Chapter 75

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written by MiniOrchid and Chimera
editing by Chimera

Looking over his life, Die Feng couldn't think of a moment he had been irresponsible. But today he had failed to live up to his standards, to perform his duty. He had failed simply because he no longer had the will to fight. And what resulted from that was all his fault. He had forsaken his duty of protecting those who laid their lives and trust in his hands. Just because of one moment of indecision...or was it distraction? All he could say for sure was that he had not been focusing on the battle the way he should have.

These thoughts ran through his mind as he gasped for air, choking. 10th Junior, Wang Jing's forearm pressed against his throat, holding Die Feng's head against the pole. His face was still sore from the punch 10th had landed upon him right after their arrival back at the commander's tent.

"Did you want to get yourself killed?" Wang Jing growled as he clutched Die Feng's collar and shook with fury, while 3rd made himself comfortable by the sitting table.

"Wang Jing..." came the stern voice of 3rd Junior, Lin Liang, who remained calm even in a situation as unsettling as this one, pouring himself a cup of tea.

"No!" snarled the hot-headed Junior, whose eyes burned with wrath. 10th, who was always calm and collected at Kunlun, transformed when he was on the battlefield. Born from a military family, he was courageous yet stubborn to a fault. "I'm not letting him get away with this, not this time. Senior needs to wake up, or in our next battle we'll all be dead!"

"I couldn't agree more, but you should let go of our Senior," 3rd reasoned coolly, "he's after all still injured...bleeding by the look of his arm." The tea cup paused at his mouth, he glanced up and added, "He protected 7th."

Die Feng felt the arm on his throat tighten momentarily and then loosen. Die Feng could still feel the rage that remained within Wang Jing, who had every right to be upset. "7th Senior wouldn't have needed to be saved if Senior Die Feng had focused on handling the battle, as a Chief Commander should have! He needs to tell us why he's been this way since the moment we arrived!"

"10th, let Senior Die Feng go," came from the person who could always calm 10th down.10th turned his head instantly, his eyes locked onto 7th Junior, Mei Shu, who stood by the tent entrance with his medicine box. Because 7th was a man of few words, his words were powerful when spoken.

"I'm unharmed. Not a scratch on me. You should-" before his reassurance could be finished, 10th had let go of the object of his anger, crossed the room, and snatched up 7th in his arms, the medicine box almost falling to the ground.

The tent fell silent, as with every passing second, rage and anger began to subside in the heavy breathing man who had almost lost what he most cherished. In that moment, Die Feng knew, understood, and recognized the true reason for 10th's anger, and though belated the knowledge may have been, it was more obvious now than it had been for thousands of years. The connection, the bond, was undeniable, as Die Feng leaned against the post behind him, losing grip of reality, his reality. How could he have been such a fool?

"Wang Jing, let me tend to Senior's injury, he's still bleeding," 7th said, but 10th was unresponsive. Mei Shu's free hand touched his shoulder with a gentle shake. "Wang Jing," he repeated. Finally, 10th pulled back reluctantly, his body still visibly trembling.

7th hurried over, and helped Die Feng settle down across from 3rd, who helped himself to the nuts and dried fruits on the table with a suppressed grin. The three of them ignored the brooding 10th, who had taken Die Feng's post at the pole across the room. His threatening eyes were unfocused but determined. Die Feng knew the battle was not yet finished. 10th had every right to attack him, to release his anger, and more than that, to question his ability to command.

Once 7th finished tending to his injuries, he went straight to 10th. The two men gazed at each other without speaking, Wang Jing nodded; his face softened. What occurred between his two juniors was indisputable yet surreal. Die Feng's heart felt an unfamiliar ache which grew the more he watched. He was not a man who spied on others, but he couldn't take his eyes off as Mei Shu grasped Wang Jing's hand with a light squeeze, then released it. But Wang Jing caught his hand and held it a little longer, as if sensing Mei's lingering reluctance to part. Wang Jing looked like he wanted to live in this embrace forever. But Mei had to leave the room to tend to other soldiers.

Before 10th approached the table, he loudly ordered wine. It took a while for three bottles of peach wine to be served by a soldier. Die Feng looked at his Juniors in puzzlement as they both began to help themselves and placed a glass in front of him.

"You need a drink as much as we do. Maybe more," 3rd said as he pushed the wine glass towards him. But instead of taking the wine glass, Die Feng grabbed the bottle, and downed it all without reservation. He desperately needed the scorching burn of the hard liquid to calm his nerves. 3rd and 10th exchanged affirming glances before they too grabbed their own bottles and finished their portion.

