Chapter 18:

At the Viper’s Den

Foxglove and Snakeroot

Following the pain in Liwa’s heart to the source was easier than it sounded, because she already had a lead that brought her back to peaks of the Azure Mountains. That was convenient. Mengjiao’s explanation had given her more questions than answers, and who was better to answer them than the dragon of the east?

And Kai was here somewhere, the subtle ache in her chest made her certain of it. It was almost comical that the Azure Dragon family had actually taken him away somewhere, like a real life kidnapping. She hoped that it wasn’t the case. But if not, then that would mean Kai was the one who had been deceiving…

Between Lan’s resentment toward Kai and Mengjiao’s explanation on past lives, Liwa didn’t know who to believe in anymore. She didn’t want to try and make sense of it in her head by herself either, and that was why she was here.

The bus only took her to the edge of the estate perimeters. As she started walking, the rain started falling lightly and she knew that Lan must’ve been notified of her presence already. Even as she strolled leisurely, Liwa’s heart quickened with each step she took and the thumping in her chest grew uncomfortable. It hurt, but all she felt was a sense of relief from the familiar feeling, as the connection to her past life through the heart of the red fox led her back to him.

In the blanket of fog, the sharp fangs of the white serpent called out to her like a siren’s song. Liwa had an allergy pill in a small plastic bag in her pocket just in case it hurt too much for her to bear. If she chose to take it, her only indicator of Kai’s presence would be gone for the next twenty-four hours.

It was only for emergency use.

Where her heart screamed in pain for her not to go, the trail led her away from the main residential area and strayed off the path further toward the northeast. Here, the fog was impossibly dense, but Liwa followed her heartbeat blindly as it threatened to leap out of her chest, pulling her deeper into the mountains. How much of her actions were her own, and how much of it was influenced by the fox spirit of her past life? That was something she started doubting after her conversation with Mengjiao.

But here and now, she could say with great certainty that the decision to find Kai was of her own volition. The warning in her constricting chest was proof enough of the red fox spirit begging her not to go.

Then give me answers, she yelled silently at herself in the swirl of fog and pain. But of course there was no reply. And as the pain grew almost unbearable, the heavy mist around her seemed to dissipate at once as if by magic and a stout, rundown building with a single sloping roof came into view. Around it was a sparse forest of scraggly pine trees and she’d somehow managed to avoid smacking into any of them with her face as she staggered here. The building stood alone in the center of a clearing. She could feel eyes watching her from behind, prickling uncomfortably against the back of her neck.

“What was Lan thinking, letting you come here?”

Liwa could barely manage to turn and look in the direction of the voice to see Lan’s twin leaning on the trunk of a pine tree several paces away. The look in Qin’s cold eyes was grim and unforgiving.

“Where’s Kai?” she asked him, even though her heart clearly already knew the answer.

“Ah, my sister is always letting personal feelings get in the way,” he sighed instead of giving her a proper response. “She should’ve warned me that there was a fox sniffing around so I could’ve made adequate preparations to receive you.”

“Where is Kai?” Liwa asked again, inching backwards toward the building even as her knees threatened to give way.

“I wouldn’t do that. Look at you, you’re already falling apart.”

It hurt to even breathe, but she grinned at him defiantly as if everything was fine. Qin looked very much like Lan, but the range of his expressions was so jarringly different. The twisted look of amusement did not suit his delicate features. Liwa felt as if she was facing her worst nightmares, staring at a version of Lan that gazed upon her with that terrible, awful look of pity and contempt. And on top of that, her heartbeat was deafening in her ears, warning her never to turn her back on a snake, to get out of here now before it was too late—

“I’m only helping my sister out because of her lingering attachment to her friendship with you,” Qin said idly. He still hadn’t moved from his spot by the tree but somehow the atmosphere seemed to have grown more threatening. “Someone like me can never understand—making the same mistake in every lifetime as if time passing makes you grow more stupid. But here you are, doing the exact same thing as always. That’s why the Jade Rabbit and I have chosen this path, to show you the very thing all you people are too blind to understand.”

“The Jade Rabbit?” Liwa repeated. “The rabbit on the moon from the legend of the snake and the jade curse?”

He just smiled cruelly with Lan’s gentle features. “While my sister’s attention is diverted, shall I show you just why it is that you should never turn your back on a snake?”

He snapped his fingers, and in that instant the door to the rundown building flew open. For a moment, all was calm except for Liwa’s thunderous heartbeat ringing in her ears. Then a figure hurtled out, and it was only the years of picking fights with people far stronger than she was that allowed her to override the unbearable pain to throw herself aside. Something sharp nicked her cheek and she reached for her face to feel the sting of a shallow cut and the wetness of blood.

“See? The white snake will kill you,” Qin’s voice intoned from behind her.

It had been a human that attacked her, and she didn’t need to wait for him to turn around—she already recognized the hunched over form of Kai with both her heart and sight. But he didn’t seem to recognize her at all when he glanced around, and her blood ran cold when she saw his face. His pale yellow eyes scanned wildly across the clearing as if he were a feral beast. The slits of his pupils were threateningly narrow, constricting further as he flicked his tongue to taste the air. At that moment, Kai seemed more serpent than man and eerily beautiful.

Liwa’s heart stumbled like a broken clock.

“A snake strikes within less than seventy milliseconds,” Qin continued, his voice conversational like they were having a spot of tea under a parasol in the middle of the afternoon. “In contrast, a blink of an eye takes an average of about two hundred milliseconds. Blink and you’re dead, Hu Liwa.”

Instead of blinking, she struck first.

She already knew Kai would aim for the vitals—her heart, specifically for obvious reasons—so she swung at him with her left arm to gauge his strength by sacrificing the limb that carried the least importance. As expected he was faster than she was, and in a flash of glistening teeth he had bitten down viciously on her forearm. Liwa grimaced, taking advantage of the split second he was immobilized to use the momentum to flip him over her shoulder against her hip and slam him to the ground.

He coiled up in the dirt, hissing in pain as she staggered away.

“Geez,” she said, lifting her arm to reveal the long gashes she’d given herself from pulling away while his fangs were still lodged deep in her skin. His teeth had been abnormally long and sharp when she caught a glimpse of them just moments before he’d struck at her. Assuming he’d been intentionally filing them down…wow, they grew in fast.

“Snap out of it!” Liwa said firmly, as Kai struggled to his feet. “You’re here to make amends to the blue dragon, aren’t you? I came back because I believed in you!”

Winded for only just a moment from being knocked to the ground, he tried to lunge at her again like her words did not affect him. It was then that the persistent pain in Liwa’s chest took a turn for the worse. She doubled over to clutch at her heart, and forced herself to roll out of the way with every ounce of her strength.

From a safe distance, Qin laughed without humour. “Merciless. But not enough. You must strike to kill.”

That was what her frantically beating heart was telling her to do too, to give in to her instincts and tear out the snake’s throat once and for all. But Liwa definitely would not be doing that, not when Kai wasn’t himself right now. And she was at a disadvantage, with her heart rattling in her ribcage so excruciatingly that she started feeling lightheaded. She staggered clumsily to her feet, sliding her hand into her pocket as she kept her eye trained on Kai’s clouded golden-yellow gaze. Her fingers closed around what she was looking for—a tiny, single allergy pill.