I am little more than a pitiful existence, wandering from moment to moment, destroying all that is good and worthy, tainting all that still possesses beauty – rare and not – and doing little to change that. I have no strength in my hands. I have little worth in my mind. My words are often wrong. I can do near nothing right.
I despise myself as all rightfully should for in this I own nothing and am unable to do justice to that which is wondrous.
However, I feel that if even one person can enjoy what I do for – even the briefest of instants – I can be happy too; I can be worth something.
- This Farewell is Final
“No!” exclaimed Li Xiāo Yáo.
He clung relentlessly to his precious Yì Rú. Her left hand clasped his still. Her expression was one of absolute peace. The curve of her lips formed one of the most beautiful sights that he had ever the grace to witness. The rich, glowing brilliance of her cherry locks splayed about her.
“Xiāo Yáo… Xiāo Yáo…” his aged aunt wept as she tried to pry him away.
The blinding tears clouded her sight irreversibly. She staggered towards him but remained forever away. Her old bones creaked. Slowly, she began to sink to her knees.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she sobbed.
In the corner was Yuè Rú. Her face was buried in her hands. Her heart ached with such a deep grievance that could not be overcome. The slow parting of her lips inaudibly spoke the names of two most dearly departed.
Yì Rú’s husband stood outside. His face was tear streaked. All that existed was a vast emptiness and the calabash bottle in his hand. Its sweet alcoholic content numbed his suffering and clouded what part he remained in possession of his mind.
The glass shattered. The starlit fragments showered across the room. The flutter of a long, crimson cloak swished with elegant anguish.
Her pale face despaired. Her dark eyes flew across the chamber. The parting of her lips formed a horrified o. The quiet white stone was muted as she ran.
She passed beneath the arch. Her feet fought to slow. The balcony was missing a great portion of its balustrade.
Her arms were taut at her side as she dared to glance down. The boundless swirling of celestial clouds spun in slow circles. Their blue white shades faded to her eyes alone.
- The Longing Unanswered
Líng’er hurriedly strode to the throne room. The determined expression she wore masked her terrible anxieties. The gentle tap, tap, tap of her feet murmured along the floor. Wary gazes fell upon her.
Yù Huáng Dàdì glanced up. “Zhào Líng’er,”
She felt a sudden chill. The urge to wrap her arms around herself brought a slight shudder. She came to a stop and bowed lowly.
She spoke in a polite whisper. “Yù Huáng Dàdì, I have come to make a request,”
She was rocked by a single disapproving glance. It was not from Yù Huáng Dàdì. The gaze emanated from Nǚ Wā. The progenitor of their line knew at once the awful request that Líng’er dared to make.
Yù Huáng Dàdì sighed and gestured away. “Zhào Líng’er, go to your daughter. She is waiting to see you,”
Líng’er bowed reluctantly. She retreated with careful, disappointed steps. The refusal wounded her hurt heart. She passed beneath the archway and was free from the condemning stares.
Yì Rú sat in a silent chamber. Her hands were clasped neatly upon her lap. Her gaze fluttered curiously about the chamber. The pagoda style was reminiscent of her home. A ghost of a smile whispered across her features.
“Li Yì Rú,”
She leapt to her feet and bowed deeply. “Nǚ Wā,”
The ethereal goddess offers her a kind, motherly smile. “How are you, my child?”
Yì Rú replied shyly. “I’m well. Thank you for asking,”
The shyness waned suddenly and was replaced by a wave of anxiousness. She glanced at the goddess worryingly. The words were on the tip on her tongue.
The goddess shook her head slowly. “I apologise, Yì Rú. I could not stop her,”
She took a deep breathe. “I understand…”
Nǚ Wā reassured. “She loves you,”
She nodded but her eyes were blank. Slowly, Yì Rú slunk back down onto the seat. Her eyes drifted closed.
The goddess spoke again. “There are many who wish to see you. Their companionship should comfort you until your mother returns,”
- The Intertwining of Fates
The lake rippled restlessly beneath the quietness of a blossom petal veil. Li Xiāo Yáo stirred the surface slowly. His sword shone brightly, the light basking upon it and refracting from the water. The serene quietness reminded of his youth; of searching for medicine for his aunt; of finding a strange and beautiful stranger bathing in the lake’s cool waters.
He sighed listlessly. The sword began to slip from between his fingers as his mind drifted farther away. The gentle caress of petals stirred him from his thoughts. He looked to the sky, jolting to his feet. Then, he stopped. He crouched back down and returned to his grieving.
