbed to the pain and closed her eyes. Shen Li pressed her hand against her forehead trying to alleviate the pressure.
Her eyes were a crimson red when she reopened them. A murderous urge to kill surged up from the bottom of her heart. She wanted to fight! She wanted bloodshed! It told her the confusion in her heart would clear if she became violent.
Xing Zhi’s robe flipped as he dashed over to her. His expression remained unchanged as he finished the last verses of an incantation. He didn’t look behind at all as he did this. The chain slackened in his hand and an even more fierce blinding light burned into it as it dragged on the ground. The intensity of the lighted chains on either side of the gash spiked up at this. The yao shou inside wailed and screeched before abruptly falling silent.
At the same time the crack shrank considerably. All that remained was an inch-long demarcation that was barely noticeable. So that’s the seal holding thousands of yao shou at bay, she thought.
Suddenly a wave of qi slammed into Shen Li’s body. Unlike the seals’ cleansing wind, this was a rough and abrupt energy that knocked directly against her gut, against the urge to kill that had bloomed there.
Black blood, like boiling water, erupted from her mouth. The blood vaporized and disappeared upon contact with the ground.
All was quite as a cool breeze blew.
“This…” Shen Li stared stupefied at the ground.
Xing Zhi answered with, “Impurities made poisonous by the yao shou,” as he pulled out a white cloth from his sleeve. He held the fabric out to her.
Shen Li stared in a daze at the pristine white cloth in his hand. Coming to her senses, she reached for it and pressed it to her lips, wiping the residual bloodstain away.
Xing Zhi walked to the front of the Ruins while she did so. He stood in front of the chain and gently rubbed the crack it was guarding.
“You were soaked in the miasma inside the scorpion-tailed fox’s belly when it swallowed you. The Demon race is very susceptible to the effects of the miasma erosion. While I was mending the seals earlier, I was also purifying the miasma in your body.”
It suddenly dawned on Shen Li the reason he dragged her along was because of this. “That’s why you were so insistent that I lead the way.” Her eyes became thoughtful as she asked, “Was that the only reason?”
The answer gave her pause.
Xing Zhi returned her gaze with a neutral expression on his face. Speaking in a light tone he said, “The fire seal is located inside the Ruins. The impurities have been purged from Your Highness’s body so there is no further need for Your Highness to follow me. Please return to camp and reorganize the troops. I will stay here and finish the job. Once done, I will return to the Heavenly realm. Rest assured I will not inconvenience Your Highness any further.”
The wind blew between them catching the fabric in her hand and pulling it out of her loosened grip.
Shen Li gave him a fisted salute and in a flat voice said, “Many thanks to Immortal High God Xing Zhi for helping the Demon realm in this crisis.” Finished, she coolly tossed her hair back, turned, and decisively walked away.
She didn’t turn back to look so she didn’t see that Xing Zhi watched her till she was out of sight.
That night the moon was bright and clear as Shen Li put her tent in order before preparing to turn in for the night. She saw a shadow pacing back and forth outside as she did so. She loudly called out, “Come in.”
Shang Bei lifted the tent flap and stepped inside. He wanted to be tactful but what came out of his mouth was anything but. What came out was a heavy sigh followed by, “Your Highness! Why’d you let Immortal High God Xing Zhi go?”
Shen Li gave him a look before saying, “If Immortal High God wants to leave, who am I to stop him?”
“Aiii!” Shang Bei uttered regretfully. “I knew I should have talked to him myself when I had the chance.”
“Huh?!” Shen Li spoke in nearly a shriek. “It was only a few days and you’re already infatuated with Immortal High God?” The words, as soon as they came out of her mouth, surprised her.
Shang Bei stared blankly at her for a moment before getting his wits back from the shock. “Your Highness sure have a way with words. How could Shang Bei dare such a thing? It was just that, with the air being so clear and free of miasma these past few days, it’s been really wonderful. Shang Bei thought, wouldn’t it be nice if Your Highness bumped into Immortal High God and decided to take a stroll around together, even if it had nothing to do with clearing the miasma, it would still help Your Highness feel better.” He shook his head and sighed again. “I… was also… kind of hoping… that… the air would stay clear long enough so those of my House could see the moon.”
That silenced Shen Li.
After Shang Bei left, Shen Li became restless, no longer sleepy. Feeling confined, she got up and walked around camp. Tomorrow she would lead them back to the capital. She watched as the soldiers chatted over drinks. She knew they were reluctant to leave and part with the clear sky and clean breeze. How great would it be if all the air in the Demon realm was this pure?
As Shen Li walked, Xing Zhi somehow niggled his way into her mind. She thought about him leaving the Demon realm and an inexplicable urge to go to the Ruins came over her. She raised her head to look at the full moon surprised at herself. Before she knew it, her feet had taken her to the edges of the Ruins. Of course Xing Zhi wasn’t here.
The crack above the chains had become so small it was practically invisible. The air was cleaner too. It seemed like the chains had been emitting faint light throughout the night. She reached out to touch them when a strange feeling came over her. She let out a self-deprecating smile at her own antsiness, and pulled her hand back intending to return to camp. A breeze from the crack brushed against her hair as she did so, startling her. A strange smell wafted its way to her nose. Frowning she raised her head to look at the moon, then the tiny dark crack. Another gust of wind burst out at her.
The scent… was very familiar, reminding her of immortal high god. Suddenly an eye appeared in the crack, shocking her. She wanted to retreat but her ankles felt like they were entangled by something. The eye looked happy.
Shen Li was no amateur in battle. After the initial surprise wore off, she quickly reacted and summoned her spear. It lay in her hand reflecting the moonlight. She immediately aimed it at the eye but instead of piercing through, it felt like she was plunging into quicksand. She couldn’t pull her spear back.
Shen Li gritted her teeth and tried to call forth her qi. Instead of escaping, she lost more ground as the force pulling her forward increased in strength. She let out a yelp before being completely pulled into the crack, which then promptly disappeared. The breeze blew by in the now deserted space.
The clamor of broken voices kept assaulting Shen Li’s mind. She tried plugging her ears then shutting her senses off, but nothing worked. The voices still dug through like a knife stabbing away at her sanity.
“Shut up! Shut up, shut up, shut. Up!” yelled Shen Li unable to take it any longer.
“Kill…” It was just that one word ruthlessly repeated over and over again, its tone an alternation between sharp and muffled. Shen Li’s pupils turned a murky red, the color of dark blood. She rose forward brandishing her weapon as though she was in a battlefield fighting an enemy in close combat.
Intense heat burned in her chest and rose traveling to her eyes, making them even darker, when suddenly a chill swept through her heart and invaded every limb and bone in her body, eventually extinguishing the heated flames. A palm gently stroked her hair, its warmth and heat was comforting like the rays of the sun on a cold day.
“Ai, how is it you’re so violent?”
Violent? Wasn’t she, when in the middle of that courtyard, already exercising a lot of restraint?
“Shen Li!” Xing Zhi called out sharply trying to wake her up.
At first when she opened her eyes all she saw was darkness, but gradually Xing Zhi’s snow white robe appeared in her vision. She looked at it confused for a moment before looking around and trying to regain her bearings. With knitted brow she asked, “This… is the Ruins?”
Xing Zhi smiled and replied. “Your Highness is so sharp.”
“You… Immortal High God, why are you still here? The seal?”
Xing Zhi didn’t mince words. “It’s been restored, but mending all the seals recently took a lot of energy. I became careless and the yao shou used the opportunity to break through my defenses. Somehow or other I ended up caught in one of their spells. I was unable to break away because the miasma has gotten so dense over the years of accumulation. Since I was unable to break away, I thought I’d take a stroll around until I recovered enough to leave.”
Randomly stroll around a place as dangerous as this? A place filled with yao shou? A place filled with miasma? Who just randomly strolls around like that?!
Shen Li wanted to ask if he was wounded, but after his comment, she felt her worries were unfounded.
Xing Zhi laughed lightly as he looked at Shen Li. “Is Your Highness also interested in a stroll?”
Shen Li smote her forehead at the ridiculousness of it. “No I’m not. I -,” she abruptly stopped. “I was patrolling the area with the troops. I was passing by here when a strange force dragged me in.”
“Oh?!” Xing Zhi propped his chin on his hand thoughtfully. “How unexpected that they’d be able to pull Your Highness in. This group of yao shou are more fascinating than expected!”
Fascinating?! This kind of thing is fascinating to you?!
Shen Li silently eyed Xing Zhi before speaking. “Does Immortal High God have a way of getting out of here? Please share. I must return to the Imperial Palace tomorrow. If, by this morning I’m still missing, everyone will surely think…” She sighed. “They will surely think I’m trying to escape from the marriage again. There will be some confusion.”
“I can’t leave right now.” Xing Zhi turned his head in her direction as he spoke. He didn’t pause, but continued walking forward with complete confidence in the pitch darkness - a darkness where one couldn’t even discern up from down, never mind left and right.
Shen Li walked behind, anxiously following the sound of his footsteps. “Immortal High God, please stop joking around. I’m serious. I don’t know how time flows here, or how many days have passed since I got pulled in, but we, both of us, need to leave. General Shang Bei may have already withdrawn the troops. They may be marching back to the capital as we speak! And he will report that I fled the marriage – again! I will surely be punished – again!” Shen Li acknowledged that the circumstances looked bad, and that punishment was inevitable, but even the most accepting person would feel aggrieved!
Xing Zhi turned around and sternly said, “Do you think I’m lying? Not taking this seriously?”
Shen Li, equally stern, replied. “It’s not called lying when a god does it, is it?”
Xing Zhi’s expression grew somber. “I am serious when I say I can’t leave.”
“Do you find it that amusing to provoke me?”
“Amusing?” The visibly bulging veins on Shen Li’s head made Xing Zhi smile. He stopped walking and softly said, “Does Your Highness think I get amusement from deceiving Your Highness?”
“Don't you?!” Shen Li accused. “That you didn’t know the path up. That the water repellent spell would fail if I released your hand. Weren’t those all lies?!”
Xing Zhi laughed but immediately replied with, “Well when put it that way… But all those things, weren’t they to purify the miasma in your body? Honestly, helping Your Highness is quite the thankless job.”
Shen Li sucked in a deep breath to check the fire in her heart before saying, “Many thanks for Immortal High God Xing Zhi’s grace in saving this king. Now can we leave here?”
Xing Zhi sighed. He just couldn’t convince this girl. He held his arm out and pulled the sleeve back, showing a severely mangled arm with numerous bite marks all over. Shen Li stared in horror as black tendrils of miasma seeped out of the wound. She stumbled back, barely able to catch her breath. She raised her eyes and looked at Xing Zhi.
He shook his head as he hid his arm back under his sleeve. “See? I was trying not to frighten Your Highness.”
“As I said, I was attacked while I was in the middle of restoring the fire seal. The yao shou managed to get in a few bites while I was distracted. They think that weakening me will weaken the seal. What they don’t know is the seal is already complete. Even if I perish here, the seal won’t fade. Not for another millennium anyways.
“There is a powerful seal in the Ruins, but just the one by itself, even if powered by a god like me, isn’t going to last forever. So I made a second seal outside the Ruins, powered by the five elements, to supplement it. This second seal essentially acts as a redundancy. But for it to work, the two seals needed to be connected somehow. That’s why I placed the fire seal inside the Ruins. It acts as a conduit fusing my seal in the Ruins and the seal of the five elements, together, like a strong weave. It would take a lot of effort and time to break either seals, allowing those guarding it time to react, should something happen.”
Shen Li listened to the explanation, amazed at the complexity.
“Using a second seal that’s powered by the natural world is also more stable and enduring. But nature’s energy is not inexhaustible. After a millennium, even this kind of energy will need to be replenished. I returned to provide that support. This way the spiritual energy of the land will continue to strengthen the seals.
Nature’s power can be relied on again now that the fire seal has been restored. The strength of the ley lines will keep the miasma contained.” Xing Yun gestured to his arm. “So while this wound is healing, I can’t leave. Your Highness on the other hand...
The miasma in your body from before has been purified, but more gathered since your entry into the Ruins. The Demon race isn’t capable of purifying miasma, so it’s easy for your people to be contaminated by it. The seal won’t let Your Highness out because of the new miasma that’s clinging to your body now. And with this injury on my arm, I can’t forcefully expel it. So for now...”
Basically, they wouldn’t be able to leave until Xing Zhi’s arm healed. Shen Li wrinkled her brow. “This injury... how long will it take to heal?”
“Soon, maybe two more laps around the Ruins.” He stopped talking and stared at Shen Li, a big smile on his face as he realized something. “Don’t worry. If we’re late in leaving I’ll go with you to see the Demon Emperor, and we can set the record straight together. You won’t be wrongly accused of running away.” He tried to placate her and raised his hand as though to pat her on the head, but at the last second changed course, patting her on the shoulder instead.
Shen Li watched as he withdrew his hand and walked away. She tried to restrain herself, but in the end she couldn’t stop from asking the question in her heart. “Immortal High God... is it possible… that when an immortal high god sleeps for a day, that god incarnates and lives an entire lifetime as a mortal?”
Xing Zhi stopped. “It’s possible.” He sensed she wasn’t following him anymore so he turned around. “Why?”
Shen Li gave him a hard stare before laughing at herself. It rang with self-mockery. “Nothing. Never mind. Sometimes the things Immortal High God does remind me of a friend I had.”
“Oh! Is that so?” Xing Zhi turned around and resumed walking again, saying over his shoulder, “It’s incredibly rare for someone to resemble me.”
The silence after her words stretched out filling the space between them. Xing Zhi continued walking like he didn’t intend to stop anytime soon. Finally he said, “Azure Sky King. It’s not good to be too persistent.”
Shen Li hung her head down. “Shen Li thanks Immortal High God for sharing his wisdom.” She fell back behind him and followed the sound of his footsteps. However this proved an unwise move. With nothing around but monotonous darkness, her attention inevitably returned to Xing Zhi’s movements in front of her. The only things serving as a distraction to the tedious walk were the way his hair bounced with every step he took and the way his robes swayed as he moved.
Out of the blue Xing Zhi asked, “Your Highness fled the arranged marriage before. May I know why?”
The topic immediately made Shen Li wrinkle her brow and grimace in displeasure. “Immortal High God wants to know why I would try to escape marriage from a good-for-nothing philanderer? First, despite being the Heavenly Emperor’s 33rd grandson, he hasn’t achieved a single military merit deserving of mention. Second, in the thousand years he’s lived he hasn’t deigned to hold a single position in public office or participate in politics in any way . Third, the time he should spend learning, he spends chasing skirts! Someone like that only knows how to cause trouble! Had he been my grandson, I would have cut him down to size ages ago!”
Her fiery righteousness surprised Xing Zhi so much he had to cover his mouth to hide his smile. “Fu Rongjun is not that unbearable. Surely he’s capable of doing more than just pursuing female companionship...”
Shen Li’s rage burned even hotter at that. “Regardless of what he can or can not do, the point is he and I are strangers. Why is there any talk of marriage at all?! If it weren’t for Immortal High God’s attempt to play matchmaker, this king wouldn’t have to deal with this mess! That's right! this king must ask. Why did Immortal High God arrange such a marriage?!”
“Because...” Xing Zhi could only helplessly say, “I thought it would be a good match… haha.”
“Ah...a..a.choo!” A naked Fu Rongjun was luxuriating in a rose petal laden bath at the Heavenly Temple when he was hit by a fit of sneezing.
His attendant immediately handed him a towel and prostrated before asking “My lord, is the water too cold?”
Fu Rongjun waved his hand. “Get me a snack.”
After prostrating on the ground, the attendant got up to leave and do as commanded. The door was unceremoniously slammed open from the other side just as he neared it, causing him to stumble back in surprise and those incoming to tumble forward in a ball of tangled arms and legs.
They quickly righted themselves and staggered forward breathlessly yelling, “My lord! My Lord!”
Fu Rongjun instantly chided them. “Stop! Don’t bring your filthy unwashed bodies into my bath!”
The attendants were forced to prostrate on the ground outside the bathing area while giving their news. “My lord! Word just came from the Ruins. The yao shou that broke through has been decapitated by the Azure Sky King! They say Her Highness’s eyes were red. She used the spear, given by the Heavenly Emperor, to pierce straight through the humungous beast! Ah! Then afterwards she speared its flesh and ate its meat! She ate its entire body! And drank all its blood!”
At that Fu Rongjun’s own blood drained from his face. He quickly grabbed his clothes, dressed and stepped barefoot out from behind the screen. He reached down and grabbed an attendant by the collar and shrilly asked, “Seriously?!”
“Pre – prepare preparations! This lord is unwilling! This lord will meet with the Heavenly Emperor!”
Fu Rongjun later ran to the Heavenly Emperor and bawled his eyes out for half a day, begging and pleading that he didn’t want to die. The Heavenly Emperor, unable to stand it anymore, ordered an attendant to drag Fu Rongjun back to his own residence.
Fu Rongjun tossed and turn the entire night. Finally fed up he bolted upright and yanked the covers off. “I can't take it!” Muttering to himself he said, “I’m going to the Demon realm to take a look for myself! Otherwise… otherwise on the night of our nuptials... unprepared... I’ll surely die a tragic death.”
It was so dark that it was hard to tell time. Shen Li didn’t know the direction they were walking or what their goals were. On top of that, she wasn’t sure how Xing Zhi measured “two laps.” Several times she wanted to ask how much longer they had to walk, but his steps ahead of her were so sure and steady she could only clamp her mouth shut before the words could spill out. As a king, she needed to appear calm and collected.
Nonetheless she sighed repeatedly as her patience wore thin. The situation felt increasingly hopeless, like they were taking two steps forward only to retreat three. It was frustrating he wouldn’t take the necessary steps to resolve the dilemma…
A strong wind suddenly blew by her ear. The killing intent it brought with it was unmistakable. Shen Li’s face tightened. “Yao shou.”
“Finally, I was becoming impatient,” was Xing Zhi’s nonchalant reply.
Shen Li was shocked by his words. She was still wondering about them when a high shrill erupted nearby, making her unconsciously summon her spear. She moved forward ready for battle.
Xing Zhi held is arm out stopping her. He tilted his head in her direction and asked, “Do you wish to see what the Ruins look like?”
See the Ruins? Shen Li looked at him uncertain. Her heart wasn’t prepared yet when a dazzling ball of light appeared. It danced on the palm of Xing Zhi’s hand before rushing off and slamming directly into something not too far away.
Though the impact was loud, the shrill scream that accompanied it was even louder. An explosion of light followed, puncturing the darkness and illuminating the world around them.
Shen Li saw the remains of a yao shou, its limbs torn away and smashed to pieces. Countless murderous eyes revealed themselves in the light as well.
The yao shou huddled in packs, many displaying grotesquely wide grins full of sharp jagged teeth. Some had their tongues hanging out with spit and drool dripping from their open mouths. Others withdrew behind the fallen body, retreating, but still looking at Shen Li and Xing Zhi with vicious eyes.
Shen Li was shocked. Even though the tiny hairs on her body rose up, she maintained an air of outward calm. The darkness gradually returned as the ball of light faded away. She asked, “This whole time we were walking… you knew they were watching us?”
His light tone made Shen Li ponder silently. It had cost so much for her to kill the single fox-tailed scorpion. The person in front of her was able to dispatch a yao shou while chatting. He could stroll so casually while surrounded by so many. This kind of power was mind boggling.
“Azure Sky King.” Xing Zhi abruptly stopped. Turning to look at her he asked, “Does the air here feel nerve-wracking, fearsome?”
“Is that so.” His expression was grim as he said, “Make sure no one approaches the Ruins after we leave.” He glanced at Shen Li briefly before grabbing her hand. Energy moved from his hand into hers.
She watched as dark miasma ejected out of Xing Zhi’s injured arm, while she felt something forced out of her body at the same time. Both things happened within the blink of an eye.
“Hold your breath.”
Shen Li immediately did as told, sucking in a deep breath and holding it in.
Sensing something, the surrounding yao shou shrieked and began moving, launching themselves forward as one.
Shen Li’s head throbbed at the deep piercing shrieks but they quickly faded away. She looked around a dazzled by the bright moonlight shining overhead. She raised her head and saw Xing Zhi’s face in profile gradually becoming more distinct. His breath was erratic and droplets of sweat clung to his forehead.
Shen Li was confused. “Didn’t you say two laps around?”
“Hm.” Xing Zhi massaged his forehead with the hand not holding hers. “Your Highness is very clever to realize we hadn’t completed two laps around the Ruins.”
“Then were you lying to me earlier?”
“No. It’s true we couldn’t leave the Ruins with the miasma on us. But the circumstances changed. I feared we would not be able to leave if I did not forcefully evacuate us at that moment. I used a powerful spell to physically transport us out.” His breath was hitched as he spoke. “The spell requires a lot of energy and injures the caster, even an immortal high god caster such as myself. I just need to rest for a moment.”
He released her hand and took a couple of steps away from her, now massaging his temples with both his hands in an effort to alleviate his condition.
Shen Li stared at him. Her wrist felt cool as a breeze blew by, highlighting the dampness his touch left behind on her skin. She realized his hand had been soaked in a cold sweat. It seemed even the immortal high gods weren’t invincible.
Even before being injured by the yao shou in the Ruins, Xing Zhi had spent a considerable amount of energy reconstructing the seals. The injury itself was complicated enough that he couldn’t drive the miasma out; however it didn’t distract him from the murderous group of yao shou following them inside the Ruins. Left with no other recourse, he was forced to use a powerful spell to eject the miasma out and escape the Ruins.
Shen Li covered the area his grasp had been with her other hand. Even this awesome god could get injured and suffer discomfort… Ha! He liked to front just like everyone else!
The two walked back to camp together. It was much smaller than before with far fewer tents pitched. The general left behind to manage the camp was stunned to see them. He stared dumbstruck with a torch in one hand as they approached. “Immortal High God, Your Highness… this… this…”
“What’s going on? Where is General Shang Bei?” Shen Li asked.
“Your Highness! You disappeared for over five days! General Shang Bei thought you ran away again. He tried searching for you but failed! He had no choice but to return to the capital and report to the emperor to receive his due punishment!”
Shen Li sighed. Sure enough…
Xing Zhi asked, “When did General Shang Bei leave?”
“General Shang Bei left yesterday with the troops.”
“Such a large army will be slow even in normal circumstances. It will be even slower with the number of injured soldiers in the party. We may be able to overtake them and reach the capital first.”
Shen Li was quick in deciding. “We leave immediately.” Only after speaking did she look over at Xing Zhi for confirmation.
Xing Zhi smiled saying, “Your Highness need not worry. I will be able to keep up.”
Shen Li nodded in acknowledgment and immediately summoned a cloud over. Xing Zhi followed closely behind landing on his own cloud.
The general below looked at their retreating figures. He wondered to the foot soldier next to him, “Tch. San Zi am I oversensitive, or was there something going on with them?”
“General… If you’re overly sensitive…then so am I…”
Shen Li and Xing Zhi* did indeed reach the capital before the army. From her perch above in the clouds Shen Li saw a rare sight: the streets lined with flags and banners in celebration of the army’s triumphant return.
With obvious pride in her voice she said, “I love coming back from a successful military campaign and seeing this. The colorful flags, everyone’s happy faces, they make me realize what I’m fighting for.”
This certainly surprised Xing Zhi.* He looked up at her and the smile that lit up her face. The sight left a favorable impression of her on him, making him more inclined towards her. “Mm. Your Highness is likewise also inspirational.”
When Shen Li finally caught sight of her residence she said, “Immortal High God, can you continue forward to the Palace on your own? It would be improper for me to meet the emperor as I am now. I will go home first and wash up before presenting myself.”
“I...” Xing Zhi didn’t get to complete this sentence before a mournful female cry sounded below.
“Highness! Highness! You’re finally back!”
Shen Li frowned as she moved toward the direction of the voice. There running towards her from the guest quarters was a weeping girl with a bucket in her arms. It was Rou-ya. She prostrated below Shen Li, bitterly crying like no tomorrow.
At the sight Shen Li jumped down from her cloud and walked over. “What’s wrong? Why are you so agitated?”
Rou-ya looked up with eyes puffy from crying. Her expression was so foolish and disbelieving that Shen Li was prompted to ask, “What is it?” a frown on her face.
At that question, Rou-ya tossed the bucket away and threw her arms Shen Li’s waist, hugging the other like her life depended on it. Through tears she mumbled, “Wuu wuuu! Highness! There’s a demonic beast that’s bullying me!”
Shen Li’s heart skipped a beat at the mention of those words: demonic beast. Before she could interrogate Rou-ya further, the doors to the guest rooms opened with a loud “bang!”
A man, braving the weather with only a tiny cotton sheet around his waist, came out. The mist from the room behind him shrouded most of his body in wispy tendrils of white vapor. “Girl, you are dead!” He was practically spitting in anger. “You’ve scalded this lord! Look at this skin! It’s peeling!”
A burst of cold air blew by as he finished. The mist from the room dissipated and left him completely exposed, save for the minor cover of the cloth. He finally realized there were two other people in the courtyard. He stared. Xing Zhi stared back, somewhat surprised at the scene before him.
