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!
Unless you’re interested in why I’m translating from the beginning, just skip the ... and tap on chapter 4. 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 chapter number.
So why am I starting from chapter 4 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 chapter 3 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 chapter already! 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 back 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’d 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 up her spellcasting the entire trip. Xing Yun didn’t know what silliness she was up to, but he figured he’d 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. Aye... this is 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 that 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 a middle aged guy speaking to another younger man. “This cross pattern here, shows you’re a blessed person.” The older man 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 had been hanging 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 fortune telling.” Shen Li was quite surprised.
“Yah, 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 fortune telling, why not make it your livelihood?” This skill that was akin to godliness could 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 was now. He was just too laissez faire about it though. 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.”
Shen Li Xing Yun snorted at that. “Do you think I can afford that kind of thing?”
True. He couldn’t even afford meat nevermind 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 trancelike 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 been 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 was very aware of.
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 a god? 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 was able to just stand there indifferently as an old woman wept broken-heartedly. He was a really unusual child... 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 the man 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 in 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 articles 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 now with the moonrise she was finally 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.
At her sigh the man’s black eyes changed turning a dark crimson color. He turned in her direction and expelled a large amount of Yin energy at her as he rushed forward. It happened so fast that 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?” She was alarmed by the ruckus and came over to investigate to find Shen Li in a ball by several pots. 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. Hello.” He tapped her lightly on the head.
Shen Li was really 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 gazed at the faraway bedroom door. Shen Li pushed 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 the spirit to float to that 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. Not long after the man gained a clear silhouette. 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 no sounds 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 alive or dead. 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 smoothed out, a becoming flush arose on 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 she was mesmerized. “So that’s what happened...”
“If you continue to stay here, you will not only 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 intentions 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 spellcaster 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 that, he did so without questioning. Shen Li then 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 Xing Yun’s coat. Xing Yun closed his eyes for a brief moment against the glare. When he opened his eyes again he saw that she had taken human form and was now several steps closer to the original 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 a 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 ease.” Her tears kept falling like a steady stream as Shen Li gradually 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 started thundering and her world grew larger before her eyes. Within the space of a few seconds her body shrunk 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 one properly live.”
Xing Yun glanced down with a bit of a complex look before laughing 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 Prince. 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, and that is a violation of the 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 up. She understood it was because of this formation that she was able to recover so quickly. The amount of qi gathered from it must have been tremendous.
“Everytime 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 fortune telling 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. Uponing 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 don’t like 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 causing it to flip and 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 that they 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 her person gave of a very authoritative air. This gave 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 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 in the guard’s hand and with a twist easily broke it in two, tossing the broken token at their feet. She glared at them. “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 if it’s a Royal Highness or a King, 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 of what to do and were just considering their options when two objects suddenly shot out at them. One more inch and they would have surely 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.”
Eh? 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 on 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 finally decided and walked into 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 further and further 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 her 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 some awe from such a fine display. Instead of amazement, Xing Yun passed her a bunch of dirty rags and said, “Well 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!
Instead it only 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 that 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’d 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! 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 just 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 out the two pieces of gold xxx onto 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 and get things ready 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 rather 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 to him 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 tea water to come to a boil. He got extra labor and everything looked good and 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 gonna 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 left 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 the Prince,” 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 this Crown Prince’s attitude and wasn’t interested in listening to him mouth off.
“I hear that Young Master can communicate with the spirit realm and foresee the future. This Prince is very interested and is curious. Can the 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 the 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.”
“This 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 causing the two to collapse sideways into each other. The other guard moved to take his place brandishing his sword in front of him. 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 the Prince 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 and 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 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 wouldn’t be so brazen.” He continued stirring the medicine. “But, you are 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 in her confused state they made no sense. 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 of the pot 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 was a regular mortal her hand would have been scorched, but since this was Shen Li her hand was only a little red and swollen. “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 really 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 suprisingly 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, “Fortuneteller 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 those 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 Burial Ruins adjacent to the rift in the spirit world. The atmosphere was filled with thick miasma that blocked the sunlight creating a hazy 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 teeny 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 until 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 use the bathroom. 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 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. “This is no good ah!”
As they were talking a husky voice rang out, “What’s the commotion?!”
Upon hearing that voice Xiao He’s face perked up, but then remembering her predicament she became nervous again. 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 deathgrip 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 spellcasters?”
“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 it’s 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.
His heart clenched a little when he didn’t see her there. 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 monk spellcasters. 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 and saw that it was 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 difficutly 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.
Once they got into the hall Xing Yun didn’t bring up the vision he saw in the array.
“What do you we do with them?” Shen Li pointed to the people lying in the array.
“Wait till dawn, then drag them out.”
“What about the monks chanting outside right now?”
As he was thinking the chanting stopped and 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 my Lord, this person...”
The Crown Prince 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 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 appeared 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 that. He took advantage of Shen Li’s distraction to pull his wrist free. Before she could stop him he’d 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 undisputedly weak, he somehow gave off a reliable atmosphere.
