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From Here the Rain Falls | 昨夜風兼雨

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昨夜風兼 雨,簾幃 颯颯 秋聲。燭殘 漏斷 頻 欹枕,起坐不能平。
世事 漫 隨流水,算來一夢浮生。醉鄉 路穩 宜頻到,此外不堪行。

Last Night the Wind and Rain Together Blew
(sung to the tune of crows crying at night)

Last night the wind and rain together blew,
The wall-curtains rustled in their autumn song.
The candle died, the water-clock was exhausted,
I rose and sat, but could not be at peace.
Man's affairs are like the flow of floodwater,
A life is just like floating in a dream.
I should more often go drunken through the country,
For otherwise I could not bear to live.

- Li Yu

The air was heavy with water, stuck in pregnant clouds that refused to feed the dry earth, and so, everything under the sky suffered. A man walked on, pausing every now and then to wipe the sweat dripping from his nose, stuffy under his straw hat, weighed down by the dusty clothes that dragged along the barren dirt. Even the desert heat was preferable to this torment, with its cool night air-- this, all he had was the neverending humidity of a barren road and the churning of his stomach, so starved that he no longer hungered. He refused to yearn for respite, but the discomfort won out in the end: he was made of flesh and blood.

He fell in a cloud of dust, mouth too dry to speak. And like gnats, the companions gathered around him, fluttering in their ragged clothes as they checked for signs of life.

“Is- is he dead?” the masked one asked with feigned concern.

“So he takes us halfway and just drops dead? Well, what do we do now? And he calls himself our head?” the gilled one rasped.

The hooded one knelt by the Tang priest’s side, calloused fingers undoing the strings of the monk’s hat. He pushed the hat off, unwound its strips of black cloth, and pulled the man into his lap. “Still alive,” he said, before turning to the other two, “he’s still alive.”

“Lovely,” Bajie said, “now we have to carry baldy out of here, great .”

Wujing narrowed his eyes: “I can’t. I’m pulling the wagon.”

“What if we just put him in the wagon. Problem solved!”

“I said. I can’t. I’m. Pulling the wagon.”

“So what? You want me to carry him, in this weather? Then we both collapse and die, can you live with that?”

The eldest disciple scowled: “Shut it, you two! I’ll carry the baldy. You assholes can’t do anything right anyway.”

That being said, Wukong placed the priest on his back, dragged both of Xuanzang’s arms around his neck, and took to the road once more, miles of grey sky stretching ahead. Behind, the junior disciples exchanged looks of delight. Problem solved , the pig mouthed, it worked .  Of course it would , the fish mouthed, eldest brother would do anything for him, and we just enjoy the ride . Haha, yes , the pig replied, haha .

Wujing lifted the handles and marched, rickety wheels scraping the ground as he followed the monkey’s footsteps, with Bajie powdering his sweating face as he struggled to keep up. But they might as well have been invisible to their eldest brother, and as far as they were concerned, it was just as well.

Wukong carried the Master until the sun set, silent feet never once stopping. When night washed over, he gave a simple order: “Make camp.”

And so, in the middle of nowhere, they did. Wujing stopped the wagon, gathered his dirty pots and pans, and cooked in spite of the heat. Bajie slumped lazily beside him, too frazzled to complain, and not far away, Wukong set the Tang priest down on a pile of scratchy blankets. Without a peep, the pig watched him tend their Master, spilling water from his wooden canteen into that parched mouth. Wukong cradled the monk’s head, fingers prodding Xuanzang’s lips to prevent a choke. Almost hungrily, Bajie looked on, oblivious to Wujing’s deadpan glare.

“Congee’s ready.”

“Took you long enough! Eldest brother, food’s ready!”

Wukong: “You have legs, don’t you? Bring it over!”

“Right away, boss, right away! Little brother, you bring the boss his food, alright?”

Wujing: “Fuck you.”

Wukong never touched the congee. After Friar Sand came and left with the bowl, he took to spooning bits into the priest’s mouth, little by little until the monk was surely full. He hovered there for the rest of the night, pouring water into Xuanzang’s mouth, and soothing the Master’s fevered moans with soft strokes against that bald head. It was too hot for the other two to sleep, and with nothing better to do, they watched the monkey work. Wukong never drank from the canteen.

“The boss can be pretty dumb, don’t you think?” Bajie whispered, shifting on his side to face the fish, “Master won’t know he did any of this. And he won’t tell either. Tomorrow he’ll just go back to being the ‘bad monkey.’”

“How do you know Master doesn’t know?” Wujing narrowed his eyes at the priest in the distance, still cradled in Wukong’s lap. “He’s a slick one. For all we know, he’s pretending to sleep. But he won’t let any of us know, especially eldest brother.”

Bajie: “Why?”

Wujing: “Because he knows himself best, and when it comes to eldest brother, Master wants him to be that ‘bad monkey.’ It’s easier that way.”

“Easier, eh? Doesn’t look that way to me… well, sweet dreams.”

“Sweet dreams, your head.”

The junior disciples slept and when dawn came, they were kicked awake by their senior. Wukong once again placed the Tang priest on his back and after their makeshift camp was packed away, the four journeyed on. The monk didn’t stir until well into the afternoon, when he awakened to the scent of unwanted hay and murky dirt, the texture of wildgrass on his sleeves and skin, and all else that made up and was his third-foe first-disciple. Coming to, he promptly slipped off Wukong’s dusty cloak, and without casting the monkey so much as a glance, Xuanzang croaked between limps on numb legs, “I can walk from here. I was just testing to see if you three hooligans would abandon me.”

“Too bad you woke up, baldy,” Wukong said with a roll of his eyes, “we were planning to chop you up and eat you.”

Bajie: “What a terrible joke to make! Master, don’t listen to him. We never left your side. I cried and prayed for you. I’m just so- so happy you’re fine!”

Wukong: “Does he make you want to throw up, Master?”

Bajie stepped behind Wujing to wipe his tears, Wukong’s eyes flashing murder as he trudged past them and that rickety wagon. Ahead, Xuanzang sighed, stopped, and turned: “Wa- water.” Wordless, Wukong opened the Master’s canteen, walked up to the priest’s side, pressed it to his lips, and swung the monk’s right arm over his own shoulder. And side by side, they trekked on.

Grateful for the aid, Xuanzang called back to the other two, “See? This is how you respect your elders!”

“You’re not even thirty!” Wujing snapped.

The pilgrims plodded along until the end of noon, basked in the unwanted warmth of a blood red sun. Xuanzang was in the lead, not because he was any faster than usual, but because the other three were much slower, too cooked to quicken. The monk licked his cracked lips for the upteenth time, barely any saliva left to soothe his dry throat.

Behind the Tang priest, Friar Sand dragged the wagon onwards, blue skin shining with sweat, drenched robes wrapped around his bare waist. Slowed to a limp beside him, Bajie eyed Wujing with disdain, leaned on the nine-toothed rake, and said, “You really had to strip here? Aren’t you sexy enough already?”

Wujing: “I don’t need you to tell me how sexy I am!”

Bajie: “Right, because we’re all dying to see those fish pecs!”

Stick over shoulders, Wukong shoved his way past the arguing brothers with a muttered, “zip it before I zip it for you,” frazzled hair dripping with sweat. The cloak lay draped about his back, too heavy to bear in the weather. He looked to the air again, convinced that the rain was refusing to fall out of spite. He always knew the dragon clan were assholes.

“Master,” he said with a tilt of the chin, “look there.”

Xuanzang looked to where he pointed. And nearly wept with joy. Red roof, bamboo gate, a fine well in front. A grand mansion stood several steps away, vast, rich, and best of all, shaded by high healthy trees. “Amitabha,” Xuanzang croaked, “praise Buddha.”

And just as he turned to share the good news with his disciples, Xuanzang realized the trio had run past him, already halfway to the mansion door. “You heartless demons!” he cried, “leaving your master behind like this!”

And left with no choice, the Tang priest ran after them, complaining to deaf ears all the while. The four reached the gate, whereupon Xuanzang desperately started shouting, to the protests of his throat, “Hello! Your humble guest is the priest, Tang Sanzang, from the kingdom Tang, sent to retrieve the holy sutra from-” He trailed off, voice overcome with dry coughs, before resuming, “-from the western paradise! I and my disciples have come-” Another bout of gasping took over. “-come from far away, and we kindly request-”

Wukong: “Cut to the chase! Old Sha’s turning into fried fish!”

Bajie: “Please, Master- this heat is terrible for my skin!”

Xuanzang: “ We need water! Please!

Bajie: “And food! And a place to rest! And maybe a woman while you’re at it- just you know, to serve us! But not sexually!”

Wukong smacked the pig over the head. “Keep talking and they’ll never let us in!”

Bajie opened his mouth to say, “Master, he’s bullying me!” but never had the chance to get the first word out. By then, the gate had swung open and standing before them was the most beautiful woman Tianpeng had ever seen, barring Chang’er. She stood proud, handsome face serene with just a touch of makeup, hair coiled into a long bun resting on her scalp, and green silk robes doing little to hide her rounded hips and full breasts.

“Venerable elder, would you like to come in?” she asked.

Xuanzang could only dumbly nod. He looked to his disciples, and on cue, all three began bobbing their heads as well.

Liu Xinan was the owner of the house, an inheritance from her dead husband, and it was just as splendid inside as it was out. She told the venerable elder that she had lived a good many years inside with nothing but the company of her servants and daughters, twelve in number and each prettier than the last, much to Bajie’s delight. The Liu family was much obliged to receive Xuanzang, and it was with the utmost joy that they prepared a feast for the pilgrims.

Any other day Xuanzang would have been embarrassed to enter such a fine home looking so dirty. But now he was too uncomfortable to care. He and the demons sat in a row behind Liu’s long table, dirty, sweaty, and dressed in rags (or in Bajie’s case, fine clothes that might as well be rags), cloaks, scarves, tools, and robes strung all over the ground. They hungrily lapped up the family’s water and shamelessly let themselves be fanned by plantain leaves.

Across, Liu’s daughters watched them with shy curiosity, giggling as each pilgrim ate. Wukong paid them no mind, taking bite after bite of the peaches offered, the juice dribbling down that dark chin. Friar Sand paid even less mind as he grabbed a pot of water from the servant’s hands- splash! He dumped it over his own head and yes, it felt good. Bajie stuffed his face with everything on the table, rice, plums, steamed greens, and all, shifting between pig and dandy every few seconds. Mortified, Xuanzang picked at his rice in silence, half resisting the urge to fling his chopsticks at Bajie’s head. Or Wujing’s. Or Wukong’s. Or maybe his own and end this shame.

“Sister, which one do you fancy?”

“Oh, the master is very handsome. So refined too.”

“He’s the cleanest of their group, yes.”

“Do you think mother would approve?”

“Of the pig man, I’m not sure, but then again…”

“I’m fonder of the first disciple. Rugged, mysterious, oh…”

“That peach, oh…”

“I think the third disciple would be an interesting character.”

“He’d certainly be good around the house, yes. Those muscles...”

“The second disciple’s batting his eyelashes. Look- he’s pretty this way.”

“They have such big appetites… I wonder how to please them…”

“Four of them, and twelve of us? How will this work?”

The daughters whispered among themselves, smiling and giggling as they exchanged thoughts, each word passing clearly through the monkey’s ears. But Wukong’s only reaction was an eyeroll. Bajie was much more excited at what he could hear, silently hoping for a chance to rest from their pilgrimage at last.

Liu took a sip of tea. She sighed, stared at her girls, and turned to Xuanzang. “Venerable elder,” she said sadly, “it may not seem that way but my family is in dire straits.”

Concerned, the monk asked, “What is it, kind bodhisattva, and how may we help?”

“We live in this isolated house and it’s far too dangerous for a group of vulnerable women to be on the road for long. We have no neighbors for miles on end, let alone families of renown.”

“Would you like us to accompany you on your travels? My disciples have valuable skills.”

“No, no, far too dangerous-”


Too dangerous . Now… what I meant to say was, it would be much easier to stay here. I worry for my children’s future, as any mother would, as well as my poor husband’s family line.”

“Would you like us to help you find suitable matches? I’m sure there are gentle, hardworking men willing to help you, waiting to be sought out.”

Liu smiled. “In a way, yes. We met by a stroke of luck today. Venerable elder, the best men are sitting right here at my table. I would like to marry four of my daughters to you and your disciples.”

Xuanzang: “WHAT.”

Wujing: “Marry, your head!”

Wukong: “Master, now’s our chance to get rid of the pighead!”

Bajie: “Master, brothers! How can we leave a tearful, beautiful woman in need, let alone thirteen? It’s our duty to help!”

Xuanzang put down his chopsticks and shook his head, too shocked to think of a better reply. “N- no!” he said, “I’m sorry, bodhisattva, we’d love to help. But this- we- we’re holy men, on our way to the western paradise. We simply cannot do this. You must be mistaken.”

But Liu was unrelenting, clearly refusing to take no for an answer. Wukong snickered, offering no solution as the monk looked to him for help, nearly beside himself with ugly laughter. “Oh, this is rich! You’re really the ladies man, master.” And when Xuanzang continued to stare at him like a helpless lamb, he said, “Ah, stop looking at me, baldy. You’re the master- you decide.”

Bajie: “Master, I will sacrifice for our quest! I’ll stay and you can go on!”

“Your second disciple is so devoted,” Liu said, moved by the pig demon’s words, “I do hope his spirit spreads to the rest of you.”

“Bodhisattva, my answer is still no. We’re men of the temple.”

“Men are men, all the same. Elder, you’ll be married to my eldest. I’ll make you the master of the house. All of this- our fortune, our servants, all this fine land- will belong to you.”

“Please! There’s really no need. We can’t possibly-”

“I see you’re having trouble deciding. Then why not take the night to think it over?”

“But I said no-”

“Yes, I see that this is a difficult decision for you. Come, daughters. Let us retire and leave the monks to rest.”

“I,” Xuanzang stuttered, “but, I- wait-”

“You,” Liu said, ignoring the priest as she gestured at a pair of maids, “show the venerable elder and his disciples to their rooms. Prepare a bath for them and tend to their every need.”

Bajie looked to the young women in question and batted his lashes, framing his pretty, perfected face with baby-smooth hands. “Well, if the madame insists, it can’t be helped.”

He never saw the results of his flirting because the boss chose that moment to dig both his hands into Bajie’s scalp and slam his face flat against the table. “Damn pig,” the monkey hissed. And giggling at the sight, the maids left the room.

Water was bliss against his skin. Releasing another moan of pleasure, Wujing submerged himself in the Liu family spring, gills happily absorbing every bit of water that came through. The water was cool, refreshing, everything he needed to replenish those sore muscles. The heat was no more than a thing of the past, a nightmare of the past.

“Stop those noises,” Bajie said, a good three feet away, now a homely pig free from the eye of pretty girls, “you’d be in trouble if the boss heard you.”

“Fuck the boss.”

“Stop that, you want to get us both killed?”

Bajie shifted, dirt clearing from layers of pink fat, and sighed, allowing his true form a brief respite of comfort. “That baldy has to make his decision soon. If he’s smart, he’ll let us all stay.”

“Tsk. You’re the one who wants to stay.”

Wujing looked to the sky, now shrouded with stars and grey clouds, its sun replaced with a waning moon. Save for Bajie’s chatter, the chirping of crickets and the rustling of leaves were the only sounds around. The maids had left them fresh robes for bed and cloths to dry their bodies by the spring rocks. Then they’d taken the pilgrims’ dirty clothes for washing and abandoned them to their own devices. Now the disciples bathed in fresh, clean water under the cover of bushes and trees. Only the eyes of miniature maidens surrounded them, the stone statues modeled after the Jade Emperor’s seven celestial daughters.

It had been centuries since he last bathed in heaven. Wujing could barely recall the sensation. But he was a monster now- that was just a thing of the past.

“It’d be nice, you know,” the pig continued, “just us and these women. Waiting on us hand and foot, all we can eat, no more of this sutra crap- it’d be like heaven.”

He chuckled, an ugly piggish sound: “Just like heaven.”

Wujing: “Heaven wasn’t that great anyway!”

With that, he violently sent a splash of water in Bajie’s direction. Returning the favor with an offended cry, Bajie splashed back. And as they assaulted themselves with Liu’s spring water, the Tang priest listened on from his hiding place behind the leftmost bush.

Xuanzang had bathed before his disciples, on the grounds that, “The Master deserves to clean up first- you three should know that by now!” He’d used that time to gather his thoughts, or rather, tried to, because the monk had fallen into a dreamless doze and when he awoke, the maids were there to dry him off. “Amitabha,” he’d said in silence as they patted him from head to toe, taking far longer than necessary.

When the maids finally took their leave, he chose to stroll about the Liu garden and when he saw the daughters circling about as well, realized he had nowhere to turn. He had no desire to engage in small talk with Bajie and Wujing, so the only thing left to do was hide.

And spy.

As the disciples badmouthed him, Xuanzang held his tongue in check and decided. His answer would stay a solid “no.” Even upon torture, he would say “no.” If worse came to worst, he’d just leave Bajie behind. Besides, he couldn’t possibly think of marriage-- only in his dreams, and even then-

He looked up. The moon. He thought of her twirling under it, dirty, wild, borderline insane, and yet, beautiful, so, so beautiful. All things considered, Xuanzang was not an indecisive man; he knew himself well and he knew Duan was the only woman he ever wanted, in this lifetime and the next, perhaps even the last. I never knew her name . Never had the chance. And now Duan was a memory, a lively, charming memory, strung together by could-have-beens and should-have-dones.

And then there was Wukong. Stormy, thunderous Wukong who’d taken Duan from him in one swipe. And even so, even so , Xuanzang knew this grudge would take either of them nowhere. He was not an indecisive man- he knew very well how he felt about that monkey. He knew what held them together, what kept them apart, knew that under it all, he didn’t hate his disciple. At one point he did, he very much did. But now- he knew very well how he felt. And he knew very well that he would never speak of it; he was too human to try.

He couldn’t think about women without thinking of Duan. And he couldn’t think of Duan without thinking of Wukong. And he couldn’t think of Wukong without thinking of Duan. He smiled in spite of himself. The journey west would go on, and he would find a way to solve this en route. Yes, that was a wise way to think about it. Liu was just another obstacle and he’d overcome that too. He was the great Xuanzang of Tang. But he’d keep that to himself because he was low key.

Then, for the first time that night, Xuanzang found himself wondering: where was Wukong anyway?

He would tell the rest of them he was looking for eldest brother if they asked. That was Bajie’s rehearsed excuse as he prowled the garden for women. He fluffed his hair, put on this beautiful form’s most charming smile, and spread his fan. The fish was still soaking in the bath and that baldy had probably gone to bed. And if the heavens smiled on him, the monkey would leave him alone too. All thirteen women and their eight maids, barring the four manservants, all to himself. He swallowed the incoming drool.

But all he saw were lifeless sculptures and trees, and a few dangling lanterns here and there. Behind him, a leaf crunched.

Bajie froze and turned, knowing full well who was at his back-- the first disciple stood still, head bowed, shoulders slouched, a twig between his teeth, and hands poised for murder. “Oh, boss, it’s you!”

Wukong lifted his eyes just enough to cast him a threatening glare.

Bajie strolled up to him, desperate to appease the boss’ scorn. “Big brother, I was looking for you all over! We were worried!”

“You’re always full of so much crap. It’s a miracle you haven’t choked on it.”

He was teasing him, or that was how Bajie chose to interpret it; that meant eldest brother wasn’t in too bloodthirsty a mood. So laughing much louder than need be, Bajie strolled up to the monkey, clapped him on the back, and said, “Oh, you’re hilarious, boss! Ha ha ha, ha ha ha!”

Met with the other demon’s eerie silence, Bajie took another look at him, just to be sure Wukong wasn’t planning to impede him. The monkey was still in his traveler’s gear, ragged cloak and all, a sure sign that he hadn’t visited the springs. Bajie patted him on the back again, palm digging against the sweat-soaked cloth. “You didn’t bathe, boss? You know how much that baldy values cleanliness. Come on, it’s right over-”

“Don’t touch me!” Wukong snarled, hand crushing over Bajie’s wrist. He yanked it away with a savage snap, shoved Bajie down, and let go when the screaming pig hit the pavement.

Bajie: “Boss! Boss! Wait-”

A foot smashed against his nose, and- crunch!- Blood poured from that pig snout. Bajie curled in on himself, cowering when Wukong shot him another glare.

Damn pig ,” he hissed.

And with that, the monkey left. Bajie waited until he was out of earshot before picking himself up, adjusting his head with a few pops and cracks, and willing his nose to heal. His right palm was bloodied, but he could detect no wound. From the nose, then. He wiped it against his skirt. Then he ran his hands over that handsome face to make sure it was clean, sightly, and most importantly, free of blood. Thankfully, it was in tact. Stinking monkey, fuck you- tonight’s not the time to get kinky with me.

Giggling. Female giggling. A grin splitting between his cheeks, Bajie started his stroll in that direction. He crossed a red bridge and parted a group of bushes. Liu’s lovely daughters sat on and around a stone bench, resting in each other’s pretty arms, and flaunting their silk robes.

“Elder Zhu,” the seventh daughter said, a seductive edge to her tongue, “will you join us?”

“Yes, please join us,” the others said.

All self control lost, elder Zhu cried, “yes!” and all but jumped into their midst.

It was loud for a quiet night. The cudgel-turned-stick lay against the winding tree trunk. Wukong listened to the pig humiliate himself from his place in the treetops, one leg flat on the branch, the other raised, as he rested his back against bark. It stung, but very few things could garner a reaction from the Great Sage Equaling Heaven.

The crickets’ chirps melded into a monotonous hum, the night breeze weaved into distant giggling, and the chatter of frogs became one with echoing water. And still, the rain refused to fall. It was much cooler in the Liu family garden, but come morning, they would have to brave the heat once more.

For all his teasing, Wukong knew that baldy was a man of principle-- this challenge was overcome from the start. The twig snapped in his mouth. He spat it out.

He put a hand over his back, along the shoulder blade where that damn pig felt the need to press and press. The palm came away webbed with blood, dark and warm. Wukong grit his teeth, shed his top of it all- scarf, cloak, robes- and rolled the innermost cloth into a tourniquet. White, now faded yellow, it’d turn to red soon.

He reached behind and pressed it against both shoulders, squeezing the stretching holes. Those wounds hadn’t bled in a long time. Dots of blood grew along his collarbones, century-old scars reopening against the air. They had ached on that dry road and pricked at Liu’s mansion. And defying all odds, their blood gushed out when the moon rose, ensnaring him in a pain he hadn’t felt for a good five-hundred so years.

Wukong snorted. He couldn’t hand these clothes to Liu’s maids, lest Xuanzang think he committed murder in the night. He would wait until the bleeding stopped and clean himself in the family spring, and the clothes, he would wash himself. There was no reason to get rid of perfectly good clothes ( rags, clothes, same thing ).

That baldy gave him those clothes.

Wukong tilted his head and squinted at the moon. Tathagata, you’ve really got me this time . He shut his eyes, and not for the first time that night, wondered why the pipa bone ached so much.

Xuanzang sneezed himself awake. After brushing away the snot with a silk sleeve, he slowly but surely came to his senses. At first, he credited the disorientation to a trick of the light, then to the possibility that he was still asleep, then to the increasingly clear fact that he was no longer in Liu’s luxurious guestroom.

The porcelain pillow beneath his head was replaced with dirt. The intricate cuts of red wood? Gone. The wooden bed? Gone. The smooth silk sheets? Gone. The shining floorboards? Gone. Even the windows were gone. He was lying in the middle of a forest, covered in twigs and leaves, pulled from his sleep by a caterpillar that had tried to enter his nostril.

Flecks of morning light poured through the gaps between the healthy leaves above him. Liu’s garden remained, but her mansion had disappeared into the night. Xuanzang sat up and shook the dust from his head. His string of prayer beads lay on the coarse cassock in front of him, neatly folded atop the rest of his pilgriming clothes-- they were indeed washed. Once he was convinced no one was watching, the Tang priest changed, tucked Liu’s robes away for packing, and went on his way.

Looking for his disciples was not hard. All he had to do was follow the sound of Wujing’s wrinkled laughter, a dry, near-cough.

Xuanzang was busy tying his hat on when he stumbled into the disciples’ view. They were gathered around a tree, a white horse tethered to it by a piece of old rope. And hanging from above was Zhu Bajie in his most fetching human shape, stripped nude, eagle-spread, and tied down by thick coiling vines. He was blindfolded, gagged, and from what Xuanzang could hear, trying to sputter, “ Help! Help! Let me down! Master, boss!

“The look suits you!” Wujing said, tears streaming from his laughing face.

Wukong knelt by Friar Sand, gnawing a twig, and looking thoroughly unfazed by Bajie’s plight. “About time you woke up, baldy.”

Xuanzang: “Can’t you lot stay out of trouble for once? Now look at what you’ve gotten yourself into, Bajie!”

The monk sighed and approached the tree. “I’ve warned you all many, many times not to get into this kind of perverse trouble,” he chided, “but you never listen to your master. Do you know how much this hurts me? And where did you get this horse-”

He had more to tack onto the speech, but something caught his eye: pinned to the trunk was a piece of parchment, the character “Liu” carved into the spot above it. Xuanzang yanked the parchment out, the material rich against his fingertips. It was a letter.

Tang Sanzang, my Lord Buddha’s good disciple. Your resolve most impressed me the night before. I am now more confident than ever that Chen Xuanzang is the holy man who will go west for the holy scriptures. Please accept this horse as a reward for refusing my proposals and thus, passing my test.

Be wary of mortal temptations, for they can lead you astray.
Put down what still tangles your heart and cast them away.

Zhu Wuneng, your second disciple, is still the Marshal Tienpeng I remember. Do your best to steer him and the rest from their demonic ways. A student’s conduct reflects badly on the master, and just as they are yours to guide, you are mine to teach.

Remember these words, good Sanzang, from the former “Lady Liu”- Guanyin Bodhisattva of the Southern Sea.

“Good news? Grin any harder and you’ll disfigure yourself,” Wukong said.

Xuanzang: “You didn’t read this?”

“It’s yours. Who knows how long you’d complain if I looked at it.”

Above them, Bajie continued calling for help. Eager to share the letter, Xuanzang ran up to the monkey, threw an arm around him in a moment of forgotten boundaries, and all but shoved the Bodhisattva’s words in his face. Wujing peered down from behind them and said, “You knew it was her all along, didn’t you boss?”

Liu: Willow .

Wukong smirked. “It’s more fun if I don’t tell, no? Really ups the stakes.” He cast Bajie an upwards glance and unable to hold it back any longer, broke into a peal of cackling.

As Xuanzang carefully tucked the letter into his robes, he said, “Get your brother down and let’s be on our way. And if anyone asks about this-”

Wukong: “Nobody will.”

Xuanzang: “If anyone asks about this, we won’t say anything unless they really want to know. Because even though I’ve received a gift from the Goddess of Mercy for my incredible patience, determination, and faith, I’m won’t tell because-”

“Because you’re low key,” Wukong finished, keeping an eye roll at bay, “yeah, yeah, what else is new.”

Xuanzang pat him on the shoulder, grinned again, and said, “ We’re low key. All four of us.”

He turned to Bajie again, the disciple that failed to pass the Bodhisattva’s test on all accounts. “Wukong, get Wuneng down right now. Wujing, untether the horse- you won’t have to drag the wagon anymore.”

As Wujing went on to complete his orders, Wukong snapped his fingers and Bajie fell with a painful thud, face-first in the grass. Mouth still half-gagged, he cried, “Thank you boss, thank you!”

Xuanzang clapped his hands together, called the demons towards him again, and looked to the sky. “Ahmitabha! Thank you for your blessing, Bodhisattva! Xuanzang and his disciples are most grateful indeed!”

The four pilgrims kowtowed as the rain clouds gathered above.

Chapter Text

All their luggage went in the wagon and the Bodhisattva’s prized horse had no choice but to pull it along the way. It showed no signs of complaint, and as far as the pilgrims were concerned, the mare was strong enough to handle such a weight. It was a fine, tall horse, blessed with a delicate golden mane and a snow white coat. Xuanzang felt more pride for it than he did any of his disciples-- at least he could be sure this pilgrim would listen to him.

The Tang priest sat atop its cushioned saddle, reaching out to stroke the horse’s handsome face every now and then. The other three walked in sync with him, Wuneng and Wujing on the right, Wukong on the left. Entering woodland made the heat much more bearable, though the humidity seemed to increase with every step. Xuanzang wondered if some cursed piece of weather was following them, but dismissed the thought as soon as it came.

“We should name her,” he said suddenly.

“The horse? That’s a stupid idea,” Wujing said, honest as always.

Bajie: “No, no, Master’s right! Great pilgrims like us should have a great beast of burden. We should use a three-character name. Something noble, something refined, heavenly.”

“We naming the wagon too?” Wukong muttered.

“That’s an even dumber idea!” Wujing snapped.

Xuanzang: “Do you three have to turn everything into a fight? Haven’t I taught you to love each other? What kind of example are we setting for this lovely creature, this innocent, lovely, pure creature? You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

Wukong: “And there he goes again.”

Bajie: “Come on, boss. Let’s get back to the task at hand. You of all people should know some good names for her. You were the celestial horse groomer!”

There was no reply from Wukong. Xuanzang wasn’t sure if he ever expected to hear one. The wagon jumped a good inch from the ground, the horse whinnying in response as Wukong dashed from one side to the other. And then Bajie was lifted by the collar, the monkey towering over him, hands poised to strangle.

“Call me that again,” he growled, “ and you’re dead meat .”

The pig laughed nervously. “Oh, boss, you and your jokes!”

Enough was enough. Xuanzang reined in the horse, or attempted to, and patted its mane. Flushed with anger, he said, “Bad monkey, let him go! No more fighting on this trip. Next one who tries to start anything is answering to my Buddha’s Sodding Palm! Got that!?”

Bajie eased himself out of Wukong’s grip, dropped to his knees, and kowtowed with a burst of dramatic flare. “Understood, Master! From now on, this unworthy disciple will do his best to please you! Isn’t that right, boss?”

Wukong was still turned away from the monk, eyes downcast, outstretched arm remaining in midair. Bad monkey, bad monkey, always the bad monkey .

Xuanzang: “Wukong, do you understand? Or do I have to beat it into you?!”

The monkey lowered his arm at last, snapped the as-you-would cudgel over his shoulders once more, and sighed. “No,” he drawled, “I don’t.”

“You forced my hand,” Xuanzang warned. There was no reply. The Tang priest sucked in a breath, pressed his palms flat together, and sang.

My child, my child, why are you so naughty…

Wukong: “Didn’t you promise a beating!?”

With a frustrated cry, he dropped the cudgel, arms waving upwards of their own accord. And then he was dancing, twisting limbs and shaking from top to bottom. “Damn it, baldy!”

When the tune came to a halt, Wukong stumbled mid-step and fell face first into the earth, tongue meeting a mouthful of tasteless mulch. Watching his every move, Xuanzang said, “What did we learn, Wukong? I didn’t want to do this to you.”

Didn’t want to?! Wukong spat the mulch out, shook the dirt from his hair, and stood up to meet the monk’s eyes with a murderous glare. Xuanzang was sincere. And just like that, the anger dissipated into a lingering frustration. As it always did.

“No more in-fighting. Alright. No more.” He plucked a leaf from his tangled strands. “I promise, Master. But didn’t you promise not to sing that song?”

“Wuneng’s life was in danger. And I didn’t sing the whole song- only the first half. So I certainly kept my vow. Wukong, I only want what’s best for us all.”

Only Tang Sanzang could come up with such a mess of logical loopholes. “You’re really something, Master,” Wukong said, picking the cudgel up yet again.

Wujing: “So what are we naming the horse?”

Bajie: “Didn’t you say that was a stupid idea?”

Wujing: “What, I’m not allowed to know! Is that it?”

Bajie: “Stop putting words in other people’s mouths!”

The disciples never ceased to be one mess after another. Xuanzang cleared his throat and lifted the mare’s reins. “Wukong, Wuneng, Wujing- be quiet! You’re supposed to be brothers in arms! Now, I’ve decided on a name.”

Wukong: “Oh, this’ll be rich.”

Xuanzang was smart enough to know that this name would meet with little approval, but when it came to this name, he was immune to even heaven’s opinion. He beamed, lovesick and triumphant. “Duan. Her name is Duan.”

Wukong looked like he was about to collapse for the second time. Bajie opened his mouth, but no words came out. Only stoic Wujing managed to say, “That’s a terrible idea, Master.”

The Master was like a child seeing candy for the first time, and Duan was his shiny new toy. That was Wujing’s conclusion. Xuanzang and the horse were inseparable for the duration of their route. He dismissed each disciple’s offer to feed Duan so he could find patches of grass for her himself. He spoke to her like she was a human being, asking when she was thirsty or hungry, if she was too hot, if the demons were bothering her, as if his beloved had returned in equine form.

It was sincerely disturbing.

“It’s nightfall already,” Xuanzang said, upon seeing the dark clouds above.

Confused, Bajie looked up. “Huh. We haven’t been walking that long.”

Wukong: “Don’t be stupid. Those are storm clouds- it’s still noon.”

He sidled up to Xuanzang and Duan, grabbed a loose rein, and made to lead them onwards. The mare protested and Xuanzang leaned forward to soothe its neck. He glared at Wukong. “Give that back. Can’t you see she’s tired?”

The monk tried to pry the reins from Wukong’s hand, but the latter showed no signs of letting go. Bitterly, the monkey said, “She’s tired? Easy for you to say. All you’ve done is sit your ass on her all day.”

“I don’t like your tone, bad monkey. Give me the reins.”

“We stop now and we’ll never make it to the next town before dawn.”


“You want to get to the western paradise before your forties, don’t you?”

Xuanzang continued to pry, slipping off Duan in his effort to combat Wukong’s grip. With a yelp, he toppled over, feet twisting past the saddle, and landed head-first against Wukong’s chest as they both hit the ground. The horse had no response.

Fanning himself, Bajie came up beside Friar Sand and whispered, “Oh, the baldy’s really done it now.”

Wujing: “What an idiot.”

Bajie: “He’s really upset the boss this time. Ah, I can’t wait…”

Unaware of the whispers behind them, Xuanzang rolled off of Wukong, propped himself up by the elbows, and said through grit teeth, “Now look what you’ve done, bad monkey. Get up!”

Wukong turned his head to look at him. He rolled his eyes. “You’re the one who fell on me.”

“And I wouldn’t have fallen if you’d just listened to your master. Wukong, how will you enter society this way, hm? How will you-”

Damn baldy turning this into a life lesson again? Wukong let those words enter one ear and leave the other. It was just a string of ‘blah’ and ‘blahs,’ and how it was all the first disciple’s fault anyway. That baldy really could talk, not that it was news to him.

“Are you done?” the monkey said when Xuanzang finally shut up.

“Don’t talk back to your Master. Now get up. We’re going to make camp.”

He didn’t move a muscle. Xuanzang sighed and stood. He knew a cry for attention when he saw one, and for all his nonsense, that monkey loved his notice, for better or worse. If you want to be a naughty child, fine. I’ll be the adult here. Damn ape. Xuanzang dusted himself and made his way back to Duan.

A clap of thunder jolted him. Eyes wide, he automatically stuck his face against Duan’s. “There, there,” he said, more for himself than her, “just some bad weather. Don’t be afraid.”

Wukong: “We should go.”

Xuanzang: “Bajie, Wujing, make camp. I’m going to find somewhere for Duan to rest.”

That being said, he gave her one last stroke and moved to untie her from the wagon. He was considering putting wagon duty back on Wujing- Duan was the Bodhisattva’s gift after all and it’d be terrible of them to abuse her in such a way. But then again, Duan was strong. He led her away from the disciples with soft coos. Duan was strong, but a romantic at heart, temperamental maybe, but good under it all. Too good for him.

The pig watched Xuanzang fade from view with the horse. “What a let down,” he said to Wujing, “I was hoping for some bloodshed.”

