1 Where Fate Is at Play
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It's aro week so I'll start posting last year's aro novel publically. This is a cute story about a dragon and a phoenix. I hope you'll like it! :) There'll be additional updates over aro week, after that, it's one chapter Saturdays each.

Zhu Hong stared at the path leading up the mountain, his expression solemn. Around him, the others were cheering, yelling for him to finally start and ascend. Finally, somebody patted him on the back. "It’s really time to go now. It might take a while until you find the right one after all and as soon as it turns dark …"

Zhu Hong turned to the side and nodded at Elder Bi. "I will do my best."

The other just laughed and patted his back again. "What doing your best? Just keep your eyes and heart open. When you see the right one, you will know it. So don’t worry too much, child."

Zhu Hong nodded, turned back to the front, and then started to walk up the mountain, his gaze already starting to rove over the grass to both sides of the path. Nothing could be seen yet though. It was just the lush grass billowing in the wind. He gave a hum and walked on, his gaze still roving from side to side and looking up ahead every now and then. He couldn’t miss it. If he did, this would really turn into a disaster.

Finally, there was the faint glimmer of sunlight on a smooth surface. Zhu Hong raised his brows and then walked over, looking down at the egg that was lying in the grass. It was about the size of an adult’s head. Compared to the dragon eggs that were usually dull, this one was of a bright green color but it lacked the patterns that were quite common in the eggs of the phoenix race.

Zhu Hong stared at it, trying to figure out if there was something special he felt. Unfortunately, there was nothing of the like. He shook his head at himself, turned away, and continued up the mountain. In any case, he should not have expected to find the one he could bond with immediately. That would be a little too easy.

The wind grew stronger the further he walked upward. In the time spent following the path, the sun was also climbing toward the zenith, becoming much warmer than it had been originally. The eggs got easier to spot between the blades of grass and in the small nests that had been put on the rough stone but no matter where he looked, Zhu Hong could not find one that elicited any reaction from him.

Slowly, his vermilion brows furrowed. This was the ceremony to find his life partner. But it all relied on him actually finding an egg that resonated with him. Now, it seemed that this was much more difficult than he had expected. Well, he hadn’t even made one full round yet. He shouldn’t worry.

Zhu Hong took a deep breath to calm himself and then marched on. He had reached about halfway up the mountain. From here on out, the path was winding around the mountaintop, letting him look at every single piece of land here. Somewhere, there had to be an egg that he could bond with.

The sun finally reached the zenith and then tilted toward the other side. At the foot of the mountain, the dragons couldn’t help but become a little worried. Often enough, the young dragons wouldn’t have to venture far up into the mountain before they actually found their egg. It was rare that one of them would take this long. But, well, there was still time. Before the sun went down, it was still likely for him to return. Afterward, when it became impossible to see the eggs in the darkness, he would have to give up and return.

It was a disgrace to any dragon if it happened though. And Zhu Hong … he had always been a promising youngster. Elder Bi had taught him everything he knew himself and had always bragged about how far he would be able to go in the future. Now, the Elder was sweating profusely at the thought of this young fledgling not being able to actually find a partner.

Sometimes, things like this just happened. They would usually try to calm the young dragons down that had had to return without an egg, telling them that maybe the one meant for them just had not been placed on the mountain yet. Maybe they had just been a little too early and needed to wait for their egg to appear. Then, one day, they could just try anew.

But it was always a strange situation because, of course, the phoenixes also wouldn’t want that one of their eggs was just a second choice to one of the dragons. They might not say anything out loud because they weren’t the ones to choose the eggs after all but it was clear from the way they treated these dragons that they were unhappy with them. If the same happened to Zhu Hong … Elder Bi really didn’t want to think about what that might mean.

Back on the mountain, Zhu Hong also glanced up at the sky and sighed to himself. Time waited for no man. If he still wanted to find an egg, he would have to hurry up. Thinking of that, he accelerated his steps but still tried to make sure that he looked at each and every single egg on the side of the path for at least a moment. Nothing changed though.

Compared to the seemingly plain eggs he had seen at first, the ones he came past now were different. They came in all shades of colors, some of them showing beautiful gradients or intricate patterns. They were beautiful and sometimes, he would like to stand there and appreciate them for just a moment. But he never felt more than that and he could not help but be confused.

