Yu Zhu woke up with with the fiery light of the sun peeking over the edge of the trees. She smiled, she hadn’t slept so soundly for so long. She looked at the forest around her and realized that she couldn’t see past the vast wilderness and find the village. Just then, an acorn flew up and hovered between her eyes. It pointed to the trees and floated towards the woods again, it would lead her home She smiled and patted the tree, after all she was in the land of demons, it wasn’t so strange if a tree had a little bit of magic. With that, she rose and followed the floating acorn. The leaves behind her shook lazily.
“Yu Zhu!” Lin Yu saw the diminutive girl walking on the path to the little cottage. “Where have you been? Grandfather, brother and I have been searching! Yu Zhu palmed the little acorn and hid it in her sleeve, it seemed to grow warm in her hands.
“I got lost.” She smiled and Lin Yu stopped running. She had never seen the girl smile so openly, it was a stunning smile of someone who had stopped bearing the burden of the world on their shoulders. Grandfather saw Yu Zhu at the same time and covered a smile with his hand. He told the two girls sternly, “Come to the courtyard.”
Thought Lin Yu looked like a sixteen year old girl, she quickly hid behind Yu Zhu’s back. “You go first.” She whispered.
Grandfather sat down and put his heavy cane on the bleached stone table. The two girls stood silently in the dusty courtyard. A chicken clucked at them as if criticizing their behavior.
The old man looked at them and Yu Zhu looked down, she didn’t act befitting of her station as a princess. With a jolt, she realized that she wasn’t a princess anymore. And she gave a boy a black eye and a broken nose. Not to mention a hundred bruises. Maybe a broken hand.
“Why did you beat up the pig boy?” Grandfather’s tone was stern as he looked at Yu Zhu. Lin Yu opened her mouth but Grandfather held up a hand to silence her.
Yu Zhu swallowed, “He was punching and kicking a beggar boy.”
Grandfather gazed at her, “The world is full of beggars, no one will miss one if they died. People look at them like bugs, the rich and powerful see them as dust.”
Yu Zhu raised her head and glared at the old man, “I care.”
Her eyes lit with defiance. But no words came out. How could she tell them that the cruel laughter sounded like what she heard in the garden where Hua Er said Yu Zhu was a burden no one would miss. She wanted to beat that sound away, to protect others it as well? She clenched her fists. Tears sprang up and there was bitterness on the tip of her tongue.
Grandfather sighed sadly, “A kind heart is often the way to an early grave.”
Lin Yu grinned, “I just wanted to punch Ho Pai Lai.” She grabbed Yu Zhu’s hand, “But if you are going to punish Yu Zhu, then you’ll have to punish me too.”
Grandfather looked at Yu Zhu for a long moment. “I can not, in all good conscience, let you run wild in a town full of powerful demons without protection. You will start calling me Teacher tomorrow.”
Yu Zhu thought that she knew the basics of martial arts but soon learned that the old man’s knowledge was incomprehensibly vast. After the old man dumped her on her butt six times, she bowed to him and called him Master.
She learned how to mediate and put her heart at peace. She relearned Qing Gong, of manipulating her qi to allow her to jump great distances almost as if she was flying effortlessly. He taught her things that she thought she knew, but his movements made her realize that martial art’s complexity relies on its seemingly simplistic movements.
Since her first time in the forest, Yu Zhu secretly went back often to her tree. She told the oak. “The first meeting is for strangers, the second meeting means we are friends.” Though Yu Zhu liked Lin Yu, but she couldn’t bring herself to be carefree as she once was. But the oak was a tree, it could not hurt her.
She cleaned leaves from the ground by the roots and pulled away the weeds, all the while talking to her silent listener. “Today I learned how to pick pockets. Lin Yu and I are both getting so good at it that Grandfather thinks we’ll never get married, because no one wants a thief for a wife.” Yu Zhu said as she drew shapes in the soft black soil. “I don’t ever want to get married.” There was a hard glint in her eyes.
But then she smiled, “But Lin Yu does. She says that she wants to have a romance Niu Lang and Zhi Nu, passionate enough to be remembered for the rest of history. Grandpa gave her only vegetables for dinner in punishment. He says that story was a lesson for demons to heed, not an example to be followed.”
