|This Food Soul has not been released yet! More details will be added once it has.|
|“||I dislike places too drenched in desire.||”|
She is the owner of Dream Returning Valley in Light Kingdom. At first glance, she seems like a divine spirit who does not partake in worldly affairs, and has no regard for human reasoning; in truth, it's because she has never entered the mundane sphere and thus, doesn't understand the ways of the world. Candied Bird's Nest dislikes hustle and bustle, and she's somewhat biased against humans, believing they have too many desires, but in matters of right and wrong, she will still offer her help.
How to Acquire
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|Contract||You are a human, are you not? Truly, a pair of pure and beautiful eyes, so unlike the rest of them... If that is so, perhaps following you will do no harm...|
|Log In||You have returned? Apologies for not traveling with you. I dislike places with many people.|
|Ice Arena||Cold places are unsuitable for swallows to nest.|
|Skills||Your existence truly makes one unhappy.|
|Ascend||That long-lost calm - I feel more comfortable now.|
|Fatigue||I'm sorry, I'm tired. Perhaps I need some rest.|
|Recovering||Thank you for your concern. I feel much better.|
|Team Formation||You don't like them, do you?|
|Knockout||You must... be careful...|
|Notice||It's time to eat. I've made you some food to strengthen the body.|
|Idle 1||Everyone is always fighting; that is bound to take a toll on the body. I must prepare more medicine.|
|Idle 2||A moment in the mountains is ten years below it. Is the frivolous and impatient nature of the human heart because of the brevity of human life?|
|Idle 3||When there is spare time, I should take [Master Attendant] back to the mountain to stay a few days.|
|Interaction 1||I still prefer the peace of the mountains. This place is too far too noisy; all that is said and can be heard is an unbearably tumultuous lust.|
|Interaction 2||Oh... why do I dislike humans? Because I can see the desire deep in their eyes. You are different. You are very innocent, and so I find you pleasing to the eye.|
|Interaction 3||In the spring they go north; in the winter they migrate south. In the mountains there are no years, and only each meeting and parting with the swallows lets me feel the passage of time.|
|Pledge||You said... you want to be with me forever? No, it's not that I wish to refuse you, but rather that fleeting moment reminded me of many things. Without my realizing it, such a long time has passed with you by my side. So in our remaining years, please be my guide.|
|Intimacy 1||Ah! Don't touch me! No... it's not that I don't like you... I just mean... suddenly doing this... I... I'll be embarrassed.|
|Intimacy 2||With others, I could never muster up interest in speaking with them and rarely opened my mouth. At first, I thought it would be the same with anyone, but when I met you, my heart welled up with thousands of thoughts and I didn't even know where to start.|
|Intimacy 3||Are you tired? Let me make you a bowl of medicine. Don't always busy yourself; remember to rest occasionally. That way... you can also spend more time with me... ah... I'm just saying that is good for your body...|
|Victory||I have taken care of that which you dislike.|
|Defeat||Apologies... if I were just a little stronger...|
|Feeding||Ah, I like it very much. Thank you for your effort.|
This Story has been fan-translated. Official translations will be added when they become available.
I. A Longing for Love
The mountains know no calendar; when spring comes, who asks what year it is?
I bid a temporary farewell to the forest groves and came to the bustling capital city. When I saw the colorful lanterns hanging from each house and every door, it finally dawned on me that it was the end of the year.
People hurried by on their way home, clutching their furs tightly, but as I passed them, they could not help but cast envious glances my way.
I knew what they envied. It was nothing more than my face, my clothing, my appearance - such superficial things.
My name is Candied Bird's Nest. Through their eyes, I can see all their desires.
Humans don't realize this, but every desire has its own shape.
Take my Master Attendant, for example - an old flame the emperor had hidden away in the mountains, without name or title. Every day was the same as the last; she would wait for a messenger pigeon to arrive from the palace, and another day would pass into years.
She often sat by the window, staring into the distance; her eyes glowed pink, like peach blossoms in full bloom.
Or take the serving girl by her side, for another - she would scream for mercy every time she made a mistake, shuddering and trembling as she knelt bawling on the floor, yet in her tears smoldered a turbid black bloodlust.
And so, I never quite liked places with too many people.
