We went to sleep early that night to prepare for a busy day ahead. The cabin Bai Ye led us to—likely also one of his discoveries from the week before—had a lofted bed, and I shared it with Han Shu while the four men crowded in on the floor. It wasn't uncomfortable, though I still found it hard to fall asleep, knowing that Bai Ye was almost right next to me but I couldn't talk to him.
I lay in bed half-awake all night, trying to guess which rhythm of breathing drifting in the air was from him. After long, torturing hours of waiting, the first hint of milky white finally started to glow on the horizon, and a light rustle came from near the door. Bai Ye got up and left quietly with his bow and arrows.
I heard everyone's breathing change. They were all awake, waiting for the snare to snap closed on them. But they waited and waited, and nothing happened.
Finally I couldn't hold it back anymore. I wondered if Bai Ye had left us for good. I nudged Han Shu slightly and whispered, "I need to go to the outhouse real quick."
Han Shu made a motion to get up, "It might not be safe, Senior Yun. I'll come with you."
I would've been grateful for her caring thoughts if I wasn't lying about my real purpose. "I'll be alright," I said almost hastily. "If anything looks suspicious, I can scream."
Han Shu hesitated, probably still worried but unsure how far she should push about following me on an outhouse business. It was Xie Lun who broke the silence: "Stay alert, Yun Qing-er. And come back quickly."
Oh. The men heard me as well …
I answered with an embarrassed affirmation, hopped off the bed, and slipped out of the cabin.
The break of dawn was near, with the first wisp of scarlet already spreading across the eastern sky. I picked my way towards the outhouse, scanning the surroundings for signs of Bai Ye. I really hoped that he expected me to come out for him.
"At last," a familiar voice came from behind me as soon as I was out of earshot from the cabin. I swirled, overjoyed at the undisguised sound of him.
Bai Ye was leaning against an old elm tree, already changed back to his usual appearance. "Took you so long to come after me, Qing-er," he sighed with a half-smile.
"Bai Ye!" I hushed my squeals the best I could and ran to him, almost slamming into his embrace. "It really is you … How? What happened to your trip to the Ice Mountains? And why did you pretend to be a hunter?" I hugged him tighter as my overflowing bucket of questions poured forward.
He laughed softly and smoothed out my tousled hair with his hand. "I traveled as fast as I could and managed to get back this afternoon," he said. "Then I saw your note. Couldn't help coming to make sure you're in trustworthy company."
This afternoon? How could he shorten such a trip to only a day and a half? I looked up at him in puzzlement, and I finally noticed the dark rings under his eyes.
He must've not slept for two days … only so that he could get back to me sooner. And he came to find me the first thing after he returned, only to see for himself that I was safe.
My heart melted, and I felt guilty for making him worried again. "I'm sorry—"
"You made a good choice," he stopped me. "It's a fine learning experience, and your friends are quite sensible and capable. Just be very careful after I leave, as the demons should return quickly once they no longer sense my presence."
I blinked. "You are leaving?" Then I realized how dumb the question was. If he stayed, the demons would never return, and we would never be able to resolve the problem at East Village.
Bai Ye smiled. "Before I do, let me show you something." He took my hand and led me further up the hill behind the cabin.
My excitement at seeing him was replaced by the disappointment of him leaving so soon. But the moment he led me over to the top of the hill, I gasped, and all that was left in my mind was awe.
We were standing on the edge of a precipice overlooking the mountain valley, with East Village spreading at our feet. Rice terraces stretched for as far as we could see, their golden waves rolling and rippling endlessly beneath the flaming dawn sky. Mount Hua loomed in the distance, its main peak shrouded in the morning mist, tinted the softest shades of magenta and pink.
"The village where I met you five years ago … looked similar to this one," Bai Ye said. "I thought you might like the view."
Of course I did. It reminded me of my childhood, my parents, my old life that was so different from the one at Mount Hua. I could almost see my younger self running through the fields, picking wildflowers and chasing butterflies, gathering morning dew with the hem of my dress.
"Thank you …" I said, hopelessly trying to find better words to express my feelings. "You know me so well … No one else will ever think of this."
There was a moment of quiet. "Qing-er," Bai Ye said after a while. "The day when you told me that you would do anything you could to become stronger … I realized that there is actually too much I don't know about you. Too much that I have taken for granted and simply assumed, but isn't what you truly want. It is my fault. I spent too much of the past five years away from Mount Hua, away from you, and I neglected your feelings when you needed me the most."
The deep regret in his tone alarmed me. "Master—" I said, but he silenced me with a shake of his head.
"I traveled frequently … because I've been looking for something for the past two hundred years," he continued. That mysterious sorrowful look resurfaced in his eyes. "I still haven't found it, and after all this time, I think it's time to let go." He touched his palm to my cheek. "If it's not too late, I want to spend the rest of … spend more time with you, help you gain the strength you wished for, and show you ways of life that you didn't get the chance to experience before. I want to be able to make it up to you."
It wasn't the first time that Bai Ye's words perplexed me. "But there's nothing to make up to …" I said, holding his hand in mine. "I'm beyond grateful for everything I have right now, and I could only wish for things to stay this way forever."
He held my gaze, though he said nothing. Then he gathered me into his arms. Over his shoulders, I saw the first ray of the sun finally breaking free of the horizon, gilding everything in a dazzling halo, burning like fire.