Fanfic: A Cypress in Winter – Chapter 16 (Ice Fantasy - 幻城)

Chapter 16

Written By UnicornSlippers
Edited By DramaPanda

Silence lay over the forest like a dense, woolen tapestry, the stillness split open only by the sound of thundering hooves. Song Bai clung to her mount as she raced past the trees and she felt the frigid wind sting her eyes and slip down her throat, making it hard to breathe. The stallion’s muscles rippled and his chestnut mane whipped around like a tousled blaze as they charged towards the gate to Earth realm. Through the clusters of gnarled bare branches, she could see the sun sinking low on the horizon. Time was running out; Soon night would be upon them.

She urged the horse forward with a firm press of her heels into his ribs, and she felt the pull and stretch of the gallop quicken beneath her. Her long hair streamed out behind her like a sable pennant, the magic used to disguise her appearance having been spent long ago. As the world rushed by in a tumble of chaotic images, she suddenly caught a flash of movement just to her left and jerked hard on the reins in alarm. The horse lurched and began to skid on the slick snow as Song Bai leaned low in the other direction, trying desperately to avoid the inevitable collision. Just as the stallion went down, Song Bai leaped from the saddle and tucked her body in a tight ball, rolling clear of the horse and landing hard on one shoulder. As she made contact with the ground, she smashed her lip on a jagged smear of ice.

She lay completely still for a moment, stunned by the jolt to her body, and pressed her cheek against the cold dampness beneath her. Quiet descended on the forest once more, and she tried to focus the fuzzy edges of her awareness. A noise began to swell dimly in her ears, as if coming from a great distance. As the sound grew louder and she came to her senses, she was struck by the realization that it was the labored breathing of her horse. She ground her teeth against the pain and lifted her head from the snow, her bloodied lip leaving a crimson trail as she drug herself towards the struggling animal. His liquid brown eyes were impossibly wide and they rolled in his head with wild fear.

Song Bai put her hands on the stallion’s quivering flank and spoke in a calming voice. Her fingers stroked the slender neck and explored the beast’s pelt as she tried to soothe him. She continued to murmur quietly to the horse as she checked him for injuries, searching for any signs of pain as she touched his ribs, legs and feet. Although quite agitated, he seemed to be uninjured.

Although her flight from the palace had been hurried, she had managed to pack her saddlebags to near bursting with medicine, food and other supplies for their journey. The supine horse was still saddled, and the heavy packs slipped awkwardly to one side, weighing him down as he fought to stand. Song Bai unbuckled the straps on the tack and pushed it free, helping the stallion thrust himself upwards to a standing position. He snorted, the vibrating, fluttering noise rumbling through the hushed forest, and he stomped the ground in irritation. Song Bai leaned against him, still whispering gentle encouragement as she caressed his coat. She felt her lip throb, the painful rhythm in tandem with her heartbeat. Her shoulder burned and ached as if it had been torn apart and put hastily back together.

As the horse quieted, Song Bai suddenly remembered the movement in the forest that had caused their fall. She reached down to where the saddle lay in the snow and withdrew her sword which had been tied to the saddle bow. With her other hand still tangled in the mane of her horse, she raised the blade in a defensive gesture. She peered into the trees, their rough bark caked with a smattering of white frost, just enough to whiten the raised edges of their trunks. Fat, wet flakes began drifting noiselessly down from the darkening sky, landing on her eyelashes in clusters and further obscuring her vision into the forest. She saw the faint outline of the moon rising like a pearl between the skeletal boughs, and she felt her heart sink. They would never make it to the gate before nightfall. She would have to make camp here and ride the rest of the way in the morning.

She lowered her sword and winced, the pain in her shoulder flowering anew with each movement of her arm. She briefly considered trying to heal herself, but the trees here were dormant, their life-force pulsing slowly deep beneath the frozen earth. What strength she had needed to be conserved so that she could protect herself and her mount. She shrugged off her discomfort and began to search the immediate area for a suitable camp site.

A flicker of movement caused her to whirl, her sword shooting up and she sucked in her breath in a pain-filled hiss. Her eyes widened in shock as a massive white stag crested a snow drift, his head crowned with giant antlers that looked like the root system of a mighty oak. He swung his immense head towards her, fixing her with a benevolent gaze. Song Bai cried out and fell to her knees, her sword falling from her hand and landing with a soft thud in the snow.

