Chapter no 35

Heart of the Sun Warrior

They came swiftly, their auras creeping closer—mirrored reflections with the stillness of ice. Throttled gasps swelled from the corridor beyond, something heavy striking the

ground with a thud. I flinched at the thought of the guards, but then the door burst open, my fears turning inward.

Eight of Wugang’s soldiers stood in the entrance, their skin mottled with frostlike patches, their eyes alight with that eerie glow. I tried to muster a spark of hatred for them for so callously snuffing out Prince Yanming’s life, but it was like trying to hate an arrow that had hit its mark. These

creatures were no more than weapons themselves, though far deadlier than any I had ever encountered.

As two of them seized my arms, I cried out and struggled, tempering the urge to fight back in earnest. They dragged me effortlessly into the silent corridor, past the crumpled

bodies of the guards. Their fingers bit into my arms as they hauled me outside the palace. My slippers scraped a jagged stone, the silken threads rupturing, the beads from the

embroidery scattering upon the ground.

A large cloud hovered just beyond the entrance. One of them pushed my back, and I stumbled upon it. As it took

flight, soaring high—I almost knocked into a soldier. I

blinked, studying its face. This one appeared younger than the rest, a strange thought when these creatures seemed at once ageless and yet not quite alive. The same light

emanated from its hollowed eyes, however something more grazed my consciousness—a shadow of remembrance, an

echo of who he used to be … a stark dread of what he was now.

It could not be him. Prince Yanming was a Sea Immortal; his spirit did not lie in the Divine Harmony Sky. His brother had brought him back to the Eastern Sea. A rush of

emotions crashed upon me, a terrifying thought sliding into my mind: What if those killed by Wugang’s soldiers were somehow bound to his will, even in death?

“Prince Yanming?” I whispered, even as my heart

clenched, rejecting the thought. When he showed not a flicker of recognition, I tried again, choosing my words

carefully. “Do you remember your parents? Your brother? The Eastern Sea?”

The soldier’s head lifted ever so slightly—if I were not watching him, I would have missed it. I followed his unseeing gaze, catching a glint of sapphire and pearl on the horizon—the sea, awash with midnight stars. His lips parted, his eyes fixed ahead like he was seeking something … even though he might not know it. Hope unfurled in me that

perhaps a part of him remained untarnished by this vile

power, that the dragons were watching over him after all. “Go far from here,” I told him quietly, unsure if he could

hear or understand. “Return to the Eastern Sea. Find the dragons; they will keep you safe.”

His head seemed to dip into a nod. So slight, it might have been a trick of my mind seeing what it wanted to, but I

clung to this wild hope. I was shaking, fighting the urge to retch at the thought of what lay ahead—what success might cost me and the unspeakable price of failure. Breathing

deeply, I fought for calm. A clear mind was the greatest weapon when one had relinquished all else.

Our cloud climbed north, toward the Golden Desert. I

dared not probe for a trace of my father, Liwei, or Wenzhi. All my energy in this moment was centered on the feather borne within my body, keeping it whole—and me, alive. As screams and cries rang out from below, I glanced down, my insides turning to ice.

Chaos reigned. Wugang’s army had struck earlier than

anticipated. The colliding forces were caught in the throes of battle, weapons gleaming as they clashed, currents of magic illuminating the night. I leaned over the edge of the

cloud, my veins hardening to stone at the sight of the snarling monsters that prowled alongside Wugang’s army. An enormous boar with a mortal’s face charged into a troop of Cloud Wall warriors, skewering them upon its curved tusks. Blood sprayed into the air—a fine mist—amid the

desperate screams and pleas. An eerie light shone from the boar’s eyes, its tusks glowing just as the soldiers’ guandao did, with the same malevolent power.

A shadow fell over me as a monstrous winged tiger swept down to sink its claws into an Eastern Sea soldier, flinging her high into the air. Her scream was swallowed by an

ominous thud, yet the creature did not pause, already pouncing on another victim.