And then to Bajie’s infinite amusement, Duan turned her head, without notice from the Tang priest. She gave a low neigh in Wukong’s direction, as if gloating at having won their master’s favor. That was it. Wukong popped up with a flourish, pure rage flashing over his face.

He composed his features and ever slowly, began to follow in Xuanzang’s steps. Bajie called out behind him: “Eldest brother, it’s just a horse!”

Wujing: “That’s right- no need to be so jealous! Master still loves you!”

Wukong: “Shut up or I’ll tear your heads off!”

Bajie: “Alright!”

The pig considered following Wukong to see what would happen next, but a blue hand on his shoulder stopped him in his tracks. Wujing’s eyes darted towards where the monkey had been lying seconds before.

“You might see bloodshed after all,” he muttered, Wukong finally out of earshot.

Bajie looked down, eyes falling on the dark splotches in the grass, almost dirty enough to pass for red clay. Fresh blood.

Free from his disciples, Xuanzang led Duan into a small clearing, away from the rest of them. He put his head against hers. It was just her and him now, except in his dreams, she wasn’t a horse. He shut his eyes, imagining that woman’s face instead- much better. He wouldn’t dare let the others know. He wouldn’t even let the Bodhisattva know. He wouldn’t dare let them know how truly, painfully mortal he was.

Because for all his stubbornness, all his guilt, all his everloving holiness, he knew he’d trade it all for her in a heartbeat. If it meant he would never see the west, if he could start again, away from the monastery, away from all those demons and gods, he would . He would shower her with flowers and kisses and all those sweet words he never got to say. And all for what? So he could find enlightenment? So he could shield her from harm?

His fantasies never ended with her broken body in his arms, the blood smeared over her lips, the light leaving her bright eyes. And he never lay helpless as that demon tore her from him, made her disappear as he looked on. None of that happened. Instead, he kept his unruly hair and forgot every scripture he’d ever known. They moved into a quiet hillside village and had two little children. And he would hold her, alive and warm, each and every day.

“I’ll take you west,” he said, “I won’t push you away this time. Never again.”

Xuanzang pulled his face away, wiped the corner of his eye with a sleeve, and leaned against the mare’s body. That was a promise he intended to keep. And before he could be lost in thought again, a trickling sound entered his ears.

“Raining already?” he murmured, turning his head.

“Just taking a leak,” an all too familiar voice replied.

Behind the horse, Wukong was urinating every which way, trousers pulled down just enough to dangle that offensive object . Flabbergasted, Xuanzang could only stare until he heard an upset breath from Duan. Looking down, he saw the urine splash against the horse’s hoof.

Wukong: “Ah, that feels good.”

That stinking monkey. He had to ruin everything. Swallowing a cry of outrage, Xuanzang left Duan’s side, stomped up to Wukong, and pulled him away by the scarf.

“You had to come all the way here to pee? What’s wrong with you!?”

Wukong looked away innocently. “It’s a nice spot. Good for leaking.”

“How would you feel if Duan peed on you!?”

“Let her try!”

“Damn you- just, just stop!” Xuanzang shook him, Wukong’s unreadable face only fueling his frustration, “You damn macaque, you have to be sick in the head!”

You still can’t leave us be. You just had to come back in. Just let me put it behind us already. Damn you, damn you, damn you-

Wukong pulled up his pants. “Sick in the head, eh? I owe it all to you, Master.”

Xuanzang’s gaze left those cold eyes, drifting towards the golden circlet around the demon’s forehead. Duan’s ring. He’d put it over Wukong’s head himself, some sign of their new bond. The tightening mantra was on the tip of his tongue, but the monk could never bring himself to read it, not when so much rested on that band.

Wukong was still in his grip, as if baiting his breath for Xuanzang’s next comment. He thought of whipping him, of singing his nursery tunes, of smashing him against a tree, but that dejected face told him there would be no retaliation. That monkey rarely, if ever, fought back; even the outrageous act they kept on for the Biqiu minister had been by Xuanzang’s order and his alone.

His disciple stayed by choice. This, Xuanzang had to remind himself. He let go of Wukong’s clothing, sighed, and turned away: “I shouldn’t have yelled.”

“I’m too tired for your tricks, Wukong. I don’t know what you’re up to and I don’t care. But don’t take it out on the Bodhisattva’s gift.”

“Not going to hit me?” There was almost a disappointed edge in the monkey’s voice.


“But we’re still not leaving?”


Wukong said nothing. Awkwardly, master and disciple stared at one another for a good few moments until at last, the monkey nodded. Duan whinnied again when a low rumble rolled through the murky sky. Xuanzang was at her side in an instant, caressing her face with his hands and promising that all would be well. When he finished, he looked at his disciple, only to see Wukong’s back fading from view.

“Where are you off to now?” Xuanzang called, “I didn’t tell you to go!”

Wukong stopped. “Going to pee.” And moved on.

“Didn’t you just do that!?”

“I have a piss kink.”

“You’re not funny!”

Wukong had expected the baldy to cozy up with his new pet that night. Instead, Xuanzang had tethered “Duan” to a tree and left her to sleep alone. The Tang priest joined the rest of his disciples in their makeshift camp, having forced them to pitch a tent in case it rained in their sleep.

The distant sound of thunder mingled with Bajie’s snoring as the night stretched on and Wujing, as always, slept with open eyes. Such circumstances did little to bother Wukong, but he knew the monk was reluctant to sleep in such close proximity to them. And so, he placed himself between Xuanzang and the others as any good disciple would. The thought almost made him laugh.

His little episode that afternoon had only been to garner a reaction anyway. He would never admit it to Wujing’s face, but that fish was right- maybe there was an inkling of envy in him. He’d worked too hard and too long for even a scrap of appreciation from the Tang priest, and that horse had to come along and ruin it all. And it was all over a stupid name- Duan, it was just a name. That baldy was a true idiot if he thought throwing that name over a dumb animal would connect it any way to the real Duan, blessings be damned.

So maybe he was worried that he meant less than even a horse in the monk’s eyes. A little. It was a stupid thought- of course he meant less. And he very well knew the reason why. It kept him awake, as it always did.

He was especially tense tonight, half expecting the master to leave their tent and huddle by the horse, his new Duan. But Xuanzang never did.

The Tang priest latched onto him instead, as he was wont to do, unaware and blissfully asleep. Not a peep escaped the first disciple. Wukong held his breath, staring off into the dark. He didn’t turn around- he didn’t want to see that silly grin.

Xuanzang’s arms curled around him, groping at his chest, fondling the folds of cloth, torso pressing against his waist. And still, Wukong refused to move. Xuanzang hadn’t gone to the horse. He had stayed with him. A flood of relief washed over him, shamefully, reluctantly- he hated being that woman, and now he realized, he hated it more when someone else was that woman.

As Xuanzang’s embrace tightened, he wondered why for the umpteenth time. He had chalked it up to possessiveness at first, a need to cling to the man he called Master, but he knew that wasn’t the sole reason. He enjoyed being a layer closer to Xuanzang than his brothers, all things considered. He enjoyed the Tang priest’s presence, reveled in the knowledge that each morning, the monk would be there with his stupid antics. Once, he would never have entertained such thoughts, would never even have had the thought of that thought, and yet he lay now, wondering how true an attachment to his teacher could go; he'd had other teachers before.

“I love you,” Xuanzang said, “do you love me?”

Wukong gulped. He could hear the smile in the monk’s voice, the shining stars behind his closed lids, the joy of seeing his revived lover in distant dreams. It was disgusting.

And he was bleeding.**

He wanted to smack that egghead away. But he stayed rooted, gritting his teeth against the irritation in his shoulderblades. By a stroke of luck, he’d staunched the wounds at Liu’s mansion and they’d closed before the pilgrims left. Then the scuffle over Duan’s reins had gotten the best of him, and they gleefully reopened when he fell on his back. He was sure they’d closed again in the night, until Xuanzang pressed up against him, jolting the punctures again and again.

“Yes,” he said, quiet, voice foreign to even his own ears.

The monkey didn’t know if he was of less value than the Bodhisattva's horse. But he knew for certain that his blood was of less value than the monk's dopey smile. 

Wukong: “I love you.”

It rained the next day, much to Wujing’s relief and the chagrin of his companions. After a breakfast of congee, they undid the tent, loaded everything back into the wagon, and were on their way, accompanied by a light drizzle. Xuanzang was grateful for it at first, the chill of rain a refreshing break from the heat.

And gradually, it poured.

The Tang priest was soon soaked, Duan's coat dripping with water beneath him as she pulled the wagon through mud and fallen branches. On instinct, Wukong and the others had gathered behind the wagon, pushing it forward as the horse struggled to take their master over wet roads and broken wood.

“The water’s in my eyes,” Bajie complained, “I might as well be blind!”

“Just put on a bigger hat,” Wukong said, hood pulled all the way over.

Wujing: “Now this is what I call rain!”

Xuanzang started when a flash of lightning lit the sky, followed by an inevitable roar of thunder. Duan whinnied in panic, forelegs kicking up, a splash of mud flying onto Xuanzang’s face. The monk coughed, wiped the worst of it from his eyes, and threw his arms around Duan’s neck: “It’s alright! It’s just thunder- I’m here, we’re all here!”

Another crack of thunder made the horse jump, the wagon shaking in turn as the disciples stumbled into the mud.

“Master, keep her under control!” Wujing cried.

Xuanzang: “I’m trying!”

Wukong: “Try harder, baldy!”

Bajie desperately tried to push the mud off his robes. “Ruined, ruined,” he mumbled, adjusting his crooked hat. He gulped, tapped Wukong on the shoulder, and said, “Please, big brother, you were… protector of the horses- help Master.”

Wukong’s eyes told him he would have been dead any other day. Instead, the monkey said, “Fine. Get the wagon up,” and made his way to the front.

When he reached the Tang priest, Wukong grasped the reins from his hands and put a hand over Duan’s cheek. “Come on, you’ll be fine.”

Dumbstruck, Xuanzang watched as the mare heeded his disciple’s every order, their group moving past the patch of mud at last. Wukong really was the celestial stable boy, after all. And feeling rather petty, he recited in his head, Bimawen, bimawen .


“I didn’t say anything!”


Xuanzang shook his head, digging his hands into Duan’s mane instead. “Nothing. Go on.”

“Where to now?” Wukong gestured at a fork in the forest path. “Your choice. I don’t see much difference.”

A crack of thunder shook Duan again, forcing Wukong to wrap his arms around her head in a moment of reluctant protection. Seeing the horse in such a state softened Xuanzang’s heart.

“Duan can’t travel- we can’t travel like this. Wukong, find us a shelter and let’s wait the rain out.”

“Find shelter? Where?” That impatience again.

“Do what your Master says! If you can’t find one, build one- there’s wood all around!”

“Master, we should really go on-”

“We rest and that’s final.”

Wukong let loose a long sigh. He looked up at the Tang priest, finding nothing but determination in the monk’s eyes. Damn baldy . “Fine.” He shoved the reins back into Xuanzang’s hands and walked off.

“Master, I don’t think the rain will stop any time soon,” Bajie mused from his place under their thatched shelter, all four squatting underneath the makeshift construction of fallen branches, courtesy of Wukong’s handiwork.

Duan was curled by Xuanzang, head resting against his shoulder. “Just wait for it. Master’s never wronged you before.”

At that, all three stared at him in silence. The monk ignored them, opting to stroke Duan’s cheek instead. The rain pelted their shelter, shaking it left and right with wind and rumble and whatever else it had. Cold, Xuanzang huddled closer to the horse.

“This shelter won’t do,” he said, Wukong scoffing in response. “I’m going to see if we can find something better.”

“In this weather? Are you insane?” Wujing said. The monk shrugged.

“You stay here, I’ll be back soon,” Xuanzang whispered to Duan. And then he crawled out, turning to cry against the rainfall, “I didn’t tell you three to stay! Help me!”

Bajie wanted to scream at him, but he knew better than to fight the Master. So he clenched his fists and forced a smile to grace his masked face. “Coming, Master!” And one by one, the pilgrims wriggled out to join the Tang priest.

“Are you sure you want to leave the Bodhisattva’s blessing behind?” Wukong said, coming to stand by Xuanzang’s side, water slipping from the edge of his hood.

“Duan’s already been through such a fright,” Xuanzang said, “I wouldn’t be heartless enough to drag her through this weather.”

He turned to smile at the mare. “At least there, she’ll be safe from the storm.”

The disciples never had the chance to respond. As soon as the last word left Xuanzang’s mouth, a gust of whirlwind tore past them and spiraled through the rain, lifting branches and felling trees. The clouds above parted as lightning streaked downwards and split the shelter, a long figure snaking down from the sky, blue whiskers brushing rain as a mouth of sharp teeth gulped up the Bodhisattva’s mare in one swoop.

White scales, clawed limbs, gnarled horns, sleek hair, great sapphire eyes- a dragon had come and swallowed their horse, not a drop of blood spared. Xuanzang and his disciples could only stare, dumbstruck, into the dragon’s fierce eyes, as its shadow fell over and away from them, that mighty shape disappearing into the clouds once more.

When the dragon became a line in the sky, Xuanzang continued staring into the air, the rain reduced to a faint drizzle, storm clouds parting at last. He gaped. And gaped.

Wujing: “It killed Duan!”

Chapter Text

The pilgrims stood still for several seconds, eyeing one another in dead silence, too shocked to do more. Until at last, Xuanzang snapped: “What just happened!?”

“A dragon came,” Bajie explained, emphasizing each word, “and ate our horse.”

“In one bite,” Wujing added, “and flew away.”

The monk lifted a hand to touch the fading rain. The Bodhisattva’s blessing had disappeared just like that, and somehow he’d lost Duan all over again, quite literally.

“Master, don’t cry,” the fish said.

“I’m not crying.” Xuanzang’s hands roamed over his nonexistent hair, knuckles digging under his headscarf. “Am I?” The rain was indeed letting up, but his cheeks were wet and he was too stunned to dry them. A finger brushed against the corner of his eye, smearing the tears away. Wukong’s, uncharacteristically gentle.

“Quit sobbing, Master. It ruins your stupid face.”

The monkey pulled his hand back, clapped it on Xuanzang’s shoulder, and eyes locked ahead, said, “I’ll get you another horse.” With that, he left Xuanzang behind and beelined forward, ignoring the monk’s cries of “How?”

Bajie ran up to him, tugging at the monkey’s sleeve, Wujing catching up with quick steps.

The pig: “Are you going after it? Is that a good idea, boss?”

Wukong: “Pighead, stay here with Master. Wujing, let’s go.”

Wujing: “Go where?”

Wukong hopped up, grabbed the fish demon by his collar, and took to the skies, leaving Bajie behind with a cloud of dust as the pig continued calling for his boss. Thoroughly abandoned, Bajie turned back and tended the monk, hands resting on Xuanzang’s arm.

“Master, if the dragon eats them, it will just be you and me.”

“Wuneng, don’t speak of such things.”

“But Master, didn’t you see those teeth? I’ll be having nightmares for days.”

“Your brothers aren’t weaklings- of course they’ll make it back.”

“But Master, eldest brother, he’s-”

There was a look of genuine interest in Xuanzang’s eyes. Upon seeing it flash by, Bajie chose to bite his tongue- it would be more intriguing if he said nothing. He wanted to see how long that monkey could keep up this charade of health- much more interesting.

“What about your eldest brother?” the monk prodded.

“Eldest brother? Oh nothing. I just think he’s too confident.”

“Well, yes, that is concerning.”

“He’ll be happy to know how much you care, Master.”

At that, Xuanzang smiled, raising a hand to pat Bajie on the head. “Wuneng, I care about all three of you equally. How could I be your Master if I didn’t?”

The somersault cloud bobbed underneath them, Wujing slipping left and right in a struggle to keep a half-solid grip as Wukong maneuvered towards their target.

“Boss, do you see it?”


Wujing turned his gaze upwards, a misty layer of clouds obstructing their view. He grit his teeth as the somersault cloud turned yet again, shooting vertically through the sky.

“We have to go higher!” the monkey said, tilting that head of golden fur.

Wujing knew what that shape of Wukong’s meant- there was going to be a fight, and deep down inside, the fish almost felt sorry for the dragon. He had no doubt that Wukong meant to tear it apart, probably scale by scale.

Wukong: “There he is.”

Wujing collected himself, raised his crescent moon blade, and looked past the monkey’s shoulder. The dragon slithered through the air, tail curled in defiance, head cloaked in clouds, all too ready to face the disciples of Tang Xuanzang. Wukong raised the cudgel, released from its wooden shell and proudly wrapped in green, red, and gold.

Wujing: “Give us the horse!”

The dragon burped. The fish grimaced- I did my best . And then, Wukong leapt. He threw himself at the dragon’s snout, one hand tangling itself in its whiskers, the other prepared to bash the cudgel into the beast’s head. With a roar, the dragon twisted back, horns narrowly missing his assailant’s arm. The monkey kicked himself off and spun forward onto the dragon’s sliding spine.

“Leaving already?” he said, “We’re just getting started!”

He tossed the cudgel into the air, stretched out both arms, and wound them around the dragon’s throat. Together, they spiraled violently in the air, thrusting through the sky until they became one with the misted horizon. The dragon buckled, managing to throw Wukong off, gathering its bearings just in time to see Wujing’s scythe fly at its face.

The dragon dodged and dove down, Wukong landing on the edge of its tail, cudgel back in hand. The monk’s spade returned and Wujing promptly left the somersault cloud to join his elder brother, just barely tumbling down the dragon’s mane. The beast roared again, flying headfirst towards the earth, curling as its tail slammed over a series of jagged trees. The disciples slipped off and rolled through the dirt, climbing to their feet as the dragon swerved and came at them with open jaws.

Wujing readied his hands to fight those jaws, and when that gigantic head finally descended, Wukong dashed in front. He shoved a hand into the dragon’s mouth as the jaws clamped down, wrapped his palm around a tooth, held, lifted- and whirled the beast a good three times before tossing it away like a strand of yarn. The dragon crashed over the woods with an earsplitting bellow, bringing down every tree in its defeated path.

Wukong shook the saliva off his fur, twirled his right arm for good measure, and eased back into human form, the only remnant of the fight a string of blood on his grazed palm. He pointed the cudgel in the fallen dragon’s direction: “Let’s go.”

“We skinning it, boss?”

“Course not. Baldy won’t stand for that.”

The dragon awoke to the sight of four boots. Wukong and Wujing loomed over him, cruel satisfaction evident in their devilish features. Sneering, the monkey crossed his arms and said, “Well, what do you think we should do with him, little brother?”

“Skin him.”

“Maybe sell the scales, eh? Buy Master a new cassock.”

“Or a new horse.”

“Oh, that’s right. We lost the Master’s horse. Go ahead, Friar Sand.”

Wujing obeyed, the crescent blade glinting with each slow, heavy step. Wukong watched nonchalantly, pursing his lips in anticipation for the pleas he knew would come. And as he expected, the dragon shrunk back. And shrunk. And. Shrunk.

No, big brother! Please!

The cracked plead was a far cry from the dragon’s awful roar. In place of the mighty beast was a figure that only came up to Wujing’s waist, endowed with features so tender he looked as if he’d barely passed his fourteenth summer. Screaming royalty from head to toe, the youth was garbed in silk robes patterned with flowers and white. He was adorned with baby skin, coal-blue eyes, and two jagged horns poking from a head of fair hair pinned up by butterfly clips. 

Wujing: “Big brother?”

The dragon-turned-boy rose and fell at Wukong’s feet, kowtowing as if his life depended on it, which it very much did. “Please! Spare me- I only wished to inspire your notice!”

“Don’t get fancy with us,” Wukong said, “just give me a reason not to kill you.”

“Big brother-”

“And don’t call me big brother.”

“But I must! You were Master’s best disciple and I too am his student!”

“Well, not anymore.” Wukong placed a foot on the boy’s shoulder, threatening to step down should the dragon upset him again. “Your little storm wasn’t funny, by the way.”

“I hadn’t meant to inconvenience you. But I was having such trouble reaching you these past days- it was as if you were ignoring me.”

No . What gave you that idea?”

“I knew for certain when we met in the forest, and you said, ‘go away or I’ll piss on you.’”

“So why didn’t you go away?”

We can save Master!”

The dragon cried out when Wukong stepped down, and still, he braced himself against the pain to speak on. “I know- I know you’re with that monk now, but you owe everything to our Master. Or at least, seventy-two things.” And step. “Ah! Please, Puti needs us!”

They locked eyes. Wukong felt his own tongue poking around in his mouth, a bitter taste rising within. Puti the Immortal was a name he hadn’t heard for over six centuries, and if he could help it, he would rather have kept it that way.

Wukong: “Bet the old man deserves it.”

The dragon: “But-!” And step. “Ah!”

Wukong: “I’ll save your Master. On one condition.”

The boy beamed, teary with joy. “Anything!”

“You know any other transformations?”

“I have four and a half.”

“Good enough. Turn into a horse and carry my Master to the western paradise.”

“Of course! Of course!”

Wukong removed his foot and the boy immediately fell over, grunting as he rubbed his sore shoulder. Having observed the whole thing, Wujing finally had the chance to ask, “So who are you?”

The dragon stood up on shaky legs, dusted himself, and solemnly said, “Prince Ao Lie, third heir of the western sea.”

“Oh look, they’re back!” Bajie said with mock joy.

Xuanzang got up from his place on the ground, held a hand over his eyes, and squinted in the distance. He could make out the growing shapes of Wukong and Wujing, but there was a third figure in between, looking as if it was being dragged by both arms. He hoped this wasn’t another part of the monkey’s schemes.

When the pilgrims congregated once more, Wukong threw his prisoner at Xuanzang’s feet. The newcomer slammed against the ground, recovered, and immediately kowtowed before the Tang priest.

“Who is this?” Xuanzang asked.

Wukong: “The new horse.”

Bajie: “That’s not a horse.”

If anything, the intruder looked like a pubescent aristocrat that had been manhandled and abducted by Xuanzang’s delinquent pupils. He sensed that wasn’t the case, else the boy’s people would have been out for the monk’s blood by now. Bracing himself for the worst, Xuanzang bent and bid the boy to rise, momentarily shocked by the horns protruding from the latter’s head.

“Venerable elder, his third highness, Prince Ao Lie of the Western Sea kingdom is at your service. In turn, I only need the Great Sage’s assistance in saving my Master, Puti the Immortal.”

Bajie perked up upon hearing that statement. The pig waltzed up to the prince and asked, humbly, “Your highness, does this mean your father, the Western dragon king will help us on our quest?”

“My father wants nothing to do with me.”

And thus, the pig’s enthusiasm faded.

“And you still have the gall to call yourself ‘prince,’ you horse murderer?” Huffing, Bajie left Ao Lie to be scrutinized by the master.

“So you’re the one that… ate our horse?” Xuanzang said awkwardly, the boy nodding as if Duan’s death meant nothing.

Xuanzang: “That horse meant a lot to us.” A lot to me .

Ao Lie stared blankly at him.

Wukong: “He gets your point, Master. If you’re trying to guilt trip him, it won’t work.”

Ao Lie: “I only wanted big brother’s attention.”

Xuanzang: “So you wanted to lure us out?”

Ao Lie balked at the accusation, but had no immediate retort.

“Don’t let him join us,” Bajie said, “he’s much too manipulative!”

“And you’re not?” Wukong muttered.

Xuanzang shushed them both and said, “Then, your highness, what’s this business about you being our new horse? Are you good at transformations?”

“Of course! I trained under the same great celestial as big brother!”

“Why don’t you show baldy here three or four moves,” Wukong said, with no small hint of scorn.

Bajie: “Great idea, boss! Let’s see what he can do first-”

Wujing: “Besides eating horses.”

Ao Lie: “I have four and a half transformations.”

He scanned the pilgrims, looking from head to head before nodding and pushing his hands together. He swept his right foot in a circle and ran a hand over his hair, pulling a handful of locks down and furling it over his upper lip.

“Change!” he said, “a man with a mustache.”

Ao Lie put his hair back up, swept the foot again and flipped his palms. “Change… in height.” He stood on his tiptoes. Satisfied, the prince flattened his soles once more, pointed at himself, and said, “Change- my human form.”

He looked to the pilgrims, kowtowed, and delivered a flamboyant bow. Xuanzang didn’t know how to react, rendered speechless by Ao Lie’s performance. Bajie was equally dumbstruck, slowly shaking his head at what he just witnessed.

“His transformations are so great we can’t even see them,” Wujing said in awe.

Wukong: “He’s Puti’s disciple alright.”

The Tang priest cast Wukong a sideways glance and returned to Ao Lie. He would have to ask Wukong about this Puti some other time. For now, he had seen enough of the dragon’s transformations and he would rather not find out what the last of the “four and a half” was.

Xuanzang: “Your highness, that was a grand performance. We do thank you. With your skill, are you really willing to become a beast of burden?”

“Of course. Ao Lie will compensate you, venerable elder,” the boy said.

“It’s not a matter of compensation. That horse was one of us.”

“I can be one of you too.”

Xuanzang repeated himself, pushing for a sign of apology, regret, guilt, anything that could tell him the dragon prince understood the gravity of his crime. There was none.

Xuanzang forced his boiling feelings to simmer away- begrudging this boy would be no use to their journey and neither would pinning the blame on that monkey. He took Ao Lie’s hands in his own, tempered his voice, and said, “That horse was a gift from Guanyin Bodhisattva. You’ll have to work very hard to redeem yourself, do you understand, your highness?”

Wujing: “He made it storm!”

Xuanzang: “You’ll have to work very, very hard.”

Ao Lie looked on the verge of tears. Xuanzang could feel his heart soften, but that did nothing to erase the dragon’s crime- if he was to take a new disciple, he had to guide him with a stern hand. Ao Lie nodded, pressed the Tang priest’s hands against his face, and said, “I understand, venerable elder. You’re so kind. It makes me feel-”

The prince’s grip tightened and Xuanzang heard himself gasp in pain.


Ao Lie flashed him a sweet smile, gathered the priest into his thin arms, and with surprising strength, twirled in the opposite way, fine robes flowing. He ran. By the time Xuanzang realized what happened, he was already helpless in the dragon’s grip. He did the only thing he could: open his mouth and scream.

The trees turned into zipping lines as the monk struggled to crane his neck, miraculously managing to control his yells and holler, “Wukong! Bajie! Wujing! Wukong, save me!”

“Scream all you want, egghead,” the boy laughed, “we’ll be in the western sea soon enough. You’re all so gullible!”

“Why are you doing this?!” Xuanzang said.

“I won’t need anyone to protect me from Father now!”

“What does that have to do with me?!”

“I’m going to bring him the flesh of the Tang priest! He’ll have to take me back!”

With what little ability he had to think in such circumstances, Xuanzang asked, “What- why were you cast out!?”

“None of your business! But I’ll regain his favor when he eats you- he’ll be immortal now, more powerful than ever- Ha- all thanks to me!”

Xuanzang saw the crazed look in Ao Lie’s eyes, pupils dilated over white, confirmation that the dragon prince meant every word he said. Since the disciples hadn’t arrived yet, the monk supposed they were taking their time, which could only mean one of two things- they wanted him to die or they believed him capable of handling the dragon. Truth be told, the monk suspected it was both. And if they were lucky, their master would die taking out the prince.

Still wrapping his head around how someone who looked as benign as Ao Lie could be so unashamedly wicked, Xuanzang raised his arms, a whispered chant on his lips.

Bajie whistled in amusement. “My, that boy has guts. Guess the dragon clan does act differently than the rest of us.”

“What a brat,” Wujing growled.

Wukong framed his eyes with a bandaged hand and looked in the direction where Ao Lie had carried their humble master off.

“Boss, should we go after them?” Bajie said.

Wukong: “No. That brat’s too cocky- I think we should let Master teach him a lesson.”

Bajie: "But what if the baldy dies?"

Wukong: "Eh, too bad."

Wujing: “Look!”

And sure enough, a golden hand of grand proportions rose over the horizon.

Ao Lie was plucked away from the Tang priest, kicking and screaming as the Buddha’s Sodding Palm held his body in place, fingers poised to crush his spine. To his horror, the more he struggled, the more they clenched, until eventually, he was left fighting for breath.

Xuanzang sat cross-legged before him, hands clapped together in prayer, a hint of smugness in his eyes as he looked upon the dragon prince.

“I don’t like to use this technique,” the monk said, “but you left me no choice. How old are you anyway?”

“I turned three hundred last week!”

“Good. I’d feel guilty doing this to minors.” The hand tightened again as Ao Lie gasped.

“Why did your father cast you out?” Xuanzang asked calmly.

“Are you interviewing me, egghead!?” Ao Lie snapped.


The prince bit his lip, then said, “I broke his prized pearl… by accident .”

Xuanzang: “Now then, why don’t you tell me what this Puti has to do with any of this.”

The fingers loosened slightly enough for Ao Lie to speak. He coughed and spat, “You- you egghead!” And tighten. “I mean, venerable elder- forgive me!”

Ao Lie: “After I ran away from the palace, I had to protect myself because Father wanted my head and... And it’s none of your business!”

Xuanzang raised a hand, the Sodding Palm moving in unison. Observing in terror, Ao Lie cried, “I’ll speak! I’ll speak! I needed to learn magic, how to fight… a celestial named Puti took me in. He- he was a wanted man, like me. Only he could protect me from Father. But not long ago, he was arrested for crimes against heaven.”

“And why did you think we would help save your master?”

“Not you!” Ao Lie juggled for the right words. “The Great Sage Equaling Heaven learned everything from Master- I thought he’d help for sure. I knew he was accompanying Tang Sanzang to the western paradise so I followed you lot here. But he wouldn’t help me unless I replaced your stupid horse.”

“Her name was Duan.”

“Your stupid Duan! And they led me straight to you- I wouldn’t need Master anymore if I could capture you. I saw the chance and I took it, like any filial son would. If you had any kindness in your heart, you’d come with me willingly!”

“Ao Lie,” Xuanzang said gently, “what you’re doing is selfish and your father would know. Why not keep your promise instead? Come with us and Wukong will help save your master. You’ll surely make everyone proud.”

“But- but-”

“I won’t resent you for what you did. We’ll start afresh, how about that?”

His words stung. Ao Lie blinked away flowing tears, reminded of the unforgiving helplessness he felt before his father, his brothers, his Master, everything that was more than him in heaven, earth, and sea. Yet the monk’s eyes were so forgiving- warm, open, fatherly, judgmental . He could not fight them. Under that spoiled temperament, those pointed horns, that scaled body, Prince Ao Lie was but a whiny child.

This, Xuanzang knew, and this, he took to his advantage.

“Come with us, Ao Lie. Be our little white dragon.”

The Sodding Palm began to fade, slowly and gracefully, until there was nothing holding Ao Lie save a sprinkle of stardust. He fell to his knees, cheeks tear-streaked, and arms stretched expectantly. Xuanzang stood up, walked over, and stooped to embrace the young prince. Numb from top to bottom, Ao Lie reluctantly buried his head in Xuanzang’s shoulder.

“Master,” he said, choked. I hate you, egghead.

Xuanzang returned within the hour, a white pony in toll, only half the size of what Duan had been. The disciples applauded in support of the Master’s triumph. Bajie inspected their new horse when it came to a stop- white coat, pale mane, a horn behind each ear.

Xuanzang: “From this day forth, Prince Ao Lie is a member of the Buddhist way. He’ll be your new brother, Xiao Bailong. It has a nice ring to it, right?”

Wujing: “It sounds stupid.”

“You were no match for our Master, were you?” the pig taunted.

The pony snorted in his face. Bajie returned the glare as his brothers joined them.

Wukong grinned. “What did I tell you, Master? Didn’t we get you a new horse?”

Xuanzang put an arm around the monkey’s neck. “You don’t get this credit- you three abandoned me. Good thing I had the Buddha’s Sodding Palm.” He smiled. “Which I’m always low key about.”

Wukong pressed him on the back, a sign of mock congratulations. “Dozing off, baldy?”

He really was a little out of breath. Xuanzang kept the secrets of the Sodding Palm to himself, mostly, but even the mild technique he’d used on Ao Lie was anything if not draining. He let the monkey lead him away by the elbow, Bailong following dutifully behind, no doubt traumatized by the buddha’s golden hand.

“It’s all your fault,” the monk said, “you didn’t come when I called you. And now I have to turn it in early.”

“Fine, fine, it’s all my fault.”

Xuanzang had more to say when he caught sight of the hand on his sleeve, a strip of cloth tied around the palm. “Are you hurt?”

“What-” The first disciple glanced at the wrapped cloth. “-Oh. No, just a scratch.”

Wukong patted him once more on the back before he took Ao Lie’s reins and turned to the demons with an order of, “Make camp!”

There was another question on the tip of the monk’s tongue, but he sensed that Wukong was in no mood to answer. Just a scratch . That monkey never needed bandages before. Xuanzang pushed these creeping insecurities to the back of his mind; his disciples could take care of themselves, and for now, he would simply revel in having gained a new student, royalty, no less. He would celebrate now because there was no doubt in the monk’s mind that the dragon prince was plotting his murder at the very moment, yet another wicked disciple he would have to win over.

And sure enough, the pony was indeed imagining the various ways he could split that bald head open.

Wukong looked over his palm in the moonlight, the Tang priest snoring lightly in his blankets a hair’s breadth away, thankfully dreamless. The monkey had opted not to sleep, not when Ao Lie was faking unconsciousness so near their Master. And under his silent orders, Bajie and Wujing did the same, all three able to see past the boy’s plans. Because they had all tried the same thing before: murdering the monk in his sleep.

In the beginning, Bajie and Wujing had been stopped by Wukong at every turn, and in turn, Wukong had been stopped by the memory of the monk’s Sodding Palm, until their habits gave way to simple reflex. Protecting the priest in his sleep was as natural as chewing the twig in his mouth- anything else, Wukong gave no more thought.

The twig was rough against his lips, a good tool for biting. And the hand, stripped of its soaked bandage, was almost scabbed over. The cut from Ao Lie’s tooth had been deep, but the bleeding should have stopped within the hour, if not immediately- he never bled easily. Wukong touched the wound with the other hand, marveling at how much it pricked. In the dim light, he could see bits of fresh red under the near-scab. He wondered if his shoulderblades looked that way too.

A movement caught his eye. Wukong turned his head and shot a glare directly at Ao Lie, the prince having crawled over to Xuanzang’s side.

Ao Lie: “Big brother, you’re awake…”

Wukong: “Hoping to get a clear shot, boy?”

Ao Lie looked nervously about. The Tang priest was sound asleep and he knew there was an explicit kill-or-be-killed animosity between himself and the other two disciples. Sun Wukong was his only ally in this camp, and even that sentiment was stretching his luck. The dragon’s fingers curled in, the nails he’d planned to use on the monk’s throat retreating in defeat.

“No… I just had nightmares. I wanted Master to hug me.”

“Baldy’s asleep.” Wukong stopped his eyes from rolling back- the prince was a terrible liar. “Come here, I’ll hug you.”

“No, that’s alright…”

“Come. Here.”

Reluctantly, Ao Lie crawled around Xuanzang’s head and lay down by Wukong’s side, the monkey now between him and the target. Wukong put an arm around him and pressed his head against a solid chest. Tightly.

“Big brother… I can’t move.”

“Didn’t you want a hug?” Wukong said, “I’m hugging you.”

The monkey said no more, staring off into space, and paralyzed, Ao Lie had no choice but to lie still. Xuanzang remained very much alive through the night, plaguing the dragon prince with light snores turned heavy as he entered an even deeper sleep.

In his bed of leaves, Bajie looked on. “Serves the kid right.”

From his bed of dirt, Wujing replied, “The boss’ll have his head before he touches baldy.”

Bajie: “A pity.”