Was this what it felt like to be bound to an egg? But then why were there several he felt this way toward? Or could it be that he had gotten it wrong? Was this just appreciating their beauty but not actually feeling a connection with them? He just didn’t know. Elder Bi had always made it sound so easy when they talked about it previously but now that he was in the actual situation, Zhu Hong was just confused.

And unfortunately, time was running out. He could not look around for much longer. He had to find an egg soon or it would be too late. How could he return with empty hands? What a disgrace not only to him but also to the Elder that had taken him in. How could he let that happen? He owed Elder Bi. And also, who wanted to stay alone for an unknown amount of time? He was looking forward to finally having a spouse and starting a family of his own again.

Zhu Hong had already come of age some time ago. He had waited a while before starting the ceremony because he wanted to have a few more experiences. And he wanted to make those while there would be no harm done if he injured himself. After he found his egg, he would likely not feel comfortable going out and exploring the same way he had done before. What if he came to harm? Wouldn’t his spouse have a bad starting point then? Who wanted a husband that could not provide for you? No, that was something he did not want to put his spouse through.

Zhu Hong finally reached the top of the mountain. There was a big nest there with half a dozen eggs grouped together. He didn’t know if they had been put there by the same family or if they had been placed there by strangers. He stepped a little closer, furrowing his brows further while he looked them over one by one. Unfortunately, that special feeling still did not occur.

Zhu Hong closed his eyes and turned his face toward the sky, silently cursing himself. What was wrong with him? Why was he unable to find his life-bound partner? Since he had waited longer to come, his egg should already be here. Or maybe it had been taken away? Could that be it? Had somebody else come in the years since he had turned an adult and actually chosen his egg accidentally? He didn’t even want to think about that. If that was the case, then he would’ve lost out forever.

He raised a hand and rubbed his face, trying to calm down. He couldn’t change it. He had gone around the whole mountain top but hadn’t found his egg at all. Now, what was he supposed to do? There were only a few more hours of daylight left. Should he just return? Or should he make another round and hope for the best?

The latter seemed idiotic. Could he really expect a different outcome than the one he had already gotten the first time? He had made sure to look at every single egg. Since there had been no reaction, that had to mean that his egg wasn’t there.

Sure, maybe he had missed one or two that were a little more hidden but that was already pretty unlikely since they were usually put down close to the path. How could he miss one? He hadn’t found a single place where the grass had been growing so high that he couldn’t see the eggs anymore either. And with the sun already being so high, the smooth surface of the eggs would usually shimmer in the light, making even more obvious where they were. It was virtually impossible to overlook one of the eggs. He didn’t need to have any illusions about that.

Still, Zhu Hong started to make another round. In fact, he left the path a little, looking further away just in case that one of the eggs had been placed there after all. It didn’t seem that he had much luck though. Just as he had thought, most of the eggs were placed close to the path, where they could be easily spotted.

If the egg had already been brought here by its parents, it should be somewhere close by. Nothing else made sense. The egg couldn’t just vanish on its own and nobody else could come here and cause trouble. After all, this mountain was well-protected. There were guards patrolling at its foot and a big formation keeping attackers that might come from the air out as well. Not to mention that those guards would be here in a heartbeat if somebody dared to try. There was nothing but the wind and rain that might be able to harm these eggs. And the elements usually weren’t able to harm them. Despite their delicate outer appearance, the eggs were actually quite hard. To break one of them, it would need a lot of force. There had never been a need to hide any of them and they could just be placed in plain sight.

The sun sank further toward the horizon and Zhu Hong became discouraged. It seemed that soon enough, he would have to return empty-handed after all. He shook his head at himself, glanced at the sky, and then slowly made his way down. There really was no way to find his egg anymore. It just wasn’t there.

He didn’t go down the path he had taken up and instead chose a smaller one at the side. In any case, he didn’t need to run into everyone immediately. It would be nice to have a few moments to gather his bearing first.

This path led through a part of the mountains that was not looking as bright as the rest. The grass had thinned a little since the wind was strong here and the stone beneath could be seen clearly, the edges transformed into bizarre structures by the rain.

Zhu Hong glanced at them, feeling that it was a little fitting to take this path down since he was definitely an oddity of their race for being unable to find his egg. Just when he turned away, a faint sparkle caught his eye.

