Chapter no 24

Heart of the Sun Warrior

He was gone. Skin cold, limbs slack. His radiance

extinguished like a lantern snuffed out. Prince Yanxi folded over his brother’s body, his shoulders heaving with grief.

“I’m sorry.” These words were a thin echo of the sorrow which engulfed me. There was so much more I wanted to say, yet nothing would come, each inane phrase crumbling like sand beneath my feet. How could I ease his pain when I was drowning in it myself? I had loved Prince Yanming for the little time I knew him, while his brother had loved him all his life.

“We must go. Wugang might change his mind and return.

We cannot trust so fully in his honor,” Wenzhi warned.

“I will bring him home.” Prince Yanxi slid his arms beneath his brother’s shoulders and knees, cradling him tight, as he rose slowly to his feet. His eyes were dull as they fixed upon Prince Yanming’s face, locked in unnatural stillness, this mask of death he would wear forever.

The urge beat in my chest to follow him, to see Prince

Yanming laid to rest in the Eastern Sea. A selfish whim, as I should not impose myself on their hospitality, to add to their troubles when they were a kingdom in mourning.

I drew an unsteady breath, my teeth cutting into my lip.

My farewells had been said; I could not ask for more. My fingers instinctively closed around the paper dragon Prince Yanming had crafted for me, its edges still crisp. A keepsake, my mind pleaded. Something to remember him by. Yet I did not need anything to keep him alive in my heart. With

trembling fingers, I tucked the paper dragon into Prince

Yanming’s limp hand. Bending down, I pressed my lips to his cold forehead … and I wept. Tears surged into my eyes, running down my cheeks. My breaths came ragged and hoarse. For never again, would he fling his arms around me, never again would I hear his bright laughter.

“Thank you,” Prince Yanxi said quietly. “Yanming would have liked that. He talked about the dragons all the time. He loved their stories best.”

The Pearl Dragon glided toward him, its scales shimmering like silvered snow. He was a rare spirit. I would bear him on this final journey. I would bear you both.

Prince Yanxi hesitated before bowing low. “It would be our honor.”

The Pearl Dragon shook its mane, a mist forming around the Eastern Sea princes that lifted them onto its back. With painstaking gentleness, Prince Yanxi laid his brother’s head against his chest. How peaceful he looked; lashes curled like half-moons grazing his rounded cheeks. If only I could

delude myself that he was asleep, though even in slumber he could never have kept so still. With a graceful bound, the Pearl Dragon soared into the sky toward the Eastern Sea. I stared after them until they were swallowed by the dark.

Had the sun set? I did not notice, the stars shining upon us now.

The Celestial Empress was staring at the other dragons, her lips pursed into a knot. “Come, Liwei. We must go to the Phoenix Kingdom. These creatures are not to be trusted.

They bear a grudge against your father.”

“They are not like you,” I said with feeling. “Even though they have every right to resent their imprisonment, they are neither vengeful nor vindictive. They will not harm you or

your kin.”

Her eyes flashed with anger, even as she turned from me like I had not spoken.

“Venerable Dragons,” my father said. “We must stop Wugang’s heinous ambitions. Can you tell us what you know of these creatures and the power of the moon laurel?”

The Long Dragon’s eyes blazed as they swept over the

broken bodies strewn along the beach, like some glistening monstrosity the tide had washed up.

We never imagined the moon laurel could be harnessed to such ends. Its power is of regeneration and renewal. This is a vile corruption—using it to enslave immortal spirits, stealing life itself. Wugang must be stopped.

I dragged myself from despair. “Heat weakens these soldiers, yet it’s no easy matter to bring them down. If Wugang’s army is as large as he claims, imagine the destruction they would wreak across the realms.”

“His army is constrained by the laurel seeds in his

possession,” Wenzhi remarked. “How many can there be?”

An image of the glittering tree slid into my mind. “As many as there are stars in the sky.”

Remember, too, the seeds plucked will regenerate, the Long Dragon cautioned. There will be no end to this horror.

“Wugang can’t grow his army that quickly.” I tried to

assure myself as well. “He had to strike the tree with all his might before it yielded a single seed. It was a fortunate

coincidence that he managed to harvest so many the last time—”

Coincidence? The Long Dragon tilted its head contemplatively.

My insides curled like a withered leaf. I had not wanted to remember anything of the night Ping’er died—reluctant to dwell upon it, to relive the horror, regret, and sorrow. But

now, I forced the memories into my mind: my mother’s blood splattering the laurel, its seeds raining upon the

ground … the light in Wugang’s eyes when he had ordered the soldiers to seize her. And what of his strange words

earlier when he had claimed not to be the soldiers’ sole

creator? My fingers dug into my temple, more recollections surfacing of Wugang chopping at the laurel, the scars on his palms reopening with each strike. My mother weeping in the forest. The two images converging as their blood and tears spilled upon the luminous tree, seeping into its roots, its

bark … its seeds.