With emptied bottles, the silence became deafening between the three sworn brothers in arms. They were waiting for him to explain himself. He had been in charge today; the day of the first battle between the Western and Eastern Sea Kingdoms. Within a week of declaring war, the Eastern King gathered his forces and set up camp on the Western Sea borders. At first, Die Feng tried to establish communication with the Eastern King, but Donghai Shuijun was noncommunicative. Firm in his belief of Die Feng's guilt, he rejected all help from the Western Sea in finding the true culprit. With no recourse, the Western Kingdom could only place itself in the defensive position while the Eastern King prepared to attack.

The threat of civil war amongst the water kingdoms was extremely worrying for Celestials who needed to be united to stand against the Demons, and by sending the Kunlun disciples, Shifu had spared no effort in giving Die Feng the support he would need to resolve the situation. Today, Die Feng had had no choice but to face the Eastern Kingdom in battle. Unless he found the true murderer soon, the situation would escalate into full blown war. As it was, he had mucked things up today.

They had been outnumbered, but with 3rd's tactical expertise, they were supposed to win by a hair's thread with the new formations he had devised. Everything had been prepared in advance with 10th's skills in Military Training, who had been training the Western Sea Army for several days. They had been ready, they had been prepared.

As Chief Commander, Die Feng had been relaying orders from above the battle. It was he who was responsible for signaling the flags, as the army commenced in the proper formations. But he hadn't been there today, his mind drifting away, his heart not in the battle. Just a short lapse of judgement, and he was late signalling the flag. 7th's group was attacked, and Die Feng, filled with horror at his mistake, rushed to save them, leaving his post, another mistake. The rest of the army was leaderless, the formation completely broken. If it wasn't for 3rd's quick response, they wouldn't have retreated on time, avoiding heavy casualties, but even minor casualties were casualties nonetheless.

He hadn't felt this suffocated most of his life, but now it had become a daily occurrence. As tension began to build, guilt racked his mind. Pain started to consume him, and it wasn't the injury on his arm but deep within his chest. It became harder to breath as each passing moment weighed on him, until Die Feng could no longer withhold his words. They began to come out, and once they did, he couldn't stop them spilling, untold stories surfacing, kept hidden for far too long. He was afraid...afraid of exposing his vulnerability, his imperfection, his facade. But he told them everything, everything that had occurred since the moment she showed up in his life, on his shore, in his bed. The time they spent in the mortal realm, and the way it had ended. His Juniors listened patiently until he finished. 10th was the first to speak.

"Enchantment?" he echoed with disbelief in his voice. Wang Jing looked as though he was ready to pounce on Die Feng again but he kept his anger in check much to Die Feng's relief.

Lin Liang remained unfazed as he rubbed his chin with mock curiosity. "How can her magic work at Kunlun?" he asked as he glanced at 10th, making Die Feng flinch in response.

Wang Jing rolled his eyes in exasperation. "We saw the way you looked at her," he growled.

"No enchantment was necessary," 3rd added.

"How could you have accused the Princess of such a ridiculous thing!?" 10th shouted, his fist slamming the stable as he stood up angrily. 3rd's hand shot out to grab Wang Jing's arm.

"7th will not be happy if you don't keep your promise," 3rd reminded 10th, his cool eyes never leaving Die Feng. "Besides, there is no point in beating someone who won't fight back."

10th took a heavy breath before sitting down reluctantly. He shouted for more wine and was served much quicker this time. His wrath must be being felt across the camp. Slowly, each of them grabbed their bottle as a short silence descended. Die Feng couldn't utter another word as he waited for his Juniors to reprehend him again but their next words were not what he expected.

"We did wait long enough," 3rd gave a heavy sigh before continuing, "for the day our perfect Senior Die Feng would lose himself over a woman." He chuckled lightly at the thought. "I mean, you chastised us enough on never letting emotions get the best of us. Too bad, I lost this round."

"I didn't," 10th said grudgingly, taking a big gulp of wine.

Lin Liang turned to 10th in surprise. "Why are you so angry then?"

"I didn't think winning meant we'd have to deal with a Chief Commander who no longer has the will to fight and because Senior-"

"What are you two talking about?" Die Feng interrupted.

Wang Jing smiled, though his eyes narrowed with impatience. "Nothing much. A while back, 5th Senior started a poll to see when you'd do something stupid and drive her off."

"You all bet on me?!"

"Not all of us," 3rd corrected, shaking his head as he grabbed another handful of nuts on the table. "16th was too preoccupied with his Ghost Princess to even think straight. 13th, as you know, can barely make out two words, and 2nd Senior didn't cast his vote; he's forever loyal to you," Lin Liang shrugged. "Although, between you and 2nd Senior, we did wonder who was more slow...I guess we finally got our answer."

