Chapter 23 can be read below the cut
“What’s up with you this morning?” Kiyaska asked.
Hirúka was in his tiger form, but it was easy to tell that he was worried. “We’re getting close to the border,” he said. “Shouldn’t we be getting ready for that?”
“And prepare for what?” said Lisel. “Run-ins with the Imperial soldiers? We already know that’s going to happen. And we got their positions from Suli.”
Hirúka still looked worried. “So we really don’t need to do anything? We don’t need to, you know, try to avoid them or anything?”
Lisel frowned. “No. We’re going to follow our original path as much as we can. There aren’t soldiers positioned along all of it. If we end up getting updates, I’ll make the necessary changes. But I don’t want to do anything drastic until then.”
Sirilrhis narrowed his eyes at her. “I’m sure you’re well aware by now that your insistence on keeping to your original schedule is what led us into problems before. I don’t know that I trust your judgment on this sort of thing anymore.”
Lisel shot him a glare. Sirilrhis put his hands up, palms facing her. “Maybe that was too harsh. But not even thinking about any alternative routes because you don’t think you’re going to run into any problems isn’t wise. It’s foolish.”
Lisel shrugged. “I’ve already been asking Suli every night for updates. If there’s any more information from Haruyéng, she’ll tell me, but I really think the plans he passed on were final.”
Sirilrhis didn’t look convinced. “Are you absolutely sure we can trust Haruyéng? He turned in those Rebels and you said none of you understand what he’s trying to accomplish.”
Lisel shrugged again. “I honestly have no idea,” she said. “What’s going through his mind at any given moment is entirely beyond me. But if we end up running into him, I’m taking him with us so he can clear up everything in person.”
The next few hours passed without any event. They were still in the Forest of the Immortals, but something felt different to Sirilrhis. “I think we’re close to something,” he said as he looked around.
“Something what?” Lisel asked. “Good? Bad? Interesting? Boring?”
Sirilrhis put a hand to his chin. “This place matches a description of an area I read about in a book many years ago, I think. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the significance right now.”
“You’ve said that about several places in the forest so far,” said Lisel.
“I know!” said Sirilrhis. “Everything looks like something important. I just can’t remember why it’s important.”
Sirilrhis started rambling, and Lisel ignored him. She caught words about the scenery and other things, and how he couldn’t figure out why it felt familiar. Lisel ignored him until he stepped on what sounded like a stick and stumbled forward. He made such a startled noise that Lisel actually turned around to look at him. What she saw was baffling.
“What?” said Sirilrhis.
“What…what is this?” said Lisel.
Sirilrhis, looking entirely bewildered and kneeling on the ground, held a short woman in his arms. She was dressed in old-fashioned clothing and had a red flower huadian on her forehead. Lisel had only ever seen those sorts of clothes in paintings. They were hundreds of years out of fashion.
The woman smiled and laughed happily. “I’m home! I’m finally home!” she said. Her voice was much huskier than Lisel expected of a woman of her height. She jumped out of Sirilrhis’s arms and brushed off her robe, then turned to Lisel and bowed, still smiling. “You’re the leader of this group, aren’t you? I must thank you for bringing me here.”
Lisel stared blankly at her. “Who are you?” she asked warily.
The woman laughed. “That’s right! You have no idea who I am,” she said. “My name is Nüwa. I’ve lived in this forest for a very long time.”
“Where did you come from?” Sirilrhis asked. He stood up. “Why did you suddenly appear on me?”
“What’s in your pocket?” Nüwa asked.
Sirilrhis looked confused, but stuck his hands in his pockets. His expression changed to panic. “There’s nothing in there,” he said shakily.
Nüwa snapped her fingers. “That’s right! The snake is gone, and I am here.”
“Excuse me? Snake?” said Lisel. “You had a snake in your pocket?”
Hirúka looked alarmed. “That’s what that smell was?” he exclaimed.
Lisel whipped around to look at Hirúka. “You knew about this and didn’t say anything!?” she demanded.
“I didn’t know it was a snake!” Hirúka protested. “It smelled like a reptile, but I thought it was just Sirilrhis. Because he smells like a reptile. Because that’s what he is.”
Lisel looks to Kiyaska. “I didn’t know anything about this,” said Kiyaska.
Sirilrhis still looked disgruntled when Lisel turned her attention back to him. “Maybe you should ask this Nüwa what’s going on. I’m just as confused as you are,” he said.
Lisel took a few steps forward and pointed at Nüwa. “You. Nüwa. What you said earlier lacks any kind of meaningful context for me to understand what’s going on. So if you could please explain absolutely everything from the beginning, that would be really fucking nice.”
Nüwa smiled. “Why don’t you all come back to my house for some tea as I explain things?” she said.
“Why would I agree to that?” said Lisel, baffled. “A house? No one’s even allowed to live in this forest except for the monks and priests back at the entrance to the Graves of the Gods-”
“Wait,” interrupted Sirilrhis. He frowned. “You said your name is Nüwa, as in the Immortal? You’re named after the Immortal? Or are you…”
Nüwa laughed. “You’re almost correct.”
“Are you the actual Immortal?” Sirilrhis asked.
Kiyaska looked confused. “I thought all the Immortals were dead. You said they were all killed.”