Panic rose, cresting high. “Mother, that soldier did not attack you.”

“I was fortunate,” she said slowly. “It stopped, almost like it recognized me.”

“Mother, Wugang meant you.”

Her eyes went as wide as those of a frightened deer. “What do you mean?”

I softened my tone, taking her hand. “General Jianyun said the laurel seeds did not exist before. The tears of some immortals are said to contain part of their power. All those nights you wept in the forest … it was from your tears that the seeds sprouted.”

She shook her head violently. “No. Impossible.”

I did not want to be right, yet I could not ignore the facts. “The laurel is a part of you both. Wugang’s blood can harm the tree, yours can harvest its seeds.”

My voice shook over the words and their searing implication: for Wugang had not come at us out of pique, vengeance, or pride—but because my mother, the Moon

Goddess, was at the heart of his plots, and he would stop at nothing to seize her.

“I have no magic. How could such a thing come from me?” She was so pale, like she was about to be sick.

“All immortals have magic which manifests in different ways,” Liwei explained. “This does not mean your power is

evil, nothing starts out inherently so. You might not even be aware that it exists in you. Somehow, what power you inadvertently yielded the laurel has been tainted, likely through Wugang’s efforts.”

Wugang had not wanted to alert us to his true ambition.

This was why he had taken our home, hunted us down, and tried to secure my father’s allegiance. He would never let us go … which was why I must end him.

My father slid an arm around my mother’s shoulders. “If Wugang captures you, he will be able to harvest all the seeds he wants. His army will be unstoppable, he will reign supreme over the earth and skies for eternity.” He turned to the dragons. “Will you stand with us, my friends?”

The Long Dragon did not reply at once. Was it conferring with its siblings? Its voice resonated in my mind, startling me—all of us—from the transfixed faces around.

We will aid you as far as we can, though we are

constrained in what we can do. This power is far greater than ours. The Moon Goddess must be protected at all costs. The dragon fell silent as its amber eyes swung to me.

Evil must be struck at its roots. Cutting its branches will not suffice.

Did it speak to me alone? How clearly the Long Dragon had seen into my weak heart—my selfish plans of staying clear of trouble, of running away with my family, hoping to never be found. What did I owe the Immortal Realm? We

could make a new home for ourselves in the world below. Yet if Wugang prevailed, no place would be safe for us. He was a danger like no other because he believed in nothing, whether tradition, history, or honor. He lacked even the innate care for his people that Queen Suihe possessed. Any

compassion or love that might have existed in him once had been long extinguished, for his heart was consumed by hate. Death and misery fed him; he seemed to crave it. He did not care if he brought the realms crashing down with him. There would be no peace when such as him reigned.

Why did he want power? I did not know. Perhaps because he had nothing else.

A heaviness descended over me, a profound gravity. No longer could I hover on the fringes, hoping evil and misfortune would leave us unscathed. I had done this before and now … Ping’er and Prince Yanming were gone. Their lives would not be in vain. If left unchecked, this evil would engulf the realm, devouring all in its path until there was nothing left but the cries of the tormented, and the silence of the dead.

This was no honor; I did not want this burden. Yet if I did nothing, I would lose everything—all whom I loved. As I

caught the resolute glint in my father’s eyes, I was glad to not be alone. Together, we would keep my mother safe.

“We must destroy the laurel.” I spoke clearly, giving no sign of the fear unfolding within me, the sadness that thrummed like a plucked string. The laurel had been a part of my childhood, and how I had loved it. Through no fault of its own, it had been fed a lifetime of suffering through Wugang’s hatred and my mother’s sorrow.

“Is that possible?” Shuxiao asked. Her movements were sluggish, her face drained of color—an urgency rising in me to get her to safety.

The Long Dragon’s eyes rolled up like it was searching its thoughts. The laurel’s nature is cold, as are those who draw their strength from the moon. To destroy such a thing, you would need the most potent flame in the realm.

“Where can we find this?” Wenzhi asked.

“What of the Phoenix Kingdom?” I ventured. “Those strong in Fire come from there.”

The Long Dragon said nothing, slanting its great head toward the empress.

“Mother, could you help us?” Liwei asked.

I thought it more probable that she would claw me to shreds—but surely, she would understand the threat of Wugang should take precedence over all else. When she

remained silent, I let a note of disdain slide into my voice. “Perhaps you do not know. Perhaps only the great Queen Fengjin has the answer.”

