Chapter One: The Peach and the Demon
The young girl's silver brocaded slippers touched down on the waiting cloud, followed by a slender wooden staff. For a moment, it looked as if the girl was steering the cloud with the staff, but the illusion was broken by an explosion of motion. Slippers turned into a blur as the girl darted forward, jumped into the air, her long golden hair streaming behind her as she rolled into a somersault, the staff tucked under her arm. The girl sailed up and over the edge of the cloud and landed on another cloud a short distance away. Three more somersaults from cloud to cloud and then a final jump took the girl plummeting down to land feet-first on the top of a Bodhi tree.
The girl's balance and footsteps were sure as she walked along the delicate branches of the tree's crown. She crouched, looking at the leaves on the branch before plucking one free. The girl held the leaf to her lips and blew across the heart-shaped surface. A short melody, like the tune from a minstrel's flute, was the result of her effort. She repeated the melody two more times and then jumped from the branch to the waiting grass.
The girl walked over to the Bodhi tree's trunk and placed her staff against it. She then unslung a small embroidered bag from her shoulder and placed it onto the ground. The girl sat, crossed her legs, and placed the Bohdi leaf in front of her.
Cricket, Butterfly and Ant approached her.
"Echo!" said Ant. "What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be studying with the Heavenly tutors?"
"My mother tried to make me wear a dress and it's far too nice a day for that!" Echo replied, her face twisting up in a grimace of disgust. "So I decided I would wear trousers and come to play with my friends instead."
"Won't your mother be angry when she finds out you aren't studying?" asked Butterfly.
"I'm not worried about that at all," replied Echo as she reached into the bag.
"Won't your mother be upset when she finds out you're wearing trousers?" asked Cricket?
"I haven't given that much thought," said Echo. "They're my favorite trousers. And I hate dresses. That's what's really important."
Echo pulled a juicy peach from the bag and rubbed it on the worn and patched leg of her grass-stained trousers before placing it on the Bodhi leaf.
"Are you hungry? Would you like to share this peach with me? It will be delicious. I went to great trouble to pick it from the Jade Emperor's grove. I had to transform myself into a dandelion seed and float through the gates and past the ever-watchful fairies. It took a very long time to drift to an unattended tree. I transformed into a peacock and flew to the top of the tree. I then plucked two of my own feathers -- which were actually strands of my hair -- and turned them into a cat and a mouse. I set them running, and when the fairies stopped to follow the commotion, I plucked a peach and flew away to roost on a cloud."
"You took this peach from the Queen Mother of the West's orchard?" asked Butterfly in alarm, her high-pitched voice turning into a squeak.
"She's not my mother, and I wouldn't have had to take the peach if my mother had been sensible and left me and my favorite trousers alone. And all of that transforming and thinking and sneaking has made me hungry. Let's eat!"
Echo stood up with the peach in one hand, the other hand plucking the staff from its perch against the Bodhi tree's trunk. She tossed the peach into the air. Concentrating, she stuck her tongue slightly out of her mouth, and then swung the staff at the peach. The peach burst, raining down a torrent of sodden pulp and juice.
Echo wiped juice and bits of peach from her face, her cheeks turning crimson with sticky embarrassment.
"I meant to divide the peach into three equal sections and have it land neatly on the leaf, ready to eat" said Echo, her voice heavy with regret. "I'm very sorry. It always works perfectly when my father does it."
Echo popped a finger in mouth, and her face brightened with a smile.
"It's delicious! Let's collect what's left and have our feast!"
Echo, Cricket, Butterfly and Ant began to gather the remnants of the peach from the grass. Soon the Bodhi leaf was piled high with peach fragments. Cricket, Butterfly and Ant were so busy enjoying the feast that it wasn't until it was all gone that they noticed that Echo hadn't eaten anything.
"Princess_Echo, why didn't you eat any of the peach? I thought you were hungry and it was so tasty. I've never had anything so sweet!" said Butterfly, her wings flapping with contentment.
"I had my fill at the last Bamquet of the Peaches. My father also gives me one every time he sees me, but I'm not supposed to let mother know. They are delicious and I am hungry, but I wanted to share a treat with you," Echo replied.
"I wish Bee were here," said Ant. "She would have enjoyed this special peach so much! This would be the perfect ingredient to make her heavenly honey even sweeter!"