Where people congregate, their ambitions spill out from them - too many, too much. Those burning desires blaze until even heaven and earth are distorted into mere indistinct shapes; to me, they are no different from any ordinary smoke and fire - twining into my lungs, making it hard to breathe.
But today, I had no choice but to come.
Master Attendant has always had a weak constitution. Every day, she drank medicine and tonics designed to support her body, yet it never showed much improvement.
In the last few days, she suddenly lost her appetite and complained of stomach pains. The situation only went from bad to worse. But the doctor assigned to her had gone home for the holidays, and when I wrote to the palace of her situation, I received no response.
Watching her body deteriorate day by day, I came to the conclusion that I had to go down the mountain and find a doctor for her.
I walked into the clinic. The place was as empty as it could be; only the medicine room had someone who looked to be a shopkeeper. His head was buried in an abacus, but when he saw someone had come, he raised his head to say hello.
"Peace and good health in the new year! What would this young lady like? We recently acquired a shipment of fresh ginseng - a truly exceptional medicine! Whether it's for yourself or for a new year's gift, it's certainly an excellent choice."
"I want to ask for a diagnosis."
"Ah! Young lady, where do you feel discomfort? I am a doctor."
"It is not me who is ill, but it is difficult for the patient to come here. Would this doctor be willing to come with me?"
After I explained why I had come here, that shopkeeper-like man seemed to lose interest and resumed pecking at the abacus in his hands. "Young lady, it's bad luck to make a home trip at the end of the year."
"Her illness can't wait. Please, doctor, I beg you - save her life."
The shopkeeper raised his eyes, looking at me. His eyes were alight with a calculating green fire. "Well, it's not that I can't do it, but the fee will be a little higher. I'll be honest here - today, out of all the clinics in the city, mine is the only one that's open."
I took out a bag of jewels and placed it in front of him. "Is this enough?"
That green fire in his eyes blazed brighter; in its light, he looked like some grinning demon. "Ah, you are quite generous. Give me just a moment - let me grab my doctor's kit and I'll come with you."
I nodded and went outside to wait; the blue sky and white clouds above me could at least wash that sight out of my eyes.
I had come here at great speed, but with the doctor in tow, it took a little more time to return. Despite that, the doctor was still terrified by my speed; when I finally stopped in front of the detached palace, he could not help but immediately run aside and vomit.
A magic field laid by the emperor himself concealed the mountain path to the detached palace; outsiders could never find it. No ordinary person could have imagined that in the myriad mountains and valleys surrounding the imperial capital, there was such a place.
Of course, the doctor didn't know who this palace belonged to - at first, he must've thought he'd been brought to some ancient mountain spirit's mansion. His legs wobbled; he kept reciting "may the Buddha preserve us" and praying for divine protection. Perhaps it was that bag of jewels that gave him enough courage to continue, but he finally steeled himself and, still faltering a little, walked into Master Attendant's sleeping chambers.
Master Attendant lay on her bed, deep in a daze. Even though her face betrayed her illness, her eyes closed but unsleeping, she still looked the very pinnacle of beauty. I tied a red thread about Master Attendant's wrist and handed the other end to the doctor.
Seeing that I'd actually taken him to visit a patient and not tried to ensnare him in some dangerous business, the doctor finally calmed down. He took the other end of the thread and carefully checked her pulse, finally looking more like an actual doctor.
After a little while, he hesitantly looked at Master Attendant, then at me. "Young lady, I don't mean to presume - but has the lady recently miscarried?"
I was shocked.
The emperor had not come for a long time.
Understanding my silence, the doctor turned his head back. "Never mind. Forget I ever asked."
He began writing a prescription. "In any case, it's blood deficiency and bone poisoning. The poison has spread throughout her body, and ordinary medicine can only treat the symptoms and make it less painful for her. But if you cannot treat the poison itself, there will only be trouble."
"What medicine can cure her?"
"If you can find a blood swallow's nest, then perhaps it can clear the poison."
"A blood swallow's nest?"
"The nest of a blood swallow - a very valuable medicine. A few years ago, it suddenly appeared on the market, but it was so rare and expensive that not even a thousand gold could buy you one. Unfortunately, they were all soon sold, and blood swallows are hard to find. Who knows if you can still find them in the wild."
"Regardless of whether I can find them or not, I still have to try."