Chapter Text

Ao Lie was in no hurry to become a horse again, and even less excited at the prospect of carrying the Tang priest on his back. The Great Sage had “freed” him in the morning and sent him off to collect firewood. Not daring to refuse, he did as he was told. When Ao Lie returned with fallen branches in hand, the monk was wide awake and clearing their camp with the other two, Wukong having left to urinate.

“Little brother,” Bajie said, busy powdering his shiny face, “help Friar Sand with breakfast.”

Wujing: “I don’t want his help!”

Ao Lie stuck up his nose. “You have no right to order me around anyway.” And refusing to do any work now that Wukong was out of earshot, the dragon sat upon a tree stump and spent the remainder of the morning brooding.

The monk had proven a much tougher opponent than he first thought; of all he knew about Tang Sanzang, his Buddha’s Sodding Palm was not widespread knowledge. He could tell Marshal Tienpeng was a dandy, but Zhu Wuneng seemed so full of himself that he suspected the former Marshal could hold his own in a fight. The stoic General Juanlian was at least seven heads tall and his chain of skulls told Ao Lie not to reckon with him, as did those piercing eyes. Even so, Ao Lie was sure he could claw and scratch his way through both if need be.

And these thoughts didn’t even take into account what the Great Sage was capable of- in fact, Ao Lie was still sore from his thrashing- his only potential ally here.

Ao Lie feared the monkey most, and yet every strategy he conjured involved gaining Wukong’s favor, because fighting him was not an option if he wished to live. In thought, the prince put a thumb under his chin. If he could somehow turn the first disciple against that monk, the fish and the pig would be of little threat, and Ao Lie would soon be free. Xuanzang had a few tricks up his sleeve, but Ao Lie believed he could be outsmarted.  Given that monkey’s ego, he would no doubt want a cut of the Tang priest’s meat, and in such a case, Ao Lie would have to find a way to split Xuanzang’s flesh between Father and the Great Sage.

But if he allied himself with Sun Wukong, the King of the Western Sea would have to concede to their every whim, with or without the Tang priest’s corpse. The question, then, would be how to turn the disciples on one another. If he could accomplish this stage of his plan, the rest would fall into place, and his father would have to abdicate the throne to him, King Ao Lie. Inadvertently, the corners of his mouth turned up.

“Enjoying the dawn?” Xuanzang asked, noting the smile on Ao Lie’s face.

The prince started and looked away in embarrassment. “Yes, very much.”

“We can look at it together,” the monk said, “come join us. Wujing made bamboo soup this morning.”

“Big brother isn’t back yet.”

“He’ll return soon enough and we’ve filled his bowl already.”

Putting on a saccharine smile, Ao Lie nodded and jumped off his stump to join the pilgrims. A worn blanket about his shoulders, Xuanzang looked much more refreshed in the morning, eyes open fully, and a healthy tint to his skin. Cross legged, the monk sipped at the bowl in his hands. Forming a semi-circle beside him, Bajie and Wujing did the same with much louder slurps, and all three  indeed looked like a group of beggars, save Bajie and his opera player’s face. Ao Lie swallowed his disdain, took his place by Xuanzang, and picked up his bowl. The smile fell.

It was a colorless concoction that smelled of burnt wood, bamboo chutes and grains of rice floating among what looked like flecks of dirt, in a clay bowl that looked as if it’d seen better days. Even Duan the horse made for a better meal. Staring down at Wujing’s wretched soup, Ao Lie couldn’t help but remember the banquets in his father’s palace- golden dishes of lobster and salmon, threaded noodles and white rice, bean curd desserts and fruits aplenty, the finest cuisine from the deepest corner of each sea.

“Something the matter, Xiao Bailong?” Xuanzang said, “are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Wujing said, “eat your damn breakfast.”

Bajie: “If he doesn’t want it, I’ll take it, Master.”

Wujing: “Why wouldn’t he want it? Why don’t you want it, brat?”

Why didn’t he want it? He hadn’t slept a wink last night. He was still bruised from the monkey’s beating. He still ached from the monk’s Sodding Palm. He had his plans dashed at every turn. He was reduced to less than even a mortal man, a voiceless horse. He had no home or friend. He had had enough.

Wujing’s tone and the sight of that dishwash broke his temper at last. Ao Lie cast the bowl aside- and smash!- its contents spilling over grass as Xuanzang cried, “Hey!”

“Are you pilgrims or beggars?” the dragon said, “this is inedible!”

Wujing shot up with grit teeth, shadow eclipsing Ao Lie as he reached his full height, the rage evident in his bulging eyes.

Xuanzang: “Wujing, calm down!”

Bajie: “Oh, you’ve done it now, your highness , you’ve done it now.”

Xuanzang set his bowl down and rose, trying in vain to step between his disciples, but by then, Wujing had grabbed the folds of Ao Lie’s robe and yanked him clean off the ground.

Teeth bared, the fish demon hissed, “You insulted me.”

Defiant, Ao Lie glared back. “Then learn to cook better.”

Bajie gasped audibly behind Wujing, all but willing the fish to explode. Just as he hoped, Friar Sand roared and prepared to throw Ao Lie into the sky, the latter about to shift into scales and fangs, talons and all. The Tang priest parted his lips to reason with them, a thousand words rolling together in his throat and only one coming out, “Wujing-”

Wukong: “Break it up.”

Ao Lie instinctively turned his head to the side, the Great Sage stepping into view, bits of sunlight catching in his nest of hair. It was then that Ao Lie noticed there was little to distinguish between the King of Flower Fruit Mountain and some common thug. And as that strange tug of disappointment poked within him, the fish said, “He insulted me.”

“It’s true, boss,” Bajie said, “just look at that mess on the ground.”

Wujing: “He insulted me!”

The demon pulled Ao Lie in and lifted him over his head, as if ready to snap the boy in two. In an instant, Wukong was there, head under Wujing’s chin, hands over his biceps, Ao Lie petrified above. Wujing struggled to move, but found himself frozen in the monkey’s iron grip.

Wukong: “Then grow thicker skin!”

He buckled down, thrusting Wujing’s weight forward as Ao Lie slipped out of the fish’s hands, tumbling painfully through the dirt until he was stopped by Bajie’s heavy foot. Dizzy, the boy propped himself up, fine clothes now a mess of dust and dirt. From the corner of his eye, he saw Wukong wrestle his way out of Wujing’s arms, the fish taking out the remainder of his rage on their eldest brother. After a number of hits that should have sent Wukong’s head rolling into thin air, the monkey grabbed hold of Wujing’s fists, swung his legs, and struck his chest.

Off balance, Friar Sand fell back as Wukong descended, snarled, and yanked him up by the ear. The pain forced Wujing to bend over two heads as the monkey led him to Xuanzang’s side once more. Ignoring Wujing’s protests, Wukong shoved him into a seat and released that swollen ear.

“Just stay there and eat, asshole!” the monkey said.

“You’re the asshole! He insulted me!”

Wukong’s retort was cut off by Xuanzang, the monk coming to put both hands on Wujing’s shoulders. “Let’s just have breakfast in peace! Why begrudge your brothers so, Wujing? We have to teach your little brother our ways.”

“This,” Wukong said, gesturing at the spot of soil their scuffle had ruined, “is our way.”

“You know what I mean,” the master said, “I always strive to teach you humility and kindness. You three, I mean, four, ought to be kinder to each other. How else will we survive on our journey?”

Wukong: “I thought your Buddha’s Sodding Palm had us covered.”

“Do I seem like the type of person who would use it over every minor thing?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?”

Xuanzang sighed, massaging Wujing in an attempt to soothe the third disciple’s temper. “Now, Wujing, what do you have to say to Xiao Bailong?”

Wujing looked Ao Lie square in the eye: “Fuck you, asshole.”

Xuanzang: “Maybe we should try a different approach. Xiao Bailong, do apologize to your big brother.”

Ao Lie: “I’m not apologizing to some fish. Where does he stand in the ocean? And where do I stand? Besides, he attacked me first!”

Bajie helped Ao Lie to his feet, patted the dragon on the head with false affection, and said, “Now, now, little brother. Just say you’re sorry or it’s going to be a very bad outlook for you.”

“Please, just apologize to Wujing and we can put this behind us. Master will find you something better to eat later,” Xuanzang coaxed.

Sickened by his tone, Ao Lie kept his mouth shut in a tight line. Then Wukong pulled him forward by the horn, roughly pushed him in the monk’s direction, and growled, “Do as Master says.” Or else .

Ao Lie looked at Wujing: “I’m sorry, elder brother.”

Wujing: “That won’t bring the soup back!”

Wukong let the prince go and scoffed. “You’re still hung on that? Fine, he’ll drink your damn soup.”

Wujing: “There isn’t any left!”

Wukong: “There’s one right here, isn’t there?”

He trudged past the other pilgrims, eyed the bowl they’d set aside for him, and knelt. Wukong scooped up the latter, turned once more to Ao Lie, and forced the bowl into his hands.

“Have your breakfast and we’ll be on our way,” he said, before plopping himself by Xuanzang, arms folded behind his head.

Ao Lie held the bowl awkwardly, unsure if it was a good idea to take the monkey’s meal, offered or not, but the monk’s expectant look told him he had little choice. Hiding his grimace, Ao Lie raised the bowl to his lips and drank.

It tasted terrible.

Bajie came up behind Wukong, and unable to mask his irritation, said, “Boss, you’re far too good to that brat. It almost makes us think you favor him-”

Xuanzang: “Bajie, leave your elder brother alone. I think he did a great thing. You see, Wukong? This is the way I was talking about. You should all open your hearts to Xiao Bailong and teach him our ways.”

Ao Lie saw their eldest brother roll his eyes before delivering a half-hearted, “Uh-huh.” And of course, egghead doesn’t see .

“So how’s your soup, Xiao Bailong?” Xuanzang asked, a bright smile on his waste of a pretty face.

“It’s… good,” Ao Lie lied.

“Amitabha,” the priest said, pressing his palms together, “now let’s all dine in peace.”

“Yes, let’s!” Bajie readily agreed, like a true sycophant.

Wujing continued to silently sulk as Ao Lie swallowed a bamboo chute whole. The dragon prince had never hated anyone as much as he did these four.

“If with a pure mind, a person speaks or acts, happiness follows them like a never departing shadow.”

“Speak only endearing speech, speech that is welcomed. Speech, when it brings no evil to others, is a pleasant thing.”

“Whatever is not yours, let go of it.”

“Boundless love-”

Wukong: “Master, stop preaching. I think Bailong’ll die at this rate.”

Eyelids heavy, Ao Lie was indeed half asleep, horse hooves moving at random, horns drooping, so drowsy the monk’s words were but a faint buzz in his ears. Ever since the Tang priest placed himself upon Ao Lie’s bridle and resumed the journey west, his mouth had never stopped, as if he was convinced he could change the dragon’s rotten nature by hitting him over the head with Buddhist teachings.

A touch of pink coloring his cheeks, the monk coughed and said, “Well, I suppose he’s heard enough at this point… disciples, how long until sunset?”

“Beats me,” Wujing grunted, head forward and back slanted as he dragged their wagon along, the dragon prince having refused to take it on.

After breakfast, Xuanzang had ordered his disciples to pack and hit the road, and when Ao Lie transformed into his white horse, Bajie had tried to tether their wagon to his waist. The next scuffle resulted in their luggage spilling every which way, until Wujing, in a rage, upturned that wagon and laid all blame in the world on the Tang priest. And vowing murder, Wukong took it upon himself to beat all three of his brothers with the as-you-would golden cudgel, and would have succeeded if not for Xuanzang’s timely nursery rhyme.

And in an effort to do away with the sour mood that had overtaken them all, Xuanzang let Wukong lead the group in his stead, told Bailong he was free from every duty save horseback riding, rewarded Bajie with a portion of alms, and promised Wujing everyone’s water should he want it. All these promises, Xuanzang had no intention of  keeping. He knew the disciples would forget once their tantrums blew over and a new argument came along, whereupon the monk would repeat the same promises, again, and again, if only to unite their band of kill-or-be-killed holy men.

And thus, the day was saved by the Great and insightful Xuanzang of Tang.

“Ah, it’s such a beautiful day,” Bajie said, “look, Master! Trees as green as jade, from under which the river, runs, sun in sky, and-”

“Your poem sucks,” Wujing said.

“Oh, you can do better, fishhead?”

Wujing: “The sun shines, like the humble Master’s bald head.”

Wukong: “And Zhu Bajie, the poet, an asshole.”

Their poem finished, two demons exchanged sniggers as Bajie put a hand over his heart in offense. He shook his head and wiping away nonexistent tears, cried, “Oh Master! You see how coarse we’ve become, how uncultured from these days on the road!”

“Wukong, Wujing, stop teasing Wuneng- there’s nothing wrong with appreciating the arts,” Xuanzang chided, “and none of you answered my question.”

“You want that in verse or prose, baldy?” the monkey said, a sneer in his tone.

Xuanzang scowled. “Well, since you asked so nicely, you best give it to me in verse. But it seems Bajie’s the only one who can write poems around here.”

His mouth pulled into a smug smile when he saw the wide-eyed look of surprise on Wukong’s sour face, the demon thoroughly taken aback by Xuanzang’s retort. Wujing’s snickering now directed itself at Wukong, Bajie seized the chance to say, “If you need help with your verse, I’m right here, boss-”

“Shut up,” Wukong grumbled, “Master wants a poem? I’ll give him one.”

Bajie: “I’m not sure if that’s your strong suit-”

Wukong: “The sun is high as noon long past, from here to dusk the hour is short, and he who wanders will soon see dark.”

The pig delivered a bout of melodramatic applause. “Eldest brother, that was wonderful! You’re full of surprises- it was beautiful!”

“Eh, it was alright,” Wujing said truthfully, having expected much worse from the boss, though he remained unimpressed.

“I have to hand it you, monkey, that was actually passable. Now do you see the importance of the arts?” Xuanzang said, still caught in his moment of satisfaction, and stretching a hand to stroke Ao Lie behind the ear, he asked, “What did you think, Xiao Bailong?”

The pony made a sound halfway between a whinny and a roar, giving Xuanzang such a fright he nearly yelped. The prince did not take kindly to being ignored and he was feeling very much cast aside while the other four bantered on, just as his blood brothers had as they conspired behind his back.

“Easy,” Xuanzang said, “as your mentor, I have to divide my attention evenly. You know I can’t give it all to you, Xiao Bailong.”

Then the Tang priest grinned. “But we’ll be stopping again soon, so for the time being, I can recite scriptures for you again. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?”

Ao Lie whimpered and Xuanzang took that as a sign of approval. Fearing the prince would try to buckle and dash the priest’s brains on the ground, Wukong grasped his reins and took his place in front of the Master’s horse.

From the rear, Bajie said, “Oh, that does sound like fun! I’m sure Xiao Bailong would love that. The longer, the better, Master, until he can’t sleep without hearing your voice. How blessed he is.”

At the pig’s heels, Wujing huffed, glared at Xuanzang’s head, and said, “Don’t bother, Master- brat won’t learn a thing!”

Wukong: “I think Friar Sand needs it more than dragon boy, huh, Master?”

Xuanzang: “That’s it! You’re all going to copy the heart sutra tonight, two hundred times by hand, and no magic.”

And thus, one before the other, the pilgrims traveled on, Sun Wukong ahead of the White Dragon Horse, Tang Sanzang atop his steed, Zhu Bajie following with his nine-toothed rake, and Sha Wujing at the very end, crescent monk’s spade and wheeled wagon in tow. The as-you-would golden cudgel dragged along as wind blew and sun slashed, until the sky bled red and night washed over.

And as the disciples had hoped, Xuanzang forgot completely about their punishment.

Moonfield Village was a quaint little place Xuanzang had hoped to stay for the night. It had been weeks since they’d last stayed indoors and the thought of sleeping with a roof over his head was not unwelcome. So when Wukong’s voice woke him from a half-slumber on Ao Lie’s back, he instantly stirred to hear, “Master, let’s stop here.”

It was not a large town, this he could tell, and measured roughly twice the size of the illusion that had been Rivermouth. Its wooden buildings were compact and bunched, not a sign of lantern light in the vicinity of the village, and Moonfield itself was surrounded by fields of tall grass, patterned in a circle where the moonlight bounced off. Its people received their light from the moon and their living from the field, and all this that sustained them, they owed to the earth and its masters.

As they searched for signs of an inn, Bajie spotted shapes moving about the windows above, each more antsy than the last. Alarm bells ringing, he dawdled up to the Tang priest and whispered, “Master, people are watching us.”

Xuanzang made to look up, only to to be stopped by the pig.

Bajie: “Don’t look, Master! We don’t want them to know.”

Xuanzang: “If it makes you uneasy, shouldn’t we double check?”

Bajie chuckled. “No, it was just an observation. If anything happens, you have us three to protect you, and your Buddha’s Sodding Palm.”

Ao Lie kicked him in the shin. Bajie bit his tongue to prevent a cry. “Four, you have us four to protect you.”

“Not very welcoming to strangers, are they?” Wukong mused, “maybe if we get rough with them…”

Xuanzang: “ No , you are not to threaten anyone here, understand?”

Wukong: “Your call, Master.”

The pilgrims wandered a few more paces before Xuanzang caught sight of THE CRESCENT TIGER’S INN, carved into a crooked sign over a mud-brown building, washed blue by the evening. The monk ordered his disciples to halt and pushed himself off the horse on wobbly steps. He gave Ao Lie a final stroke on the cheek before turning to the dragon’s three brothers.

“I don’t want any trouble from you three. Take care of your little brother and don’t move- you’re all so coarse and ugly that we’d be run out for sure. Let Master handle this for you.”

“You think so highly of us, Master,” Bajie said with sincerity.

With that, the Tang priest took his leave and marched to the door of the Crescent Tiger’s Inn. He cleared his throat and pushed the door open, delighted to know it was unlocked. He was met with utter darkness, and still, he ventured on.

“Hello?” he said, “this holy monk hails from the Tang Kingdom. I come here with my four disciples to stay the night. We’re on a quest for the holy scriptures in the western paradise. Is there anyone that can serve us?”

Eyes adjusting, Xuanzang could make out a series of circular tables and stools, the lingering smell of tea and burnt food in the air, proof that the inn was still in business.


He cleared his throat again. “Hello!?”

“Don’t yell, venerable elder!” a voice rasped.

Xuanzang nearly tripped in surprise. He groped for stability in the dark, grabbing onto the corner of a rough sleeve. His gaze traced upwards until he was face to face with what appeared to be a wrinkled woman, hunched by old age.

“Hello, kind bodhisattva,” he said, “did you hear what I said?”

“Yes, yes, I heard very well. I can make you a cup of tea but no more.”

“Then shall I call my disciples?” He wasn’t sure if he should say three or four. He had intended to leave Xiao Bailong outside but the day had proven to him the prince was not one to stomach a single slight.

She shook her head viciously and said, “No, my son wouldn’t have it. He owns this inn, you know.” She shook again, white head glaring silver in the dark. “Moonfield is a holy village. We can’t welcome demons.”

Xuanzang: “I can’t speak for what you saw from your windows, but I assure you there are no demons in our company. We’re exorcists, actually.”

“I’m old but I’m not stupid, venerable elder.”

“Yes, some of my disciples were demons in the past, but ever since joining the Buddhist way, they’ve been redeemed.”

“We can’t allow it. You seem like a nice boy, but I can’t risk any evil tainting our inn- it’s bad luck for business, you know.”


“Shh!” She pressed a hand over his mouth, shrinking against his chest as Xuanzang bent to reach her height. “He’s awake. I can’t make you that tea now. Please try elsewhere, venerable elder.”

The old woman released him and before Xuanzang could say more, she was ushering him towards the door, telling him all the ways her son could do him injury if they met. As he tried to bargain for more time, the disciples remained in wait.

Ao Lie had since returned to his human shape and busied himself with rubbing his spine. He had never carried anyone on his back before; if anything, it had been the other way around in the Western Palace.

“You’re sore already?” Wujing said, “aren’t you a watersnake?”

“I’m a dragon,” Ao Lie said with a haughty turn of the nose, “and you know it.”

Wujing: “High words from a horse.”

“You-!” Ao lie was about to raise a fist before he saw the ‘just try it’ warning in Wukong’s eyes. Instead, he humphed and folded his hands behind his back.

“Boss, Master’s been gone a long time,” Bajie said, “you think something happened?”

“Maybe he’s been duped into marriage again,” the monkey replied.

Wujing: “Wouldn’t surprise me.”

Bajie: “You have no say in this. The boss and I can transform for the night. What about you and the brat? Gills? Horns? No wonder they think we’re monsters!”

Wukong: “Master’ll try to pull his demon redemption schtick again.”

The pig rolled his eyes. “Yes, and that always works so wonderfully.”

The three demons fell into silence once more, each staring absently ahead as they prepared for the master’s inevitable return with news of failure. Ao Lie yawned and approached Wukong, filled with regret at having not thrown the monk off his back earlier.

“Big brother,” he said, “what’s taking that baldy so long?”

And then he was yanked onto his tiptoes, Wukong’s hand in his hair. The first disciple glowered, jabbed a finger at his chest, and hissed, “ Listen here. You call him Master and nothing else .”

Too scared to say more, the dragon nodded with a gaping mouth, stumbling three steps when Wukong released him from that tight grip. Regaining his balance, Ao Lie turned to see Xuanzang coming out of the Crescent Tiger’s Inn, thoroughly dejected. The Tang priest rejoined his disciples and sighed.

“They don’t welcome us here,” Xuanzang said, “come, let’s try our luck at another door.”

“Really Master?” Wukong said, “you mean they don’t serve demons here? How shocking.”

“Wukong, I’m not in the mood- don’t push me.”

Xuanzang walked past the group, taking it upon himself to find a room for the night. Wukong strolled in step with him, and side by side, they moved through Moonfield Village, Ao Lie and the others several feet behind.

“Hurry it up,” Bajie said to Wujing, “we’re all tired here- pick up the pace!”

Wujing: “Fine, fine!”

Noting Ao Lie’s silence, the pig crept behind him and put an arm around the boy. “Relax. The boss has issues when it comes to Master. He’s just taking it out on you.”

“I don’t follow,” Ao Lie said, suspicious of Bajie’s friendly manner.

“He killed Duan too,” Bajie said, before leaving Ao Lie to catch up with their Master.

Ao Lie stopped in his tracks, long enough for Wujing to pass him with their wagon. He rolled the second disciple’s words over in his mind, unsure what to make of them save a vague unease that took seed and grew. And of course, Zhu Bajie would have no benevolent intentions for him, this Ao Lie knew. What to do next was another matter.

Ahead, Xuanzang put on an air of confidence for the sake of his students, but the encounter with the innkeeper’s mother left him rather deflated, so to offset those negative emotions, he went out of his way to exude cheeriness. But in Wukong’s opinion, the monk’s plastered smile was the fakest thing this side of the east. He considered letting the Tang priest know his thoughts, but decided against it in the end- the master rarely cared for being corrected.

“Lord Buddha, let this be the one,” Xuanzang said, stopping in front of THE WANING LION INN.

“Two inns in this small place?” Wukong muttered, “they really think they’re something.”

Xuanzang: “Hush, hush. I think we were meant to come here.”

Confident, the monk knocked on the door, before overcome with second thoughts. He looked to his disciples, Wukong leaning on that staff, Wujing standing in that pose, Bajie grappling with those sleeves, and Ao Lie playing with those horns. Xuanzang: “You four, stay where you are and let me handle this.”

Wujing: “That’s what you said last time!”

Xuanzang: “This time will work. Believe me.”

Bajie: “I believe you, Master, I always believe you.”

The doors opened and the disciples stepped out of view. A woman held a candle to Xuanzang’s face, her eyes framed by sleepless bags, a babe clinging to her revealed breast, its body wrapped by her freckled arm.

“Can I help you?” she said.

“Yes, good bodhisattva. This humble man is Tang Sanzang of the Tang Kingdom, sent to retrieve the holy scriptures from the west by the Lord Buddha, and tonight, I pass by with my three- four disciples.”

She laughed, a cheerful, lively laugh.

“Sent by Lord Buddha? Then I must be the Queen Mother!”

“I tell the truth, bodhisattva.” Xuanzang felt his cheeks redden, the dim chuckling of his first disciple entering his ears.

“I haven’t laughed in so long. Please come in, venerable elder, do tell me more of your jokes.”

At the invitation, Xuanzang stepped in, the doors closing behind him as the woman guided him to wood-strung chair, cooing to her infant all the while. The lobby was half the size of THE CRESCENT TIGER’S INN, its tables scarce, and piled with dirty dishes. He took his seat, the woman leaving and returning with an extra candle and teapot.

“Leftover from our dinner,” she said, “do forgive me, we don’t get much business this season.”

Xuanzang doubted she had much business any season.

“My husband’s a most serious man,” she told him, “I haven’t laughed so well in so long.”

“I’m sure he has his reasons.”

“Oh, he does. I’m his second- he’s never forgotten the other. Sometimes it’s like she never left- oh, there I go, rambling.”

“It’s no trouble! I’m most grateful for the tea.”

“You’re kind, venerable elder.” She flashed him a coy look and on instinct. Xuanzang coughed and glanced away.

“But I’m the one with his child. I run this business with him now. All in all, I would say I won- is that fair, venerable elder?”

“I suppose, but in this life, we must not compare ourselves to others.”

“Yes, you’re right- forgive me. I’ve been out of sorts since the child.” She folded her mud-colored robe over her chest and cradled the sleeping babe in her arms. “I can get my husband in a moment- he’s asleep and I hadn’t the heart to wake him. Did you want a room for the night?”

“Yes, most desperately.” Xuanzang hesitated. “I’m low on money, however. I’m afraid I won’t be able to pay you much for your service.”

“It’s alright, venerable elder- consider the tea a gift, and a room for one won’t cost much.”

“No,” he said, bracing himself for another round of laughter, “I wasn’t lying before. I have four disciples with me.”

He leaned in and whispered, “One is a dragon. The other three are former demons. I made them a promise I can’t afford to break.”

“Haaa! Ha-ha! Oh, I like you very much, venerable elder! Is heavenly king Li with you too? Will Erlang Shen need a room?”

He tried to cut in once more, but the innkeeper’s wife laughed at every turn, as if ready to laugh her lungs out and giggle into eternity. At last, he managed to say, “please, come, bodhisattva. I’m afraid I’ll have to show you my disciples in the flesh.”

“Show me? Yes, let’s see!” She gathered the babe in her arms, and like a little girl, followed Xuanzang out of the inn, all too happy to see what else the monk had up his sleeve.

“I must warn you,” he said as they entered the street, “they’re not a sightly group to behold.”

She fell silent behind him.

Xuanzang: “Yes, I know, it’s quite shocking-”

“Are they a performance troupe?” she asked, ogling the pilgrims with curiosity.

Bajie spread his fan. “You could say that. We can do other things too, and I’ve always found married women especially sexy.”

Unwilling to repeat another one of the pig’s escapades, Xuanzang stepped between him and the woman, Wukong and Wujing dead silent.

Ao Lie: “I know four transformations and a half. Would you like to see?”

Xuanzang: “No, I’m sure she wouldn’t. So you see, bodhisattva, my disciples may appear to be disfigured, perhaps malformed persons, but they’re actually not human at all and in possession of repenting hearts.”

Malformed? Ao Lie thought, we’ll see who’s malformed when I bite your head off, egghead .

Wukong: “You sure do praise us well, Master.”

The innkeeper’s wife assessed Xuanzang’s band again, realization dawning on her face that what he said was indeed true. “Venerable elder, I’m not the superstitious sort but Moonfield has a tradition of banishing demons, redeemed or not. We can’t let you stay the night.”

Xuanzang: “But-”

“Let me finish,” she said, rocking the babe back and forth, “I very much enjoyed your company and your jokes-”

Xuanzang: “Jokes?”

“-tonight, so I haven’t the heart to leave you stranded. Wuzhuang Temple is a little ways from Moonfield. We’ve never seen its Master, but we pray to him all the same. In a way, we call him our patriarch, the great Immortal Zhenyuan.”

“And yet you believe in him ?”

“More out of habit. We pay tribute to him every now and then, but I’ve always chalked it up to myth. That is, until I met you tonight. Wouldn’t hurt to try and seek refuge there, would it, venerable elder? Someone as noble as the Immortal Zhenyuan must be willing to lend a hand.”

The disciples looked to their master, as if daring him to make a decision, and Xuanzang knew they planned to mock him, no matter what course of action he took.

“Which way?” he asked.

“See there?” She pointed in the distance, at the moonlit outline of a sloping mountain, “That’s Longevity Mountain, the temple’s home.”

Xuanzang kowtowed and said, “Thank you, bodhisattva, from the bottom of my heart.”

He turned to the disciples. “Thank the bodhisattva and get ready!”

In turn, they kowtowed and mumbled their thanks, no doubt irritated at having to walk the extra mile. As they took their leave, Xuanzang touched the top of the babe’s head and held its mother’s hand.

“Don’t worry about your husband,” he said, “you’re a lovely woman, bodhisattva, and he would be blind not to see it. If you believe in this love, then it shall be so.”

She smiled. “Thank you, Master Sanzang.”

Chapter Text

The hike up Longevity Mountain was a monotonous task, accompanied by feet on steep earth and whistling leaves, all of which led to the chipped stone stairs of Wuzhuang Temple. Ao Lie clopped upwards, Xuanzang struggling to stay atop him as the older disciples trudged on behind them, lugging the wagon in their wake.

“We should have just camped down there,” Bajie complained, “it’s well past midnight now anyway.”

“Quit whining,” Wujing said, “I’m the one with the wagon.”

“Both of you assholes quit whining,” Wukong ordered, “we don’t want the brat copying you.”

And after a period of what seemed like days, Xuanzang and his companions finally reached the gates of Wuzhuang. The Tang priest slipped off Ao Lie, tidied himself up, and led the others into the Immortal Zhenyuan’s courtyard, a vast clean space with high trees and intricate pillars, all cut in red, brown, and white. There, the moonlight beamed straight down, forming a circle of yin and yang in the center of the yard, filled in with dancing shadows and bouncing light.

While Xuanzang admired the scenery, he heard a voice say, “You’re late.”

Startled, he turned to the source. Seeing nothing, he looked left, then right.

“Down here,” another voice said.

The monk turned his gaze downwards, only to see the heads of two children, no older than ten. Pale and haughty, they stood in black and white robes, spun from fine silk, hair neatly split into two buns, held together by silver ribbons.

“Might I ask who you are, little Masters?”

“I am called Qingfeng,” said one.

And “I’m Mingyue,” said the other.

And together: “The humble servants of the great Zhenyuanzi.”

Xuanzang couldn’t detect an ounce of humility in the duo, but he knew not everyone could emulate the constant low profile he kept for himself.

“Tang Sanzang,” Qinfeng said, “our Master instructed us to meet you in the courtyard today. He predicted you would seek his company.”

“Well yes-”

“We waited for you all day, monk,” Mingyue said, “you shouldn’t have kept us waiting.”

“Um, my apologies,”  Xuanzang said, “but we only discovered your Master’s temple in the night. We had no prior intention to disturb him.”

Qinfeng: “The Master is away on an errand. It is not him you disturbed, but us.”

Mingyue: “And you’re only supposed to have three disciples with you, what’s up with the extra?”

“I accepted a fourth disciple just yesterday, Prince Ao Lie, third heir of the Western Sea. In turn, he follows as my steed. Surely your Master wouldn’t mind?”

Qingfeng scrunched his nose. “Master did say Tang Sanzang was an odd fellow. This does not surprise me.”

“Thank you?” Xuanzang said, “may I ask how Zhenyuanzi knew we were coming?”

“Your mortal mind couldn’t understand,” Mingyue quipped, “our Master is the patriarch of all earth deities, all-seeing, almighty-”

Qingfeng: “He gets his information from the local earth deity. We heard wind of your arrival in this direction and he assumed you would come.”

Mingyue: “That too.”

Xuanzang nodded anxiously and clapped his hands together in a kowtow. “We’re most honored to be his guests.”

“But that does not excuse your untimeliness,” Qingfeng said, and before the monk could apologize, added, “come, I will show you to your rooms. Mingyue will handle your royal steed.”

Hearing those words, the second servant pulled Qinfeng aside and hissed in his ear, “What? Why do I have to take the horse?”

“Because I said so and Master left me in charge,” was the reply Xuanzang heard.

Under the bright moon, Mingyue stormed off in the direction of his disciples, Qingfeng looking on in satisfaction. And like his namesake, the servant moved towards the inside of Wuzhuang, on steps as light as clear wind, beckoning Xuanzang to follow.

There was one bed and three of them. Bajie ticked his teeth in irritation, arms crossed as he paced about the room that Zhenyuanzi’s boy had led them through. The little servant’s stoic face had unnerved him, but all had been forgiven upon seeing the luxurious guestroom- a finely cut window, a ceiling of white jade, furniture befitting of Li Shimin himself, and a soft bed big enough for two.

And then all his irritation returned when the servant informed them, matter-of-factly, that this was Xuanzang’s room.

The disciples then followed Qingfeng into the room next door, a scarcely furnished space with a circular hole for a window, one bed- half the size of their Master’s, a wooden couch, and two rolled-out futons.  

Qingfeng: “My Master will be back at dawn. Your master will dine first at daybreak- do not be late.”

With that, the boy had parted and the three demons were left to unpack amongst themselves.

“It’s really strange, don’t you think?” Bajie asked the other two, “that all the children we met have been unbearable.”

“The baby was alright,” Wujing said.

“Because it was asleep,” Wukong finished.

The monkey hopped over a wooden beam and peered into the window- they could expect bugs and the like in the night. “Could be worse- the dragon’s not with us, at least.”

“Amitabha,” Bajie said, mock-fainting onto the chaise-lounge, “we’d never hear the end from him.”

Wujing: “So how are we sleeping?”

Wukong ignored him, still poking his head into the window, as if waiting to catch sight of the Immortal Zhenyuan’s return.

Bajie: “What are you, stupid? It’s obvious. Boss takes the bed. Chair’s mine. And you get the floor.”

The servant named Mingyue had tried to lock him in a stable. Furious, Ao Lie twisted, jaws snapping over the boy’s hand, and in return, Mingyue clouted him over the ears, pulling his horns as the prince tried to crush his feet.

“Just get in there!” he cried.

Ao Lie whinnied and kicked him in the torso. The wind knocked out, Mingyue’s knees buckled, their owner crumpling before the pony’s hooves.

“Q- Qingfeng! Help!” the servant wheezed.

Ao Lie turned his head, but by then, the second servant had arrived and thrown a rope around his neck. He neighed in protest, but Qingfeng proved to be much more competent than his companion. The boy tugged, managing to drag Ao Lie into a wooden stall, and before the dragon could retaliate, Qingfeng  had released him from the rope and locked the door.

From the slits in the door, Ao Lie saw Qingfeng’s shadow help Mingyue up with a mumbled, “Your skill is lacking.”

Mingyue: “If you’re so great, why didn’t you do it?”

Qinfeng: “I was handling the demons, or would you rather take my place?”

Mingyue: “Bah! Forget you, I’m out of here.”

Qingfeng turned to Ao Lie and slid the top of the door aside, allowing the pony a good amount of open space. “Forgive him, your highness. Mingyue has not been with our Master as long as me. I shall be back with your meal at daybreak; do as you please in the meantime. Farewell.”

Ao Lie glared at his backside as the servant left, knowing full well there wasn’t a hint of apology in Qingfeng’s voice. He shook his mane, slid into his human form, propped himself against the stall door and rested a palm against his head.

“Do as I please, you say?”

He smirked and crossed over the stall, falling on his head in the process. Grateful that no one had been there to witness his accident, he crawled onto his feet and left the stable. Keeping to the shadows, Ao Lie crept along the walls of Wuzhuang, taking a small thrill in disobeying that smug servant. Zhenyuanzi was a character of good taste, he admitted- the architecture vaguely reminded him of home, and he’d seen enough of Master Puti’s gaudy decorations to know what was what.