Taowu. Qiongqi. Legendary beasts, renowned for their vicious cruelty, having devoured countless mortals and

immortals until they had been slain by the Celestial Army. And now, they were resurrected by Wugang to serve him, to reap devastation across the realms.

My nails cut into my palms. If only I could fight alongside our soldiers, if only I could have helped them. Yet it would not be enough. I could stop one monster, perhaps—a handful of soldiers … but thousands?

A flash of brightness streaked across the sky, gleaming with the gold of summer. The Yellow Dragon soared forth, its

spiked tail lashing the air, churning it into a gale. Its force slammed into Qiongqi, the winged tiger’s claws unclenching

—its victim plummeting through the skies with a scream— but the Black Dragon shot forward, catching the soldier upon its back. Further below, the crimson scales of the Long Dragon blazed as it cleared a path for the soldiers fleeing

Taowu’s charge. As the dragon opened its great jaws, torrents of water crashed upon the boar, sending it rolling across the sands.

Though leaden with terror, a lightness crept into my heart.

Sharp cries rang out then, the phoenixes sweeping into the fray in a flurry of shining feathers and talons. As they circled in graceful flight, their tails rippled behind them like rainbows arched across the night. The Celestial Empress

flew among them upon her mount, a spear in her hand. A fierce radiance suffused her, as though she were a bird whose cage had sprung open, who could finally spread her wings and soar. Flanking the Phoenix Army were Prince

Yanxi’s forces, bearing down upon the armies of the Northern Sea.

The sun had not yet risen, and already the clouds were drenched with blood. The glittering sands of the Golden

Desert—so dazzling from the palace rooftop—now glistened with a dark wetness. How many lives would be lost? Death would feast well tonight, gorging itself over the immortal table it had once been cast from.

Despair shrouded me, dank and cold. I wanted to shut my eyes to the unfolding nightmare, but forced myself to watch, biting down on the inside of my cheek till it was raw. This was the horror that awaited us if Wugang prevailed—an

eternity of chaos, destruction, and death. And I dared not dwell on what might happen to the spirits of those slain by

his creatures. This was not just a battle for the realm, it was one for its soul. I would not falter, I could not fail.

The cloud swerved sharply away, climbing higher. I tore my mind from the devastation below, for my own battle lay

before me. Long moments ticked away, sheathed in silence. All the while, the feather strained against its binds,

pounding against my skull. My energy flowed in a constant trickle to hold the shields fast, my tension coiling tighter until I thought I might snap.

At last, the silver roof of my home gleamed ahead. Tiles were cracked and charred, several missing, part of the lower tier fallen away. A far different homecoming from before, when joy had brimmed over with anticipation—for all I felt now was a withering dread, coupled with the relentless stab of fear.

It was cooler than I remembered, the tranquil stillness edged with desolation. Never had the night felt so

oppressively thick, with the lanterns unlit, the once-luminous earth as dull as ash. A trace of cinnamon wound through the air, a musty tang clinging to it, a remnant of stale smoke. My gaze darted over the blackened walls, the cracked stone path, the stump by the entrance where a mother-of-pearl pillar had once towered. It had been a nightmare of my youth, to return home and find it in ruins—

achingly silent, without the voices of my mother and Ping’er.

The cloud glided to the ground. Before I could descend, a soldier shoved me forward. I stumbled, tripping over my skirt, as another grabbed my arm, pulling at me. Anger

flared in me to be treated like some beast, yet there was no malice in their rough handling, rather the detachment of

performing an appointed task. I was glad when the young

one remained on the cloud, unmoving, though his gaze kept flicking to the skies. Did he intend to take flight? How I

prayed he would.

The soldiers hauled me along a familiar path, winding between the osmanthus trees—I could have walked

blindfolded and found my way. Something rustled, the

gentle clink of leaves from the laurel towering above. Its silvery bark seemed darker than before, cast in shadow—or

perhaps because it was no longer bathed in the light of the moon.