"Then I can only wish you luck." The doctor turned to leave.
"Thank you. It's easy to get lost in the woods - let me bring you back."
"No, no - young lady, it's fine." He hurriedly waved his hands in dismissal. "I'll go myself. If it's just me, I might have to walk a few extra days, but it'll be good exercise."
He walked a few steps, and then, as if he'd remembered something, he turned and added, "I remember that in this mountain range, there was a place called Goldfield Vale. Legend had it the blood swallows once perched there - perhaps you can try your luck."
II. A Greed for Gold
The doctor told me that blood swallows have blood-red beaks, and because they only build their nests on the most precipitous of cliff faces, they are difficult to find. But deep within these mountains, there is a place called Goldfield Vale - and as far as he knew, that was where they bred.
Master Attendant's illness could not wait much longer. That night, I instructed the maid to make her medicine on a regular schedule, and following the doctor's directions, I came to Goldfield Vale. For three days and three nights, I searched the area - and then, behind a towering precipice, I finally found it.
But the moment I did, I was attacked.
A hidden weapon flew by. I grabbed it unconsciously; when I looked at it, I realized it was no hidden weapon, but merely a pebble. Hovering in the air, I floated a few steps in search of the owner of this hidden weapon - a girl in rags and straw sandals.
She sat on a natural outcropping, only a little way from this sheer cliff face. One of her legs was bent at an unnatural angle; she must've been injured. Despite the indignant way she looked at me, I could not feel the anger in her gaze. She had a pair of eyes I had never seen before.
Clear, pure, without desire or demand.
Human eyes - so this was how they looked without the taint of desire.
I could not help but move towards her, wanting to see more.
"Y-you can't come any closer! What do you want?"
I ignored her threats until a thread of golden light suddenly appeared in her eyes - the will to live. Then I did not come closer.
"I am a food soul."
She looked at me, still vigilant. "A food soul? Is that some kind of monster?"
"Perhaps. But I hold no evil intent."
"You want the swallow nest, and yet you still call yourself a good person?"
"I need them, but I do not plan to sell them. My master has fallen ill; only it can save her."
The girl stopped, astonished. "...really?"
She lowered her head, as if troubled by some internal turmoil. After a moment, she seemed to have come to a decision. "Go take it."
"Okay." I nodded, and then I held my hand out to her.
She jumped in fear and scrambled backwards. "What? I'm already letting you have the swallow nest. Why are you still here?"
"You're injured. I'll take you down the mountain."
She stopped, astonished once more, but her pale face seemed to have recovered some of its color. After a moment, she rubbed her hands in her clothes, then held one out to me.
Later that day, I took back the blood swallow's nest and the girl who had been guarding it. After I brought her to the palace and treated her wounds, she finally told me what had happened to her.
Her name was Jin Si, and she lived in a place in Goldfield Vale called Goldfield Village. Sheer cliffs surrounded the village, serving as a natural barrier; it was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. To enter and exit this deep gorge, all the villagers possessed excellent rock-climbing skills.
In the beginning, the people of this village followed the old traditions; men plowed the fields and women wove the cloth. Back then, the blood swallow's nest was no rare treasure - practically everyone had a few under their eaves, and those red-beaked blood swallows were as common as chickens. Every year, they would winter in the village.
But three years ago, an imperial official had passed by here. He and his horse had fallen bodily into the valley, and he sustained severe injuries. It was a family from Goldfield Village that rescued him, taking a blood swallow's nest and feeding it to him as medicine. A wound that would've taken many years to heal now miraculously vanished within the month.
The official asked the villagers what kind of miracle drug this was, and the villagers responded - this was merely the nest of the local swallows. It may be a medicine, but it was abundant here and certainly not miraculous.
After the official recovered from his wounds, the villagers helped him go home. Some time later, he returned with his retainers in tow. To thank the villagers for saving his life, he wanted to buy all the blood swallow's nests the villagers had. The villagers had never considered them worth anything - but if he was so insistent on buying them, then they were happy to sell them for the same price as any medicinal herb.
So the villagers suddenly found themselves in possession of a small fortune, thanks to those previously-worthless bird nests, and that should've been the end of that.
But not too long later, a villager who had gone to the city to sell goods came back and told everyone - those blood swallow's nests the official had bought were considered treasures in the city, worth a few thousand gold each.
