Rainbows glowed in the spray to his right, fading and brightening as the light breeze stirred the falls. Sun glinted from ten thousand liquid diamonds as the hidden lake above him spilled out, cascading over the sheer rock, glistening as it fell into haze over rocks far below.

To his left, the mountain face rose sharply, beyond even his ability to climb. The path he walked was more of a ledge at this place. It may have been hewn from the mountain hundreds or even thousands of years ago. It was slick with spray, encrusted with moss and lichens.

The way was no longer steep, but he proceeded cautiously, testing the footing with his staff. The ledge was no more than a man's height in width, and a misstep would send him falling with the diamond shower to the rocky mist.

As he approached the rim of the hidden lake, the path became more level, and more dry, until his head rose above the sheet of perfect clarity that was the lake itself, shading to a pure blue in the distance. Further he travelled, until the path faded into a meadow of tiny white flowers.

Finally safe from the danger of falling, he planted his staff on the ground and leaned against it, gripping the wood with both hands, breathing in the calm of the lake, and breathing out the tension of his trek.

The clear surface to his right reflected another forbidding mountain face, while ahead and to his left the meadow rose into highland, ringed with trees and stands of bamboo. The sounds of the waterfall behind him was already somewhat diminished, being replaced by the feather-soft calls of insects and the distant shrieking of monkeys.

Far ahead was a gray structure; the only indication that the land was not entirely wild. He picked up his staff and continued his hike. The structure grew in his sight to become a modest cottage.

As he approached the dwelling, he became aware of a figure standing before the gray wall, partially in the shadow of the dense thatch of the sloped sides of the cottage. Closer still, he could see that the figure was small - a woman, he believed, becoming certain as he trudged ever closer. Clad in a homespun tunic and trousers, she held a hunting bow in her left hand, an arrow ready to nock.

She studied him as he came near, not raising the bow. He folded his hands on his staff and bowed deeply. The young woman - barely more than a girl - returned a curtsey, then motioned him into the hut, and to a low table, setting down her bow as he sat cross-legged on the ground. She poured tea into two bowls, then placed them on the table.

He stood again, and gave her another bow. "My name is Fulei," he said. "My lady."

"I am Qian," the woman said, returning the bow and sitting at the table. "Have you travelled far, warrior?"

"I am no warrior, Lady Qian," said Fulei. "I am merely a follower of the Way."

"I would hear why the Way has brought you here, after you are refreshed," said Qian. "You are hungry?"

"I still have a little food in my pack, my lady, but yes, I am."

"I will prepare a meal while you bathe," the young woman said. "The lake is very pleasant now."

"I thank Lady Qian for her hospitality, and the lord of the mountain for his," said Fulei.

Canted eyes regarded him thoughtfully. They were a pale amber that seemed to glow in the small light permitted by the unshuttered windows. Her hair was black, and straight; her nose narrow; her skin unlined by age or hardship, and much darker than his own. A deep copper-bronze rather than the peach complexion of the city's courtesans and favored wives. He thought her beautiful in a way that they were not, feeling himself strangely drawn to her.

"The lord has not been seen in many years," said Qian, at last.

Fulei felt his lips tighten at this news. "I have heard so, in my travels. It relates to my purpose."

"Then we shall speak of it," said the young woman, decisively.


Rice grew at the edge of the lake. Beyond the cultivated shallows a small boat was tied to a stout bamboo cane. It had a single rowing chair under a shade held by bowed bamboo. Twine in the front must be for fishing.

Past the boat the lake was untamed by rice plantings. Huge swaths of waterlilies filled the shallows, some white, some gold, some a deep pink. Farther from the shore, they grew with larger leaves with the same white flowers.

A low shrub grew beside a gap in the lake plants, where he could swim without disturbing them. There he stripped, washing his clothes in the icy water before wringing them out and laying them over the shrub to dry. He stood, naked, then dove in, the chill taking his breath away. He didn't consider the cold "very pleasant." Lady Qian must tolerate low temperatures better than he.