Shen Li looked at the slightly blanched red body of the man in front of her. She narrowed her eyes as she demanded, “And who are you?”
The one being questioned remained steadfastly silent. The only sound in the courtyard was Rou-ya’s incessant weeping accompanied by her wretched cries of, “Highness… Highness…”
At those identifying words the man knew - he knew without a doubt - the identity of the new woman. His face turned green at the realization.
Xing Zhi faintly smiled as he swiftly draped a white robe over Fu Rongjun, saying as he did so, “Fu Rongjun, did the Heavenly Emperor not teach you it’s impolite to show up so poorly clothed in front of others? It’s important to be properly dressed when you go out.”
Though the smile was there Fu Rongjun felt no warmth from it, instead there was a distinct chill that made him shiver uncontrollably. He hurried back inside and closed the door behind him.
The courtyard became quiet after his departure.
Shen Li stiffly turned to Xing Zhi. “That’s Fu Rongjun? The Heavenly Emperor’s grandson?”
Xing Zhi nodded in answer to her question.
Shen Li grimaced and looked down at Rou-ya who was still hanging on to her waist. Shen Li picked her up by her collar and coldly asked, “Why was that thing allowed into this king’s residence?”
Rou-ya renewed her crying. “I didn’t want to! But… but it was the emperor’s command! I couldn’t disobey! Wuu wuu!”
Shen Li felt a headache coming on. She released Rou-ya and massaged her temples while Rou-ya continued tearfully explaining.
“Highness said Highness was going into seclusion to meditate, but it was obviously to run away instead! After Highness left a palace official came and caught Parrot lying on the bed mimicking Highness’s human form. The official shook Parrot a few times making Parrot revert to his bird form. The official took Parrot away and he hasn’t been back since. I was so heartbroken. Wuu! Wuu!”
“Afterwards… afterwards word got around that Fu Rongjun came to the Demon realm. The emperor arranged lodgings for him here! I had to wait on him this entire time! He’s so high maintenance!”
“He’s a picky eater and he annoys Cook! He throws stuff and gives Mrs. Zhang[notes] endless work! I have to get his bath ready at a moment’s notice. The water’s always to hot or too cold with him! Wuu wuu! He’s so troublesome! Highness, you should just beat him to death!”
“Such impudence!” The door banged open with a fury as Fu Rongjun stepped over the doorway. “How dare a servant dare speak that way!”
Shen Li pushed Rou-ya behind her as she coldly eyed Fu Rongjun before formally speaking to him. “My servant dares speak this way. If Fu Rongjun is dissatisfied, then speak. I, Shen Li, will listen.”
Fu Rongjun unconsciously gulped as he remembered the rumors about Shen Li eating the yao shou. With fear clear in his eyes he said, “I was just expressing an opinion...”
“My lord may have been offended when I descended to the lower realms, however, I still expect an to answer my question. Why come to the Demon realm to purposefully seek discontentment when both comfort and happiness are readily available to My Lord in the Heavenly realm?”
She was blunt and to the point; her words were cold and did nothing to disguise her contempt. “Is it possible My Lord is unaware of my failed attempt to flee the marriage several days ago? Does My Lord not understand you're the last person I want to see right now?”
The sensation of a murderous aura prickling his flesh made Fu Rongjun stop talking and retreat a step. His forehead broke out in a cold sweat. This woman... I’m absolutely not bringing her home as wife! Any delusions he may have had about her instantly evaporated.
He cleared his throat and spoke, “This lord, this lord heard that the ya shou had escaped from the Ruins, that miasma was overflowing and contaminating the areas nearby. Therefore... out of kindness this lord came to offer assistance in purifying the air. So therefore Your Highness...” After trailing off he changed his tone and enthusiastically said, "there’s no need to stand on ceremony with one another!”
Shen Li narrowed her eyes and gave him a once over: Effeminate face, gaudy clothes, coiled mane bound with blindingly flashy hairpin made of gold and jade. With her assessment complete, Shen Li sneered. "Assist? Your Highness must be joking.”
Apart from his Imperial Grandfather, who often ignored him, few would dare treat him so dismissively. Anger roared in his heart.
“What do you mean by that?! Do you understand this lord?! Are you mocking this lord’s sincerity? No other immortal would dare say what you’ve said. Furthermore, with the exception of Immortal High God Xing Zhi, who else even bothered to come and offer assistance eh?!”
“Please stop making such a scene.” Xing Zhi broke in with a look at Fu Rongjun. “Does the Heavenly Emperor know My Lord is here?”
Fu Rongjun glanced at Xing Zhi. It was a tricky situation. He was normally treated with indifference, with an occasional smile here and there. It was just that whenever Xing Zhi spoke to him, he would unconsciously tense up, feeling as though he needed to be on his best behavior. “Naturally. Imperial Grandfather gave permission. This lord is to stay and assist the people of the Demon realm.”
Of course that was just an excuse to get him and Shen Li together in the hopes they would get closer. Those present knew this but didn’t bother revealing the truth.
Shen Li rubbed her forehead. To think a day like this would come. There was no other choice but to allow Fu Rongjun to continue staying under her roof.
Suddenly Xing Zhi spoke from behind. “It so happens the day is still early and my lord just finished bathing. Being refreshed from head to toe, my lord is in excellent condition to help the people.” He pointed a finger at the courtyard gates. “Shouldn’t my lord build on this moment and leave immediately?”
“Ah!” uttered Fu Rongjun with a blank look on his face.
Shen Li also turned a surprised gaze at Xing Zhi. Everyone here was fully aware helping the common people was just an excuse. This Immortal High God...was bullying Fu Rongjun!
“On my way here I noticed a dense patch of miasma in the southeast corner of the capital. My Lord, why not start by looking there?” Xing Zhi pointed in the direction.
Fu Rongjun, unable to stop what he started, could only nod in resignation. “Of course Immortal High God…”
Shen Li waited until Fu Rongjun left before asking, “Did he offend Immortal High God somehow?”
“Why would Your Highness ask such a thing?”
“It… seemed like Immortal High God was bullying him just now.”
Instead of answering, Xing Zhi laughed at her question, making it awkward for her to ask again. She went back inside to take a bath after telling Rou-ya to prepare some hot water.
He stood alone in the yard rubbing the space between his brows muttering to himself. “I… everytime I look at him I can’t help but want to bully him.” Xing Zhi sighed, a smile on his lips. “I wonder why."
After properly bathing and cleaning herself, Shen Li left with Xing Zhi for the Demon Emperor’s Palace.
Incidentally General Shang Bei had used the fastest horses the army had to deliver a report to the emperor. That report now lay open on the emperor’s desk. The emperor had just finished reading and was about to summon Qing Yan and Chi Rong[notes] when an attendant outside announced he had news.
“Your Majesty, the The Azure Sky King and the Immortal High God Xing Zhi are here.”
The announcement surprised the emperor. He folded the report and placed it to the side. After taking a moment to compose himself he called out, “Come in.” He rose to welcome Xing Zhi as the doors opened. “Immortal High God Xing Zhi, what an honor. Please excuse the lack of welcome. I hope immortal high god can forgive me.
“Demon Emperor is too polite.” Xing Zhi laughed. “I do not wish to disturb Your Majesty. My only reason for descending to these realms was to mend the Ruins. It is just that the Azure Sky King needed a witness…” He turned to look at Shen Li who promptly stepped forward and explained.
“Your Majesty, I really did not flee the marriage! Leaving for the boundaries this time, it really was just to defeat the yao shou. The plan was to return with General Shang Bei, however something unexpected happened...”
The Demon Emperor glanced over at Shen Li upon hearing this. “The person has already returned. What more needs to be said about the matter? Moreover Mo Fang has already spoken of your meritorious deeds. They are more than enough to make up for any earlier mistakes. No demerit will be issued, nor will there be any further investigations regarding the matter.”
This made Shen Li happy. Though she had always behaved audaciously, even as a child, she revered the emperor and held him in high regard. She hung her head down in a rare display of smugness for having escaped punishment, like a child who got away with stealing a cookie from the cookie jar.
Xing Zhi couldn’t help but feel inclined towards her upon seeing her this way.
The emperor swept his gaze over the expressions of the two before him. “Immortal High God came from such a distance, why not stay in the Demon realm for a few days and enjoy our hospitality and friendship?”
“I will have to disturb Your Majesty then.”
The Demon Emperor nodded and called forth an attendant. He was in the middle of issuing an order to have a guest residence prepared when Xing Zhi interrupted.
“At the present time the only one I’m familiar with is the Azure Sky King. It would be better to stay at Her Highness’s residence. Especially since Her Highness can be my escort and explain the local customs and practices.”
For a moment Shen Li was stunned but she quickly replied. “That is possible…”
The emperor stared at them with his discerning eyes for a moment before speaking from behind the silver mask. “We will leave it at that then. There are some family matters I wish to discuss with Shen Li. Will Immortal High God please excuse us and wait in the hall?”
Xing Zhi nodded and an attendant immediately came over and bowed to him, intending to lead him out.
“How is your injury?”
“It won’t be a hinderance in any way.”
“Fu Rongjun descended to the Demon realm. He is staying at your residence as well. With two more people… will you need extra servants to help?
“For that no, but is it possible to return my parrot?”
“Take it, take it. A person can die from all the noise it makes.”
Xing Zhi paused just at the door and inclined this head to the side to look at Shen Li as she conversed with the emperor. He saw her smile while scratching her head and saying, “He is a bit noisy.” She was relaxed and unguarded. Her eyes revealed the complete trust and confidence she had in the person in front of her, the reliance she had in their relationship.
A thought suddenly occurred to Xing Zhi: this kind of treatment from Shen Li… was not bad.
Once the door closed and Xing Zhi’s footsteps faded, the emperor abruptly turned away and asked, “Did you see inside to the Ruins?”
The question surprised Shen Li. Thinking about the Ruins and the darkness inside, about the yao shou exposed by the beam of light, made her mood swiftly change. “Yes.” Not wanting to worry the emperor, she didn’t reveal that she had not only seen the Ruins, but had gone inside.
“Did the miasma actively obstruct you?”
Shen Li shook her head. “Immortal High God Xing Zhi had already cleared it away.”
The emperor nodded thoughtfully. He looked at Shen Li for a moment before coming to a decision. He abruptly turned around again and walked over to the couch. “Come, follow me.”
Together they walked to the side of his desk. Opening it revealed a dark wooden board, which he lightly pressed with a finger. This immediately caused heavy fog to spring from underfoot.
Shen Li stared. A magic spell was activating under them. In amazement she raised her head to look at the emperor. She was only vaguely aware of the emperor waving his hand and dispersing the fog with a fierce wind. The scent of something strange managed to waft across the tip of her nose. It reminded her of the cold air in the forest, just like…
She immediately tensed up on alert. Eventually though the sense of impending danger ceased and Shen Li turned her head left and right surveying her surroundings. It seemed they were inside a large hall. A path of snowy white jade steps led to the center of the room where an upraised altar stood. Above the altar on the shrine was a single box suspended in the air.
Shen Li asked, “Where are we?”
“Temple of Sacrifice.” The emperor spoke in such as way so as to seem like he was trying to minimize the import of the words.
Shen Li wasn’t aware the Demon realm even had a temple like this, never mind what was worshiped or consecrated here. On top of all that, an array for the entrance was in the Demon Emperor’s room…
The Demon Emperor reached up and slowly lifted the mask off his face with one hand. Then he carefully and slowly placed it down. He looked unwell with pale skin and sickly green lips; it was as though he was suffering from a long illness. As if in direct contrast to this, his dark eyes were exceptional and lively. Most shocking however was the fact that the face revealed was that of a woman.
She whispered, “Li-er,” her voice already regaining its feminine pitch.
Apparently Shen Li was aware of this as she did not react with surprise. Instead she stepped closer and glanced at the emperor before speaking. “Demon Emperor, it has been so long since your mask was removed, I nearly forgot your face.”
The emperor shot Shen Li a look at the comment, not understanding it was a joke. She led Shen Li step by step to the top of the altar. Once there she reached for the box and opened it.
“This is yours.” The emperor showed her a sparkling and translucent ocean blue bead. “You were born with this, however for a child to bear the burden of something this powerful was simply too much to ask. Your mother begged me to remove it. By then it had already made changes to your inner qi. I also feared those with ill intent would target you for the bead so I took it out of you. It’s been stored here since then waiting for the day you would need it.”
Shen Li stared, lost in thought, at the bead remembering. She knew she had been born with it, but thought it had been digested in her belly long ago. To think it had been stored in such a mysterious place was amazing.
The crystal-clear bead radiated heat as it lay in the box.
Shen Li whispered, “My mother… has she seen this?”
Shen Li’s vision blurred as she remembered her parents. Both had passed a thousand years ago fighting in the great war against the yao shou. She was born on the battlefield but was too young to remember her parents, so what she knew was all gained from the sparse words the emperor spoke about them.
Shen Li reached inside and pulled it from the box. She looked at it thoughtfully. It was one of the few things that connected her with her mother.
“Hmm?” Shen Li was confused for a moment. “Swallow it?”
The emperor saw how reluctant she was to part with the bead. “Be at ease Shen Li. It will not be digested in your body. Once inside it will find a quiet place to rest.”
Shen Li nodded in understanding but she was reluctant. “I know but…” She stared at the bead intently. “I don’t want to let this warmth go. It’s like my mother is here…”
The Demon Emperor dropped her gaze; her eyes gloomy. “Indeed, your mother’s hands were always warm.”
Xing Zhi was strolling in the reception hall when he noticed something: a curtain. He went to look and saw a cage behind it. Shut away inside was a strange featherless life form. It resembled a parrot. Perhaps because its feathers were plucked some time ago there were tiny new feathers sprouting on its skin. The awkward growth phase made for an exceptionally ugly bird.
Parrot watched as Xing Zhi circled his cage twice. Finally fed up he squawked out in anger. “What are you looking at huh?! What are you looking at?! Leave already! Scram!”
A surprised Xing Zhi stared in silence for a moment before bursting out in laughter, laughing so hard he even bent over at the waist. The muffled laughter was evident despite his efforts to cover his mouth with his hand.
Parrot was beside himself. “You have the smell of an immortal god! Immortal god! I hate you! Just die already!”
“You’re the Azure Sky King’s parrot?” Xing Zhi could barely restrain his smiling expression as he asked his question. “You’re quite domineering.”
“You were making fun of me! I hate immortal gods!”
Xing Zhi patted the birdcage and restrained his smile. After sighing out his last laugh he said, “I have offended you.”
Parrot nodded and swiftly called out, “You’ve offended me! You’ve offended me immortal god!”
Xing Zhi didn’t originally intend to muffle Parrot’s outrage but at the sounds of Shen Li’s approaching footsteps he immediately hushed Parrot. “Shush! Stop being so loud or she’ll find out!”[notes]
“You were being rude to me! You were being rude to me!” Parrot did not pay attention to Xing Zhi’s admonishment. He kept hopping around and making a ruckus in his cage.
Xing Zhi smiled calculatingly at Parrot as Shen Li’s footsteps got closer. He harshly said, “Zip your lips!”
The squawking abruptly stopped. It was as if Parrot’s beaks were glued shut; he couldn’t open it no matter how hard he tried. All he could do was frantically jump around in the cage.
Shen Li pushed the curtain aside to see what was going on. Seeing only Xing Zhi and Parrot she said, “Parrot, I heard you yelling all the way down the hall. As soon as I come over you’re as quiet as a mouse.”
Xing Zhi laughed. “Maybe he’s tired.”
“How long does Immortal High God wish to remain in the Demon realm?” Shen Li asked Xing Zhi on their way back to her residence. She carried parrot in his cage in one hand as she walked. “I can arrange things better if I have a general idea.”
Xing Zhi was silent as he thought about it for a moment. “Mm… that… I will return to Heaven with Ru Fongjun when My Lord leaves.”
Hearing that name made Shen Li’s head ache. She muttered under her breath, “Tomorrow would be great.”
She barely finished speaking when a figure rushed out as they neared the residence. “Highness! Highness! Fu Rongjun is in trouble!”
Though she was unaware what the trouble was, it aggravated Shen Li just hearing that name. “He left to conduct his own affairs! What happens to him is none of my concern!”
“Ah! Highness, it’s no good! Fu Rongjun went to the tavern on the east side of town and made the bar girls accompany him in drink. He drank all their wine then refused to pay! He was disrespectful to the bar girls too! He smelled like someone from the Heavenly realms, so everyone knew he was connected with Highness. Just now even, someone came by the residence asking us to get Fu Rongjun.”
Shen Li ground her teeth. Ru Fongjun having a lousy reputation in Heaven she could overlook, but now he was in the Demon realm dragging her down with him.
Shen Li mentally cursed him out. She tossed Parrot’s cage at Rou-ya as she said, “Hold this while I go and get that scumbag. I will tear him to pieces!”
Rou-ya’s face was white with fear. “Highness no! You mustn’t do that!” Just as she moved to intercept Shen Li, a white billowy sleeve obstructed her path.
“Do not fret. I will stop your master.” Xing Zhi smiled as he spoke.
Rou-ya had never met anyone in the Demon realm with such a beautiful smile; she was dumbstruck and stared at his back as he left. When she came to her senses she yelled, “Highness!” after their receding figures, but they were already out of earshot. “Ah! I forgot to tell Highness that General Mo Fang was at the residence when that person came by about Fu Rongjun. He already left to see to it.”
Naturally Shen Li, as fired up as she was, didn’t hear Rou-ya, and so had no idea Mo Fang would be there as well.
When Mo Fang got to the tavern he saw a dead drunk Fu Rongjun at one of the tables. The barmaid wasn’t intimidated by Mo Fang despite the sword at his waist and the armor he had on. She said, “I am a woman working in a tavern that serves alcohol, yes, but even as such I do not deserve to be disrespected! This guest’s demands are over the line! To be so salacious in broad daylight at someone’s workplace… it’s outrageous!”
Fu Rongjun lifted his head up and yelled out, “Miss with the tender soft pale skin! Another cup!”
Shen Li’s faced darkened and she clenched her fists. She was about to yell at Fu Rongjun for his behavior when another voice interrupted her.
“Enough!” Mo Fang exploded as he dragged Fu Rongjun by the collar. His eyes were ice cold as he said, “What you do and how you ruin your reputation is none of my concern, however when your actions sully Her Highness’s reputation, that’s another matter altogether!”
The force of the words startled Shen Li so much she could only stare on at the scene blankly while her fisted hands loosened. A sense of powerlessness rose in her heart. She had already corrected Mo Fang on this matter…
Shen Li wasn’t the only one shocked. Everyone else in the tavern were just as surprised by Mo Fang’s outburst.
Fu Rongjun suddenly looked up and smiled at Mo Fang. He raised his hand and laid it against Mo Fang’s neck flirtatiously. “Mm… you are also very pleasing to look at. Such passionate eyes.” He pursed his lips after he finished speaking and suddenly pressed them against Mo Fang’s making a soft ‘mwuah’ sound.
The silence that followed the kiss was deafening but only lasted a moment before audible gasps erupted from those witnessing the scene.
Shen Li was stunned. Her mouth hung open as she stared. Belatedly she turned her neck stiffly to look at Xing Zhi. “Fu Rongjun doesn’t just defile ladies, he defiles men too!” She pointed a finger at her fiance. “How does a place as pristine as Heaven raise such a worthless scumbag predator as that?”
Xing Zhi was also surprised. He only replied after sizing Fu Rongjun up for a time. “Your Highness asks me this question, but I also do not know the answer.”
Mo Fang had the stupidest blank expression on his face for the longest time. When he came to his senses, he gave the back of Fu Rongjun’s neck a hard hand chop knocking the other man out. Then he calmly and firmly wiped his lips. He swept his eyes around the room and spoke. “Anyone who dares speak of this, I will cut out your tongue and feed it to the pigs.” As he finished speaking, he caught sight of Shen Li and Xing Zhi standing just outside the tavern. He stiffened as rigid as a board when their eyes met.
Shen Li couldn’t pretend to not see no matter how much she wanted to. The best she could do was act natural as she walked forward and acknowledged the scene. “Apologies for the trouble. I will take him back now.”
Mo Fang kept his head down as he spoke. “No trouble. I only did what should have been done. Your Highness…” Though he looked calm, his heart was beating wildly in his chest. He wasn’t sure how to continue after having said so much. All he could do was turn his head away as he handed Fu Rongjun over to Shen Li. That done, he immediately left.
People started whispering the moment he was out of earshot. At this Shen Li’s face dropped. She looked around the tavern and spoke clearly one word. “Silence.” Her imposing aura was enough to make everyone obey. “No one is to gossip about what happened just now.”
Everyone calmed down at the sound of her voice. As the Azure Sky King, Shen Li was well-known and highly respected in the Demon realm. She walked over to the barmaid. “You have suffered. Come, tell me your grievance.”
“No…” The barmaid shook her head. “Everything’s gone…”
“Don’t be afraid.” Shen Li reached for a stool to sit down on. “About that drunk, he addressed you inappropriately a moment ago. Tell me in detail everything that happened before that. I will seek justice for you.”
Fu Rongjun had humiliated her people and rampaged through the district. News of it would reach the news outlets in the Heavenly realm. So even if she couldn’t strangle him herself, someone else would.
Shen Li folded the letter the barmaid had written and handed it to Xing Zhi as they left the tavern. “How long is that ridiculously spoiled Fu Rongjun going to stay? I really want him to leave already. I don’t want to report this to the Demon Emperor but… if I don’t more people could get hurt.”
The Heavenly Emperor was beyond her reach, so she couldn’t personally tell him of Ru Fongjun’s shameful behavior. Even if she could somehow get him to come down, she knew the Demon Emperor would just conceal Fu Rongjun’s matter.
“Therefore I will have to inconvenient Immortal High God Xing Zhi to bring this letter in my place.”
Xing Zhi silently accepted the letter. After a moment he spoke up. “Even if this letter is delivered to the Heavenly Emperor it is improbable that Your Highness’s engagement will be cancelled. The marriage is inevitable. Why not let what happened go and accept the marriage instead?”
That made Shen Li laugh. “Cancel the engagement? Immortal High God thinks too much of it. I stopped having any delusions of that the day the Demon Emperor brought me back from the Mortal realm.” Shen Li turned away from him as they continued walking side by side. He couldn’t see her face as she spoke. “No, I simply wished to bring attention to the fact that Fu Rongjun is not happy here.”
She didn’t like Fu Rongjun and didn’t think living together with him would be pleasant. The odds of them having a happy married life was nonexistent. At this point she just wanted to live an easy life and do as she pleased.
“Besides,” Shen Li stopped walking, and although her voice remained respectful, she refused to turn and look at him, “the Heavenly Emperor won’t cancel the engagement because he can’t.” She leaned her head towards Xing Zhi finally looking at him. “Immortal High God, why won’t you release me?”
Xing Zhi refused to reply to her question.
That night Shen Li slept poorly because of a reaction to the bead. Her body was hot and her throat parched. Even the four pots of water Rou-ya brought couldn’t sate her thirst.
Shen Li woke up the next morning clear-headed but still incredibly thirsty. Eventually a dull ache started in her head.
Rou-ya was worried. “Highness, are you sick?”
“Have you ever seen me sick?”
This was true. Rou-ya returned to waiting on Shen Li with a clear and unworried mind. She helped her master bath and dress.
Once done, Shen Li opened the door to the courtyard. The sight that greeted her made her furrow her brow and frown in displeasure.
Fear shot through Fu Rongjun’s heart. He stood for some time in the courtyard building his courage to ask a question. “Your Highness… I was wondering… I was wondering if you knew who brought me back last night.”
The thought of yesterday made Shen Li’s heart nearly explode. “What?”
“Ah… he left this behind yesterday. I wanted to return it.”
Shen Li looked at the fair jade pendant Fu Rongjun held out, recognizing it immediately. It was the jade pendant Mo Fang often wore around his waist. Why would Fu Rongjun have it? Yesterday…
Shen Li could feel her headache worsen. She kneaded her temples as she tried to figure out a reply. Rou-ya, being a gossip, answered before she could.
“Oh! That belongs to General Mo Fang. He lives three streets over. But the general is probably not at home. He normally does his morning exercise around the outskirts of camp…”
Shen Li’s abrupt shout scared Rou-ya into silence. She was so startled she could only stare at Shen Li with grievance in her eyes. Pointing to herself Rou-ya said, “Did this servant do something wrong…?”
Shen Li held her forehead in her hands while Fu Rongjun repeated the name ‘Mo Fang’ to himself a few times.
“Clever girl!” Fu Rongjun winked at her. “This lord will be going out for a walk.”
“Hold it!” Now What? Shen Li wasn’t sure what to do after yelling for Fu Rongjun to stop. How was she supposed to warn Mo Fang? Mo Fang was absolutely not going to stand it. The only thing Shen Li could come up with after a moment of silence was, “The army camp is a secured location. Non-military personnel are not allowed access. If you give it to me, I’ll return the jade pendant to General Mo Fang.”