“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. All she could tell was that the magic was coming from the southeast direction. The scent disappeared before she could analyze it further though. 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, slowing 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 began to hear 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 flowing unchecked eroding everything around, emitting a poisonous fume into the air. The guards and the maids were in a panic, clearly in pain as their skin came in contact with the demonic fluids. It reminded her 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 out there 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 go to the next evolutionary step and form a soul. Odds were high that it would just be an empty vessel, a spirit lacking spiritual essence.
Right now in Rui Palace the only spirit able to take full proper human form was Prince Rui’s demon spirit, Xiao He. Something big had to have happened for her to manifest such a strong sense of resentment against her Lord and betray him like this.
“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 all over 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 slumbered for years.
The arrival of Shen Li and Xing Yun 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 should 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
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 to save yourself. 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. ShenLi 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 making them 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 kepting dragging on. She ended up staying much longer than she should have. The longer she stayed, the higher the odds of being discovered by the demon troops sent to track her. The damage from a battle between them 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 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 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 and the Heavens may 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’d already shoved the spear in his arms. He didn’t think he needed it since the baby demons really were 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 afterall. 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 your magic to cast some seals. Those above noticed. Even as we speak an army is on its way to apprehend you. Your Highness! Please leave! I’m afraid the longer you linger 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 was finally able to firmly grasp 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’ 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 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 the stem to the flower, 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 formed into a human shape. 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. Shen Li 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 wildly struggling 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, becoming invisible again floating in the air harmlessly.
“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 spankings 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 had 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 who 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 dreamed 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 really 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 throughout 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 down 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 some people 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 must 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 these 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 looked up at the sky. 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 tasselled 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 to retreat.
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 look 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 know 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 ability 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 really surprised when they heard this. Although demons lived a long time and it was possible to regain cultivation through training and study, it 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 that would be good too. 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 doors were stiff from the cold and ice, making them slow to open. After opening a harsh blast of frigid air gushed out and a cavernous room was revealed. 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 a 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 pulled out a small vial and after uncorking it poured the blood inside onto the floor. This caused the four ice stalagmites in the corner to 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 old heavenly burial abyss, the Cold Palace was a forbidden place. The strength of the seal incantation over it was incredibly powerful, more so than those over the burial ruins, however unlike the Burial Ruins that sealed a mass amount of monsters, the Cold Palace could only hold one entity at a time. Demons too powerful for normal imprisonment were executed since the Cold Palace could only hold one prisoner at a time - 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, “Your Lordship should not be so impatient. The expected date will not be 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 the King 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 signalling him to look up. “I know you must have tried until you were completely exhausted. You kept them at bay for half nearly half a day. That was enough. It was because of my own inabilities that I couldn’t escape. 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.”
“Yeah. I figured as much.”
One day here was the equivalent to thirty years there. It was to be expected that Xing Yun passed on. Besides, how else would 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 lying in bed with a calm demeanor about him. 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 as she passed 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 front of the King before throwing herself onto the ground and grabbing onto the King’s legs and crying piteously.
“Your Highness! You’re finally back! Oh Your 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 Your 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 appeared to like to hide or avoid others.
Rouya, 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 moved her mouth and waved her. With a clang the door of the bird cage opened. Then she formed her hand into a claw shape then 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!”
Rouya, 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. Parrot seemed to be 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.
Rouya 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 her 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 Rouya, who was fanning her at the side, expressed her grievances.
“Pick what dress? Fu Rongjun, that playboy! It’s his good fortune that Your 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 kepting 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 Your Highness would demand his affections. Tch!”
Shen Li heard this and shot a glance at Rouya. “How many times did Fu Rongjun complain to the Heavenly Emperor?”
Rouya seriously considered the question then scratched her head and began to count on her fingers. “Ah… a lot! While Your Highness was in the Mortal Realm Fu Rongjun visited the Heavenly Emperor so many times that I’ve lost count. I 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.
“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 onto 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 Lord Xing Zhi. “What an unexpectedly joyous occasion to have Lord Xing Zhi here with us.”
Lord 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 speaking. Thinking about it though, he figured it would lower the likelihood of him be 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 Lord 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 the Lord’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 Fu Rongjun. But he’s lived in solitude for so long, does he even know who’s who in Heaven anymore? Nevermind 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 Lord 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 Lord 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. Lord 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 Emperor be willing to accede to my request?”
How could the Emperor not agree after hearing Lord 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, “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 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 due to his benevolence.”
This revelation surprised Shen Li. The stories of Lord 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 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.”
That group up 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 was 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 Lordship...
The marriage delay was a hot topic of discussion in both the Demon and Heavenly 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 be suffering 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 one 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 become 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! Your Highness! You’ll kill Parrot!”
“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 were able to reach 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. Unable to fight they were forced with difficulty to sit it out, feeling guilty they couldn’t contribute.