The thought of Puti gave him pause. Ao Lie was the old celestial’s last recourse, and he certainly did not want to leave his master to rot, and yet- why bother? He’d already made up his mind to reconcile with Father instead, and he did not carry the Tang priest all the way here for nothing. Whatever guilt he might have felt, Ao Lie pushed to the back of his mind.

A flicker of candlelight caught his attention. Ao Lie snuck towards the source and found himself outside the window of Xuanzang’s room. He stared in- the monk was curled on his bed, head facing the window, eyes shut in bliss, a dreamy smile on his lips.

“Miss Duan,” the egghead mumbled, “I’m back.”

Instinctively, Ao Lie touched his stomach- no doubt Duan had long since been digested. Bajie’s words returned- he killed Duan too - and Ao Lie had to wonder if Duan really was just their prized horse. Xuanzang began kissing the pillow. Ao Lie certainly hoped Duan was not just their horse. And better yet, this could be just what he needed, if he could wait long enough for one of the disciples to slip up.

He left Xuanzang’s window and poked his head into the one beside it. In the dark, he could see Bajie lying on a chaise-lounge and Wujing flat on the ground, both snoring up a chorus.

Couldn’t sleep?

Ao Lie fell on his butt, smacking a hand over his mouth to muffle a cry. Wukong had dropped down from the ceiling, upside down as his knees hung over a ceiling beam. The monkey cast him a malicious grin.

“Did you want Master to hug you again, hm?”

“N- no!” Ao Lie whispered, “I was just exploring. I’ll be off now. Goodnight, big brother.”

The prince hastily scrambled away, all too eager to return to the safety of his stable as Wukong eyed his retreat.

Reality set in at the crack of dawn, when a pounding at the door stirred Xuanzang from his dreams. Mingyue had come to guide him through the day, and from his tone, the monk could tell he was not happy to do so. Xuanzang woke up in haste, washed his face in the basin provided, relieved himself in the corner chamberpot, and quickly adjusted his robes. When he was set, he all but crashed out of the room and furiously knocked on the neighboring door.

More than a bit cranky, the disciples filed out one by one, popping joints and rolling shoulders, each displeased to see Xuanzang and even moreso at seeing Mingyue. Having gathered the pilgrims successfully, the boy led them down the hall and into the opposite corridor, path opening into a garden of plums. They crossed it and entered an open parlor, taking their seats about a round stone table.

“With all this fanfare, you’d think they’d have a ten course meal,” Bajie whispered to Wujing.

“Wuneng,” Xuanzang warned.

Bajie fell silent as Qingfeng entered from the opposite side, a covered porcelain bowl in his hands. He set it on the table and beckoned Mingyue to stand by his side.

“Tang Sanzang,” Qingfeng said, “our Master instructed us to present you with this gift before his arrival.”

“He’s only giving it to you because you’re going west for Buddha,” Mingyue added, “so consider yourself lucky.”

Qingfeng: “Yes, he thinks it a good idea to establish relations with you.”

Xuanzang: “I’m most thankful.”

Wujing: “Show us already!”

Qingfeng offered a slight bow before removing the cover. Xuanzang and his disciples leaned in for a closer look, staring at the two bulging objects within the dish. And the Tang priest instantly paled.

“This- this,” he stammered, “what is this?”

The objects stared back at him, overgrown embryos the size of a man’s fist. They were layered in translucent skin and tangled in thin pink veins, miniature limbs curled inwards as their heads bobbed in juice, seeds in place of the eyes above their shapeless lips and nose.

“Your master eats babies!?” Bajie gasped.

“And there are only two- there are four of us!” Wujing said.

Wukong slapped his thigh and cackled. “What a morning! You starting with the head or the legs, baldy?”

Xuanzang: “It’s not funny! All three of you be quiet! Qingfeng, what- I can’t accept this. We took a vegetarian vow.”

Mingyue rolled his eyes and said, “No, you hick. It’s not meat. These things came from Master’s Ginsengfruit tree. He treats it like his own flesh and blood.”

“These fruits are truly a treasure,” Qingfeng added, “do cherish them, venerable elder. One whiff can extend your life three-hundred-sixty years and one fruit, forty-seven thousand.”

“I have no need to live that long,” Xuanzang said, “my first disciple is already immortal and the other two have a good many years ahead of them as well. Could we have a simple vegetarian meal instead?”

The corner of Qingfeng’s mouth twitched, but the servant was quick to control his temper. He covered the bowl once more and said, “If that is your wish, I will inform the Master when he returns.”

“Get your own food, then!” Mingyue said, “do you have any idea how long it took to get these fruits? Is this how you respect my Master?!”

Bajie: “We can eat the Master’s portion.”

Wukong: “You really have a way with children, Master,”

Xuanzang: “Be quiet!” He turned to Mingyue,  “I’m sorry, but-”

“You can bet I’ll tell Master what a shallow man you are,” Mingyue threatened, turning on his heels as Qingfeng did the same.

“So what do we eat!?” Wujing called out behind them.

The duo offered no response as they exited, leaving a flabbergasted Xuanzang behind. The monk buried his head in his arms, moaning in frustration. Wukong leaned his head on Xuanzang’s lowered shoulder, shut one eye, and watched the servants fade into the distance.

“You’ve really raised the stakes now, Master,” he said.

“You bad monkey,” Xuanzang’s muffled voice said, “no help at all.”

Wukong: “Relax, what can they do to you? You want me to take a look?”

Xuanzang raised his head by a fraction, casting Wukong a wary glance. “You won’t start anything?”

“Would you rather Bajie or Wujing go? Maybe Xiao Bailong?”

He had a point. Xuanzang moaned again and said, “Fine, just see how they handle the fruit and come straight back. No monkey business.”

Wukong snorted. “No monkey business.”

Filled to the brim with anger, Wujing prepared a reluctant meal for his companions right there in the parlor, etiquette be damned. He started a fire in the garden and left the dirty pots and pans for the servants to collect. Again, they set aside a bowl for the boss, that monkey having slithered off to spy on the boys.

He and Bajie were stuck with the Tang priest as they dined and waited, all because the master couldn’t stomach the sight of ugly fruit. The thought made his blood boil and Wujing didn’t hesitate to let the master know.

“You take my cooking for granted all the time,” he said, “and the one day I’m not prepared to serve you, you call on me? What do you take me for, Master, some slave?”

“Wujing,” Xuanzang said, “Wujing, please calm down-”

“You know I do everything seriously! But do any of you appreciate it? No!”

“Maybe we’d appreciate it more if you weren’t such a whiner,” Bajie said.

“Look who’s talking!” Wujing replied.

Xuanzang: “Bajie, Wujing, you know arguments lead nowhere.”

Wujing: “And if your Sodding Palm is so great, why can’t you bother to cook?!”

Bajie: “Hey, you can’t talk to Master like that!”

Wujing: “Stop brown-nosing!”

Bajie: “I’ll show you brown-nosing-”

The disciples pushed and shoved at one another, mere steps away from violence, and Xuanzang had no choice but to raise his voice. “Stop it! Or I really will use the Palm! Your big brother was no match for it, so I doubt you two can stand it!”

Satisfied at their reluctant silence, Xuanzang put his hands in his lap, straightened his back, and waited. He hoped Wukong would have nothing to report, but another thought itched at him, even more than the idea of meeting Zhenyuanzi face to face. He thought of what to do with Ao Lie- it had been mulling in his head since they first arrived at Wuzhuang and only now did he reach his final decision.

In the kitchen, Qingfeng dumped the fruits from their bowl as Mingyue scowled from his place on the table.

“Who’s that monk think he is?” Mingyue spat, “who in their right mind would turn this down?”

“Yes, he is a stubborn man.”

“Hey, you know what we should do? Let’s eat them ourselves and tell Master he accepted.”

“Lie to the Master’s face? Are you daft?”

“Think about it. Monk won’t take them, and it’d be a waste on his disciples. We really want that clown-faced Zhu Bajie living forever? Friar Sand’s a few screws loose too. And Sun Wukong’s batshit enough without the Ginsengfruit.”

“You do make a convincing argument. And we did help Master tend his tree for the past thousand years.”

“And we waited all day to serve those beggars hand and foot. Come on, let’s do it!”

In unison, they each scooped up a fruit, eyed one another, and bit in, the pink juice smearing their lips as they took bite after bite of Zhenyuanzi’s beloved fruit. Finished, they spat out the seeds and hid them in their robes.

“I don’t think I’ll ever have to eat again,” Mingyue sighed.

“Yes, that was the most heavenly thing I ever ate.”

With that, they finished tending their duties in the kitchen and took their leave, trying in vain to cover their ensuing burps. The fly on the opposite wall landed on the floor and took the shape of Xuanzang’s eldest disciple. Wukong eyed the scar on his palm.

“No monkey business,” he said. Yes, no starting monkey business, but if the servants engaged in it first, then it really couldn’t be helped, could it?

And- change!- the fly flew out.

Ao Lie loitered about the courtyard, hoping to avoid everyone and anyone for that matter, but Xuanzang’s shout of, “Xiao Bailong!” stopped him in his tracks. It was a dreaded nickname that he had yet to be used to.

Ao Lie searched for the other disciples- they were nowhere to be found. And eyes widening, the dragon wondered if this was his chance to be rid of the monk. Then he remembered the Buddha’s Sodding Palm and shuddered.

“I was looking all over for you,” Xuanzang said with a beam, “I thought you were in the stable.”

“I’m just taking a walk. That’s all.”

“Then I caught you in time. I’d like to have a word.”

“With only me, Master?”

“Yes, it only concerns you.”

Ao Lie gulped, hoping the Tang priest hadn’t caught onto his plan so soon. Had he been so obvious? Had one of the others seen right past him and informed the monk?

“I know you’re unhappy.”

It must have been Zhu Bajie! The pig must have squealed!

“No, Master! I’m very happy! Don’t believe a word that pig says!”

Xuanzang furrowed his brows. “What does Bajie have to do with anything? I only wanted to share a concern with you.”

Ao Lie: “Oh.”

He felt his heart slow to an even pace as Xuanzang clapped his back and took him to sit on a shaded bench.

“The journey west is a hard one,” the monk told him, “we have to be in it physically and mentally. You’re not like your three brothers- they have to be with me. But you, Xiao Bailong, you’ve committed no sin.”

“I broke Father’s pearl.”

“A child’s mistake. It can be forgiven. You’re not a demon and you’ve done your part. You’ve carried me a fair way and I hope some of my teaching’s rubbed off on you.”

“It certainly has, Master!” Get to the point, egghead.

“But this journey will do you no good if your heart’s not in the matter. You’re miserable and I can’t promise things will get better. So you can leave if you want. I won’t hold you as my disciple.”

Ao Lie blinked, making sure he hadn’t misheard. “Leave? But… where would I go?”

Xuanzang looked up and smiled. “Wherever you want, the sky, the sea. It’s a wonderful thing, to fly. I’ve thought this through- go to Qingfeng. He’s more level-headed. Tell him your master wants you to have his Ginsengfruit. Then bring that to your father.”

Ao Lie: “But what of Master Puti?”

Xuanzang: “I’ll speak to Wukong and we’ll see what can be done. That monkey’s hard-headed but he’s not so heartless.”

He turned again to the prince. “I’ll leave you to decide. If you’re gone in the evening, then I’ll know what you’ve chosen. For what it was, though, you did fair for a new disciple.”

Speechless, Ao Lie could only say, “Thank you… venerable elder.”

Xuanzang stood up, kowtowed with a final smile, and left. Once he was sure the monk was gone, Ao Lie reached into the fold of his robe and guiltily removed the object he had hidden within, a Ginsengfruit plucked straight from Zhengyuanzi’s darling tree. It was supposed to have been collateral to appease his Father should he fail to obtain the Tang priest. But Tang Xuanzang had to come and play the saint, and for once, Ao Lie truly did not know what to do.

The servants left the Ginsengfruit tree unguarded while they tended Wuzhuang’s courtyard in preparation for their Master’s return. Bajie tiptoed around that tree, half expecting the real Zhenyuanzi to pop out and attack him any second. Fortunately, that had yet to occur. He whistled as he admired the immortal’s handiwork- the trunk was thick with rich bark, long branches curling into the sky as violet leaves swung atop, the Ginsengfruit bobbing in the wind like crying children.

He was eager to try a bite of this fruit and he supposed it wouldn’t hurt to take one for himself- the Tang priest had been offered two after all. Those boys seemed so loyal to their master he doubted they would do anything to the ones they took back. Bajie lifted his rake to claw at the lowermost branch.

“Asshole, what are you doing?”

Bajie cried out as Wukong poked his head from out of a nestle of leaves.

“Boss, what are you doing here?”

“Taking what’s ours. What does it look like I’m doing?” Wukong tossed a fruit in Bajie’s direction, the pig scrambling to catch it.

“Those runts ate the baldy’s fruits, and they had some choice words for us.” He tossed another fruit.

Bajie barely caught it. “What did they say?”

“Called me crazy. You’re a clown, and Friar Sand has some screws loose. The usual.”

“How insulting! Give me another one! We’ll show them!”

The last one fell and hit Bajie in the nose before bouncing into his arms. Wukong jumped down, landing on his feet.

“Figured they can take the punishment for eating two. Two were supposed to go to us anyway, so all in all, taking three’s a good deal.”

Bajie eyed the fruits in his arms, slightly unnerved by their aesthetic. Then it occurred to him that they were doing this for the taste alone- neither of them really needed the fruits in any capacity. And still, he wondered.

“So one for me, one for you, and one for Old Sha?” he said, “Boss, you’re going to eat a whole fruit? This doesn’t seem like your style.”

“I eat fruit all the time.”

“No, I mean… you don’t usually go behind baldy like this.”

Wukong snatched a fruit from his hands and bit into it, chewing as he said, “Maybe I felt like it today.”

Bajie brushed the monkey’s shoulder. “Do you remember what that boy said about these things? Immortality? I wonder what else these fruits can do, maybe- heal ?”

Having finished the fruit, Wukong spat out a seed and moved out of his grip. “Only thing that needs healing is your brain.”


The two turned, only to see a stunned Wujing rushing in their direction. The fish stared at their fruits in horror and said, “Master sent me to stop you!”

“What, baldy doesn’t trust me?” Bajie said, “I only said I was going for a stroll!”

“Eldest brother, second brother,” Wujing said, “the baldy’s not going to stand for this.”

“Fine,” Wukong sighed, “we’ll put one back. Pighead, give me a fruit. The two of you can share the last one.”

“That’s not fair,” Wujing said, “you already ate one!” And he remembered the untouched congee. “This is the second time you skipped my cooking!”

Wukong: “Then eat the fruit! I don’t give a damn.”

Wujing: “You just said to put it back!”

Bajie bit into the second fruit, unwilling to share with the third disciple. And before anything could be done about the third, Wukong grabbed it and prepared to climb back up the great tree. Wujing followed at his heels, yelling, “Boss, you only took three fruits! They took two! But there are supposed to be thirty!”

“Well, there’s twenty-five left! And how do you know?”

“The servant told Master. And count! There are twenty-four.”

Wukong froze, scanning the branches for fruit. There were indeed twenty-four. Then where did the twenty-fifth go?

“Bailong,” he muttered in accusation.

Only then did he realize his mistake: Wujing heard.

“I’ll kill him!” the fish demon roared, snapping a branch off in rage as he slid off the trunk.

“Wujing, wait!” Wukong cried. He leapt down and threw his arms around Friar Sand.

“I don’t care if you shared a master!” Wujing said as he thrashed, “he can’t go unpunished for this- brat thinks he can do anything he wants!”

In his effort to wriggle free, the fish lurched up, propelling them both in Bajie’s way. They shot into the pig and together, all three disciples smashed into the base of that tree, a combined thousand years of demonic weight hitting the Ginsengfruit sire straight in its heart.

The roots cracked and slowly, the trunk itself split, Zhenyuanzi’s prized tree falling with a mighty crunch, fruits scattering and leaves parting in the sky. And dumbfounded, the disciples lay one on top of the other, baiting their breath as the tree died before their eyes.

Chapter Text

Xuanzang knew what happened before he heard it, thanks to an unfortunate sense of intuition he harbored for his faithful disciples. For all his antics, the Tang priest was not a stupid man, and he had enough sense to know that his first disciple would be unable to keep out of trouble. But Xuanzang trusted that monkey enough to expect him not to dip his toes in serious trouble.

He had significantly less faith in his second disciple, so when that pig wandered off, he had no doubt that whatever ideas Bajie had in mind would cross paths with Wukong’s tricks. Perhaps he could manage them individually, but put together, the consequences may be too much to shoulder. And so in his great wisdom, Xuanzang sent Wujing to stop his brothers because he knew the fish to be the most deadset in his tasks- in rare cases, that stubbornness came in handy.

But Xuanzang had forgotten an important factor, one that slipped his mind entirely. There were four disciples now and Ao Lie was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This realization flashed by his mind as the heavens shook with a resounding- crash!

The sound was so loud it jolted him from head to toe, sending the monk half tumbling off his chair. In a panic, Xuanzang crept to his feet, trying to pinpoint the source, for it seemed to echo from all around him.

My child, why are you so naughty?

He went with the feeling in his gut, and his gut told him the demons were wreaking havoc beyond the open parlor. That, and the fact he could hear their angry bickering coming from somewhere not far north. Whatever the case, he was determined to give them a piece of his mind, but as he neared their location, that rage gave way to an increasing dread.

Xuanzang: “What the hell happened here!?”

Eyes wide and jaw slack, he stared at the mess in his path, a trunk the size of ten trees broken into a hundred or so splinters on the ground. Its branches lay in disarray, precious ginseng fruits splattered against soil like pink egg yolk, their juice spreading like sticky pools of blood. And at the center of it all stood his guilty pupils, exchanging telltale I-look-at-you, you-look-at-me glances in an effort to pin the blame.

“Master, we can explain,” Bajie said with a sheepish bow, “I know it looks bad… but-”

“Yes, it looks bad!” Xuanzang bellowed, “I leave you alone and this happens! I told you all to stay out of trouble. Now look what you’ve done- how are you going to explain this!? Do you have any respect for your master!?”

They said nothing.

Xuanzang: “Well!?”

Wukong: “Well what? Tree’s gone, yell all you want.”

Bajie: “I tried my best to save it, Master, but alas, alas!”

Xuanzang ignored Bajie’s words all together, forcing himself to march up to Wukong and grab a fistful of robes. “Damned monkey! I told you not to start anything- Master trusted you. Now look at what’s happened! Now we have to stay and fix this!”

Wukong: “Master-”

Xuanzang: “Don’t cut me off, bad monkey! I have more to say. The Immortal Zhenyuan was kind enough to let us into his home, give us shelter, give us food, and this is how we repay him?! By destroying his life’s work, by stabbing him in the back!?”

Wukong: “Master-”

Xuanzang: “We’re the lowest of the low! I’ve failed as your master if this is how you treat those who help us! All three of you should be as ashamed as I am, you especially! We’re irredeemable! How can we possibly face Zhenyuanzi now!?”

Zhenyuanzi: “I was going to ask you the same thing.”

“Master, the patriarch’s here,” Wukong finally managed to say.

Xuanzang promptly closed his lips, slowly released the monkey, and stiffly turned around on cautious steps. Their host had returned at long last and stood before them in the flesh, his face sharp with wisdom and mortification under a head of pepper hair. The Immortal Zhenyuan’s white robes were lined with silver, sweeping over the ground in what seemed like a never-ending trail of silk. He lifted a hand to stroke his flowing beard, stark black against his rich attire.

“Master Sanzang,” he said in that grave tone, “I’m awaiting your answer.”

Too flabbergasted to untangle the fears in his brain, Xuanzang gawked, looked to his disciples, and said, “Uh… um, patriarch, I- I’m most upset by the conduct of my disciples. Please, if you will, allow us the chance to compensate you.” He clapped his hands together and kowtowed, beads of sweat forming on his brow.

The disciples followed suit, clapping their hands and kowtowing in unison. Bajie looked up and cried, “Patriarch! Please forgive us for the tragedy- we had no idea at all.”

Wujing: “Why’d you grow such a weak tree?”

Wukong smacked the fish over the head. “Asshole, what kind of question is that!?”

Wujing smacked him back. “It’s damn brittle!”

Xuanzang looked for the emotion on Zhenyuanzi’s face and found none save a polite smile and a sight flinch. The immortal only nodded, pulled out a tassel from his sleeve and waved away the dust in the air. “Venerable elder, that tree was made with my life’s blood, as you already know. It’s like a child to me, a precious healthy child that I, the father, look on with pride and joy.”

“Patriarch, I understand,” Xuanzang said, feeling as if the earth was about to open and swallow him whole, “and I am most apologetic-”

“My son gives birth to thirty fruits every nine thousand years, and each fruit is a pearl I treasure,” Zhenyuanzi continued, alarmingly gentle, “I’ve seen my child through ten cycles. How many years is that, venerable elder?”

“Ninety,” Xuanzang said in a near whisper, “thousand.”

“That’s correct, ninety thousand. Ninety thousand years I’ve raised and loved my son, but I was willing to share my joy with the world. I offered you his fruit, did I not? Why wasn’t that enough, venerable elder? Why did you have to, in your words, s tab me in the back and murder my child?

Wujing: “It’s just a tree.”

Bajie: “Little brother… why can’t you just shut up!?”

Xuanzang kowtowed again and said, “I- I understand, patriarch, and I’m sincerely sorry. I know our crime is unforgivable but surely there’s some way we can… redeem ourselves? As their master, I accept all blame.”

Zhenyuanzi: “A life for a life, I can accept. Which one of them did it?”

He pointed the tassel at the Tang priest’s disciples. “Have him step forward and repay me with blood.”

Xuanzang: “As in, how much blood?”

Zhenyuanzi: “All that he has.”

The conversation was certainly taking a worse turn than the monk expected. Xuanzang stepped in front of his disciples and laughed nervously, unsure if this incident could be resolved with peace. “Patriarch, my disciples are troublesome, yes, but it’s part of their demonic nature. Every being deserves a second chance and I’m sure that their crime doesn’t warrant death- perhaps we can reach an alternative?”

And then Bajie had an idea. He ran to the master’s side and said, “It was our little brother- Ao Lie, prince of the western sea! He did it- we tried to stop him but we were too late!”

Xuanzang eyed him with disbelief, positive that the lie was so obvious Zhenyuanzi would see through it before the pig even finished. He suspected Bailong had a hand in this mess, but to say he was the sole culprit was a blatant misconception. With the same sentiment, Wukong joined the second disciple, pushed him aside, and said, “Little brother was a part of it, yes. We did it, we broke your tree behind our master’s back.”

“Boss, I had the perfect excuse,” Bajie whispered, “why did you have to ruin it!?”

Wukong didn’t want to dignify that with a reply. Zhenyuanzi locked eyes with him, held in a breath, and backed away.

“So where is your fourth disciple, Master Sanzang?”

Xuanzang: “I released him from our group today. Please, patriarch, this has nothing more to do with him. Or them. I failed as their master and any punishment should fall on me.”

Wujing stayed silent as he acknowledged the master’s handling- Xuanzang was mortal and the chosen disciple of Tathagata Buddha, and by all means, a man Zhenyuanzi would never kill. In taking the blame on himself, Xuanzang would deflect the punishment from his disciples and preserve the lives of each demon, all of whom he needed by his side on the road west. And no doubt, this little display of selflessness would only endear him further to that monkey and make him seem dumber to that pig. Well played, baldy .

With a flick of his wrist, Zhenyuanzi waved the tassel. Xuanzang smashed into a wall. Very well played.

“Don’t push me anymore, venerable elder. That’s as far I’ll go with you.” The patriarch turned to the others. “So all of you, was it? Then let’s settle it together.”

Wukong whipped out the as-you-would cudgel and let out a bitter laugh. “Fine. I’ll reunite you with your tree, a good ol’ father son get together!”

Bajie: “You’ve got this, boss! I’m rooting for you!”

And late to the scene, the servant boys popped out from behind the garden walls with shouts of, “Master, we’ll help you!” and “Master, let me assist!”

With a flick of his wrist, Wukong sent Mingyue and Qingfeng smashing into Xuanzang’s wall. Then the monkey charged, golden fur rustling in the wind as he dodged the tassel’s blows, Zhenyuanzi flying up in turn, robes billowing behind like wrinkled paper. Wujing summoned the spade and Bajie called on his nine-toothed rake, the two ready to take the defensive should their eldest brother give the order. The cudgel swept through the air, narrowly missing Zhenyuanzi’s chin as the patriarch bit the tassel’s edge, freeing his hands to catch Wukong’s fists. Raising the cudgel to strike again, the monkey flipped on his head, foot scraping Zhenyuanzi’s nose and catching blood with a cry of “change!”. Expanded to the width of a rice bowl, the cudgel sunk into the ground with a jolt when Zhenyuanzi tilted, blasting Wukong into the wreckage of the Ginsengfruit tree.

“You think we can take him?” Bajie asked.

Wujing clutched his weapon and pursed his lips. “Hard to tell. Boss made a mistake when he touched the tree. Zhenyuan’ll fight tooth and nail for his revenge.”

Plated with armor, Wukong burst out of those broken branches, simian face twisted into a murderous scowl, four flags snapping out behind him, black characters painted on each: GREAT SAGE EQUALING HEAVEN. He blew a hair behind his back and propelled straight into Zhenyuanzi’s chest, claws sinking into the immortal’s shoulders as they both tumbled into the garden walls, bringing the cement down in their wake.

Wujing: “But Zhenyuan made a mistake when he touched the baldy. Boss’ll fight to the death for him.”

Bajie: “The fight of the century, over a baldy and a tree. Ah, where does that place us?”

“Behind the boss. Where else?”

With that, Wujing pointed the crescent monk’s spade and dove into the fray, Bajie jumping in not far behind. They grounded their steps in that whirl of dust and debris, bracing themselves against the flashes of chi slicing about, Zhenyuanzi locked in a brawl with their eldest brother.

Wukong struck anything-anywhere, flags spinning as he smashed the cudgel to and fro, bearing and dodging the patriarch’s blows at every turn. Zhenyuanzi spun the tassel, parting his legs to steady his stance, palms flipping and clapping in a golden flutter of rampant chi. The tassel stretched, strings pulling into sharp points as they left the patriarch’s grip and joined his spiraled blast. The new wave blanketed the monkey and rolled him back. With a defiant roar, Wukong dug his feet down into the ground and shoved the growing staff out, pushing against that block of chi until he leapt up and tore through its face.

Zhenyuanzi’s chi shattered into a thousand or so gold flakes as the monkey flew forward, sharp teeth gnashed and yellow flags spread. He collided with the immortal and slid over earth, dragging them both through the ruined dirt, a flurry of dust and blood spouting into the sky. Having seen it all, Bajie and Wujing immediately left their spots and flanked their big brother, closing in on the fallen Zhenyuanzi.

And just as all three demons prepared to bash in the immortal’s head, Xuanzang managed to claw his way out of the broken wall, coughing and sputtering all the while. Warm blood trickled from the nicked vessels along his temple, the same red leaving his sore nose. Beside him, the boys had long since helped each other up, thoroughly bruised by all that transpired. Feeling the blue and purple blossoming on his scalp, Xuanzang dizzily stood and watched his disciples corner the Immortal Zhenyuan, with every intention of rendering him mortal .

Xuanzang had no doubt the consequences would be dire should they succeed. And regardless of what those delinquents thought, the master had no intention of letting any of his pilgrims risk divine retribution yet again. Forgive me. He did the only thing he could- he pressed his palms together.

“My child, my child, why are you so naughty?”

Wukong groaned, dropping the cudgel as knees bent and arms joined: “What gives, baldy!?” Startled, the pig and the fish also dropped their guards, and seizing the chance, Zhenyuanzi sat up.

“My child, when are you coming home?”

The Tang priest sang on, deaf to the protests of his disciples while the dance rendered Wukong useless, flags retreating as he reverted to human shape. The patriarch spread his fingers and Bajie flew into a tree with a cry of pain, Wujing following suit with an enraged shout. Xuanzang ended the tune as Zhenyuanzi turned to Wukong, the monkey now on feet so unbalanced he stood little chance against the blow that sent him tumbling into the cracked wall.

Then the patriarch looked at Xuanzang, his beard stained with specks of blood, and robes smeared with dirt and red. “You could have escaped me, venerable elder. I’d hardly call this a wise decision.”

“Wise decisions are rarely the right ones,” Xuanzang said coldly, “I’ve said it before. I shall take the punishment you see fit, and my disciples the same- all I ask is you spare our executions.”

Zhenyuanzi thought his words over with disdain, turned to the idling servants, and gestured for action. “Very well. Qingfeng, Minyue, quit slacking and gather our guests! We have a busy day ahead.”

Mingyue: “You got it, Master!”

Qingfeng: “As you wish, Master!”

The Tang priest bowed and muttered, “Amitabha.”

The Immortal Zhenyuan and his servants strung them up like dry meat, binding each pilgrim’s wrists over head with thick cords of enchanted rope along a wooden slab. The Tang priest and his disciples hung from a three-slabbed stand in the courtyard, stripped of their cloaks and buried up to the knee in earth. Qingfeng and Mingyue guarded them with smug glee, tending to a pot boiling over fire all the while. Their master paced around the prisoners, a coiled whip in hand.

One next to the other, Wuneng, Sanzang, Wukong, and Wujing, looked on.

“Hey, Master,” Bajie whispered, “can you use your Buddha’s Palm now?”

“How can he,” Wukong growled, “he’s tied up.”

In the monkey’s opinion, those ropes were superfluous, easily broken with a snap of his hands, but should they escape, Zhenyuanzi would only hold them again, binding them all to the Tang priest’s word of surrender.

“He got us into this,” Wujing said, “Master, why are you so stupid ?”

Xuanzang: “That’s besides the point. I can’t use the Sodding Palm when we’re in the wrong- It’s not how justice works in this world and if any of you were enlightened, you’d know that.”

Wujing: “You’re going to get us all killed, baldy!”

Wukong: “Ah shut it. That’s probably what baldy wants, isn’t that right?”

“I did this so we wouldn’t get killed!” Xuanzang snapped, “and stop calling me baldy- I’m bald because of you and you know it!”

“Well, you never said anything about it,” Wukong hissed back, “if it bothers you so much, I can lend you some hair- grow a full head!”

“I don’t want your hair, bad monkey!”

“Then stay bald, baldy!”

Bajie: “Master, eldest brother, your flirting makes Wujing and I feel left out.”

Wujing: “Left out, your ass!”

“All of you, just shut up,” Mingyue ordered, poking Wujing in the side. The fish demon glowered down as the servant shrunk back. Retreating behind Qingfeng, Mingyue returned the glare.

Then the servants straightened as their master stopped before them. Zhenyuanzi eyed the pilgrims one by one, clicked his teeth, and said, “I’ll spare your lives, venerable elder, but as per our agreement, you’ll accept the punishment I see fit. And I’ll release you and your disciples when I feel repaid.”

“And may I ask, when will that be?” Xuanzang said warily.

“Don’t ask questions, monk!” Mingyue yelled.

Zhenyuanzi calmed the servant with a pat on the head and said, “When I see fit, venerable elder. It may be a month, it may be ten years.”

The fish: “What kind of terms are those!?”

“Wujing,” Xuanzang warned, trying to silence his third disciple with a glance.

“If I may have your attention now,” Zhenyuanzi said, and upon noticing Wukong’s downcast head, added, “all of you.”

The monkey looked up with weary eyes.

“There were thirty fruits on my tree, so I’ve decided one lash for one fruit is fair.”

Bajie: “That’s not so bad!”

Zhenyuanzi: “But seeing as my ginsengfruits are worth so much, I’ve multiplied that by two, so sixty lashes per fruit is more fitting, and for the damage wrought on my property, I’ve added an extra sixty. That brings us up to one hundred and twenty lashes for each of you and an additional ten for your master.”

Bajie: “Nevermind!”

That made one hundred and thirty lashes for him alone. Xuanzang gulped, mentally bracing for the pain that was to come. The soul was eternal and the flesh but a shell. And the discomfort that was to come was nothing compared to the pain of losing love, this he knew. And still, he flinched when Zhenyuanzi cracked the whip against the ground, a string of fire in its seven-piece snake of a shadow.  

“This is the seven-starred whip, fashioned from dragon’s hide. I haven’t had a use for this gift in a very long time,” the patriarch said, “You have something similar in your luggage, Master Sanzang. To keep your disciple in check, I believe? I assume yours is blessed with the Lord Buddha’s mark. Mine is powered by my own chi, and believe me-”

He cracked it again. “I will not hold back for any of you. And we shall start with you, the master. Does that sound agreeable with you, venerable elder?”

Xuanzang’s mouth suddenly felt very dry, and still he nodded. His lips parted to reply when Wukong’s voice cut past him: “Are you an idiot?”

Zhenyuanzi froze. He turned to the monkey. “What did you say to me?”

“You heard me,” Wukong said lowly, “are you slow or what? Baldy’s got nothing to do with it. I stole your fruits, I’m the one who killed your fucking tree. He can’t stand your lash anyway. You ought to hit me .”

Bajie: “Boss, I’m not sure if that’s a good idea-”

Xuanzang: “Wukong, I’m also not-”

Wukong: “Shut up.”

Reminded of his beloved’s death, the patriarch closed his lips in a tight line and clenched the whip until his knuckles turned white. Before Xuanzang could protest in his first disciple’s stead, Zhenyuanzi said through grit teeth, “very well.”

He raised the whip and struck, its edge slashing into Wukong’s shoulder and peeling away cloth and skin. Flecks of blood splashed against the patriarch’s hand upon the whip’s return. Zhenyuanzi pulled his grip back and released once more, weapon whooshing as it crossed the last wound, fire trailing over blood. Muscles tight, he continued, rapidly striking every which way as the whip cut chest and collar again and again until the monkey’s front was splattered with red.

And unrelenting, Zhenyuanzi cracked on.

Wukong felt teeth sink into his lower lip, drawing blood as he swallowed back sound. The lashes in Five Finger Mountain had been just as well, as had been the beatings from Tang Sanzang. But the Buddha had not been angry. And Chen Xuanzang had a mortal’s strength. The Immortal Zhenyuan was neither of those things.

“Fifty-eight, fifty-nine,” Qingfeng counted, eyes catching every wave of the master’s whip.

The whip sliced past the monkey’s face, leaving a line of red from nose bridge to jawline. It came up and thrashed against his head, recoiled and snapped against his side, furled and burned against his chest. Overcome by adrenaline, Zhenyuanzi struck over-under-on, lash upon lash carving in and out of the demon’s torso as they snatched blood in a frenzy of unending vengeance.

Qingfeng: “One hundred two, one hundred-”

Wukong failed to keep in a strangled groan, the noise fighting up his throat as the whip made its way across the thighs. Qingfeng counted one hundred and twenty-four. The shoulder blades throbbed. He felt the lash on his arms. Twenty-eight. It returned to the collar and trailed again to the ribs. Crack! And crack!

“One hundred thirty,” Qingfeng said.

Zhenyuanzi raised the whip and Xuanzang cried, “It’s done! Patriarch, it’s done!”

Xuanzang watched the patriarch swallow spittle and lower the weapon, chest heaving from strain and sweat gathering on his brow. Rather shaken, the monk turned to his first disciple, Wukong’s head hung so low Xuanzang couldn’t see past that tangle of hair. His clothes were soaked crimson, ripped and torn to the point that there was no telling where blood ended and skin began. And the blood dripped, trickling downwards in thick, dark drops.

And as the Tang priest prepared to call his disciple’s name, another smatter of blood abruptly burst from the latter’s back, painting a stain that looked as if a butterfly had spread twin wings across the scapulae. Wukong cursed Erlang Shen in his head, unable to disguise the bleeding scars any longer, his transformation of the flesh falling apart in wicked delight. The pipa bone had reopened its gashes in the patriarch’s fight and he’d disguised their blood with a surface trick from a single hair. And now Zhenyuanzi’s lash rendered him too weak to hold the spell, opening those two wounds for all to see. This, he did not account for and this, he refused to admit.