"This news made its way around the entire village. The fields lay fallow, the looms sat empty. Every day, they'd just climb up the cliffs, and if they found a blood swallow's nest, they'd go to the city and sell it. Sometimes, a few people would work together to find one, and then they'd fight over how to divide the profits. Neighbors who'd never even had an argument in ten years would suddenly find themselves at bitter odds over a single nest."
"Later on, all the swallow's nests in the lower parts of the valley had been picked away. People could only climb higher and higher - so they started to have accidents."
Even if they were skilled climbers, they were still only ordinary humans. If they climbed too high, it was easy for something to happen.
"At first, it was just injuries - but soon, a few fell to their deaths. Only then did people realize that this was too risky, that it wasn't worth it. And so, most of the villagers stopped collecting swallow's nests and wanted to return to plowing the fields, living their ordinary lives."
"But after being neglected for a year, the fields had turned barren. Then, never-before-seen insect swarms began showing up. No farmer was spared; every crop was eaten by the bugs. Only then did we realize that those swallows who nested in the village every winter, who always seemed like they had no use at all, were actually the natural predators of these insects. Back then, the swallows ate all the insect larvae in the ground while they wintered here, but now, the swallows no longer came. And with no predators for the bugs, the land was ruined."
"We couldn't farm the land any more, but it wasn't like we could let ourselves starve, either. Those who had found blood swallow's nests and sold them left the village. They turned their backs on their home and went to the city. Only those few villagers who hadn't found swallow's nests stayed here, some still waiting for the swallows to return, others still climbing up each day in hopes that they might find a nest and free themselves from this place."
Jin Si was one of the villagers who had stayed here. A few days ago, it just so happened that she saw a blood swallow's nest, with an injured golden swallow inside. She did not dare to bring it back to the village - if she did, someone would most certainly ask where she'd found the swallow, and the villagers would most certainly trace this to its roots and pluck this blood swallow's nest.
By pretending to come out and play every day, Jin Si could climb up the mountain and secretly feed this injured swallow. And so, this had been going on for a good few weeks. When she'd made her most recent visit, though, she discovered the swallow was gone. In her surprise, she lost her footing - but luckily, she landed on this rock outcropping. After that, she met me, the one looking for these swallows’ nests.
"...and that's how it is."
I stared into her eyes, looking for a lie. Her eyes were still as clear as if they'd just been washed.
"In order to keep this swallow's nest from being taken, you climbed this mountain for half a month and twisted your ankle - yet in the end, you handed it over to me so easily."
Jin Si waved her hand dismissively. "You need it to save someone's life. That's a good use."
"But if the swallow you saved comes back, it will no longer have a home."
"It doesn't matter. To be honest, I know it won't come back."
"It won't come back?"
"That's right," she said. "Winter has come, and the golden swallows will spend their winter somewhere warm. I always knew that once it had healed, it would fly away - I just wondered, without Goldfield Village, where will it go?"
"Perhaps to the south, like the other swallows," I said. Musing on it, I added, "Next year, when spring comes, perhaps it will fly back with them."
"The south? I've never been there, but I've heard it's a good place. Very warm." Jin Si looked at me, eyes full of hope. "It doesn't matter, as long as it's a good place. Whether we're together, whether we can see each other again - none of it matters."
III. A Thirst to Kill
"Nothing lasts forever. As long as we're happy when we're together, that's enough." The hand Master Attendant was using to drink the bird's nest soup paused for a moment.
The blood swallow's nest was truly a panacea. After Master Attendant drank it, her health soon improved.
The messenger pigeon I'd sent to the imperial palace also received a reply, and the imperial court physician brought medicine - but it came far too late. A line of people all inspected Master Attendant with great bluster and importance, but their conclusion was the same as that ordinary doctor's.
A disease characterized by poisoned bones and blood deficiency was often the result of a pregnant woman wanting to induce a miscarriage, but using the wrong amount of medicine, causing complications in the uterus. The imperial doctor sweated profusely when he realized this, but eventually, he still offered himself up as sacrifice and reported her condition to the emperor.
The emperor was livid. He issued an imperial edict to investigate this affair, and not a few days later, they discovered a half-used bottle of saffron water in the room of Master Attendant's maid. Master Attendant had never treated her well; she had nursed her grudge for a long time, putting a little saffron in the bird's nest soup she presented to Master Attendant each day, wanting to poison her to death without even the gods knowing about it.