“I don’t know where you heard that, but it isn’t correct,” said Nüwa. She beckoned for the four of them to follow as she stepped forward along the path. “Come on. We can talk at my house.”
No one moved. Nüwa pouted, her shoulders slumping. “All four of you are armed, and I have no weapons. I pose no threat to you,” she said.
“You’re an Immortal. You can kill us with a single word,” said Lisel.
“Well, that’s true,” said Nüwa. “But I’m not going to hurt you. Blood can’t be spilled in this forest. That rule applies to me, too. Come along.”
Nüwa turned around and started walking down the path. “That’s where we have to go,” said Kiyaska.
“I know. I don’t like it,” said Lisel.
“Do you think we can take on an Immortal?” Kiyaska asked.
Lisel shot her a disapproving look. “Don’t you remember what happened when we took care of those Imperial soldiers? How they were ripped apart by spirits? If we try to kill her, that’ll happen to us.” She looked at Sirilrhis, and he shrugged. “Don’t shrug at me. This is your fault.”
Sirilrhis looked indignant. “You’re responsible for this,” Lisel continued. She pushed him forward. “Go ahead. Lead us. Nüwa can’t be far away.”
Nüwa was waiting for them when they rounded the corner, leaning against the rock wall with her hands in her lap. She smiled when she saw them. “Have you finally decided to trust me?” she asked.
“No,” Lisel said flatly.
Sirilrhis glanced at Lisel. When she didn’t say anything, he looked back at Nüwa. “We’re passing through this area. It seems like your house is on the way, so I suppose it wouldn’t hurt if we stopped for tea-” He frowned. “How long have you been a snake, Nüwa?”
Nüwa shrugged. “Quite a while.”
“How long have you been away from your home?” Sirilrhis asked.
“Equally as long,” said Nüwa. She gestured at them to follow as she started walking again. “Come along. We won’t run into any distractions.”
Nüwa led them along a smaller path that wound alongside the mountain. There was a steep drop to their left side, and there was a river far below at the bottom of the valley. It was likely the same river they’d been walking alongside – it not, then a tributary.
“You live here?” asked Kiyaska.
“It’s quite a nice view, isn’t it?” said Nüwa.
“This is called the Forest of the Immortals because Immortals used to live in it, right?” said Hirúka.
“You’re almost correct,” answered Nüwa. “Some of us Immortals lived in this forest. Others lived elsewhere. But at least one Immortals has lived here at a time for thousands of years.” Her happy expression faltered slightly. “That hasn’t been the case for over eighty years. I’m sure you all know why.”
“I don’t know Imperial history,” said Kiyaska. “What happened eighty years ago?”
“Eighty years ago is when the Heavenly Rulers killed all of the Immortals,” said Hirúka. “Except Nüwa, I guess.”
Nüwa attempted to brush some large leaves aside. They were almost taller than her, and she struggled until Sirilrhis stepped forward to help her. Once the leaves were out of the way, Lisel saw that there was a house built into the side of the mountain. There was also part of a fence along the cliff. Leaves and other foliage were everywhere. Clearly, no one had been here for a while.
“This looks surprisingly well-kept considering you’ve been away for eighty years,” said Sirilrhis. “I expected that the Heavenly Rulers would have destroyed the place.
“There are people who come here from time to time. Most of them wish to learn to become Immortals. When I lived here in the past, I gave them guidance,” said Nüwa. She looked directly at the front door. “Open.”
The door opened. Everyone winced. Kiyaska rubbed her head, clearly confused. “That’s a surprising feeling,” said Sirilrhis.
“Is that what spoken magic feels like?” Lisel asked with a frown.
Nüwa walked into the doorway. “You four should probably stay out there for a few minutes while I clean up. I’m going to use magic. I wouldn’t want you to get headaches or worse,” she said.
She disappeared into the house. “Is spoken magic supposed to be painful?” Kiyaska asked.
It took Sirilrhis a moment to realize that Kiyaska was talking to him. “I’m not sure it’s supposed to be painful,” he said. “But I’ve heard that’s what spoken magic is like to other people. It hurts them.”
“You’ve only heard?” Lisel asked.
Sirilrhis nodded. “I met an Immortal once when I was very young, but she never spoke any magic when I was around. That was my first time experiencing it.”
Nüwa poked her head out through the doorway. “I’m done clearing. You all can come in now.”
“That was fast,” Lisel commented.
The hall Lisel saw was very clean and minimalist. To their left was a row of windows extending down the hall; it overlooked the cliff. The right wall had a couple of screen doors, all of which were closed.
“I don’t know why I expected you’d have more in here,” said Lisel.
Nüwa chuckled. “This is a hallway. I have bedrooms, a kitchen, a large library, multiple studies…they’re all built into the mountain.”
“Did you also finish cleaning those?” said Lisel.
“Just the kitchen,” said Nüwa. “Though it was very clean to begin with. It seems like the people who came here seeking to become Immortals kept things orderly. There’s even tea and preserved fruit! If I ever meet one of those people, I’ll have to thank them.”
Sirilrhis perked up. “You have tea? Can I – can we have some please?”
“Of course. Follow me,” said Nüwa. She led them into the kitchen, which was just as spotless as she’d described. Nüwa brought them each a cup of tea and then sat down at the head of the table with her own cup of tea, her fingers intertwined under her chin.
“Well?” she asked. “What would you like to know first?”