“This is why I don’t trust him!” Mu Qing fumed. “He’s literally the Lord of the Ghost Realm, Your Highness…”
Xie Lian allowed a small, relaxed smile to grace his lips. He was mediating a fight between Mu Qing, Feng Xin, and Hua Cheng for what seemed like the thousandth time. Though newly renovated, Puqi Shrine was still too small for these massive quarrels, and Xie Lian dreaded the property damage that would ensue if their swords were drawn.
Given all that had happened – the destruction of the heavens and defeat of Jun Wu – why were these three still at each other’s throats?
“I thought we were past this,” Xie Lian sighed. “We don’t get to see each other all the time, so can we please not fight?”
“Exactly, we don’t see get to see each other all the time, so can’t we talk to you in private?” Feng Xin said, fidgeting a little.
Xie Lian looked confused. “About what?”
“You expect me to walk away when you’ve just called me the scum of the earth?” Hua Cheng said coolly, examining his nails. “Gege, these servants are no good.”
“We’re not his servants!” Mu Qing exclaimed. Xie Lian thought it sounded like he was about to say “anymore” at the end, but cut off his speech abruptly, making the outburst awkward and clunky.
“Are you sure?” Hua Cheng asked skeptically. “Because when you’re with him, it’s like 800 years never happened, you can be his ever-most-loyal-servants again. The roleplaying is disgusting, and doesn’t absolve you from guilt.”
Xie Lian sensed the atmosphere in the shrine shift. He stepped forward again and raised his hands placatingly. “San Lang – “
“And what would you know?” Feng Xin demanded. “You can’t possibly understand what we’ve been through, at the time you were merely a mortal child.”
“I understand that you abandoned Dianxia when he was most vuln –“
“San Lang,” Xie Lian said. Hua Cheng’s lips instantly froze at the warning in Xie Lian’s tone; it was a lilt and a dangerous flavor that Xie Lian hardly used on anyone, and never on Hua Cheng.
“Why can’t they know, gege?” Hua Cheng asked softly. “Don’t you think they deserve to know? Frankly, their ignorance offends me.”
Feng Xin and Mu Qing had fallen silent, too, their faces both a few shades lighter. The word abandon seemed to always have that effect on them. Then Feng Xin regained his voice. “Ignor – know what? Taizi Dianxia, just what…”
Xie Lian had folded his arms, his mouth drawn into a line. “It’s old history,” he sighed. “There’s no need to bring things like this up. Do not shame me.”
“Shame you? When that came to visit you, he dismissed your fears as insan –“
Hua Cheng’s voice cut off for a moment, and the temperature in Puqi Shrine seemed to drop. Because, at that moment, an expression entirely foreign to Xie Lian flitted across his face: rage. Neither Mu Qing nor Feng Xin had seen him make that expression since his third ascension, and it didn’t suit him well.
It was gone as soon as it arrived, and Xie Lian’s characteristically peaceful smile returned in its stead. However, the faces of his two ex-subordinates were already white as sheets. Hua Cheng stepped toward, placing a hand on Xie Lian’s shoulder as if to hold him up.
“Dianxia, are you mad… at us?” Feng Xin whispered.
Xie Lian looked at him strangely, as if he had asked a very bizarre question indeed. “No… Not you.”
Hua Cheng snorted, as if he was thinking, too bad. Xie Lian’s face was soft. “In any case, I’m quite tired, so I think I will retire for the night. Please make yourselves at home.”
“Wh – you can’t – after –“ Mu Qing sputtered.
Feng Xin’s eyes were round. “Dianxia, does that mean… That time with White No-Face, when we were on the run… Was it really…?”
Xie Lian had started towards his chambers, but after being addressed, his shoulders tightened infinitesimally. Then, he turned back to the trio, his face still serene. “Yes.”
As if he’d been punched in the gut, Feng Xin slouched over. Mu Qing looked baffled.
“I didn’t tell you this because I knew you’d blame yourself. Yet, in the end, the only one who sinned was me. So, please, do not inquire further into this matter.”
With a nod and another smile, Xie Lian vanished into the back room, anxious to escape the conversation.
Feng Xin and Mu Qing were bursting with indescribable emotion. Some small part of Feng Xin fumed at Xie Lian for leaving them without explaining, but the rest of him just wallowed in a torrent of guilt, doubt, and self-questioning.
If the Taizi Dianxia wouldn’t tell them the truth, who would? Xie Lian had been abandoned with only his parents, who were long dead, so who besides him even knew what happened? The only people must be Jun Wu himself, and –
“Don’t look at me,” Hua Cheng rolled his eyes, leaning lazily against a chair. “I’m not going behind gege’s back for some backstabbing servants.”
“You’re the one who said we deserve to know,” Mu Qing argued.
“So? It’s gege’s story to tell, and he said no, so no.”
“How do you even know?”
Hua Cheng shrugged. “I was just ghost fire at the time. I had to watch.”
The corners of his eyes tightened, and a murderous look crossed his face. Unlike Xie Lian, his malice wasn’t bottled away, but instead broadcast for all to see.
“Watch what?” Feng Xin cried in anguish. “Why must you torture us?”