He took a few more steps before he realized what had just happened and stopped in his steps again, turning back slowly to look over there. At first, he couldn’t see anything. The path behind him seemed empty and beside it, there was nothing but those odd stone structures but when he turned his head away again, the movement made something flicker in the corner of his eye again.

Zhu Hong’s heart thumped and he turned back again, locking onto the place he had noticed. Narrowing his eyes and taking a few steps closer, the faint hope turned into certainty. It really was there. It was just a faint glimmer and a crevice in the stone, hardly able to be seen if one didn’t look very closely, but there was clearly something in there. Something that could only be a phoenix egg.

Zhu Hong’s heart thumped even more loudly in his chest and he hesitantly made his way over there, step-by-step, holding his breath when he knelt down beside the crevice. He could see a bit more of the egg from close up. It was a muted gray with pale orange, wavy lines running over it that were forming a beautiful pattern. He admired it for a while but, unfortunately, just like with the other eggs, he did not feel anything special about it.

He sighed and got back up. He turned around, ready to move down the path. He had just taken one step when he stopped though. He stared down the path and then slowly lifted his gaze to the sky, which was already slowly turning gray. Slowly turning his head Zhu Hong looked at the beautiful egg down in the crevice. For a few minutes, he didn’t move and only his hair was wildly blowing in the wind. Finally, he bent down again, carefully reached into the crevice, and took out the egg.

A hint of guilt nestled into his heart while he turned the egg over in his hands, making sure if it was still alright. He wasn’t that afraid but it was unusual for an egg to be put in a crevice so maybe it had actually rolled in there by accident in a storm. That kind of thing might not necessarily harm an egg but it was still better to make sure.

After turning it around once, Zhu Hong couldn’t find even the smallest of cracks. He did, however, realize that the egg had collected quite a bit of dust. What had seemed like a gray base before turned out to be a creamy white instead and the orange pattern was actually a bright, apricot-colored one. Apparently, this egg had been lying in there for quite some time. Now that he saw its true appearance, it was even more beautiful.

Zhu Hong used his hands to free the whole egg from dust and couldn’t help but voice his thoughts. "If I don’t take you along today, who knows if somebody else will notice you in there? I could probably put you down somewhere else but since I’ve already taken you out, maybe you wouldn’t mind if I carried you down the mountain. I sure hope so." He patted the egg, still feeling guilty. Nevertheless, he got up, turned around, and walked down.

When he reached the foot of the mountain, he startled the two guards that were stationed next to the path.

"Zhu Hong?"

Zhu Hong smiled faintly, rubbing the egg in his arms. "I took a different path down on the way back since it was already quite late. I hope I didn’t startle the two of you." He smiled brightly and nodded at them. He seemed calm but, in fact, his heart was beating violently. He felt like a fraud. Clearly, he had just picked the egg up by accident, not because there really was a special connection between them. Would others notice? He couldn’t help but worry about that.

At the very least, neither of the guards seemed to find anything strange. "It’s already quite late indeed. You should probably hurry back to the front."

"Yes, I’m sure Elder Bi will already be worrying." The two of them encouraged him, smiling when they looked at the egg in his arms.

Zhu Hong nodded, rubbed the top of the egg again, and then left after saying his farewell. He walked over to the front of the mountain, his heart still seeming to be stuck in his throat. But he walked on. In any case, he had already taken the egg. The guards hadn’t noticed anything. Maybe nobody would.

And who said that he couldn’t still be a good spouse for the one that would be getting out of this shell? Even if there was no special connection, he would definitely treat them well.

Thinking of that, Zhu Hong felt a little better. In any case, it was true that this egg had been quite hidden. Normally, hardly anyone ever took that path. And with how this egg had already been a bit dusty, it would’ve been even more difficult to spot it in the future. Yes, he might be this egg’s only chance to find its way down the mountain.

He continued to rub it, making the last bit of dust come off. It really was pretty when looking at it like this. Who knew how the one hatching from it would look later on? He couldn’t help but be a little curious.

Finally, the group of Elders and other adults that had been waiting at the main path leading up the mountain came into view. He could feel the tense atmosphere surrounding them. Some were talking in hushed voices, clearly worried that once again, somebody would descend without an egg. Zhu Hong also saw Elder Bi who was staring up the mountain with his brows furrowed and his gaze worried. Clearly, he also didn’t want that to happen.