A tentative voice called to him. “Xiāo Yáo?”
He smiled. “Yuè Rú,”
She glanced between him and the lake. The island was his. It was where he and Líng’er had met. She had never felt at peace here. Time had passed and wounds had healed, but he loved Líng’er still.
He knew her thoughts and beckoned her over. “She was your daughter too. How are you?”
She wrapped her arms around him. “I miss her, but I can’t compare to what you feel,”
He shook his head. “I was rarely here. I didn’t know my own daughter,”
Yuè Rú clung to him more tightly. A veil of crystalline tears hugged her eye lashes. Her lips parted but the words had withered. No sound came. No comfort would come from her. Not then. She patted his back soothingly, hoping the silence would suffice.
A shiver shook down his spine, surprising her. “I want her back…”
Confusion flashed through her eyes. The one word question came to rest on her lips, but she silenced herself.
She kissed his forehead. “I know. We all want her back, but she’s with Líng’er now. She’s with her mother,”
He leant against her. His body shivered slightly. Grief marred his face seemingly permanently. He buried his face in her neck. She was silent as the cold droplets flowed across her skin.
The promise of paradise had long since perished. Its feeble remnants were splintered across the floor. A sharp exhale flowed over icy pale lips. The frost clung to open eye lashes. Its glacial flakes weaved through her obsidian locks.
The wisp of wintry wind escaped. The transparent mist fluttered through the air. A ghost of a smile touched her expression. The light was born again in her eyes. As her breaths withered away she slowly rose. The tentative curiosity that captivated her grew more and more magnificent.
- To Earth its Mother Comes
The snow drifted across the paths. The whispering cold seeped deep into the earth. Two dark orbs glanced about curiously. Their shallow depths wistfully resisted the beauty. She pressed her lips together, arms encircling her bare skin.
The natural curiosity faded from her eyes. Her gaze hesitantly turned to her left arm. The pale flesh was devoid of the scars it once knew. A sigh misted in the air. Her right hand covered her left forearm. She pressed the nail of her thumb to her skin and watched as it slowly carved a river of red.
The droplets tumbled through the air and onto the scales of her tail. The blood boiled at once and her tail slowly reverted to legs. The deep rouge of her hair softened, degenerating back into silken obsidian. The comfort of clothes once more caressed her skin and warmed her.
The familiar blue and white attire settled her anxieties. She allowed herself a faint smile. However, the lack of her cloak weighed on her mind. She cast the thought aside and began to trudge through the snow. The depths devoured up to her knees. Its frozen flakes soaked through her clothing.
She shivered, but pressed on. A cautious glance upwards revealed only the cloudy sky. She looked down again. She knew better than to believe that they hadn’t noticed. It was unlikely that Yù Huáng Dàdì and Èrláng Shén hadn’t noticed her absence. She was sure, paranoid almost, that Nǚ Wā would have reported her too.
Then, faintly, the memory of Yì Rú returned. Her resolve quivered. She shot a fearful glance upwards. Èrláng Shén’s Truth-Seeing Eye would have located her already. She paused, glanced around warily. There was no one else.
She drew her arms around herself. The soft shifting of legs to tail began again. Its deep freedom released some fears. A smile tentatively blossomed. She would be mistaken easily for a snake demon. However, she couldn’t help but feel satisfied.
The familiar crash of a bent and broken wok against the wall brought dust dancing to the ground. She scowled, arms folded tightly and eyes scorching with fury. Her whole body quaked with rage. She appeared about to detonate. Her eyes glistened with a veil of tears.
“No! No! No!” she shrieked, tossing her head wildly from side to side. “No!”
Her wild howling had sent the travelling merchants fleeing in all directions. Inside the safety of her hut she failed to notice. The sudden stillness meant nothing to her. She exhaled sharply, stamping her feet in anger.
Then, suddenly, she dropped to the ground. Her arms remained folded, her fists tightened, her pout deepened still. Her tangle of carroty pigtails hung around her in giant clumps. The floor where she sat was scorched and the wood fire – burned out – was scattered across the room.
She growled lowly.
- The Binding of Hearts
She stood before the ruins of a temple. Her solemn, saddened eyes stared intently. The antediluvian walls were down to the ground. The archaic tiles had faded, fractured and fallen. They littered the ground like leaves.
Líng’er called quietly. “Xiǎo Shítou,”
The wind whistled. The trees shivered, shedding leaves. The ruins quivered on unstable foundations.
Líng’er approached slowly. The gentle quiver of leaves beneath her tail rustled. Its lonely sound echoed. Her fingertips brushed the sharp tree bark.