Bajie: “Boss, are you alright!?”

Xuanzang: “What kind of question is that? Do I not teach you to use your brain!?

The Tang priest craned his neck to see the monkey’s face and said, “Wukong, Wukong, look at me!”

He didn’t know what to say if Wukong refused, or if he complied. The monk’s mind was blank and he was only aware of one thing: his disciple was bleeding, and this time, it was not caused by Xuanzang’s hand. Not knowing what else to do, he continued saying the disciple’s name.

Wukong heard the Tang priest’s cries, but the words were unfamiliar, like the gibberish of some whining animal. And for a moment, he was sure he could understand nothing save the “oohs” and “ahs” of the monkeys in Flower Fruit Mountain. The pain in his shoulder blades eclipsed the pain of the patriarch’s flogging, and all of that somehow became nothing compared to the fire his body had become. He shut his eyes, squeezed, and opened, the world coming back into focus as he returned to reality.

Slowly, he tilted his gaze to the right. “Don’t yell,” he mumbled dryly, “I’m fine.”

“Don’t lie to your master,” Xuanzang said, concern flaring in those eyes, “I forbid it.”

Even so, I’m fine had been what the Tang priest wanted to hear. And even so , it did nothing to ease his mind. And this uncharacteristic worry- pity- Wukong could not bear. He spat out the blood between his lips and said, hoarse, “Who’s lying? Old Sun’s got a cast of iron, remember.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Bajie said in an attempt to relieve the monk, “eldest brother’s as sturdy as iron- you just need to worry about yourself, Master.”

As sturdy as dented iron, perhaps , the pig thought to himself. He poked his head forward and strained to see Wukong, the monkey looking as torn up as he expected, if not worse, from the sound of Zhenyuanzi’s whip alone. Dented, rusty iron.

“How are you holding up, boss?” Wujing asked, a spot of the monkey’s blood having fallen against his face during the flogging. He received no reply.

The Immortal Zhenyuan wiped his brow and addressed Xuanzang again: “Your students may lack morality, but they’re loyal, at the least. For that, I’ll spare you, venerable elder. I only ask you to supervise their punishment.”

“There’s more?” Bajie said, growing more excited with each word, “Do you intend to strip us bare and beat us raw? Punish us until we sob and beg? Lick up our blood, drink our tears?”

Mingyue eyed him with disgust. “Master’s not a pervert like you!”

“He only does what is necessary,” Qingfeng added, “and none of what you described was necessary.”

“Leave the pervert be,” Zhenyuanzi said, “Qingfeng, Mingyue, the pot’s ready.”

Xuanzang forced himself to tear his eyes off Wukong and back onto the patriarch. “Might we ask what the pot is for?” He already dreaded the answer.

Zhenyuanzi: “Oil, taken from the core of this earth itself. It’s the only substance strong enough to cook my-” he voice broke slightly “-ginsengfruit. But we have no more use for it so I elected to boil the remainder.”

The boys lifted the pot by opposite handles, moving slowly to avoid spills. As they approached their prisoners, Xuanzang caught sight of the pot’s contents, simmering oil bubbling with heat.

“Careful!” Qingfeng warned, Mingyue’s misstep having caused a drop to hit the ground. That inch of dirt instantly charred black and pushed up smoke.

“What are you going to do, cook us?” Wujing demanded.

“Actually, yes,” Zhenyuanzi said, gesturing in Friar Sand’s direction, “Master Sanzang, I’m going to douse this disciple in oil and skip his beating.”

“We’re frying fish today,” Mingyue said with a snicker.

Bajie: “Wow, he really thought these punishments through.”

Wujing: “Go ahead!”

Xuanzang: “I see… wait! You’ll burn his skin off- my disciple can’t survive that!”

Zhenyuanzi sighed. “Venerable elder, you say you agree to my terms, but you object again and again. Would you rather we pour this oil over you instead?”

Xuanzang looked aghast. Even if all four of them survived this ordeal, Zhenyuanzi seemed determine to leave them within inches of death. And of their four bodies, three did not have a cast of iron.

“Surely there can be another option- the whip perhaps?” he said.

“No, my chi needs to rest.”

“Patriarch, please-”

Wukong: “Hold on.”

The monkey forced his gaze up to meet Zhenyuanzi’s own, head threatening to dip down any moment. “Zhenyuan, he’s the third disciple.”

“Your first disciple has a habit of interrupting, doesn’t he?” the patriarch said to Xuanzang.

Speechless, the Tang priest watched Wukong with horror, hoping against hope the monkey wasn’t about to say what he suspected he would.

“I’m,” Wukong said, words fighting for breath, “the eldest. They follow my lead. Whatever you’re doing, do it to me .”

Zhenyuanzi considered his words again and said, “Very well. Qingfeng, Mingyue, you heard him. Carry on.”

“Stop!” Xuanzang shouted, but by then, the servants had complied, lifting the pot and tipping its contents over Wukong’s form.

The monkey shuddered, skin overtaken by blinding heat, nostrils assaulted with the smell of burnt flesh and new blood as the patriarch’s oil sizzled through. He felt it eat away at what remained of his ripped tissue, teeth gnashing of their own accord, body momentarily reminded of the flames in Laozi’s cauldron. Fire hadn’t bothered him in well over five centuries, and merciless, its torment returned twofold.

“Boss, why’d you do that!?” Wujing cried, “are you suicidal!?”

“Boss, we would have done the same for you!” Bajie said.

Wukong: “Shut… up… assholes!”

Xuanzang never quite knew how Wukong’s reported cast of iron worked, but he was sure what he saw here was not ironcast in the slightest. Whatever the case, that monkey seemed to genuinely react to this torture, and the sight of his leaking blood told Xuanzang he was not recovering. Neither of these observations sat well with the Tang priest.

“Wukong,” he chided, “I know I’ve taught you to love your brothers, but martyring yourself isn’t the right-”

Wukong: “Shut it, baldy.”

Xuanzang: “I’m trying to show my concern!”

Wujing made a startled noise between clenched teeth when Zhenyuanzi’s whip cracked across his chest, leaving behind a strip of peeled skin. The patriarch recoiled the whip and said, “And that takes care of the fish demon. Now onto your second disciple, venerable elder.”

Bajie: “One hundred and twenty lashes is a lot. Are you sure you don’t want my clothes off? I-”

Zhenyuanzi raised a palm and closed his fingers, Bajie’s lips immediately snapping shut, rendering the pig mute save his muffled groans. “I’d rather do this silently. Consider yourself lucky- for conservation’s sake, I shall only use half of my leftover chi.”

“Master, flay his hide off!” Mingyue said with joy.

“I support that notion,” Qingfeng agreed.

And paying his servants no mind, the patriarch rounded the stand and took his place behind the four pilgrims. His protests caged in, Bajie felt as if his teeth had been glued together, tongue sewn to the back of his throat. He’d seen what that whip could do and as tantalizing as the process seemed, he was unsure he could survive over a hundred hits. It would be a thrilling way to die, he supposed, but to die under some bearded immortal’s hand instead of a ravishing beauty was a great tragedy, not romantic in the slightest. While Bajie anguished on, Zhenyuanzi threw the whip over his back.

It reminded him of the Jade Emperor’s paddle. After it had been rinsed in hellfire.

It hurt.

And - snap!- it hurt .

His scream came out sounding like a cotton-stuffed oink, bulging eyes too shocked to sob. He felt the warm release of blood, heard Xuanzang call his name, and saw the shadow of Zhenyuanzi’s whip over the sky. And the wound did not close upon opening. It stayed and bled as the patriarch flayed on. Snap! Pain tended to stimulate him, but not this- this , it hurt so badly he went beyond stimulation, until he felt nothing save an instinct in his brain that sensuously begged for respite.

Wukong listened absently to the pig’s beating and wondered how long it would take the four of them to die. Barring that monk, the three of them would have been able to withstand the whip in theory, with or without his cast of iron. They would survive, then they would linger, and eventually the pain alone would kill them off. That was Xuanzang’s misstep- it hadn’t occurred to him that Zhenyuanzi worked by different standards, for the Immortal Zhenyuan was no longer human. Zhenyuanzi had long since forgotten the trials of mortality and they all paid the price. And Wukong supposed he too had forgotten the very same.

He wheezed out a bitter chuckle. Bajie would die under the whip, likely from a mixture of perverse bliss and real pain, and the monk would blame himself for that idiot’s death, as the Tang priest always did. Xuanzang would never absolve himself of this and it would be one more weight over the burden that monk insisted on carrying over those weak shoulders. Nevermind the fact that his disciples had none to blame but themselves for this mess. Wukong didn’t need fiery eyes to see that outcome. Qingfeng counted twenty and Wukong spoke: “Zhenyuan.”

But a few more scars meant nothing because the Great Sage had survived until now, and he would not stop here.

Zhenyuanzi turned to him, mild surprise crossing his brows. “You again? Let me guess-”

“Hit me,” the monkey said, “that pighead can’t stand it.”

The patriarch retracted the whip and stepped away from Bajie’s bleeding form, ignoring the sounds uttered from his sealed mouth. Zhenyuanzi inspected Wukong’s battered shape, flexed a hand, and said, “If you’re attempting to move my heart, it has no effect.”

Wukong: “Tch. You talk too much… hit me .”

Wujing twisted his neck in an effort to see the patriarch from behind. “Oy! Are you sick- you’ve already hit him!”

“Don’t talk to Master that way!” Mingyue said, only to receive a demonic growl in the face.

“It does seem a tad… excessive, Master,” Qingfeng said, gaze trailing over the monkey’s injuries.

Zhenyuanzi silenced them all with a raised hand. “I keep my word. If the first disciple wishes to take the brunt, then so be it. I don’t care who takes it so long as someone does. And in his words, he was the one who instigated this in the first place.”

Wukong: “Then what are you waiting for… do it .”

“Patriarch, please,” Xuanzang started, but the desperation in his voice seemed to spur Zhenyuanzi on because as soon as the last word left, the whip came down.

It switched against Wukong’s backside and this time, he did cry out. Qingfeng took to counting once more and the first disciple’s world again melted into sharp white stabs. The whip embedded itself in the wretched pipa bone, running through those punctures until he had no recourse but to scream aloud. Zhenyuanzi worked diligently, each blow heavier than the last, as if determined to smash Wukong as he had smashed the Ginsengfruit tree.

This was Wujing’s deduction. The fish winced with every cry, the sound of leather against their eldest brother’s flesh drumming through his ears. The blows were indeed stronger than before, and as they progressed, he realized the patriarch’s rage was not directed at Wukong, but at Xuanzang. Zhenyuanzi had seen the panic in the monk’s eyes, heard it in his voice, felt it in his chi. And that was what drove his hand on. This was his revenge- breaking Tang Sanzang’s favored disciple.

“One hundred sixteen,” Qingfeng said.

But Zhenyuanzi knew nothing about Miss Duan and even less about the surefire hatred that had once been between master and pupil. If that monkey died, Wujing doubted their master would shed a single tear, and even if he did, he would force it back in. And even so, the Tang priest’s human heart would stretch and tear. Such was the paradox that was their Master.

Qingfeng: “One hundred twenty.”

The monkey gasped aloud, shivering with reluctance as he felt blood bleed over blood, nerves coated with a numb crunched pain. Zhenyuanzi snapped the whip back into place, cast a final glance at the cloth of Wukong’s scarlet-soaked back, and again walked into the pilgrims’ line of view.

“What will we do with them now, Master?” Qingfeng said.

“Yeah, I think they got off too easy,” Mingyue muttered.

“I’ll show you too easy!” Wujing barked, paying no heed to Xuanzang’s repeated pleads of “Wujing, stop.”

Zhenyuanzi: “Cut Master Sanzang free.”

Mingyue: “But-”

Qingfeng: “Of course.”

A wave of relief washed over the Tang priest as Qingfeng hopped up and slashed his binds with a wave of his sleeve. Mingyue stooped before him and dug away at the dirt encasing his feet, stopping when the monk had sufficient room to move. When all was finished, Xuanzang stumbled forward, limbs numb from captivity. Regaining his balance, the monk pressed his hands together, half tripping as he kowtowed.

“Thank you, patriarch,” he said, grateful, “we are truly in your debt and I assure you that-”

“Save your words for later,” Zhenyuanzi replied, taking Xuanzang’s hands in his own and pressing the whip into his palms, “I have one more task in mind.”

Confused, Xuanzang held onto the weapon, awkwardly eyeing the blood of his three disciples. “Patriarch, I don’t follow.”

Zhenyuanzi kowtowed in turn and approached the remaining prisoners. He raised a finger and counted their heads. “Venerable elder, there are four of you here, barring your fourth disciple. I’ve already gone through with your punishment, your third disciple’s, as well as your second’s. That leaves your eldest.”

Bajie’s startled cry came out as a muted groan, Wujing unable to resist a shout beside him: “What the fuck!?”

Xuanzang was too disoriented to patronize the fish’s language, trying to make sense of the words he just heard. And when it finally dawned on him what the Immortal Zhenyuan intended, he only managed a quiet, “what?”

Wukong kept his head bowed, teeth grit as his face contorted into a glare. Fucker’s not done yet? If Zhenyuanzi was this determined to kill him, he would disappoint the immortal with all his might. His screaming muscles braced themselves for what was to come, another hundred or so blows of chi-filled lashes. The pipa bone already bled and the Tang priest walked free, leaving him with nothing more to lose save the end of whatever patience he had left. His hands clenched above, wrists chafing against the rope as he imagined Zhenyuanzi’s head crushed against his palms.

“Out of words now, Great Sage?” the patriarch said with mocking politeness, pulling the monkey’s head up by the hair.

He leaned in and whispered, “Damn ape, I know my tree means nothing to you. I could skin you alive and you’d still feel nothing. But you’re not going to forget this , no, this is a lesson in empathy.”

Wukong dipped backed down when Zhenyuanzi let go and turned back to the monk. He pointed between master and disciple, and said, “You do it, Master Sanzang. One hundred and ten lashes. I’ve subtracted ten out of respect.”

Xuanzang chuckled, hoping he was at the end of some cruel joke. “Pardon? You can’t mean to ask this of me, patriarch.”

“I assure you, I’m most serious.”

“But- but this whip is nothing in my hands. Wukong won’t feel a thing.”

“I’ve exhausted the last of my preceding chi on it. With your frame, you should be able to sustain it to the last blow without pause.”

“Ah, but my arm is quite sore. Must be from the ropes- I’m afraid I-”

“Lying is unbefitting of a holy man.”

“Patriarch, please, I can’t- I won’t do this.”

The servants felt the tension in the air, eyes darting between Zhenyuanzi and Xuanzang, not a peep from either. The patriarch offered an icy glare and said, “It’s him or you, venerable elder. I have one hundred and ten lashes remaining and if you refuse, they fall on you.”

Xuanzang gulped, eyed the whip once more, and looked again to the patriarch: “Sanzang is willing.”

With that, he held out the whip, preparing to hand it back to Zhenyuanzi.

Wukong: “I killed Duan.”

Wujing gasped, rather unhelpfully.

Wukong ignored him and kept his gaze on Xuanzang, the Tang priest frozen stiff and staring back with disbelief. In a near rasp, the monkey continued: “And I loved every second... You’ve no idea how happy I was… She made a great toy.”

Xuanzang: “Wukong-”

Wukong: “And I’d do it again... I loved that fucking look on your face... You were both nothing, dust in my hands, and I’d never felt... so good !”

Xuanzang shook his head, fists visibly shaking as he lowered the whip. Wukong saw the betrayal flash over his features, not unlike their squabble in Rivermouth Village, but Xuanzang had been acting back then. Except Xuanzang had not. Wukong knew the monk’s words had been true that night, all his anger and sorrow and regret rolled into one. And he would use all that against the Tang priest now, poke under Tang Sanzang for Chen Xuanzang and however harsh his words, however illogical, would still sting the core of a mortal man.

“Wukong,” he said, voice dropping to a strained whisper, “stop it- now’s not the time-”

And the monkey laughed. And laughed.

“I’m saying this now because I can’t stand to see how stupid you are! You’re pitying me, really? Well, I don’t want it, baldy! Save it for your dead gal!”

Wukong -”

“You never even fucked her! Ha- ha! Then she went up in fucking flames! And you’re still whining about it- real pity you didn’t get a good fuck out of her! I would’ve loved to see that. I should’ve made you both fuck and listen to her go “ah ah.” Ah ah ah ah! You’d love that! I should have did it slower, should have chopped her up into little bits and-”

The whip smashed into his sternum, changing his laugh into a choked gasp. He sputtered out a “Ha!” and “Ha!” again and again until his laugh returned.

“Damned monkey!” Xuanzang howled, “shut up!”

He struck again, shoulders rolling and arm swiping as the lash swept through skin, blood and fire splashing out in merciless spurs. Wukong felt the sensation of wounds tearing twice over, Zhenyuanzi’s whip cutting into flesh with rapid succession, Xuanzang crying out with each hit. As his vision blurred with flashes of whip, he saw the dampening of the Tang priest’s eyes, the man’s tears brimming while he slashed on.

“I said shut up !” Xuanzang yelled, the demon’s laughter unrelenting, all too familiar to his unforgiving ears.

And- crack!- the whip fell. Wukong had bore this beating before, many times over for infinite transgressions, until the Buddha’s whip became nothing more than a naughty child’s deserving rod. And- crack!- the whip fell. But he wasn’t and had never simply been the monk’s misbehaving student. And- crack!- the whip fell. He bore the scars too, etch upon etch of mortal rage. And- crack!- the whip fell. He was Duan’s murderer and this, they both knew, and for this, Xuanzang would gladly deliver every lash. And- crack!- the whip fell.

And- crack!- the whip fell- and -crack!- the whip fell- and -crack!- the whip fell- and -crack!- the whip fell- and -crack!- the whip fell- and -crack!- the whip fell.

And- crack!- the whip fell.

Taken aback by the monk’s unexpected savagery, Mingyue turned to Qingfeng and said, “Hey, how many is it?”

Qingfeng stared with bulging eyes, mesmerized by the scene playing out. After hearing his companion’s inquiry, the servant started and said, “How many? My apologies. I lost count. I shall start anew.”

Wujing had long since lost count, gaze trained on the unbroken movement of the Tang priest’s arm, that whip landing on Wukong’s body in a continuous flurry of blood and snaps. It struck everywhere-anywhere, spraying red and parting skin as the monkey laughed and screamed, features paled in agony. After a final crack across that mangled chest, Xuanzang pulled the whip back and dropped to his knees, a shaky mess of pooling sweat and streaming tears.

Mingyue: “So how many?”

Qingfeng: “I can only estimate-”

Zhenyuanzi put a hand on Qingfeng’s shoulder, effectively quieting the boy as he went to stand by Xuanzang’s side: “One hundred and fifty lashes. That was impressive, venerable elder. I’m almost moved.”

Xuanzang said nothing, hand still coiled over the bloodied whip as he heaved for breath. Zhenyuanzi knelt, pried the lash from his grip, and said, “Qingfeng, Mingyue, guide Master Sanzang back to his quarters. That ends our session for today.”

Today!? ” Wujing said, “what else do you want!?”

“The venerable elder must abide by Master’s rules,” Qingfeng replied, coming to support the Tang priest by the right elbow, Mingyue holding up the monk from Xuanzang’s left. “You have no more say in the matter.”

Zhenyuanzi: “Fear not, venerable elder. You were most graceful today and I’ll let you continue on your travels soon enough. But be aware that you’d best return my dear tree before you reach the west, else we’ll have to repeat today’s events.

“Yeah, live with it!” Mingyue said.

Wukong: “Zhenyuan, that’s… it ?”

The monkey’s chin slipped down, voice harshed to an ugly whisper as he struggled to stay atop the blood and pain. He made a noise somewhere between a snort and groan. “Why didn’t ya… say so? Ha, that’s all you want?”

Zhenyuanzi’s breath caught, a defensive flash of hope flying by his cold eyes. “Don’t lie to me, Great Sage . Are you implying you can restore the ginsengfruit tree?”

Wukong: “What’s… what’s it look like?”

“How long?” the patriarch said quietly, approaching Wukong on tentative steps. “How long will it take you?”

“Midnight,” the monkey said.

Bajie: “Mm mm mm!” (“He sure can!”)

“Don’t believe that ape!” Mingyue protested, “they’re all cheats, Master, every last one of them!”

“Quiet!” Zhenyuanzi hissed, without casting the servant a single glance. “Monkey, I’ll give you one chance. Come back by midnight or I’m lopping off your companions’ heads.”

Wukong: “Deal.”

The patriarch snapped his fingers and the first disciple’s binds came undone. Wukong followed suit by pulling his legs out of the earth, stumbling forward, and all but collapsing onto Zhenyuanzi’s shoulder. As he gathered his breath in a daze, the monkey whispered into the patriarch’s ear: “Take care of my master. Feed him, clothe him, let him sleep… if I see so much… as an extra bruise… I’m razing your temple to the ground. Got it?”

Zhenyuanzi: “Understood. Remember the tree or you won’t have a master to come back to.”

With that, the patriarch stepped aside, Wukong sliding off his shoulder and buckling to the ground. Trembling, the monkey forced himself up to his full height and turned to his brothers, blood dripping as he spoke. “I’ll be back. Stay put.”

He limped away, snatched his cloak from the nearby ground, and threw it over his shoulders once more. The as-you-would cudgel dug into the earth as he shook the limp off, walk balanced by the makeshift crutch. Back turned, the Tang priest kept his head downcast, not saying a word as his first disciple descended the stairs of Wuzhuang Temple.

“Qingfeng, Mingyue, stop standing around,” the patriarch ordered, “take Master Sanzang to his room and come back to guard his disciples. I must prepare for that ape’s return.”

Qingfeng: “Of course, Master.”

Wujing exchanged final glowers with Mingyue as the servants led the monk back to his quarters, the Immortal Zhenyuan leaving in the opposite way. And once the courtyard was clear, the fish rubbed his wrists and turned to Bajie, eyes unable to miss the blood left by their eldest brother on the ground.

“Mm- AH,” Bajie said, lips finally parting as the seal lost its hold and a plethora of noises tumbled out of his mouth.

The pig shouted a good few more times into the air, cracked his neck, and said, “My, my, my! My tongue tongue tongue’s on fire!”

Wujing felt the wound on his chest close, far too slowly and far too painfully for his liking. “Your ‘tongue tongue tongue’?”

Bajie: “Don’t don’t don’t mock me, fishhead! You you you got off way too easy compared to the rest of us!”

The anger subsided, Bajie took a moment to hiss in pain and shake his head. “Baldy’s a harsh fellow,” he said sorrowfully, “doesn’t he know that if he kills the boss, all his duties will fall on me ?”

Wujing: “What, like you’ll take them on?”

Bajie: “Well, no, but but but it’s annoying to think about. Unless… no no no matter, bet baldy’s wanted to do this for a long time.”

Wujing scoffed. “You and the boss are the same: brainless. Baldy’s a deep actor, and that’s it. Had to convince Zhenyuan to leave us alone. You think he’s stupid enough to believe eldest brother would bring up Miss Duan for no reason? He wasn't crying over that.”

Bajie looked at the beating sun, grey clouds drifting into its fading path. “So what you’re saying is-”

“He was crying because he had to hurt big brother.”

Ao Lie brushed a hand over the bushes in his way, feet jumping forward and backward as he debated whether or not to return to Wuzhuang. He had stalked around Zhenyuanzi’s temple long enough to see the tree fall and the dragon’s skin whip. And fled immediately when that pig tried to pin the blame on him, for he had no intention of being made into the patriarch’s whip.

If the Immortal Zhenyuan could hold his own against Sun Wukong, then Ao Lie would surely be no match for the enraged patriarch and escaping execution from the western sea would have been for naught. It would be best for him to put aside any lingering fondness for Xuanzang and return to the sea- he had the last ginseng fruit and there would be no need to look back.

And as the prince finalized his choice, he heard a familiar voice speak in a husky rasp behind him.

Wukong: “Where’s Puti?”

Chapter Text

Ao Lie spun around, nearly tripping over in shock when he once more found himself face to face with the Monkey King, or rather, what remained of him. Slouched over his staff, Wukong leered at the dragon with fevered eyes, face smeared with what could only be blood. Ao Lie’s gaze was unable to pass that dust-colored cloak, but he had no trouble seeing the dark red clinging to the shredded cloth underneath.

“Big brother,” the prince said, “what- what happened?”

“Nothing to do with you,” Wukong replied hoarsely, “take me to Puti.”

The Immortal Zhenyuan did this . Resisting a shudder over the fate that he narrowly skipped, Ao Lie looked to the west and said, “But big brother, I thought you’d wanted to cut relations with Master. That being the case, I was on my way home-”

Wukong removed a quivering hand and jabbed a finger into Ao Lie’s chest, touch hard enough to bruise. “He can revive the tree. My master’s life depends on this. Now tell me- where is he?”

Ao Lie stared back at him, a hundred plans dashing through his head and none coming out. He thought of taking a gamble and running- flying- off, in the high hopes that the monkey would be unable to take chase in his condition. But instinct told the prince Wukong would slay him where he stood if he so much as breathed a word of refusal. So Ao Lie swallowed his reluctance, shut his eyes, and said, “Kunlun Mountain.”

Lost in meditation, Xuanzang sat atop his made bed, cross-legged as he knocked a mortar and pestle together, having requested the objects from Qingfeng. The heart sutra crossed his mind a thousand times front and back, an empty chant on his soundless lips. He would not think and yet he did, so he would deign to think, and think again, caught in a web of words that came and went.

Duan was gone. And Wukong had gone. These thoughts circled in and out of his head, its splattered bruises bandaged over, near forgotten. The mortar was heavy in his hand, as it should be, a replacement for the whip that had fallen upon his first disciple. But he could control the mortar and the pestle did not bleed. His pace was even, gentle, soothed, as if smoothing out every wound and scar that ravaged his student’s flesh.

Allowing a moment of respite, the Tang priest set the mortar down and turned his head, slightly enough to gaze out the patterned window. The clouds looked as if they were ready to part, sunlight eager to fade in from behind.

And years ago, the clouds looked as if they were ready to part, sunlight eager to fade in from behind. The rain had passed the day before and he saw it fit to travel again. He crawled out from his place under the barrow, newfound robes stained with mud, and replaced the crooked hat. The marketplace was crowded, its masses paying him no mind as he wandered through.

He hopped along, two limbs first, two behind, until he stopped and looked. They walked on two. So he pushed himself up and moved with two paws, unable to shake that slouch. His hands closed in of their own accord as he bowed his head. He’d come across these creatures-people-humans before, staring from afar, and most recently, mingled in. But they’d screamed and departed, leaving behind nothing but their discarded garments.

How funny, he’d thought, that they covered their bare bottoms up. And how fun it was to do so too. And how fun it was to make them scream.

But he did not want to make them scream now. He needed them. They were friends with the celestials he so desperately sought.

And as he stood eyeing a fuzzy peach, a faint pain pressed on his loose tail. He turned, looked up, and heard the man scream. The stranger removed that foot from his tail and ran, repeated words echoing about: “Yao jing! Yao jing!”

He held out a hand, willing in vain for the man to return. Wait, he wanted to say, but of their words, he knew none, and could only repeat what he’d just heard, low and guttural from his primate’s throat: “Yao… Jing.”

The onlookers stared at the screaming man, if they took notice at all, and the crowd parted in a collective shout. He stayed where he stood, yao jing on his tongue, and the next thing he saw was one of their children, pointing at him with a wide open mouth. How strange the child looked, so much like his own underlings. The screams went on, faster, longer, as if bleeding into speech.

A stone smashed into his head, breaking into four. Dazed, he blinked away the dull ache it left. Another sailed along. And another.

And another.

He caught the next and shoved it through his mouth, teeth crunching down in rebellion as he took his leave. The stones rained against his back as he ran off, certain he was no longer welcome in this square. Save dust and mud, the rocks left no mark: he had a hard head.

And long after he left that town behind, he learned what that word meant- yao jing- demon. Demon, demon , he would repeat, me .


Loneliness had never been a problem for him. He’d come into this world alone and he’d have stayed alone if not for the the demons of Huaguo. And even after they took him in, it had taken him time to get into their graces, and even longer into their good graces, and by chance, he found himself king. And how good it felt then, to be- he daren’t say loved.

Regardless, he was alone in the human’s world, hopping from village to village in the unrelenting hope that he would find what he wanted. They traded with gold and silver and whatever else they had on hand. And thus, he said he would too.

It took him thirty-eight days to gain a handful of silver. And it took him one hour to lose it all.

He’d seen a monkey perform on the streets, tethered to its master’s hand as it flipped and flipped. It hadn’t been one of his kind- it was an animal through and through, not a demon like them. Baby’s play, he had thought. How easy! He set himself up in the corner, for this village cared little for oddities, and performed for a nonexistent master. Cartwheels, somersaults, backflips, two-legged hops, and a month went by.

“Good! Good!” the onlookers had cheered as they sprayed him with their precious pieces.

And then, he met the woodcutter. The man had walked past, hunched over from the logs on his back, and a tune in his lips. He had looked so rugged and poor, but those words had been in his song: where the celestials dwell .

The demon grabbed his wrist immediately and asked, “you- you’re immortal?”

Woodcutter: “You can talk!?”

He nodded, mimicked a bow, and hugged the man’s legs. He was sick of waiting. “That song- you’re immortal?”

“No, I’m not. Mister monkey, why are you asking me this? Are you a demon?”

“Yes,” he said, grip tightened, “don’t run. That song, from where?”

“Why do you wanna know so much?”

And sensing the fear in the woodcutter’s face, he’d pressed his face against those legs and said, best as he could, “I come, far away. Looking for celestials. Immortals. I do anything.”

He had tried to sound as sincere as he could, because he was sincere. The woodcutter gulped, helped him up, and said, “I can tell you, sure. But I’m so hungry. I’ll need some money...”

He’d been delighted to hear that. And so, he traded all he had with the woodcutter for where the celestials dwelled-- Three Star Cave, a little ways north, past the mountain and two towns down. How kind these humans are, he’d thought.

Some days later, he learned there were three towns down, the mountain was a hill, and there was no cave.


He took to hiding his face in the little town, its name, he could not read. The words looked like scribbles to him. He wrapped himself up in loose scarves and lost cloaks, replacing them come rain, come dirt. He had nowhere else to go. The journey home seemed too tiring a task and the path ahead went everywhere to nowhere.

He satisfied his growling stomach with stolen fruits and the like, slept under wagons and tables, passed the time with honing his words. He’d thought of doing more, of perhaps decimating the village in his anger, but instinct told him the celestial was near.

And then, that girl had tripped over him, stealing his scarf in her wake and running off.

“Good job! Good job!” another man cried at her heels, but he’d been too slow.

The man slipped, bumping into his chest, and knocking them both to the ground. And when they’d sat up, each had a good look of the other. The man was gaunt, dark hair a texture of coarse bristles, a light beard lining his square jaw. He knew how he appeared to the man, but the scream he expected never came.

“You… alright?” the man asked.

He’d nodded and rather unthinkingly, said, “Thank you.”

“Oh- you can talk!”

“Yes. I learn fast.”

“So you’re a-”

He’d learned by now not to say demon. “Monkey.” It was half true.

The man had more to ask him, but he didn’t want to waste time. He crawled to his feet and turned to leave, when the man asked from behind, “Where are you from? Never heard of talking monkeys.”

“Far away, across the sea. I came here to find celestials. I’m looking for immortality. But I don’t think I’ll find it any time soon.”

And yet instinct still told him he would not fail. After he took his first step forward, he heard the man cry, “Wait!”

He turned.

The man stared at him for a full half moment, smiled, and said, “I… I’m immortal.”

And heart racing with joy and dread, he blinked back tears and said, “Who are you?”

That man had indeed never seen a talking monkey before. That man had been poor beyond his wits, and so, when he saw the opportunity, he took it. The animal was a goldmine in front of him and when the creature turned, he knew the dumb thing had believed his every word.

PUTI’S TEAHOUSE was carved into the wooden beam behind them. That monkey couldn’t read. But he could.

“Puti,” the man said, “they call me Puti the Immortal.”


Puti and his two disciples lived in a makeshift tent built at the end of a dusty alleyway. According to his new master, they lived in such shabby conditions because Puti was hiding from the Jade Emperor. You see, that man had said, teaching the secret to immortality is forbidden. And he’d oohed and aahhed at Puti’s every word.

His senior students were named Xiao Wa and Xiao Hua, sisters no older than eight and nine. Xiao Hua had been the one who stole his scarf. And together, they poked and prodded him like some new toy. They’d never seen a monkey before, let alone one that walked and talked.

“He’s so ugly,” Xiao Wa said, “chief, is he sick?”

“Who cares,” Xiao Hua said, “hey, can you pick my fleas?”

Then she’d bent her head and instinctively, he fingered through her fuzzy mess of hair. As he swallowed her bugs, Puti took Xiao Wa aside and said, “Wawa, we talked about this- it’s master , remember?”

Xiao Wa: “Master? But chief, we’re not-”

Puti placed a hand over her mouth, turned back to him, and asked, “Do you have a name, disciple?”

“At Mount Huaguo, they called me the Handsome Monkey King!”

Puti: “That won’t do- we’ve got to get you a proper name.”

“Can’t we just call him ‘monkey’?” Xia Wa said.

“Monkey!” Puti cried, “that’s it!”

He pointed at the demon and grinned. “You’re an ape, so we’ll go with that- take off the animal mark. Call you Sun! And-” Puti laughed. “Now our pockets’ll never be empty! We won’t be afraid of that anymore. That’s what you’ll be- Wukong- won’t fear empty pockets.”

Sun Wukong.

He repeated the name in his mouth, testing the sounds. Yes, this name he liked. And instantly, he dropped to all fours and kowtowed at Puti’s feet. “Thank you, Master, thank you!”

“Sun Wukong! Sun Wukong!” the sisters chanted in glee, their satisfied Master chuckling in delight as the monkey hopped and grinned.

Among humans, this was the happiest he had ever been. He was none the wiser.


Xiao Wa and Xiao Hua were masters of martial arts, or so Sun Wukong assumed, because Master always tasked them with picking pockets with utmost stealth. And while they robbed, the monkey would perform. He learned a variety of skills under Puti. He could juggle balls, he could sing Opera, and he could conquer any tongue twisters that came his way. Anything Master asked, he would do.

In their spare time, Master taught him how to care for wayward plants, for Master was an excellent gardener. He expected no less from an esteemed immortal.

And if he could read, he would know Master billed him as the HANDSOME MONKEY KING: WILD WONDER.

Sun Wukong was an excellent student, showered with Puti’s praise at every turn, and he soon learned that he loved the praise as well. Their audience loved him too. Sometimes, they loved him so much, fruit would sail his way, and never failing, he would catch them in his mouth.

“Back off! He’s not for sale!” was a phrase Master often said.

And then, they bought a house, a cheap little settlement that had two rooms, a fireplace, and a little strip of garden for Master’s tiny plants. At night, the sisters huddled in their blankets, for now they could afford blankets, and he would sleep in a box made of wooden bars. According to Puti, the box would hone his mind and prepare him for the immortal’s ways.

A box, Sun Wukong thought to himself, not a cage.

The Great Puti would never lock his students in a cage.


Sun Wukong still felt very mortal. Their little house could afford pots and pans and tea kettles now. He did more than juggle and chat in their daily shows. He jumped through fire, smashed stones over his skull, swallowed daggers, balanced on wheels, spun umbrellas on the tip of his nose, and did it all while singing. It was all part of his training.

But it seemed to go nowhere, even as Puti’s garden grew. Sun Wukong wondered if Puti deemed him unworthy.

When he asked Master, the great Puti said, “Have patience, disciple. I’ve taught you so many tricks and I’ve got more to share.”

Then Master had left the room and returned with a long beard stuck to his chin, an orange balanced on his nose. “See this? This is the magic of transformation!”