Die Feng rubbed his temple as his head began to ache. He wondered if there was a hole large enough for him to bury himself in. How low could this get? He closed his eyes in frustration, or was it humiliation? He pressed his head down on the table with his hands covering his head.

Not just the battle, but ever since the ill-fated wedding when his soon to be bride was killed, when the Eastern King blasted him with his magic and declared war, even when he was accused of murder—nothing had roused him, because the only thoughts he had left were of Li Ying, who had disappeared completely since that day in the mortal realm. He had lost focus of everything, even his brothers who came to help him prepare for battle against the Eastern forces, which was not their battle to begin with, but they came nonetheless. He had failed all those who believed in him, who placed their trust in him, but most of all, he had failed Li Ying.

"Senior," 10th interrupted his thoughts, his voice no longer angry, but filled with what sounded like sympathy, making it all the worse. "The only reason you would even think of enchantment is because you have fallen for her to the point of insanity."

Die Feng's head shot up, eyes unfocused as his mind absorbed the statement. "No, that's not true, I didn't...I haven't..." he stammered but couldn't get the words out as much as he tried.

"Lost your heart to her?"

"Can't stop thinking about her?"

"Can you deny what we're saying?"

3rd and 10th did not look away as they continued to scrutinize him with their hardened gazes. Had he really? Was it possible? She was everything he couldn't have, yet everything he had ever wanted. He didn't choose to give his heart; it had just happened. But when did it happen? When had he fallen?

"Senior, we're at war, your war that is soon to be ours," Lin Liang continued. "If you can't keep your focus, and resolve your issues, we might as well forfeit."

"I apologize for placing everyone in danger when you all came to support me. There will be no more lapse of judgement. It won't happen again; I can stay focused now," he told them with confidence.

Wang Jing raised his brow at the statement. "Are you sure about that?"

Die Feng nodded reassuringly. He had to be; too many lives depended upon him.

"Juniors, you all can stop eavesdropping, and bring more wine and food while you're at it," Lin Liang called out, the smirk never leaving his face as he waved his hand behind him, magically removing the tent flaps.

Dumbstruck, Die Feng turned to look at the entrance. 5th, 6th, 11th, 12th, and 14th were all standing outside, with a guilty yet pitying look on their faces. He was so absorbed in the conversation, he had not even noticed they were there this whole time. Focused, his foot.

10th sighed heavily as he stood up, putting his hand on Die Feng's shoulder with a light squeeze. "Please go resolve your issues before the next battle. We all have our dark days but it's what you do in the future that matters." Wang Jing left the tent, going to look for 7th Die Feng guessed.

While 14th went to grab more wine the rest shuffled into the room and made themselves comfortable with the snacks. The tent now filled with light hearted jokes and laughter as the Juniors continued to tease and advise him. Despite what he had put them through, they were still his brothers in arms who never failed to support him. Somehow, he felt lighter, as though a heavy burden was lifted; he wasn't alone. Tomorrow, he would resolve this and get his head on straight.

***

Li Ying woke up to find Die Feng's large brown eyes on her. Watching, not with a tempest raging in them like the last time she had seen him but with something inexplicable.

Li Ying scrambled up. All the pent up rage from the last few days rose to the surface and, without thinking, she leaped at him, slamming him to the floor, pinning his arms down. "How long have you been watching me?" she snarled.

"Li Ying, I-"

"No," she growled pressing harder until she felt something wet. She looked down to see blood darkening his sleeve. Releasing him, she frowned and raised her bloody hand. "What is this? Why are you bleeding?"

"It's nothing," he said, his expression inscrutable, directing a spell at his arm. The blood cleared up.

It didn't seem like nothing but Li Ying was in no mood to be soft. "Why are you here?

Why was she here? This place.

There was something about what had happened here that seemed to hold answers. Unable to sleep since the dinner with her brother she had been drawn back to the Lakehouse.

The revelation from Cheng Yin had left her reeling. In the days that followed the only thing she could think of was how to fix things. The first thing Li Ying did was inform the Demon Ancestor about where the Feather came from. It was unthinkable that she had been party to such a scheme and helped end any possibility of peace. Terrified, yet resolute, she confessed all she had heard to the Ancestor who, instead of unleashing wrath, as Li Ying expected, looked thoughtful and asked to see the play scroll.

Her brother would probably see her act as betrayal but things had to be fixed while they still could. She had remained unaware for so long and it was only now that she was beginning to see the dark path he had started upon. What was going through his mind she could only guess at and the task kept her agitated.