Hua Cheng snickered. “If only you knew your own irony.”
With that, he straightened and glided in Xie Lian’s direction, back towards the sleeping chambers.
“We – we’ll be back tomorrow!” Feng Xin and Mu Qing shouted at his receding back. Hua Cheng shrugged again.
That night, Hua Cheng was holding Xie Lian in his arms, and casually said, “Gege, this is what you did with Lang Qianqiu, too.” It wasn’t an accusation – it was never an accusation, just a comment.
Xie Lian exhaled. “I know.”
Hua Cheng’s voice grew husky. “Isn’t it enough that you suffered alone then, why must you be alone now, too? Why must you save everyone secretly, then endure their collective ridicule?” Then, “Is keeping it a secret truly doing anyone good?”
Xie Lian was silent. “Maybe I don’t have a good reason,” he finally said. “I don’t like thinking about it, really. I’m weak.”
“Although, looking back on it, I can’t believe that cute little ghost fire was you,” Xie Lian laughed. “You’d barely popped up and you already had a little cult following, so adorable!”
Hua Cheng grinned, but it was pained, like he couldn’t remember that period of his existence without discomfort. He said nothing, but his grip around Xie Lian tightened, like he was afraid of letting go.
Xie Lian noticed, and, after a beat of silence, shut his eyes. “I’ll think about it, okay?”
Feng Xin and Mu Qing would not give up. Day after day, they visited Xie Lian, demanding answers, so after months of heckling, Xie Lian finally agreed to explain what had happened all those years ago. When Xie Lian, Hua Cheng, Feng Xin, and Mu Qing sat down in Paradise Manor, Hua Cheng started talking first, trying to alleviate Xie Lian’s burden.
“…He’d wailed and screamed and cried and begged for mercy, but the people, having deemed him a sinner, continued without hesitation. Of course, his sinfulness was merely an excuse to save their own skin…”
“…After one hundred fatal strikes, Dianxia laid on his own altar, disfigured beyond recognition. Nothing more than a pile of flesh.”
Feng Xin was not the type to cry. So, when his eyes grew wet and then started streaming, Xie Lian hurriedly waved off Hua Cheng’s stone-faced words.
“Feng Xin, this was hundreds of years ago,” Xie Lian assured him, patting his shoulder. “It’s not sad anymore. Also, I’ve endured worse since then.”
This aggravated Feng Xin even further, and he looked like he wanted to cry some more. “I just can’t… when I imagine it, I can’t help it…”
“Trust me, whatever you’re imagining, it was five million times worse in real time,” Hua Cheng muttered darkly. He stared at Xie Lian with an odd expression, before languidly pulling him into his embrace.
Feng Xin looked like he wanted to rebuke, but in the end, could not. Thus, he motioned for the story to continue.
Xie Lian skimmed over his recovery period, the reformation of his flesh, and Feng Xin’s departure, but before he was in the clear, he was interrupted.
“So that’s why you asked me to leave?” Feng Xin said incredulously.
“There was no need to pull you down with me,” Xie Lian murmured.
“I thought you’d gone insane,” Feng Xin mumbled, nauseated. “I told your mother and father… I left you…”
Describing what happened to his parents was even harder, and when he finally got to saying how he’d put his own head in the noose, eyes filling with blood and collarbone cracking, Mu Qing jumped up.
“DAMN IT,” he roared, picking up a glass and shattering it against the nearest wall. “Damn it, damn it, damn it, Dianxia! What the actual fuck?”
Xie Lian peered at him. “Please don’t break San Lang’s things,” he tried.
“WHAT DO I FUCKING CARE? FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, TAIZI DIANXIA, HOW COULD YOU KEEP SOMETHING LIKE THIS FROM US?” Mu Qing was panting, and Feng Xin was staring off into space, eyes empty. “WE COULD’VE HELPED! IF I’D HAVE KNOWN, I’D HAVE –“
“Come back?” Xie Lian questioned lightly. “Followed me until the end?”
There was a deafening silence.
“No… I wanted you both to break free,” Xie Lian said. “You had a future.”
“SO DID YOU!” Feng Xin cried, broken from his trance. “Why… why did all this… why must it happen to you?”
“For that, I have no answer,” Xie Lian said. “But, if it had to happen to anyone, I’m glad it happened to me.”
Feng Xin and Mu Qing looked like they’d been shattered into a million pieces. Xie Lian said ruefully, “This is why I didn’t want to tell you.”
Mu Qing rushed forward. “GODDAMN IT, THE FACT THAT I DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT IT IS EVEN WORSE! WHY DIDN’T YOU ASK FOR HELP? YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO USE US, RELY ON US, THAT WAS OUR FUCKING JOB AND WE…”
“At the time, you were ganging up with Middle Court lackeys to chase him out of spiritual lands,” Hua Cheng remarked icily, pulling Xie Lian closer to him.
Mu Qing appeared stupefied, like Hua Cheng had just slapped him. “San Lang!” Xie Lian admonished. Mu Qing sat back down.
