Chapter 25 can be read below the cut.
The rest of the day was spent resting, recuperating, and gathering what supplies they could find in Nüwa’s house. After she woke up the next morning, Kiyaska glued herself to Nüwa’s side, asking her endless questions.
“So there’s a certain spell you use to become an Immortal, right?” said Kiyaska. “And it’s in one of the books that the Heavenly Emperors took from you?”
Nüwa rolled up a couple of spoons in a sheet of paper and put them in her bag. “Hm…how should I say this…I was not being entirely honest when I said that there was nothing mental involved in the process. There is. It isn’t just spells.”
“Why?” asked Kiyaska flatly.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate to explain at the time,” said Nüwa, “but I can give you a rough overview of the process. First, you need the right sort of…temperament. Yes, I suppose that’s what the right word is. Most people go through vigorous psychological training and conditioning in order to develop the proper nature. Some call it ‘enlightenment’.”
“But you said it wasn’t a requirement,” said Kiyaska. “Did you lie, or…?”
“No, I told the truth. Enlightenment isn’t a requirement,” said Nüwa. “There are other mental states. Now, once that’s complete – if it even is done – you study the books of spells and pick the ones that are best suited for you.”
“What does that mean?” Kiyaska asked.
“It is exactly what it sounds like,” said Nüwa. “There are many, many spells that you can use to become an Immortal. Your mental state or enlightenment gives you guidance on what spells you need, but many people require extensive study in order to find the right spells for them.”
“If it’s that difficult, then how did the Heavenly Emperors become Immortals almost immediately?” Kiyaska.
“Immediately?” Nüwa questioned.
“Yeah!” said Kiyaska. “The way everyone talks about it makes it sound like the Heavenly Emperors suddenly gained immortality one day. Is that what actually happened?”
Nüwa shook her head. “No, they didn’t suddenly become Immortals. That must have taken them a few months at the very earliest.” She gave Kiyaska a quizzical look. “I know you’re from Zarya Wa, but I didn’t realize that the truth had become so distorted. I suppose that’s what happens when mortals and their faulty memories talk about things.”
Lisel walked into the room, her sword and scabbard in her hand. “Hey, not all of us mortals have faulty memories Especially not us elves.”
“Are Hirúka and Sirilrhis also ready to leave?” Nüwa asked.
Lisel buckled on her sword. “Yep.”
Everyone stood outside a couple of minutes later. Nüwa set her hand on the door and muttered a spell under her breath. Everyone except Sirilrhis flinched as the spell took effect. He only shook his head slightly.
“That spell is really going to keep your house safe?” Hirúka asked.
Nüwa nodded. “No one is able to get in, and everything is frozen until I return. That’s what I used to do when I had to leave for long periods of time.”
“So what route do you think is best to take?” Lisel asked.
“I actually like the one you have marked on your map. Even if it ends up being infested with soldiers, they won’t be much of a problem to deal with,” said Nüwa. She pointed down the path. “This route takes us across the valley. Due to heavy flooding in the summer, there is no bridge. The danger we have to face today are the spirits. They’re extremely unfriendly, even to Immortals like myself.”
Lisel raised an eyebrow. “Is there a point here?” she asked.
“There are no Imperial soldiers in the valley or on this side of it,” said Nüwa. “If there are any here at all, they must be on the other side. These theoretical soldiers will be finding it difficult to stay alive even if they have the proper repelling spells.”
Hirúka brightened up. “That’s great!” he said. His face fell a few moments later. “Wait, that means we’re going to have those same problems.”
“Of course,” said Nüwa.
Hirúka’s shoulders slumped. “I don’t like the sound of that,” he said glumly.
“Neither do I,” said Lisel.
From Nüwa’s house, they backtracked until they reached a fork in the road that lead down into the canyon. This particular path wasn’t even visible from the road; Nüwa had to pull aside from tree branches to show them where it started. It was barely recognizable as a path, being overgrown with plants.
“This path isn’t commonly taken,” said Nüwa.
Lisel looked down at the map in her hands. She looked up at the path, back down at the map, and frowned. “It’s not on the map. Of course.”
“Why would it be?” Sirilrhis asked. “No one crosses into Shihun from this part of Símaqágu.”
The river at the bottom of the valley was wide but shallow, only about a meter deep at most. Hirúka jumped from stone to stone in his tiger form. Lisel tried in vain not to get water into her shoes.
It didn’t take long to reach the other side of the valley. The path was barely visible and extremely steep. Lisel and Kiyaska tired out quickly, and even Sirilrhis started having trouble. Nüwa was fine, though visibly annoyed. Hirúka was the only one who encountered no problems.
Nüwa and Hirúka reached the top of the valley before anyone else did. “I wasn’t expecting the path to be so eroded already,” said Nüwa as she brushed off her skirt.
Lisel grabbed a tree branch and used it to pull herself upward. “Already? Explain what you mean by that, please.”
Nüwa leaned over the ledge to look down at Lisel. “I suppose it’s rained too much recently,” she said. “I don’t know for sure. I haven’t been here in a while.”
Sirilrhis sighed. He jumped backward, changed to his dragon form in midair, and swooped forward to grab Lisel in one hand and Kiyaska in the other. He then deposited them at the top of the cliff and dropped back to the ground behind Nüwa, back in his human form.