The maid was beaten to death, and her corpse was thrown into the depths of the mountains.
The emperor made a visit in disguise to see Master Attendant and stayed one night before hurriedly leaving.
"Are you trying to comfort me?" Master Attendant asked me.
"I just think - if you won't even spare yourself, it won't be good for your body."
Master Attendant laughed a little. "Who taught you to say that?"
"A little girl from a mountain village."
"How old is she?"
"Still a child, then."
"For Master Attendant to trade her own life for a moment of attention from the emperor - is that not the behavior of a child?"
"Bird's Nest, don't lecture me." She put down her bowl. "You don't understand."
I watched the peach-colored fire in her eyes, still as brilliant as the first day I'd seen her, and I couldn't help but miss Jin Si's gaze.
When Jin Si's leg recovered, she left the palace without a thought to staying. The day she left, I taught her each of the ways to pass through the palace's magic barrier.
"Why are you teaching me this?"
"I wanted to, so I will."
She looked at me a bit, then laughed. "Candied Bird's Nest, do you not want me to go?"
I didn't answer her; rather, I turned and kissed her on the brow. Her eyelashes trembled, as if they were two swallows about to take flight. "Go home. Your family will be worried about you."
She opened her eyes again. "I'll come back and find you."
"All right, when?"
She looked at the sky, then reached out to catch a pine needle blown by the wind. "It's too cold in the winter... Next year, in the spring - when the sparrows return."
Master Attendant stood up and sat at her dressing table. "Bird's Nest, come here."
I walked over, helping her comb her hair and take out her hairpins. Carefully, I separated the tangled strands of hair from the ends of her hairpins. This should've been the duty of her maid, but since her maid had been beaten to death, the duty fell to me.
I was not particularly adept at this, so I could only learn little by little.
Master Attendant particularly treasured her hair. She would often say that raven locks are locks of love - the strands that tie each of us together. Every inch had to be treated with great care and could not be taken lightly. The previous maid often accidentally pulled her hair and was rewarded for her efforts with an uncourteous slap.
From start to finish, Master Attendant stared at my reflection in her bronze mirror, her thoughts opaque to me. At long last, she sighed. "Let me do it."
She reached out and unceremoniously pulled out that obstinate hairpin, tossing it onto the dressing table. A few strands of jet-black hair trembled there, broken.
"I'm tired. You should sleep, too."
She stood up and walked to her bed. I watched her cover herself with blankets, and then I blew out the candle in the room, quietly leaving.
Something unexpected happened in the middle of the night.
First I heard the whistling wind, then I felt the waves of heat carried on the breeze. I jolted awake. What greeted my eyes was a sea of fire; all about me, I could hear the screams of fleeing courtiers.
"Fire! It's a fire!"
"We can't get out! The palace has been surrounded!"
I used my soul power to push open the doors and rushed outside. Walls of fire encircled the entire palace, tongues of flame licking at the sky, as if it were a scene from some cataclysmic nightmare.
The courtiers had fled from their rooms, but they could not find an escape from this firestorm. That golden desire in their eyes seemed to escape from their pupils and set their surroundings ablaze; it was already not too different from the fire itself. A swarm of burning figures, like leaping meteors - they wanted so desperately to escape, yet they did not know which way led to life, which way led to death.
Dazed and confused, I grabbed one of them. "Has the lady made her way out?"
"Get away from me! Don't get in the way of my escape!" He flung himself away from me, a string of jewels escaping from his grasp. One of them landed by my foot; on it, you could still see a few broken black strands - still with blood at their roots.
I grabbed him and threw him into the fire - I had no time to care about the details. Flying towards the hall, I flung open the door to her sleeping chambers with my soul power and rushed in. In the roiling smoke, I found her.
She lay in front of her bronze mirror, dark red blood painting the white silk on her back, as if she'd been charred by the smoke itself. A ghastly sight.
"Master Attendant!" I helped her up, trying to staunch the bleeding.
"You don't have to do this, Bird's Nest." As if with her last breath, she mustered up enough strength to lean against me. "You're about to be... free... Tell me... the contract disappearing... what does it feel like?"
Why would she ask this now, of all times?