When Fulei emerged, shivering, he took his staff and began to work the forms of his discipline, still naked, until the exertion chased away the cold of the lake. A number of times he felt that he was being watched, but he didn't think he was within sight of the cottage. Possibly one of the noisy monkeys he occasionally heard spied on him from the woods.

His clothes were still damp, but he put them back on and continued his exercise until they were sufficiently dry.

Returning to the cottage, he was greeted with the aroma of spiced fish and rice. He bowed again to his host before sitting to eat.

The fish was very fresh, which surprised him. He hadn't seen or smelled fish when he arrived, and couldn't imagine the girl had spent the afternoon catching them.

"I bring a message to the lord of the mountain," Fulei said, when they had finished eating. "My master has heard that the warlord of the south was sending an expedition to take the lord's pearl."

"Why would he do that?" Qian asked.

"He seeks to show dominance over the mountain," Fulei replied. "If he takes the pearl then the dragon is his, but if the dragon is not here, the mountains can be his by conquest. Master Su says the warlord is an ambitious man."

"My family has tended to the mountain for a very long time," Qian said. "I would not like to see it fall to a warlord."

"I would not want to see my lady fall to the warlord's men," said Fulei. "Perhaps she should consider traveling down the mountain."

The young woman studied him again, then shook her head. "No. I have a duty."

"Yes," said Fulei, immediately. That was an argument he couldn't - wouldn't - challenge.

The interior of the hut was becoming dark. It was not yet twilight, but the sun was low enough that its light through the windows was high on the wall, and didn't give illumination to the table. Still, Qian's gaze remained on Fulei, and his impression was that she saw more than he would expect, especially as young as she was.

"It may be that the lord of the mountain is no longer here," Qian said. "It may be that he never was."

"That seems dangerously close to sacrilege, Lady Qian," Fulei said.

"If he does not visit his own mountain, then he can be no god," Qian replied.

"He does not visit? Ever?" Fulei asked, despondently. "Have you never seen him?"

At that the young woman pursed her lips. "I may have seen him," she said. "Long ago. In the water, and never out of it."

"Perhaps he is the lord of the lake," Fulei suggested.

"Then he is not my god," retorted Qian, "since I am of the mountain. If he hears of my impiety, he may snap me up like a fish when I swim in his lake."

Fulei grinned, in spite of his misgivings at her irreverence. He liked her teasing manner. Perhaps the dragon would, too. "Even so," he said. "He deserves to know that his pearl is at risk. If you have seen him in the lake, then the lake is where I should search. If I may cut trees, I can make a raft."

"There is a boat," Qian said. "If you use my boat to warn the lord, he may look favorably on me and not swallow me like an eel when I swim."

"Your generosity is great, Lady Qian," said Fulei.

"If you can not warn the lord, will you return to your master?" Qian asked.

Fulei shook his head. "I will not," he said. "Master Su released me. He says the lord of the mountain needs me. Master Su saw this in a vision."

That was only half of the story, though the more important half. He did not dare suspect that Master Su sent him away because the Way no longer spoke to his disaffection. The Way was true, he argued with his master, but insufficient. It had always seemed to him that his dreams were vivid, and full of wonder, yet never could he remember them. How could unrecalled dreams be part of the Way?

Qian gave him a thoughtful look. "Your master said the lord needs you, not the message you carry?"

"What use am I to a dragon?" Fulei asked. "Master Su says I am to serve. I know that I can serve by giving him a warning. So I have to believe that it is true, and that I will find him."

"Does the master have many visions?" the young woman asked.

"He has had others," Fulei said. "Several of my order have left to follow them."

"Do they come true?" Qian asked.

Fulei felt his lips curl in a self-mocking grin. "I do not know, my lady," he said.


He talked with the girl as the light continued to fade. Her survival in this remote wilderness impressed him. He had been trained to need little, but he did not think he could live alone. She farmed the rice at the lake's edge. She hunted goats for food and clothing, killing them for hides or trapping them for wool to spin. She fished. She could shoot a duck on the wing. She grew herbs and vegetables. And she must have been very young when she learned these survival skills.