Fu Rongjun glanced away from Shen Li, then back again. He suddenly screamed and pointed at something behind them. Both Shen Li and Rou-ya turned around to look, but there was nothing there. By the time they turned back Fu Rongjun had already made his escape.
Shen Li’s face paled as she stood rooted to the spot, her fists clenched. She actually fell for such a dumb trick! What a juvenile scamster!
“This Fu Rongjun is so childish. Can he really take care of Highness?” Rou-ya wondered aloud.
Him? Take care of me? The thought made Shen Li grit her teeth.[notes] She wanted to haul Fu Rongjun back but her headache was too distracting. The only thing she wanted to do now was go back inside and play with Parrot. Mo Fang was just going to have to fend for himself.
Unexpectedly Parrot was not accommodating. He was energetic and jumped around in his cage but he didn’t make a peep. He was no fun at all. Disappointed, Shen Li reclined on the sofa and closed her eyes to rest.
She woke up from her nap around noon and called out to Rou-ya for something to drink. A moment later she felt a cup of tea held near her. Shen Li didn’t feel like moving. She didn’t bother to open her eyes but opened her lips instead and waited for the cup to come closer. When it did, she took one sip after another.
Something didn’t feel right after her nap so she finally opened her eyes. Xing Zhi was by her side, the cup on the table. When their eyes met, he asked, “More?”
The ambient light gave his face a slight glow. Mesmerized Shen Li could only nod and say a clipped, “More,” in reply.
Xing Zhi picked up the cup and pressed it against her lips tilting it slightly for her to sip from again. All kinds of emotions swirled inside Shen Li. She reached for the cup. “I can hold it myself. Do not need to bother Immortal High God.”
“Are you unwell?”
Shen Li shook her head. “No. It’s just all the rushing about these past few days caught up with me. Some rest is all I need.” She turned her head to the window and was surprised at how high the moon was in the sky. “Oh dinner! I’ll have Rou-ya prepare something.”
“No need.” Xing Zhi shook his head. “It’s fine to skip dinner.”
“Oh.” Xing Zhi’s brightness in the moon’s glow had distracted her, making her mix Immortal High God Xing Zhi up with that wonderful mortal master cook.[notes]
Later that evening Shen Li burned with a high fever. Rou-ya fed her water and tried to cool her down with a damp towel but it was to no avail. Shen Li refused to wake up. This had never happened before; no matter how serious the injury, Shen Li was always conscious and clear-headed. This unconscious Shen Li left Rou-ya worried beyond belief.
She didn’t know what to do. There were two immortals in the residence she could ask for help. It was inappropriate to disturb Immortal High God Xing Zhi in the middle of the night. On the other hand Fu Rongjun was Shen Li’s fiancé. Rou-ya reasoned it was appropriate to seek help from him considering their relationship.
She rushed over to his courtyard[notes] and banged on his door. It was no use though. Even after knocking for several minutes, no one came out. A now frantic Rou-ya had no choice but to find Immortal High God.
Xing Zhi touched Shen Li’s cheeks. They were red and hot to the touch. He immediately sat down by her bedside and felt the pulse on her hand. The strange reading made him furrow his brow.
“Immortal High God…will my master be OK?”
“It is but a fever.” Xing Zhi released Shen Li’s hand. “Are there any medicinal components in the residence?”
Rou-ya shook her head. “Master never gets sick. Us demon people rarely get sick. Medicinal plants don’t grow well here because the miasma is so dense so they are rarely ever found at market.”
Xing Zhi muttered some words under his breath as he placed a hand on Shen Li’s forehead. Immediately white light flashed between his palm and her skin. Even though Shen Li was still in a daze she appeared more comfortable.
He left his palm resting on her forehead and absentmindedly moved his fingers in her hair, slightly grazing the hairline, making a mess of it in one direction, then smoothing it back down in the other.
Rou-ya stared closely for a moment. She only relaxed once she saw Shen Li breathing more evenly and her complexion improving. It was only then that the worry in Rou-ya’s heart lightened.
Now that she felt better, she was in a mood to complain. “What kind of husband is my master getting? Almost married and he stays out all night. Not around when needed either. If Immortal High God hadn’t been here, who knows how bad master’s condition could have gotten?”
Xing Zhi didn’t say anything but his hand fell from her forehead to her cheeks. He rubbed the slightly hot skin with his fingers.
“Yesterday he started so much trouble, ruining master’s good name. Then this morning he was trying to find General Mo Fang about a jade pendant. Who knows if he’s looking for General Mo Fang right now!”
Rou-ya was really dissatisfied with Fu Rongjun, but afraid of overstepping her bounds, she didn’t dare voice it in front of Shen Li. In front of Xing Zhi however she felt free to complain to her heart’s content.
“Highness will have to go to the Heavenly realm after marrying. She won’t have anyone to rely on up there. Who will defend her if she is wronged? Highness is so stubborn, she won’t complain to the Demon Emperor. If something happens…”
The more Rou-ya thought about it the sadder she became. Her eyes turned red and she began tearing up. “Who will be there to sympathize with her?”
“Hm.” Xing Zhi whispered unconsciously. “Who would?” These words made him consider his actions and he couldn’t help but lower his eyes. Gazing at her sleeping face, he ran his fingertips over the bridge of her nose and the hollows of her cheeks, before pulling his hand back.
“It’s not a problem.” He pulled his fingers away and remained quietly by her bedside for some time before getting up.
Distressed, Rou-ya looked at him with red-rimmed eyes. “Immortal High God is leaving?”
“I will not be far. I will be in the courtyard should you need me.” Xing Zhi left without a backward glance.
Rou-ya looked at Shen Li then at Xing Zhi’s retreating back. She muttered herself. “How’s that for you? Highness hasn’t even woken up yet and Immortal High God leaves. He couldn’t stay a little longer? The immortals in heaven are so detached and heartless.”
Detached and heartless huh?
Xing Zhi stood in the courtyard looking at his hand. He could still feel the residual heat from her body on his skin. The scorching heat burned its way to his heart. Xing Zhi wanted to disperse it but there was no where to send it. Rays of light radiated from his fingertips with nowhere to go. The feeling of being burned remained.
How could he know…
Rou-ya soaked a towel in water, then after wringing it out carefully placed it on Shen Li’s forehead. Rou-ya muttered to herself as she attended to Shen Li. “Oh Highness! If you really can’t escape marriage, if you really must go to the Heavenly realm, Highness must be careful of those immortal gods. Just look at those two here. Both are no good.”
“This lord knows.” Shen Li’s voice was hoarse but audible.
Rou-ya was surprised. “Highness is awake? Is Highness uncomfortable anywhere?”
Shen Li slowly opened her eyes but her gaze was not fixed on Rou-ya. She repeated the same three words, “This lord knows.”
The immortal gods were naturally heartless.
Shen Li woke up early the next morning completely refreshed. Her blood sang through her veins with a newfound power. Her body was lighter too. She realized her discomfort from the past few days must have been because her body was adapting to the bead.
The Demon Emperor had explained that she would likely suffer discomfort adjusting, because although she was born with it, it had been out of her body for over a millennium.
Shen Li held out her hand and pushed herself up into a seated position. “Rou-ya, bring this lord’s armor! I will go to the training camp to practice!” Shen Li rarely wore her armor. Her skin was as strong as leather, so when fighting the lesser yao shou it made no difference whether she wore armor or not.
Training was different however. She was not a minor soldier but a high ranked general; it was proper to dress appropriately.
Once she finished dressing, Shen Li stepped out of her room. She came face to face with Xing Zhi who had just come in from the courtyard.
The usually taciturn Xing Zhi actually showed a blank expression. He eyed her up and down. What he saw made him speak up. “Where is Your Highness going?”
“Training,” was Shen Li’s curt reply. She gave a fisted salute. “Immortal high god can tour the city. If there are any places that require payment, just tell them Immortal High God is from my household. Shen Li bids Immortal High God farewell.”
She turned around and promptly walked away, leaving Xing Zhi alone in the main hall. Xing Zhi narrowed his eyes as he stared at her walking away.
[Military training grounds]
Because of her fever last night, Shen Li had completely forgotten the matter with Fu Rongjun trying to find Mo Fang. But it all came back to her when she walked into camp and saw Mo Fang’s gaunt face. Shen Li was stumped for words because right behind him, gasping for breath, was none other than Fu Rongjun. Shen Li sighed upon remembering yesterday.
Fu Rongjun called out after Mo Fang. “Hey! Jade pendant! Don’t run away. This lord is trying to return something. This lord admits fault for breaking the pendant’s rope yesterday. Honestly how can a general by so mean-spirited about something like this.”
Mo Fang made a face and refused to acknowledge the man behind him. He kept moving at the same fast pace. But he abruptly stopped when he caught sight of Shen Li. He bowed his head and gave her a fisted salute.
From behind Fu Rongjun also saw Shen Li. The expression on his face froze and he unconsciously took several steps back.
Mo Fang was radiating anger, the resentment and humiliation still fresh in his heart. He didn’t say a word more to Shen Li. Instead he turned around and walked back to the center of camp.
Shen Li chased after him. “Slow down.”
Mo Fang glanced distractedly at Shen Li as she grabbed his wrist. His heart was in a frazzle but his emotions barely twinkled alive in his eyes before they retreated into the black abyss.
Shen Li pulled her hand back once she got his attention. In a low voice she asked, “He… is he causing you trouble?”
“Yes.” Mo Fang couldn’t help but knead his forehead in frustration.
“Do you want to listen to him?”
“Your Highness- . I have never hated anyone so much in my entire life. He-“ Mo Fang ground his teeth. “I just want to beat him up.”
Shen Li nodded. “Return to camp. Leave it to me.”
Mo Fang stared a bit dazedly. He wanted to ask some questions, but ultimately couldn’t disregard Shen Li’s orders, so he silently obeyed and made his way back to camp. Just as he was entering the camp grounds, he saw a white billowy shape making its way slowly toward Shen Li.
Although Shen Li turned in the direction of the shape, it didn’t seem like she noticed it.
An older general saw Mo Fang standing and staring off at nothing. He swiftly grabbed Mo Fang as he scolded him. “You youngsters! Always goofing off!”
Mo Fang had no choice but let himself be dragged back.
In the meantime Shen Li had turned around and was now facing Fu Rongjun. He had finally managed to catch up. She eyed him up and down.
Fu Rongjun stubbornly suppressed the quiver in his voice as he spoke. “Yes? Is there something I can assist you with?”
“Frankly speaking my subordinate does not have the time to idle as freely as My Lord. Kindly do not toy recklessly with him.”
Unconvinced, Fu Rongjun raised an eyebrow. “What makes you think I am toying with him?”
“Fu Rongjun is being sincere?” Shen Li couldn’t help but laugh as she spoke the words. “You know where you are right? I don’t care about what happens in the Heavenly realm or who you have affections for. I don’t even care about our engagement; but remember this: the Demon realm army exists to battle and defend. Anyone who wishes them harm will suffer the wraith of my spear. I don’t care who you are.”
Fu Rongjun was so shaken by Shen Li that his throat constricted involuntary when he spoke, making his voice shake. “This is Mo Fang’s business. What does it have to do with you?”
Fu Rongjun was annoying Shen Li. “Oh? You didn’t know? Mo Fang is mine.”
Fu Rongjun’s expression froze and the blood drained from his face. Shen Li looked at him disdainfully. She knew he was afraid of her, so she was confident he wouldn’t dare harass Mo Fang any further. Later on she would find more ways to bully him. She was certain he would run back to the Heavenly realm if she made his life unbearable.
Just as Shen Li relaxed, happy to have the situation under control, Xing Zhi walked up. She turned to see he was a mere three paces away. Surprised she stared blankly as he approached.
His face was cold and expressionless. Shen Li dropped her smile and similarly cleared her expression, neutrally asking, “Why is Immortal High God here?”
“Your Highness permitted me to stroll as I pleased. As it turns out I want to look at the military training grounds.” A smile appeared on his lips but it didn’t reach his eyes. In fact they seemed even frostier. “I couldn’t help but overhear Your Highness’s conversation. Strange. Why is it different from what Your Highness said at the army barracks? I clearly remember Your Highness firmly rejecting general Mo Fang.”
You. You came to quarrel didn’t you?
Fu Rongjun’s face regained some of its former color after hearing this. “Refused?” He stared. In a low voice he enthusiastically said to himself, “This lord still has a chance then!”
Shen Li didn’t refute Xing Zhi’s words. She disdainfully addressed Fu Rongjun. “Think you have the ability to fight me for him? Then try!” Finished, Shen Li turned and headed to the camp without a single glance at Xing Zhi.
Xing Zhi stared at her from behind, his lips pursed in a frown, his eyes still cold.
Shen Li entered the camp in a bad mood, but once she saw the familiar faces of her brothers her anger ebbed away. One by one everyone came to greet her. Shang Bei hurriedly jogged over when he saw her.
“Your Highness left without saying anything! It was very troublesome for General Mo!”
Shen Li laughed and patted him on the arm. “This lord was at fault. Later just pick a tavern, it’ll be my treat. You can drink to your heart’s content.”
Another general to the side quickly chimed in. “Your Highness can’t play favorites!”
“Yeah! I know! Everyone should get a share!”
“Alright! You are all invited!” Shen Li saw the training platform and remembered her reason for coming. She raised her voice and said, “This king is in good mood. I will practice with you all today! How about ten moves each! Then all the generals can go drinking!”
To fight and lose against the Azure Sky King was an honor for the soldiers. The atmosphere became boisterous and lively as the generals gathered up their recruits, selecting the most promising ones to spar against the Azure Sky King.
The soldiers used every trick up their sleeve, trying their hardest to best Shen Li, but none could land a second hit. Ten people tried in the course of two hours, but none were able to reach the ten move marker.
There was a glistening sheen of sweat on Shen Li’s forehead and she was warm all over. Her eyes were bright and lively from the exertion. The current soldier sparring was the best, able to get in five moves. She praised him. “You have potential.”
She immediately moved behind him after speaking. He was quick and sidestepped that attack but couldn’t avoid Shen Li’s next move. He lost his footing as she swept her leg under him. She grabbed him by the shoulder and pressed him against the platform floor.
He admitted defeat and quickly got off the training platform after Shen Li gave him some pointers on his defense.
A cool breeze burst through and Xing Zhi appeared in their midst laughing. “I would like to request a battle.”
Those in the audience had no clue he was there until he spoke. It left everyone in an uproar. When he did arrive? To appear without anyone noticing, showed how powerful he was.
Shen Li’s expression turned cold. She wiped at the sweat on her brow and looked at Xing Zhi. “Pardon? What does Immortal High God wish to do?”
"The atmosphere is so lively and boisterous I wanted to join in and be a part of it. I’ve lived in solitude beyond the heavens for so long, it’s rare for me to see such a crowd. Don’t tell me Your Highness is unwilling to bear competition?”
“I dare not put Immortal High God’s body at risk... ”
As soon as she finished speaking Xing Zhi flashed over to her on the training platform. He used the same technique she used on the foot soldier earlier, limiting her mobility by grabbing her shoulder. Shen Li shifted his hold by pushing against his hand with qi. Then she made an about face and slammed her lower palm into his face. But she missed. Xing Zhi had already turned his cheek away avoiding the hit. He took advantage of her forward moment and turned it against her, grabbing her wrist and twisting her arm behind her back, trapping her.
Xing Zhi grinned. “Your Highness was saying something about not daring to injure me?”
Shen Li was angry. She braced her feet and bent forward at the waist, raising her free arm up to grab his shoulder. With a yell she attempted to summersault him off her back. But her hand grabbed only air. Xing Zhi had already disappeared.
Shen Li heard soft footfall behind her. She swiftly turned around and forcefully jabbed her elbow at Xing Zhi’s abdomen. The hit landed but it felt like she was hitting fluff. The strength of her attack had been completely dispersed.
Their fight was reminiscent of her conversations with him. Every word she used to corner him would be deflected. She couldn’t pin him down.
The more she thought about it the more stifled she felt, and the more reckless her attacks became. The more reckless her attacks became the easier it was for Xing Zhi to handle her.
She realized he was playing her like a fiddle in the palm of his hand. Along with this realization came another: she didn’t have to play along. There was no reason for her to spar with him. She stood still and stopped attacking. Xing Zhi also stopped.
He hadn’t attacked once since that first back hold. All along he had been defending, parrying everything she threw at him. He was just toying with her and she had played along, orchestrating a one man show the entire time.
As if on cue, Xing Zhi stared at her as he closed the distance between them. He cradled the nape of her neck with one hand while grabbing her wrist with the other.
She looked up at him expectantly at this.
“We passed ten moves some time ago Your Highness.”
Shen Li yanked her wrist out of his grip and retreated a few steps. “What does Immortal High God wish?”
“Earlier I heard Your Highness say anyone who lasted ten moves would be invited for drinks with you and the generals, however I have no interest in drinking, so I would like to make a request of Your Highness instead.”
Shen Li’s face was cold, but because of the situation she acquiesced. “Immortal High God did defeat me, whatever god wishes, simply state it so.”
“I wish to ask Your Highness three questions.” Xing Zhi swept his gaze at the crowd around the training platform. He saw Mo Fang with Fu Rongjun on one side. He smirked. “My first question to Your Highness is, who is General Shang Bei to you?”
It was a shock to be called out by name. Shang Bei could only star blankly as those near him looked at him suspiciously, sizing him up. Shang Bei broke out in a nervous sweat. “Immortal High God! I’m a happily married man! Please don’t ask such misleading questions!”
Shen Li frowned. “We are comrades.”
“And who is this general to you?” Xing Zhi pointed at an older white haired general in the crowd.
“Also a comrade.”
“And lastly, who is General Mo Fang to you?
Shen Li was silent. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Mo Fang and a little away farther away, Fu Rongjun. Then it hit her.
Xing Zhi was trying to expose her words from earlier. Mo Fang had confessed to her but she had firmly and clearly rejected his feelings, denying any possibility of reciprocation.
What she said to Fu Rongjun, about Mo Fang being hers, was just a lie to intimidate Fu Rongjun so he would stop harassing Mo Fang. But if she repeated the lie now it would give Mo Fang false hope. Not to mention all the soldiers and officers present…
Her softly spoken, “Also a comrade,” made Xing Zhi smile in satisfaction.
The crowd was confused. The nature of the questions left them scratching their respective heads. None understood the strange riddle in front of them. Fu Rongjun put one hand on his hip and laughed.
You sure have a lot of guts immortal god!
“Today’s practice session is over.” Shen Li shot a mean glance at Xing Zhi. She turned around and hopped off the platform, then headed over to Mo Fang. “If Fu Rongjun bothers you again, I will properly reprimand him. I’ll be sure to give him a beating he won’t forget.”
Mo Fang stared. He whispered, “Was Your Highness trying to help me earlier?”
Shen Li’s face darkened. She glanced at him, then quickly away, not sure what to say. In no time at all the other generals surrounded her to ask about the drinks she promised. They saw no reason to ponder on the display earlier so dropped it in favor of some good alcohol. Mo Fang stayed where he stood and watched as the group pulled her away. He whispered, “Thank you for your regards Your Highness,” without realizing the words had passed his lips.
A fierce gust blew by and Mo Fang shivered as he came back to his senses. Someone yelled, “Mo Fang, come on!”
Those in the crowd waved him over.
“Go on ahead.” Mo Fang shook his head. “I’m going to stay behind.”
Shen Li kept walking but gave an order over her shoulder. “Go grab him.”
Two generals walked back, and planking either side of Mo Fang, dragged him along with them. The boisterous group made their way out of camp leaving the soldiers behind to practice.
Fu Rongjun ran over to the training platform. He didn’t dare be too rash but he simply couldn’t cover up his joy. Bowing to Xing Zhi he said, “Many thanks to Immortal High God for revealing the truth!”
“I did not do it to help you.” Xing Zhi shot Fu Rongjun a glance. “I… merely thought it would be amusing.” It went exactly as he expected, so why wasn’t he happy?
He had wanted to break through her indifference and see a livelier her.
Fu Rongjun looked up to see an unsmiling Xing Zhi. It was on the tip of his tongue to say: Immortal High God… do you like messing with other people’s feelings? But he refrained in time. He tactfully said farewell instead. “In that case this lord will take his leave.”
He finished what he wanted to say and was turning to chase after Shen Li’s trail. He didn’t even take his first step when Xing Zhi indifferently put a damper on his mood.
“You are behaving quite presumptuously in this realm.”
Fu Rongjun’s skin crawled for a second. He stiffly turned back to look at Xing Zhi to find the other now wore a slight smile.
“But how could I reproach the Heavenly Emperor’s grandson?”
Fu Rongjun relaxed at those words.
“I sent a letter to the Heavenly Emperor yesterday. He will naturally be the one to do so.” And with that last parting remark Xing Zhi turned around and left, leaving a nervous Fu Rongjun alone on the training platform.
Fu Rongjun broke out in a cold sweat. He could a practically hear the Heavenly Emperor slamming the table and yelling out in anger…
Meanwhile Shen Li and the generals were drinking and having a great time till the wee hours of the morning. A tipsy Mo Fang walked Shen Li back to her residence. They bade each other farewell at the front gates and Mo Fang circled back to his own house.
Shen Li opened the gates but avoided the front entrance, instead she detoured around the side wall. Despite doing this she still ended up running into Xing Zhi. He was standing in the courtyard in his signature white robe and gazing at the full moon. Their eyes met but she quickly turned her head away without a word of greeting. She was looking for Rou-ya.
“Your Highness is an engaged woman. Engaged to a man of heaven no less. Coming home with another man so late is inappropriate.”
Shen Li paused. The lanterns in the courtyard lit her face and gave it sculptured appearance. Her eyes were dim though. “Oh? Inappropriate? Is that what High God thinks?” Shen Li sneered. “You’re the one who gave me this marriage. Now you’re trying to bring my subordinate into it? God sure is prone to meddling.”
Xing Zhi frowned. It was rare to hear Shen Li speak in such a tone. “You’ve drunk too much.”
“I’m quite sober thank you.” Shen Li’s eyes burned with resentment and anger. Her emotions were all over the place. “Let’s talk some more about what is appropriate and what is good. It would have been good today if I had successfully fooled Fu Rongjun. To help my subordinate so that mess of a man would stop bothering him. But today Immortal High God really embarrassed me.
Shen Li laughed at herself. “So I concede. Are you satisfied High God?” Smirking she continued. “Do you even know what you’re doing? You act as though you’re jealous. Do you like me or something?
Xing Zhi was silent for a moment. He looked away from her and said, “From whence would these feelings arise? Your Highness is inebriated.”
A high god like Xing Zhi didn’t seek or desire anything, least of all another person. Shen Li should have known that.
“Is that so?” Shen Li turned and walked away back towards the interior of the main manor. Her words floated coolly behind her. “Then in the future, no matter who I chose to protect, no matter how I protect them, I’d appreciate if Immortal High God Xing Zhi will hold his tongue. Kindly leave me a way out.”
The wind blew around Xing Zhi making his hair flutter around him. He turned his head up to look at the dusky sky. It was a long time before he spoke. Talking to himself he said, “Hm... I will give it a try.”
Shen Li was called to the Demon Emperor’s palace early the next morning.
Upon entering the meeting hall she saw the emperor seated in his usual spot. Mo Fang stood to his side while many other soldiers were lined up in the hall.
The Demon Emperor dismissed the soldiers with a wave of his hand and quickly got to the point after they left. “Last night Fu Rongjun ran to the Mortal realm using the Demon realm entrance.”
Shen Li glanced in surprise at Mo Fang. He swiftly bowed his head and knelt on his knee.
“This is all my fault. I shall bear the full responsibility of bringing Fu Rongjun back. Once back I will accept whatever punishment is necessary.”
“Why did he suddenly run away?” Shen Li asked. There was a distinct silence in the hall. “Did you beat him up?”
She wasn’t serious about the question so was surprised when Mo Fang nodded.
“I was drunk last night.” He rubbed at the space between his brows helplessly as though he had a headache. “I wasn’t paying attention and… I kicked him… a few times.”
Mo Fang hadn’t changed out of the clothes he wore last night. The black steel boots he wore were specially made to handle harsh environments, they were incredibly tough and sturdy.
Shen Li thought about Fu Rongjun’s baby soft, tender skin and realized the silly immortal must have really felt it. “So he was beat up a little.” Shen Li continued disdainfully. “What is he? A baby? He was beat a little and he ran away? Who does he think he’s threatening with this silly ploy? There’s nothing in the Mortal realm that can harm him. Just let him come back when he feels like it.”
“That won’t do.” The emperor handed Shen Li a letter. “Because of an urgent matter, the Heavenly Emperor has decreed that Fu Rongjun must return to heaven in three days.”
Shen Li thought of the letter from the bar maid a few days ago and her stomach did a somersault. She had asked Xing Zhi to send it to the Heavenly Emperor on her behalf, but he had been so unenthusiastic about it she thought it would take some time to see any results. Xing Zhi must have sent the letter right away. Not only that, he must have added something else to it. Why else would the Heavenly Emperor react so quickly?
Shen Li cast her eyes down. She wasn’t sure what this feeling in her heart was.
