Chapter 17:

Celestia Chains

Foxglove and Snakeroot

Too late…

Liwa remembered Lan’s stormy, immovable fury all too well, the millenia-old grudge of the Azure Dragon that must be what surged strongly as if it were ocean waves through her veins. Mengjiao took a deep breath and gestured for Liwa to take a seat.

“There is more to the legend of the snake and the jade curse,” he said gravely. “It’s the case for all past lives as well. You see, it’s a tradition to pass down a fragment of the legends as a folklore-esque story. But the past life of a celestial spirit is an entire lifetime—a long and lasting existence from birth to death, more than what you can comprehend at your age.”

“But the fox spirit’s life was cut short, wasn’t it?” Liwa whispered, not fully understanding what he meant. “Her beating heart was ripped out of her chest by the white snake.”

“In many lives, yes,” he agreed, “but not in every one of them.”

She stopped breathing. “Not...every life? What do you mean by that?”

In the cycle of life and death, Mengjiao began to explain, humans were born without the memories of the past. It would be undeniably overwhelming to coexist with one’s past existence, to say nothing of every reincarnation. But each one was only repressed within the soul, not erased. Typically, only one life and one event of the greatest significance was remembered, passed down dutifully through the bloodline by word of mouth as what was known as a past life legend. It acted as a warning or a guide in times of need, but all other memories and feelings were sealed to allow one to live the current lifetime in relatively blissful ignorance.

That was the intention.

But among countless memories, grudges, and star-studded connections—every life was different. Sometimes hatred flowed deeper, seeking out vengeance on the past lives of current incarnations that no longer remembered. Sometimes love remained to connect soulmates that had found each other in every lifetime. And the powers of yore continued to flow ceaselessly into the modern era, imbuing the strength of the celestial spirits into ordinary humans today.

And the strongest of those spirits were those who commanded the twenty-eight astrological mansions with each of the four cardinal directions, and to a lesser extent the descendants and original incarnations of the four great folktales. They were destined to live each life seamlessly in tandem, watching over the world as it changed while they could only continue to exist. Their very existence was tied to their chosen vessel—the most powerful of their lineage in each generation.

Upon hearing that, Liwa’s thoughts drifted to Lan, who had begun to act like a different person upon the succession ceremony that granted her the spirit and full strength of the Azure Dragon. If every word Mengjiao spoke of was true, then the nature of Lan’s burden was greater than Liwa could ever imagine. The way she condemned Kai with such unshakeable conviction—it must’ve been the memory of the dragon of the east that watched the red fox die all those years ago.

Liwa’s heart ached painfully, but for Kai or Lan or the fox spirit she did not know.

And at last, Mengjiao returned to speak of the jade curse.

“It’s the curse of immortality,” he said bluntly, “laid upon our family by the Jade Rabbit of the moon. It’s the price to pay and the reward for stealing and eating the fox’s heart.”

“Ew,” Liwa said, unable to help herself.

“Hm, it’s morbid indeed,” he agreed with a wry half-smile.

“And Kai has always been aware of this?” She couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to know of the sins she’d committed in a past life.

“Alas, that’s something I must ask you to confront him in person about,” Mengjiao said. “I believe he would want the chance to explain it to you himself.”

That was nice and all, if Kai wasn’t currently missing and possibly presumed dead. Oh wait, if he was immortal did that mean he couldn’t die even if Lan killed him? Was Lan capable of such a thing? Liwa’s hand flew instinctively to her heartbeat that was quietly irregular against her chest, recalling Mengjiao’s morbid words from earlier. There was no way her heart was tasty, after all the allergy medicine that had flowed through her blood, right?

She didn’t know what kind of expression she was making right now as these unsettling thoughts flew through her mind. Her face must be betraying as many tumultuous emotions as she was feeling. The world had always been darker and more mysterious than the comfortable, carefree way she lived her life. And there were some things she couldn’t fight head-on with just her fists and claws. The inherent nature of past lives was one of them.

Liwa was beginning to agree with Yuna’s blatant dislike of the past life memories. They were nothing more than chains that bound her to the fox spirit’s life that had already ended a long time ago. How much of her current lifetime was her own, and how much of it was blind, mindless destiny?

“Pardon me, I didn’t intend to tell you everything,” Mengjiao said regretfully, seeing the anguished look on her face. “Historically, this knowledge is only imparted on those at the top of the hierarchy. They’re the ones who inherit the vast majority of their past memories, and the ones capable of keeping the peace. But now that they’ve taken my son away…the only one I can turn to help is you. I’m so sorry.”

“Dr. Mengjiao, I promise I’ll find him for you,” she said, her voice shaking slightly. “I have a lot of questions I need to ask him too.”

As a fox she was just a lowly woodland spirit without powers that didn’t fit into the much grander tales of the white snake and the Azure Dragon of the east. As Hu Liwa, she was conflicted on who to trust between the two people she thought were friends. As a university student she really didn’t have time for drama like this. She did not want to retake third year econ classes just because of the vestiges of an unfinished argument between long-dead celestial spirits!

That realization cut through the fog of helplessness that clouded her thoughts. She became angry, and that spurred her into thinking about a really, really stupid idea that might not even work.

She’d follow the ache in her heart to find the white snake.