The room was almost fully dark. Fulei was about to excuse himself to set up his bedroll on the grass outside the cottage when Qian spoke.

"Master Fulei," she said, "are you now a monk?"

Fulei pondered for a moment. "Master Su released me from service. I am not a monk, though what I am is not clear to me."

"It has been a long time since I have known a lover's touch," the young woman said. "Please. Lie with me."

"My lady..." Fulei had difficulty speaking. Qian's words shocked him for so many reasons. He may no longer be a monk, but he had never considered that he may no longer be bound to celibacy. And: surely this girl must be too young to have known a man "a long time" ago. And: never had a girl offered herself to him, let alone one as lovely as she.

"Lady Qian," Fulei began. "I am no monk, but I am still a priest."

"Then, as a priest, you would grant me a great blessing if you would share your body with me," she said. "As you are between masters, I call upon your service in this."

Fulei felt a pressure within his heart, together with a pressure within his trousers. The first seemed part of the lodestone pull that he had sensed since meeting her. The second was not entirely unfamiliar, but he had disciplined himself to ignore his reactions to thoughts of lust or desire.

This was more than those reactions, but his heart moved him to set that discipline aside. It would not be easy.

"Lady," he said, his voice rasping in his ears. "I have no experience in such a service. Are you able to teach?"

"I am," Qian said, simply.


The scent of goat tallow imbued the aroma of the late evening passing through the windows. Qian had lit a candle before the light had faded entirely. One side of her face glowed in its small light.

Fulei sat cross-legged, facing her, on her sleeping mat. Her eyes stayed on his, and Fulei found his breathing becoming heavy, and his heart beginning to race. He leaned upon his martial training to slow his heart and keep his breathing steady, if deeper than usual, but his skills did not address the rising excitement in the pit of his stomach. Nor would he make use of them if they had done so.

Qian reached forward, untying his coat, She pushed it backward over his shoulders to draw it down his arms. When it came free she lifted the coat to herself, then folded it carefully, setting it beside the mat. She caressed the firm muscles of his chest with the tips of her fingers, her eyes following, devouring the view.

Drawing back, she flipped the ends of the belt of her tunic forward, showing Fulei what she expected of him. He leaned toward her, untwisting the belt and unfastening her tunic, then followed her actions, easing the garment back, exposing small breasts. Keeping his eyes on her face, he folded the tunic, setting it aside, and only then did he allow his gaze to take in the sight of the smooth bronze skin, rising in a soft curve to dark nipples.

Fulei moved his hands to her, exploring her chest as she had his. As much in curiosity as desire, he stroked her nipples, feeling them change beneath his thumbs, becoming firm to his touch.

When he made to draw his hands away, the girl quickly took them in her own. She held his hands to her breasts, encouraging him to caress them, to enfold them in his hands, to feel, and to observe her reactions in the intensity of her amber eyes. His fingers roamed her breasts, touching her now firm nipples, withdrawing only when she released his hands.

Reaching forward again, Qian loosened the belt of his trousers. He had to move slightly to allow her to ease them over his hips, and uncross his legs for her to tug them free. His manhood stood upright, angled toward the center of the thatched roof. When Qian's fingers traversed its surface he switched to breathing techniques that he usually used to overlook pain. He did not want to ignore the pleasure of her touch, but he could keep it from overwhelming him.

The girl took off her own leggings, then moved forward, sitting in his lap, supported by his crossed legs. She moved her feet around him to meet at the base of his spine, then slid closer, his erection trapped between her groin and his lower belly. He felt the press of soft hairs against him.

Qian threaded her hands under Fulei's arms, placing them on his shoulder blades. Gripping him softly, she pulled him close, then pressed her lips to his.

Fulei had never kissed like this, and it took time to understand what she sought, but Qian's tongue on his lips forced his breathing to deepen. He moved his fingers to the girl's narrow waist, holding her as he found himself submitting to her passion, enraptured by the soft sounds she made.