“Fu Rongjun must be found within the next three days,” repeated the emperor. “Fortunately we have time on our side. Time in the mortal world is faster so three days here is the equivalent to many years there.”
Shen Li nodded. She looked at the remorseful Mo Fang then at the emperor and said, “So you want me to find him?”
“Your Majesty! This is my fault. Please don’t involve Her Highness.”
The Demon Emperor waved his hand at Mo Fang’s outcry. “This delegation isn’t just to bring Fu Rongjun back, but also to give the children time to get to know each other. Remember time proceeds faster in the mortal world. Li-er, do you understand?”
There was no way to avoid the marriage so of course she understood. She needed to consider his feelings more.
“I will get everything in order and set out immediately.”
Mo Fang wanted to argue, but the Demon Emperor’s words echoed in his ears. He felt like a fishbone was stuck in his throat. Although he wanted to say something, he couldn’t.
“As for General Mo’s punishment for offending a superior…”
“Don’t punish him. I told him he could beat Fu Rongjun. If anyone is to blame it would be me. I shall accept punishment once I return with Fu Rongjun.” Shen Li saluted the emperor, turned, and left the hall immediately after saying this.
Mo Fang, still kneeling on the ground, clenched his fist.
The only person Shen Li spoke to regarding her departure was Rou-ya. Since the matter had nothing to do with Xing Zhi, she saw no reason to inform him of her actions.
When Shen Li entered the Mortal realm, the skies were a clear blue and the breeze gentle. She drifted through the capital towards her tiny nook of the world on her cloud.
She took a deep breath of the clean air and stretched out. She suddenly wanted to find some shade under the grape trellis he[notes] planted. She couldn’t ask for more than to fall asleep to the creaking sound of his rocking chair.
She exhaled and opened her eyes. In front of her was a strange alley. Everything looked different.
Although she was told Fu Rongjun had run in the direction of Yangzhou, she hadn’t made it her destination, instead she steered her cloud to the capital. She wanted to stretch and enjoy herself first.
The last time she was here, she had been busy running from the Demon Emperor’s men. She had had no time to play tourist, so this time around she wanted to take it slow and easy. She went to the market and meandered between the stalls. Nostalgia hit her and she made her way to Xing Yun’s courtyard.
Everything had changed. They alley way that led to his house was different. The house he lived in, that burned down, had been rebuilt in a slightly different style. It was inevitable, so many decades had passed since she left.
She stood there in front of the gates for a while, watching the children run around. They were playing and laughing, making a general ruckus and disturbing the peace. This was certainly not a scene she would have ever seen in his courtyard. He had always preferred peace and quiet.
It really had changed a lot.
Next stop, the Rui Palace.
It was opulent and majestic with more pavilions and such, but otherwise it was the same palace. The only difference was the change in ownership.
Shen Li felt the sudden urge to see the lotus plant and the pond; she wanted to know what happened to Prince Rui and his consort.
She transported there with a twirl of her fingers. The pond had been filled in and a house had been built on top. Ah. It’s gone. Shen Li silently studied her surroundings. The décor had changed to suit the new owners and there were no traces of Prince Rui left.
Things and people fade with time, but Shen Li was unwilling to accept it. For her, everything had only happened months ago, yet there was nothing left of what she remembered. It felt like she was being abandoned as the world moved on. What was more, there was no Yun in this world. It made her feel like he was an illusion.
It frightened her so she sought confirmation. She appeared inside the imperial records building with another twirl of her finger. She thumbed through the records.
Prince Rui managed to assassinate his brother and take the throne. His princess refused to accept the empress title, instead choosing to follow the solitary path of Buddhism. King Rui had known she wouldn’t accept the title.
There was nothing else written about him. Perhaps because there was nothing distinguishing about his rule for the scholars to record.
Shen Li stared at the ink strokes on the pages. There was no record of Xiao He.[notes] It was like she never existed. Perhaps the king had forgotten about her, after all many people died for him, what was one silly demon girl.
Shen Li slid her fingers across the words until they stopped at the title: National Teacher, Xing Yun.
Xing Yun had guided King Rui , becoming his most trusted advisor, and yet he had no official title or rank. It was only after his death that Prince Rui conferred the title of National Teacher upon him.
The four words were the only traces left of him in the world. Flipping to the next page didn’t give her anymore information as it was about those that came after.
Shen Li laughed. What was she even looking for? Even if the whole world forgot, what did it have to do with her?
She only knew him because he was a part of her life, a part of her memories. Whether others remembered him, whether he really existed, didn’t matter because he was gone now. It wasn’t like she could get the past back.
Shen Li touched her forehead, then shook her head and laughed. How could she have lost her head like that? Such an action was unworthy of the Azure Sky King.
Shen Li left the palace and headed to Gongcheng. After a few steps she paused and did an about face. She walked to the market and picked up two bottles of wine and leisurely walked out of the capital.
She stopped at the outskirts by a river and sat down. “How long does High God intend on following me?”
A person clad in white billowy robes emerged from behind a tree. In embarrassment he sat down next to Shen Li. “How long have you known?”
“If I wasn’t aware of my surroundings I would have been struck down ages ago on the battlefield.” Shen Li held the other bottle out to him.
Xing Zhi laughed and took the offered wine.
The silence between was broken when they both spoke.
“Yesterday-“ - “High god-“
Xing Zhi laughed at that. “I wanted to apologize about yesterday but you had already left for the Mortal realm by the time I woke up this morning. So I followed you here.”
The river they were sitting by was a rapid one with white bubbles and foam. It twinkled and sparkled under the light of the sun. He looked at it and sighed. In a tone he was unaccustomed to using he said. “I’m sorry.” He was not one to apologize so it came out a little rusty.
Shen Li had always been more susceptible to coaxing than coercion so Xing Zhi’s apology took her by surprise. After a moment of stunned silence she said, “It is fine. I was bullying Ru Fongjun too much; it was fair he got angry. The Demon Emperor has reprimanded me about it. I know I was also in the wrong.”
This time the silence between them wasn’t so awkward.
Shen Li suddenly pointed to a spot in front of them. She spoke with renewed determination. “See that spot? Once not long ago I was sprawled over there completely helpless in my demon form. I was exhausted and couldn't move a single muscle. I have never been in a more difficult or embarrassing situation in my life.”
Shen Li said this but her eyes shined with happiness. She turned to Xing Zhi and her heart turned a little sour.
“I never told anyone this but when I was taken back to the Demon realm, I felt like I was renewed, redeemed, like I had met a legendary hero. How about that? The first time I saw a hero and he turned out to be an ordinary mortal that I could have easily choked and killed. It was probably then that I set my heart on him.”
It was the first time she had been so calm and clear-headed in front of him. She waited for him to say something, but when he didn’t she continued. “High God, Xing Yun,[notes] I’m not stupid.”
For a while the only sounds between them was the gurgle of the river as it rushed downstream. The stalemate was broken with Xing Zhi’s laughter.
“So you saw through it eh?”
The day was getting late and the setting sun cast a brilliant glow on the surface of the water.
It was a gorgeous view rarely seen in the Demon realm. Shen Li drank her wine as she gazed at the reflection.
“I have suspected it for a while, but I couldn’t figure out why you would want to go the lower realms, and as a mortal at that.”
“Hm.” Xing Zhi shook his head. “You get bored when you live as long as I have. And when you’re bored you do strange things. I went to the lower realm with the desire to incarnate as a mortal and experience the ordinary life of a commoner.” Xing Zhi gave a helpless laugh. “I drank from the river and I gained an ordinary body but my god knowledge could not be erased.”
Shen Li looked at Xing Yun in surprise. She had not expected him to drink from the water of forgetfulness. Unfortunately one bowl was not enough to wash his memories away. That was why he knew so many arrays and was able to see the spirits of the dead even though he had no magical aura.
“No mortal body can bear the burden of a god. No wonder you were so sickly.” Shen understood now. “But since you remembered, why did you pretend not to know me?”
Xing Zhi glanced at Shen Li out of the corner of his eye. “The same reason you left for the Demon realm with Mo Fang and the Demon Emperor.”
He hadn’t wanted to delay her on his behalf. Besides that, as Xing Yun, he hadn’t replied to her declaration before she returned to the Demon realm. It was only more awkward after returning and meeting her again as Xing Zhi.
Shen Li understood he couldn’t reciprocate her feelings, so had pretended they were strangers in order to douse any lingering affections. She looked down.
Sever all ties of affections huh?
Shen Li laughed then sighed. “So what you were trying to do was make me not like you? You know, your behavior was the complete opposite. You were acting like a man trying to seduce someone!” Is he really that unaware of himself?
“Were you seduced?”
Asking a question like that when he was trying to cut off relations... this guy was too reckless.
Shen Li spoke into her wine bottle. “How is that even possible? High god is thinking too much of it. How can I, the Azure Sky King, behave so inappropriately? That time in the mortal realm, I met and fell for an ordinary mortal name Xing Yun. That was in the past. Now you are an ancient high god. How could I possibly feel the same way about you?”
Xing Yun retained an aloof smile but his hand had tightened into loose fists.
Shen Li continued. “Your current identity is too troublesome. Like the prince who had to kill his brothers to gain the throne. Prince Rui loved his princess, but ultimately in order to produce an heir, he had to accept an imperial concubine. He didn’t do anything wrong; it was simply something required of him because of his identity. If one day we were to meet on the battle field I wouldn’t just be Shen Li, I would be Shen Li the Azure Sky King.”
Xing Zhi stared at Shen Li with a fixed gaze as she continued. “The marriage to unite the Demon realm and the Heavenly realm should be happening soon. What I want to say today is just this: You are unwilling to be Xing Yun so Xing Yun doesn’t exist for me anymore. As far as I am concerned, Xing Yun died in the mortal realm long ago. The you facing me now is the Immortal High God Xing Zhi, so there is no need for further subterfuge on your part.”
“Shen Li, from the start, both identities have always been mine.” Xing Yun was simply the mortal him in the Mortal realm. His body changed but he was still the same person, with the same memories. He didn’t want Shen Li to see him as two separate individuals.
Shen Li resisted this idea. Shaking her head she said, “As far as I’m concerned you are two different and distinct individuals. Xing Zhi, you and I do not share a fate, nor do we have anything to do with each other so you need not be concerned about any lingering feelings on my end.” Shen Li held her wine bottle up next to his as she solemnly spoke. “Immortal High God Xing Zhi, as the Azure Sky King I will obey the heavenly edict and marry Fu Rongjun.”
She tapped her bottle with a “clang” against his.
It was a crisp sharp sound that echoed all the way to the pit of his stomach before finding its way to his heart and bleeding into a thread of pain. It left him silent for a moment, then with a with a slight smile he said, “Indeed Your Highness, that would be good.”
The sun had set but the afterglow still colored the sky. Shen Li finished her wine bottle and threw it into the river. It made a “crack” sound as it broke in to pieces. The sound was like a resounding firm punctuation for their conversation.
Shen Li stood up and dusted herself off as she said, “The gates should be closed but I have no desire to return to the capital. My plan is to head to Yangzhou to search for Fu Rongjun. Where does Immortal High God plan to do from here?”
Xing Zhi didn’t answer so it was silent between them for a couple of seconds. The silence was broken by the sounds of footsteps behind them. Both knew it was impossible for it to be mortal foosteps. The feel and sound were too heavy.
Shen Li surveyed the land. The waters were shallow but the grass was high. Combined with the dimming sky it would be easy to stay hidden.
One look at her face and Xing Zhi could tell what she was thinking. “Why hide?”
Shen Li glanced at him. “Don’t you feel it?” She focused on the dam farther down the river. “The air just turned strange. It’s not something good.”
Dusk was a time when evil manifested in the mortal realm, so Shen Li was more alert.
She had yanked Xing Zhi over and hid in the grass.
“Still, did you really have to pull me along to hide with you? I don’t think I need to hide.” He looked bemusedly at her hand holding his on the top of the grass.
Ah! How could she forget. Even when he was the weakling Xing Yun, he was ridiculous enough to tease the crown prince about his weight. No matter how benign his expression, he was still the same impudent person!
Shen Li coughed lightly and pulled her hand back. She had talked big earlier, but her action just now was that of a person protecting another. She had unconsciously reacted to the situation like he was that same sickly, weak-bodied mortal she used to know, instead of an incomparable high god who everyone in the three realms would bow to.
The sound startled the group of four people walking along the river bank, one of whom had his wrists tied behind his back. His head was covered in a huge scarf. The shape seemed to suggest antlers. Remembering where she was she called out, “Hu Lu?”[notes]
The person did not reply, but the tremble that shook his entire body at her call confirmed her suspicions.
Though Hu Lu did not have heaven’s mandate he was an immortal earth spirit, a minor land god.
The group holding him captive were clearly not soldiers of heaven, so who were they to dare capture him? They were dressed entirely in black from head to toe, even their faces were covered. Shen Li furrowed her brows and approached to query.
Their leader pulled his sword and attacked before she had could ask.
Shen Li didn’t have a chance to show off her spear’s fearsome abilities, when from over her shoulder a column of water rushed past. With a “crash” it slammed into the attacking man and drenched him in water. A sudden cold air that sprang from the ground. He was rooted to the spot as ice crystals formed from the combination of chilly air and condensed water.
The other two, upon seeing this, decided to flee. Xing Zhi waved his hand before they could take a single step, and they, like their leader were also rooted in place.
Shen Li raised her brows. “Ice spell?”
“No, water limiting spell.”
Shen Li wasn’t familiar with all the different types of water spells nor was she impressed by any of them. They all sounded the same to her. She strode over to Hu Lu and pulled the fabric covering his head.
A trail of light wound around his antlers, much of his head, mouth, and neck like a collar.
Shen Li frowned. “What kind of spell is this?”
Xing Zhi looked down in thought. “An immortal binding spell.” He formed a ball of light on his fingertips and pressed it lightly against Hu Lu’s bindings, breaking the seal.
Freed, Hu Lu bent over at the waist and took a great big gulp of air. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he looked at the two people in front of him. “Thank you! Thank you great immortals for saving my life! I thought for sure I would die! Huu! Huu!”
Shen Li’s lip quirked at the corner. This big crybaby hadn’t changed one bit.
She and Xing Zhi waited for him to finish crying.
Hu Lu wiped his face with his arm after the flood of tears stopped. He gasped once he got a good look at his saviors, specifically at Shen Li. “You… you’re…”
Shen Li nodded. “Yes I am. But don’t worry, this time I’m not here to coerce you into doing anything.” She pointed a finger at the three men. “What’s going on with them?”
“Huuu huuu! It’s a long story! It all started when someone from an immortal sect came and started trouble!” Hu Lu sighed. “Three months ago a person named Fusheng Men came by representing some immortal sages from a school. I guess it was some well-known sect in the martial world. We didn’t care who they were but they set up a banquet and invited us to meet with them. A bunch went, but none came back. Another banquet invitation arrived and another group went. They never came back either! By then we were all leery of them. No one accepted the third invitation. Who would have guessed when we said no they would forcefully kidnap us?”
Xing Yun narrowed his eyes. “What you describe is a serious crime. Why have you not reported it to the heavens?”
Hu Lu cried out in grief, “We wanted to! The first messenger we sent was found dead in the woods. The next was also found dead. There were never many of us to begin with so between that and the banquet, there was barely anyone left. Everyone scattered.” Hu Lu got teary-eyed just thinking about it.
“The woods around the capital aren’t that big. I was afraid I’d be caught if I stayed so I went and hid in the city. I was able to stay hidden until today. That’s when they caught me. If it weren’t for you two… huuu huuu! Who knows what would have happened to me?!”
Shen Li was confused. “You’re a land god with an immortal body. Your magic isn’t strong, but it shouldn’t be that weak. Why are you such a pushover? Why is everyone able to do what they please with you?”
Hu Lu gave Shen Li an aggrieved look. “It’s not that I didn’t resist… there were other immortals with strong magic who tried to resist too. But the other side has some magic that specifically deals with immortal beings like us. We can struggle as much as we like, but we can’t break free. I heard from other immortals that the magic this sect uses doesn’t resemble normal immortal magic…“
He looked at Shen Li and hesitated for a moment before continuing. “It was like a demon technique…”
Demon technique? Shen Li wrinkled her brow.
The Demon realm had been under heaven’s jurisdiction since the end of the Thousand Year war. The boundary dictated by heaven was firmly enforced by the Demon Emperor, so even if the demon people didn’t like it, they couldn’t disobey. Despite this there were those in heaven who suspected the demon people had evil intentions and were simply biding their time, waiting for a chance to strike back. However because the Demon Emperor took great pains to enforce the boundaries, there had been no issues between the realms, thus nothing for heaven to complain about or latch onto as evidence.
This would change if immortal beings were being kidnapped. If a link, no matter how dubious, could be drawn to the demon people, the already suspicious people of heaven would jump to conclusions and pass a guilty judgment.
The reputation of the Demon Emperor and his people would be tarnished and the already tenuous peaceful relationship between the two realms would crumble.
Shen Li thought it would be great if the feigned friendship between the two realms fell apart and they could stop pretending to be nice to each other, however she had an issue with being used.
“Undo the limiting spell,” Shen Li said to Xing Zhi as she walked to the group of men clad in black. She said this, but before he could do as she asked, she had already broken through the ice, grabbed one of the men by the scruff of his neck and punched him to the ground.
He lay in a fetal position clutching his belly. She promptly kicked his legs out and sat on his stomach, then she forced his mouth open to keep him from committing suicide.
“I’m going to ask each question once and only once. Refuse to answer and I will cut your finger and force you to eat it, so take stock of how many fingers you have.”
Xing Zhi knew from the coldness in her eyes she was serious. She was a king of the Demon realm after all, so her ferocity was not in doubt.
The man under her trembled, wanting to escape, but Shen Li was like an immovable thousand-pound weight.
“Who is your master?”
The veins on his face bulged and he looked like he was choking. Since he refused to answer Shen Li moved her hand to his waist and reached for the dagger sheathed there. She slid it out and pressed the blade to a finger, ready to slice it off. The man squeezed out the words, “Men… Master Men“
Before Shen Li could ask the next question his face turned a ghastly purple. The already bulging veins on his face expanded and pulsated like worms. Their movement grew in intensity until his eyes bulged out. A whinny sound of pain escaped his throat before a loud “pop” erupted from his head.
The brunt of the blood splatter landed on Shen Li’s hands, but some still managed to make it to her face. She glanced down at the body underneath her before tossing the dagger away and standing up.
Bones and flesh disintegrated into sand spilling out of his clothes like an overfilled bag.
“What a malicious death curse. Answering questions will cause you to blow up.”
With a grave expression Xing Zhi, turned to the other men in black only to find their eyes closed in suicide. Apparently they didn’t want to die the same horrible death their comrade suffered.
Shen Li turned to follow his gaze. With a frown she said, “We lost our only lead.”
“I… I once overheard about a lake.” Hu Lu hesitated but pushed forward. “The immortals being kidnapped are being held in a cave near a cliff that’s covered with green vines. It’s by a huge waterfall. The only place that fits that description is Qingya cave.”
Shen Li was quick to reply. “Let’s go. We’ll rescue any immortals we find and figure out our next steps afterwards.”
Xing Zhi muttered some things to himself before speaking out. “We should disguise ourselves first. Let’s change clothes so it’ll be easier to approach the cave.”
“When the time comes, Xing, you take care of them with your spell-casting and I’ll take care of them with my fists.”
Xing Zhi nearly laughed at her words. He picked up a stick and tapped her forehead lightly with it. “What is wrong with your brain? Always so violent.”
Shen Li distractedly touched the spot he tapped and turned away without saying a word.
Xing Zhi had been careful how he behaved around her, but all that care went to waste with that single action that made his personality shine through. The way he touched her, the way he spoke, they were identical to the other jerk! The mortal him rejected her but the immortal him was seducing her. What was with him? She wanted to beat him up for unsettling her heart so much!
Shen Li was still stewing when she felt her clothes morph into the same black outfit the men wore. Xing Zhi had changed both his appearance and his clothes to resemble the leader as well. Now he gave off a competent heroic air, instead of that of a lazy loafer.
“Ahem, let’s go,” said Shen Li after clearing her throat.
Hu Lu led the way to the cave. The idea of passing through the waterfall made Shen Li’s scalp prickle with discomfort, but she swallowed any complaints and followed behind Hu Lu. She was expecting to get wet but not a drop of water landed on her. She looked up to find a golden barrier above their heads. She turned to Xing Zhi, but he was staring intently ahead into the darkness.
He stepped inside and she followed behind like nothing had happened.
They continued down the dark path until they reached a vermilion door. Earlier Hu Lu had told them about the monster that lived in the area. Because of its easy temper, it easily co-existed with the other immortals in the area. Both sides minded their own business, so there were no problems. No one expected the cave would become a prison for the immortals.
Shen Li’s group didn’t stand in front of the door long before it opened a slit and a voice from within asked. “Password?” It was a cold and unwelcoming voice.
The three of them had come disguised in the right clothes but they didn’t know the password. Xing Zhi could tell Shen Li wanted to kick the door down, so he immediately gripped her hand and shook his head.
Xing Zhi was disguised as the leader of the group and he had brought his stick with him. He limped closer to the door making the person guarding it on the other side nervous.
The guard cautiously asked, “What?”
“Gate master…” Xing Zhi imitated the dead man’s voice perfectly.
The one behind the door visibly relaxed and opened the door for them.
Xing Zhi looked to Shen Li and said, “Now,” letting her do what she had been itching to do all along.
She shifted inside and knocked out the guard and his companion with a swift chop to the neck.
Xing Zhi turned to Hu Lu and said, “Return to the woods. We will release the other immortals imprisoned here.”
Hu Lu wasn’t so sure about that plan. “They’re really powerful…will you guys really be OK? I can stay with you and help…”
The offer made Xing Zhi smiled but Shen Li was openly disdainful of it. “Huh? You should just worry about yourself.”
Xing Zhi placed the stick in Hu Lu’s hand. “It’s alright. We’ll be fine. Take this stick for protection.” You’re welcome.
Hu Lu stared at the stick in his hand. “How am I supposed to defend myself with this tiny stick?”
Shen Li stared at it. “For an ancient god, he sure is stingy with his gifts.”
Xing Zhi overheard this and his smile faded. He wondered at the absent gratitude. He had rushed over to help using the the clues available. Even if I haven’t succeeded yet… I still came…
“As long as he doesn’t lose the stick, no one within a hundred miles will be able to touch him.”
They left Hu Lu behind and continued onwards. Eventually they reached the end of the passageway and entered a cavern. It was a huge space with ten floors embedded into the walls. The water on the floor cast a green light that lit the entire cavern up.
Immortals were held in individual iron cages all along the wall straight down in a line. Light, like the one that imprisoned Hu Lu when they found him, encased each cage.
A guard was patrolling the area unaware of their presence.
Shen Li wrinkled her brows. “How do we save them?”
Xing Zhi laughed. “Like you said, I’ll handle the magic. You handle the brute force.” He waved his hand as he said this and a golden light snaked forward to the cages weaving in between the restricting white light.
“Break,” he said in a low voice that still somehow resounded throughout the cavern. The light responded to his voice and the spell binding the cages broke.
Taking that as her cue, Shen Li formed her spear and flew to the cages, destroying each lock quickly and easily, releasing the immortals inside.
Alerted, the guards rushed over to attack, but they were no match for Shen Li and she dispatched them in no time.
The immortals all bowed their heads in gratitude.
“It’s not safe to stay here. “Xing Zhi said. “Let’s leave first and talk later.”
Upon reaching the outside and seeing the light again, many immortals wept in joy. They thanked Xing Zhi again for rescuing them.
Strangely enough no one approached or thanked Shen Li, not that she noticed.
They would have continued to ignore her had she not asked, “Do you know where the first immortals were caught?”
This question made them turn to her. No one answered for the longest time. Finally a young man pointed at her and heatedly said, “You demon! You dare have the audacity to ask?!”
The person next to him immediately grabbed the hem of his robe and tried to pull him away. “She also saved us! Come on, don’t act that way!”
Shen Li frowned. “I will only say this once. The matter with immortals being kidnapped has nothing to do with my people. I only incidentally learned about it today.”
“Like hell you did!” Now that the joy of being freed wore off, he gave vent to his anger at being kidnapped and imprisoned. “You demon people are barbaric, evil villains! This time you captured us in the Mortal realm. What next? Do you plan to go to heaven and kidnap those immortals too?! Every single one of you are disgusting criminals! And that includes your stinking Demon Emperor-”
Shen Li lifted him up by the collar before he got through his sentence. “Such impudence! I, the Azure Sky King, will cut you to pieces!”
The man in Shen Li’s grasp was so scared by the sight of her red eyes that he almost fainted. The immortal next to him was like-wise really frightened. He quickly apologized to Shen Li, urging her to release his friend, however Shen Li was too angry to hear his pleas.
Instead the guy she was holding turned blue as her grip tightened.
This was not good so Xing Zhi called out to her.
Shen Li glanced at Xing Zhi. Although she didn’t release her grip, she did loosen it enough for the man to breathe.
“Cruel... bar...baric... savage...” As soon as he got some air, he commenced talking again.