Back here, it felt as if she had never left. Sunlight streaming in through the doorway, scrolls and ink on the table. Die Feng must have tidied up and cleared away the tray of food before leaving. For the first time in days she had felt more at ease. She'd sat on the chaise in the study room for only a minute. When had she fallen asleep?

He took a step closer, she retreated further, making him pause. "Li Ying," Die Feng began cautiously.

"Aren't you afraid of getting enchanted again?" She asked with an edge of steel in her voice, making him flinch.

"I-"

"I didn't expect you to come back here," she said evenly as she turned away from him. "I wouldn't have come otherwise."

"That day I waited for you," he said. Her heart paused, but did not waver. "I owe you an explanation-"

"Don't bother," she cut him off.

"I apologise-"

"You're apologising for what?" she asked without thinking.

"I'm sorry about how I acted last time. Kissing you like that was not right-"

"You think this is about that?" she asked in disbelief.

With a remorseful voice, he continued, "You had to stop me, I forced myself on you."

"You can kiss me as much as you want for all I care! Hell, I was kissing you back. This has nothing to do with that." How dare he try to avoid the real issue? He was playing her again, acting all noble with his intentions. No, she wouldn't let him take the easy way out. "How can you say I enchanted you and then kiss me in the same breath?" she asked directly, cutting to the chase. Locking him in, cornering.

He squeezed his eyes shut. "I know you didn't enchant me," he admitted. Good, he wasn't as slow as she thought he was. But her anger did not subside.

"Oh you do, do you? Surprising that you of all people would try to lie with someone you don't even trust."

"I do trust you. I trust you too much. I trust you so much that it's driving me insane because I shouldn't trust you."

"Shouldn't trust me?" Li Ying gave a cynical laugh. "What have I ever done to deserve such suspicion?"

"No, you did nothing, it was I who did a horrible thing," his voice was ragged, eyes full of regret. "I shouldn't have doubted you. I never should have said that."

"Then why did you do it? Why did you doubt me?" she asked, her eyes locked onto his, daring him to lie. But he continued to evade, coward that he was.

"I'm sorry," he said, his voice soft. "I understand that I hurt you and it was wrong."

"Answer my question," she growled.

"Li Ying..."

She lost all patience. Crossing the room, she slammed him against the wall, her forearm on his chest.

"Answer me!"

"I was afraid!" he burst out. "I have never shirked my duty but in that moment I wanted to abandon everything and continue living in this Lakehouse. With you—just you. And no amount of discipline could quench it. How could I go home and become the Crown Prince? I was scared; I didn't know who I was!" The look in his eyes was that of a hunted animal, wild and uncertain.

There it was. Fear.

She released him, but kept her gaze on him. "Did it never occur to you that it was the same for me?"

His eyes widened in surprise.

"You had the same power over me, Die Feng. The power you feared me having over you. And you used it to hurt me with your words in a way your actions never could."

"Li Ying, I'm so sorry for doubting you. I won't—never again. I won't ask you to forgive me. I...I know it was unforgivable."

She was afraid too. More than ever, right now, and of many things. Her brother...

Yes, her brother. When had she started fearing him? Always she had told herself that he was this way because of her father. He was in pain and afraid and alone.

No, if she objected that strongly to Die Feng's behaviour why did she make excuses for her brother? Ge-ge said others couldn't be trusted. But ge-ge himself did not trust her. It had been years since he had shared his plans and troubles with her. She had felt him grow more and more secretive. And if he did not trust her how could she trust him?

Her dear brother. Why did she have to cower before his rages?

First her father's then her brother's then Die Feng's. Would she be the sufferer of their rages all her life? Yes, they were in pain but did her pain not matter too?

Was there anyone who trusted her? Anyone she could trust? She could find the answer only by forming more relationships. The very thing her brother didn't let happen in the Demon realm because of his fear. Fear that she couldn't let herself be consumed by. Were there truthfully no people around her she could rely on or were they all scared away by her brother?

If so, whose fault was that? Should she let it happen? Intentionally or not, her brother was isolating her. Like the time they they could trust none of the palace officials under her father's reign. Li Ying was tired of being understanding and making herself smaller and getting out of their way. Li Ying was angry.

She looked up. "I understand. You were afraid. And you took it out on me."

He looked stricken and she knew she had hit home. He stared at her in silence, then finally spoke, "I understand if you don't want to see me again."

"I am done." she replied, her voice cold. "I am done being used. I am leaving, Die Feng. Sort your kingdom matters out. I will sort my brother's." Li Ying paused. Now that she had started, what was one more betrayal? "You should know that he was the one who had your bride killed."

She walked to the door. Pausing once more, she turned around, "For that I am sorry." And then she left.

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