She lifted herself against him, the hairs of her sex sliding towards the tip of his shaft, then back down. As she repeated the slow motion, he sensed her breathing becoming heavier, too. The feel of her body stroking the underside of his manhood was beyond anything he could have imagined. Beyond what he had heard of the pleasures of the smoke of the poppy.

Fulei moved his hands back to the young woman's breasts, caressing and squeezing. She made a soft sound and moved further along his hardened shaft. She seemed to be quivering with excitement, and as her passion grew, so did his own.

Qian slid higher and faster with each stroke. Fulei began to feel that he was about to slip away from her at the top of her lift. He could feel the tip of his shaft move forward, then press hard against her as she descended. Then it did indeed slip, only to be engulfed in her body as she lowered herself, slowly this time, sheathing him within her.

Fulei groaned at the sudden feeling. He closed his eyes and focused his breathing to control the sudden flow of warmth as the girl carefully moved to accommodate him fully. Then she began to move again, and heat diffused into his body from the contact with her.

Moving his hands to her hips as she began to rock against him, he helped lift her body, all the while holding it close to his.

She broke the kiss, resting her chin on his shoulder, breathing into his ear as she moved against him.

"Qian..." Fulei breathed softly, then felt her kiss his ear.

The girl began to pant as she moved, then to make soft voiced cries, deep in her throat, with every breath. Her hands pressed firmly against his shoulder blades, squeezing her body against his as her moans became louder.

"You may... ease your control, Fulei," she whispered. Whether the words were magic, or whether he was simply at the limit of his abilities, Fulei found that his feelings were on the point of pushing him past his limit. "Qian..." he groaned as his member tensed, seeming almost to twist inside her, before he felt a series of delicious spasms, and the tight feeling of his seed being forced out.

The young woman made a sobbing cry. Her body seemed to tighten around his, then she shuddered, quivering against him, until her soft cries became shuddering breaths.

Fulei leaned back to look at Qian, finding her face glowing with joy. Her amber eyes were bright as she kissed him, then drew back again.

"I accept your worship, my priest," Qian said, an amused smile on her lips. She pushed Fulei down to the sleeping mat, lying on top of him until his erection softened and slipped from her.

Rising to blow out the candle, she collected a small heap of goat skin bedding, covering them both with it as she curled up against Fulei.


On the following day, as promised, Qian untied her boat, and rowed Fulei out over the clear water of the lake. He stared down over the side, seeking any sign of the dragon or his pearl, but though the waters were not deep and the lake bed clearly visible, he saw nothing but fish, some quite large, and rocks.

"How large is a dragon's pearl?" he asked Qian, and, "Does a dragon's pearl glow?"

But the young woman shook her head. "I do not know, Fulei," she said.

In the early afternoon he saw a round shape. It looked more like an egg than a pearl, but he pointed it out to his companion, who set down the oar and joined him in the bow of the small boat to study the object.

Qian quickly shed her clothes. Fulei's heart quickened at the sight of her perfect breasts quivering in the bright sunlight. Then she was over the side, barely rocking the boat, as she arrowed down to the lake bed.

When the naked girl broke the surface, breathing heavily, she shook her head. Climbing back into the boat, she said, "It is a rock. Too large for me to carry back."

Fulei thanked her, certain that he could not have swum so fast and so deep in this icy water. Qian barely seemed to be shivering, though her nipples were hard with cold. Fulei drew on his training to suppress his surge of desire for the girl.

When they abandoned their search for the day, Qian dressed before leaving the boat.

Fulei helped her by turning soil and gathering herbs at her direction. She left him preparing a seedbed while she cooked rice for their evening meal.

When they had eaten, Fulei cleaned the bowls and cooking utensils. Then Qian came to him, seeming shy, in spite of her earlier unselfconscious nudity.

"Kiss me, Fulei," she said, somewhere between a request and a command.

"Of course," he replied.


Fulei took the girl in his arms as their lips met. He was finding that lowering his reserve around her was becoming easier, but the feelings she brought to him were still too new to classify. He knew that in this, his choice to serve her was also his desire.