Shen Li turned to him and gave him a cold smile. “I wasn’t going to kill you, but since you’ve worked so hard to convince me, I’ll do you the favor. Aren’t you lucky?”
Shen Li tightened her grip further causing his color to change from blue to purple as he foamed at the mouth. Out of fright, the other immortals cried out in alarm.
Xing Zhi reached out to her and touched her hand but he didn’t force her to let go. All he said was, “Hurting him will make things more difficult for the people of the Demon realm.”
Shen Li gnashed her teeth. “This person is full of venom, spewing slander against my people and insulting my emperor. Now I can’t even maim or kill him. It’s hard for me to settle the anger in my heart.”
“Shen Li...” Xing Zhi sighed helplessly.
Shen Li didn’t understand why it was bad to give vent to her anger by hurting the immortal in front of her. He and his kind constantly bad-mouthed her people with malicious gossip. It was frustrating to constantly be told to endure.
She roughly tossed the immortal onto the ground then walked away, kicking the shrubs in her path as she did so.
The other immortals rushed to aide their fallen comrade. He was dizzy and slightly bruised, but otherwise unhurt. They still felt the need to complain.
“He only said a few words, such uncalled-for anger. The demon people really have no empathy, so unforgiving!”
Shen Li was amazed at the irony of the words coming from the group of immortals. “Empathy?” She laughed a laughter filled with qi. The force shocked the immortals and shook their hearts, forcing them to cover their ears from the power. “Isn't it because I empathized with you that I came and rescued you?”
In a fit of anger, she had continued speaking with qi in her voice and she would have continued some more had a hand not swiftly covered her mouth. All the qi was pushed back inside, making her take a step back in surprise.
She bumped into Xing Zhi when she did so. His chest was warm and his aura wrapped all around her. It was like a cool breeze had blown in and dispersed her resentment. All that remained was a stuffed up feeling in her chest that left her feeling flustered.
“My friends, just because those who captured you used demon magic doesn’t mean someone from the demon race is involved. This could be a deliberate attempt to undermine the relationship between the two realms. My friends, I hope you do not listen to idle gossip and assist the villain inadvertently.”
Shen Li felt the vibrations in Xing Zhi’s chest as he talked. It had a lulling effect on her and she zoned out without realizing it, but her annoyance came back upon seeing the immortals in front of her nodding along to what he was saying. She pushed his hand away from her mouth and struggled out of his embrace. Once successful, she turned around and gave him a glare before walking away and kicking the rocks and grasses underfoot like an angry child.
Xing Zhi shook his head lightly and smiled as he watched her walk away. He continued, “I won’t keep you all in the dark. I stayed in the Demon realm with the demon people for several days not too long ago. They are not a bloodthirsty race. The people are straightforward and direct. If the act of kidnapping immortals in the Mortal realm was meant to start a war, then they would have prepared for it with the appropriate military preparations. I saw no evidence of this at their military camps while I was there.”
The gathered immortals mulled over what he said. A white-haired old man of the group touched his beard and spoke. ”As far as I know, the only immortal who visited the Demon realm recently was the Heavenly Emperor’s grandson, Fu Rongjun, who is wedded to a person in the demon world. Could it be the woman who just now proclaimed herself to be the Azure Sky King is Fu Rongjun’s wife, from that rumored married couple?”
Xing Zhi’s brow twitched slightly and he glanced over at Shen Li.
Shen Li had not heard the old immortal. She was some distance away from them leaning against a tree and looking at the waterfall. The corner of Xing Zhi’s mouth arched up slightly. It was incorrect to call Shen Li and Fu Rongjun a married couple. “Fu Rongjun and the Azure Sky King are not yet wed.”[notes]
“Ah, if great immortal says so then it must be the case.”
“The Azure Sky King is deeply dedicated to the Demon people and can not stand anyone speaking poorly of them. What happened just now was simply because she is short-tempered. I hope everyone can forgive her.” Xing Zhi smiled as he continued. “She is a very direct and honest person with a righteous nature who approaches matters with a sincere heart. That kind of conviction and morality… even I can not beat.”
The old immortal tugged at his beard. “Great immortal is very good to the king… unlike in the rumors… hahaha.” His sentence trailed off in awkward laughter.[notes]
Xing Zhi’s smile drooped a little but he remained silent. “Well she is worth it.”[notes]
Xing Zhi asked the group of immortals some more questions about their kidnapping before letting them disperse and return to their respective territories. It was unlikely their kidnappers would appear again so soon so they wanted to use the opportunity to report to heaven.
Xing Zhi walked to Shen Li after everyone left. He didn’t have to say anything; she knew he was there.
She glanced quickly over at him and asked, “Are they gone?”
Xing Zhi nodded. “It seems like there is still another group that needs to be rescued. I don’t know the specific location, but it should be somewhere in the south.”
“This is your business. It doesn’t have anything to do with me. Go and save your people by yourself. I’m going to Yangzhou.” Immediately after saying her piece she walked away.
Xing Zhi trailed behind her.
“Stop following me.”
Xing Zhi gave a helpless smile and shrugged. “Yangzhou is also in the south. We’re heading in the same direction.”
Shen Li was silent for a moment, but eventually resumed her walking. There was still lingering resentment in her heart but her pace wasn’t as fast as it was before. The distance between them kept getting smaller and smaller until finally they were walking side by side.
Xing Zhi shot a glance at her. “Hungry?”
Shen Li was reluctant to admit it, instead she said, “No,” just before her belly betrayed her with a low rumble. It made her frown and Xing Zhi smirk. Now she was even more annoyed!
She called forth a cloud to ride away but he grabbed her wrist and interrupted her.
“There’s a small family run restaurant down the mountain. Why don’t we go there? It’s been a while since I’ve had any of the Five Grains. I miss them.” Perhaps Xing Zhi’s mortal life as Xing Yun influenced his immortal preferences.
Shen Li eyed him dubiously. “You do?”
“I do.” Xing Zhi nodded with a smile.
“Alright, let’s go then.”
The restaurant really was in fact just a stall by the side of the mountain. The sign in front read, “Tea.” It was a good resting place for travelers; there were even a few tables and stools outside for people to sit and enjoy a drink.
Shen Li barely sat down when a middle-aged woman approached.
“Would the two of you like tea? Please sit, sit.”
“Auntie, we’ve had a long journey and we’re hungry. Can we borrow your kitchen to make something to eat?”
The woman blinked, a bit taken aback. “What do you want to eat? I’ll make it for you.”
Xing Zhi laughed. “This sister here has really picky tastes. It’s difficult to please her. We’ll pay you for the use of course.”
The lady silently thought it over for a moment before replying. “Let me clean up a little first. Here, in the meantime have some tea.” She poured them both a cup before hurrying back inside.
“This is a suspicious shop.” Shen Li stroked the cup as she said this.
“Is Your Highness afraid?”
Shen Li raised her head and drank the tea in one gulp.[text omitted]
Upon returning the woman was surprised to find her new customers still sitting upright in their chairs. She pushed the flicker of hesitation that went through her mind aside and put a smile on her face as she approached them. “Everything is in order Young Master. Please, this way.” She picked up the teapot and was shocked at how light it was. It had to be at least half empty. She looked at Shen Li and Xing Zhi in astonishment.
This made Shen Li ask her if something was wrong.
“Nothing, nothing. I was just surprised you weren’t tired after walking around the mountain. You must have a lot of stamina.”
“I’m fine. It wasn’t anything much, just killing a bunch of monsters.”
Something flickered in the woman’s dark green eyes. “My goodness, young miss enjoys joking a lot I see.”
Shen Li wasn’t as patient or as calm as Xing Zhi. She reached over the table and grabbed the woman by the neck. “I’m not one to joke.” She reached for the tea pot with her other hand and poured the liquid into the woman’s mouth.
The woman only succeeded in swallowing more liquid in her desperate struggle to break free.
Shen Li was relentless. She raised the woman higher and shook her harder until her limbs shortened and a tail sprouted behind her. It dragged to the ground as her skin smoothed into a different kind of flesh. The woman resembled a python.
Shen Li tossed her to the ground and shouted in a cold voice, “All of you come out at once, otherwise I will kill her.”
A girl crawled frantically from out of a haystack as soon as Shen Li said this.
“I’m coming! I’m coming! Please don’t kill her!” yelled the girl in a fuzzy voice. Her lower half kept transforming, alternating between a snake tail and human legs. It made her gait unsteady and she kept falling and smashing her face into the dirt.
Xing Zhi smiled. He was about to speak when Shen Li stepped forward and helped the girl up. She patted the girl’s dirty cheeks, not at all minding the dust. In a happy voice she said, “Xiao He!”[notes]
The girl looked at Shen Li confused. Her voice shook, and she stuttered because she was so afraid. “I’m… n – n – not Xiao He. I’m… I’m sorry.”
The girl was shaking like a leaf. Shen Li thought it best to just release her.
In her happiness, Shen Li forgot Xiao He had sacrificed herself for the one she loved, that even if she looked like Xiao He, this was her reincarnated form so she would have no memory of her previous life. Unlike Xing Zhi who retained his memories, she would have lost hers. Without that memory she was freed from the past. In this life, she didn’t know Prince Rui or the heartbreak of that love.
Shen Li was silent for a moment, then she took a step toward the girl and asked, “Your abilities aren’t even that great, yet you dare set up a stall like this to harm others? How brazen. Aren’t you afraid the mountain god will punish you?”
With her head lowered to her chest the girl whispered that the mountain god was gone, captured some time ago.
Xing Zhi and Shen Li shared a glance.
“When? Did you see who did it?” Shen Li probed. Her voice came out unintentionally sterner than she meant it to.
It scared the girl, and though her lips trembled, she refused to say more.
“Really? I didn’t even beat you this time…” Shen Li sighed in disappointment. From her side, Xing Zhi laughed.
The sigh made the older woman exert a great amount of effort to look up from the ground. In a hoarse voice she asked, “Great immortals, you are sparing our lives?” Shen Li had only shaken her twice, but it was enough for her to understand the disparity in their strengths so she was very respectful when she spoke.
“Neither my child nor I wish to engage in such a malicious trade, but we were forced to do so because we had no other choice. We’ve only robbed passersby of their money. We take what we can, but we’ve never physically harmed anyone!”
“When did you put up the stall? And why were you compelled to do so?” Shen Li asked.
Thinking about it made the greened eyed python sigh. “This child’s father is a mortal. Together as a family we used to live in the forest surrounding Yangzhou. It was a hard life but we got by on the food he grew and the game I brought back from the mountain. Then three months ago something strange happened. The trees started withering away and the grass stopped growing. Thick miasma spread everywhere and nothing grew. I’m sure it’s related to the mountain god’s disappearance.”
It clearly made her anxious just remembering. “The mountain god disappeared… The other supernatural beings said the god was taken away by someone named Fusheng Men.”[notes]
Shen Li wrinkled her brows, that name again. It seemed, although he was from a small immortal sect, he was a rising power capable of not just kidnapping immortals around the capital, but also using demon magic. Even Shen Li began to doubt her conviction. Did someone from the Demon realm really break through the barrier and enter the Mortal realm?
“I had to take this child and hide here. There wasn’t anything to eat. Out of desperation we came upon the idea of robbing passersby of their money and any food they had with them.
“What about your husband?” Xing Zhi quietly asked, not concerned about Fusheng Men. “He’s not here with you so how is he getting by?”
“He…” The woman hesitated for a moment before fording forward honestly. “He was a Taoist priest before we married. Things were peaceful and we lived together without incident but he never laid down his duties. When the miasma spread down the mountain he had me and our daughter leave the area while he and his disciple went to Yangzhou. He said the miasma would be difficult to deal with and it would affect the city.”
Shen Li was speechless at the revelation. This woman was in a relationship with a Taoist priest and they had a daughter together. Their identities were so different. It must have been incredibly difficult for them to remain together. She couldn’t help but admire the green snake.
Xing Zhi spoke up in Shen Li’s silence. “Since that’s the case, why don’t we go to Yangzhou? I’ll treat you to a meal another day.” He smiled slightly at Shen Li as he spoke.
The intimate tone of his voice made Shen Li stare at him. She turned away and coughed.
“Great… great immortal!” The daughter suddenly spoke up. “Won’t you take me along as well?! I miss dad and I miss Brother Yan!”[notes] Her cheeks blushed out of embarrassment she said this.
A girl so young wouldn’t handle the miasma well. Xing Zhi was about to refuse but Shen Li spoke up first.
“OK, let’s go.” She turned around and glanced at Xing Zhi. “Can you give her a talisman ward?” Though it was phrased as a question, it was clear she wasn’t interested in discussing the matter.
Xing Zhi looked at Shen Li in surprise before laughing out loud. He walked in front of the girl and drew several letters on her forehead. Finished he said, “Let me know if you feel unwell once we enter the city.”
The girl nodded gratefully. She crawled into Shen Li's sleeve after transforming into a tiny snake. She peeked her head out and looked up at Shen Li.
With a laugh Shen Li said, “OK then, let’s go!”
Though the sun was setting as they reached Yangzhou there was no beautiful sunset to behold. Black miasma fog shrouded the entire city. Shen Li felt like she was stepping into the Demon realm.
According to the girl, Xi, all the immortals around the city had been kidnapped. Miasma flowed out from the forest surrounding the mountains and settled in the city, leaving it in its current shrouded state.
The once vibrant city was a dead shell of its former self. Sickness pervaded, affecting both old and young. There were only a few hardy individuals able to walk the streets.
Shen Li frowned. “Those in the Demon realm have adapted to the miasma but for ordinary mortals, it would be unbearable.”
The girl in Shen Li’s sleeve trembled in fear.
Shen Li stroked the snake’s head. “Don’t worry. We’ll find your family.”
After walking along the streets for a bit Shen Li asked, “Is there a way to get rid of the miasma?”
“Yes, however the miasma comes from the mountain. Clearing it here would only address the symptom, not the root of the problem-” Xing Zhi was interrupted before he could finish.
“Fix the symptom first, take care of the cause later,” Shen Li cut in. “Slowing it down is better than nothing.”
Shen Li barely finished talking when a person rushed out to her. His hair was poofy like he’d been electrocuted, while his entire body, from his clothes to his skin, were completely ashen.
“Finally! Someone came!” He was practically crying tears of joy. “Someone came at last!”
“Who are you?” asked Shen Li.
He wiped his face with one hand, nearly in tears again. “Ah?! I’m Fu Rongjun!” He used his filthy clothes to wipe his grimy face. It didn’t help. He only smeared the grime around more. He pointed to his face. “I’m Fu Rongjun.”
Shen Li frowned in disgust. “Go away. I don’t have time for you.”
Fu Rongjun looked around and saw Xing Zhi so he didn’t over do it, only saying, “That’s over line! How can you treat this lord like that?” Fu Rongjun patted his chest. “This lord risked his life to save the city. If it weren’t for this lord hurrying to Yangzhou, everyone here would have fallen to the miasma! This lord did what he could to control the situation and purify the city. How can you treat me like so?!”
Xing Zhi looked up at the sky. “There are traces of purification in the air.”
The confirmation dissipated Fu Rongjun’s anger, but he still felt wronged. In a sad voice he said, “This lord encountered such a thing while strolling. How could this lord not help? This lord tried to purify the miasma to the best of his abilities, but it wasn’t enough. In less than a day the miasma returned and pervaded the city again. Then at the same time a great number of people fell seriously ill. It was too much to manage the miasma and the sudden eruption of sickness. Those not seriously ill, this lord gathered and brought to the temple in the northside of the city. This lord set up a boundary circle to keep the miasma out but lately the miasma has been so dense this lord has reached his limit.”
“You could have reported this to heaven. The only reason you didn’t was because you were afraid they would take you back, so you figured you would just try to clean the miasma here on your own. But now that it’s beyond your abilities you’re trying to shove the responsibility onto someone else?” She shot him a glance after laying his motivation bare. “The nerve. To claim you saved the city.”
Fu Rongjun nearly choked at her words. He was slightly embarrassed at having been called out.
There was a flash of green and a girl suddenly appeared in front of him. Her unstable legs caused her to stumble into Fu Rongjun’s arms. She hastily pulled back and asked. “Great immortal, inside the city, did you see a Taoist priest and his disciple?”
Such a soft sweet voice. Even if his eyes were filled with dust and the city dark and dimly lit, Fu Rongjun could recognize a beauty when he saw one. He gave her a quick once over to confirm.
“Of course. This lord set up the boundary inside the city after all.”
“Can you bring me over to them please?”
“Of course.” Fu Rongjun extended his hand toward her. “But the miasma is a hindrance. Take care where you step; it’s hard to see here.”
Shen Li picked Xi up by the waist and tossed the girl over her shoulder. “Lead the way,” she said to Fu Rongjun.
Fu Rongjun resentfully glared at Shen Li’s cut, but he turned around and did as told.
Shen Li thought Fu Rongjun was just a useless skirt-chasing fool so she was surprised at the extent of the boundary he created. It was large enough to protect several hundred people. Those inside the boundary welcomed Fu Rongjun with big grateful smiles on their faces.
Fu Rongjun turned around proudly to look at Shen Li as if seeking affirmation of his accomplishment and virtuosity.
She turned her head away, refusing to indulge him.
Xi looked around the encampment distracted as the other people came over and bombarded Fu Rongjun with praise. “Great immortal is amazing! Great immortal is a such a good person!”
It made Fu Rongjun laugh in happiness with his hands on his hip.
Xi spotted two people in the corner of the temple. Running over she yelled, “Dad! Brother Yan!”
Shen Li looked over in their direction and was stumped at what she saw. Xi’s father was indeed an ordinary Taoist priest but Brother Yan bore an uncanny resemblance to King Rui.[notes] Laying prone beside him, was a sleeping sick woman; she looked remarkably like King Rui’s wife. They appeared to be the same people from the previous century.
Xi rushed excitedly over to them.
“Why are you so loud? Can’t you see people are sleeping?” Yan reprimanded her.
Xi stared in silence, feeling like she’d been wronged. She shifted from foot to foot before walking over to her father’s side, lightly tugging at his clothes.
The interaction between the three made Shen Li ask if their fates were bound to repeat.
Xing Zhi shook his head. “It’s just a coincidence.”
The aggrieved look on Xi’s face reminded Shen Li too much of Xiao He. She couldn’t help but speak out. “I’m sure Prince Rui had many people in his life after he took the throne. What were the chances of him remembering a sharp-tongued woman who sacrificed everything to help him gain his desire?
“Let me think.” Xing Zhi thought it over before answering. “After he became king and assigned an empress he planted lotus flowers all over the royal garden.”
Shen Li gave him a quick glance in surprise. She didn’t expect him to answer. It made her sigh. “It’s useless now, but I’m sure Xiao He would have been happy if she knew.”
Xi’s father looked sternly at Xi. “What happened to your mother? Why are you here by yourself?”
Xi pinched her dad’s sleeve. She felt really wronged. “Mother suffered a minor injury. She was worried about the miasma affecting her so she didn’t dare come with me.”
“How willful of you!” He yanked his sleeve away from her grasp. “No fear of the miasma at all! Leave here immediately!”
Xi had overstepped. She looked at Brother Yan and saw he wasn’t paying attention to her at all. Her throat tightened and she couldn’t speak.
Unexpectedly it was Fu Rongjun who interrupted the silence. He walked to Xi and stuck one hand out between them, creating a space for himself to step in.
Like a skilled diplomat he said, “The enchantment circle will protect all those inside from the miasma. There is no need to drive your daughter away so soon. Taoist priest, please do not blame her. She was simply worried about your well-being and was eager to see you.”
Fu Rongjun turned around and looked at Xi after he finished speaking. The bright shining way she gazed at him melted his heart. His eyes softened and he unconsciously smiled. The warmth showed through despite his ash smeared face making Xi very grateful someone was on her side.
Xi’s father had nothing more to say after Fu Rongjun spoke.
Shen Li crouched in front of the sleeping girl and studied her face. Her lips were nearly black and there were distinct glowing bluish-green lines crisscrossing under her fair skin. They pulsed and gave the impression there were bugs underneath.
“Was the epidemic caused by the miasma?”
Yan glanced at Shen Li, unhappy she would disturb the woman’s sleep.
In a rude tone she continued. “What? You don’t know? What are you doing with her then? Let someone else who knows what they’re doing take care of things.” She turned to Xing Zhi. “I’ll have to trouble High God.”
Xing Zhi sighed at her behavior. He understood it was her way of getting justice for Xi. No matter the situation Shen Li would always be Shen Li. She couldn’t bear to see someone suffering unfairly and not doing something about it. However she felt about something, whether she liked it or not, would rise to the surface and show in her behavior.
With these thoughts in his heart Xing Zhi walked over to the sleeping woman. After observing her carefully he read her pulse. “I will see the other patients now.”
His expression was heavy. He circled around the temple checking people before returning. With knitted brow he turned to Fu Rongjun and asked, “Your Highness has been here several days now. Can you tell me which direction has the greatest miasma density.”
Fu Rongjun thought about it before replying. “The west side of the city. The southwest is particularly lethal.”
Xing Zhi muttered something to himself. “If I’m not wrong the miasma isn’t flowing into the city from the outside, but rather is flowing out of the city to the surrounding area, and has been doing so for quite some time.”
This surprised everyone within earshot. The Taoist was the first to disagree. “That’s impossible. I live a secluded life in the mountains but do come to the city to buy supplies. I was here last month and noticed the miasma clinging to the outside of the city walls. There was no miasma beyond the walls and inside the city then.”
“The sickness here isn’t an epidemic caused by disease, but the result of blood flow crossing the wrong way. It’s symptomatic of too much miasma inhalation.” He pulled his sleeve up and showed his arm. Faint bluish-green marks were visible. “I was careless several days ago and allowed the miasma to enter my body. Once inside it will remain for some time. These are the marks of its presence.”
Shen Li recognized they were the wounds from the time he was ambushed by the yao shou in the Ruins. Xing Zhi hadn’t said anything about them so she hadn’t realized his wounds hadn’t healed fully.
“This kind of mark, aside from being injured by beings that emit miasma, can also be found in those who inhale the miasma all year long. Physical symptoms appear once it reaches a certain concentration level in the bloodstream.”
Xing Zhi pulled his sleeve back down. “The disappearance of immortal beings, the mysterious immortal sect, the profusion of miasma, the answer may lay in the western part of the city.”
Shen Li’s main concern was the Demon realm. It was possible the cause could implicate her people so she wanted to resolve everything as soon as possible. “Let’s going to the west side.” To Fu Rongjun she said, “Guard this place well.”
The miasma grew increasingly heavy and toxic as she approached the west side of the city. Despite taking precautions against it, Shen Li could barely move. She spoke to Xing Zhi beside her. “If the culprit is from the Demon realm then I will ask you to allow me to deal with that person.”
Xing Zhi was silent as he considered her request.
She didn’t think there would be an issue with it so his reply was unexpected.
“That won’t be possible. This matter involves too many land gods. Heaven will want to investigate.”
Shen Li nearly missed a step at his words. She turned around and looked at him. He still had the same faint smile he usually wore but is eyes were resolute. In that moment Shen Li saw the real Xing Zhi. He was normally carefree, but when it came to heavenly matters he would wasn’t going to budge.
“That’s fine.” Shen Li nodded. “It can be a joint investigation,” was her compromise.
To that, Xing Zhi did not reply. By then they had reached the area and the miasma was intense. Breathing was nearly impossible. Even Shen Li, as accustomed as she was from living in the Demon realm, felt unwell, never mind ordinary mortals in the mortal world.
She scanned the city wall but couldn’t see where the miasma could have originated. All she felt was the overpowering heaviness it emitted. “We’ve reached the west walls, but there’s nothing here.”
Xing Zhi reached over and pulled a strand of her hair. Although it didn’t hurt, it was a strange thing for him to do. “What?” she asked.
He smiled at her question as he nimbly shaped her hair into a butterfly. “I’ll show you the trick.” Xing Zhi released her hair and it fluttered lazily through the air, having changed into a white butterfly. It soared through the miasma cleaving a trail of clear air in its wake.
A red door, much like the one they encountered when rescuing the immortals held captive in the cave on the outskirts of the city, emerged from the wall.
“See? Now it’s here.”
Shen Li shot him a side glance. “Next time pull your own hair.” She materialized her spear as she stepped to the door. There was no doubt in her mind it had to lead to Fusheng Men’s headquarters. She wasn’t the least hesitant or polite, kicking the door intending to open it with one swift kick.
Though the panels shook, it remained firmly closed. Shen Li was about to try again, this time with qi in her kick, but before she could a loud “Thwomp!” sounded and the double doors opened wide. The miasma released hit her square in the face.
White butterflies, matching the one from earlier, shot past her ear. No longer erratic, they flew with intent and great speed to the door. Like before, they dissipated the miasma in their wake.
Shen Li went in ahead and stepped into a grand hall, fitting of an imperial palace. It was hard to believe the door hidden behind magic camouflage could lead to such a beautiful place.
There wasn’t much time to admire as the moment she stepped through black clad figures emerged from the walls like ravenous monsters intent on killing their prey. Shen Li cut every one of them down with her spear, severing their heads cleanly and easily. Her face was a blank mask as she fought, not heeding the blood splattering around or the drops dripping from her spear.