Wugang stood there, a glint in his hawkish eyes. The gold scales of his armor rippled across his chest and down his

arms, tapering to his wrists. His great axe was strapped to his back, its green tassel swinging from its bamboo handle. A powerful shield gleamed around him, my spirits sinking at the sight. Gone was my faint hope of catching him off guard. Even surrounded by his soldiers, his guard was still up.

He clasped his hands in seeming delight. “Chang’e, it warms me to see you again. I have long awaited this moment.”

I seethed at his false geniality. As his eyes narrowed with speculation, I dropped my challenging stare, trembling from the strain of not striking him, which I hoped he would take for fright.

“Release her.” His hand lifted in a careless wave.

The soldiers loosened their grip at once, their heads cocked toward him.

“I hope they haven’t made you too uncomfortable,” he said. “My soldiers can be overzealous when obeying my orders.”

How polite he sounded, like I was an honored guest. As though he were asking after my well-being, without the slightest intent of drawing my blood.

“Why did you bring me here?” My mother’s voice slid from my lips.

“Goddess of the Moon, I think you know.” His arm swept toward the laurel.

How many times had I climbed its pale branches and tugged at its seeds, admiring its exquisite beauty? All I saw now was that same ethereal light curving from the eyes of Wugang’s soldiers and monsters—resurrected, not to life,

but to eternal slavery in death.

“Bind her to the tree,” Wugang commanded.

A gray chill sank through my flesh. I did not imagine he would tie me to the laurel. How would I escape? Panic surged, my struggles in earnest as I kicked at the guards.

This is what you need, the better part of me whispered— the part that was brave and wise. There was only one way to get the Sacred Flame Feather into the laurel, and that was if Wugang allowed it. Being bound to the tree was an undeniable advantage, though there was no relief when it would also trap me. Magic tingled at my fingertips, yearning to be released—to cast the soldiers aside, to flee. The same urge that had driven me to claw victory from despair, life from death—was now a hindrance, chipping at my resolve.

I forced myself to go limp, dropping my head to hide my

churning thoughts. As Wugang’s soldiers wrenched my arms around the tree, cords of light slithered around my wrists, spiraling across my chest, waist, and knees, locking me in this forced embrace. The bark stung against my body like I was pressed to a column of ice.

There was no need to feign terror; I shook with it—that Wugang might discover our trick, that I might fail … or die. I had weighed the danger, steeled myself for what lay ahead. I had imagined being held at sword point, restrained,

threatened, and hurt—yet, I had also dreamed of a swift escape. I was quick; my magic was strong. All I had to do

was lose myself in this forest I had known all my life. I had not expected to be trussed up like some cruel sacrifice— though, that was what I was. Yet as fear froze my blood, a rush of relief spilled through me that it was not my mother here.

I shoved aside my terror, probing my bonds cautiously. It was a strange magic I was tempted to test, but was wary of arousing Wugang’s suspicions. A sudden pain pierced me from within, the feather’s power lashing free. At once I

channeled my energy to strengthen my shield, unable to afford a moment’s distraction. As my chest cramped with despair, I closed my eyes, fighting for calm. Images of my

parents slid into my mind, along with Liwei and Wenzhi, of Shuxiao, Prince Yanming, and Ping’er. Something hardened along my spine, a warmth spreading over me.

Those truly powerful have no need for love.

It was what Wugang had said to me before, when we stood in this very place.

You are wrong, I told him in the silence of my mind. Love is what gives me the strength to do this. To stop you.

Never had I so much to lose, yet so much to fight for. My eyes rolled up to meet Wugang’s. When had he drawn so close? I fought down the bile that crowded my throat, the dread that stiffened my limbs. My head seared like it was crammed with hot coals, tendrils of heat from the Sacred

Flame Feather already surging free from its binds. Now was the time, before Wugang sensed it, before he struck—for what if he rendered me unconsciousness?