The white stag was a symbol of the otherworld, and a powerful omen to the Earth Tribe clan. His appearance in Snow Fog forest meant that Song Bai had broken a sacred law and there would be profound consequences for her actions. The creature pawed at the ground, his hot breath billowing in puffs of mist that curled from his nostrils, and he lowered his head in threat. She began to tremble, reaching out for her sword and pulling it close to her body for protection. The stag charged at her, and she heard the high-pitched scream of her horse as he bolted in fear.

Although she would normally never dare to challenge such a potent omen, she stubbornly refused to allow herself to be trampled to death. She must live to protect her father, even if it meant that she would later atone for her sins with a terrible punishment from the otherworld. She pushed herself up on a knee and sprang deftly to one side, instinctively bringing her sword down in a curving arc as she spun. The tip of her blade grazed the shoulder of the stag as it careened past, drawing a thin thine of bright red blood on the ivory fur. The beast did not flinch and continued his flight past her, his vast hooves tossing sticky clumps of snow in all directions as he ran. His form disappeared over a ridge, his silhouette in the fading light vanishing into a hazy cloud of smoke.

Song Bai shuddered and lowered her sword, her heart pounding so hard that she could feel the thrum of it sing through every nerve. As the adrenaline drained from her body, pain snaked back into her shoulder and she groaned. She rolled the aching joint slowly, certain that she had caused further damage when she had swung her sword, but she had no time to nurse her injuries. The night was almost upon the forest and she had to find her horse. She walked over to the saddlebags and used her blade to cut away a strip of leather, using it to bind her arm in a makeshift sling. The bags were too heavy for her to carry, so she abandoned them, carrying only her sword with her uninjured arm as she began to search the forest for the missing stallion.

After what seemed like a lifetime, she found the horse standing peacefully in a circle of dark trees, his stark profile standing out against the dusty purple of the twilight sky. Just beyond the knotted branches, Song Bai could see the flickering light of at least a hundred lanterns and the silky hum of music drifted past. There was a village just past the trees and down into a shallow valley below, filled with warmth, light and people. She looked back into forest and felt the darkness pressing down on her, a feeling of suffocation clawing its way up from the center of her chest. She knew that she was lost, and without her supplies and a means to make a fire, she and her horse might freeze to death before morning.

She took a deep breath and looped the damp reins around her wrist, pulling her horse slowly behind her as she began to make her way down into the snowy basin and towards the lively village below.


Shi collapsed against the dais in the throne room, panting as he scanned the empty chamber with frightened eyes. A wave of nausea clutched at his insides as he recalled his quarrel with Xin Jiu. What had he done? Had he really just physically assaulted his own advisor? His rages had been coming more frequently, and each time they were more violent and difficult to control. It was as if a great pressure was building up inside of him, and if not soon released, he might obliterate the world with his untamed fury.

The young King could be ruthless with his enemies, but it was an unspoken law that he would never purposefully inflict violence on his own people. Xing Jiu had been out of line, certainly, and should be punished, but not this way. Shi felt a pierce of guilt and horror as he remembered threatening the advisor’s life. Xing Jiu was right; Kasuo would be ashamed of him.

He released his grip on the platform and slid unceremoniously to the hard marble floor. His mind moved between Song Bai’s guilty expression and Xing Jiu’s terror-filled eyes in an endless cycle, the images flickering so fast that he thought he might go mad. He pressed cool palms to his eyelids and tried to breathe through his nose to calm himself. After a few minutes, he rocked his head back and stared at the ceiling, the crystal dome carved in a starburst pattern that reflected images in the room like a kaleidescope.

Kasuo should be on the throne, not me, he thought. He was everything that Shi was not: patient, kind and even-tempered. When he had been lost to the world, Kasuo had found the Veiled Lotus and used it to save him. However, after ten long years, he had failed in his quest to find the Blood Red Lotus and repay Kasuo for his sacrifice. He only brought pain and suffering to those around him. Indeed, he was not fit to be the King of the Ice Tribe.

Shi dropped his head and rested his sapphire eyes on the Ice throne, remembering how his brother had fought so hard against being the ruler of the Ice Tribe clan. Kasuo’s only desire was to be free to live in peace with the woman he loved, Li Luo, and had been willing to do anything to be with her. Xing Jiu had done for Lan Shang.

He sat for several hours, his bright head cradled on his knees as he allowed the currents of misery and guilt to swirl and eddy around him. His mind finally went blank and he nearly drifted off as the light from the high, narrow windows faded from ruby red to burnt orange, and finally to the deep blue indigo of nightfall.