“Zhào Líng’er, is that you?” a quiet voice whispers.
A young man peered out.
She slid over. “Yes, it is. What happened here? This…”
He tremored. “It has been a long time, Miss Líng’er. A lot of changed… Xiāo Yáo has changed…”
She nodded slowly. A faint disappointment had sprung in her eyes. A sad smile took to her features.
She whispered with the grace of sorrow’s own. “What do you know? Has life come to your home?”
A ghost of a smile touched his face. “Yes, Miss Líng’er, life has. I have seen your husband rarely. I have seen little of Yì Rú,”
She drew nearer. “Have you seen the other?”
He answered nervously. “… Yes… She, too, is well. She is far to the West. She lingers in shadows. She awaits no one,”
Líng’er rose, her eyes gazing contentedly. “I know… She must be so alike…”
The wok crashed again. Xiǎo Mán leapt to her feet and scowled over it. A rancid black smoke billowed from its slimy overflowing contents. She hugged herself tightly. The edge of the forest was covered in miscoloured ooze and scorch marks.
“Xiǎo Mán!” someone yelled.
She spun around, wide eyed. Guilt was written all over her face.
“Hǎi Táng…” she breathed. “I was just-”
“Xiǎo Mán, what have I told you?” she demanded. “What has anyone told you? Why do you persist with this?”
Xiǎo Mán took a deep breath. “Yuè Rú is dislikeable. Shīfu, I know you like my grandfather. You suit him more than she does. Let me do this as payment to you,”
The stern glower immediately brought her to silence. Hǎi Táng shook her head with severe disapproval.
Her words pierced like knives. “You are not to attempt to create a love potion. If you respect me you will obey me,”
She was tempted to retort but kept the remark to herself. “Yes, shīfu,”
Hǎi Táng stared at the deep black marks etched into the ground. She said nothing. Her gaze was unreadable.
Then, finally, she spoke again. “Xiǎo Mán, were you attempting to breach Heaven?”
- A Heartbeat’s Breadth Away
The soft footfalls echoed. Yì Rú knew she was treading upon forbidden ground. Each touch of her feet brought a soft shiver. Her deep hazel eyes gazed at the elevated ceiling. The chamber was vast and as ethereal as any of the other palace rooms she had seen.
A suspicious yearning had clutched at her heart. It drew her to the edge. She leaned over the broken balustrade to the endlessly circling clouds. The desperation in her gaze grew. She knelt down, peering worriedly.
The clouds did not draw apart. Earth was kept from view. The distinguished island dwelling was beyond her sight. She sighed, sat back, eyes closing with vexation. Her hands were half fists that were too weak to savour her wrath.
She murmured hopelessly. “Don’t forsake yourself, Xiǎo Mán. Not for my sake,”
The concerned gaze of the progenitor was from afar. The distance was purposeful. The mood was sombre.
“She has every right to despise herself,” a voice jolted Yì Rú. “Look where she is. Her world is free and unspoiled. We created her paradise and are locked in a prison.”
Yì Rú snarled politely. “Don’t speak so lightly of them. You know nothing,”
The ancient woman smiled austerely: her hair grey by the age she had attained on Earth. “They are descendants just as you are. Don’t play innocent. Your great grandmother destroyed our careful work. You are just another failure in her line,”
She rose. “My place is not theirs,”
She shook her head and her tone turned condescending. “Look at you, Yì Rú. No one has benefitted from your life. You brought suffering to your father, your mother, your daughter and your love. At the very least Líng’er served a purpose,”
The trees rose to greet the sun. The shade covered the natural forest path. The route wound endlessly in continual semi-circles. A deep frown was plastered permanently to Xiǎo Mán’s face. Her brows were knitted together in rage. Suddenly, she stopped. She glowered at Hǎi Táng’s back. Her shīfu was enraptured by the almost indiscernible sky.
Xiǎo Mán sighed. “Shīfu…”
Hǎi Táng snapped: her voice unusually strained. “Xiǎo Mán, stay here. I see something,”
Her eyes brightened. “Really? Shīfu, let me come with you,”
She was ignored. Hǎi Táng ventured to the edge of the trees. She gazed out curiously at the foliage. A green light shone down iridescently.
The voice was soft and tentative.
- This Fate of Ours
In the shadows by a river there stood a lone figure. Her dark eyes scoured the waters wisely. Small fishes swam in ease.