She would not forgive anyone who slandered or dishonored the Demon realm.
She mercilessly killed everyone in her path. When she couldn’t continue straight anymore and faced a fork in the hall, she grabbed one of the men and indifferently hit his chest hard, aggressively ramming qi into his body and rupturing his internal organs. He stood dying in front of her.
In a voice that sounded like it came from hell she demanded, “Where is your master?”
The man was truly frightened and was shaking all over. “Right… right.”
“Where does the left go?”
“The land gods.”
Shen Li released him, but before he could even turn to run away she grabbed his hair and threw him against the wall like a rag doll. Just like that his life was snuffed out.
Xing Zhi came up behind Shen Li just as she did this. His brow furrowed. “Killing with such bloodthirst is not good, even if the other is an enemy.”
The blood that ran down her spear had already stained her hands red. She coldly looked at Xing Zhi. “Don’t bother preaching. The left path leads to the imprisoned immortals. High god will have to go down that path alone. I intend to capture the culprit behind this. I only hope that High God is willing to do a joint investigation of the matter. The Demon realm is innocent. Please do not let the heavenly immortals run away with unjustified speculation.”
This made Xing Zhi wrinkle his brow. Shen Li turned and took the rightward path.
He stared at the path she took for some time before turning and taking the left path.
The frequency of attacks increased dramatically as Shen Li neared the final room. Once there she forced it open with her spear. Light poured out of what appeared be to the main hall of a temple.
She looked around from the doorway before entering. Though it seemed empty she still proceeded inside cautiously.
Not a single of the black garbed guards were in sight. The silence was only broken when the ground shook. Shen Li had to readjust her footing as she looked upwards.
Three massively brawny men dropped out of thin air from above. They surrounded Shen Li in a triangle formation. She stared at them, assessing. They looked sinister with sharp wolf-like fangs and red eyes that lent them an air of savageness, making them resemble animals more than men.
They roared at her, covering her with spittle and a raw metallic smell.
Shen Li was outwardly calm but her heart had been rocked. She had never met such opponents before. They were like men transformed into beasts.
At first the four stared at each other in a stalemate with neither party making a move. Finally one rushed forward. Shen Li lifted her spear and pointed it directly at his eye. Instead of avoiding her attack he continued forward and grabbed the blade of her spear. He used brute force to pull the spear out of Shen Li’s grasp. His hand was sliced open and gushing blood, yet he didn’t seem to notice. He roared and tried to bite her neck.
Shen Li stared in shock. She liked fighting, but even she had never seen someone use so much brute force. She successfully defended against the bite but her back was left open. Taking advantage of the opening another man attacked. The blow landed hard and forced to her into a roll. She barely had time to catch her breath and summon her spear back to her hand.
The formation broke and the three men where now between her and the door. She was effectively trapped inside.
These three were proving difficult to handle…
Shen Li glanced at the temple man that grabbed the blade of her spear earlier. The gash on his hand had already healed to the point the wound was no longer visible. He was monstrous, like the scorpion-tailed fox she had beheaded near the Ruins.
Shen Li knew they would attack soon when she sensed the change in the air. Her red-tasseled silver spear shook and suddenly flew and attacked the man in the middle.[notes]
He gave a cry of alarm, but it was no use; the attack was impossible to dodge and he was stabbed square in the face. He reached up to grab the spear.
Shen Li wasn’t about to let him grab it like before. She was mentally prepared this time, so when he reached for it she immediately somersaulted forward and twisted her body around to slam into him. This caught him off guard and allowed her to easily attack. She grabbed her spear and thrust it forward intending to chop his legs out from under him.
Although she used all her strength to strike, she failed to slice through his legs. All she heard was a solid metallic “Dhoom” as her spear vibrated from the impact. The vibrations were so strong it nearly broke the skin on her hand.
It was unimaginable to Shen Li that, despite using all her strength, her spear failed to cut through. It had accompanied her through scores of battles, across oceans and lands, and never failed her before. In shock, she flipped backwards, retreating to a safe distance with the spear in front covering half her face.
To be fair, the spear was originally made for stabbing, and not so much for cutting and slicing, however, Shen Li had had used it for so long that it had become imbued with her qi and become freakishly strong, capable of more than just stabbing. In fact the shaft of the spear could even be used in place of the blade to behead a person.
But now she could see a see a small knick[notes] at the edge of the blade.
The other two didn’t wait for Shen Li to gather her thoughts. They flanked her on both sides before rushing her like ravenous wild dogs.
She wanted buy some time to think of a strategy to defeat the men so she jumped up and perched on a beam out of their reach. She hadn’t thought of a plan yet when a silhouette jumped up even higher. He had his hand out to hit her head, but she dodged it with a minor tilt of her neck. She grabbed his hand and poured qi into her grip. A loud cracking sound came from his hand as every bone broke.
He raised his head and gave a loud shout, leaving his center unguarded. Shen Li grabbed the opening and thrust her spear into his gut, but hard muscle prevented her from stabbing deeply. At this Shen Li shouted as well and rays of light glowed from her spear. It increased in intensity until with a “crack” and a “ploosh” her opponent’s chest exploded, raining flesh and blood down onto the floor.
She shoved the rest of his body down, yanking her spear out as she did so. He fell like a boulder, crashing into the wall before falling to the floor and leaving a crater in his wake, finally dead.
Shen Li was gasping for air, but she had managed to take one man out. Before she could catch her breath, the two men below jumped up to her perch, with one on either side. She raised her spear in time to block an attack from one, but was smacked by the other. The force behind the hit was so powerful she was knocked off the beam and into the first dead man’s crater.
The two jumped down and landed with a thud on the ground, raising a tremendous amount of dust and debris into the air. They couldn’t see Shen Li since her body was complete obscured so they had to walk to the side to peer in.
Red light flashed through the rubble. Before either man could react, Shen Li’s spear pierced one through the eye. He stood dead with the blade protruding out from the back of his skull. Shen Li sliced his head in half when she swept her spear to one side to free it.
Dust scattered as his ruined body fell to the ground. There were no visible injuries on Shen Li’s body, but there were strands of blood on her lips that trailed down the front of her. Her eyes were cold and bloodshot. She wiped the blood from her lips with one arm whispering to herself as she did so. “That really hurt.”
She had only taken one blow but her entire body ached like her joints were broken. Even breathing was difficult. It was hard to believe three unknown men could force her into such a terrible position.
She stepped forward and glared at the final temple man left standing. Through the metallic taste of blood in her mouth she said, “Since you want to fight, be prepared to fight to your last breath.”
He let out a roar that echoed through the hall. Everything shook, even the brick in the walls crumbled. The muscles on his body rippled as they expanded. He stepped over his dead comrade and dashed at Shen Li.
She didn’t try to dodge, having already predicted his movement, instead she jumped up and aimed the tip of her spear at his head, intending to pierce him from above, however he made an unexpected move in blocking the spear with his arm, allowing it sink into his flesh. The attack didn’t seem to hurt him at all though.
He smashed his unencumbered hand into Shen Li’s face, but she moved out of the way just in time. She coalesced qi in her hand and forced it into the downward thrust. The wind resulting from their two opposing forces rattled the temple and shook the bricks.
Shen Li dropped to the ground with her hand supporting her body and swung her leg up into the air like a scissor. She wrapped it around his neck and twisted him to the side, slamming him into the wall. The stone masonry crumbled away from the impact revealing a hidden room behind.
A person, dressed entirely in green with a strange air around him, stood behind the wall looking down at the scene of Shen Li’s battle.
The temple man crashed into the wall shook his head before standing up. The man in green gave him a kick, knocking him back down.
Shen Li looked at the face of the man in green as though she was looking at an evil spirit. “You are the one pulling the strings. You’re the framing the Demon realm. Why are you doing this?”
“Frame?” The man in green said as he moved in the shadows. Shen Li couldn’t see him clearly but his voice sounded familiar. “You can’t really call this me framing anyone.”
Shen Li frowned. She was about to go after him and demand answers when the man, who was knocked down earlier, finally got up. He roared as he shook the debris off his body. This really was indeed “fighting to one’s last breath.”
“A troublesome person is about to arrive so forgive me for not staying to watch to Azure Sky King longer.”
Shen Li stared at the play of light and shadow on his face as he turned away. He reminded her of someone and she suddenly thought of the person leading the attack that night at Xing Yun’s courtyard. What was his name?
Fu Sheng. Fusheng Men…[notes] But how was that possible? He was an ordinary person so he shouldn’t still be alive.
Shen Li was anxious to chase after him but the fallen man from earlier blocked her path. His eyes were full of cold malice as he roared, “Prepare to die!”
He only spoke those three words before Shen Li sliced his eyes with her spear. She hurriedly leapt away from him towards Fu Sheng; she wanted to capture him no matter what. Unperturbed, Fu Sheng calmly waved his sleeve in her direction.
Shen Li didn’t notice anything amiss at first, but a few seconds later her vision turned black and her body froze up. She toppled over.
The last temple man jumped over to Shen Li and proceeded to pummel her abdomen with both fists, as if he was trying to shatter her internal organs. Done with that he lifted her up by the neck, trying to choke her to death. Before they had been on the ground amidst the debris.
Shen Li stared after Fu Sheng’s back as he gradually disappeared from sight. A sense of powerlessness came over her as she endured the attack. Despite her high tolerance for pain, blood gurgled out of her mouth and poured down the front of her, dying the hands of the temple man red.
“This…what’s going on here?” An extremely cold voice sounded from the hall’s entrance.
The temple man turned and saw a figure in white standing by the entrance. He roared and used Shen Li as a weapon, hurling her at the newcomer.
Shen Li had no control over her body, but she suffered no injuries despite the throw. It was as if a hand was supporting her back, twisting the momentum away from her as she spun towards the entrance. By the time she could see clearly again, she had already settled into Xing Zhi's embrace.
Shen Li had a strange thought when she saw Xing Zhi’s bloodstained clothes. She was constantly staining his clothes wasn’t she? Fortunately she wouldn’t have to help wash them this time. Wasn't it more troublesome than slaughtering the yao shou?
“How many injuries did you receive?” His tone was low, filled with an anger Shen Li had never heard before.
Shen Li shook her head. “The man behind it… escaped.”
Xing Zhi persisted. “How many injuries?”
Shen Li didn’t answer, not because she didn’t want to, but because she couldn’t. She wanted to tell him her injury wasn’t life threatening, that it was more important he not miss this opportunity to chase after the mastermind. The reputation of the Demon realm and the demon emperor rested on this. She didn’t want her home to be maligned.
Xing Zhi held her wrist to read her pulse.
As if to proclaim his presence, the temple man roared while rushing to them. The added noise from his large body trampling over the ground only made it harder for Xing Zhi to read Shen Li’s weak pulse. Xing Zhi glanced over at the temple man, and with an expression as cold as ice yelled, “Get lost!”
All movement immediately ceased. The once fluttering dust particles stopped moving and dangled in place. Meanwhile the temple man was completely frozen, locked in mid-stride. It was like time had stopped in ice.
Witnessing the power of the words nearly made Shen Li nearly pass out. She stared distractedly at the high god in front of her. She understood now how powerful a spell when uttered from Xing Zhi’s lips could be.
He went back to listening to her pulse. It was so quiet that Shen Li could hear her own weak but accelerating heartbeat, however she chose to ignore both it and Xing Zhi, not giving a voice to the subtle change.[notes]
Xing Zhi failed to pick up on it. All he could tell was that something was wrong with her body. Frowning he said, “You’ve been poisoned.”
Shen Li could see her reflection in his eyes. Her mouth was severely bruised and her face was deathly pale. In a weak voice she said, “Poison can’t hurt me. The mastermind…”
Shen Li had barely finished speaking when the sounds of chanting rang out in the room. It started softly but then rose in pitch. The volume made Shen Li’s head ache and she involuntarily clenched her teeth.
Xing Zhi could see something was wrong from her expression. He asked anxiously “What is it?”
Xing Zhi’s expression turned cold. It was obvious whatever it was, it was only targeting Shen Li.
Suddenly a noise came from behind them. Turning around, Xing Zhi saw a man with a partially sliced head crawl out from the rubble of bricks. A second man, the one Shen Li had smashed to death, fell from the crater in the wall. Both men were covered in blood. They ignored Xing Zhi’s presence, acting as though he wasn’t there, like they were obeying someone’s command.
Shen Li’s fingers tightened, flexing unconsciously, when she saw them. She attempted to get up but was held in place by Xing Zhi. Pressing her down by the shoulders he spoke in a cold and severe voice. “Do you no longer wish to live?”
Shen Li twisted her mouth at his words. “It’s because I wish to live that I must rise and fight.”
Xing Zhi pursed his lips. A feeling he couldn’t keep in check floated up from the bottom-most part of his heart. He didn’t bother turning his head, but instead simply drew five-point configuration. A loud sound, like the roar of the early morning erupted. The previously smoggy air cleared up as extremely clean, pure air flowed from Xing Zhi’s body. Bright light shot out and burned everything around them to ashes.
“I will keep you alive.”
A muddled-headed and confused Shen Li felt a murmur rise in her heart.[notes] She couldn’t resist muttering before passing out, “Before… Xing Zhi there wasn't anyone.”
Xing Zhi’s grip on Shen Li’s shoulders tightened as he gazed at her. It was hard to gauge his mood from his dark eyes.
He understood the importance of apprehending the mastermind, and he knew Shen Li wanted him to give chase as it would help prove the Demon realm’s innocence, and yet…
He couldn’t walk away.
His grip unconsciously tightened as he stared at the pale face of the woman in his arms. She never painted her lips red or lived her life like other women. She was strong and had never hid behind anyone’s back. She was much like the red-tasseled silver spear she wielded, forceful and unyielding.
As she said, there was no Xing Zhi before, no one who could protect her. She was used to relying only on herself, to fighting alone, to guarding and bearing the burden of the Demon realm alone.
To see such a formidable woman in such a weakened state was both strange and distressing. She was like a cat that liked to reach out and lazily scratch at his heart with her claws. By the time he noticed those lazy scratches of hers, it was too late and the scratches had become itchy and painful. It was a hard to describe feeling.
“This person… so troublesome.” The four words drifted from his lips into the empty room. He remained where he was, cradling Shen Li against is chest.
Xi carried the unused medicine box as she followed Fu Rongjun around the exterior of the temple. He had allowed her to be his personal attendant.
Xi’s martial art skills were not great so it took a lot of effort for her to keep her tail hidden. She quietly called out to Fu Rongjun.
At her call, he turned around with a bright smile on his face. He asked, “Tired sweetie? Want to rest?”
Xi wanted to hand the medicine box to Fu Rongjun. “Great immortal, I very much want to help, but I’m afraid I might accidentally change into my true form…”
“That won’t happen.” Fu Rongjun replied, still beaming as he circled around her. “This lord’s power has imprinted on your body! It is absolutely impossible for your form to shift.”
Saying as much he opened up a broken fan and teasingly toyed with Xi by puffing a bit a wind at her legs. It was an ambiguously playful motion that was suggestively flirty.
Xi blushed in embarrassment and took two steps back.
Fu Rongjun wore a carefree smile as he advanced one step forward his target, his fan still open.
Suddenly, out of nowhere Yan wedged himself in between them with a black sword pointed at Fu Rongjun’s chest. This made Fu Rongjun take two steps back.
“Great Immortal Fu Rongjun, please conduct yourself appropriately.” Yan only said the single sentence before grabbing the medicine box in Xi’s hand and hurling it to the ground. Then he grabbed her wrist and pulled her back into the temple.
Fu Rongjun’s face turned green. “Ah! So you would let your lover touch you like that ha?”
The words stunned Xi. She looked at Yan only to see him barely turn his head to the side. In a cold voice he said, “I and Little Xi have no such feelings for one another. I ask that Great Immortal not slander Little Xi’s good name.” He tugged at Xi’s hand to pull her back, but she refused to move. He was incredibly annoyed as he looked at her. “What are you still standing there for? Do you want to stay here and be taken advantage of?”
Xi tucked her head down, feeling the reprimand was unfair. “You’re being so fierce.”
Yan furrowed his brow. He was about to speak when a clamor by the temple gates caught his attention. He saw a white billowy figure hurriedly carrying a bloody figure into the temple. The man’s voice was low but it resonated loud and clear. “Where is Fu Rongjun?”
Fu Rongjun had also noticed the scene. He immediately became respectful and hurriedly followed behind Xing Zhi into the temple. “What happened?”
Xi was also curious. She craned her neck to see what was going on.
Yan watched as Xi followed Fu Rongjun with her eyes. It made him unhappy so he moved his body in front of her to block her view. “Do you want others to take advantage of you?”
“Great Immortal Fu Rongjun is a good person…”
Yan’s face turned extremely ugly. “Shut up.”
Xi mumbled to herself, “I didn’t do anything wrong… why are you so unhappy? You’re being so hard on me for no good reason. You should just go back and take care of that other person.”
Yan shot Xi an uncomfortable glance. “Little Xi… I do have my reasons.”
Xi turned her head away. “Whatever Brother Yan does is right. There’s always a reason, and I’m always wrong.” She quickly walked away after saying her piece, leaving Yan to stare blankly after her.
Meanwhile inside the temple Fu Rongjun was staring at the blood covered Shen Li in shock. “How? How can she be so injured?”
Instead of answering, Xing Zhi carefully laid Shen Li on the ground. Then he held her right wrist, listening to her pulse. “Hold her left wrist and perform the divine purification spell.”
Fu Rongjun didn’t dare be slow. He immediately complied and held Shen Li’s left hand. He was shocked the moment he touched her skin. Her body temperature was perilously low. On top of that there was something indescribable rushing around inside her body mixing with her blood. He couldn’t tell if it was poison or some kind of spell. He muttered apprehensively, “It was only a while ago that you left. How did this happen? It may be better to wait and confer with someone better versed in this matter.”
“She doesn’t trust you.” Xing Zhi spoke softly. He knew Shen Li wouldn’t trust Fu Rongjun or anyone from the heavens. Had her injury not been so severe, he knew she would have chased after the mastermind with a tenacious stubbornness.
Fu Rongjun ground his teeth. Even though the divine purification spell was already initiated, he couldn’t help but grumble. “This guy is not the least bit feminine. She’s not at loveable. I have no sweet feelings for her at all. Is there anyone who would dare marry and take such a crazed warrior woman home?!”
Xing Zhi glanced up at Fu Rongjun. His words left a sour mark in Xing Zhi’s heart. He had bestowed the marriage as a gift after all. He curled his lips as he tilted his head down to look at Shen Li.
In the quiet of the temple Fu Rongjun thought he heard someone softly say, “There is.” He stared up at Xing Zhi confused, but Xing Zhi’s expression was the same benign one he always wore. The other didn’t dodge his gaze so Fu Rongjun wondered if he misheard, after all Xing Zhi was an unfeeling god that even his sister, Luo Tian, couldn’t tempt. How could someone like that have any feelings of tenderness toward a woman as masculine as Shen Li?
Shen Li’s injury was more serious than Fu Rongjun initially thought. It took them all afternoon just to stop the bleeding and bring some color back to her skin. She no longer looked like someone knocking on death’s door.
Fu Rongjun relaxed as things improved. He asked, “High god, what kind of monster had the ability to injure the Azure Sky King like this?” as he directed the qi in Shen Li’s body.
Fu Rongjun’s impression of the king was that of a bloody monstrous general that no one could take down. It really shocked him to see her in such a vulnerable state.
“This matter with the immortals may be more complicated than expected…” Xing Zhi muttered. “The mastermind behind it all is still loose. Furthermore, I don’t know if there are any other conspiracies. Shen Li is severely poisoned. It’s not a good idea for her to return to the Demon realm in her current condition. The best course of action is to rest for tonight. Early tomorrow morning you should go to the Demon realm and tell the emperor about the situation so he can mentally prepare himself. After that you must return to heaven. This is a grave matter so you should not delay.”
Fu Rongjun blinked. “Me? Go?” He was somewhat unwilling. “It was with great difficulty that we resolved the matter with Yangzhou. But… I didn’t have any time to play…”
Xing Zhi looked Fu Rongjun in the eyes. With a smile he said, “My lord wishes to have some fun? Would you like me to call forth two divine creatures for you to play with?”
Divine creatures from the Heavens Beyond the Heavens were not to be trifled with; people, even immortals, couldn’t handle them, much less survive “playing” with them.
Fu Rongjun quickly nodded his head. “I will leave tomorrow, however there are still many in Yangzhou who have inhaled the miasma. What should be done about them?”
“I have already cut off the miasma’s origin. The four cardinal seals have also been restored to their proper state.[notes] The miasma will eventually peter out on its own. As for those sick patients, I have a solution.” Xing Zhi checked on Shen Li’s complexion before continuing. “There is no other issue here to resolve. Go and prepare to leave early tomorrow morning.”
Fu Rongjun curled his lips unhappily. He turned away and left looking for Xi. The sound of his voice drifted inside as he called for her.
“Catch,” Shen Li whispered. She opened her eyes with difficulty. She was awake and coherent.
Xing Zhi raised her up and held her against his shoulder so she would be more comfortable. “Are you hurting anywhere?”
Shen Li tugged at Xing Zhi’s clothes. “Fu Sheng, did you capture him?”
“The one that burned Xing Yun’s yard that year.” Shen Li clenched her teeth. “I hadn’t noticed anything amiss at the time, but the events of that night were too well orchestrated. That time we went to Prince Rui’s[notes] manor and Xiao He[notes] found out about the secret he was keeping from her, there was demonic aura in the air, but I had ignored it. It never occurred to me…”
At the time, Shen Li had felt a faint demonic aura, but had dismissed it thinking that it was coming from those sent by the emperor to retrieve her.
“Now he’s even snatched the land gods and turned them into strange beasts. Just shameful! I don’t know how a nobody bastard like him got the audacity to use magic to commit such evil deeds, but when I catch him…”
Xing Zhi looked thoughtful. He didn’t know what he was feeling. He patted her back and said, “First heal your wound. Everything comes later.”
Shen Li slowly let out a breath. It was an automatic reaction to being held by his side. The realization that she was so relaxed in his presence made her uneasy so she tried to twist her body away. “It’s better if I lie down.”
Xing Zhi acted like he didn’t hear and instead moved cold air from his hand into her body. Shen Li assumed he was healing her so she obediently remained in his embrace and stopped trying to twist away.
“Is the poison in my body hard to purge?”
“It is somewhat difficult.” Although his words were worrisome, his voice was light and relaxed so Shen Li wasn’t worried, instead she asked. “When can we return to the Demon realm?”
“In time,” Xing Zhi answered absentmindedly. His voice was faint as he spoke. “Wait until I reduce the miasma concentration further and after I teach the people here how to dispel the residue.”
That night Fu Rongjun dismantled the barrier around the temple after the miasma stopped flowing. He took Xi to sit on the rooftop. “Do you want to see the stars?”
Xi blinked her large, hopeful eyes at him. “Is that possible?”
Fu Rongjun smiled. “If you want to see them, I can show you.” So saying he waved his hand and a cool breeze blew across the sky. The sheet of miasma hanging above Xi’s head disappeared to reveal a clean crisp sky dotted with stars.
Xi gasped in admiration. “They really appeared! How pretty!”
Fu Rongjun gazed at Xi affectionately. “In my eyes, you are as beautiful as the stars.”
Xi turned to stare blankly at Fu Rongjun. He held her gaze as his lips slowly descended on hers.
“Xi!” A loud voice clearly filled with anger yelled out Xi’s name nearly breaking her ear drums.
Xi turned to the source of the voice at once. She could see Yan standing below them. Ru Fongjun shouted angrily down to Yan before she could say anything.
Yan’s eyes were like sharp arrows stabbing straight into Fu Rongjun’s body. Fu Rongjun was the kind of person to take advantage of the weak but was himself afraid of those stronger than himself. He knew Yan could kill him but he also knew Yan couldn’t act on that desire. In the current situation all Yan could do was try to kill Fu Rongjun with his fierce glare.
“He’s always like that. Don’t pay him any mind.” Fu Rongjun said as he took Xi’s hand in his.
Xi drew back and pulled her hand out of his grasp. “I… I should go down.”
Fu Rongjun moved closer and whispered in her ear. “I know you like him, but right now he has another woman. How terrible is that? If you don’t let him be a little jealous, a little nervous, you’re going to always in the palm of his hands.” Fu Rongjun smiled at Xi with a twinkle in his eyes. “Isn’t this lord a master of love? Believe in me.”
Xi stared like a hopeful fool at Fu Rongjun. “Great immortal is helping me?”
“Of course! But payment is required. You must reward this lord with a kiss.”
Xi’s face turned beet red. Waving her hand she immediately said, “I can’t. I can’t.”
Fu Rongjun burst out in laughter. “You are so fun to tease.” He reached for her waist and pulled her against him in an embrace. He turned them around so even their shadows were out of sight.
Yan was stunned as he stood below the roof looking up at them. A myriad of emotions washed over him one after the other. Astonishment was quickly replaced by anger only to by shoved aside by a growing sense of panic. It tore at his heart. This girl, that had grown up beside him, that had always belonged to him, was being stolen by this guy! He couldn’t contain his panic.