"Where is Bee?" Echo asked.
"Haven't you heard?" asked Cricket. "A demon recently came to the valley. He's been holding Bee's hive hostage and taking all of her honey. The demon is fierce and hungry. We are not strong enough to oppose him"
"Why haven't I heard of this?" demanded Echo. "Has anyone notified the Jade Emperor?"
"Snail left three days ago to make a report, but he came back this morning. He didn't have the proper paperwork to submit a petition," said Butterfly. "The guardian spirits of the valley tried to force the issue with the demon, but the demon was too strong. The spirits are all hiding and refuse to come out until the demon leaves."
"My family is willing to work ceaselessly to drive this invader from the valley, but even in our vast numbers, we are not enough to defeat this demon," said Ant.
The valley was under the protection of the Jade Emperor. Echo had never heard of demons or any other enemies of Heaven in the valley, much less ones bold enough to harass and bully the valley's citizens. Her friends!
"Friends," said Echo, "we cannot wait for word of this to reach to the Jade Emperor. We have to do something now."
"What can we do against such a fierce demon?" asked Butterfly, her wings flapping so fast with agitation that Cricket and Ant's antennae were pushed flat against their heads.
"What we can't do is let a bully push our friends around. This is our valley," said Echo. Her cerulean eyes gleamed like polished sapphires. "I have a plan. Come, gather round me and let's work together."
The demon awoke to hunger in its belly and a chorus of chirps.
The demon never slept well. Dreams and hunger troubled the demon, dreams of another life, a life when the demon was smaller, less driven by hunger. Asleep or awake, the demon was always hungry and thirsty. No matter how much he ate or drank the demon was never satisfied. He wanted more.
The demon growled as it woke up. The demon crawled from his dark burrow into the merciless sunlight.
"Who's making that noise?" the demon said. The demon did not like the sun. Daylight burned his eyes. Squinting, he looked around. He could see nothing out of the ordinary.
Rising up on hind legs, the demon sniffed the air. He smelled crickets, butterflies and ants. He smelled peaches. And he smelled something else, but he couldn't identify it. The scent reminded him of the mistress, which filled him with a moment of fear.
Fully awake now, the demon concentrated. The sound must be coming from crickets. How dare they wake him and bring him out into the awful, miserable sunlight?
"You can't hide from me!" the demon roared. "Crickets, butterflies and ants! Unless you want to become my breakfast, leave this place and never come back."
A rustle came from a growth of nearby bushes, followed by the appearance of Ant, who was further followed by a multitude of ants of all shapes, colors and sizes.
"Come forward, tasty mouthfuls," said the demon. He lowered himself, massively clawed forelegs digging furrows into the dirt as he shambled forward.
"Please hear me out, powerful one! My brothers and sisters have come to bring you a feast. We offer something far tastier than ourselves," said Ant.
Ant turned and gestured with his antennae to the host behind him. A mass of ants surged forward, carrying a peach pit on their backs. They marched to within several paces of the demon and dropped the peach pit in front of him and then rapidly returned to their place behind Ant.
"Do you smell that delectable scent, most insatiable one? As I'm sure you possess a discriminating palate, you must know this humble peach pit came from an extraordinary peach."
The demon wrinkled his snout, sniffing at the peach pit. It did smell wonderful, like no peach the demon had ever smelled before. His mouth began to water and his stomach rumbled.
"This is just a peach pit, miserable ant. I'll admit, it does smell quite good, but I don't eat peach pits. I eat peaches. And when there isn't peaches, I eat ants."
"But terrible and magnificent conqueror, what if I were to tell you that more of these peaches could be yours? Are you familiar with the Queen Mother of the West's magnificent peach orchard? It is said that the peaches grant long life and good health to all who eat them. This peach pit comes from that auspicious orchard. And we seek to serve you a banquet of blessed peaches, if you would allow us this great honor."
"Your offer is tempting, but so is the thought of devouring you. I am not from this land and the Queen of the West is not my Queen. I serve another mistress, and her wrath and power are terrible to behold. She sent me to this far-away land to eat and drink my fill. Where is this feast of miraculous peaches you boast of? I see nothing but tasty ants and a peach pit."
The demon took another lurching step forward, opening his jaws.
