Yu Zhu couldn’t bring herself to go back to the oak tree after listening to Lin Yu’s story. For days she spoke little and ate even less. Lin Yu was worried, but Grandfather only shook his head and told her to leave Yu Zhu alone. she looked as lost as she did when she came to the cottage four years ago.
Slowly, Yu Zhu seemed to get better. Yet sometimes, Lin Yu caught Yu Zhu staring at the direction of the forrest. One day, Yu Zhu looked out the window and realized that she hadn’t been back in the forest for half a year. On some nights the acorn floated like an ethreal dragonfly around her room, trying to lead her to the forest. Yu Zhu threw it away in annoyance, determined to forget about the glowing god in the forest.
Yu Zhu pushed herself into her martial arts studies, learned medicine, and fought against Ho Pa Lai whenever he tried to bully the weak. On a lazy summer day, Lin Yu spied that Yu Zhu was staring at the forest again and decided to distract her.
Lin Yu hugged Yu Zhu’s arm, and realized that Yu Zhu had grown so much taller in the last four years and a half years.”Yu Zhu, let’s go to the market. We can go see Wan Tu today.” Yu Zhu looked so lost for a moment, not comprehending what the snake demon girl said.
But then it was as if a mask came back on and she smiled, “Yes. Let’s go. We can bring him some fresh buns” The two girls chatted happily, Yu Zhu seemed to be back to normal in Lin Yu’s eyes. They walked into out of the cottage, through the willows and into the the the busy market.
“Get your fresh vegetables here!” A ruddy young boy of thirteen or fourteen hollered at the top of his lungs, his monkey tail waving happily over the crowd of demons, “Nightshade, watercress, and fresh demonsgrass from the sea!” He shook flaming purple plants above his head as he smiled cheerily.
Lin Yu waved to Wan Tu and summersaulted across a sea of people and into his sparse little stall. “Wan Tu! we brought you buns.” The young boy smiled as he saw the two girls. His smile widened as Yu Zhu held out two gigantic white buns filled with savory meat. “We thought you’d be hungry.”
He eagerly grabbed them, “Yu Zhu, how is it you can read my mind like that. What kind of demon are you?”
Yu Zhu and Lin Yu exchanged a worried glance. Wan Tu was too busy to notice as he happily chomped on a bun.
Lin Yu took over and began yelling at people to come buy fresh lily buds and cattail roots. Yu Zhu sat with Wan Tu and asked, “Has Ho Pa Lai given you any trouble?” Wan Tu picked at a piece of meat stuck in his teeth as he answered, “Not since you gave him a black eye and wrote “dead pig” on his head with that near-permanent ink. With that trick, you basically protected all of us poor folk from him. Of course, it also helped that after you and Lin Yu hung his lackies by their feet over the town walls.”
Yu Zhu nodded, “Good.”
Wan Tu wiped his mouth on his sleeve, “You know, the first time you rescued me, I thought Ho Pa Lai would’ve killed you. But it’s been four years and you’ve managed to make him suffer for every beating that he’s given to all of us beggar kids. Half the town admire you, the other half think you’ll be spinsters the rest of your lives.”
Lin Yu turned around and corrected him, “You aren’t a beggar kid anymore, you’re a respectable young businessmen.”
Wan Tu snorted and nearly choked on his bun, “I’m a six hundred year old monkey demon who use to be a beggar and now own a small vegetable stall that I practically live in on the open market. The only respectable thing about me is that I don’t steal anymore.” He thought about it, “Well, less than you two troublemakers anyways.”
A commotion erupted in the market. Ho Pa Lai and ten of his lackeys walked by, pushing people out of Ho Pa Lai’s way. They stopped by the plain little stall. Lin Yu’s eyes narrowed and Yu Zhu stood up.
“How much for these dirty vegetables that I wouldn’t even feed to donkeys?” Ho Pa Lai sneered as he tossed a cabbage up and down with one hand. In the other, he was swinging a piece of gold and red liuli crystal, as if daring Lin Yu to take it. Lin Yu’s hands itched but Yu Zhu put an arm around her shoulders.
Ho Pa Lai, like Lin Yu remained the same age as they were the day Yu Zhu had met him. Though he looked seventeen on the outside, Yu Zhu knew he was a thousand year old pig demon with a temper. Yu Zhu’s eyes flashed angrily, “We would rather give these vegetables to donkeys than sell to you.” Ho Pa Lai’s face seemed to go two shades darker as Lin Yu laughed. Lin Yu added insult to the injury by holding her nose and said, “If you don’t want to get beaten. Go away.”
Ho Pa Lai said nothing as Lin Yu caught the vegetable from his grasp. His lackeys pulled him away, carefully avoiding the two girls’s glares. Yu Zhu shook her head, “He’s getting annoying again.”
Wan Tu glanced at Yu Zhu, though her face showed no emotion, she seemed uncharacteristically angry. He didn’t want to ask why. Yu Zhu and Lin Yu were not people you asked questions you don’t want to know the answers to. They were girls like no other, they never did what people though girls should normally do nor did they care much what other people thought.
Wan Tu thought of something else, “You know, with all the power he has in this town, I’ve never seen him go to his parents about you two.”
Lin Yu was clueless, “huh?”
Wan Tu chucked, “He’s the son of the richest merchant, if he wanted, he could’ve burned down your hut and no one would object.”
Lin Yu shrugged, “That’s because Grandpa is some sort of town elder or something. The Ho family wouldn’t dare.”
Wan Tu nodded, “Ho Pa Lai could’ve made your lives miserable in a million different ways but he’s never done it. Perhaps he is afraid of your ancient grandfather.