Kiyaska was so startled that she stood there, frozen. Lisel, on the other hand, was incredibly offended. “What the fuck did you just do?” she demanded.
Sirilrhis brushed off his hands on his beizi. “I thought that climbing was taking too long.”
Lisel narrowed her eyes, looking from Sirilrhis to Nüwa. “When did you remove that spell?”
“Yesterday,” said Nüwa. She gave Sirilrhis a quizzical look. “Did you not tell them?”
“That spell was supposed to be removed after we got back to Hengshal,” said Sirilrhis. “It’s to keep me from running off.”
“Is that so?” Nüwa asked, looking at Lisel.
“Don’t look at me like that,” said Lisel. “I didn’t write the spell.”
Hirúka cleared his throat. “Um, shouldn’t we get going?”
“Yes, of course,” said Nüwa. She walked forward and drew her short sword, the only weapon she’d taken from her house. She started cutting plants out of the way, hacking at them as if her sword was actually a machete.
“Wh-what are you doing? Won’t that upset the spirits?” said Hirúka.
“I doubt the spirits will care about something like this?” said Nüwa.
As soon as they set foot in the trees, the atmosphere changed. The spirits were not happy and everyone could feel it. Kiyaska looked around nervously. Hirúka’s ears flattened and his fur fluffed up.
“What’s the problem, Hirúka?” Lisel asked as the tiger let out a low growl.
“Be quiet. Let me listen,” said Kiyaska.
“Why?” Lisel asked.
Kiyaska looked at Lisel in confusion. “All the animals went quiet! Don’t you think it feels weird around here?”
Lisel looked around. “I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention to that.”
“This is something every hunter knows,” said Sirilrhis. “When all the animals go quiet, something strange is going on. There’s an apex predator around, or something is where it shouldn’t be.”
Lisel frowned. “Shouldn’t they always be quiet, then, since we have a dragon and tiger here?”
“We aren’t hunting,” said Sirilrhis. “We’re passing through. Most animals are intelligent enough to understand that.”
“Something else must be hunting,” said Kiyaska.
Nüwa paused in cutting the underbrush. She turned back with a frown on her face. “This is quite unusual,” she said.
“Can you please explain what, exactly, is unusual?” Lisel asked in exasperation.
Nüwa sheathed her sword. “The spirits here are angrier than usual.”
“You mean they’re usually angry?” Lisel questioned.
“It’s quite strange,” said Nüwa. “I’ve never quite felt this sort of hostility before. There must be someone else here.”
“Not even the Graves of the Gods felt like this,” said Sirilrhis. He looked around, then down at Nüwa. “Should I fly everyone over this part of the forest?”
“Absolutely not,” said Lisel. “The last thing I need is Imperial soldiers seeing a fucking dragon.”
Nüwa nodded. “That would be dangerous. As long as you stay with me, you’ll be unharmed no matter what the spirits say or do.” She grabbed a tree branch and shoved it aside.
The four of them followed Nüwa through the thick foliage and into a clearing with a ring of mushrooms in the center. “This is even worse,” said Sirilrhis.
“This is the right place,” said Nüwa. “Believe me.”
“I’m not sure I want to believe you anymore,” said Lisel.
An owl flew out from behind them and into the clearing. Its wing brushed against Lisel’s ear and she flinched. It took a moment for her to realize that it was even an owl – for some reason, the silence made it hard to acknowledge. She followed it with her eyes as it flew out in front of the group. Once it was only a few feet away, the owl – obviously a spirit – changed into a human form and turned to face them.
“Lady Nüwa, I must warn you that there are Imperial soldiers ahead,” said the owl spirit.
“I assumed as much,” said Nüwa. “Have we spoken before?”
“We have not,” said the owl spirit. It stared at them just as intently as a normal owl would.
“Where are the soldiers?” Nüwa asked. “How many of them are there? Why haven’t you done anything about them?”
“The soldiers are carrying some sort of spell that prevents us from touching them,” said the owl spirit.
“That explains the hostility,” said Sirilrhis.
“There are twenty-four of them,” explained the owl spirit. “They are resting in two groups. One group is in the clearing two hundred meters to the northwest, and the other group is spread along the cliff that the mortal road leads through.”
“Mortal road?” Lisel questioned.
Sirilrhis leaned down to whisper in her ear. “It’s what the spirits call the roads we make.”
“I get that,” Lisel hissed at him.
“Will you help us locate them?” Nüwa asked. “I doubt their spells prevent us from touching them.”
“Spilling blood in sacred places isn’t allowed,” said Lisel. “You spirits will kill us if we disobey that. Are you going to temporarily rescind that rule?”
The owl spirit stared at her, unblinking. “Yes. If you disarm those soldiers, no matter how violently, we spirits will take care of the rest, as long as you remove those spells.
Lisel walked forward and extended her right hand toward the owl spirit. “Swear to me that you’ll honor that promise,” she said.
The owl spirit stared at her hand and then cautiously patted her palm. “I will alert the rest of the spirits of what you are to do. Once that is done, I will find you and lead you to the nearest Imperial soldier,” said the owl spirit. It looked at Nüwa. “Lady Nüwa, do you agree to this?”
Nüwa nodded. “Definitely.”