With a wrench, I loosened the enchantments around the feather, channeling my energy to pierce its shaft, crushing it into glittering shards. My magic coursed over each fragment, forming a thin shield to protect me from the feather’s power—and it was this alone that kept me alive.

Even through the barrier, the brutal heat seeped into my

veins until my blood blazed like liquid flame. Sweat dripped down my brow and neck, my silk robe sticking to my back. I gasped, sucking in a breath of cool air that yielded a

pinprick of relief as I fought the urge to crumple. A little longer, I urged myself, struggling to hold steady. Time was running out. I needed Wugang to strike soon, to release the power dammed within me, before it consumed me whole.

Still, he waited, a triumphant smile on his face as though savoring the moment … even as I burned within.

I would not wait for him; I would move the pieces on the board instead of waiting to be played. “It’s not too late to reconsider,” I told Wugang, my eyes wide and innocent. “If you return the emperor’s throne, if you beg for mercy, he

might forgive you.” My voice was gentle, my words needle-sharp.

Wugang’s lips peeled into a feral snarl. A swish through the air and his axe descended, carving a clean slash along my arm, one after the next. Pain seared, silken smooth.

Blood spilled from my torn flesh, speckled with the gold of the feather’s power—seething hot, with the tang of iron and char. Thin trails ran down my arms, falling between the undulating roots, sinking into the darkening earth. With each drop of my blood, another fleck of the feather’s power slid from my body—such relief, short lived though it was. For the heat seeped into the very thing I was tied to, the laurel’s

bark already warming against my body.

A hoarse gasp broke from me as my scorched blood

coursed through my veins. Heat radiated from my pores, glazing my skin as the cords that bound me dissolved.

Freedom—yet I barely sensed it, consumed by unfathomable agony. The acrid tang of smoke choked my lungs, a sizzling and crackling crowding my ears. Just the thinnest of threads held me whole, the enchantment that tethered me to

Wenzhi. I grasped at it like a drowning person, clinging to my sole solace from this nightmare as my blood continued to flow into the laurel’s roots. Any moment now, it would

catch fire.

As would I.

Wugang’s head was tilted up to the branches, his face creased into a frown. When my mother’s blood had

scattered over the laurel before, its seeds had fallen like ripe plums shaken down. Perhaps he thought it a delay or a miscalculation on his part that the blood of the Moon Goddess had not yielded the desired harvest.

The laurel shuddered, its bark smoked and charred. Yet its glowing sap was already spreading across, healing itself.

Despair raged. Why had it not been destroyed? Why was it not enough? And it struck me then—the power that shielded me from the feather’s devastation, shielded the laurel too. I

would fail because I was still trying to protect myself, because I was afraid.

Yet this was not the way. If I failed, Wugang would kill me along with everyone I loved. There was no real choice, just as when my father had faced the sunbirds—though it was one that had to be made nonetheless.

I pressed my arms tighter around the laurel, squeezing my eyes shut. Not giving myself a moment to ponder as I

reached inward, ripping away the barriers that guarded me, undoing the shields over the feather fragments—all that

kept me whole. As the last one broke, heat erupted

throughout my body—a scorching summer, a raging blaze. I was … undone. The thread tethering me to Wenzhi snapped, his enchantment unraveling as my skin stung and stretched, pain shuddering through my limbs. My blood gushed forth, spilling through the cuts on my arms, and bearing with it the last of the Sacred Flame Feather’s raw power—seeping into the roots of the laurel. Would it be enough?

The blazing heat in my body subsided, leaving nothing but a bone-deep weariness. I could not move. My skin was

drenched with sweat, and yet I shivered. Smoke clung to my breath, a powdery bitterness coating my tongue as though I had chewed ash. A miracle that I breathed at all, that this wisp of life remained … frail and fleeting though it was.

