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The forest floor crackles under Ling Yu’s feet as she walks. Although the forest was her

domain, she treads cautiously enough. In the distant past, bards have whispered of how

nymphs are as feral as fauna. The mighty lion has been tamed by her, yet never those little

vicious bugs. The early dawn glows an amaranth aura, reminding Ling Yu to keep an eye out for poachers and their sanguinary plans. She has glimpsed their children before, when those naive elves strayed too deep into the forest, causing hysterics for their parents who thought they had been hit by stray bullets fired from their own guns. The poachers have no mercy reserved for forest folk, but they spare the children from those brutal killings. At least that. For Ling Yu, she could only watch as her kin was massacred, then bury them under the yew tree she calls home. Not that she could avenge their deaths. With the gods dead, and nascent immortals dying by dusk, she had no authority.

Today, the sun is slow to rouse. Ling Yu quickens her pace, her emerald robes slinking

along on restless soil. The sun will not steal another life under her watch. She approaches the

female monkey crouched over a smaller package, and relaxes when she sees the newborn’s

chest moving. Yesterday, the female’s belly was heavy, eager for the relief of childbirth. The

night must have been excruciating for her. Was she convinced that moonlight gleams the same way thirsty steel does? Ling Yu picks up the infant, ignoring the mother’s protests. The

inhabitants of this forest were already long acquainted with Ling Yu’s divinity. She checks the

newborn for abnormalities and injuries, and finds none. Ling Yu whispers thanks to Yama (1) for not claiming this life faster than it can learn about what tiny miracles greet the sun’s onlookers. Ling Yu murmurs a prayer for the monkeys as a salutation of hope, despite knowing that the gods are now nothing more than aimless shades in the underworld. This defiance will be paid for in murderous tempers later on. A life for a life. Her late siblings will tell her to beguile men and women into volunteering their protection, but Ling Yu cannot bear befriending murderers. So she continues making her rounds, dreading when she will find evidence of a fresh slaughter.

At long last, the sun ascends on the slouching backs of its attendant clouds. Disgusting.

It bleeds over the horizon, and Ling Yu is unable to tell the clean bandages from bloody ones in her medicine basket. Xihe (2) crumbled the same way her last surviving son does now. She remembers how the adolescent sun fled into the hoarfrost’s lair when Houyi felled his mother and brothers. Do valleys morph into the executioner’s face when he looks upon them from the sky? If not, lucky him. The underneath of Ling Yu’s yew tree must contain catacombs for her to be visited by weeping ghosts everyday. Last night, songbirds with necks wrung by bloodthirsty hands. A week ago, a burrow of rabbits, gassed to death. A fortnight before, the corpse of a kidnapped leopard. Ling Yu very much regretted not having joined in the god's bloodbath. That would have been a more painless end than helplessly decaying on Pangu’s (3) cursed clay. Ling Yu softens grief into pastel colors in the nooks of her skeleton. Regardless of the travails spotting her destiny, she will take care of what meager sanctuary she oversees. At least the stars were willing to endow to her some semblance of a fragile harmony. At least that. As sunlight starts consecrating soil, Ling Yu stows her wooden torch back into its holder, where it waits patiently for evening. She will have to travel to the village soon to look for more matches. The villagers know nothing about her, but they welcome her warmly enough, buying her remedies and gauze. When she first went there, the village chief’s child was on his deathbed, and Ling Yu had restored him, thus earning her the villagers’ favor. The village elders invite her to dinner every month, and some mothers send their children into her care when they leave to work in the cities. The children are easy to pacify. She gives the children what sweets she has learnt to make.

Finally, Ling Yu reaches the ancient tree trunk that marks the boundaries of her

sanctuary. Any land that extends beyond is not hers to tend to. She lives deep in the forest, but not close enough to the cracks that will open during Ghost Month (4) . The rustling wind tells of the trapped spirits there, of agitated gravestones, and more withering. Ling Yu exhales smoke from the cremations arranged by her own hand. From somewhere behind her, ants scutter more briskly, and mice dive into their burrows. A stranger has arrived. Ling Yu stiffens, thinks of butchers working through tender marrows, wrathful bones, upheaving moonlight. Thinks of ichor pooling under the severed head of her youngest sister when she was caught in the crossfire between warring factions. She scrambles back through trees and thicket bushes, ignoring the dirt path she usually uses. Hunters have never ventured so deep in, but there is a first for everything. She sends a wordless plea to her yew tree to defend something, anything. I hallowed you for this. Through a jumbled entanglement of tree trunks and branches, Ling Yu glimpses a silhouette of a woman in red. The effluvium of death, mixed with ichor, permeates Ling Yu’s nose. This stench does not belong in her sanctuary. The knives that stabbed her second sister in her sleep now point towards her temples, crushing her skull. Ling Yu’s vision clouds over, crows cawing in ruinous memories. How unforgiving, for the gods to haunt her in her soulless states. Ling Yu tenses when the woman turns and notices her. Sudden appearances of injured immortals never bode well. Ling Yu touches the sympathetic tree beside her, her words cutting short when the woman appears beside her too fast.