Yu Zhu shook her head, “Sometimes I think Lin Yu is dying to get out of this town and explore the human world. I just don’t think she’s going to like it there. ” She was silent for a minute but then smiled brightly, “I feel like swimming.” With that she took off her outer robes and ran into the crystal blue water. The tree rustled, as if standing guard over the girl.
During her town outings with Lin Yu she sometimes saw the bully Ho Pa Lai. Whenever they fought him, Yu Zhu often came back to grandfather with a few bruises of her own. Once she came back, her arm was dangling in a strange position, Ho Pa Lai’s family servants had broken it. That was when Grandfather began to teach her how care for her wounds. As the months turned to years, Yu Zhu’s endurance grew and she learned to fight with swords and hand to hand combat. With Lin Yu by her side, protecting her magically from any supernatural attacks the two girls became adept at defeating Ho Pa Lai. Soon Yu Lin and Yu Zhu fought him and the town boys with ease, but they still could not defeat the adults.
Once, Lin Yu saw the pretty piece of hanging off of Ho Pa Lai’s belt once and she grabbed it, wanting to keep it as a trophy. Yu Zhu shook her head, “We shouldn’t steal.”
Lin Yu glanced back at the moaning Ho Pa Lai, his rich clothes now a nasty wad of wet silk in the muddy street and pouted, “But Liu Li crystals are so pretty… just this piece? You know I wouldn’t steal it if it was on anyone else.” Lin Yu begged with her large brown eyes at her closest friend. Yu Zhu shook her head, “No.” Lin Yu want sighed as was about to drop it when Yu Zhu said, “Instead, Let’s pawn it and give the money to the poor.” Though Lin Yu really wanted the crystal, she was happy as long as Ho Pa Lai suffered.
Form then on, Ho Pa Lai seemed to wear more and more Liu Li as if daring Lin Yu to take them, and once Lin Yu happily took one piece, another seemed to take it’s place. Yu Zhu and Lin Yu often went to the pawn shop time after time. The pawnshop keeper’s face kept turning paler and paler every time they came in.
Finally, on their seventh time to the pawn shop the storekeeper came out and dropped to his knees, wailing “Please, little goddesses…little ancestors… I must owe some kind of previous debt to in my last life…please stop bring Master Ho’s things to us. All we can do is to give it back to Master Ho’s family, we dare not sell it.”
Lin Yu’s face darkened, “Is Ho Pa Lai giving you trouble?” The shopkeepers’s face seemed to go from pale to snow white, “No…no! we just don’t want to involve ourselves in this war you are waging against the richest merchant’s son.”
Lin Yu turned to Yu Zhu, confusion and laughter in her eyes, “I didn’t know we were in a war.”
“There they are! Stop them!” Yu ZHu and Lin Yu rolled their eyes, “it’s been four years, and they’re still yapping.”
Yu Zhu smiled, “meet you there.”
Yu Zhu tossed the piece of precious crystal at the shocked pawn keeper and ran towards the opposite direction of Lin Yu. She rushed through the market and tried to lose them. She looked back and saw the men screaming after her and cursed underneath her breath. Yu Zhu headed for the forest.
The men slowed, unsure of what to do. “Follow her!” The leader roare, “She went in last time and she’s still alive. Go after her you idiots!”. The tales are tens of thousands of years old, cursed grounds were probably tales to scare little demons.
Twenty men went after the sixteen year old girl. They ran after her with gusto and were soon catching up. But branches seemed to get thicker, thorns seemed to get sharper until on off men uttered muffled cry. The leader turned around and saw to his horror, that trees were grabbing his men left and right, quickly devouring them bite by bite. The wooden jagged teeth torn into flesh as if tearing through paper, the soft slurping made his bones turn to jelly.
“Run.” The trees turned on him with their soulless stares and whispered. “Tell all the little demons to come only if they want to be our food.” The leader’s felt cold panic trickle into his heart, he lost control and peed his pants. He ran for all he was worth and stumbled out of the forest, too scared to make a sound.
A glowing man in grey blue robes watched impassively as the trees devoured the demons. He turned and strode back to the clearing.
Yu Zhu didn’t see anything or hear anything. As soon as she had ran into the forest, the acorn around her neck broke from the red chain she had held it with and flew in front of her, glowing sliver to light the way. She found herself in familiar territory as she strode up the little hill. She took a step back. A glowing man seemed to be walking on air to her tree. She frowned and blinked, the man disappeared. Curious, she looked around for the youth. After a moment, she cautiously approached the tree and walked around. There was nobody. She shook her head, she must’ve just imagined it.