"Tell me," she insisted, struggling against my attempts to treat her wounds.
I felt a little uneasy. At first, I didn't want to answer her, but when I looked down, I realized that the crimson fire in her eyes had vanished.
Not even the golden will to live still shone in her eyes.
"Master Attendant, you..."
"Tell me. Is it pain, or is it... happiness?"
"...it doesn't hurt. It aches." A teardrop landed on her face. It was then that I realized that I was crying.
"Don't be sad... Don't cry... Nothing lasts forever..." She looked at me, as if she were looking through me to see someone else - her eyes forlorn, yet strangely relieved.
Nothing lasts forever.
In the 68th year of the Imperial Calendar, the seventh year after I'd been summoned, my Master Attendant died from a winter wildfire, from the betrayal of the fleeing courtsman, from that hairpin the emperor had given her, from a longing for a man who would never come.
IV. A Lust for Life
That cataclysmic wildfire burnt for seven days and seven nights before it subsided; the emperor's magic circle held for three days before breaking. In that fleeting moment where that luxurious palace hidden in the mountains was revealed to the rest of the world, it was swallowed by those insatiable flaming tongues.
When the magic circle broke, I used my soul power to carve out a path and escaped with the surviving courtiers. They scattered to the winds; battered and exhausted, they hurried to seek their own fates.
I did not stay long, either. I left for Goldfield Vale.
Following the route Jin Si once told me, I flew down until I reached the bottom of the gorge - but strangely enough, I could not find the Goldfield Village she had spoken of. After landing on the ground, I walked about, searching what I could, and finally came upon a karst cave.
Right as I was about to walk in and investigate further, a voice suddenly sounded behind it. It seemed rather familiar. "Young lady, you can't go further."
I turned around. Indeed - it was that travelling doctor I'd invited to the palace to treat Master Attendant. He seemed rather unsurprised to see me.
"Ahead is a dangerous miasma. For a spirit being like you, it can cause irreversible harm, so you cannot go ahead."
"Why are you here? How do you know who I am?"
He laughed. "I don't know exactly what you are, but the current emperor has a particular expert by his side - someone who can travel a thousand miles in a day, dispel a thousand insects, mount the clouds and ride the mounts, undying and undefeatable. You are likely of the same type - a manifestation of the gods."
I made no comment, but rather turned to look at that cave he said I could not enter. "What kind of place is this? I came here to find a village - do you know if I have to pass through here to find it?"
He looked as if he'd heard a good joke. "There was never a village here."
I harboured plenty of doubts, but he beckoned me over. "Come with me."
Following him every which way, we finally arrived at a flowing stream. Upstream, there were the remains of what was once a massive tree. Now the tree's branches were a bleak sight, bare of all leaves; a few branches still reached towards the sky, like grasping claws fighting for a foothold.
"Ten years ago, the emperor ordered me to come to this part of the mountains and find a good location. He said he wanted to construct a palace here, a retreat from the mundane world, a place for someone to be hidden away. I immediately rode a horse here, but as I passed by this valley, my horse spooked and threw itself - and me with it - down the cliffs. It was a flock of swallows that saved me."
I looked at that doctor in surprise. He had walked up to the giant tree, caressing an outstretched branch; his eyes glowed with blue embers - he was reminiscing about the past.
"This flock of swallows had lived in this valley for millennia. With this divine tree as their home, each one had developed their own soul power. Although they tried their best to save me, I had sustained grave injuries when I fell down the cliff, so they had to use their own saliva to treat my wounds. Not long afterwards, even those wounds that exposed bone had gotten better."
"When my injuries healed, I asked them what they wanted as thanks. They said they wanted nothing. But back then I was young and wild, and I thought there was nothing I couldn't accomplish. And I thought that I understood these mountain spirits - who had ever heard of one that didn't desire to take human form? So I asked them myself - would you like to become humans and go out into the wider world?"
"Some of the swallows said yes, some said no. I left the magic to change forms with them and left. I never imagined that I'd be repaying their kindness with harm."
My heart skipped a beat - I had a bad feeling about where this was going.