Shen Li’s recovery was exceptionally fast; her body had mostly healed by the next morning. When she opened her eyes and looked around she saw that Shi Luo, the sleeping woman Yan had been caring for, was awake and sitting quietly in a corner. Upon noticing her gaze, Shi Luo waved. Shen Li returned the greeting.
Turning in the other direction Shen Li saw Xing Zhi leaning against a pillar with his eyes closed. A ray of sunshine shone through the torn window paper[notes] onto his face. He looked at leisure and idle. In a daze, it reminded Shen Li of the tiny courtyard and the man who habitually sat in his rocking chair under the grape trellis.
Shen Li closed her eyes and calmed her thoughts to clear her mind. When she opened them again she found Xing Zhi staring at her.
"How is your body?”
“Good...” Shen Li purposefully blinked twice before swiftly standing up and opening the temple door. Morning light streamed in, bathing her in a warm glow. Even without any wind, the miasma had dissipated overnight and the air was considerably cleaner. Shen Li sucked in a deep breath. Her face was still pale but her eyes were bright and clear. With a slight smile she said, “We didn’t catch the mastermind, but to experience this kind of peace is also good.”
Xing Zhi’s shoulders were stiff from sleeping against the pillar all night. He kneaded his arm. “In my opinion it’s because Your Highness lacks wisdom and doesn’t have nearly enough life experiences.” His words came out husky from having just woken up.
Shen Li raised her eyebrows at this. “It’s strange, but before meeting High God, whether it was on the battlefield or in a personal fight, I have never been injured like this. Suddenly after meeting High God every fight hurt and every injury is serious.” She continued in a semi-mocking tone. “Can’t say for sure, but if this continues I might even die. If that happens High God better be ready to make proper compensation.”
Xing Zhi laughed. “Utter nonsense.”
Shen Li turned her head to look at him. Now joking she said, “I hate to say this High God, but my body is very precious."
Xing Zhi stood up and patted his clothes, arranging the fabric carelessly to one side before speaking. “Should that day come, then I, Xing Zhi, will compensate you for the loss.”
Shen Li didn’t expect him to say such a thing. She stared blankly at him for a moment before smiling and shaking her head. What could she say to that?
“Ah!” came an alarmed cry came from outside the temple. Shen Li recognized Xi’s voice immediately. Shi Lou was still sitting quietly in her corner when the cry rang out. She leaned forward to look outside.
With her brows still wrinkled, Shen Li stepped through the doors. She hadn’t reached the source of the noise when a clamor broke out. Many people were standing in a circle and whispering as they watched.
Xi stood inside the circle. Her voice sounded anxious as she cried out. “Brother Yan! What are you doing?!”
Shen Li broke through the crowd just in time to see Fu Rongjun thrown to the ground.
Instead of looking embarrassed, he looked pleased with himself, as though he’d just gotten away with something wicked. Standing next to him was Yan. Though he looked sallow his body was emitting a great aura of murderous intent. It was as though he was trying to kill Fu Rongjun with the power of his gaze alone.
Xi moved to stand in front of Fu Rongjun, blocking him from view. She resentfully said, “Brother Yan! That’s too much!”
Yan’s face was cold. “Get out of the way. Today is the last straw!”
Fu Rongjun coolly said, “Your good senior brother is very violent Little Xi!”
Shen Li didn’t have to think about it; she could tell what was happening immediately. Her expression was cold as she stepped forward and kicked Fu Rongjun in the butt. “What is this? Stand up and stop harassing people.”
Angry, Fu Rongjun turned around to see who kicked him. His anger turned into surprise when he saw it was Shen Li. He said, “Tough guy! That was a fast recovery!”
Xing Zhi slowly walked over.
Seeing this, Fu Rongjun gasped and energetically sprang up into a proper standing position. He waved his hand, shooing away the people who were watching. “That’s enough. There’s nothing more to see here. Return home.”
The crowd dispersed but one person remained behind. When Xi caught sight of who it was, her expression froze and she dropped her head in silence.
Yan watched as Xi lowered her head, he turned to find Shī Luó standing there, her face getting paler by the second as she looked at them. He stared in surprise at her. Though the angry expression on his face softened, his hands curled into fists.
Xing Zhi had a slight smile playing on his lips as he reached the group. “Fu Rongjun, this play ended so quickly I didn’t get to see it.”
Fu Rongjun’s lips twitched. “High God Xing Zhi, yesterday you commanded me to leave for heaven post haste. I, Fu Rongjum, wouldn’t dare delay even a little bit.”
“Oh? Now you want to leave?” Hearing this made Yan’s heart boil with rage. He pulled his sword out of its scabbard and aimed it at Fu Rongjun’s belly.
Ignoring the danger, Xi hurriedly interposed herself between the two. “What are you doing?!”
Yan curved the sword mid-air and threw it to the ground.
The loud clang of the sword surprised both Xi and Shī Luó. Xi stared in stunned silence at the normally calm and reserved Yan. It seemed he could no longer restrain himself. In an angry voice he yelled, “Why don’t you tell me what you were doing! Staying out all night with some strange guy!”
Xi stared blinking at Yan for some time before replying. “Lord immortal showed me the sky…”
Yan’s face turned green. Shen Li glanced doubtfully at Fu Rongjun as she asked, “Seriously?”
Fu Rongjun brought two fingers up in a gesture of an oath. “Of course, yes.” He glanced at Yan. “Little Xi’s senior brother is full of fire isn’t he? Was jealousy nibbling at his bones when he couldn’t find her the entire night?”
Xi looked at Yan with bright, hopeful eyes. Yan’s own eyes were dark and hard to read. He shot a glance at Shī Luó but otherwise didn’t say anything. The hopeful light in Xi’s eyes dimmed considerably. She had the sudden urge to ask him why he cared so much about Miss Shī Luó . He had told her there was a reason, but hadn’t told her what it was.
Xing Zhi spoke up, breaking the silence. What he said stunned everyone. “All this flirting is quite dizzying. The ladies must be tired. Young Master Yan will you take a walk with me?” All eyes turned to him. Laughing he said, “Please do not misunderstand. I simply wish to take a walk.”
There were no people, wildlife, or heavenly beings in the woods outside the temple. Together, the two walked in silence, their steps taking them farther and farther away from the building.
Finally Xing Zhi spoke. “Young Master Yan is studying under the Dao to learn magic correct?”
Yan hesitated but answered frankly. “Honestly speaking, I’m ashamed of myself. I have followed my master since I was a child, but I haven’t learned the slightest bit of magic. My master says I don’t have an affinity for it so I can only learn some martial arts.”
Xing Zhi silently walked two more steps before speaking. “If Young Master Yan wishes, there is a spell I can teach. This spell can force poisonous miasma out of the body. Is Young Master Yan interested?”
“I want to learn but… I…”
“If Young Master Yan wishes to learn, then it will surely be a success.” Xing Zhi stopped moving and raised an arm up to lightly touched Yan’s forehead. Bright light flowed forward. It encompassed all of Yan’s vision and engulfed his body.
Yan’s eyes had turned an awe inspiring, bright, lively silver. Though the smile on Xing Zhi’s face was slight, it was clear it was a happy one. “Qing Ye,*SPOILER* it’s been a while.”
“My old friend Xing Zhi.” Qing Ye (Yan) sighed. “I didn’t think we would ever meet again.”[notes]
“Had it not been for the young ladies of the past generation intersecting, I would never have known your reincarnated form.” Xing Zhi shook his head.” The forces of the Heavenly Dao are powerful. It’s only because I am a god that I am here now. But even as a god I am unable to peer in or deviate from the path set. To be able to find you is already truly fated.”
Qing Ye laughed a small bitter laugh. “Before I was naïve and behaved frivolously, but with each passing generation, I understand how binding the Heavenly Dao is. All of us, you and I, without exception are just grains of dust and sand. Fortune and strength are all bestowed by the heavens. It will give and it will take. No matter who you are, it is fruitless to resist.” He sighed. “My friend Xing Zhi, the Heavenly Dao will not like you rousing my godhead. It is surely not good idea!”
“I won’t do anything unnecessary beyond this, but will you allow your present incarnation to use your meridians to learn a miasma dispelling technique?” Xing Zhi paused before continuing with, “Also open your Heavenly Eye and look through your previous lives. Find the one you have been seeking. This way your red thread won’t continue to be wrongly entangled.”[notes]
Qing Ye laughed. “Contrary to popular belief, you quite like to meddle don’t you? This matter won’t be looked upon favorably by the heavens.”[notes]
That made Xing Zhi laugh. “There’s one more thing I want to ask you. Do you remember a person named Fu Sheng?”
Qing Ye muttered to himself. “A little bit. In the early days back before I was king*SPOILERS* and the crown prince was scheming various murders, I heard there was an advisor by that name. This Fu Sheng person played a crucial role in the fight for the throne between myself and the crown prince. I remember he was executed.”
“Is there a person in this generation that resembles him?”
“This…” He thought for some time before replying. “Oh. There really is a person. In this life, I was orphaned at a young age after my parents suffered some misfortune. I survived two years of hardship before meeting a young lady. With her help I was able to escape the misfortune following me. Then I chanced to meet Xi’s parents but at the same time the young lady who helped me before passed away. Thinking about things now, the person who harmed my parents really did resemble Fu Sheng.”
Xing Zhi was silent. A cold light had settled in his eyes as he thought over Qing Ye’s words. As he did this Qing Ye’s silvery light eyes began to fade. With a small smile Qing Ye said, “Your spiritual powers can only hold me here for so long. It is time for me to bid you farewell. I do not know when we will meet again. Take care of yourself my friend.”
Xing Zhi’s eyes darkened but he laughed nonetheless. “And you as well.”
The brilliant light faded and Yan fell to his knees. Xing Zhi supported him. “Try touching the ground.”
Yan’s body was so weak he didn’t really have much choice but to brace his hands on the ground. He noticed his palms were warm. Upon looking down he saw the ground directly under his touch was purified. “This… this is?”
“Purification technique,” Xing Zhi said. “Your ability just woke up so you’ll suffer some discomfort. Go back and rest. You’ll be able to eliminate the poison from the others in a few days.”
Yan was amazed. He jogged back to the temple as soon as he was able to stand up.
After watching Yan’s figure disappear, Xing Zhi picked up a stone and threw it at a tree behind him. "How long does Your Highness intend to stand there?”
Shen Li slowly came out from behind the tree. She cleared her throat before speaking. “I was just out on a casual stroll.”
Xing Zhi laughed. “Is that so? Then why not accompany me in my walk?”
The bare tree branches lent a desolate feeling to the forest. It felt like late autumn.
Throughout their walk though Shen Li remained silent, she kept looking askance at Xing Zhi. He couldn’t help but finally laugh out loud. “So hesitant. This is not the Azure Sky King I know.”
Unable to hide her curiosity once the silence was broken, Shen Li asked, “Heaven's matter I do not know much about. However this I do know. Today in heaven, there is only one god. But just now with Jing Qing?[notes] what was that?
“I am the only one now… however a long time ago there were other gods in the Heaven Beyond the Heavens other than myself.” Xing Zhi’s eyes became distant. “For you, it would be considered the days of ancient antiquity. Even I, myself, can not to remember how long ago.”
The smile on his lips became indifferent as he continued, “Yan was the previous generations Prince Rui. He was the beautiful god, Silver Hair Silver Eyes, Qing Ye: my close friend.”
Shen Li gave him a sidelong glance. She had been giving him many as they walked, but this time she was appraising his appearance. His beauty was the kind that would elicit envy in others. Without thinking she blurted, “How does High God compare?”
Xing Zhi tilted his head to the side and shot her a glance. An enchanting smile played on his lips. He answered in a smug, boastful voice. “Naturally I am more beautiful.”
Instead of offending her, his complacent tone only served to make her laugh. “I also agree.”
Her frank agreement surprised Xing Zhi. He stared at her, but she was already focused on another topic “What happened? Why is your friend no longer a god?”
“He fell in love with a mortal.” Xing Zhi’s eyes dimmed again. “He moved against the heavens and used his powers to save the person. His godhead was abolished because of it.”
In surprise Shen Li asked, “Who… who could possibly punish a god?”
“Gods are subject to the laws of the Heavenly Dao at birth. These laws are meant to keep balance and order. The world would fall into chaos if the gods used their power for personal reasons.” He turned to look at Shen Li. “The heavens are no different from the rest of the world.” He continued walking as he spoke from the side. “Qing Ye was stripped of his godhead and sent to live in the mortal realm, to suffer through the wheel of reincarnation, to tragically fail in love.”
Shen Li thought of Prince Rui and his plight, of how in the end he couldn’t be with either of the women he cared about. Now as Yan he also had two females by his side but... A sense of misgiving grew in her heart. “Who did the person he love reincarnate as?”
“He’s the only one who knows that. All I did was awaken his divinity and clear the obstruction in his spiritual force. If he can find the one he’s been searching for then all will be well.” Xing Zhi looked skyward. “I only hope the Heavenly Dao will not be excessive and terminate everything.”
Shen Li stopped at looked at Xing Zhi. “I do not believe the matter is as complicated as that. Qing Ye’s godhead is gone but it does not mean the heavens will negatively interfere with the course of his lives.
As Prince Rui, he and the princess shared a common fate.[notes] Naturally he was fond of the princess. But in this life he is Jing Yan. And in this life he grew up with Jing Xi. It’s obvious he cherishes her. The two generations are not related. His destiny is mainly in the hands of fate; however he still has free will. And that free will’s influence will impact his fate.”
Xing Zhi also stopped, turning to look at her. “That is a novel idea. But no matter how you phrase it, all of Yan’s previous lives served to shape him into the person he is now. His feelings have evolved from that. Neither you nor I can influence the matter. We can only observe.”
Shen Li silently mulled his words over. Changing topics she said, “Just now you said Qing Ye’s godhead was abolished, yet you chose to awaken it. Aren’t you afraid of incurring heaven’s wrath?”
“The offense Qing Ye committed was not a heinous one. So though heaven made him mortal as punishment, his body more or less still retains the same aura. I failed to notice it because it had dispersed so much.
It was when you asked if they were bound to repeat their fates that I became suspicious and began looking at the situation more closely. Though his aura was incredibly weak, I was able to draw it out. It is sufficient to purify the miasma in the people’s body.”
He paused and smiled. “As for heaven’s wrath, escaping it is impossible. Judgement will be passed for all offenses.”
If any change at all incurred heaven’s wrath then why not make a great change and make it worthwhile? The words were on the tip of Shen Li’s tongue but she swallowed them back. Based on what Xing Zhi said, Qing Ye, because of his heart...
She remembered the night she returned drunk to the manor. Xing Zhi had smiled as he talked about gods not having emotions like affection or kindness. She realized what he said wasn’t true. It wasn’t that the gods didn’t have emotions, it was that they couldn’t show their emotions.
Xing Zhi hid the expression in his eyes and smiled at the silent Shen Li. “That’s enough for our walk. We should return.”
The moon shone brightly in the clear night sky over Yangzhou. Lamps were lit along the city walls, and though not as glorious as in the past, they nevertheless brought the character of the city back to life.
Fu Rongjun had obediently returned to the Demon realm to relay the message from Xing Zhi. But he only left after making sure Yan drank a good amount of vinegar. In his own way Fu Rongjun was sincerely trying to help Xi with her romance, but considering his lecherous nature Shen Li knew it wasn’t the only reason. She was sure he had enjoyed taking advantage of Xi in the process.
Xi was sad to see him leave. She had taken his efforts to assist her seriously. It wasn’t just Xi, many of the other girls in the temple also wore glum expressions and were sighing sadly.
The sight only made Shen Li indignant. Fu Rongjun had failed to start anything with Mo Fang when he was in the Demon realm. Once in the Mortal realm he switched targets and fooled around with every girl he could find. He was the epitome of a fickle, insincere person!
“Such a lecherous, unfaithful person! He won’t change no matter where he goes.” Shen Li's disdain showed easily in her words.
Xing Zhi was just getting up after driving the miasma out of the body of a middle-aged man when he heard Shen Li cursing Fu Rongjun. He turned and saw several women. They were wearing white cloth that he recognized were made by the Heavenly Temple’s craftsmen. The fabric had to be left behind by Fu Rongjun.
“He left the place a mess.” Shen Li thought about the pain the girls would go through. “Clearly that idiot didn’t have anything to do with clearing the miasma in the city!”
“Is Your Highness mad Fu Rongjun got credit for it?”
“The Demon realm isn’t free and unfettered like the Heavenly realm. There are constantly campaigns to be fought, and because of this our system for reward and punishment is very clear cut. Meritorious deeds are appropriately credited to those who contribute.”
Shen Li was good but she was also very vain. The thing she enjoyed most was the feeling of crushing her enemies underfoot, followed closely by the adoration and cheers of the people. The fact that she didn’t get either on this mission rubbed her the wrong way, so of course she was unhappy.
“I worked hard to settle an affair for the Heavenly realm, even getting injured and poisoned in the process. But do I get any credit for it? No. Not one bit. Those in heaven really are generous!”[sarcasm]
Xing Zhi laughed in spite of himself. “Your Highness’s contributions have been firmly etched in my memory. I will be sure to relate them to the Heavenly Emperor upon my return so he can properly reward you.”
Shen Li glanced at Xing Zhi. “I would be happy to eschew any rewards if my marriage to Fu Rongjun would be abolished and I would be glad to slay any number of demonic beasts to make up for any loss.”
Xing Zhi did not give her a reply. In the silence the sky lit up with a multitude of bright colors. The city walls shook with the resounding boom that immediately followed the lights. Xing Zhi smiled. “Shen Li, look. Yangzhou is putting on a fireworks display.”
Shen Li turned to find several people at the end of the street lighting fireworks. The fireworks flew into the air and burst out in a glorious display of colors. The atmosphere was lively and festive, much like at the new year. Every house had its doors flung open and people were streaming out of their homes and filling the streets. The city, once dead, was alive again.
The man Xing Zhi had healed coughed. “It’s a new day. Yangzhou is finally alive again.”
The fireworks made the crowd cheer and the air became celebratory. Shen Li was touched by the display. Whether it was the human world or the demon world, the people looked forward to a bright tomorrow in the same way; their hearts harbored the same simple wishes and desires.
“Let’s go,” Xing Zhi said. “We should get closer to the celebration, cast off this suffocating air.”
Shen Li didn’t move, instead she said, “Fireworks are just explosions in the sky. How does it have the power to move people? To make a place come alive?”
As she was wondering this Xing Zhi grabbed her wrist with his own warm hand, and pulled her forward without explanation. She was forced to move in order to keep up.
“They’re celebrating life and giving thanks. Why not celebrate with them? It’s not often we get to take part in the mortal realm’s celebrations, so while we’re here why not enjoy it?”
Xing Zhi pulled Shen Li through the noisy crowd before she could finish her reply. The fireworks burst deafeningly in the sky, popping in fast succession, their tempo increasing after each one. Those in the crowd stared up in wonder and awe, their faces reflecting all the bright colors of the sparks. They cheered exuberantly at each firework, the joy clear in their expressions.
Xing Zhi looked like he was enjoying it too, like he was sharing in their joys as well. His robe reflected a rainbow of colors as he dragged her behind him. It was unreal. He didn’t seem real.
They were in the middle of the crowd when she stopped abruptly and yanked her hand out of his. “You’re too beautiful! Don’t walk ahead of me!”
He was too distracting. She couldn’t focus on anything else around her.
Xing Zhi stopped and focused his attention on her. “Shen Li,” he said, but the crowd and the noise drowned out his voice.
She leaned in toward him. “What?! I can’t hear you!” She gave him a puzzled look, unable to make out what he was saying.
Xing Zhi didn’t want to repeat himself again, instead he smiled slightly as he stroked her head. Turning around he continued to walk in front of her.
Shen Li imitated the shape he made with his mouth, thinking carefully about each word, so focused was she that that the world around her went quiet. Perhaps it was her imagination but she thought he said: I can protect you.
Shen Li was almost completely healed. Physically she was fine, but remnants of the poison still remained so Xing Zhi wanted her to stay in the Mortal realm a few more days until it was fully purged. Shen Li could barely restrain herself knowing the Demon emperor would need to arrange affairs in her stead.
Ultimately left without a better option, Xing Zhi allowed Shen Li to return early.
Fu Rongjun was still in the Demon realm and sticking to Mo Fang like glue. He walked with the general everywhere and got in the way of Mo Fang’s work. The news made Shen Li grind her teeth in anger; she couldn’t wait to tell that good-for-nothing playboy what was what!
Fu Rongjun wasn’t the only immortal in the Demon realm, there was another - the Divine Maiden, Goddess Luo.
The title was just a courtesy one given by the heavens; she wasn’t actually a goddess. She was in fact Fu Rongjun’s older sister, another of the Heavenly emperor’s grandchildren.
And she happened to really like Xing Zhi.
This final bit of information wasn’t something Shen Li heard, but more something she inferred. The goddess was in the hall when she and Xing Zhi walked in to discuss matters with the Demon emperor. It was obvious from a glance that the goddess was quite smitten with Xing Zhi.
“This is the Azure Sky King, Shen Li,” the Demon Emperor said by way of introduction.
The goddess didn’t wait for Shen Li to finish nodding her head in greeting before turning to Xing Zhi and bowing to him. She asked bluntly, “How is it that High God ended up travelling together with the Azure Sky king?”
Shen Li looked to Xing Zhi to see how he would reply. She wasn’t so foolish as to answer the question herself.
Xing Zhi lightly smiled. “It is only returning together. What is so strange about that?”
The goddess’s face turned serious. “The Azure Sky king is currently engaged by to my younger brother by heavenly decree. High God... it is inappropriate for the two of you to travel together.”
Xing Zhi didn’t see it as a problem. “Had I not encountered miasma in Yangzhou city, it was unlikely our paths would have crossed. I had originally planned to go sight-seeing before returning to the heavens, but the miasma caught my attention. I was curious and so I went to investigate. Incidentally the Azure Sky king was also there searching for Fu Rongjun and thus did we meet by happenstance.
Miasma is an issue of grave importance, so naturally the Azure Sky king and I jointly investigated the matter. What happened afterwards, Fu Rongjun should have already explained.
Because the Azure Sky king was poisoned, it was imprudent for her to return, so I requested His Lordship return to the Demon realm and relay the news to His Majesty, meanwhile I would stay behind to help the Azure Sky king purge the poison. This is what caused our delay.”[notes]
He spoke in half-truths, completely unworried that Shen Li would contradict him. His smile, as he looked at the goddess, was soft and benign, but his eyes were unreadable.
“Does Goddess still think this is improper?”
This made the goddess blush and she quickly looked away. “High God’s actions were above reproach; I spoke wrongly. I hope High God can forgive me.”
Well... feminine charm was certainly effective.
Shen Li sighed, disdaining the whole situation. She wasn’t going to even bother. She turned her head to the side and snorted.
Xing Zhi looked at Shen Li. He smiled and to the goddess asked, “What brings Goddess here?”
“I’m here at Grandmother’s behest to deliver a feast invitation to the Demon emperor. The Hundred Flower feast is only thrown once every 300 years and the current one is set for the 18th of this month,” answered the goddess.
Xing Zhi nodded. “I would have forgotten the matter had you not mentioned it.”
Youlan[notes] smiled. “It is not a problem if High God forgets. I will return to the heavens in a few days and properly send High God an invitation.”
“Your Majesty.” Shen Li’s voice was cold and it quickly broke the heartwarming atmosphere. “I beseech you, can we finish speaking of personal matters another time? I would like to report on the situation with the miasma in Yangzhou city of the Mortal realm.”
Shen Li’s gaze was on the emperor as she spoke but her words pierced Youlan, and made the goddess look at her askance.
Youlan gave a deep bow as she spoke. “Is that so? Then I will take my leave.” She quickly retreated but paused at the door to gaze sweetly at Xing Zhi.
As the hall quieted, Shen Li turned toward Xing Zhi. “Is High God not leaving? Does High God wish to pry into my Demon realm politics?”
There was a faint smile in Xing Zhi’s eyes as he raised a brow at that. He could tell she was annoyed, but was restraining herself.
“I will not be leaving. As I said before, the situation with Yangzhou’s miasma is deeply concerning. Naturally, I will want to listen to this.”
It didn’t matter, Shen Li still wanted him to leave.
The Demon emperor waved his hand. “I wouldn’t dare conceal this matter from High God. Shen Li, speak.”
Shen Li bit back anger and adjusted her tone to properly address the Demon emperor.
“I’m afraid Fu Rongjun may not have given a full report. In fact, before we ever uncovered the hideout for the mastermind behind the miasma, we discovered that land gods in the region were disappearing, kidnapped by the same villain, the reason unknown.
The gods suspect the kidnappers were from the Demon realm because of the demonic aura all of them exuded.
When I was fighting against the villain, I felt he exuded demonic aura as well. I know his given name is Fusheng.[notes] Your Majesty, are you aware of anyone in the Demon realm who goes by that name?”