Both Feng Xin and Mu Qing both looked like they wanted to protest more, but Xie Lian continued with the story before they could. When he described donning the white mask and preparing to unleash the Human Face Disease, both of them seemed to hold their breath. Hua Cheng described his rebirth as a ghost soldier, following Xie Lian’s commands but never believing that he would truly commit the atrocity.
Feng Xin was regarding him with something that almost looked like newfound respect, but Mu Qing turned his head.
The rest was all downhill from there. He described laying on the pavement for days on end, and the one farmer who’d salvaged his faith in human goodness.
“To anyone else, thousands of onlookers ignoring your pain and suffering before one did anything shouldn’t reinforce your faith in anything…” Mu Qing muttered.
Xie Lian pressed forward, practically sprinting through the unleashed Human Face Disease, taking the brunt of the curses, and then Hua Cheng dying for him for the second time. He talked about ascending into heaven, and asking Jun Wu to punish him for his wrongdoings using banishment and cursed shckles.
“…DIANXIA?!?” Feng Xin gasped. “IT WASN’T A MURDEROUS RAMPAGE?”
“Nope!” Xie Lian said cheerily, relief crossing his face as if he was pleased to be done talking.
Mu Qing’s face darkened, and he started swearing again. “I WAS FUCKING WONDERING HOW SOMEONE AS TALENTED AS YOU SPENDS 800 YEARS TRYING TO ASCEND, IT WAS ON FUCKING PURPOSE? FUCKING FUCK, I WANT TO STRANGLE SOMETHING! SOMEONE GIVE ME SOMETHING TO BREAK!” He clomped off in a random direction.
Feng Xin’s face looked shadowed over, too. “Here I was wondering how you suddenly had such bad luck. As Crown Prince, you’d never had something so egregious. Now, learning that you asked for it… it all makes sense.” His hands were clenched into tight fists, and his words turned into cries. “Why… why… why… for 800 years, we felt… we waited, we were waiting, for something, and we thought maybe you’d died, or gone crazy, or vanished… We…”
Xie Lian had approached him, and put both hands on his shoulders. It was an old, but familiar gesture, and Feng Xin’s heart immediately squeezed with pain and regret. He was at a loss for words, and everything seemed wretched.
“Feng Xin, I understand your anguish,” Xie Lian said softly. “But I became very close to becoming that thing which I swore to destroy. And, to be honest, at that point I didn’t care much for godhood. I lost everything because of godhood. What I couldn’t stand to lose was myself, not to that monster, not to anyone. So, please understand. I’m sorry I hurt you, but it was necessary.”
“WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE SO FUCKING GOOD?” Mu Qing roared, coming to stand next to Feng Xin. “WHY CAN’T YOU EVER BE SELFISH?”
Xie Lian chuckled, and Mu Qing covered his mouth, as if the words had escaped by their own volition. “…I wasn’t being good, I was scared.”
Mu Qing swore more. Feng Xin, on the other hand, fell to his knees, his shoulders trembling. So, Xie Lian acted on impulse, pulling Mu Qing down to the ground, too. Xie Lian then wrapped one arm around Feng Xin, and the other around Mu Qing, enveloping the both of them in a hug.
“I’m sorry,” Xie Lian murmured again, trying to control their trembling. He couldn’t tell, at this point, if it was only Feng Xin, or if it was Mu Qing too.
“We failed. I failed,” Feng Xin said, and his voice was raw with agony. “Why are you apologizing?”
“It wasn’t fair to either of you… but I loved you very much, and it was like you were shackled to a man descending to the bottom of a lagoon. If I didn’t remove your chains, you would’ve drowned too.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, holy shit, I’m so sorry,” Feng Xin said, almost gasping through the words. He looked as though someone had drawn a sword across his Adam’s apple, and he was choking through the blood. “Taizi Dianxia, I’m sorry. I failed.”
“Don’t be so damn self-sacrificing, Your Highness.” It was Mu Qing, this time, and he wasn’t struggling against the embrace. “Every single fucking time. Disgusting. How can we even stop you? Something like this. Damnit.”
“I’m a bit tougher than I look,” Xie Lian assured him. “Drowning is no big deal. Pain will subside. Embarrassment will fade. And look, I’m very happy now.”
From somewhere far away, Hua Cheng laughed slightly. However, even Mu Qing and Feng Xin, who weren’t well acquainted with him, could hear that it was laced with pain, too.
“I’m sorry. I wanted to stay with you,” Feng Xin said. “I wanted to stay, I trusted you unequivocally, you’re my world. But it scared me…”
Xie Lian smiled. “I know. You didn’t have to say anything. Ever since you came to help me at Yu Jun Mountain, I’ve known. And I’m grateful.”
“Stop being so damn forgiving.” Mu Qing’s voice was muffled by Xie Lian’s robes.
“Why? I forgive you.” Mu Qing and Feng Xin seemed to collapse in on themselves. So Xie Lian repeated, “I forgive you.”
No one moved for a long time. The trembling intensified. “You’re so damn forgiving,” Mu Qing mumbled. “It doesn’t mean a thing…”
And yet, they were not willing to break away.
Even after 800 years, Mu Qing and Feng Xin didn’t think that they would ever get used to being dazzled by the Crown Prince.