Qian pressed her body to his as their tongues met. He felt her need as something even greater than the previous night, as though her satisfaction only gave rise to a greater hunger, which quickened his own yearning to please her.

She guided him to the sleeping mat before undressing him. Then she removed her own clothes and lay beside him, joining her lips to his again, guiding his fingers between her legs and showing him how she wanted to be touched.

Tentatively, Fulei's fingers explored, learning what made her squirm from the infusion of feeling, and what made her gasp with its intensity. He found the place that would make her arch her back and groan aloud, and felt her excitement build as he circled it gently.

Qian pushed him away, moving her small breasts to his mouth, where he discovered how his lips on her provoked her passion. He continued to suckle until she pressed him onto his back and impaled herself on his solid shaft, moving against him from the very moment he penetrated her until she cried out and collapsed on him, her heat pulsing around his manhood.

He maintained control, though the effort was arduous, as she reached another pinnacle, groaning with pleasure. Only then did he relent, spending himself within her as she moaned in fulfillment.


This set the pattern for their days together. In the morning, they would row through parts of the lake they had not previously covered. Fulei took over the bulk of the duties of oarsmanship, since Qian's eyesight was at least as good as his own. Occasionally she would strip and descend to the lake bed for a closer examination of the rocks, but never did they find any trace of a dragon or his pearl.

In the afternoon, they would cultivate plants, hunt goats or ducks, or return to the boat to draw a net through the water for fish. Sometimes Fulei would work on the girl's garden while she was repairing or stitching new garments.

Qian crafted him a set of lightweight homespun clothing from goat wool, much like her own, and tanned leather replacements for his worn travelling clothing which would afford him better protection.

Every day was warm, allowing Qian to recover quickly from her dives. On most nights there was rain, which made gentle sounds on the thatch while Qian and Fulei made love.

Fulei's training did not encompass the feelings he developed for the girl. They were akin to the love he felt for Master Su, but where he would have died for Master Su, as was his duty - and indeed, he would die for Qian, were it needed - rather would he live for her. And this also was his duty.

He felt that somehow she was the answer to his arguments with his master, though he did not understand why. Had he simply made the discovery that a celibate life is an incomplete life? He thought not, but the reasons for that also escaped him.


There came a day when Fulei understood that he was no closer to warning the lord of the mountain about the coming invasion than he had been when he had arrived. He faced Qian, both of them sitting cross-legged at the table, sipping tea.

"What will you do, then?" the young woman asked, when he told her he no longer planned to search the lake for the lord.

"I will do what I can to prepare," he said. "Perhaps my service is to prevent the assault from succeeding."

"How will you do this?" she asked.

He thought for a long time before speaking. "The path I traveled to reach here is treacherous," he said, "yet it is the only one. At the head, there is fair footing, and no passage if it is well-defended. I believe that I could hold back many men there."

Qian nodded agreement, then she offered a suggestion. "You could make the approach even more dangerous," she said. "We could render more goat fat."

Fulei understood her meaning immediately. "Indeed. If I grease the path below the defensive point, it will become much more difficult to win past me."

For several days the two worked to achieve this. At dawn, Qian would hunt a goat, which Fulei would help her butcher. Then she would begin to render it in a large outdoor cookpot. When that was done, they would take their current supplies to the head of the path, where Qian would build another fire to melt the fat, so that Fulei could carry it down the path to pour on the ground.

She insisted on tying a rope to Fulei, in case he misstepped, anchoring it to a rock at the top. He was glad of the idea, though he did not think it was necessary until he spilled a little of the liquid fat and almost slipped off the ledge.

After five days, he declared the work sufficient. The upper part of the path was clear. Though any intruders, if they were careful, would pass the slippery surface well before reaching his planned defense, their boots would still carry the grease. That meant that their footing would still be poor, but also that Fulei would need to be able to retreat to avoid stepping where an attacker had, so he would have to begin his defense further down the slope than he would prefer. Still, it was an inspired notion.

They ate a lot of goat meat with rice.

"When will they come?" Qian asked.