My eyes flew open, blinking against the glare. All was curved where it should be straight, shuddering when it

should be still, until everything appeared slick with flame. Deep cracks fractured the laurel’s silvery bark, from which smoke and sap gurgled forth—no longer bright gold but a coppery-red, as though churned with my blood. With a whoosh, its pale branches caught fire like a flaming crown.

“No!” Wugang’s roar was a far cry from his usual calm.

Nothing but silence greeted his outburst. His soldiers faced him, awaiting his command. Obedient. Alert.

Unfeeling. Fear did not clutch their hearts—nor did loyalty, love, or honor. Such things Wugang had scoffed at, derided

and scorned. Such things that might work wonders in times of desperate need.

A grinding wrenched the air as the cracks swelled across the laurel’s trunk, gaping wider, deeper—a moment before it broke apart. The glittering seeds above morphed into lumps of blackened coal, shriveling to ash that drifted with the wind like clouds of soot.

Wugang’s soldiers stilled. The light faded from their eyes, winking out until just the hollows remained. Clear liquid ran down in rivulets from their faces, across their necks, like ice thawing beneath the sun. Chunks of their limbs broke off with a clink, coming apart like ill-made works of clay. As they crumbled to the ground, gold dust coiled from their wracked forms, spiraling into the air. A rustling sprang up like a great sigh. Was there regret in it? Relief? How I prayed these spirits would regain their stolen peace. The shimmering specks vanished then, leaving nothing but an unearthly silence and a charred stump where the laurel had once towered, surrounded by dark swaths of damp earth.

It was over … Wugang’s army destroyed. This terrible

devastation, this grave threat to our existence had ended. I inhaled a shaking breath, closing my eyes. Such terror had reigned over my mind and sunken my heart during these

endless days—it was hard to believe it was no more. A sweet lightness swept through me, a moment’s respite from the pain. The realms would be safe, along with my loved

ones. The battle by the Cloud Wall would have ended

abruptly, with Wugang’s soldiers and monsters gone. Not dead, for they had never truly been alive.

Come dawn, the sun would rise unhindered over the Immortal Realm.

I would not see it.

Wugang loomed above me, his face crimson with rage, his aura thick with murderous fury. My fingers lifted to my face, brushing the cleft in my chin, the rounded curve of my

cheek. I was myself again.

“How is this possible? Her aura, her voice—” Wugang’s grip tightened around the hilt of his axe. He would waste little time uttering pointless words of rage. Death was the only atonement for my offenses.

I met his gaze without fear; I was already hollowed through, what else could he do to me? The Sacred Flame Feather had burned me up, devoured every bit of my strength. It was a mercy I was not already dead, though

eternal darkness was beckoning. What was left was just skin stretched over bones, and wilted breath in my lungs. Was this how Ping’er and Prince Yanming had felt? It was not as terrible as I had dreaded, this numbing fatigue that stole

over me, the weight pressing over my limbs like a shroud of stone—yet a lightness fluttering within like I was almost free


My mother’s voice yanked me from my fevered daze.

When had they arrived? I glanced up, my eyes colliding with hers. Such pain in them, such terror—as black as the abyss that yawned before me. Beside her was my father, Wenzhi and Liwei, their cloud soaring faster than the wind and yet

… too late.

I struggled to raise myself up, leaning upon an elbow. My breaths came quick and shallow, the shadow of Wugang’s axe dark on my face. There was nothing left in me to evade or block the blow that would surely fall. Drawing a deep

breath, the crisp air filled my lungs, laced with the sweetness of osmanthus. Home at last, my mind whispered.

Wugang’s axe arced high. No matter what he had lost,

vengeance would be his. He was a master at exacting it in full. I closed my eyes, unable to bear the terror flashing

across the faces of my loved ones. If they called my name again, I did not hear it. A shiver rippled through my flesh.