"After I returned to the city, I busied myself helping the emperor with finding a location, building the palace, laying down the magic circle, and so on - I never had the chance to return. Then, three years ago, I suddenly heard of something called a blood swallow's nest selling for sky-high prices in the capital city. Allegedly, no matter what kind of injury it was, it would have miraculous effects. I thought that sounded familiar, so I went to investigate where they came from and discovered that the 'person' selling these nests was in fact a blood swallow taken human form."
"I asked it how it was in the valley - had everyone taken human form to explore the world? But it refused to answer. I found that strange, so I came back to see for myself and discovered that the great tree in the valley had withered and turned bare. And the swallows who still remained in the valley, even though they could all take human form, they all seemed haggard and pallid."
"It turned out that when I left the magic to become human in the valley, one of the blood swallows had taken human form and left the valley. When it returned, it told the other swallows - the human world was so beautiful! And so, the others were inspired to become humans and leave the valley as well."
"One after another, all the swallows left the valley. The divine tree that once lived in symbiosis with the swallows lost its protection and grew weaker by the day, and the miasma that lived in the bottom of the valley soon engulfed the tree. After the divine tree died, the valley became a valley of death. The few swallows who had not left had no choice but to leave the tree and the valley behind, moving their nests higher and higher."
"Soon, the first winter came, and the swallows - who had never experienced a winter out in the wide world - found themselves thinking fondly of their warm valley home. But when they wanted to return, it was already too late. The valley had become a place they could never go back to."
"Some of the swallows never lasted their first winter."
"Some of them stayed in the city until the next year. But they did not understand the ways of man, and they could only sell swallow's nests to survive. Soon, people discovered they were not humans, and they were quietly captured by the rich and kept as treasured pets."
"They dared not set foot in the human world, but they could not return to their valley. Now, I have no idea where they've gone. That day, when I asked you to find the golden swallows, I was also curious to learn if they were still here. So, young lady, did you find them in the end?"
As I listened to his story, I first thought of that golden light that had flashed through Jin Si's eyes, then of those empty eyes my Master Attendant had shown before she died. So many thoughts and feelings welled up inside me - as if I had blood caught in my throat.
"I wanted to save them and clear away the miasma in the valley, but the sad thing was - the entire mountain's soul power had been diverted to support the magic circle around that palace the emperor had wanted me to set up. Without that soul power, there was nothing I could do."
"So, you started a wildfire and burnt down the entire palace." I stared at him coldly.
He shook his head. "It was not me. Perhaps this was the will of the gods."
With that, the doctor left.
And as for me - I stood blankly under that enormous divine tree. In my head, two conflicting stories were arguing with each other. I knew not whether it was Jin Si who spoke the truth, or whether this doctor's story was correct.
Perhaps they were both true. Or perhaps, they were both lies to comfort me.
According to that doctor, he had felt the palace's magic circle break two days ago, so he rushed to the valley and using the newly-freed soul power, cleansed the valley and forced the miasma covering the valley back into that mountain cave. But there was some peculiarity about that mountain cave that kept him from purifying it, so he could only seal its entrance.
"Humans still have limits to their power."
I lent my strength to help the doctor seal the cave.
"An unbridled miasma like this, that so easily killed a divine tree, and these spirits, so easily shaken by things outside their heart - I don't know why, but looking at these things and then looking at myself, I keep feeling like this world is just teetering on the balance. But -"
He stood up, patting the dirt from his clothes, and looked at me.
"You, who are so new to this world that I don't know yet what to call you - for the gods to have created you, I suppose it means there is still some hope."
The wildfire may have been extinguished, but smoke and ash still hung in the air. It was as if a thick black snow had fallen over the landscape.
The withered divine tree faced the sky, reaching out with its already-powerless claws. I, too, stretched my hand towards the sky. For the first time in my life, I truly looked at myself.
Who am I? If the gods had created me, then what did they want me to do?
In that moment, I felt the corners of my eyes grow hot. I didn't know if it were tears or fire - but something slowly began to burn.
V. Candied Bird's Nest
A long, long time ago, Candied Bird's Nest was summoned in ancient Light Kingdom. Her Master Attendant was a consort the emperor had hidden deep in the mountains.
There was some unspeakable secret between this consort and the emperor, and so he commanded that a magic circle be built in the mountains, separating her from the human world, leaving her unable to move freely between the two.
It was said that the day Candied Bird's Nest was born, the maid, as she always did, brought the consort a bowl of bird's nest soup, and the consort, as she always did, asked, "Has a letter from the emperor arrived today?"