“Tranquil Jade of Forest. I had expected no less of a welcome from you,” the woman

says pleasantly from under her cloak, but there was no real warmth in her voice. The tree’s

branches bends threateningly towards the woman in red. She staggers, but summons a spear all the same. When the wind causes the tree to shudder, Ling Yu almost expects the woman to be dragged along, her robes staining the air deathly with golden blood clots.

Ling Yu stands as tall as she can. Those who know her divine title are all supposed to be

dead. “Show me your face, and swear that you mean this grove no harm,” she orders,

mustering as much courage as she dares to.

A pause, and the woman lowers the shawl that hooded her face. Hydrangea blue eyes

stare back at Ling Yu’s brown ones. Her features were unfamiliar, but Ling Yu recognizes the

spirit that occupies this particular vessel. Ling Yu takes an apprehensive step back, a scream

threatening to rip its way out of her throat. The Pythia Melissa is the wandering spirit of the last high priestess, or, as her people called her in her language, the Pythia - and the judicator of earthbound immortals. She states that she keeps peace, yet her methods are far from peaceful. Absurd really, to remain faithful to the commands of extinct gods. Ling Yu has no recollection of having done anything against the heavenly edicts, but neither did her eldest brother, who was tried and hanged for being guiltless. He faced his execution with blazing courage, and Ling Yu wishes she could possess his ferocity now. Run, he told Ling Yu, as he does now. Ling Yu draws hellfire with the soles of her feet, makes a silent promise to the mother monkey that she will be there to nurse her young tomorrow. Ignores the cicadas singing her dirge.

The Pythia smirks, sensing Ling Yu’s terror. Tugs harder against Heibei Wuchang’s lull.

“You had a reputation for rebellion, but that is not for me to pursue today. I simply need a place to, ah, rest.”

Phantom vines loosen their grips around Ling Yu’s neck, but not completely. Her second

sister was the victim of scheming contenders in her own bedroom. They said she was foolish to trust so blindly. Ling Yu has learnt the necessary from their corpses. From the sight of gold

streaming down the Pythia’s midriff, she is clearly grievously injured. The recognizable black

aura that shimmers around the Pythia indicates that she is close to death. She could let the

Pythia die today, not on this soil, but outside, away from her home, where the dead’s taint

cannot spread. After all, the Pythia could always find a new vessel to inhabit. Before she can

respond, the Pythia‘s lips move in the verses of a prayer and she falls apart, Pangu reaching to reclaim his flesh, dust settling into the shapes of rotting pomegranates. The mother monkey rocks her baby in her arms, looking expectantly at Ling Yu. Sighing, Ling Yu picks up the Pythia and rushes back to her yew tree. Her sanctuary will remain free of violence as long as she watches over it.

Smoke columns rise from Ling Yu’s tree. This time, they are not parting rites. Lavender

fumes waft up the yew branches, tickling the high sun. The Pythia lies motionless, peppermint oils patching her wounds. When she uncovered the Pythia’s robes, she had foreseen a singular deep wound, likely on a vulnerable part or near a key organ. Instead, a disarray of gashes covered the Pythia, much like the artwork of a deranged sculptor. Ling Yu trails the cuts with her hand, wondering what creature the Pythia had been battling to sustain these wounds. She will probably take some time to wake up. Ling Yu goes to wash the batch of mulberries she had recently harvested. She pops one in her mouth, relishing its saccharine syrups. Noon brings balmy temperatures, a good omen for the Pythia’s recovery. Ling Yu sucks in the sporadic breeze, presses the question of how she appeared here. The forest chirps back in secretive tones, refusing to yield to her any clues. Yama relents on his battle for a day, two days, a week, who knows.