The Demon emperor muttered the name to himself. “Fusheng...” He was quiet, lost in thought for quite some time. “I’ve never heard that name before. How strong was his magic? To injure you this grievously he can't be ordinary.”
Shen Li shook her head. “Fusheng wasn’t the one who injured me. My injuries were from the humanoid monsters he raised. They resembled human form, but were monsters like the ya shou. There were three of them, and though they lacked intelligence they were able to coordinate their attacks. Their strength was incredible. They can even obey commands after death by reanimating to do so.”
Shen Li furrowed her forehead just thinking about it.
She continued. “A few of these monsters existing isn’t bad, but any more than that would be catastrophic.”
The Demon emperor was surprised by Shen Li’s wording. “Raised?” He tapped his fingers on the tabletop. “Raised...”
Xing Zhi looked at the emperor. “Did Your Majesty think of something? Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts.”
The emperor stared blankly for a moment before replying with, “No... it is nothing.” He paused before continuing. “Is there anything else?”
“Not much more, just these few points. But we should be on guard just based on these points alone.”
The Demon emperor nodded. “I will send someone to the Mortal realm to investigate this matter.” In a more relaxed tone he said, “You and High God must be weary from your journey. Go and rest. Resting is also a matter of great importance.” He rubbed Shen Li’s head. “Rest your body. You’ve been running around non-stop lately.”
She obediently let the emperor pat her head for a few seconds. “Your Majesty worries too much. I'll make the villain cry for daring to target the Demon realm.”
This made the emperor laugh. He shook his head and said, “Go back home.”
Xing Zhi and Shen Li were walking along the promenade after leaving the hall when he turned to look at her. Her hair was still a mess from earlier because of the Demon emperor.
He spoke in a neutral tone. “It’s clear how dearly His Majesty loves you, and just as clear how much you respect him.”[notes]
“He raised me. He treats me like his kid.” Shen Li continued more quietly. “He is my master and my father and my most trusted confidante. In court, there is no one I respect more than him. So I’m keeping the Demon realm safe not just for my sake, but also for the sake of the His Majesty.”
Shen Li made it her purpose in life to guard the Demon realm. This purpose was what drove her to be so dedicated.
Xing Zhi glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, but otherwise remained silent.
The Demon emperor sat silently as in front of him Qing Yan and Chi Rong’s[notes] silhouettes appeared. They knelt with their heads to the floor.
The Demon emperor spoke. “Just now the Azure Sky king mentioned Fusheng’s matter. Why was I not informed of this?”
Qing Yan and Chi Rong glanced at each other.
“Your Majesty, begging your forgiveness, this matter was not reported by anyone.”
“Catching this immortal and hiding it from the outside world will not be an easy feat.” His slender fingers tapped the table. “I want the two of you to investigate this matter personally.”
A firm, cold light shone in his eyes. “When you catch him, don’t bother bringing him back. Just execute him on the spot. Be sure to maintain secrecy. Understood?”
This shocked both men. Chi Rong raised his head. “But what about the heavens...?”
“I will find a justification for it.” The Demon emperor waved his hand. “Dismissed.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Both replied and promptly disappeared.
The Demon emperor leaned back in his chair after they left. His eyes behind the mask were grim and cold.
Shen Li bumped into a few generals on her way out of the palace. They were heading in while she was heading out. Xing Zhi excused himself while she chatted with them.
Shen Li asked how the situation at the Burial Ruins were doing.
“The air is cleaner than at the capital so these rascals,” he said referring to the young recruits, ”really look forward to patrolling there.
Hearing this made Shen Li happy. It also reminded her of a certain somebody, so she asked, “Where is General Mo Fang?”
The last time she saw him, he had kicked Fu Rongjun. As a result, the Demon emperor had had to punish him for it. She hadn’t seen him at all since she returned so she wondered if the punishment had been particularly harsh. She was worried.
At her question, the generals looked at each other and laughed. “We don’t know what they talk about, but the goddess summons him to the garden every day.”
Shen Li’s face blanked out at that. The goddess called for Mo Fang? She bade the men goodbye and reversed course, heading for the garden instead of home. The goddess seeking out Mo Fang couldn’t be a good thing.
“I admire General’s heroic spirit. I heard my younger brother has been quite an inconvenience to you recently.”
Shen Li hadn’t entered the garden proper when she heard the goddess’s voice through the thicket of bushes.
~“I will bear the burden of this crime with you,” continued the goddess.
Following two steps behind her was Mo Fang. “Goddess is too polite.” He cupped his fists in a salute. “There is no need for Goddess to do so. I will be grateful if Goddess can persuade Fu Rongjun to return to heaven as soon as possible.
Youlan stopped to turn and glance back at Mo Fang. “Of course. My younger brother is normally attracted to the opposite gender. Occasionally he will pursue men as well, however he will not pursue without reason. I hope General will remember to behave with decorum and not permit my brother to...”
“I applaud Goddess. Your younger brother is a lecher and like a mosquito that bites and nips at people. When he sees someone he likes, he nips at them relentlessly. There’s no escape,” said Shen Li as she stepped forward.
Mo Fang’s eyes lit up when he saw Shen Li. He was about to salute but Shen Li pulled him behind her. She sneered at the goddess.
“Goddess came to persuade the wrong person. If you want to persuade anyone, it should be your brother.”
The goddess glanced at Shen Li. ~“Azure Sky King has a way with words. But regarding this matter, there would be no fire without smoke…”
“I have seen Fu Rongjun become excited all on his own without anyone’s help, creating his own smoke and fire.”[notes]
To Mo Fang Shen Li said, “Go on, don’t let that mosquito bite you later on.”
“Stop!” Youlan was aghast at Shen Li’s attitude. Agitated she said, “Is this what Demon realm hospitality amounts to?”
“This is my hospitality: respectable people, treat respectfully, cute people, treat lovingly, hateful people, why would I want them to stay? Goddess shouldn’t make presumptuous requests. I have a bad temper.” Shen Li didn’t bother to look at the goddess. She just grabbed Mo Fang’s arm and dragged him with her as she did an about face and made to leave the garden.
“You!” She was the Heavenly emperor’s granddaughter. No one treated her this way. On impulse, Youlan grabbed Shen Li’s sleeve. “Who said you could walk away!?”
Shen Li turned to look at her. “Let go.”
Now Youlan really was angry. “No! Not letting go!”
Shen Li narrowed her eyes and smiled. “Fine then.” She twisted the delicate hand holding onto her sleeve with just enough force to hurt but not injure.
“Let go! Let go of me you!” screamed out an aggrieved Youlan. She felt angry and wronged, but then remembering the rumors about the Azure Sky king, she immediately paled and wondered if her hand was going to break. Her eyes filled with tears as she realized how barbaric the Demon realm was. “Let go of me right now! It hurts!”
Mo Fang thought the situation was inappropriate. “Your Highness, stop twisting…”
Shen Li looked at the unexpectedly tearstained goddess. The image reminded her when her own people had been bullied.[notes] As she thought about letting the goddess go, a slight ache radiated from the back of her hand and she immediately released her grip.
A cool breeze blew by and Youlan took three steps back. Xing Zhi, clad in white, inspected Youlan’s hand. His brow wrinkled in disapproval. He turned to Shen Li but saw she was holding onto Mo Fang’s wrist. His brows stayed knitted. “How can you use your martial arts to take advantage of someone like that?”
Shen Li stared at Youlan for a moment.
The goddess gripped Xing Zhi’s robe with one hand as she hid behind him with her tearstained face. She really was the picture of a damsel in distress.
Shen Li: Oh… the hero saves the beauty, how nice. Only why was she shoved into the bad guy role?
Mo Fang stepped forward pushing Shen Li behind him. With a cupped fist salute he said, “Her Highness did not mean to offend Goddess.”
Xing Zhi narrowed his eyes. His tone was slightly raised when he spoke. “Oh General Mo Fang knows Her Highness’s mind? That is indeed rare.”
Hearing the ill-will in Xing Zhi’s tone made Mo Fang frown. He was about to reply but Shen Li beat him to it.
“Why bother making things more difficult for yourself Mo Fang?” Shen Li dragged Mo Fang back by the wrist. She gave him a quick look of dissatisfaction. Mo Fang stared blankly back for a moment, not understanding, however he dropped his eyes like an obedient child and quickly situated himself behind Shen Li.
~“Goddess Lou spoke rudely to my general. I couldn’t bear it. How exactly did I bully her?” Shen Li looked at Xing Zhi before continuing. “High God, it looks like you’re only here to criticize and help her bully me.”
Xing Zhi’s voice became even more strange. ~“Oh? Is Your Highness angry for your general? You treat your men like they’re little children.”
“Better than High God who plays at being the hero for the damsel.” Shen Li didn’t hold back. She countered in a bitingly, cold tone. She expected him to get angry at her outburst, but he didn’t. Instead she could see an ever so slight upward quirk of his lips. With gloomy eyes, she retreated a step.
Xing Zhi’s expression was unexpectedly cheery. It instantly reminded her of the past and anger burst in her chest. It was like before; he was playing her in the palm of his hand again. It was a two-man show with her being the puppet.
Damn it! Fine! She narrowed her eyes refusing to bite farther onto the bait he extended. This fish was going to swim away even if it meant tearing a bloody hole in her cheek to escape.
How treacherous! To harm herself just to get away. Xing Zhi thought he had nailed her securely to the hook only to watch her escape.
Shen Li’s face cooled. ~“If High God wishes to avenge the goddess, then please report the wrong to the Demon emperor. I will accept whatever punish is called for. Now if you’ll excuse me, I will be leaving.” Shen Li dragged Mo Fang away with her without waiting for Xing Zhi to reply.
Youlan, still feeling thoroughly wronged, stared at Shen Li’s retreating figure then at Xing Zhi’s enigmatic expression as he too, looked at Shen Li leaving.
“The people of the Demon realm don’t know how to behave according to proper etiquette. For the Azure Sky king to treat a heavenly person this way… The allegiance she pledged is surely insincere. It will cause disaster one day.”
Xing Zhi turned to her and nodded his head. Then he said, ~“That’s the way she is. It may be bad, but she might squeeze your neck the next time you provoke her.” There was a chilly undertone to his voice. “Who knows, your corpse may not even stay in one piece.”
Youlan felt a sudden chill on her neck. She looked at Xing Zhi weakly. “If that happens, will High God oversee justice for me?”
Xing Zhi gave Youlan a kind smile as he spoke but his voice was firm. ~“That is unlikely. The Demon emperor is very fond of the Azure Sky king and will likely defend her. It is unlikely the Heavenly realm will go to war, after all maintaining a peaceful relationship between the two realms is very important. However Goddess may rest in peace; I will be sure to place some fruit as tribute for you.”
Youlan remained standing in the garden as, in a daze, she watched, the fluttering movements of Xing Zhi’s white robes as he walked away.
Shen Li’s pace was fast as she walked out of the palace. It wasn’t until Mo Fang whispered, “Your Highness…” that she slowed down. He shot her a glance before asking, ~“Why are you angry all of a sudden?”
“Angry?” Shen Li abruptly stopped. Unable to react in time, Mo Fang collided into her back. The force made her stagger and nearly fall down, which in turn caused Mo Fang to frantically grab for her waist.
Shen Li was preoccupied and didn’t notice his actions. Mo Fang on the other hand was quite red-faced. He quickly released her and took two steps back once she was steady on her feet again.
With a thud, he knelt on both knees and with another thud executed a fierce kowtow. “Your Highness, please forgive me!” He looked like he’d been caught committing a grievous crime.
Shen Li glanced at him. It wasn’t a big deal and she didn’t take it to heart, but Mo Fang’s reaction made her feel embarrassed. She coughed twice. “There was no harm done. Stand.”
Mo Fang rose slowly but kept his chin tucked to his chest. Shen Li couldn’t see his face but she could see how red his ears were. She turned her head away pretending to not notice.
In a low voice she said, “I just finished straightening out the goddess, but High God Xing Zhi came by and ruined it. Why wouldn’t I be annoyed?”
Mo Fang had wanted to say something, but he lost his train of thought. Instead he said, “So it is then.”
“Besides even if High God Xing Zhi is incredibly powerful, he wouldn’t dare do anything excessive to me here.” Shen Li paused as she tried to find a reason. “It’s just that there wasn’t anyone else around and High God Xing Zhi is really hard to pin down. I could only suffer in silence, so I was trying to get away as fast as I could.”
Shen Li resumed walking as she continued. “That goddess spoke so rudely to you. If I hadn’t been there, would you have just accepted the humiliation?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Ha?! Why should my men yield to those in heaven? They’re arrogant and willful about everything. They ride rough-shod over people and bully the weaker immortals. It’s clearly a problem with their house, but they try to shift the blame onto someone else.
Listen if either of them give you trouble in the future, whether it’s Fu Rongjun or his sister, you let me know and I will be glad to use martial law to punish them. Troubling our generals like this, it’s shameful! They’re slapping us in the face!”
“Your Highness says this but…” Mo Fang raised his head. “I’m afraid it would be inappropriate.”
Both Fu Rongjun and Goddess were the Heavenly emperor’s grandchildren. Plus Fu Rongjun was Shen Li’s fiancé. If they forced the issue, he was afraid Shen Li would have a hard time later.
“There’s nothing wrong with it. We can’t let outsiders think our generals are easy to bully.” Shen Li waved her hand. “Come on.”
“Your Highness, wait.”
Shen Li turned around at Mo Fang’s call. Feeling that his gaze was not properly respectful, he dropped his head down and looked at the floor.
~“I heard Your Highness was injured in the Mortal realm…”
“Oh, that. It was nothing, just killing a couple of ya shou.”
Mo Fang knelt on one knee. ~”My impulsiveness caused Your Highness to be punished and sent to the Mortal realm to search for Fu Rongjun. And now Your Highness is so injured. I deserve severe punishment!”
Demon generals didn’t have the best personalities, particularly Mo Fang; he was very short-tempered. Back then Fu Rongjun had been so annoying that Mo Fang impulsively kicked him. This led to an angry Fu Rongjun running away to the Mortal realm, which of course led to the Demon emperor sending Shen Li down to retrieve him.
Shen Li had been confused why Mo Fang hadn’t gotten angry with the goddess. It turned out he was holding himself back because of the aftermath with Fu Rongjun. He hadn’t wanted his actions to affect her.
Unexpectedly, Mo Fang still felt guilty about the whole affair.
She sighed then she said, “Rise.”
He didn’t get up, so she stepped forward and forcefully yanked him up.
“OK, it’s your fault. You made the Demon realm lose face today. As punishment you must drink. Do you accept?”
Mo Fang stared intensely at Shen Li’s hands holding his shoulders. She dropped her hands when she noticed.
Mo Fang nod. ~“I will do as Your Highness commands.”
“Great. Better to do so now than later.” Shen Li waved her hand. “All right, let’s walk back to the barracks. You can tell me the names of everyone not on duty and we can drink together.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
Mo Fang looked at Shen Li as she listened to the soldier names be called out. His gaze was soft. A flash of white caught his eye as he turned his head. Though that person’s expression was unchanged, his eyes were definitely lonely looking. Seeing the eye-catching figure made his lips quirked upward slightly at the sight.
Turns out bullying someone… felt pretty nice.
Everyone was a mess that night after three rounds of drinks. The servants had to support their respective generals home.
The tavern sent notice to Rou-ya to pick Shen Li up, but when she got there, a drunken Shen Li refused and used the excuse of not wanting her drunkenness to disturb High God Xing Zhi. After saying so she turned away dismissively.
There was no way Rou-ya would be able to move Shen Li. She could only look to Mo Fang and ask, “General what should we do?”
“If Your Highness does not wish to return home, then how about spending the night at my residence?” Mo Fang said after a moment of silence.
Shen Li nodded. “OK.”
With that decided, Rou-ya returned home and Mo Fang helped Shen Li walk back to his home. The streets were deserted, and the lights were just bright enough to illuminate the pathway. It was silent but for the sounds of footsteps: one stumbling, the other sure and steady.
He glanced at Shen Li who had nearly fallen asleep. Her Highness guarded her heart fiercely, but allowed others to see her unguarded tipsy self, even letting him take her to his home. She trusted him... had complete confidence in the Demon realm. It really was too much...
Mo Fang looked at the road in front of them. “Your Highness, I don't want this walk to end,” he said softly.
Shen Li wasn’t completely lucid and misheard. “Ah, yes the stars are nice. Let’s go to the roof and look at the stars.”
The sentence, so out of the blue, made Mo Fang laugh. “Yes, let us gaze at the stars from my rooftop.”
Rou-ya was just closing the gates of the estate when, out of nowhere, a figure in white surprised her. With her hand to her chest she asked, “High God is still up? Standing there, nearly scared me witless.”
“Mm. There was a nice breeze so I came out to enjoy it. Your master has not returned yet?”
Rou-ya smiled. “Oh, it turned out High God was waiting for Highness. No Highness was a little drunk so she’s staying at General Mo Fang’s place. If there is something on High God’s mind, there’s no harm in waiting until tomorrow when Highness comes back to discuss it.”
“Mm.” Xing Zhi nodded. “I’ll go out and enjoy the breeze.” He materialized through the wall, not waiting for Rou-ya to open the gate.
“This High God… sure acts like a ghost.”
Shen Li reclined comfortably once she climbed up onto the roof. A realization struck her heart as the cool night air sobered her. Gazing at the stars on top of a roof alone with her subordinate, this situation... if anyone saw, it would be too ambiguous.
But she just got there. To leave so soon would be awkward. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Mo Fang silently sit down next to her. Shen Li was stuck so she decided to stay put for the time being.
Who knew how long they sat there silently looking at the sky when Mo Fang finally broke the silence. “Did Your Highness see any stars?”
Shen Li shook her head. “There’s too much miasma. I couldn’t see any.”
Mo Fang turned to look at her directly. ~”I saw.”
Shen Li wasn’t dense. She looked Mo Fang in the eyes. Under normal circumstances she would have ordered him to look away and wipe those thoughts from his mind. But for some reason she couldn’t do it today. She opened her mouth but nothing came out. Maybe she was too drunk, maybe the cool breeze was doing things to her, or maybe something happened to her heart today...
“Why?” She raised an arm up and looked at the back of her hand. “This hand is covered in blood, have only held a spear, never touched a sewing needle. The owner of such hands... what makes me worthy of your attentions in this way?”
The question surprised Mo Fang. How was she not worthy? He stared in silence at her for a moment before speaking. “There are differences between Your Highness and ordinary women, but there are similarities as well. The way I see it, your red-tasseled spear is your needle and the Demon realm the fabric with which you embroider the beautiful mountains and lakes on.”
Shen Li stared hard at Mo Fang. Her face was a comical half smile, as she sighed. “Mo Fang... you always say the silliest things. Also, you shouldn’t spill your secrets so easily.”
~”I didn’t misspeak. Nor was I using empty flattery. You really are someone worthy of me admiring and loving.”
“That won’t work.” Shen Li finally said after being silent for a long time. She dropped her arm. “It won’t do.”
He knew it was impossible. He looked down hiding his eyes. ~”I know our statuses are different. I know I should not dare, but I wanted to let Your Highness know how I felt.
Status wasn’t the issue. It was because she couldn’t let go...
“Azure Sky King! So it was you! You’re trying to steal my man?!”
The sudden scolding came from below. Shen Li moved over and saw an excessively frilly dressed Fu Rongjun looking up at the them with an angry face. He pointed at her. “This is too much!”
The two reacted differently: Shen Li raised an eyebrow. While Mo Fang’s face sank but he did not get angry.
“Your Highness, it will be better if you return home and stay away for a bit.”
“Ha!? Stay away? Have you forgotten what I just said earlier? I will punish you with martial law later!”
Shen Li teleported to Fu Rongjun. “It seems like your memory is really bad.” She raised her fist wanting to beat him.
Fu Rongjun raised his arms protectively in front of his face as he shouted. “High God! Do you see how she treats me?! How can you force me to marry her?!”
Shen Li’s arm stiffened. She turned her head and saw Xing Zhi leaning against the wall underneath the eaves. Had he been there since she got on the roof with Mo Fang? Had he been listening to them talk? How... ill-mannered!
Xing Zhi could see her eyes were as cool as ever, but the smile she had on her face didn’t reach her eyes.
“Is it customary for people of heaven to eavesdrop on others?” Shen Li sneered, “to show up unannounced in the middle of the night?”
Xing Zhi’s eyes dimmed but he didn’t say anything.
Fu Rongjun[notes] wasn’t as silent. “You - you. A man and a woman alone on a roof in the middle of the night... is this considered proper?! What looking at the sky?! A person would have to be blind to believe that!”
Shen Li didn’t say a word, instead she reached over as if to jab Fu Rongjun.
He stared and used one hand as if to block. “What?! Trying to kill now?!”
“Since you’re not using your eyes, why not let me dig them out and give it to someone who can.”
“High God, look! Look! This is abominable!” Fu Rongjun said as he dashed to Xing Zhi.
However, when Fu Rongjun did so, Xing Zhi moved to the side, not letting Fu Rongjun near him. He stared fixedly at Shen Li as he spoke. “Your Highness, there is no need to refuse General Mo Fang’s[notes] tender feelings. If it is your wish, then I, Xing Zhi, will assist.”
His words were met with surprise, both men pleasantly so, Shen Li disbelievingly so. For whatever inexplicable reason, he’d denied her when she asked him to dissolve the edict previously. Based on what she knew of him, she could only assume he was speaking now out of anger.
It didn’t make sense. What could he be jealous or angry about? He was the one who pushed her away. He was the one who decided on the marriage. But now all of a sudden he was angry? What? Because other people appreciated the toy he’d tossed aside so now he was miffed?
She smiled. “How could I dare refuse? Wasn’t the marriage only because of High God’s edict? If High God wishes to revoke it, the only thing I can do is accept it.” Shen Li raised her hand in a respectful gesture. “I look forward to High God fulfilling his promises.”
The smile on Xing Zhi’s face wilted and his eyes turned cold. Neither of them said a word as both tried to stare the other down.
He finally dropped his gaze. “Your Highness is so serious. Your marriage was decided by the Heavenly emperor and his royal cabinet. How could I have any say over the matter? However if Your Highness is fond of General Mo Fang, considering Fu Rongjun’s nature, it’s not impossible to undo.”
“Why is High God slandering my name so?” Fu Rongjun couldn’t help but interject.
Shen Li let out a cool laugh. Her voice came out hoarse when she spoke. “Many thanks to High God for pointing that out.”
She’d been played again. Turned out she was the only one taking anything seriously. She looked to the roof towards Mo Fang. He stared back. What he felt was openly clear in his gaze.
Shen Li felt horrible. Her words earlier were extremely misleading. She’d used the engagement as an excuse to reject him so how could he not be hopeful now that the situation was like this? How could she have spoken so irresponsibly? She was just as childish as that guy.
“Well then that is the end of the matter. Tomorrow Fu Rongjun, Youlan[notes] and I will return to the Heavenly realm. We’ve spent far too long here.” Xing Zhi gave a faint smile. “Your Highness, General Mo Fang, I bid you farewell. It is unlikely we will ever meet again. Please, take care of yourselves.”
They’d fixed the seals and properly reported on the matter about the disappearing land gods. There was no reason for such a personage as him to remain in the Demon realm. For that matter, it was unlikely he’d stay in the Heavenly realm either. Most likely he’d return to the world Beyond the Heavens. He’d sit and dispassionately observe the stars for another ten thousand years while time slipped away.
And she’d never see him again.
Shen Li looked down. The anger she felt was doused by a new sense of helplessness that rose in her heart. “Why did High God come here?”
Xing Zhi wasn’t sure where to look so he turned his gaze to the horizon. “I came to find Fu Rongjun. He has caused you trouble – a failure of the Heavenly realm in his education. Rest assured I will report what I’ve witnessed here to the Heavenly emperor.” He hesitated then said, “If Your Highness does marry into the Heavenly realm, Fu Rongjun will not dare behave as he has now.”
“High God mustn’t do that!
Xing Zhi waved a finger and Fu Rongjun was immediately reduced to a silent mime. Xing Zhi continued. “There is still residual poison left in Your Highness’s body. Please remember to rest.”
“High God need not worry.”
She almost reached out to him.
Xing Zhi turned away. He reached for Fu Rongjun and the two disappeared. A cool breeze blew in sweeping away the miasma to reveal a sky twinkling with stars.
It was dazzling, this farewell gift.
But stars cast shadows. Shen Li stared at her shadow lost in thought. This was good too. Nothing voiced, nothing grieved. If it was never acknowledged then what was there to be sad about? Xing Yun, Xing Zhi. She thought she’d clearly differentiated them in her heart, but now she wasn’t so sure.
But it was OK, because either way, he was gone now.
She’d forget about him sooner or later. It was just a matter of time.
“Your Highness.” Mo Fang called out from the roof. “The sky High God left behind is beautiful. Do you wish to see it?”
“No.” Shen Li kept staring at her shadow. “If I don’t know how beautiful it is then I won’t miss it later. I’ve disturbed you long enough. I will return home now.”
This made Mo Fang pause. After a silent moment he said, “I’ll see Your Highness out.”