"Within days, perhaps," said Fulei. "Weeks, at the most. Before late fall, when the path will be impossible to take. And they will not attempt it late in the day. There is no rest, once begun, and they would not want to arrive in the evening or at night, when they may be at the mercy of a dragon who would see better than they. If I scout from the head of the path every morning, I will see them."

"What can I do?" asked Qian. "How may I fight with you?"

Fulei regarded the girl, unwilling to expose her to danger, but unable to deny her the right to defend herself. Besides, if the invaders passed him, she was in far greater danger.

"Stand at the head of the path, within bowshot of my position," he said, at last. "My fear is that they will hold back and use their bows. I can defend myself, but they could wear me down. Better that they engage. Then their archers will be unable to shoot. From behind, you can shoot at the leaders. They will need to engage to prevent you from slaughtering them. But when they do you must run, because their archers will seek to take you instead."

"I will do this," Qian agreed.

Their lovemaking that night was imbued with fear, as Fulei understood how easily he could lose this woman - or himself. Before Qian he would not have considered that such a great sacrifice. Now that he was beginning to understand how much his death would cost her, it became one.


Still, it was almost another two weeks before their daily trek to the head of the path bore fruit. Each day, Fulei wore his tanned leather travelling gear as armor in readiness. And then, one morning, sunlight glinted from steel. When Fulei could finally discern the column, his heart fell.

"Lady Qian," he said, more formal than he had been in some time, "there must be a hundred and twenty men or more. I had thought to hold against twenty or thirty. However defensible my position, I do not have the stamina to challenge so many."

"What would you do, Fulei?" she asked.

"I will stand, my lady," he replied. "I must. But you should hide. You should not let them see you."

Qian shook her head. "I stand with you, my priest," she said.


The progress of the column was halting. As carefully as they tried to move, some lost their footing on the spilled fat. At least two men fell to their deaths very quickly. The column's pace slowed, but even so, close to the end of the greased area, one man fell, taking another three behind him. All four tumbled to the clouded rocks far below.

Finally the leaders of the column came close to Fulei. He held his staff across his chest to symbolize a blocked path. "You may not pass," he cried.

"We will pass, monk," called the leader in reply. He raised his sword. The man beside him lifted a crossbow, but died before completing the motion, Qian's arrow in his eye.

As Fulei had expected, arrows flew from the rear of the column. His spinning staff knocked them from the air, but the archers only needed a single lucky shot to end his chances of defending the valley.

The wind had turned, and was coming from behind him now. It was much stronger than he'd experienced, whipping spray off the lake and sending it down into the rear of the column. The air movement would give Qian more range, but the column's archers would be firing into the wind and uphill. Their range would be far less than his companion's.

Then two more arrows passed over his head, taking the leader in the chest and scarring the neck of the man behind him. The column began to close with Fulei, stepping over the two corpses, and even though the leaders had to move slowly, their archers could no longer fire.

"Go, my lady!" Fulei yelled, as the new head of the column came within reach, sword drawn. Fulei's spinning staff knocked the blade aside, then smacked the warrior's wrist before hitting the throat of the man beside him with a sickening crunch. That man went down, a warrior behind him climbing over his body as the swordsman switched his weapon to his other hand. Fulei blocked a blow from each warrior in rapid succession, then flicked the tip of his staff against the side of the first man's head. Dazed, his opponent staggered over the ledge.

Fulei stood his ground as another man faced him. He blocked a further blow from his earlier opponent. As the new man raised his sword, Fulei's staff smashed it to the side, where it opened the neck of his companion, who screamed and fell to the ground, thrashing, trying to hold the neck wound closed. He knocked down the man behind, though he remained on the ledge, and a gap opened around the wounded man.

Having only a single opponent, Fulei spun his staff in his right hand, then lashed out at the man's sword hand. As his opponent tried to reposition his blade, Fulei's left hand struck the side of his neck, fingers stiff. He crumpled, dead before he hit the ground.