How strange to be cold when moments before I had burned. Something whistled, hurtling toward me. I braced for pain— yet it plunged past my head, rending a stunned gasp from

above. My eyes flew open to find an arrow of Sky-fire

embedded into Wugang’s chest. His mouth hung open,

gaping like a fish torn from the waters—as another arrow hurtled into the center of his forehead, light streaking across his face, down his neck, trailing along the very scars on his palms. He staggered back a step, and then another. A gust of air slipped from his lips, carrying a woman’s name in a tortured breath. His wife? Did he love her still? My heart

flinched at the thought. He had been cruel, yet most cruel to himself.

Wugang slumped to his knees, falling upon the grass. His body shuddered violently, his eyes blinking at a frantic

pace, before widening and going still, the color draining from his flesh until he was as pale as the petals beneath him. Death had claimed him at last—the mortal who had clawed his way to immortality, overthrown the Celestial Emperor, and reshaped the Immortal Realm.

There was no pity in my heart for him, nor did triumph sing through my veins that Ping’er and Prince Yanming were avenged. There was nothing left except this void within me, this hollow of winter. My legs gave way as I collapsed into the soft embrace of the earth. Footsteps pounded toward me—my parents, Liwei, and Wenzhi racing my way. A torment and a joy to have them close.

My greatest loves, my deepest regrets.

Wenzhi’s face was ashen, the silver in his eyes dulled to slate. Even in my weakened state, the sight jarred me.

Something was wrong; his powerful aura diminished. As he fell to his knees beside me, a guttural sigh wrenched from his chest. I reached out just as he did, our fingers grazing,

entwining—by instinct, almost. How cold his skin … or was it mine?

His hand lifted to cradle my cheek. “I did not break the enchantment. I hope it was enough.”

How long do I have?” I had asked him before.

“As long as you need,” he had replied.

It was who had severed the connection, not him. And in a flash, I understood. He had not let go, not even when the

enchantment had drained the last of his powers. To keep me safe, he had sacrificed his very life. Why? For his kingdom,

or the realm? Deep down, I knew the answer; it was one he had told me himself.

Because he loved me.

Not with the selfish love of the past, where I was but a means to an end. He had wanted me then, yet had been unwilling to yield anything that might make his love worth having. Never did I think he would do such a thing, placing me above all else. I had smothered my emotions, clung to principles and pride, deceived myself at every turn. I had refused to believe he could change, until he had shown me

—irrefutably—just how much he loved me. More than the crown and kingdom he had once betrayed me for.

More than his life.

I would have wept except there were no tears left, the flames had burned them away. Silent screams of agony

clogged my throat. The white-hot pain that stabbed me was like something vital had been ripped from my core.

“I’m sorry.” My words were a shattered whisper.

“I am sorry too.” His chest heaved as a faint smile

stretched across his lips. “Live. Be happy.” As he glanced at Liwei, they exchanged a long look—without hostility or rancor. Liwei inclined his head in a respectful salute. Wenzhi fell back, a sharp breath dragged through his clenched teeth.

This was agony, not the fire in my veins or the axe slashing my skin. I gripped his hand as hard as I could. His skin had always been cool, yet never this immutable ice.

“I love you,” I said to Wenzhi. Only now did I know it was the truth, despite everything I had done to destroy it.

This was no time for pride or resentment, for anything except honesty. It was not a betrayal of Liwei. The simple truth was that I loved them both. Perhaps it made me a bad

person, yet it was not something I had sought. This fracture in my heart … I only knew it was there after it had formed. And strange though it may sound, it was what made me whole—for they each were a part of me.

A smile spread across Wenzhi’s face, radiant and fierce.

My friend, my enemy—whose love and treachery had

clawed the deepest grooves in my heart. One did not cancel out the other, yet the truth was that the Wenzhi who had

betrayed me would never have sacrificed himself so. The fantasy of what might have been flashed across my mind—if he had been born of a different family, as had I. One untainted by power, suffering, and secrets. We would have been happy, as he had promised. Perhaps it was as he’d said: we never had a chance to begin, because there was

already another in my heart. And then, he had lost my trust

—forever, I’d believed. Only in this moment did it dawn on me that I had forgiven him long before. That I loved him, still

… and it was too late.