A few hours past noon, and the mother monkey comes knocking at Ling Yu’s tree again,

eager to show off her newborn baby’s developments. She brings bananas for Ling Yu, and the newborn offers vivacity. Ling Yu watches them paw at a suncatcher, a gift from one of the

village’s children, sunbeams painting their fur in glittering strokes. Her younger sisters used to play with these in the shops, twisting them this way and that to see how sunlight morphs. Ling Yu deliberates on whether the poachers’ daughters decorate their rooms with these too. Ling Yu entertains them for half an hour until they lumber out, swinging back to wherever they live. When Ling Yu looks back, she recoils in shock to see the Pythia’s eyes already wide open and observing her.

“How long have you been watching?” There is no apprehension to be found now, just

inquisitiveness. After all, the patient is at the mercy of the doctor.

The Pythia regards her, unperturbed. Ling Yu is miffed at her calmness. Does she get

into such situations regularly?

“I had not envisaged that you will be so well-disposed with the animals,” she simply


“What did you expect me to be then?” Ling Yu ventures.

“I heard that your disagreements with Themis and others led to your exile.”

Ling Yu is none the wiser to what the Pythia calls the gods in her native language, but

she assumes ‘Themis and others’ meant the court of the Jade Emperor (5) .“That is true.

Nevertheless, my nature remains one of the forest. I preserve life not for the sake of the stars,

but to see the newborns frolic.” Ling Yu stands and offers the mulberries to the Pythia, who

thankfully accepts.

“It would appear that we had a misunderstanding about my purpose here,” the Pythia

remarks. As they share the mulberries under fading afternoon light, the Pythia tells her about

Polaris’ timely folly, about escaped demons, about the temples she graces in her travels. Invites her to call her by her name. Ling Yu listens with increasing rapture, and tells her own in return. Last month, the fantastic treasure hunts the village children take her along on. In the past, the many romantic escapades of her sister. Today, the miraculous birth of the monkey. Troubles are exchanged over a subsequent bowl of carrot soup. The ghosts haunting Ling Yu’s yew tree are content for once, and withdraw noiselessly. Ling Yu chuckles when Melissa tells her about how her prayer to the North Star led her to Ling Yu’s sanctuary. The sun slants on their table, yawning as it bid a lazy farewell to them. On Ling Yu’s tongue, the mulberries turn tart. Daytime brings fervor, and sundown steals it back. How cruel time is. Before daylight disappears completely, they walk together to the sanctuary’s boundary. Melissa promises to bring her strawberries one day, as thanksgiving. Meanwhile, Ling Yu watches the sun go, reluctant to imagine her company leaving soon. Wishes that Melissa could stop hunting demons, that they had more time to themselves. The screaming souls that hang around Melissa have dissipated, but Ling Yu knows they will return with a vengeance. So when Melissa takes a step outside the border, she calls out to her, asks her to stay for the night. Somehow, Melissa gleans Ling Yu’s unsaid request for her to tarry for fortnights more.

“Why, does the prime hater of the gods want to play hostess to their divine judicator?”

The crafty smile that marks Melissa was refreshingly untried to Ling Yu. This is evidently a

facade of Melissa’s that the stars had ignored, again. Not that they have ever bothered to

understand humanity. Ling Yu hungers for more of those sights. They walk back on the dirt path to the yew tree, laughing as they pass the spot where they first met. The forest comes alive with their mirth, the animals jolted from their sleepiness. The mother monkey takes the frontline, her newborn gurgling in bewilderment, but joyfully all the same. Ling Yu does not mention the future to Melissa. Not now, not when they have encountered such rare liveliness. Even though Melissa has no care for those she deems guilty, they must shriek in her dreams the way the dead do in Ling Yu’s. Ling Yu looks up at the stars for the first time in forever. The net of the White Tiger (6) glitters particularly brightly tonight in contemplation, while Melissa’s companionship is a vow of serenity for a few hours. At least that.

1 : Yama, the Chinese god of the underworld

2 : Xihe, the mother of the original 10 suns of the Earth, who was later shot down by Houyi along with her sons.

3 : Pangu, the creator of the Earth in Chinese mythology. It is said that his body forms the

geographical features of Earth.

4 : During the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the gates of hell will open and

ghosts will roam freely among mortals.

5 : The Jade Emperor is the supreme deity of the Chinese folk religion.

6 : The brightest star of Taurus, Aldebaran, is in the net part of the Chinese constellation of the White Tiger. Taurus is also the constellation that represents Aphrodite.

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