The next warrior to try to take his place was knocked aside by the wounded man, tripped over the corpse, and fell screaming. Those behind, seeing the danger, grabbed the wounded man and tossed him over the ledge. He also screamed as he fell. As the next warrior closed with Fulei, the one behind kicked the corpse over the side, moving forward, and Fulei again faced two.

The wind had picked up strongly. That was unusual. The weather had been calm and constant for several weeks. Now the sheeting water from the lake was causing serious trouble at the end of the column. Still, there were well over a hundred men to face, and by the time the drenched men had moved forward, they would have left the spray and be on more solid footing. Fulei was tiring, each turn of his staff costing him a little more effort. He wouldn't be able to best more than a fraction of the men still before him.

A warrior behind the ones he faced was raising a crossbow. Fulei lashed out at the man on his left, forcing him into the path of the crossbow wielder, jostling him. The man Fulei had hit collapsed with a shriek, blood pooling from the hole the quarrel had made in his back.

The wind had started to shriek. Fulei couldn't pay attention, but the front ranks of the column were looking increasingly nervous. Another warrior closed, making two again. Fulei's staff broke the wrist of one, then blocked a blow. He stepped back to avoid a second blow, then smashed the nose of the swordsman with the broken wrist. Blinded, he was no longer a threat.

A commotion in the near ranks drew shouts and pointed fingers. Fulei could not spare the attention to what was happening, but a moment later he saw a thin, spinning column of air passing from behind. The vortex of spray hit the column in its center, and two men fell before it dissipated. A second whirlwind followed it. Fulei realized that the sky was becoming dark with storm clouds, and rain was beginning to fall at the rear of the column, though the air around him remained dry.

More shouting and finger pointing broke out in the line of men, and this time he saw that there was true panic. He risked a glance behind, seeing a massive waterspout forming. Spiraling around it was a scaly body of jade and ivory, the width of an ox, but the length of ten, flying without wings around the whirling winds.

A sharp pain in his right arm brought him back to face the invaders. The leading swordsman had cut his flesh open while he was distracted. Fulei's eyes watered with pain, but he blocked the next blow and smacked the man beside him in the head, sending him off the ledge, almost into the huge waterspout that had erupted from the lake, heading for the center of the column.

At least ten men died, swept off when the spinning column of water hit the invaders. Many more were driven to their knees without falling. Fulei's opponent, the swordsman who had slashed his arm, looked back quickly to see the carnage. Then he yelled out to the men behind to retreat while he held the stick-wielding demon at bay.

Faced with complete destruction from the forces of the lake, the men turned and began to back away. Fulei blocked a number of cuts, then stepped back, his staff across his body, raising a hand to signal a pause.

His opponent stopped moving instantly, but held his blade warily.

"Do you swear not to return?" Fulei called over the roar of the wind. "Swear for your warlord?"

"I swear that no man here will return, monk," he replied. "I may not speak for the warlord, but we have all seen the lord of the mountain. No man here will challenge him again."

"Then I withdraw," Fulei said. "I do not speak for the lord, so I do not promise peace, but if you do not threaten him, he may be gracious." He glanced behind himself to see if the lake held another spout, but there was no sign of whirlwind or scales. The wind from behind had lessened, and no more rain fell.

The warrior nodded and raised his weapon in salute. "Peace to you, master monk," he said. Then he sheathed his weapon and began to descend the path with care.


Fulei held his arm, trying to keep his wound closed. When he was convinced that the column would not risk turning around, he moved carefully back to the top of the path, took off his leather shirt and wound it around his arm. The cut had not severed a vein, but he was still losing blood, and he hoped he could make it back to the cottage without passing out. He didn't know if Qian was nearby, or if she had run into the woods to hide.

She jogged out to meet him when he came close to her dwelling, bringing cloth with which she bandaged his wound temporarily. Neither of them spoke until they were inside, when she began to clean his wound.

"I need to stitch this," Qian said.

"Yes," Fulei agreed. Then, "Qian, why are you here? Why did you not hide?"

The girl set water to boiling, then began to gather herbs to make a poultice for the stitched wound. "I moved away," she said, "then I saw what was happening."