“I know far more than an ignorant girl like you does,” she hissed. “You are wrong; what you seek is not in the Phoenix Kingdom. The Sacred Flame Feather grows from the sunbird’s crown.”

Sunbird. As the word resonated through the silence, my father’s face contorted with pain. I did not think he

regretted saving the Mortal Realm, yet it did not mean he relished his victory.

“The sunbird resides in the Fragrant Mulberry Grove. The domain of Lady Xihe.” Wenzhi’s gaze was sharp and

assessing. “I doubt Your Celestial Majesty will grieve should the goddess attack us.”

She would have just cause. Lady Xihe was the Goddess of the Sun. Mother to the sunbirds, nine of whom my father had slain.

The empress’s lips curled. “Don’t you dare look at me that way. I am no liar—not like you, you treacherous spy.” She swung to my father. “Murderer of my kin, surely you

remember the day you slew them. You have felt the potency of their heat. You have seen the feathers I speak of.”

She laughed, a brittle sound. “Thanks to you, there is only one left in the world, when once there were ten. A fitting

penance to have you grovel for Xihe’s mercy, to witness the suffering you wrought upon her family.”

I took an involuntary step back. “Lady Xihe will never aid us, not even if the Immortal Realm burned to ash.”

“Yet we must try,” my father said gravely.

“How can we find the grove?” Liwei asked his mother. “I have heard it’s no easy place to enter.”

“Follow the trail of the sun’s descent, the path the sun

chariot traverses as it returns home. You must be quick and not fall behind its shadow. If you do, the way will be shut to

you, and you must wait another day.” The empress spoke slowly, as though unearthing memories long past.

She had been close to Lady Xihe once—as intimate as sisters—until the sunbirds were killed while under her


What of the key, Your Celestial Majesty? the Long Dragon pressed.

“Key?” Liwei repeated.

Three were craftedfor the three who were the closest of companions. One in Lady Xihe’s keeping, one given to

Queen Fengjin. And one to Her Celestial Majesty. To enter the Fragrant Mulberry Grove without key or invitation, is to perish.

“I was going to tell you.” Red bloomed in the empress’s cheeks, but I had dealt with far better pretenders. Perhaps her loathing of me was too great—that she was unable to mask it, unable to discern between wanting me dead and aiding her own cause.

“Why don’t you help us?” I asked her without rancor. “You despise me, think me beneath you. But Wugang took my home, and now he’s taken yours. He threatens all we love, the entire realm itself. Nothing should matter except stopping him.”

“I don’t need your help to do that,” she snarled.

Liwei stepped between us. “We need all the help we can get.”

The Long Dragon’s gaze was intent upon me, its words for me alone. The nine slain sunbirds were arrogant, selfish,

and capricious. However, they did not deserve their fate. While your father saved the mortals from certain calamity, you should not forget that the sunbirds, too, were

unfortunate participants in this farce—they on one end, your father on the other. One tricked with false coin, the other forced to pay an impossible price.

Before, I had felt little grief for the sunbirds, blaming them for tormenting the world. To be reminded that they had

been young and foolish, and they had family who grieved for them still … it hurt, for I had tasted the bitterness of loss. And yet, that was incomparable to a mother’s sorrow.

Lady Xihe’s grief is vast, her rage unquenched, the dragon continued. It simmers each morning as the sun illuminates the skies, roiling as she bears her lone child in the chariot, reminded anew of those she lost. It pulses in the vicious lash of her whip as she strikes her mount. She was not cruel

before, though her heart is now hardened by misery. The most dangerous hate is that which festers unsated.

Why are you telling me this? I asked in the silence of my mind, not wanting to draw the attention of the others.

Only you can ease Lady Xihe’s pain. Only you can make amends. The grove is the home of the sun, and yet, all these decades—the darkness is all they have known.

How can I do this? I wondered, almost beseechingly. What would satisfy Lady Xihe except my father’s death or mine?

Death need not be repaid in kind, but the chain of

vengeance must be snapped, and the hatred spawned

extinguished—else they will flame into an untethered blaze. Catastrophic, in times as these, when our world hovers on the brink of destruction.

The dragon stretched its neck out to the skies. Who could have imagined that the fate of the realm now rests upon a single feather? Ease the Sun Goddess’s torment. Don’t let the woodcutter turn her to his side, or devastation will

surely follow.

My father’s voice rang out. “What is the matter, Xingyin?” “Father, you must not go,” I said quickly, evading his

question. “Lady Xihe would show you no mercy. You won’t be safe there.”

“She will show you no mercy either,” he reminded me.