In the morning Yu Zhu opened her eyes and saw the sun peeking over the ridge. She sat up and drank in the quiet brilliance of the little clearing. There was more beauty in this tiny place than the whole palace, she could be happy here. She got up, the acorn floated above her. Yu Zhu smiled at her oak, “Grandfather made some wine last night, I’ll bring it to you next time I come in thanks.”
Yu Zhu left the forest the with the help of her acorn and went back to the cottage at dawn. Lin Yu saw her walking the dusty road and waved. Yu Zhu smiled and hid the acorn as Lin Yu ran up to her. “Where did you go? Grandpa said that you could protect yourself now, so I don’t have to worry.” Yu Zhu shook her head.
Grandfather came to meet them. His smile slowly disappeared as he saw an oak leaf stuck in Yu Zhu’s hair. With a wave of his hand, the leaf flew to his palm. He looked at it closely and his hand shook. Yu Zhu and Lin Yu looked at the old man quizzically. He asked, “Did you go into the forest?” Lin Yu gasped and grabbed Yu Zhu’s elbow before checking her up and down. She turned to grandfather, “Is she dead? Is she a ghost?”
The grandfather’s eyes grew ancient, he sighed as if under a great burden. “No, she is not.” Yu Zhu frowned, “Teacher, What’s wrong?” Grandfather shook his head and sighed, “I can not stop you from going again. But do not think for a minute that a beast can have a heart.”
Yu Zhu turned to Lin Yu, “I don’t understand.” Lin Yu scratched her head, “You’ve been here for four years, but we’ve never told you the story about the forest have we?”
Yu Zhu shook her head, “No. No one mentions the forest.
Lin Yu hooked her arm with Yu Zhu’s as they strode through the weeping willows by the babbling creek, “When the world began, the mother goddess Nu Wa created men out of yellow mud. Demons and beasts came from the belly of the earth, intent on swallowing the new creations whole. The goddess was angered and a war began between the gods and demons for earth. For thousands of years the rivers ran with blood, god, human, demon alike. Finally Nu Wa asked the Old God, who creates the elixir of everlasting life for the gods in his eternal furnace, to find her the rarest coals of the earth.” Lin Yu’s fingers moved and she drew water from the stream to form figures in the air, she used these to illustrate her story as she went on, “the Old God complied and gave her a piece of coal mined from the ice caverns and a coal of the volcanic mountains.
“Nu Wa took the coals and placed into each, a piece of Pan Gu’s heart. Pan Gu was the one who separated the heavens and hearth, the first creature who was not quite God nor Demon. From the coals she created two Gods more powerful than even the Emperor of Heaven. The two brothers, Wei Yun and Wei Tian were created to end the war. Nu Wa gave Wei Yun the Tai Shan sword, said to be forged with the metal of the cold moon . And Wei Tian received Hou Yi’s Bow, the weapon used to shoot down 9 suns. They were princes among gods. It took them a hundred years, but they vanquished the demons and brought peace to the realms.”
Lin Yu sat down and took of her socks, plunging her feet in the icy river. She motioned for Yu Zhu to sit. Yu Zhu frowned as she followed suit, “I’ve heard the story of Nu Wa, but I’ve never heard about princes of gods.”
Lin Yu’s figures danced in the air as she explained to Yu Zhu, “That’s because humans were made to forget the history. Wei Yun, wanting his brother’s bow, plotted to kill his brother and take it so he can be the sole ruler of heaven and earth. They say that he came to this realm and freed the demons to lead them into battle against Wei Tian. But they were quickly defeated and Wei Tian, being merciful, spared his brother. Wei Tian, used Pan Gu’s blood to bind him to the battlefield where millions of soldiers died. Wei Tian turned the dead spirits into trees, forever trapping Wei Yun in the forest.” The story finished Lin Yu let the water figures fall back into the small stream.
Lin Yu eyed Yu Zhu excitedly and whispered, “They say that Wei Tian is as handsome as the sun and Wei Yun is as beautiful as the moon. Have you ever seen him, the God of Demon?”
In Yu Zhu’s mind, she saw a softly glowing man who strode into the giant oak.
She shook her head, “No.”