"You saw..." Fulei asked, his voice raw with exhaustion and pain. "You saw the lord of the mountain?"

"I saw the water taking life and crashing against the path," she replied. "When it calmed I waited until I saw you. You were injured, so I picked up the cloth and came to meet you."

"Thank you, Qian," he said.

The girl dropped a needle into the boiling water, then cleaned his wound before removing the needle with tongs and letting it cool. Fulei's breathing technique did little to minimize the pain as she stitched the flesh of his arm closed.

She finally finished, then boiled a piece of cloth, taking it out with tongs, and cleaning the blood off his arm with it while it was still hot. The heat stung, but brought relief to the wound.

When he was clean, she dressed his arm, using the gathered herbs, then wrapped clean cloth around the gash, tying it closed. "Will they return, do you think?" she asked.

"No," Fulei said, simply. "They left in terror. If the warlord sends more, the same will happen. Now I know that the mountain's protector is aware of the threat.

Qian looked at him with something close to fear in her own eyes. "And you, Fulei? You have warned the dragon. Will you need to leave?"

Fulei shook his head. "No, Qian," he said. "My master told me that my service was now to the lord of the mountain. Until he calls upon me, I will wait for him. With you, if you will have me."

The fear left the girl's eyes, and she smiled at him. "Of course I will, Fulei," she said.


Fulei remained weak for a few days, but his wound healed cleanly. He and Qian took to sitting outside of an evening, beside the lake, in the warmth of an outdoor wood fire, until the sky darkened. She didn't kiss him, or do more than hold his hand, telling him that she didn't want to cause him any pain while he recovered.

The sun was close to the horizon, several days later, when Fulei kissed her. Qian stopped him to ask if he was sure his strength was sufficient, and when Fulei stated that it was, she returned his kiss with enthusiasm. Soon they were each undressing the other, and Fulei's erection showed just how ready he was to join with her.

Qian pushed him down to the grass and knelt over his thighs. She took him inside her, slowly, as Fulei's eyes held hers. When he was entirely sheathed within her, Fulei lifted his fingers to caress her breasts, marveling as always how lovely her body was, and how amazing it was how this self-sufficient, wonderful woman both wanted him and completed him. Her nipples swelled to his touch as she started to move, her sex sliding high along his manhood before sinking deliciously against him.

He moved one hand down from her nipple to caress the places that excited her, and soon she was beginning to pant, as she pressed down hard against him. In very little time she groaned softly, and he felt her body shuddering around his erection.

Qian lowered herself to him, lying on his body, her soft breasts against his chest. He held her close as they began to rock together.

"I love you, Qian," Fulei whispered into the girl's ear. She stopped moving for a moment, then joined her lips to his as her hips rocked against him, their kiss increasingly passionate as their tongues met, and Fulei's hands explored her back and stroked her firm, smooth buttocks.

Qian began to moan into the kiss, and Fulei found himself ready to join her in ecstasy. She broke the kiss to move her lips to his ear. Panting softly, she said, "I accept your worship, my love."

Then her lips met his again as her body seemed to tense over him. Fulei felt her pleasure pour into him as he reached his own peak. Rapture flooded out from the explosion of his passion, filling him to the tips of his toes and fingers... and... beyond? The feeling not only swelled through him, he felt it outside what he had always known as his body, filling his coils, his talons and claws, as his gold and red scales twined with the jade and ivory of his mate.

Qian slipped from his grasp and spiraled above him. Fulei flew up from the ground, as they circled one another in the dance of love and bonding he recognized from his dreams, which opened up to him, now that he had found his true form, from that part of him that the Way had never touched.

Large amber eyes studied him from the jade dragon's horned head. He finally knew why he had never felt himself to be an entire man, and why he had needed Qian so completely. He knew why Master Su had seen his fate. His awareness took in all of his mate's domain, from the depths of the lake to the top of the mountain. He knew all of the life in the trees, on the hills, and in the water.

Qian's voice spoke in his mind. "Welcome to our world, my love," said the lady of the mountain.