His eyes pinned mine, a tremor coursing through him. I clutched him tighter, more afraid than I had ever been

before, as though this simple act would suffice to bind him to me. But then his smile wavered as his eyelids sank down, closing over the turbulent gray. A breath left his body, his

pulse slowing. His aura dwindling away until all that made him precious—was gone.

Grief ravaged me like a devouring beast. I could neither breathe nor move from the wracking agony, each moment an eternity of night. Scant consolation that I would follow him soon after. Perhaps then, I might find the peace that had long eluded me.

Someone lifted me away from Wenzhi, from the aching stillness of his body—once so powerful and strong. With the last of my strength, I turned to Liwei, to my mother and father. It was almost more than I could bear. Their eyes were ringed red and wet with sorrow. Liwei clasped his hands

around mine, his touch bringing an echo of warmth to the

chill that engulfed me. His energy poured into me with a rush of heat, a shallow comfort like the sun without warmth, the moon without light. My lifeforce was gone; I could not

channel his magic. I wanted to tell him to stop. That I was sick and tired of partings and sorrow, that I was already

dead inside.

He would not listen even if I could have spoken in that moment, his magic sweeping over me like rainfall, gliding off my skin as I continued to fade. Lights flashed across my vision like a thousand stars spinning across the heavens. My head fell to the earth, my gaze falling upon Wenzhi’s body.

How calm he looked, how young and peaceful, the cares wiped from his face. The grass beneath me was wet with morning dew. It was still dark, the lanterns unlit. If only I could have seen their glow one last time.

“I love you,” I whispered. To Liwei. To my mother and father. To my home, where I would lay forever.

And then, I was free. Severed from the husk of my body, floating above. Such lightness, such calm. Love without

pain, joy with sorrow, and the promise of the infinite. I stared down at the carnage before me. Wenzhi. Wugang. The broken remnants of those soldiers.

A cry erupted from Liwei that would have torn the heart from my chest if it beat still. My father’s head bowed with grief as he wrapped an arm around my mother—her

weeping resonating through the air, her tears streaming into the soil. A shudder rippled through the ground, the lanterns around us flaring to sudden life—luminous and bright. The moon eagerly awakening to greet its mistress after so long an absence.

My mother pulled free of my father’s hold, kneeling by my side to grasp my hand. Tears slid down her face, falling upon the withered roots of the laurel. “Xingyin,” she wept, again

and again, in the sorrowful rhythm of loss.

Something gleamed, a rivulet of bright gold sap trickling forth from the laurel’s stump. It streaked across the wood,

between the charred crevices, spilling upon the ground. The earth shimmered with light, warmth erupting in the air like a burst of summer—a force yanking me back into my body,

even as pain and grief latched onto my consciousness once more with excruciating clarity.

I sucked in a heaving breath, bolting upright. My eyes met my mother’s, wide with shock and disbelief, a moment

before she threw her arms around me, clutching me tight. A tingling warmth surged through my flesh, coursing through my veins. Over her shoulder, I saw the last of the laurel stump crumble away, its once-glittering sap fading to

brown, scattering like sand over Wenzhi’s body. No breath rattled in his lungs; he was as lifeless as stone.

“Is he—?” I could not speak the word. “He is gone,” Liwei said hoarsely.

“Why? Why him and not me?” I burst out, unreasonable in my grief.

Already, my mind was piecing the fragments together.

That somehow, my mother’s tears had revived the laurel. It had just enough power left to save one of us and it had

chosen me. Was it obeying the Moon Goddess’s command? Or was this the laurel’s final gift to me? For all those years I had played beneath its shade, perhaps it knew me too.

Yet even as life pulsed through me once more, as I gazed at Wenzhi—a part of me remained dead, and no magic in the world could bring it back again.

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