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 in the knees when they heard the howl of the scorpion-tailed fox for the first time.
Those monsters sealed in the Burial Ruins of the old burial abyss 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.”
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 troops 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 you to enter battle. This small one[notes] 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 small one had not agreed what would you have done?”
“Knock you out and commandeered your troops to fight the yao.”
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 sawlike 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 dying Shen Li 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 tasselled 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 harden 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. It 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 will 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 some 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 it shook its entire body, risking it all 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, “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 mana. 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.
“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 tasselled 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 the 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 tasselled 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 men 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 caught a glimpse 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, God Ruler Xing Zhi."
The people of the Demon Realm weren't familiar with those in the Heavenly Realm, nevermind those Beyond the Heavens or the 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 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 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's 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, God Ruler 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 then, 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 you 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... Mo Fang... Mo Fang can't forgive himself."
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, "Mo Fang can't forgive himself 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 Mo Fang's 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 a feminine way 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.
"Mo Fang is quite lucid." He looked like he wanted to cut his heart open so Shen Li could see. "Mo Fang feels deeply for Your Highness. Mo Fang likes 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, "God Ruler 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 God Ruler Xing Zhi. He came to reinforce the seal on the burial ruins."
"God Ruler 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 breath 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 are true. 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 God Ruler 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, "God Ruler Xing Zhi, if you need someone to guide you, there are others more familiar with the grounds around the burial 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. "God Ruler 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 God Ruler 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 himself blinked and saw the man in white walking 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 burial 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 God Ruler 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. You 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 God Ruler 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, “God Ruler, we should head out to the hills 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 feeling of strong 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 burial 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 the hills on foot.”
She felt uneasy when he didn’t reply to her even 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 God Ruler lost his way en route to the Demon realm. Could he be lost again?
“God Ruler Xing Zhi?” Shen Li called out as she retraced her steps. “God Ruler!” 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 god!
To cleanse the air no matter how contaminated…clearly an ancient god was different from the demons whose 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 on these hills 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 the problem in the bud before it blossoms into a bigger 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. These 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. From the very first steps at the beginning, he’d already calculated everything.
They drew 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 tree 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. “God Ruler, 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 hill 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 straight liquor 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 God Ruler Xing Zhi was bullying Her Highness?” Silence met his question. “Hahaha!” he laughed at Mo Fang’s refusal to answer. “God Ruler’s personality is really strange, but if you look at his aura, it’s insanely pure. An aura of that extreme level, neither you nor I would be able to withstand. 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 God Ruler 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 in her heart 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 God Ruler 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. “God Ruler, 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 Zhu appeared 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. God Ruler 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 repellant 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 repellant spell isn’t so weak it’d 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 repellant spell will stop working if you let go of my hand.”
Those 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 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.
“You don’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 at 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 distinct and clear, sounding more powerful and strong.
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 whoever it was, was speaking directly by her ear.
The sound 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! The confusion in her heart would clear if she became violent, it told her.
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 light of the 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, only noticeable on close inspection. 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 heaven. 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 God Ruler 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 God Ruler Xing Zhi go?”
Shen Li gave him a look before saying, “If God Ruler 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 God Ruler?” 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, you 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 God Ruler 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 men 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 all 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 of the tiny crack.
The scent… was very familiar, reminding her of God Ruler. 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 sense 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.
“Aii, 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… God Ruler, 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 God Ruler 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. “God Ruler, 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, you and I, 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, “You think I get amusement out of deceiving you, don’t you?”
“Don't you?!” Shen Li accused. “That you didn’t know the path up. That the water repellant spell would fail if I released your hand. Weren’t those all lies?!”
Xing Zhi laughed but immediately replied with, “Well when you 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 God Ruler 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 you.”
“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 millennia 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 you've gathered more on you since you've been in 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 you out because of the new miasma that’s clinging to you now. And with this injury on my arm, I can’t drive it away from you either. 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. “God Ruler... is it possible… that when a 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 God Ruler 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 God Ruler 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. Can you tell me why you did so?”
The topic immediately made Shen Li wrinkle her brow and grimace in displeasure. “God Ruler wants to know why I’d 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 . 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 God Ruler’s attempt to play matchmaker, this King wouldn’t have to deal with this mess! That's right! This King must ask. Why did God Ruler 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 “Lord Immortal, 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, “Lord Immortal! Lord Immortal!”
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. “Lord Immortal! 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 away 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 fiercer. 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. This 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 bit 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 a 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 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. “God Ruler, 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?”
“The General 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 acknowledgement 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, “God Ruler, 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**(housekeeper) 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...”
“You may have been offended when I descended to the lower realms, however, I expect you to answer my question. Why have you come to the Demon Realm to purposefully seek discontentment when comfort and happiness are both readily available to you 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 you're unaware of my failed attempt to flee the marriage several days ago? Do you just not understand that you're the last person I want to see right now?”