Zhu Hong smiled faintly and patted the egg. The two of them were bound together now. He couldn’t help but be a little thankful that it had made it possible for him not to disappoint Elder Bi. If it was just the others, he might not mind as much, but when it came to Elder Bi, he didn’t want to give him cause to worry.

Zhu Hong walked over slowly, not showing that he was there yet. In any case, they would soon notice anyway.

As it turned out, Zhu Hong had been wrong. He got closer but Elder Bi was staring up the mountain with his gaze growing more worried with each moment while the others had already descended into a spirited discussion, wondering how it could be that Zhu Hong of all people was unable to find his destined egg. Thus, nobody noticed that he was approaching. He smiled wryly and lightly shook his head, finally clearing his throat when he had reached the edge of the circle that had formed around the path.

The others look back to see what the one behind them wanted to say and one of them actually yelped when they saw Zhu Hong. "Zhu Hong! Where did you come from?"

Zhu Hong faintly raised his brows and then motioned down the path he had just taken. "It took a while to find it so I chose the closest path to make sure I didn’t have to go down while it was dark."

This explanation was quite sensible. The phoenix eggs might be sturdy but nobody would put them in danger deliberately. Since it had been found, it was best to carry it down while there was still a sliver of sunlight before they finally brought it over to the phoenixes’ place tomorrow.

Zhu Hong smiled faintly and then motioned ahead. "Well, would you let me pass through?"

The others hurriedly nodded and then stepped to the side, letting Zhu Hong walk over to Elder Bi’s side. The Elder had looked over as soon as he heard Zhu Hong’s voice and relief flooded his eyes. He smiled brightly when Zhu Hong finally came out of the crowd. "I see you made it back in time."

Zhu Hong nodded and rubbed the tip of the egg again, looking at it thoughtfully. "It was a bit hidden so I actually missed it when I went around the mountain the first time. I almost thought there wasn’t one for me." He freely admitted to that thought, a hint of guilt once again awakening in his mind. He knew that if he stayed as close to the truth as possible, it would be more believable. But it still didn’t change that he was boldly lying here.

Clearly, this was not the egg he had bonded with. There was no such egg. If there would ever be one, the chance was already lost because now, he had taken another one back. This meant that he had deprived his originally destined partner of the chance to be with him, and had also deprived another dragon of the chance to be with their partner.

He should feel bad about that. But at the same time, he couldn’t bring himself to admit to it. No, the time to reconsider had already been long past. At the moment when he carried the egg down from the mountain, he had already lost the opportunity to do so.

Elder Bi looked at the egg with the delicate pattern and nodded to himself. "It’s beautiful. Congratulations. I’m sure your partner will be a delicate beauty as well."

Zhu Hong smiled. No matter how his partner looked in the future, he would still do his best to treat them as well as he could. For this person, he would go above and beyond to make up for what he had done. Even if fate was not at work, he would make sure that they wouldn’t have a single complaint at his side.

"It’s late already. We should probably return."

Elder Bi nodded and the dragons finally grouped together, returning to the valley. Most people returned home while Zhu Hong, Elder Bi, and the small progression of other Elders made their way over to the temple.

Zhu Hong carried the egg forward and then sat down in front of the altar, his heart thumping loudly with every step. When he knelt down, he feared it would jump out of his chest to show the dragon god just how shameless this son of his race was for making a mockery out of such a sacred ritual

Zhu Hong stared up at the statue of the dragon god, his mouth dry. He kept quiet for a moment and took a shaky breath, gulping to somehow find his voice back. "This member of the dragon race, who is going by the name of Zhu Hong, has come to present his future spouse to you." He took the egg with both hands and then carefully raised it in the air for the dragon god to see.

He had to force himself to make sure that his hands didn’t accidentally tremble and show that he was just playing an elaborate act. Finally, he bowed his head and then took the egg down, hugging it against his chest once more. Now, he would have to keep vigil at this place until the next morning before they went over to the phoenixes.

The Elders only watched on for a moment before they nodded at each other and then left. Only in the morning when the sun went up again, would they return to accompany Zhu Hong to the forest.