And Sun Wukong had gaped in awe of Master’s skill. But still, he felt as if he might as well have learned nothing.

And at night, he’d asked Xiao Hua, “when will Master teach us immortality?”

And forgetting the chief’s schemes, she’d yawned and said, “Wukong, there’s no such thing.”

And for the first time, he was seized by a dim sting, greater than any pain his body had ever felt. It pricked and grew, gnawing at him until he could take no more. It was a sensation he would come to know many times more. Betrayal.

And for the first time, he realized the box was a cage.

And then, he’d confronted Puti. Master told him not to worry and said he would pass the secret of immortality to him soon. How soon? He wondered.

But instinct told him to trust Puti.


There had been no instinct. What he felt was the first signs of illness. Because he did fall ill, no prompt at all. According to Xiao Wa, he had simply fainted in the middle of Puti’s show, without fanfare or the like. He had never been ill before.

He had seen it in Mount Huaguo- it had been why he left. Then the humans were no different.

The fever ran its course for seven nights, and he remembered little save the fact that it was the first time he slept in a bed. It was soft, unlike the stone in water curtain cave, unlike the bottom of his cage. It was Puti’s bed, the Master’s bed.

“Don’t die on me, come on, please,” Master had begged, spoonfeeding him bitter powder day in and day out.

And then, for some reason he couldn’t fathom, Sun Wukong wanted nothing more than to go home. In that moment, he cared nothing for immortality, nothing for that cage, nothing for his illness. “Let me go,” he’d pleaded, “please, let me go, let me go.”

Puti: “I can’t do that. I’m sorry, Wukong, I can’t do that- I’m sorry, I’m sorry …”

“They’re waiting for me,” he sobbed, “we’re dying, one by one, and I said I’d save them. I told them we could all live forever. I didn’t want to lie to them- please, let me go…”

“Wukong, I’m sorry, I’m sorry-”

And when he awoke, Xiao Wa and Xiao Hua were snoring at his bedside, Puti nowhere to be found. It was the first time he felt that other pain, a pleasant sort of ache that told him he was more than some circus monkey. Puti returned with a hand of bananas and a yellowing book falling apart at the binds.

Puti: “I went to the market today. Look what I found, disciple!”

And as Sun Wukong played with the bananas, too tired to peel, Puti put the book in his lap and said, “I think you’re ready.”

THE IMMORTAL’S SEVENTY TWO MOVES had come at a cheap price, sold by a man who wanted enough money to buy half a hot-cake. But in Puti’s opinion, Sun Wukong didn’t need to know that. And it was then that he decided to teach the monkey how to read.


He had always been a fast learner. When Xiao Hua turned twelve, Sun Wukong could read every sign and flyer that passed their eyes. And he dazzled Puti’s audience with his literary prowess. He liked making the master proud.

And with what little free time he had, he studied the book Puti had gifted him. Master told him to follow its teachings. Then he would become a great immortal, just like Puti. Xiao Wa sat by and watched the monkey read, and eventually, she watched him act.

He failed to mimic its pages many times at first. And then, he didn’t.

Perhaps Puti’s training had honed him for this day, because rather gradually, Sun Wukong realized he had mastered half of the seventy two transformations. He knew the methods of Taoism, he knew the essentials of chi, and most importantly, he knew how to change his body at will. It was a freeing sensation he had never known.

And he never wanted to go back to before.

When he showed Puti, the Master had been speechless while Xiao Wa clapped in delight. He morphed into a mouse, a fly, a bear, a fish, a bird, and so on. He had been sloppy at first, with monkey’s tails hanging here and there, but Puti had allowed him to practice during their shows. And the more he tried, the more that worked, until eventually, he had a seamless line of animals at his fingertips.

And then Xiao Hua had said, “Wukong, try turning human!”

Xia Wa: “Please, Wukong, we wanna see!”

So he tried. The girls had screamed in disgust with the first attempt, rolled their eyes at the second, and half-heartedly clapped at the last. Golden fur bristled over grey and hair receded from a manlike face. Again, Puti had been astonished, but Sun Wukong had not been satisfied with this form.

He wanted more. And now he realized, he had always wanted more. He wanted all seventy-two.

He went to the market with the sisters once. There had been no scarf and there had been no leash. Back hunched, he’d walked at their heels, a tussle of black hair on his smooth face, hairless body hidden in robes half his size. And save the markings of a demon painted over his skin, there was little to distinguish between him and the crowd.

Upon their return, the girls had giggled around him in joy as he laughed in triumph. Then they’d tried to pin that wild hair back, and there had been no option but failure.


Then Puti had sent the four of them packing, on the grounds that heaven was after his head yet again. The other, less important, reason was the town’s accusations that Master was parading a monster about their grounds. Don’t worry about it, Puti had told him, we’ll just start anew.

And as he pulled the sisters and Puti in a cheap rickshaw, Sun Wukong looked over the brim of his straw hat, and noticed just how much taller he was than Puti. As a monkey, he hadn’t paid it mind. As a human, he wondered why.

“Master,” he’d asked, “why are we traveling like this? You’re a great immortal.”

And holding one of his precious orchids in a clay vase, Puti said, “You worry too much, Wukong. We’re doing this so the Jade Emperor’s men will think we’re just normal mortals. When we reach a new home, I’ll teach you how I really travel.”

Puti pointed at the sky. “Immortals fly! I even have a special cloud of my own.”

Sun Wukong: “Does it have a name?”

Puti: “A name? Uh, of course! I call it the… the… summer… somersault cloud!”

Then they arrived at their new home, a rural village that had never heard of celestials or the like. And again, Puti wowed them with his disciple’s skills. And again, they bought a small settlement, for the Master was a careful spender. But this one came with a crooked fence, then deemed gate by Puti, the start of better days.

And again, Sun Wukong slept in the cage.

But Puti made good on his promise to fly. Master had called him out one day, told him to close his eyes in a field, and open when he gave the order. When the monkey opened his eyes, a kite was flying in the air, no doubt a transformed Puti sailing with the somersault cloud.


Xiao Hua and Xiao Wa were orphans, ruffian toddlers scrambling through streets for food and money when Puti first met them. Where they came from, the girls couldn’t say. The streets had been their life as long as they could remember. Sun Wukong wondered if they too hatched from rocks.

You’re like us, Xiao Hua had said, Wukong, you, me and WaWa, we’re all the same. Nobody wanted us except rocks.

Master wants us, he’d said in response. The sisters were less like disciples and more like daughters to the Master, for he could think of no other reason why Puti would drag them around when he seemed to have nothing to teach the pair.

Because nobody wanted him either, Xiao Wa had said.

And he’d laughed. Of course nobody would want Puti in their family- who would be able to control their jealousy against the likes of such a great immortal? Then the girls had laughed, balanced on the monkey’s shoulder as he tried to sail through clouds. Xiao Hua needed five stitches after that first attempt.

But Sun Wukong had a hard head. It was perfect for cloud-walking.


He hadn’t fought in a long time, not since leaving Mount Huaguo and its nation of demons. And then, he did. Master had asked, for Master never missed an opportunity to increase their fortune. In the middle of that dusty arena, he’d torn dogs and roosters and a few men apart. They’d shredded like paper in his hands.

Puti winced more times than not, but pride had been on the Master’s face. Sun Wukong supposed it was worth it. He didn’t care for his dead opponents or the little injuries they managed to leave him. In fact, the bloodshed reminded him of how much he missed it.

But Xiao Wa had cried. She’d ducked behind her sister and both hid in a corner when they returned home. They had never looked at him that way before, as if seeing for the first time that Sun Wukong was no more than a bloodthirsty demon and not their pet ape.

When he approached, they shrunk back. And as Puti tried to coax them out of that corner, the monkey dragged himself back to the cage and locked its door.

And the smell of blood bothered him all night, teasing, mocking. He awoke in the middle of the night, stirred out of his fuzzy sleep by Puti moving about the cage. Master dabbed at his side with a strip of stained cloth. He hadn’t imagined the blood after all.

Puti: “Knew that bastard stabbed you somewhere. You should tell me if you’re hurt.”

But he hadn’t said a word. The wound- it barely stung- would have fully healed before the hour ended anyway.

“I’m sorry,” Puti mumbled, “we won’t do this again.”

But he’d fallen asleep by then. Master was gone at dawn.


And then, they had died. A mudslide rushed through the village and stopped at the end of the nearest hill. Puti’s home. Then, like a snap of dead flame, the four of them were gone. But to Sun Wukong’s surprise, death was strangely painless, or perhaps he had been too deep in sleep to notice.

When he next awoke, he was being pushed into a line behind Puti, the Master so terrified he could barely stand. They were flanked by two ghastly men, one with the head of an ox and the other the face of a horse, dressed in what could only be officers’ uniforms, black, silver, and blue. Sun Wukong hoped he never looked that terrible during his first foray into transforming.

He eyed the chains that bound his feet and hands, linked to Puti’s binds.

“Master, where are we?” he asked.

Ox-Head: “The Underworld.”


Horse-face produced a thin scroll from his robes and unfurled the paper with a flick of blue flame. “Here, it says asphyxiation via supernatural disaster, for Zheng Chozhi. For Sun Wukong, wound inflammation via malnourishment, common for macaque demons.”

The Underworld? He was dead . And whatever nonsense that had sprouted from Horse-face’s mouth made him see red. A bout of anger burst through the demon’s veins. He pounced on their captors, chains and all. He had done too much to escape death, and now they say he walked right into it, commonly . This, he absolutely refused to accept.

He screeched and cursed as he flung his attacks, Ox-Head and Horse-Face crying out as they tried to subdue him. But their panic fueled him on, and after several wriggles and twists, Sun Wukong managed to break from his chains and dig claws into Ox-Head’s throat. He squeezed until he saw the black spread in the officer’s eyes, only relenting to dodge a blow from behind. He turned to kick Horse-face in the nose, and as the underworld minion reeled back, the monkey struck again, grabbed him by the collar, and smashed him into Ox-Head’s form like a club.

“King Yan!” Ox-Head cried, pulling himself out of the fray as Horse-face joined him with cries for backup. “Help! A soul’s acting up!”

Sun Wukong jumped to and fro, banging his fists on the ground as he screeched in primal rage. If he wasn’t so sure they were undead, he would have ripped their heads off. With his bare teeth.

Puti seemed to know this too because when the monkey calmed down long enough to look him in the eye, the Master was pale beyond pale. Master, he had thought, Master Puti, let this be one long nightmare.

Sun Wukong: “Zheng Chozhi… Puti is immortal. Then why are you here?”

Puti- Chozhi - placed his chained hands in front of his chest in defense. “Wukong, I- I can explain.”

So the monkey waited. But the explanation never came. And as the silence drew on, he noticed how murky hell was, the faded red and blue clouding eternal grey. It was dull and somber, exactly as he imagined, and perhaps worse because that feeling had returned, the bitter ache that he’d always known and ignored under Puti. He was the fool in the end, to have even thought Puti regarded him as more than some freakshow, that the sisters regarded him as more than a pet, that he regarded Puti as some sire he never had.

But he had a task at hand now. He yanked Puti to his feet, broke the chains, and said, “ Master , come. I’m going to learn immortality, and you can watch.”

And then, he changed into a fly and zipped in the direction Ox-Head and Horse-Face had gone, their neon blood lighting up a path through hell. Puti was not far behind, following with shouts of, “Wukong, wait!” all the while.

When he found the grim-faced judge, Sun Wukong morphed into himself again and grinned a nasty grin. He felt very nasty, a sense of demonic ill he hadn’t felt since the days before Water Curtain Cave. The judge sat at his high desk, ghoulish face lined with harsh shadows beneath his dark hat, robes shimmering with white and black as he flipped through the book at his hands. And in it, pages trailed eternal, the dead and living marked herein.

The judge of the dead noticed them too late. Puti flashed him a sheepish smile as the monkey leaped onto the table, kicked him back, and snatched the brush from his hands, slashing ink all about. He had never written before.

As the underworld’s guards ran towards him, he flipped and acted- SUN WUKONG -DEATH YEAR gone- AGING STOPPED. THE TRIBES OF FLOWER FRUIT MOUNTAIN: with a fast hand, he scribbled every name he knew from Mount Huaguo, of every macaque and ape and chimp and whatever else there was in his kingdom of monkeys. He left none out and filled the page, calligraphy looking like a dying child’s pen.

Then Puti rammed into him from behind and stole the brush, hurriedly scribbling ZHENG CHOZHI - PUTI- AGING STOPPED- DEATH YEAR gone- within its margins. And before he closed the book, Sun Wukong said, “Write in Xiao Hua and Xiao Wa!”

“Those aren’t their real names!”

“What are their names!?”

“I don’t know!”

“Try anyway!”

Puti finished his last scribbles and slammed the book shut. He flung himself onto the monkey’s back as Sun Wukong kicked the book and cackled in joy, dodging a flying spear.

“Who do you think you are!?” the guard yelled.

“Sun Wukong,” the monkey cried, “the Handsome Monkey King! And from now on, you’d all best call me Grandpa Sun!”

Puti: “I’m his teacher! Puti the Immortal!”

Before they could view more of the underworld’s outrage, Puti clung to his disciple and felt him leap high. Hell had no more hold over them, their names altered and reversal impossible. Sun Wukong pushed into the air, drunk on power, knowing himself immortal at long long last, and pushed and pushed .

Until he found himself clawing through dirt and mud and debris as he burst from the remains of their earthly home, fence the only thing standing. Puti’s head popped up beside him, both gasping for fresh air. After a good bout of coughs and sputters, they dug through the mud for whatever they could salvage. He’d been too overjoyed to argue with Puti.

Then, everything fell apart.

He turned to see Puti hovering over two heads in the dirt, Xiao Wa and Xiao Hua stiff and cold underneath.


He felt the underworld’s chill brush off his shoulders when he returned to the sun. But the cold remained. He was terribly cold.

“Did it work?” Puti asked, still covered in dirt as he rocked Xiao Wa’s body on his knees. Xiao Hua’s had been too mangled to touch. “Did you speak to them?”

He’d gone face to face with King Yanluo himself, that giant scowl forever engrained in his mind, the red flesh and long beard not far behind. Death, he would never unsee. He’d ravaged hell again before crawling back up, too far gone to stand for their accusations. His shouts would have been pointless.

“I did,” he said, near shaking. It was terribly cold. “Master, I did.”

“So-so where are they?”

“Dead. Their souls were already rewritten when we found the book. They’ll be reincarnated soon, far from here. Judge said it’d take at least a hundred years- this was only their second life.”


“I’m not done.” His voice quivered. “It takes so long because they died from a demonic entity. The landslide, it was caused by a demon.”

“Who did it? Wukong, we’ve got to get out of here if he’s so powerful-”


The monkey pointed at himself, afraid to hear his own words. “That demon- I- had too much negative energy. In my sleep, I must have… the village… Xiao Hua, Xiao Wa…”

He was crying. He hadn’t cried in so long. Or perhaps Puti was. The Master, the conman, was crying too. And the sun was so high, devastatingly bright as it shined over the ruins of his making. All he ever wanted, he now had. Seventy-two transformations, longevity, fame. He had it all.

Puti: “Wukong, go.”

He had it all.



“Just go!”

His back slammed against the weakened gate, and as he recovered from the sudden blow, he looked to see Puti’s outstretched palm. He chuckled. “Master, I thought you didn’t know magic.”

Zheng Chozi rubbed a ripped sleeve over his eyes. “That was kung fu.”

The demon stood up and grabbed the front of Puti’s clothes. But murder had not been on his mind. He was too tired, too cold. He let go of Puti, gentle, slumped to his knees, and kowtowed once. It was the last he would give the man once known as his Master.

Sun Wukong: “I’m going.”

Puti buried the sisters as the monkey left. He’d hopped on a cloud, in too much turmoil to sail, and let it flip through the air, tumbling all the way back to Mount Huaguo. Sun Wukong named it the Somersault Cloud and when the mountain of flower and fruits came into view, he realized he was not cold- he hadn’t felt this since he saw that old monkey die.



Zheng Chozi had been one in a hundred disciples of a Daoist with humble repute. The Master herself sent him away for she thought him too greedy. He made his living as first a mercenary before deeming himself too cowardly for the job, then as an acrobat, until his troupe was accused of treason by the powers that be, for Zhen Chozi was a profoundly unlucky man. And soon, he found it much easier to live as a hustler on the street. But now Zheng was dead and gone.

Puti the Immortal built his school above the ruins of that hillside village, a white mansion stacked to the brim with gold and silver. He tailored it with jade and marble and whatever else he felt fitting for a celestial, for he was offered tribute from far and wide. THE IMMORTAL’S SEVENTY-TWO MOVES was considered a holy text within the school. He was the infamous Sun Wukong’s teacher and that alone inspired their awe. And at the hill that once stood his little home, he grew a Puti tree.

His first disciple returned to Mount Huaguo and reclaimed his kingdom from the demons that invaded. It didn’t take long for Demon King Sun Wukong to rise to fame: he’d fought his way through hell, robbed the Eastern Dragon King, and joined the brotherhood of the six-now-seven demon lords. His kingdom knew him for seventy-two transformations, the somersault cloud, and the Stilling Pillar of the Seven Seas.

Whatever had caused their fall-out, neither would say.

On the hundredth day of the hundredth year since their parting, Sun Wukong saw Puti once more. He refused to say a word. And the pair had sat under the Puti tree, ten times the size of any normal tree for now Puti did know magic. And the little hill where they had once lived was a now a mountain that stretched towards the sky, Puti’s school built along a cave-mouth within three peaks.

Puti’s beard flowed to his waist, now as white as his hair, and the only thing whiter than both was the flowery robes that clung to his frame. He was the Great Immortal and his pockets would never be empty- it showed.

Then, Sun Wukong flew off without a second glance. And a heavenly messenger welcomed him back to Mount Huaguo; his name was Tai Bai Jing Xing, the Great White celestial, sent by the Jade Emperor.

Everyone knew what happened next. What happened next was no secret. And it became a tale that blended in with so many other tales. It told of how Sun Wukong became the Celestial Horse Groomer and his ensuing tantrum, of how he titled himself the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, of how he single-handedly devoured the Queen Mother’s peaches and razed half of heaven, of how he waged war on the Jade Emperor, of how he almost won, of how Erlang Shen the Illustrious Sage brought him down, of how he lived through Laozi’s Samadhi Fire, and of how he lost a wildcard bet to Tathagata Buddha.

Tathagata’s palm lay over him for five-hundred years until the arrival of a monk named Chen.

Ao Lie clutched the somersault cloud, watching the monkey as he forced it through yet another bout of speed, apparently having forgotten about the passenger in tow. The dragon had suggested shifting into his true shape and flying them to the mountain himself, but Wukong hadn’t taken kindly to the idea.

“You’re not running off from this,” the monkey had said, or more accurately, growled.

But Ao Lie had no doubt he would have provided a smoother ride than Wukong’s cloud, its somersaults rendered twice as haphazard thanks to the demon’s screaming wounds. The monkey could barely walk, let alone fly, and Ao Lie had been sure they would crash and die before he even saw Kunlun’s shape.

Ao Lie: “Will egg- the venerable elder appreciate this, big brother?”

The cloud pressed forward, momentarily blinding them with mist before it parted to reveal the shadowed peaks of Kunlun Mountain, jagged and foreboding as they towered over green and grey.

“Big brother?”

Wukong squinted, raised a hand to shade his eyes, and looked down. Four pagodas rested on each peak, spiraled with red and gold, walls so faded they nearly melted into the mountain’s earthly flesh. Surrounded by a clay-clad troop, a man stood in the center, the tip of his silver helmet glinting under shadow, a blood red scarf looping about his golden armor, and a miniature pagoda in his arms. The face was the same as he remembered- severe, bearded, and drooping with stress.

“Big brother?”

Five hundred years, and here they were again.

Wukong: “So when were you going to tell me Heavenly King Li was involved? Puti’s in that tower, isn’t he?”

The cloud came to an abrupt stop as Ao Lie winced and squeaked, “That’s why I needed you.”

And upon seeing the monkey’s silent glare, he continued, “Master’s been arrested for teaching immortality in exchange for fortune.”

“Is there more to this story?”

“He wasn’t really teaching immortality. He cheated enough bitter souls for the underworld to amass a case against him.”


“Because he was considered a celestial for so long, the Jade court was called in, and he’s to stand trial for cheating the living, the dead, and the heavenly court.”

Wukong was speechless, but he couldn’t find it in him to say he was surprised.

But only the judge of the dead himself knew this: the souls of two unnamed children indeed reincarnated after a window of one hundred years and one hundred days, along with an unfortunate mass of others. By then, the demonic chi that took their lives finally lost its heavy-trap hold.

They went through countless cycles as peasants, lords and ladies, until those two children approached the judge again on the hundredth day of the four hundredth year since their second death. The child once called Xiao Hua and her once-sister, once called Xiao Wa, asked to never be apart hereafter. Of all the things they could forget and remember and forget again, it was the faces of one another that they could not purge.

And so, he’d honored their wish. They reentered samsara as the Western Dragon King’s third-born son, Ao Lie, prince of the Western Sea.

Chapter Text

“Big brother, what’s your plan?” Ao Lie asked lowly, as if afraid Li Jing would be able to hear them from his place atop Kunlun.

“Depends,” Wukong said, fingers closing around the staff, “anyone else with him?”

“Just his soldiers. And some of his old master’s disciples-”

“All small fry then.” The monkey crouched. “Distract the disciples.”

“Then what will you do?”

“Everything else.”

With that, Wukong flung himself down and shifted into the demon’s armored shape, somersault cloud dissipating as Ao Lie floundered for balance, twisted, into the dragon’s form, and slithered straight after. Roaring, the prince slid between the nearest peak and wrapped himself around Kunlun’s resident trainees, determined to keep them in solid place.

The as-you-would golden cudgel expanded, stretched, and swirled into the size of ten pillars as Wukong stabbed it headfirst into the ground, shaking the Pagoda King’s troops off their feet. He landed with a flourish, swept the cudgel back to size, and snarled as the GREAT SAGE EQUALING HEAVEN popped out behind him on bloodied flags.

Ao Lie: “Big brother, watch out!”

Wukong hopped out of an arrow’s fiery path, an onslaught of blades following suit. He swung the cudgel, batting them back the way they came, and cried, “Li Jing, you’re a brave bastard!”

The Pagoda King’s gaze locked with his and as recognition dawned on Li Jing’s face, the celestial went rigid and red. “Damned ape, what right have you to be here!?”

Wukong laughed, several unfortunate soldiers taking the brunt of his next blow. They fell in a heap of blood and agonized screams, bobbing heads quite literally rolling off. The bodies quickly crawled over and grabbed their heads before scurrying to the safety of shadowed corners.

“Old Sun should ask you the same thing! What right have to keep Puti, eh?”

“You ought to be with that monk, or are you done with that now, demon!? And the Immortal Puti awaits trial. One that you will not interrupt!”

Li Jing held the pagoda to his chest and dove headfirst into the ground, disappearing straight through before popping out near-immediately and charging with a cut-keen spear.

“Help Lord Li!” the captain shouted.

Wukong slid out of Li Jing’s way, flipping the cudgel over his shoulders as another barrage of arrows came his way. Teeth bared, he waved his arm and curled their path with a burst of raw air. Li Jing slashed again, hacking and stabbing in a whirlwind of swift speed as the demon struggled to escape his onslaught of blows. Sensing the arrival of foot soldiers from behind, Wukong spun to beat them back, the distraction enough for an arrow to fly through his knee.

With an angry grunt, he fell, pinned to the ground, and pried the weapon from blood-stained fabric with gnashed teeth. He surged forward, forcing himself into that crowd of aiming troops as the arrowhead did its work, scraping the throats of all that passed his bristling head. Wukong spat the arrow out when Li Jing came to his men’s rescue, once more engaging the monkey in single you-hit-I-strike combat.

As the adrenaline pushed him on, he forced back the haze of pain that threatened to pull him down, wounds hissing for dear respite. The left leg gave out when he parried the tip of Li Jing’s spear, and as he propped himself onward with that still cudgel, Li Jing drove the spear into his side, twisting and pushing until he cried out. Wukong slammed the staff over the Pagoda King’s head, Li Jing tumbling off in a string of dust, spear painted red.

Chest heaving, the monkey leaned over his weapon and pressed a hand to the hole in his side, dark blood gushing between hairy fingers. He wheezed, spots rusting vision, and pain clipping breath. Li Jing blurred in front of him as he climbed to his feet, spear bent and pagoda in hand.

“So you bleed red?” the Pagoda King said, “just like any other ape.”

“Asshole, like you don’t?”

Wukong threw himself forward, cudgel smacking into the Li Jing’s shoulder, again and again until he heard bone crunch. The Pagoda King gasped in a half-shout, struggling to escape the demon’s wrath as he hurried to shield his pagoda from destruction, rushing in time to see an arrow strike Wukong in the shoulder blade. The monkey screamed aloud, falling atop Li Jing as that staff rolled aside.

With his unharmed hand, Li Jing grabbed the spear and pierced the demon’s shoulder, in the exact same spot he had been struck by the cudgel just seconds before. Wukong arched beneath him, teeth grit in muted pain. He clapped his hands over Li Jing’s spear and said, “Don’t you ha- have someone else to torture? Like your third son?”

“You leave my family out of this, foul-”

And- snap!- the spear split in half as Wukong cracked it in two and kicked Li Jing back. The monkey jumped to his feet, pulled the spearhead out and roared as he sped full-forward into Li Jing’s chest. Teeth sunk into the Pagoda King’s good arm as Li Jing furiously pounded at his head, flickering in and out of the air in a sonic bout until both slammed into the mountaintop, bodies skidding to a burning halt.

Reduced to human shape, Wukong picked himself up, half crawling as he stumbled towards the fallen pagoda, a trail of red at his heels. He scooped up the shrunken tower, held up the as-you-would cudgel, and put a palm over his side. He turned, only to see Ao Lie crash into the incoming troops. Bouncing back into princely form, the dragon ran towards him, yanked his sleeve, and yelled, “Big brother, let’s go!”

The monkey glared into the pagoda’s tiny windows. “Hear that, old man? Stop screaming. We’re going.”

Ao Lie: “Can Master hear us?”

Wukong shook the pagoda for good measure. “ Wonderfully .”

Helmet cracked in two, Li Jing forced himself up and pointed at the pair with a shout of, “Stop them!”

He was answered with a flash of white light, so bright it blinded, and a simple command that said, “Li Jing, the Heavenly Pagoda King, you shall pardon them.”

Wukong felt the corners of his mouth twitch up-- it was the voice of Madame Liu. Beside him, Ao Lie watched in confusion as Li Jing and his entire troop dropped to their knees and kowtowed in unison.

Li Jing: “Bodhisattva, forgive your humble servant! But-”

And behind the white mass, the Bodhisattva Guanyin replied with a curt, “Do as I say.”

“Thanks,” the monkey drawled, shutting his eyes against the light and letting loose his tail to pull Ao Lie into his grip. Under the cover of the Bodhisattva’s light, they once more fell atop the somersault cloud and sailed away from Mount Kunlun.

Guanyin: “This is the last hand I can lend you.”

“That was- what- how,” Ao Lie sputtered, “Guanyin of the Southern Sea? She- what- how.”

Wukong answered his questions by pinching two fingers together and flicking the dragon’s forehead with a sharp thwack. Ao Lie fell back against the somersault cloud.

“Big brother, did Guanyin really come to our rescue?” he asked, sitting back up.

“No, that was just a talking piece of air we bowed to.”

A polite “yes” would have sufficed, but Ao Lie supposed the word “polite” was not one the monkey was familiar with. He frowned and said, “Then why did she come?”

“Your father teach you nothing? We’d have heaven and hell to fight if she didn’t come.” Wukong held up Li Jing’s pagoda. “All for this geezer. Bodhisattva saved us a lot of time.”

“Then why come now ? Couldn’t we just ask her for help-”

“Got ourselves into this. Have to get ourselves out.” Then, rather sourly, he added, “And now we’re in her debt. She probably knew you’d eat her horse too- can’t play easy with Tathagata’s lot.”

Ao Lie wasn’t sure if that was good or bad news, so he opted to be thankful the Bodhisattva didn’t stop to inflict punishment on him for that horse. Wukong blew a breath of chi on the tower in his hands, shook the pagoda from top to bottom, and poised his fingers over.

Fascinated, Ao Lie watched as Wukong pulled Puti’s essence out of the heavenly pagoda, a string of shimmering aurora at the monkey’s shaking fingertips. When the the outline of his Master came into being, Wukong carelessly tossed the pagoda over his shoulder, letting it plummet through layer over layer of thick, full clouds. Translucent, Puti’s flesh faded into view, solidifying in silver flashes until the immortal appeared before them in weighted skin and bone.

In a fetal position, the Master touched his own head, fingers trailing through loose white hair as he tried to make sense of what had happened. His beard and robes alike were white, singed grey, and not a wrinkle appeared on his calloused hands. Then those sharp eyes opened, one by one. Ao Lie was the first he saw.

Puti: “Disciple…”

“Master!” the prince cried, throwing himself at Puti’s waist, the two falling back in a blubbering embrace as Wukong looked on with rolling eyes.

“I thought I’d never get out,” Puti sobbed, “good disciple, did you save me?”

“I’m so glad you’re safe, Master!” Ao Lie said, wriggling to avoid the splatter of Puti’s tears. “I went through so much trouble!”

“You’re such an amazing student, my dear pupil!”

“I know I am, Master!”

Wukong coughed.

Ao Lie: “You should thank big brother too.”

Puti stumbled over towards the monkey, hand still on Ao Lie’s wrist, and said, “I vomited twice because of your bad grip… but...” He reached for Wukong’s shoulder, the latter instantly shrinking back. “Wukong, it’s been so long.”

“Not long enough,” the monkey replied.

Puti laughed dryly. “Were you hoping I’d burn inside?”

“If Li Jing wanted you dead, you’d be dead.”

“Yes, that’s true. Suppose I’ve lived long enough- that what you come here for, Wukong, to do it yourself?”

Wukong glowered, leaning back against the cloud in a lazy slouch. “If I could, I would .”

“What’s stopping you?” Puti said, Ao Lie positioning himself between once-Master and once-disciple to prevent more bloodshed, knowing full well it would render their trip useless if Wukong ended up killing Puti.

Wukong: “I need a favor.”

Puti blinked back surprise, sat down, and asked bluntly, “what?”

“The Immortal Zhenyuan’s Ginsengfruit tree. It’s dead. Bring it back.”

Puti scratched the back of his head, looking at Wukong with an all too familiar gaze as he tried to make sense of the monkey’s statement.  “I’ve met Zhenyuan a few times, I believe. Wukong, start from the top. What the hell happened?

“Five hundred years ago I caused havoc in heaven-”

“I know that. Skip.”

“Then Tathagata came and-”


“I was under Five Finger Mountain for-”

“Just tell me about the tree!” Puti looked him up and down. “And why you’re such a bloody mess.”

“What’s there to say, you old fuck!?”


Ao Lie piped up instantly: “Master, I’ll tell you what happened. Master Sanzang took us to Wuzhuang Temple and…”

Xuanzang listened quietly to the ruckus outside, Mingyue and Qingfeng shouting for mercy in turn as Zhenyuanzi delivered swift retribution on his devoted servants: “Don’t think I forgot who let those rogues near my tree!”

Qinfeng: “Master please!”

Mingyue: “No, it wasn’t my fault- no!”

The boys screamed, cries echoing throughout the temple and pleads falling on deaf ears. Xuanzang had no desire to see what punishment they endured, though judging from the sound of wood against flesh, he assumed the pair underwent a spanking of divine proportions.

Not soon after, the door to his room opened and Mingyue stumbled in on crab legs, eyes red from crying, a tray of steamed rice and green tea in his hands.

“Are you alright?” the monk asked flatly.

“Shut up. This is all your fault!” the servant snapped, gritting his teeth as he bent to place the tray on Xuanzang’s bed, the Tang priest refusing to move a muscle. “I don’t see why we’ve got to serve you anyway. You’re good as dead. That ape hightailed out of here and he’s not coming back.”

Xuanzang watched Mingyue pour tea with reluctant grace.

“He’ll return,” he said.

Mingyue snorted, pushing back snot. “Yeah, yeah, so what. You’ll just beat him up again.”

“And why do you say that?”

“Don’t you know there are only two ways to revive Master’s tree? You either stick around for nine thousand years or you kill a thousand unborn children for one seed. Ape only has ‘til midnight.”

Xuanzang said nothing, Mingyue groaning as he straightened and took his leave. Before shutting the door behind him, the servant rubbed his sore bottom and added, “You’re not stupid enough to think Sun Wukong’s above doing that, are you?"

Wukong wasn’t sure how far Guanyin’s pardon extended or how long heaven would take to deliberate Puti’s innocence. He was, however, sure that some form of punishment awaited them, so his first choice of action after Puti’s retrieval was to hide their group in Flower Fruit Mountain. He assumed the sheer amount of demons it amassed would cause the Jade court to take pause a while longer, lest they repeat the same mistake they made five hundred years prior.

And there was no more point in lying to himself- he lacked the strength to fight any more soldiers that came his way. Keeping the pain at bay was proving far too hard a task. He felt as if Lord Buddha himself had picked him up, and dipped his flesh in the acid of King Yan’s deathly lakes, all while gutting him like a fish.

But he forgot all these complaints the moment they arrived at the kingdom of flowers and fruits. It was snowing. He jumped off the cloud first, Puti and Ao Lie following suit as he limped forward, staff digging its way through piles of white blanketing the once-green earth. It was spring year-round in Flower Fruit Mountain.

Its seasons four, were once one, fertile in bulging fruits and the velvet of green spring. That was the Flower Fruit Mountain he remembered, the first home he had ever looked upon.

He turned over a bloodied hand and watched the snow drift over palm. It was dust. He looked up, all around. Flower Fruit Mountain was covered in ash, its trees gnarled and dead, springs shriveled dry, and rocks turned grey, as if all had been painted over with a brush of soot.

“What happened?” he heard himself say, wondering if he had by chance, imagined it all.

“Big brother,” Ao Lie said softly, “you didn’t know?”

Wukong stayed muted, standing still as Ao Lie and Puti walked to his side, not a sound to be heard save the distant sobs of a hungry vulture.

“When you were under Five Finger Mountain, Erlang Shen set fire to Mount Huaguo.”

And it had been smoke since.

Wukong: “I didn’t know.”

Chapter Text

The monkey hiked onwards, silent as the sea of barren earth and ash beneath his sluggish feet, the stick-once-cudgel sculpting through the forsaken remains of Flower Fruit Mountain and what once was. Steps behind, Ao Lie and Puti paced to his left and right, master and disciple trekking along with linked arms and sleeves. And Mount Huaguo sloped upwards in a never-ending pile of blackened trees and dusty flakes.

Big brother, Ao Lie wanted to say, but he lacked the words to follow. Wukong had all but blocked he and Master out, as if intent on facing the remnants of Huaguo alone. And had the Western Sea met such a fate, Ao Lie supposed he would have done the same, for this was a kingdom, and this was a kingdom gone.

“Master,” the dragon said, only to be shushed by Puti’s knowing look.

Keep it to yourself, the Master seemed to say, let’s all keep it to ourselves. So Ao Lie swallowed his thoughts and walked on, pausing every now and then to wait on Puti as he coughed the pagoda’s soot from his charred lungs. Wukong stopped for neither, hellbent on traipsing the trail to his former domain, as if he could reclaim everything once lost and once had with nothing but his restless feet alone.

Their path dipped down into a mass of grey forest and sharp peaks, much like the teeth of a burnt dragon’s jaw. Wukong shook the ash from his hair, turned to his companions, and said, “Stay close.”

Puti spat out a mouthful of dust and nodded, tugging Ao Lie’s arm as he moved to join the monkey, who had since resumed his walk. They entered that skeleton of a jungle and passed its lifeless grounds, until they found themselves atop a cliff overlooking fog, a shadowed pit of a valley below. Wukong stopped abruptly, Ao Lie and Puti nearly smashing into his backside before the mouth of a high cave, black with sinister pall.