Xiǎo Mán protested glumly. “You don’t have to guard them. They’re just fish. No one is going to slaughter them,”
She turned. “I am sorry,”
She glared. “Are you sorry because you’re not my mother? Are you sorry because you’re here and she’s not? Are you sorry that-”
“Xiǎo Mán,” she called: quiet and reassuring. “What he was going to do… I stopped him. I can’t apologise for that. I can’t apologise for not giving your mother strength. I can’t apologise for your grief. I want to, but I can’t. That’s why I’m here.”
She stared up with eyes of angry tears. “What strength?”
She approached. “We are Earth Mothers’. It is our place to ensure the longevity of peace, others’ happiness, love and goodness. In order to do so we have to be strong. In ages past the strength of the mother was taken by the daughter until the mother died. My grandmother died when my mother was an infant. My mother died when I was a child. I died after Yì Rú was born against the Shuǐ Móshòu-”
Xiǎo Mán leapt up, aghast. “Then it is true! My mother died because I took her strength… I… I killed…”
She staggered. Her legs trembled violently. Her hands quivered uncontrollably. A sob tore at her throat.
“No! No!” she shook her head. “No! No! No! No!”
“If you must blame someone then blame me,” she interjected. “I died with the Shuǐ Móshòu because the Priest took my blood to empower it.”
Xiǎo Mán spun. “Why did you let that happen? You were her mother! You were meant to be there for her! You were meant to be the great Líng’er that my mother looked up to!”
She was caught in a tight embrace. “I wasn’t a good mother. I failed my people. I failed my daughter. My husband lived on in agony. He suffers even now, but that doesn’t change how things are. Xiǎo Mán, you’re a child. You need to go home. You need to grieve. One day you will see her again but it isn’t for a very long time yet,”
She squirmed. “What about you? Have you found your mother?”
Líng’er paused, frowned and then replied carefully. “My mother stands me with even when distance is between us,”
The tears began to drench her qípáo.
- The Birth of Grief’s Demise
The familiar sway of pink petals stirred fond memories.
Líng’er murmured. “I have not come to threaten you,”
A soft sound followed. Líng’er pursed her lips before turning slowly. For the first time in many years Líng’er stood face to face with Yuè Rú. Neither was suitably aged. The gates of death had left them with its touch.
“Yuè Rú,” she continued. “I named my daughter in your honour. There is no other that I would trust to mother her or to love him.”
She nodded. “Xiāo Yáo loves you,”
Líng’er frowned. “I cannot stop him,”
“I wouldn’t ask him to,” Yuè Rú sounded almost irked. “He’s within the palace. He hasn’t eaten as he should. He might think of you as an illusion.”
“Thank you, my friend,” she smiled, understanding the words that were not spoken. “Thank you for everything.”
She passed Yuè Rú and felt the stone bridge beneath her. Her fingers skimmed the balustrade lightly. She had run as a child over and over it. It had been such a long time. Her heart ached.
The palace evoked an equally potent reaction. Its fine walls and furnishings were beautiful. They weren’t the furnishings she had known. She was glad. The last time she had seen them blood had flooded the island.
He turned. “Líng’er…” his head snapped up. “Líng’er! It’s you!”
He swept her up into his arms. The familiar feel of her was the greatest comfort given to him.
He sighed. “I missed you. I missed you. Líng’er, I missed you,”
She returned the embrace tentatively and whispered. “Xiāo Yáo, I have little time. They will be here soon. They will return me to my place. I cannot stay,”
He nodded against her neck. “I know,”
She murmured in his ear. “You cannot blame yourself. I gave her no strength at all. I should have. I should have lived but I did not. I cannot stay and she cannot return. Please, Xiāo Yáo, forget me. Forget all that you can of me. You have Yuè Rú. You have Xiǎo Mán,”
He smiled sadly. “I love you still,”
The crowd was broken. Yì Rú pushed to the fore. They were all gathered in solemn silence. Her mother was among them. She was more beautiful than Yì Rú had imagined.
Yì Rú paled. It was a sentence. She had defied the laws and returned to Earth. She would be cast to a far place until redemption took her or until time expired.
Líng’er glanced up. She smiled softly. Her eyes were full of pride.
She spoke though she was meant to remain silent. “Xiǎo Mán prospers. Yuè Rú is well. Xiāo Yáo… Xiāo Yáo is not Xiāo Yáo,”
Yì Rú trembled. Her mother was lead away slowly with her head held high. A hand touched Yì Rú’s back.
“This is a formality,” Nǚ Wā explained gently. “She shall return to you soon. I promise you that.”