Shi was suddenly startled out of his trance by a clamor outside of the throne room. He heard shouting and boots moving swiftly on the slate tiles outside the door. He shot to his feet and smoothed his rumpled robes, not wanting to be seen wallowing in self pity and doubt. Wu Zan appeared from a concealed doorway, and Shi stared in stunned appreciation. He had no idea that Wu Zan was aware of the hidden entrance, and he made a mental note to stop underestimating the resourceful Servant Master.

“Your Highness,” Wu Zan said in a hurried greeting, slightly out of breath as he bowed hastily in front of the King. “Song Bai is missing.”

Shi’s face registered shock and then alarm. “What do you mean, she’s missing?” he asked.

“She has left the palace. She stole an Ice Tribe uniform from a storage room and used magic to bind the stable boys. I’m told she was last seen riding towards Snow Fog forest around mid-day.”

“She is riding to the gate to join Xun Ru. She’ll end up getting herself killed!” Shi breathed, apprehension winding itself around him like a cloak.

He glared at Wu Zan, eyes full of accusation. “You were supposed to be watching her, Wu Zan! Where were you?”

Wu Zan fell to the ground and began to stammer, but was interrupted by the throne room doors being blown upon by an icy gale. The doors clattered and clanked as they swung wide and slammed against the quartz walls, and Granny marched imperiously into the room. Xing Jiu trailed meekly behind her.

Although she usually looked like a homeless waif, Granny had dressed today as befitting of her station as clan Elder and matriarch of the Ice Tribe. She wore a steel colored gown decorated with black onyx crystals and pearls that fell in a pattern of spinning snowflakes. Her crinkly grey hair had been pulled back into a thick knot on top of her head and bound with alternating bands of silver and gold metal. She leaned forward on her staff and grinned at Shi, her face all wobbles and creases and folds.

Shi and Xing Jiu regarded each other cautiously, the air crackling with tension as they waited for the other to speak first. Granny finally ended the stand-off.

“I brought him here,” she said, gesturing to Xing Jiu. “Apparently you two had an argument?”

Shi looked away in discomfort, but did not speak.

“Set all of that aside for now, Grandson. I have something important to tell you about your Earth Princess, and you both need to hear it,” Granny intoned, poking her staff at Shi playfully.

Grandson? Shi thought with surprise. She never called him that. What exactly was she up to?

“Do you know where Song Bai has gone?” Shi asked, his voice cracking with emotion. “I need to find her, Granny. She could get killed in Earth realm if she travels there alone. She is our only hope of finding the Blood Red Lotus and saving Kasuo.”

Granny was quiet for a long moment, her razor sharp attention focused on Shi’s anguished face. He began to squirm under the weight of her gaze.

“Why do you seek that which you have already found, child?” she asked quietly.

Shi furrowed his brow in confusion. “What do you mean?” he asked.

Granny took a step forward and laid an ancient, gnarled hand against Shi’s smooth cheek.

“You have found your prize, and now you must make her bloom.”

Shi stared at the old woman with a blank look, still not comprehending her words. Granny could be so maddeningly vague at times.

He heard Xing Jiu gasp loudly and he clenched his jaw in frustration, his irritation growing as he sensed everyone else in the room knew something that he was struggling to grasp. He gently removed Granny’s hand from his face and covered it with his own.

“Please Granny, help me understand. How have I found my prize? I haven’t discovered any information about the location of the Blood Red Lotus in all these years of searching. Song Bai’s birthmark is the only…”

Shi trailed off as he finally made the connection and his face went deathly pale.

“You mean…. Song Bai is the Blood Red Lotus?” he asked softly. He glanced over and saw his shock mirrored in Xing Jiu’s face.

Granny grinned again and tapped her staff on the ground in approval.

“You must make your little lotus bloom, Ying Kong Shi, and then the One True King of Ice Tribe will return as foretold!” Granny made this pronouncement with great fanfare, raising her arms skyward and pitching her voice low so as if to sound serious and very wise. Shi wondered if she was making this up as she went along and he rolled his eyes skyward.

“Granny, this is serious. Stop messing around. Are you telling the truth about Song Bai?” he asked.

Granny nodded sagely. “She is your prize and your salvation.”

“What do you mean “Make her bloom?” How am I supposed to do that?” he questioned, feeling a spark of hope at Granny’s revelation. He heard Wu Zan start to snicker behind him and he turned, giving him a dirty look. He focused his attention back on the old woman and gestured for her to respond.

Granny just smiled at him and winked. Xing Jiu began to laugh quietly.

“What?!” he said, raising his voice in annoyance. “What is so funny??”