"Patience, most perceptive interloper. My brothers and sisters and I are not alone in offering you this feast. You have conquered our homes, so it is only right that we submit to you and offer fealty. The butterfly and cricket clans also recognize your power."
At this, Butterfly and Cricket appeared from behind the stand of bushes, each of them followed by a host of butterflies and crickets.
"Yes, ravenous one, we would be honored to if you would let us serve you this feast," said Butterfly, dipping her wings in a curtsy.
"Please, ominous subjugator, accept our humble offerings," said Cricket, crouching low in the grass.
"We would welcome you with a feast befitting your status," said Ant, his head bowed and one foreleg held up in salute.
The demon, feeling flattered, closed his gaping mouth and settled back on his haunches. Why not let these morsels bring him a meal? Or better yet, two meals, with the possibility of left-overs. He might even fill his bottomless stomach for once and the thought became almost as over-powering as his incessant hunger.
"You pitiful insects seem to possess more wisdom than nourishment. Normally, I would consume you without a second thought. But your offer intrigues me. However, I still do not see any peaches," the demon said.
An ancient, wizened woman hobbled out from behind the bushes. She leaned heavily on a wooden staff. She stood scarcely taller than a small child, her back bent with age, hair white as fresh snow, cheeks as wrinkled as dried grapes. When she opened her mouth to speak, her gums were toothless.
"I shall serve the peaches, dread demon. Cricket, Butterfly and Ant rushed to my hut to tell me of your arrival. Being old and frail, but possessed of good manners and an honest up-bringing, it took me a very long time to come here to pay homage. How could I do otherwise?" said the old woman.
"Decrepit crone, I was told these peaches offer a long life and superb health. Is this true? Answer carefully, because while I have never tasted the flesh of your kind, I am very hungry. I would as soon eat you as listen to your prattling."
The demon was disturbed. He had weak eyes but a strong nose. The crone smelled like the mistress.
The mistress scared the demon. She had sent him from her garden to this place. In his dreams, she was as tall as a giant, looming over him with an enormous bowl overflowing with food, honey dripping from the rim, beckoning him to eat. This old woman did not look like much, but his eyes could not be trusted and the demon's nose did not lie. If she smelled like the mistress did that mean she was as powerful as the mistress, too?
The old woman laughed and the demon took a heavy step backward.
"I'm sure peaches are a better fit for your stomach than my old bones. Yes, demon, peaches from the Queen Mother of the West's sacred orchard are known as the Peaches of Immortality for the long life and good health granted to those fortunate to eat them. I owe my long life to these rare peaches. I have just gotten a new batch. And even for one as old as me, these peaches provide energy and vitality as well as longevity. Let me show you."
The old woman reached into the embroidered bag she carried over her shoulder and pulled out a peach and took a bite. She smacked her lips in delight, and in seconds the peach disappeared into her mouth.
All at once, she straightened, her back seemingly as strong as a tree. With a yell, she kicked, her silver slipper floating in the air like a hummingbird, and then, just as suddenly it dropped to the ground. The old woman vaulted forward with her staff and flipped through the air, landing directly in the front of the demon. She grinned and curtsied.
The demon was dumbfounded. The peaches must be potent indeed! All thoughts of fear and caution fled from his mind. All he could think about was a feast of magical peaches.
"Old woman, you have convinced me. Give me the peaches!" the demon said, his voice dripping with greed and desire.
"Please, voracious tyrant, let us serve you properly. A feast requires a table, many courses, soothing music and comfort," said Butterfly.
"I see no table or musicians, snack-on-the-wing. How can I be comfortable under the glare of the hated sun?" the demon replied, his gaze fixed on the old woman's bag.
"We will make it worth your while, demon. Butterfly is right, the peaches are many times more potent if served in the proper manner. The crickets are superb musicians. The butterflies are the most graceful and thoughtful of attendants, fully capable of shading your sensitive eyes the offensive attention of the sun and the ants are master builders. They can have a table worthy of your feast built in the blink of an eye. There is only one thing missing that could make this feast even better and that is honey. Alas, I have none," the old woman said.
"Honey? I have honey," said the demon. He pointed to the tree overhanging his burrow. A large hive was hanging from a branch. "But how much will you need? Honey is my favorite food and I don't want to use any I don't have to."