“She does not know me, but she would recognize you and Mother at once,” I reasoned. “Your presence will only enrage her further. You don’t have your powers; you can’t defend

yourself against her. You should go someplace safe, along with Shuxiao.”

Come with us, the Long Dragon offered. We will tend to your wounded.

“Can you heal her?” I asked the Long Dragon.

Yes, though it will take some time to remove the taint from her blood.

I lowered my head. “I am grateful.”

I crouched down beside Shuxiao, placing my hand over hers. “I will see you soon, my friend.”

She smiled weakly. “Count on it.”

The Long Dragon cocked its head toward my father. Will you return to your home?

My father nodded as he handed the Jade Dragon Bow to me, and after a brief hesitation, I accepted it. Relief flooded me that they would be safe with the dragons, out of harm’s way.

The Long Dragon straightened, its tail lashing the air. A luminous mist flowed forth, surrounding my parents and

Shuxiao, and lifting them upon its back. As it took flight, my mother and Shuxiao sat stiffly with their hands clenched, while my father showed no trepidation—he must have ridden upon the dragons countless times before.

Clouds were summoned to bear us away. As I started toward Liwei’s cloud, Wenzhi caught my arm in a light hold.

Before I could snatch it away, Wenzhi cast a meaningful

glance at the Celestial Empress. “Would you prefer to ride with her?”

My gut recoiled at the thought. As I strode to Wenzhi’s

cloud, Liwei’s guarded expression pricked me. The moment we were out of sight, I pulled free of Wenzhi’s hold, though his touch—anyone’s touch—was a thread of comfort amid this sea of sorrow.

The wind blew incessantly against us, and I was glad for its howling to drown my thoughts. Wenzhi was silent at first, perhaps sensing I was not in the mood for conversation.

“Don’t blame yourself, Xingyin,” he said at last. “Prince Yanming’s death was an accident, a great misfortune. No one could have foreseen it. Perhaps this is fate, as the mortals would say.”

“No,” I said fiercely, a fire roused in me. “I don’t believe in fate, destiny, or letting things take their course. If so, I would still be serving an unworthy mistress in the Celestial Kingdom, my mother would be a prisoner on the moon, my father would have died in the Mortal Realm and … Ping’er

and Prince Yanming would be alive.”

The tightness in my chest squeezed harder. “If only we had not fled, if only I had killed Wugang earlier. If only I had not gone to the Southern Sea—”

“Stop this.” Wenzhi gripped my shoulders, his tone urgent. “Were you wrong for wanting to protect your family, for wanting to take back what was yours? Should we have

surrendered on the beach and let Wugang take us prisoner? He would have killed us all—if not then, eventually.”

“Not Prince Yanming.” My voice was hollow. “He would have been safe.”

“Would you have traded him for your mother? Your father?

Shuxiao? Your … beloved?” Brutal questions, impossible to answer—yet it yanked me from the pit of my misery,

yielding a moment’s respite to the pitiless anguish.

His tone gentled. “Do not take on the burdens that are not yours to bear. Wugang’s actions are not your doing; he would have come for the laurel and your mother regardless. Prince Yanming died protecting his brother. If he had not,

Prince Yanxi would have been killed instead—both terrible consequences. Never forget, this was his choice, just as it had been Ping’er’s decision to save your mother. Do not

belittle their sacrifices when they should be honored. Do not let them have died in vain. Do not let this break you.”

“I have made so many mistakes.” My voice was choked with suppressed emotion.

“Xingyin, no one is infallible. Use the past to guide the

present, but do not let it trap you. Grow from your mistakes, don’t let them become a weakness.” He lowered his head to mine, his voice throbbing with intensity. “There is good in what you have done. You saved the Celestial Army. You freed the dragons—though I will admit, I was furious then.” His lips pulled into a wry smile, before drawing straight once more. “You reunited your parents. You fought for what you

believed was right, when so many others would have given up.”

I bit down on the inside of my cheek, his unexpected gentleness tearing down the last of my barriers.

“Cry,” Wenzhi said quietly. “Let your pain go.”

I was ripped raw inside, just as the night I had fallen to the Celestial Kingdom, alone and afraid—when my heart was

broken by Liwei’s betrothal, and yes, even by Wenzhi’s treachery. Somehow his ruthless logic and empathy stemmed the flood of despair I had been drowning in. The tears came then, streaming down in a silent current—for those I had lost, all that was forever beyond my reach.

Gasps wrung from my throat in a broken rhythm. And I

allowed myself this weakness, because I could no longer hold it in.

For I could not dispel the sinking dread that no matter what I did, death and suffering trailed in my wake as surely as the night follows the dusk.

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