Ao Lie felt Puti tense, guard piqued by the aurora from within- dark, murky, and bottled, what belonged to not one demon, but a whole slew. Against his will, the prince stepped back when he saw those eyes pop from the dark, dozens of pairs of shining red accompanied with chit-chatter sounds of grunts and growls. Before Ao Lie readied himself for another fight, a voice spoke from that direction, raw and guttural.

KiNg ,” it said, “ tHe kiNg’s bAck .”

“The king’s back,” the others chorused, voices like grating nails.

“Your highness!” they said, screeched, echo over echo. “Your highness! Your high- highness- highness- highness!”

Ao Lie heard what sounded like fists against wall, a rapid thwack-thwacking of limbs and heads as the creatures cried for their king, howls soon turned into a cacophony of screams and shrieks. In front, Wukong slouched farther, head twisting into that of a long-faced ape as he returned their shrill cries with one of his own. And still howling, the demons came out, crawling into the misted light on all four, one muddy primate after the other, each uglier than the last.

Desperate and overcome, they covered their chieftain, prostrating themselves at his feet, wrapping hands about his shoulders, sniffing and kissing every bit of him they could, afraid he would again disappear should they fail to prove their fealty. And still, more crawled out to join, for the King of Huaguo returned at long last and these were the subjects that remained, a sorry number compared to what once was. As the dragon watched, it dawned on him that they had waited five centuries for this moment, endured without respite, and perhaps never once wondered if it was for naught. Whether it was stupidity or loyalty, he could not tell.

But he supposed he could expect no more from this pack of apes.

Leaning against the staff, Wukong shook his head back into human shape and waved a hand at Ao Lie and Puti. “These are my guests. Take them in.”

“Guests! Guests!” the monkeys cried, tripping over themselves to enclose the pair and usher them in. As the simians tugged and grappled at his sleeves, Ao Lie said, “Big brother, what’s inside?”

“Water Curtain Cave,” Wukong replied, not a hint of emotion in that flat tone.

Ao Lie took another look, only just realizing that the bed of dry rock they stood upon had been the haven of myths. This was the cave behind Flower Fruit’s waterfall, what the Handsome Monkey King had once mistaken for paradise, now no more.

The primates having shoved Ao Lie and Puti farther down, Wukong tried to recall what the cave once looked like, smooth and cool with green shadow all around. He stared at cobwebs now, dust and ash sprinkled over dry rock at every turn, for the great waterfall that had stood outside was reduced to a trail of thin dust, dried beyond dry. Huaguo’s clan gathered around him, so excited they reverted to the primitive oohs and aahs of their youth, all having forgotten to speak. He kept his face stoic, unwilling to look any of them in the eye.

Each face, he remembered, and each looked ravaged by time and grief, scarred by Erlang Shen’s fire, and forgotten by the mighty mountain itself. He had sat atop their very shoulders once, laughed as they served him fruit, cackled as they cheered his every move. And in the end, he deserved none of it.

It was as if he could hear Tathagata’s voice, calm and righter than thou as it told him this was the result of his greed and bloodlust, his own doing from start to finish. And he could not stop it, could not fix it, for all was said and done.

“Your highness,” one of them said, scrabbling over with shining eyes and eager knuckles, the others parting to make room for him, “we knew you’d come back, we knew! We knew!”

It took Wukong a good moment to recognize the ape, a navy-faced gibbon with hair the color of charcoal and chalk. A tattered cape hung from his low shoulders, plates of rusted armor over his fur.

“Beng,” Wukong said, “General Beng…”

Beng nodded, face scrunched with held-back tears as he buried his head against Wukong’s waist, almost pressing over the wound Li Jing had left. Wincing, he held Beng for a time, at a loss for words, quite sure no apology would suffice.

Beng: “You’re hurt.”

Wukong: “I don’t see you for five hundred years and you turn daft? Your grandpa’s fine.”

Still in his arms, Beng shook that dirty head. “Your highness, it must’ve been so hard for you. I’m sorry- General Beng’s been useless, I’m so sorry!”

He didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. Wukong shoved Beng out of his grip, the gibbon tumbling on the rock-hard ground. “Grandpa Sun’s never been better! You’re crying over shit.”

He took one more look at what had become of Water Curtain Cave. “You’re not the wrong one… now tell me, what happened here after the fire?”

Beng sniffed, wiped his snot against a palm, and said, “What you see here, your highness, is everyone that’s left. The fire wiped us out by the hundreds- me, Lyu, Ma, and Ba found a bridge under the cave. Hid all we could there, but...”



“Beng, don’t lie to your king.”

“The other demons here blamed us. It was terrible, my liege. We couldn’t leave here, couldn’t move move at all without them attacking. There was so much in-fighting and… and we all got so weak. There’s almost no food left on Huaguo. We can’t even fend off human hunters this way- it’s a living hell, your highness, a living hell!”

“So that’s why there are so few of us left.”

“Yes, but now you’re back, my king, now you’ll save us like you did before, and we’ll all be fine again!” *

Beng reached for him again, but Wukong shook him off. He didn’t want to see the general like this. In his memory, Beng was an arrogant brute, always eager to flaunt his fighting prowess and even more eager to rebuke his king’s every word. Beng had changed, changed so much that Wukong wondered if he had never been Beng.

Instead, he asked, “What of General Ba? Marshal Lyu? Ma?”

Beng: “Ba died in the fire. Lyu was eaten by a lion demon down in the forest.”

Then he added quickly, “I killed the demon.”

Ba’s death might have explained the change. Wukong knew the two gibbons to be close. News of his and Lyu’s deaths dropped an empty feeling within, like a hollow bowl taking its first fall down a well. Lyu was a quiet ape, but loyal nonetheless, a model warrior. They had all been model soldiers, and so their power-hungry king dubbed the four his Royal Guards. And yet beyond that, he had known them well before Water Curtain Cave, well before he even knew the name Sun.

Wukong: “What about Ma?”

A tad disappointed Wukong hadn’t praised his slaying of the lion, Beng said, “Marshal Ma… he’s been ill for a long time.”

The general tilted his head towards Ao Lie and Puti in the distance. “If he could, he would have been the first to greet you, your highness. Ma, he… he’ll tell you himself.”

“You go on first,” Wukong ordered, “tell Ma I’m back. I have to get this lot taken care of.”

“As you wish.”

Wukong waited for Beng to scurry down the stone corridor before joining Huaguo’s guests, the duo clearly looking out of their element. Ao Lie and Puti were equally pale, more than unsettled by the darkness of the cave and even moreso by the beasts that comprised of Wukong’s subjects.

“This is Puti,” the monkey said, pointing at the immortal, “my- he was my Master.”

And again, they were assaulted by a chorus of excited echoes: “Grandmaster! Grandmaster! Welcome, grandmaster!”*

Puti: “Uh… Hello!”

“Hello! Hello! Hello!”

Wukong: “Serve him well. And this brat too, his new disciple.”

They turned their shouts to Ao Lie. “Elder brother! Elder brother! Elder brother!”

“I’m the third prince of the Western Sea,” Ao Lie felt the need to add, only to be rebuffed with Wukong’s, “So?”

Ao Lie: “So… well, that was it.”

Wukong made a noise of disdain, clicked his cudgel against the ground, and said, “If you’re hungry, ask them for food- maybe they’ll share.”

Ao Lie thought those words had been for him and Master, but they were for him alone, because Wukong then circled in front of Puti and said, “Now we’re settled down. Old man, tell me here- how do we fix Zhenyuan’s tree?”

Puti sat on a protruding rock and stroked that white beard in thought, fingers catching in its tangled strands. “It’s not that simple, Wukong. It took him nine thousand years to cultivate and it’s such a rare plant we can’t revive it by mortal means.”

“Well, you’re not mortal, are you!?”

“Stop yelling! I need to think!”

“Think faster!”

“I can’t think with you screaming in my head- you have no idea how long I spent in that damned pagoda! My ears are still burning!”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the monkey said, raising the cudgel as if he meant to strike, “maybe this will help you recover!”

Ao Lie threw himself between the two, almost bumping his nose against the staff. “Big brother, Master, wait- I’m sure we’re all just under stress!”

And trying to diffuse the tension further, he pointed at a random chimp and said, “Uh, you, bring us some fruit!”

“Right away, elder brother!”

“Then stop standing around and serve me!”

“Of course!”

It felt good to order underlings around again- that was a feeling Ao Lie had sorely missed. When he looked back to the arguing pair, Puti had his back turned, head facing a gruff wall, and Wukong was slumped against the opposite slab, arms crossed in frustration. Around them, the monkeys ran off to find food, eager to escape the incoming quarrel.

After a silence of what felt like eons, Puti spoke: “If we kill one thousand unborn children and carve out their mothers’ wombs, we can fertilize the earth with their blood; then a new seed can take root.”

Ao Lie: “Then… does it have to be human children?”

“Ginseng fruit, yes. The seed usually starts from the union of a plant and mortal, but it’s not something anyone can do, immortal or otherwise.”

Wukong: “One thousand? Are you fucking with me?!”

Ao Lie: “Big brother, are we going to do this?”

“What do you think? Old man, go on!”

Puti: “Calm down! That’s just the textbook way. They don’t call me Puti the Immortal for nothing… There’s a different method I’ve thought up before. Never tried it. Now, we can go to an immortal mountain, one that’s old enough, been through enough life and death. We plant the Ginseng seeds within, season them with celestial’s blood, let them suck up the nutrients, and use magic to accelerate its growth.”

Wukong: “That simple?”

“Of course not. First, we’d need two Ginseng seeds. Next, we’d have to trick the seeds into thinking they’re in a human womb- one of us will have to swallow them and let it grow from there; it won’t be a pretty sight, you know?”

At that, Ao Lie pulled a pair of seeds from the pockets of his robes, remnants of the fruit the Tang priest had gifted him back in Wuzhuang. “Master, I have the seeds.”

Wukong snatched them out of his hand instantly. “Great, let’s go.”

Puti turned around and rather suddenly, said, “Wait! Wukong, think this through- the ginsengfruit’s very powerful. We can use Huaguo to revive the tree… or we can use the tree to revive Huaguo.”

Stunned by the outburst, Wukong looked as if he had been splashed with ice water. He paled, the gravity of Puti’s words dawning over his weary head.

“Wukong, think on it,” Puti said again, gentle for the first time since their reunion.

Wukong: “I heard you the first time, shut it, old man.”

Puti made to reply but Beng returned on flailing feet, a torch in his wrinkled hands. Anxious, he waved the flame before Wukong’s face and said, “Your highness, come, come! I can take you to Marshal Ma!”

And a little too eager to leave, Wukong nodded, gathered his staff, and followed Beng away. Ao Lie cast Puti one more look, the Master staring dejectedly back, before taking off after the monkey. What happened between the two, the dragon didn’t know, but what was happening between them now, he did know, and it reminded him far too much of his family’s never-ending, ever-rifted quarrels.

He followed the gibbon and his king to the end of the cave, surprisingly spacious and splattered with peeling paint. The three of them stood under a mural of drawings, no doubt finger-painted by the monkeys themselves, a document of Sun Wukong’s every triumph and move. From Beng’s torch, a shade of light cast itself over that covered cavern wall, an image of Huaguo’s king at the center, drawn with harsh lines and color, a twin phoenix crown upon his head and a scarlet cape flowing past his scratched legion of troops. But Ao Lie didn’t have the time to inspect the artwork further.

“Big brother!” he said.

And outlined by the torch’s flame, Wukong turned, shoulders sagged, weary and wounded, looking nothing like the portrait that stood behind. And there, Ao Lie knew he’d fallen, crumpled like Flower Fruit Mountain, and left not a trace of glory behind. It stirred an ache within the prince, an uncomfortable something he couldn’t quite place.

Wukong: “Well? I don’t have all day.”

Ao Lie: “Big brother, give Master a chance, please.”

“I didn’t let him rot- that’s chance enough. Now go wait with the old man.”

“No, that’s not what I meant, and you know it, big brother.”

The phrase came out harsher than Ao Lie intended, almost challenging and the violent flicker behind Wukong’s eyes told the prince he’d made a mistake. But he didn’t have the ability to take back what was said. Instead, he puffed out his chest and said, “Master doesn’t hate you.”

“I don’t care who he hates- why are you still here?”

“But you do,” the dragon said, “I know he’s been harsh with you… but- but Master talks about you all the time. Sun Wukong this, and Sun Wukong that.”

Wukong scowled and prepared to turn away, but Ao Lie latched onto his hand. He was immediately pushed back. As he stumbled for steadiness, he went on, “I don’t know if you know, but I think you should know… you weren’t just Master Puti’s disciple- you were his favorite disciple! There hasn’t been a day since you left him that he hasn’t thought of you- I know this, all his students know this, so please-”

And not knowing what else to say, Ao Lie implored again, “Please don’t hate him.”

Wukong stared at him, saying nothing, and when he did speak, it was a barely audible whisper, “you don’t know anything,” followed by his louder, “Wait here.”

“Big brother-”

But Wukong would say no more. The monkey clapped a hand over Beng’s back and the two disappeared down a tunnel beneath a clay-colored bridge. Ao Lie was left with the mural of paintings, feeling much like an outsider under the history of Huaguo above.

Below, Wukong let Beng lead him through the space their clan now lived, as grimy and damp as he expected. Ao Lie’s words spun in the back of his mind, but he neither had the time nor patience to think them through. Puti belonged in the far past, as did the rest of Huaguo, and once this was over, he’d part from all of them, including that brat of a prince, for good.

“Ma,” Beng said, voice near coaxing, “Ma, the king’s back, he’s back to see you.”

Marshal Ma lay on a makeshift cot, shaggy copper fur covered with a blanket of straw. Beng stood to the side, torch in hand, as Wukong approached the cot, Ma’s familiar face coming into view: flat-nosed, wide, pucker-mouthed. Ma sat up then, glassy eyes surrounded by discolored wrinkles- scars from fire.

“Your highness, where are you?” Ma rasped.

Wukong sat on the cot’s edge, propped the staff by his leg, and put a hand over Ma’s own. “Right here.”

The ape grinned. “Wukong? Wukong, this is real?”

“As real as your ugly ass.”

Ma lifted a long arm to feel the king’s face. He laughed, or perhaps sobbed, it was hard to tell. “You got what you wanted, Wukong- you look like them now.”

Wukong let those fingers roam over his man-shaped face for a few more moments before he asked, “What happened to your eyes?”

“Erlang Shen’s fire… but I’m used to it now, been five hundred years.”

Wukong stopped Ma’s hands from moving farther. He held the fingers in his own, tightened, and choked out, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Ma said, twisting his head to smile at Wukong, a homely curve of lips, “I didn’t wanna see in a world without you anyway. So I’m glad, glad I couldn’t see when we were apart… now I can just see you as you were.”

“Don’t be cheesy,” Wukong said.

“Just let me have this, Wukong.” Ma sighed. “You’re in golden armor. You’ve got the phoenix cap. And I’d look at you and I’d say, ‘the Great Sage Equaling Heaven! That’s my glorious king!’”

“Alright. You’re right… that’s what I look like.”

“Good.” Then Ma said, “do you remember Mount Huaguo before Water Curtain?”

“What’s there to remember?”

“Once we tried to go sledding on the cliffs with logs. Then...”

“Then what?”

“You said it was a stupid idea and pushed me off the cliff.”

Wukong laughed, chest expanding as he felt a wave of genuine joy. “I remember.”

“And when you thought peaches and rocks were the same.”

“You’re never letting me live that down?”

“No,” Ma laughed, tears gathering in the corners of his eyes, “you ate so many rocks and when I tried, I broke my teeth. And you laughed.”

“Grew back, didn’t they?”

“I knew you’d say that.” And when Wukong snorted, Ma added, “Wukong, you have such terrible laughter… it makes me so happy to hear it again.”


“I just wanted to be with you again. I couldn’t do shit about Five Finger Mountain. Wukong, I know you can’t stay, but I waited so long for this one moment. To meet you before I die, that’s all I wanted.”

Wukong rubbed a palm over Ma’s head. “You’re an idiot. A real idiot. That’s a stupid wish, that’s such a stupid wish.”

“I can’t help it,” Ma said, “Great Sage, your highness, Wukong, you’ll always be Siho to me, maybe that’s why.”

Ma laughed again, and now Wukong could see he was crying. He’d never seen Ma cry, not over any wound or insult, not even from joy. But now he was. He’d named Ma himself, named all of them with his lack of eloquence, and he realized he was about to let down the Marshal all over again.

“Ma,” he said, and again, “Ma…”

Puti’s words chose that moment to push to the front- Huaguo or Wuzhuang. He had one chance and one way, to restore Flower Fruit Mountain or the Ginsengfruit Tree. He felt his breath constrict as he held onto Ma’s shaking hands, feeling as if he had to choose now. Zhenyuan or Huaguo, Xuanzang or Ma. And-

Wukong shook his head, blood humming behind his ears. He set Ma’s hands down, kissed his eyes, and said, “Ma, I have to go. I can’t stay longer.”

Ma: “I know. Do what you have to. Just don’t forget us, you hear?”

Wukong: “I won’t.” I can’t .

He wiped the tears from Ma’s face, stood a moment longer, and gestured at Beng to leave. In silence, they left the invalid’s cot and climbed back through the tunnel. He’d crawled through a fallen log before, unsure where it would lead, and when he emerged, a mean-faced ape had been at the end of it, feasting on some poor human’s carcass. The ape had asked him what he was, then it’d said, “Oh, so you’re the stone monkey- Siho!” And they’d eaten that man together. Then years later, he’d named the ape Ma, Marshal Ma.

But Ma was behind them now. When Wukong emerged from the tunnel, there was no light save Beng’s torch, and instead of Ma, knelt Ao Lie. The prince hadn’t moved a muscle since the monkey’s descent. Wukong walked past him without a word, Beng at his heels.

Ao Lie scrambled after them, decision made. Master was back so he had no more to worry about on Father’s front, or rather, that was what he told himself. He’d looked at the mural, studied its paintings, and however crude, its lines were etched with devotion, loyalty of the purest sort, with far more emotion than every scroll in his father’s palace and his uncles’ combined. And he’d wondered why.

But now he knew.

The truth was that Ao Lie had once hated Sun Wukong- he’d been jealous of Puti’s praise, of living in the Great Sage’s shadow, just as he had of living in his blood brothers’ shadows. But the envy went further, he admitted, for the Monkey King had gained everything from nothing. He had not a drop of kin in the world or a coin to his name and all that he had, he carved from will alone. And yet Prince Ao Lie, born with everything, had amounted to nothing. Third best to his father and second best to his Master, he’d lost and lost- so he admired Big Brother, stood in awe of him and hated him nonetheless, for the Great Sage was remembered and the third prince would be forgotten, if not already.

And now he knew why. It didn’t matter to those demons that their king had lost his crown, that he came to them in blood and rags, that he was a legend gone. He’d seen Big Brother fight, had seen him triumph in spite of it all. He was King , in every sense of the word, the embodiment of that great mural, and painfully deserving of what Ao Lie was about to do.

Ao Lie: “I have the ginsengfruit.”

Wukong stopped mid-step, raised a brow, and said, “Fiery eyes say you ate it.”

“I’m a dragon,” the prince said, “we can eat to safe-keep.”

And as Wukong watched, wide-eyed, Ao Lie dipped his head, heaved, and hacked out the last Gingsengfruit, wrapped in blue dragon’s mucus. He held the fruit up and after one and two more coughs, grinned and winced.

Ao Lie: “We can leave this at Huaguo.”

The monkey’s eyes were so wide they looked ready to drop out. He stood, rooted, as if unable to believe what the prince had just accomplished. Then, voice quivering, he said, “Bailong…”

“Big brother?”

Why didn’t you say so?! ” Wukong said, words caught in a long breath.

Then the monkey fell to his knees, chest heaving, shoulders racked with open sobs. He planted his head against the ground, choking and gasping as he wept. He shook all over, back rising and falling with each pained breath.

“Big brother!”

Stunned, Ao Lie dropped beside the monkey, one hand raised to pat Wukong’s backside before he stopped himself mid-air. Unsure what to do, he put both hands on his knees and watched Wukong collect those cries. Nails scratching ground, Wukong dug his hands into stone, face streaked with tears over blood.

He wanted to vomit and choke on snot, sob out every mistake he’d ever made and drown within. Because he chose Xuanzang. If not for the dragon’s fruit, he would have let Huaguo die, abandoned Ma and Beng and all the rest for the Tang priest alone. In the end, he was selfish to the core, no better than those celestials atop their high thrones, and deserved far longer than five hundred years under Tathagata’s hand.

Wukong and Puti buried the ginsengfruit in the middle of the jagged forest overlooking Water Curtain Cave. The demons watched from a distance, anxious to see what their king would do next. Wukong looked to Puti, too tired to bear him ill will. The immortal finished the last of his bananas, brought forth by the eager chimps Ao Lie had ordered with such glee, and let the peel drop.

“What now?” Wukong asked.

“Your monkeys aren’t going anywhere. No rush. Let’s spread this with magic and be on our way.”

That being said, the immortal rolled up a sleeve, scratched a vein on his arm, and let the blood sprinkle over earth. He sat cross-legged and invited Wukong to do the same. They held their hands up at the tips and channeled whatever chi they could at the spot beneath. And as the energy took its course, a splotch of grass took root.

Wukong: “How long?”

Puti: “I can’t say. Maybe a year, maybe ten, but it works alright.”

Behind them, the monkeys cheered and hollered, crying for their king and grandmaster again and again. Wukong stood up first, wobbled, and turned to the crowd. He waved them off.

“Go back,” was his final order, “take care of yourselves, don’t make Grandpa Sun worry.”

Ao Lie waited for that clan to finish their tearful farewells, each one coming up to smother their king in turn, which must have been quite painful for big brother’s wounds. Beng, in particular, had taken particularly long and had he stayed any longer, the dragon would have expected him to mate with Wukong. And then, they were gone.

Wukong pulled out Ao Lie’s seeds. He asked Puti again, “So I eat them, then what, let it grow?”

“You stupid ape,” the Master snapped, “do you have any idea how draining it’d be? You have to keep it transformed inside the stomach or the tree bursts and rips every organ- then we extract it from the throat. As I said, it’s not simple.”

“I’m the Great Sage Equaling Heaven- we’re doing this!”

“No!” Puti swept the seeds from the monkey’s palm. “Look at you! You’re wounded from head to toe- you’d only drag the tree down with you. And have you even thought about why? Wukong, you’re mortal now!”

Ao Lie: “Wh-”

Wukong: “What?”

Puti: “I can’t tell how it happened, so I’ll tell you this- the you I knew, even before the cast of iron, would have recovered long ago. So face the facts, monkey. You’ll die if you try those seeds.”

“Old man-”

Puti: “And then who’s going to take the Tang priest west?”

Wukong had no reply for that and as Ao Lie prepared to speak and break the tension, Puti said, “I’ll do it. You and Ao Lie lend your magic.”

You? ” Wukong said, aghast.

“Yes, me, don’t sound so surprised. I’m a great immortal after all! Ao Lie, take your big brother and stand back.”

Ao Lie followed the Master’s orders, tugging Wukong’s sleeve in an effort to pull the both of them back, the monkey repeating Puti’s word on his confused lips- mortal? Mortal? Puti placed the seeds in his mouth, gulped, and sat in a flutter of pooled robes. He held both hands flat against his chest, sucked in a breath, and shut his eyes in concentration. Wukong and Ao Lie followed suit, flipping hands as they made a swirl of chi, blue and white in turn. It engulfed Puti and, slowly, Ao Lie saw the ginsengfruit’s translucent roots embed themselves over the Master’s veins and Huaguo’s earth.

Celestials, mortals, demons, and plants- there was none Puti the Immortal could not cheat.

He and Wukong watched, dumbstruck, when Puti’s hair turned into a leafy green, skin tanning until it became the color of trunk, body growing tall and thick, and beard spinning into a violet moss. Puti’s face stayed unmoving as the rest of him grew and grew, a perfect vessel for the Ginsengfruit tree, hairs shifting purple as more leaves spread and babe fruits blossomed. White became brown as robes became bark and veins became roots as limbs became branch.

“Master!” Ao Lie cried.

Puti: “Shh!”

The dragon placed a hand over his own mouth. Puti continued to twist into the Ginsengfruit tree before them. It would take most, if not all, of his chi to balance the transformation and escape the tree. This, Wukong knew, and as loathe as he was to admit it, he could think of only one reason why Puti would risk his life to do so. It was not just gratitude for his rescue from King Li- it was his way of making amends, amends that had come far too late.

Because Wukong could not go back to Puti now, even if all the resentment melted from his stone heart, as it did at that moment. They could never go back to before, and this, Puti knew.

When the tree reached its full length and spread, Puti peeled himself out of the tree, leaving behind the bark and leaves until he was again a man in shape. Pale and unsteady, he stumbled into Ao Lie’s steadfast grip. The dragon helped him to a nearby stump, and there, Puti sat to catch his breath.

“Old man, you really did it,” Wukong muttered as he came to join them.

Puti smiled, weary. “I’ve gotten quite powerful over the years. There it is, Wukong- you figure out how to bring it to ol’ Zhenyuan.”

Wukong met his gaze, held it, and said, more choked up than intended, “ Thank you.

At that, Puti only nodded. Nothing more needed to be said and no kowtows needed to be had. Wukong turned, limped towards the tree, and checked it over for thirty-two fruits exact. His, and Ao Lie’s, and Puti’s chi had all gone into those ripened fruits, and he was glad to know the exhaustion had paid off. He yanked off a strand of hair, whispered, “change,” and blew it over the tree.

The Ginsengfruit tree instantly puffed out of existence and melded into a strand of hair in the monkey’s grip. He tucked it away, swung the cudgel over his shoulders, and prepared to summon the somersault cloud. Then he pushed the heavy fatigue away and glanced at Ao Lie.

“Bailong,” he said, “you did well. I’ll tell Baldy.”

Ao Lie supposed that was the monkey’s way of saying ‘thank you.’ Then he realized he had just been praised, not mocked, and unable to think for a good few seconds, he asked, “Big brother, why, why make us go this far for the Tang monk?”

Wukong thought. Then he said, “Every human and celestial I’ve met’s... been a liar and a cheat. Not him.”

Not him. Chen Xuanzang had been pure and good when he’d first met him under that mountain, so painfully good. And then, he’d thought, what right does this man have to be so good, so naive, so unbroken? Then, Xuanzang had been nobody, another human with no right to make him a slave to whim. And he’d been so sure Xuanzang would be like all the rest.

He supposed that was why he found it so easy to kill the woman named Duan. He knew Xuanzang loved her in that mortal way, and she him, and they’d been so mortal, so human, so stupid, he felt nothing when he did what he did. Then he’d thought the monk would turn out like everyone else. But against all odds, Chen had stayed good, so good he’d even been willing to give him , of all people, a chance.  

“Prince, listen here.”

Sun Wukong was rotten and spiteful and everything bad, but Chen Xuanzang was the opposite, loving and kindly and everything good; he was all that he was not, even if the priest himself did not know.

“Chen Xuanzang’s the best man you’ll ever meet, in this lifetime and the last and the next.”

He meant every word. But Ao Lie had never met many humans in the first place. And as the dragon mulled over that answer, Wukong hopped aboard the somersault cloud, trusting himself not to topple over on the way back. By Puti’s side, Ao Lie watched the cloud tumble out of view.

“Eldest brother!”

Bajie stretched his neck to see Wukong’s head come into view, the monkey all but hauling himself up Wuzhuang’s stairs. Bajie blinked to make sure he wasn’t imagining the first disciple’s return. He’d hung from the slab since day and it was well past night, the sky blinking twilight as his sore limbs threatened to disintegrate on the spot.

“Boss!” he cried again, “I knew you’d save us! Never once did I doubt you!”

And the spell on his tongue had long since worn off, the slices on his back dimmed to deep bruises. Hanging beside him, Wujing said, “Boss, where’s the tree?”

Bajie: “Oh, I see now! You’re so smart, boss. You came back to free us and leave Baldy behind! What a clever trick!”

Wukong stalked past them, cudgel pushing in front, and mumbled, “Asshole, shut up.”

“Where’s the tree?” Wujing asked again.

Wukong’s only answer was a lazy wave of the hand. As the other disciples called after him, he continued his march through the courtyard, quite sure Zhenyuanzi was waiting at the end. Mingyue and Qingfeng crossed his path first, more than a little smug.

“Shall I inform Master of your failure?” Qingfeng asked.

“Ha! Knew you couldn’t do it!” Mingyue mocked.

Wukong spat in their faces, much to Mingyue’s disgust. And sniggering to himself, he walked on until he found the Immortal Zhenyuan meditating by the open parlor.

Wukong: “Zhenyuan, I got what you wanted.”

Suspicious, the patriarch stood and scanned him. “I’d like to see proof, ape.”

Without another word, Wukong made his way past the parlor and to the garden where the tree’s pieces remained split all over. With a whispered, “change,” the monkey blew a hair out and watched a new Ginsengfruit tree take root, standing where its predecessor had once grown, fruits swaying in place and leaves aplenty, as if the previous had never fallen.

In awe, Zhenyuanzi approached the tree, ran his hands over the bark, and looked it twice over for flaws and faults. Finding none, the patriarch, said, tears welling, “I’ll be damned. Not even a drop of human blood within… if you didn’t use it, then how?”

“You’re not the only immortal around.”

Wukong expected Zhenyuanzi to break down crying, but to his surprise, a toothy grin split the patriarch’s grim mouth, disconcerting against his otherwise refined face. Zhenyuanzi wrapped an arm about Wukong’s shoulder, and as the monkey stared wide-eyed at what had just happened, the patriarch cried, loudly , “Qingfeng, Mingyue! Serve us drinks, this is cause for celebration!”

Not long after, the servants tripped over themselves to reach their master, confusion evident on their faces, which soon turned blank with shock upon seeing the revived tree.

“How is this possible?” Qingfeng said.

Mingyue: “What the fuck!?”

“Didn’t you hear your Master, assholes?” Wukong said, “get those drinks.”

Mingyue: “What the fuck!?”

Zhenyuanzi: “Qingfeng! Tell Master Sanzang he can go free and cut his disciples loose. Mingyue, grab my wine so I may celebrate with my newest brother!”

At a loss as to what to say, Qingfeng nodded and went on with his orders. Stupefied, Mingyue ran off, confused “fucks” muttered under his breath. Then it dawned on Wukong that Zhenyuan meant to swear brotherhood with him, and unsure if this was reality or a side-effect of those ill-worn injuries, he asked, “ What?

“I hadn’t believed in miracles until now,” Zhenyuanzi said honestly, “Great Sage, it seems you do have something to back up that ego. You brought back two extra fruits. For this, I forgive you! On the condition you swear with me, little brother.”

When he finished, Mingyue had returned, cups and wine jug in hand. Zhenyuanzi waved the cups into his grip, threw one at Wukong, and held his up for Mingyue to pour. Wukong allowed himself a smirk when the boy poured his wine, the servant seething at the ears.

Zhenyuanzi: “Now drink!”

Wukong clinked his cup with Zhenyuan’s own and downed the wine in one gulp. The liquid burned his throat, but was numbing respite nonetheless. And eager, he held out his cup again for another drink. After five or so drinks with the patriarch, he heard Zhenyuanzi laugh and say, “To my little brother!”

This was followed by an enthusiastic clap to the back. And against his will, the monkey cried out, overcome with pain. Zhenyuanzi kept him from falling with steady arms.

“My apologies, little brother,” he said, “I’d almost forgotten-”

“It’s nothing,” Wukong replied between gasps, “let’s drink.”

“Mingyue, you heard him! Pour us more- let us finish this jar.”

The Immortal Zhenyuan had offered to let him stay at Wuzhuang Temple, but Xuanzang opted to leave for fear his disciples sink themselves in more trouble. According to a frantic Qingfeng, Zhenyuanzi would be celebrating the Ginsengfruit tree’s return with Wukong while he freed the Tang priest and his two disciples.

“Send your Master my regards, and have Wukong find us in the woods at the bottom of the mountain,” Xuanzang had told Qingfeng before taking his final leave, luggage and pupils in toll.

Bajie had attempted to strike conversation on the way down, topics all variants of how Wukong revived the tree, and Wujing had been more than willing to say “shut up” on Xuanzang’s behalf. The monk stayed silent the whole way, mind lost on other matters.

Mingyue’s warning from the afternoon bothered him much more than he’d let on. Because he knew his first disciple, and he knew his first disciple. And he knew how far and how far Wukong’s devotion could go. He was the rain that would chase away the drought, but then he’d become the storm, a violent unyielding force that a part of Xuanzang feared even he could not hold.

While Bajie and Wujing set up camp beside him, arguing amongst themselves for the best spot to sleep, Xuanzang heard a noise in the trees. Buddha’s crop in hand, he left the log he’d perched on and stood in front of the fire Wujing had sloppily lit.

He smelled the blood first.

Bent over his staff, the first disciple stepped into view, eyes downcast, and rags stained with blood, far more than Xuanzang remembered. The scent of alcohol mixed in with iron as the monkey neared. And stopped.

“Wukong?” he said, “how did it go?”

“Just fine.”

Wukong lifted his head enough to catch sight of the whip in Xuanzang’s grip. He chuckled dryly. “What, you don’t think so, Master?”

“Tell me the truth, monkey. How did you revive Zhenyuanzi’s tree?”

The monkey said nothing, and uneasy, Xuanzang pressed on, taking a step forward, “Did you have to kill…”

“One thousand infants. Isn’t that the number it needed?”

“Wukong, did you ?”

Say no, disciple, say no and I’ll believe you. Xuanzang felt himself freeze, limbs suddenly too stiff to move as his heart pounded. But Wukong only laughed again, harsh and cracked. Then he cocked that head and said, “Believe what you want, Baldy. Maybe you’re right.”

Xuanzang: “Would it kill you to give a straight answer!?”

Wukong: “Answer for what? Just hit me .”

The lash struck out, catching the monkey on the arm. Wukong shrunk and stood on, making no move to block the next hit. The whip streaked over his shoulder as Xuanzang moved his hand back.

“Fine!” the monk said, “if you’re too cowardly to admit it! Haven’t I taught you to avoid a life of sin!?”

“Whatever! More hitting, less talking-”

The whip smacked his mouth before Wukong could finish.

Xuanzang: “Don’t be so casual! Have you any idea how great a sin you’ve committed!?”

He felt the crop strike its target again, but instead of Wukong’s familiar cry, Xuanzang heard a new voice shout in pain, young and spritely.

Ao Lie: “Stop!”

The prince had a hand over the lash, having caught it midair. Wincing, the dragon said, desperate, “Venerable elder, stop!”

Xuanzang blinked, Ao Lie’s unprecedented return taking him by complete surprise. He stared down at the prince, Ao Lie’s grip clenching over the whip, red drawn from his palm. Bajie and Wujing stood behind their Master, gaping with shock.

“Please stop,” Ao Lie said, voice strained like a begging child, “big brother, he didn’t-”

Behind him, that cudgel slipped. And- thump!- the monkey fell, blood seeping into earth like vinegar over rice.

Chapter Text

Xuanzang dropped the whip, stunned as his mind struggled to register what had taken place. Fallen on his side, Wukong lay in the grass, turned away and eyes shut, blood spreading under him like endless ink. Wujing reached him first, pulled the monkey up by the shoulders, and shook him left and right as he shouted, “Boss, if you die, I’ll kill you!”

The monkey didn’t stir, limp in his grip. Bajie crawled over next, frantic as he tapped Wukong’s bruised face.

“Boss!” he cried, “he’s really out! What do we do!?”

Wujing: “Why are you asking me!?”

“Oh, eldest brother!” Bajie wailed, “how lost we are without you! Curse little brother’s stupidity!”