The servant answered, "It never has."
The concubine flung the bird's nest soup into a nearby magic crucible; her anger not yet spent, she slapped the maid across her face.
It was said that back when the emperor still fancied her, he had given her this magic crucible. It was a mere bauble, meant for her to amuse herself with. No living person knew how to use it; no one expected her to actually summon a food soul, yet this was how Candied Bird's Nest came into the world.
The moment Candied Bird's Nest opened her eyes, she saw the consort shattering the bowl in her hands, eyes burning red, as the serving girl knelt in front of her; she saw the serving girl trembling as she cowered before the concubine, screaming for her mistress to spare her life while her eyes smoldered with a black desire to kill.
"When desire blinds the eyes of humans, they turn so repulsive."
With such a first impression, she lost all goodwill towards humanity.
But what surprised Candied Bird's Nest was that this seemingly bad-tempered Master Attendant did not make excessive demands of her, as she had expected. In fact, her Master Attendant never made any demands of her. She could do as she pleased, save for one thing - she could not freely leave the palace and should always try to remain by her side.
Candied Bird's Nest never understood why her Master Attendant, who had the emperor's protection, who had so many couriers and maids to attend to her every need, still felt so insecure. Up until the day her Master Attendant died, she never solved this riddle.
One day, Master Attendant fell ill suddenly, and so this story reached its tipping point.
Candied Bird's Nest met a clear-eyed girl named Jin Si, and from then on, she had a friend who would return every spring and leave every winter.
Candied Bird's Nest remained in the great valley; she built a treehouse on what remained of the divine tree's branches. Drawing soul power from the mountains, she continued to battle with the miasma lurking within that bottomless cave. Later on, she would meet a few friends with the same calling. With those companions by her side, her treehouse would grow, bit by bit, into a mountain villa.
After all, even if that divine tree were gone, someone would always take on the duty of protecting this world.
As someone who always stayed aloof from mundane affairs, she naturally didn't know about the details of the matter.
It was said that the culprit behind the wildfire was found. It was a woodsman who hungered for greater rewards; he started the fire but lost control of it. In the end, he was beheaded for his crimes by the emperor.
As for that emperor, he did not stay in his position for long. Not two months after the fire, that martial expert he had long commanded the loyalty of suddenly betrayed him, personally killing him. No one knew where they went next.
A rumor spread that this mysterious expert was actually a vengeful ghost whose bones had been buried where the fire had started; their loyalty was only because the emperor had discovered their burial place and used it to enslave them. When the fire destroyed the magic the emperor had laid down, the vengeful ghost used that opportunity to betray the emperor.
Such a story seemed quite well thought-out. Everyone knew that the emperor had started a great project in the mountains, but no one had ever seen it. People could only guess at the final product - the only possibility was that it was underground. Perhaps it was an underground palace.
But where that expert had come from, whether or not they were actually a vengeful ghost, or where they went - those secrets and rumors soon vanished with the falling of a dynasty.
Candied Bird's Nest did not know what kind of myths and legends, warped and embellished beyond recognition, circulated in these troubled times.
All she knew was - the day the emperor had been killed, she had dreamed there was a vein in her that burned impossibly hot, as if some "person" that shared her very blood had ignited it into a boiling soup.
She did not pay attention to it; she turned, and went back to sleep.
Spring had come once more; a quiet calm blanketed the mountains, broken only by the distant cry of a swallow.
- 山中无日月，寒尽不知年。a line from 'in reply,' a poem by a tang poet using the pseudonym 'supreme hermit.' my rendition owes much to h.f. wang's translation.
- peach blossoms are traditionally associated with love in chinese - for example, 桃花运 'peach-blossom luck' refers to luck in love.
- in ancient china, men and women were not supposed to touch; a male doctor would have to read a female patient's pulse through a thread. this semi-mythological practice is called 悬丝诊脉.
- her last name is jin, written with the character for 'gold' (金); her first name is si, written with the character for 'thought' (思).
- the text alternately refers to these swallows as 血飞燕 'blood flying swallows' and 金飞燕 'golden flying swallows.' in reality, there is no such thing as either - the swallows that make bird's nest soup are called 金丝燕 'golden-thread swallows.'
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