Xing Jiu sighed and walked over to Shi. He leaned in and whispered softly in the young King’s ear. Shi’s eyebrows shot up past his hairline and his mouth dropped open in astonishment.

“I have to WHAT?!” he yelled, and Wu Zan’s snicker broke open into a full voiced guffaw. Xing Jiu shot him a warning look and he stifled his laugh with the back of his hand.

Shi shook his head frantically, pushing Xing Jiu away and turning to Granny with a pleading look in his eyes.

“I will not do that to her,” he said. “I will not dishonor her. There has to be another way.”

Granny shrugged. “Marry her.”

Shi blinked stupidly, unsure that his hearing was still intact. “What?” he spluttered.

“Quit saying “What?” and pay attention, child. I said, marry her. If you are concerned about dishonoring her, marry her. Then make her bloom. Although, from what I hear about Earth Tribe, they aren’t overly picky about when they mate and with whom, right Wu Zan?”

Granny gave Wu Zan a knowing look and his laughter immediately stopped. He coughed and dropped his eyes to the floor.

“I… “ Shi said, looking from Granny to Xing Jiu in bewilderment. “I can marry her? Is that possible?”

Xing Jiu looked thoughtful for a moment. “She is a royal Princess, and she is young and beautiful. Song Bai can be quite charming and seems to be well-liked by the staff at the palace. But, she is not of this world and I am not convinced that Ice Tribe will accept her as their Queen. Also, your Highness, you may have trouble convincing her to abandon Xun Ru. She has strong feelings for him.”

“No thanks to you,” Shi shot back petulantly, and Xing Jiu flinched at his harsh words.

“I am sorry, your Highness. I should have never interfered and now it is my fault that Song Bai is in danger. I made a grave mistake.”

Shi waved Xing Jiu’s apology off dismissively, immensely embarrassed over his own behavior but unwilling to admit it in front of Wu Zan and Granny.

Wu Zan stepped forward.

“Your Highness, if I may interject? I have been learning about Earth Tribe history and customs from Song Bai’s sister, Jingfei. Once an Earth Tribe couple has agreed to marry, they mate before the marriage ceremony. If you could convince Song Bai to marry you, she would expect to be mated well before the marriage ritual would take place in Snow Blade City. If the Blood Red Lotus blooms and winds back time, then you wouldn’t have to be concerned about dishonoring her. You also wouldn’t have to worry about Ice Tribe accepting her as their new Queen.”

Xing Jiu shook his head in disbelief. “You have a devious mind, Wu Zan.”

Wu Zan smiled proudly. “Thank you.”

“That wasn’t a compliment,” Xing Jiu mumbled.

“Enough,” said Shi, growing exponentially more impatient and uncomfortable with the topic. “Regardless of how it is done, I need to get to Snow Fog forest and find Song Bai. She must be kept from going through that gate.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Granny, who had been listening to the conversation with interest. “She isn’t in Snow Fog forest. She’s in the mortal realm, in the village just south of the woods.”

“The mortal realm? How is that possible?” Shi asked, incredulous. It was a three day ride to the mortal realm from Snow Blade City, and Song Bai had only been gone for half a day.

Granny ignored his question, suddenly very interested in a pillar carved with images of various waterfowl and birds of prey.

“Granny,” said Xing Jiu with concern, pointing at her arm. “Your shoulder is bleeding.”

Granny looked down, examining the small splotch of red on the sleeve of her dress. “Oh, it’s nothing,” she said and waved her hand, the stain vanishing instantly.

Shi regarded her with suspicion. He knew that she had something to do with this, but he didn’t have time to try to tease the information out of the vexing old woman.

“I am going to retrieve Song Bai. Xing Jiu, stay here and wait for word from Zhanshi. Contact me with your Dream Cube if you hear from him before I get back.”

Xing Jiu nodded. He took Shi by the arm and drew him aside, speaking quietly. “Shi, we need to talk before you leave. It isn’t as easy as you may think …”

Shi looked instantly distressed and put up his hands to stop Xing Jiu from continuing his speech. “I’ll handle it, Xing Jiu. I don’t need your advice.”

Xing Jiu sighed in defeat. Shi would have to learn on his own. He just hoped it wouldn’t be too embarrassing for the inexperienced young man.

“One more thing, your Highness. You might want to stay in the mortal realm with Song Bai for a day or two. It will give you some time away from the responsibilities of the palace. And, it will be… less conspicuous.”

Shi made an exasperated sound and Xing Jiu saw him flush bright red just before he disappeared in a shower of gleaming ice particles and snowfall.