Yu Zhu’s curiosity was piqued, “Lin Yu, how old is grandfather?”
Lin Yu smiled mischievously, “As old as the moon! I’m 900 years old or so and I think he’s ten times as old as that!”
Yu Zhu shook her head and smiled, “Have you always lived with him?”
The light in Lin Yu’s eyes seemed to dim, she shook her head slowly. “No…I once lived with my mother. But she asked grandfather to take care me, because she had to go somewhere.”
Though Yu Zhu wanted to ask more, she could tell that Lin Yu didn’t want to talk about it.
Wan Tu broke the silence by asking, “Yu Zhu, what kind of demon are you?” Lin Yu and Yu Zhu looked at each other as Wan Tu continued, “I only ask because, well four years ago when i was still a beggar, you seemed so little. But now you’ve grown as tall as Lin Yu and you look older. I’ve never seen anyone age that quickly. And you don’t really smell like any kind of demon I know. Usually I can tell, but with you, I’ve always been curious.”
“It’s magic.” Lin Yu blurted out, “She’s practicing aging magic because we’re preparing to go to the human realms soon.” Yu Zhu said nothing, if anyone know that there was a human hiding amongst the demons, she would be dead.
Wan Tu’s eyes widened, “Really? the human realms? I heard they eat demons there. Why are you going there?”
Yu Zhu turned to Lin Yu and whispered, “Yes. Why are we going there?”
Lin Yu smiled, “Yu Zhu and I are tired of living here. Besides, all I’ve seen of the world is this small town. We want to see the world.” Yu Zhu said nothing, after all that she now knew about the forest, she didn’t feel like staying here anymore.
The day was winding down, Yu Zhu and Lin Yu helped Wan Tu pack up. Lin Yu wanted to go see the new dancers perform at the town square, so she told Wan Tu and Yu Zhu to leave without her, she would meet Yu Zhu back at the cottage.
Yu Zhu and Wan Tu went to the little house where the other beggar boys lived. They jumped up when they saw Yu Zhu, bowing and hugging her. Trying to show her that they still remembered the manners she taught them last time.
“Auntie Yu Zhu!” The littlest one, Si Min who was a little half dog half fox demon grabbed Yu Zhu’s dress with his sooty hands, Yu Zhu smiled and hugged him back. “how you’ve grown! Do you still remember the characters I taught you?” Si Min nodded, his cherubic cheeks wobbling with eagerness to show off, “I can write my name!” Yu Zhu took out steamed buns and there were howls and yips of ecstasy as Yu Zhu handed them out.
It was night when Wan Tu, piggybacking Si Min, walked Yu Zhu home. Si Min insisted on coming, even though his eyelids started drooping the moment they walked out of their house. Yu Zhu smoothed the little boy’s hair as they walked slowly by the stream, enjoying the night air.
“Steamed bun… steamed..” Si Min drooled as he. Wan Tu grimaced he held onto the little pup demon. “If he drools on this robe, I’m going to make him into slippers.” He muttered quietly as he made sure the boy was comfortably sleeping on his back.
Yu Zhu smiled and patted Wan Tu’s shoulder, “You take good care of them, even if they aren’t family.”
Wan Tu cleared his throat and said gruffly, “You did the same. If it wasn’t for Lin Yu and you all those year ago, rescuing me from Ho Pa Lai, these little kids wouldn’t have lived to see today.” Wan Tu blushed as he mumbled, “We all—-”
Yu Zhu grabbed the front of his robe and put one her finger to her lips. “Hush.” She whispered. The crickets had stopped singing, in fact, every animal was dead silent. Yu Zhu looked around, there was nothing but the rush of wind and the strange feeling that something bad was coming.
Wan Tu could feel it too, he felt a terrible pressure that seemed like someone was pressing their hands into his brain. Si Min woke up with a howl, his eyes filling with tears, his hands on his ears.
“Hurts!” He whimpered. Yu Zhu looked at two demons, “What’s wrong?”
Wan Tu’s and Si Min’s eyes rolled into the back of their heads as Wan Tu’s knees buckled. Yu Zhu lunged to catch the two when, without warning, the two demons were dragged into the air caught in the claws of a giant black crow that materialized out of nowhere. Yu Zhu drew her sword and leapt, using her Qing Gong to reach the crow. She aimed for its heart. The crow dodged and Yu Zhu recoiled quickly, careful not to harm Wan Tu and Si Min. The crow grinned and turned into a man with gold eyes. His black clothes seemed like giant black wings, a stark contrast with his angular face. Wan Tu and Simi floated behind him like two rag dolls.
Yu Zhu glared at him, “I don’t know why you are here, but those two have done you no harm, give them back to me.” She gripped her sword, “Unless you want to become feathers in my pillow.”
The crow man laughed, and grabbed a handful of black feathers. He threw them and they transformed into darts in midair. Yu Zhu deflected it easily but it caused her to drop several feet.
“Not bad.” The crow man observed, his voice taunting her, “But if you want to see them alive, you’ll have to do better.”
Yu Zhu’s eyes narrowed, “What quarrel do go have with you? The crow clan is one of the highest ruling families in the demon realms, surely you have nothing to do with the poor and plain people like me.”
The crow demon said nothing. He took out a small dark object, tossed it into the air, and disappeared with the two demons as suddenly as he had come.
Yu Zhu flew and caught the object before stepping back onto the ground again. She looked around frantically, but there was nothing she could chase after.
She looked down and opened her hand. On her palm was a small, glowing acorn.