Ao Lie squished himself between both demons, tried to pull Wukong from Wujing’s hold, and said, “Stop touching him- you’re just making things worse!”

“He wouldn’t be like this if it wasn’t for you!” Wujing hissed.

Ao Lie: “Me!?”

“We wouldn’t have touched that tree if you left it alone!”

“I didn’t tell you lot to touch it! It’s not my fault you’re such base barbarians!”

“I’ll show you base!” Wujing said, all but planting his face in front of Ao Lie’s own, the prince glaring defiantly back.

“Yes, yes, you’re both so handsome,” Bajie snapped, “so handsome you should shut up before the heavens strike you down for your good looks!”

Ao Lie seethed at the remarks, but the crumpled sight of their eldest brother pushed his anger aside. Instead, he said, “So what do we do now?”

Wujing: “Stop asking me!”

Ao Lie: “I wasn’t asking you! I was asking him !”

Bajie: “And I would know!?”

Then Wujing stood, Ao Lie and Bajie toppling to the ground as Friar Sand rose to his feet, the monkey slung across his arms. He turned to Xuanzang and said, “Master! Why are you standing around!? You want eldest brother to die or what!?”

The third disciple’s voice pulled Xuanzang back to reality: this had happened and he was here. The words, eldest brother , and die , seemed to be from a faraway tongue, sentiments that never before crossed his mind. He’d seen Wukong bleed, knew he scarred, and watched him walk away as if he’d never gone through anything of the sort. And for all his worry back in Wuzhuang, a part of him had known the monkey would pull through in the end.

Except Wukong hadn’t.

And now he lay flat, still as a corpse, and drenched in blood, blood that could have only been his own. This, Xuanzang realized, and for this, he threw the crop from his grip, watching as it smashed into the nearest tree.

Xuanzang: “Set- set him on the ground. Wujing, keep his head up.”

The fish complied, miraculously without complaint, and sat before Xuanzang, Wukong’s head balanced on his lap. Xuanzang knelt, swallowed, and lifted the monkey’s cloak, casting it aside to see what dwelled underneath. He bit back a near-curse.

The clothes were reduced to imperfect shreds, red and black with fresh and dry blood, flesh torn and maimed below. The Tang priest scanned his first disciple for the heaviest signs of injury, eyes coming to stop at the puncture on his torso, jagged and far too close to the gut for Xuanzang’s liking. From there, Xuanzang’s gaze trailed to the gash in his right shoulder, the grey burns splashed over his skin, and the telltale lacerations that snaked from top to bottom and limb to limb.

With shaking fingers, Xuanzang tugged on the remnants of cloth and peeled them off, unsure where the rest of that damage would begin or end. And still, more wounds made themselves known, until the monk’s eyes were used to blood and his hands wet with red.

“Master, I’m here to help!” Bajie said, popping behind Xuanzang so suddenly that the Tang priest gasped and tumbled, narrowly avoiding falling over Wukong by latching onto Wujing.

“Announce yourself, Bajie!” the monk snapped, “don’t just come up like that!”

“But I was worried, Master! You know how close eldest brother and I are!”

“We’re doing all the work here,” Wujing said, memories of blood on grass coming to the front of his mind. “Master, turn him around!”

The fish pushed Wukong up, Xuanzang and Bajie steadying their arms to keep the monkey upright, his head lolling to the side. As he suspected, Wujing saw the rips in his backside, a splotch of ugly crimson stretching over scapulae, glaring against the midst of angry marks made by Zhenyuanzi’s lash. Wujing ripped what appeared to be cloth away from Wukong’s skin and said, “Master, his back-”

Bajie: “His leg!”

Wujing: “There’s more ? Did he piss off heaven again!?”

Xuanzang looked down and there did appear to be a bleeding hole in his disciple’s knee. He half expected the demons to report on a hemmorage next or a ruptured lung or something of that severity.The more he inspected, the more it became clear it was a miracle that Wukong had even managed to walk this far.

“A little bit,” Ao Lie said in response to the fish’s question, having placed himself across from Xuanzang and beside Wujing, more than a little distracted by the free-flowing blood.

Xuanzang: “Mind explaining!?”

Bajie took that moment to slide away from Xuanzang and pull Wukong into his grip, pressing himself against the other demon’s upper body with a low moan. “You speak with him, Master, little brother and I will take care of eldest brother!”

“No!” Xuanzang said, “you two go get water. I’ll handle Wukong. Xiao Bailong, tell me everything after we staunch the bleeding!”

He trusted no one to touch Wukong in such a condition, not even (especially) Bajie and Wujing, with or without good intentions. The only one he’d ever treated with any sort of haphazard medical expertise was himself, and even that had been sloppy at best. But he couldn’t afford to be sloppy now, not with his first disciple’s life hanging by a thread. All other thoughts the Tang priest shoved out of his mind- every doubt and fear and hate- save one: Wukong needed him.

While the pilgrims struggled to patch their monkey up, Ao Lie knelt beside, awkwardly watching as the Tang priest worked into the dusk.

Chen Xuanzang was the most irritating mortal this side of Earth. The demons walked behind him, side by side as the Tang monk preached his teachings, clumsily tripping over every rock on the way. He all but beat their heads over with the Buddhist way, and if he dared use the word “Buddhist” again, Sun Wukong was sure he would have killed himself on the spot. Since the start of their journey west, each day stretched longer than the last, and this was the reason why.

“Do we have to call him Master?” Zhu Bajie mouthed, nudging his new brothers as they trekked.

“Let’s kill him and get on,” Wujing muttered.

“I couldn’t kill him,” Wukong said through clenched teeth, “what makes you think you can, asshole?”

In front, Xuanzang stopped, turned, and glared. “I heard that! Plotting murder against your Master? Do you three not fear my Buddha’s Sodding Palm?”

Bajie: “Sodding Palm?”

“I subdued your eldest brother with it! And do you know why I don’t talk about it? Because I’m lowkey, and I suggest you do the same if you ever want to escape your demonic fate.”

The memory of the palm’s burning wrath tingling against his skin. Wukong shuddered, turned that fear into anger over pride, and said, “You ever shut up, Baldy?”

At that, Xuanzang placed a hand over his scalp, as if remembering he no longer had hair… and all that followed. The monkey saw a glimpse of emotion flash by the monk’s face, no doubt reminded of that dead woman. How pathetic, he thought. Wukong sidled up to him and asked, “Got a problem with that, eh, baldy? Baldy, baldy-”

And the other two joined in: “Baldy, baldy!”

Xuanzang’s cheeks flushed from anger, but the priest said nothing otherwise. He clapped his hands together, whispered a prayer, and turned on his heels. Bored, Wukong stopped the chant, the other two demons following his lead. While Xuanzang tied a hat to his head, Wukong traced the gold band about his noggin- this was the only remnant of that woman, and why Xuanzang kept it there of all places beyond him. He thought of taking it off and tossing it into the river, but something prevented that action- laziness, perhaps. At least he could torture the Tang priest with its presence if he kept it on.

No way in hell was it guilt.

Tasked with getting rid of the bloodied rags, Bajie’s first instinct was to pass the chore onto Wujing, who took it on after a sharp “fuck you” to the pig’s face. And seeing that the second disciple was free, Xuanzang ordered him to gather more blankets, and knowing the Master was in no mood to argue, Bajie had no choice but to obey.

Xuanzang wiped a sleeve over his bleary eyes and adjusted the makeshift pile of cassocks he’d used to pillow Wukong’s head. Fanning the fire beside them, Ao Lie eyed his every move, somehow convinced that everyone was out to murder his big brother. The Tang priest wondered what Wukong’s reaction would be if he knew the dragon had become his self-appointed bodyguard. Knowing his first disciple’s almighty ego, it would likely be a variant of humiliation.

Duan’s golden band stood on a log, the monk having removed it to wipe the blood from Wukong’s head. The firelight cast flickering tendrils in the dark, and in that span of brightness, Xuanzang could make out the monkey’s features, unfamiliar in their stillness. There was no scowl, no smirk, not even a hint of consciousness in his now-pallid countenance; but there was a lurking sadness, evident in his battered face, and the Tang priest couldn’t help but think, This is the face that caused havoc in heaven? The rest of him was swaddled in bandages, skin stitched and cleaned underneath.

Xuanzang rubbed his sore hands, digits numb from tending those numberless wounds. He heard Bajie’s incoming footsteps when he reached to pull the quilt up to the monkey’s chin. Ao Lie had told him all that transpired not long before and that story did nothing but give the monk more cause to worry. Because now he wondered if Wukong would even want to wake up.

“Bad monkey,” he mumbled, “lying to me like this.”

Perhaps Wukong wanted another beating- he’d always been a bit of a masochist. But the fact that he’d been so sure Xuanzang would comply, so sure Xuanzang would jump to the worst conclusion, made the Tang priest pause. Perhaps a part of him had wanted to believe the worst of his disciple, had wanted to righteously punish him to ease his own guilt from Wuzhuang. But in the end, all it did was increase the guilt twofold.

Xuanzang: “I’m sorry.”

At night, the Tang priest slept far from his disciples, thrashing from nightmares in a tangle of scratchy blankets as the demons pointed and laughed. They made bets on what his dreams were ma de of, and in the morning, Wukong would ask, only for the Master to snap at him and threaten to use that palm. But the monkey had bad dreams too, so it was with a sadistic vindication that he watched the monk bristle.

He dreamt of the Buddha’s Sodding Palm, as hot against fur as Tathagata’s own. He dreamt of Five Finger Mountain and its curling lashes, of an everlasting punishment in isolation.

The Master must have dreamt of Five Finger Mountain and its demon too. He must have screamed in his nightmares as he watched that woman die, again and again, as he lay powerless, weak, still.

And in answer to the Master’s worries, all Buddha had done was order him on. Let go, their journey seemed to say, Let go of her. But Xuanzang could not let go. The pain was evident in his eyes, in the gait of his walk, in his pitiful attempts to meditate.

“Why does he bother?” Wujing asked.

“He’s stupid, that’s why,” Bajie said.

Wukong had been inclined to agree, but instead, he said, “No, Baldy’s a strange one.”

Then Wujing and Wuneng had tried to smother the monk in his sleep. This alone had angered the monkey beyond belief, that they would dare go behind his back, that they would dare touch the target that was rightfully his. So he whipped out the cudgel and beat them both black and blue until blood gushed high. Xuanzang awoke screaming, and the night ended with the Master whipping him red and raw as the other disciples looked on in schadenfreude.

It became a game for Wukong, then. He’d seen how far he could push the Master before a beating would occur, and he soon discovered the bar was not particularly far. The Tang priest stirred less at night when he used the whip, as if its use alone kept his nightmares at bay. But it was just a game to the monkey, a reaction he pulled from the monk out of boredom- that was what Wukong told himself. Because he could care less how well Xuanzang slept. This, he also told himself. And this, he told the other two.

And even so, he bore the scars without complaint.

Wukong shivered, violently shuddering as Ao Lie fought to keep him still. The prince kept his hold tight, but found himself limited by the risk of reopening the demon’s wounds should he increase his weight even by a fraction. The alternative was leaving Wukong be and letting him pop every stitch. He looked to Xuanzang for help and said, “Venerable elder- I can’t hold him!”

By the dragon’s side, Xuanzang could feel the heat rolling off Wukong’s body, the throes of demonic fever practically burning through skin. He stretched a hand and brushed the monkey’s forehead, yelping at the sensation in his stung fingers. This was no human fever and he highly doubted any amount of cold water would be able to cool it down.

“If you can’t do it, then don’t!” Wujing said.

Bajie: “Master, allow me!”

“Nobody asked you two!” Ao Lie shouted.

Xuanzang turned his gaze on the two demons sitting behind him, each holding a wooden bucket filled to the brim with water. When the fever first came to light, he’d thought of letting Wujing hold Wukong down, but knowing the fish’s temper, coupled with Ao Lie’s insistence to stay by the monkey’s side, he decided against it. Such a combination would result in one wrong move leading to Wukong’s death, and that would render their attempts to keep him alive all for naught.

“Xiao Bailong,” the monk said, “you can rest. I’ll do it.”


“I’ll do it.”

The Tang priest allowed no room for argument. He moved himself behind Wukong as Ao Lie reluctantly released him from the front. Xuanzang curled on his side and pulled Wukong into his embrace, arms tightening around those continuous chills as he pressed his own chin over the demon’s head. He felt as if he was holding a ball of fire, not unlike Honghaier’s own. And against the sudden sweat breaking from his skin, Xuanzang held on, muscles clenched as he grappled against that fierce thrashing.

On the other side of the campfire, Ao Lie and the disciples watched, awaiting the monk’s next order. It never came. Xuanzang kept his arms circled around the monkey far longer than Ao Lie managed, and this did not go unnoticed by the silent disciples.

“Baldy’s really outdid himself,” Bajie muttered, “Bit too late for him to get cozy with the Boss now, isn’t it?”

“When it comes to the Boss, Master’s always a step too late,” Wujing replied, gaze on Xuanzang’s steadfast shape, “but it doesn’t matter to him now. Eldest brother’s wounds are infected- he’s dying and Master knows.”

“Shut your ugly mouths,” Ao Lie said, “big brother’s not going to die.”

The dragon didn’t wait for their retort. With a flap of his robes, he stood and crossed over to the other side of their camp, plopping himself down by Xuanzang and the first disciple.

“So we’re picking sides now, is that it?” Bajie mused.

Xuanzang’s hold remained solid as he kept the monkey in place, body against body and limb over limb, rigid to the point that Wukong had no room to inch out. It was a familiar sight, but this time, the monk was not holding Duan. This time, he was awake, and he knew full well who was in his grip.

Wujing: “Sides, my ass.”

The Tang priest liked to spend hours on end sitting under the moon as he stared into space. The disciples knew who he thought of, and they knew how pointless a venture it was. She was dead and she would not come back.

“So it’s alright for him to ogle Chang’er, but I can’t?” Bajie said, the demons eyeing their Master from a distance.

Wukong: “Idiot, he’s not looking at Chang’er.”

“Then who-?”

Wujing: “Miss Duan.”

That woman’s name was Duan. Wukong admitted that if not for Wujing, he would have never have given her name a second thought. He knew her as Baldy’s woman, and that was that. She was pretty as far as humans went, braver than most, he supposed, and if nothing else, her love for him had been true. The sentimentality left a sour taste in his mouth.

But what Wukong remembered most about Duan was not those seconds before her death. It was the lithe movement of her body as she danced under moonlight. She was good at it, beautiful, strong, filled with heart. Back then, he’d remember thinking, How could that monk not fall for her?

Then as Xuanzang’s nightmares gave way to pleasant dreams, a new pattern took hold, much to Bajie’s amusement. It didn’t seem to matter how far the monkey slept from the Tang priest- someway, somehow, the monk found his way behind Wukong and held him as he never held her. It happened with little frequency but it disturbed him each time all the same.

And once, as the Master held him with that disgusting grip, Wukong wondered if a good fantasy would make him stop. He shifted, then, shrinking and twisting until his body gave way to curves and breasts, long hair trailing over shoulders, and bow lips where his scowl once lay. Because when all was said, he remembered exactly what Duan looked like. And this was her mirror image.

Xuanzang opened his eyes, half asleep and weary. He smiled.

“You’re here,” he whispered.

“I am,” Wukong said, her voice mimicked to a perfect pitch.

“This is a nice dream, isn’t it?”

He put a thin finger against the monk’s mouth, shook that pretty head, and said, “No, this is real. You snore, you know that?”

Xuanzang’s eyes glistened in the moonlight, as if willing himself to believe Duan was truly there and too tired to doubt. “You don’t like it?”

“I like everything about you.”

“I like everything about you too.”

He moved in for a kiss, and in a panic, Wukong pushed his face away, near squishing Xuanzang’s lips in the process. Wincing, the Tang priest chuckled and said, “You don’t want to? Ah, that’s fine. Let’s just stay together.”

He reached down and tangled his fingers with Wukong’s own, that look of disbelief still in his sleepy eyes, as if it registered for him that Duan was flesh and blood and long dead all the same. “Like this, alright? Let’s stay like this forever.”

“All right.”

Not long after, slumber took hold of Xuanzang once more and Wukong cast away Duan’s shape, finger still clutched in the priest’s own. Kill him now, a voice seemed to say. And gazing from the corner of his eye, he realized that voice belonged to Bajie. But the monkey didn’t do anything.

He lay facing Xuanzang for the rest of the night, wondering what it was about this man that Duan found worth dying for. And in the morning, the Tang priest would awake and find a rock clutched in his hand.

Wukong’s fever was far from gone, but it pleased Xuanzang enough to know that it had broken at the very least. Again, the monk rubbed the bruises left on his chest by Wukong’s wriggling, grabbed the wet rag Ao Lie had left, and dipped it in a bucketful of water. He squeezed it dry and dabbed at the monkey’s face, still warm and tight with pain. Xuanzang dunked the rag again, wrung the water out, and let it rest against his disciple’s head.

The monkey still shook every now and then, but his body stayed in place as it soaked his covers with sweat, dampening the bandages below. Xuanzang wondered how much time had indeed passed, for it seemed to pause with no dawn in sight. Across the fire, his two disciples slept, back to back, having dozed off as they waited for the Master’s next order.

Ao Lie returned then, Xuanzang’s canteen in hand. He sat by the Tang priest and said, “Venerable elder, here.”

Wordless, Xuanzang took it, shifted to cradle Wukong’s head, and tipped the top into Wukong’s mouth, carefully gauging the trickle of water into the monkey’s throat. The task finished, Xuanzang set the canteen aside, lowered Wukong once more, and returned to cooling the rag on his head.

Ao Lie watched him work, gaze never leaving the first disciple, and assured that the other two were fast asleep, he dared to ask: “Who’s Duan?”

The Tang priest froze, hands stiffening as he lifted his eyes to meet the dragon’s own.

“You ate her, remember?”

Ao Lie shook his head, the pig’s words again surfacing to the front of his mind and refusing to leave. He killed Duan too . With everything in such a state, he felt it best to ask and be over with it. He knew for certain how Wukong felt for the Tang priest- Wukong had told him himself and then, there had been no cause for doubt. But he’d seen the vitriol in Xuanzang’s blows when Wukong returned with the Ginsengfruit Tree, and Ao Lie found himself wondering if perhaps the monk would rather big brother die. And yet, the opposite seemed to hold true.

And so, he said, “Not the horse. Is Duan why you hate big brother so much?”

Xuanzang seemed to stop breathing. Then, slowly, he did. The monk sighed, beckoned Ao Lie closer, and said, “No, I don’t hate your eldest brother.”

He placed the rag back on Wukong’s head. “Not anymore.” He hadn’t hated the monkey in a long time, this much he knew.

“Miss Duan was a woman very dear to me.”

“Then why did you name a horse after her?”

“Xiao Bailong, you swallowed that horse. Please stop mentioning it. And there are things you’re too young to understand.”

“I’m three hundred.”

Amused, Xuanzang smiled and looked into the distance, curls of fire smoke rising into the pitch sky. Xiao San* was the last person he shared Duan’s story with, but it hadn’t been Duan she’d been interested in- it had been the impossible task of taking Duan’s place. Amitabha, he thought to himself. But the dragon wanted to know Duan, and this, Xuanzang was willing to answer.

“She was an exorcist,” he continued, “much more skilled than me. And one way or another, for some strange reason, she fell in love with me. She thought I was kind, and even though I’m very low key about my virtues, Xiao Bailong, I’m still not sure if I am kind.”

Ao Lie had yet to forget Wukong’s words from Flower Fruit Mountain, and again, he found himself wondering just what was so great about the Tang priest. The man was a mess of contradictions, as arrogant as he was humble, as cruel as he was kind, the exact opposite of what he’d expect from an enlightened monk. So he listened on.

“At first, I thought she wasn’t right in the head. She did a lot of things I’m not sure how to describe. I used to be very insulted.”

“I don’t want to know what she did.”

Xuanzang chuckled. “I’ll spare you, then.”

He flicked his gaze towards Wujing and Bajie. “We met over subduing Wujing- he was just a river demon then. Then came Bajie… an unforgettable experience. Duan and I, we fought death together, fought each other, went through all of this. She was tougher than anyone I knew, but- she had a big heart, so big I didn’t know what to do.”

Xuanzang looked to Wukong again, voice straining as he came to the tale’s end. “Then we met Wukong… and everything was fine at first. The three of us captured Bajie together and parted ways, or should have. I made Duan leave, and Wukong- I was dumb enough to believe five hundred years was all it took to redeem him.”

“You let big brother out?”

“I freed Wukong from Five Finger Mountain, but he was a demon like the rest, and he resisted us to the end- he killed Duan’s companions and tried to kill me.”

He rubbed his scalp. “Pulled all my hair clean off- don’t laugh- and it’s yet to grow back. And you know what the craziest part was? Duan came back for me. I pushed her away so many times and she still came back- she had every right to walk away.”

He killed Duan too . Ao Lie knew how the story would end now, had suspected from the start.

“I loved Miss Duan,” Xuanzang said, clutching his chest, “and I know none of you can understand. I don’t fault you, or Wujing, or Bajie, or even Wukong. But I loved her, I loved her so much.”

“She’s dead,” Ao Lie said, a tint of understanding in his voice.

“And I couldn’t do a thing. I watched Wukong kill her and I couldn’t do a thing. She died for me and I let her. But it was through losing her that I understood what Lord Buddha wanted from me- and the Sodding Palm came to be.”

Xuanzang gestured at his three disciples, a pained smile in his eyes. “And here’s all that remains now, the four of us and the road to the western paradise.”

Chin in his palm and elbow over knee, the prince stated, matter-of-factly, “I don’t understand.”

Xuanzang raised a brow. “Go on.”

“Any of it. Venerable elder, my father has five wives- you’re right when you say I wouldn’t understand the love between you and Miss Duan. I don’t. But hatred, I have no problem with. How can you not hate Lord Tathagata for these trials? How can you not hate big brother for what he did? How can you not leave him to die right now?”

Xuanzang blinked, as if pondering these questions for the very first time, and said, “I don’t dwell on them… the Buddhist way is what I chose- nobody forced me but myself. And I don’t blame your big brother for what he is. Bajie and Wujing would have committed the same crime if they had the chance. What’s done is done. I accepted them as my disciples and I believe I can make them better- that’s all there is to it.”


“You don’t like my answer?”

Ao Lie kept the shock from twisting over his face- that answer had been far too simple and it truly disturbed him to know the Tang priest would stick to every word. For all his scheming, all his wisdom, the monk was every bit as naive and forward as the rest believed. Or perhaps Xuanzang did know how stupid his reasoning was, perhaps he knew and didn’t care because this was who he was, the man Duan had died for, that Sun Wukong would have died for.

And for the first time, Ao Lie felt he might have understood Tang Sanzang.

“Nevermind,” the dragon said.

“Then have I satisfied your curiosity?”

“Yes, venerable elder.”

“Good.” Xuanzang cast him one more smile before resuming his watch over the first disciple.

“Venerable elder?”


“Big brother thinks you’re kind too.”

“Here,” Xuanzang said, handing him a folded cassock, far too large and thick to wear as a sash, “I can’t have you running around in those rags. Wear this if you’re cold.”

Wukong rolled his eyes. “I can’t catch chills. Who do you think I am, you?”

“You don’t have to keep it if you don’t want to. Give it back, then-”

“Fuck you. It’s mine now.”

Xuanzang shook his head in exasperation and turned to the side, sucking at his pricked fingers, having spent the good portion of the morning patching up that dusty cassock. Wukong rolled it out to its full size, the cloth coarse and blue and patched with red.

“How kind of you, Master!” Bajie said, coming up to peek over Wukong’s shoulder, “what beautiful handiwork this is, isn’t that right boss?”

Wujing: “Master, is this favoritism!?”

Wukong: “Just shut up, both of you!”

“Wujing, you won’t fit in my clothes and Bajie, I know you detest hand-me-downs. Master always strives to treat you fairly,” Xuanzang said, more than a little too cocky.

Wujing scoffed at the answer while Bajie was quick to agree, and clutching the cassock, Wukong couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. He dismissed it as soon as it came- why would the stupid monk favor him of all people anyway?

But Xuanzang had sewn a hood onto it. And for all intents and purposes, that cassock had effectively become a cloak.

The monk was particularly good to the three of them that morning. He collected water, cooked, packed, cleaned instead of tasking each of them. He did nothing to chide their roguish tongues and looked at their devilish actions with a gentle smile. He was so kind and mild, and uncharacteristically him, that if not for those fiery eyes, Wukong would have assumed a demon had murdered and taken the Tang priest’s place.

Then, shortly after lunch, the Master cast his beads aside and went for a stroll, leaving no word behind as he disappeared into the woods. The demons lazed about in his absence, cursed him behind his back, and very well did nothing until a drizzle forced them to pitch a tent. Wukong slipped into the old-new cloak.

“Baldy’s going to fall ill in this rain,” Bajie said hopefully, arms crossed behind his head.

“Or slip and die,” Wujing said, before adding, “I hope.”

“Well, boss, what do you think will happen to Baldy?”

“Don’t know,” Wukong said, “don’t care.”

But the rain showed no signs of lightening or deepening, and should the Tang priest die, Wukong doubted Tathagata would forgive them so easily. He swung the rod-now-stick across his shoulders and left their tent, unwilling to spare another second. The monk’s footprints were light but easy enough to track, and so, Wukong wandered over broken twigs and leaves, yellow and red and green, until he followed a sloping path onto a mossy cliffside. If he cared for such things, he would have found it rather picturesque: bird nests atop curved trees, plum and cherry blossoms tangled by twos, pink and purple and red all about.

It was a dent in the cliff edge that caught his eye, small enough to be manmade, rough enough to be fresh, and large enough to be done by foot. The monkey dropped to all fours and stared down, gaze falling over the edge and into an outgrowth of earth below, a broken cave lying under. The scent of blood was unmistakeable.

He couldn’t breathe.

For a split second, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven lost all control.

He jumped.

Wukong landed, rolled to his feet, and rushed into that cave, knocking aside every branch and stone in his way. He stopped when he saw the monk’s familiar shape, Xuanzang sprawled against the rocky wall as his chest rose and fell. In a daze, the Tang priest looked up and mumbled, “Monkey?”

Xuanzang’s head glistened with blood, layered with red from eye past nose. Wukong bent and looked him over, the monk holding what appeared to be a broken finger and his leg dangling uselessly at his side. Wukong touched his ankle and Xuanzang hissed.

Wukong: “It’s twisted.”

“I knew that.”

The monkey pieced two and two together. Xuanzang must have slipped from the spot up top and tumbled his way into the cave- that explained his bad ankle. It did not explain the red stains on the wall. And for the second time, a bout of unexplained horror overtook the Great Sage.

“Your head was fine,” Wukong whispered.


“You were hitting it against the wall here.”


“You were trying to die.”

Xuanzang said nothing, sinking back into the shadows, as if Wukong’s realization was nothing, as if what he did was nothing. He didn’t slip. He jumped.

Wukong grasped the front of his robes and yanked him up, Xuanzang crying out with pain. The monkey tossed him in front and roared, “You want to die so badly, fine! I’ll kill you right now!”

He lifted the cudgel, prepared to swing down, and stopped midway. Xuanzang shook before him, rocking himself back and forth as the tears fell freely.

“What, now you don’t want to die!?”

“No, I’m happy. Do it, monkey. She’s waiting. And I can’t- I can’t wait anymore.”

He knew who she was: Duan. And of its own will, Wukong’s mind flashed to the night before, when he took her form and let the monk’s fantasies take root in the flesh He had wanted to stay with her forever, had a moment with her back, and decided that he wanted to be with her again. An unfamiliar unease sank in- guilt.

“Just do it, you coward! I deserve it- it should have been me, not her! You know this!”

But had he even had the chance to mourn her? Wukong steadied the cudgel, imagined the monk’s brains spilling out- Xuanzang went west immediately- exactly as he wanted - with Duan’s killer at his side- and Tathagata be damned- faced nothing but pain and failure- he’d never have to put up with the monk again- and must have wondered if it’d all been for nothing- but he did nothing.

Wukong set the staff down, ripped off his scarf and wound it about Xuanzang’s head, the priest fighting to shove him away. But he was unyielding.

“You talk too much, Baldy,” he growled, watching the cloth soak blood, “and I don’t understand a single word. I killed Duan, not you- why’d you go and do this, then? Just hit me!”

He grabbed Xuanzang’s hand, the left and its broken index finger, and smacked it against his own cheek. Again and again. “Hit me, damn you! Hit! Me! What kind of holy man are you!? You think Buddha’s going to let this slide, think you can get away abandoning us like this? Think I’m going to go west for you!? Fuck! Of course I’m not! Fuck you!”

Xuanzang sobbed, whether from physical pain or more, Wukong couldn’t tell, but eventually the monk relented, burying himself against the monkey’s shoulder with a muffled shout of, “Let me go, bad monkey! I’ll make you regret this treatment!”

“Go ahead!”

“Fine! Get me out of here already!”

After a period of what felt like days, master and disciple began their hike up and down the cliff, Xuanzang on Wukong’s back, arms wrapped around the monkey’s neck, neither willing to look at the stains on the wall. They said nothing on the way down and said nothing still when they returned to camp, the rain showering over as Wukong dressed the Master’s wounds. He brought Xuanzang his food and tended the fire for the night, ignoring the underlings’ inquiries all the while.

He sat by Xuanzang as the monk slept, silencing Bajie and Wujing with glares every so often. Later, Bajie would ask if it was pity that drove him on, for it was a pitiful sight that priest made that night. Wujing would ask if it was spite. But Wukong knew it was neither.

Xuanzang: “Stinking monkey.”

Wukong: “Damn Baldy.”

The monk went back to sleep and save his ailments, all would go back to normal in the dawn. But it wouldn’t, this Wukong knew. Something changed for him that night, and perhaps it had changed already and taken him all this time to finally see. He did not hate Chen Xuanzang. For some reason even he couldn’t fathom, he admired his every step west, admired this man for what he was, resented him for what he was, and accepted him all the same. And it was unbearable to know the Tang priest didn’t see himself in such a light, because as far was Wukong was concerned, he very well should.

Because it wasn’t the Buddha’s Sodding Palm that made his Master the great Xuanzang, it was the great Xuanzang that made the Buddha’s Sodding Palm.

He wanted to protect this man and take him west- it had nothing to do with Buddha’s words or the Sodding Palm. This, Wukong finally admitted. And so long as he breathed, no harm would dare fall on the Tang priest.

Xuanzang replaced the cloth on Wukong’s head, its predecessor too far soaked with sweat and blood. The monkey was still fast asleep and showed no signs of waking any time soon. He pulled the blankets down to the first disciple’s waist, checking to see if the bandages still held. To his relief, they stayed in-tact and free of blood. And eyeing the dressings and scars that bound Wukong’s skin, his mind looped back to the day Ao Lie first came.

The monkey had been wounded that day and Xuanzang paid no mind. And now he wondered if his disciple would be this bad off if he had showed more concern, if perhaps he hadn’t been so quick to take Wukong for granted.

“He’ll be fine, right?” Ao Lie asked, across from where the monk sat.

“I don’t know.”

The truth was he honestly did not know. He’d never seen Wukong take this much damage, let alone this amount of injury.

“But I think so.”

But Xuanzang was not about to let his disciple die, even if Wukong burst every stitch, even if his fever came back threefold, Xuanzang would tend him again and again. He’d let Wukong down too many times to count, but not this time. This time, he would stay by the monkey’s side.

“Whenever any of us fell ill at home,” the prince said, “father would never come. Always the servants.”

“I’m sure your father means well.”

“No, he thinks the task beneath him. This is how he was raised, how we were raised. But venerable elder, I think it makes a difference- I think we would have recovered faster if we knew he cared.”

And Ao Lie was sure the monk cared for Wukong. The Tang priest would not have stayed awake this long otherwise. But he could say the same for himself- he’d stayed unmoving all this time, listening to those demons snoring, all for that monkey’s sake. It was a strange realization, not unlike the one he had back in Mount Huaguo- that Prince Ao Lie would stay up to wait on a demon. And it didn’t bother him at all.

“It’s too late for Wukong to notice my efforts,” Xuanzang said, bemused, “but I should hope it doesn’t surprise him.”

He placed a hand on the monkey’s head and pushed a tangle of hair back. “The Immortal Zhenyuan shouldn’t have hurt him this badly. At least half his blows, he took for the rest of us. And do you know why, Xiao Bailong?”

“His ego?”

Xuanzang laughed. “Yes. And also because, believe it or not, your big brother is actually very selfless.”

He pulled up Wukong’s covers again. “But he won’t say so because he’s low-key.”

“Big brother’s odd.”

“That he is. So Xiao Bailong, remember this.”

Ao Lie watched Xuanzang dip the cloth in water once more and rest his hand atop the monkey’s forehead.

“Big brother thinks he can protect us all,” Xuanzang said, fingers ruffling that tousle of wild hair, “but sometimes, we have to protect big brother.”

Ao Lie let those words run over. He nodded, deciding any mortal worthy of the Great Sage’s devotion was worthy of his. “I will-”

Then he dropped to his knees, kowtowed before the Tang priest, and said, “ Master .”

Xuanzang blinked in surprise as the dragon knelt before him. Ao Lie had returned and this time, he vowed to stay on the western path. Whatever it was that swayed him at long last, Xuanzang did not know, but he accepted this choice as the prince’s own. And so, he smiled in response.

Xuanzang: “Welcome back, Xiao Bailong, prince Ao Lie.”

Glancing at the exchange with hooded eyes, Bajie whispered with barely moving lips, “Well, well, Boss is still alive and the brat’s come back.”

As the fire between their camp crackled on, Wujing yawned and said, “I can handle the brat.”

“And what about me-?”

“I don’t care.”


While they bickered, Xuanzang turned his gaze to the string of hazy smoke rising from that warm fire, Ao Lie following suit and Wukong lying still between them, the sky sliding into dawn overhead.

And before he left the Mountain of Flower and Fruit, Ao Lie turned to Puti and asked, “What will you do now, Master?”

“I’ll have to go back to Three-Star Cave and let everyone know I’m alive. Whatever happens next, I think I can handle.”

“Are you sure?”

Puti stroked his beard and smiled gently. “I’ll have to be.”

Ao Lie looked to the sky, Wukong having long since sailed away, and said, “I’m worried about big brother…”

“I know. Follow him if you wish.”

Then the dragon looked down, feet shifting nervously. He bit his lip. “Master, I’m not sure if I’ll come back…”

Puti patted his head. “Not sure? That true, Ao Lie?”

The prince said nothing and the Master looked into the distance. “So I guess that’s another disciple I’m losing to the Tang monk… Tang Sanzang, he’s really something.”

Ao Lie dipped down and kowtowed. “Ao Lie thanks you, Master, for everything and should you ever need me, I shall come.”

“Cut the formalities and come here.”

They shared a final embrace before the prince slid into a snaking body of white scales streaking over sky. From the remains of Flower Fruit Mountain, Puti stood and bid the dragon farewell as he took off after Wukong’s trail, and there, he knew his disciples would never return.

Chapter Text

The leaves sang in the rise of dawn, cooled by soft winds and tips dripping with morning dew. Sunlight dribbled in between cracks in the looming sky, dimmed by stretching clouds and the shade of high trees. Left hand powdering his masked visage, the second disciple admired the scene, right palm smoothing the wrinkles of his silk skirt. It was a poetic sight by all accounts and if not for the sour mood of his companions, he would have shared the poem swelling in his heart.

The third disciple stooped a good few steps away, burning what remained of their firewood as he tended the pots and pans. Gilled face blank, he looked to the pig and asked, “What do you want for breakfast?”

Bajie: “Since when did you have a menu?”

“Answer the damn question!”

“Keep it down,” Bajie hissed, “boss is still asleep.”

The fish glanced behind his shoulder, met with the sight of their Master’s backside a wagon’s length away, Tang Xuanzang slouched in meditation and bundled in that dust-colored cassock. And in the monk’s shadow, the first disciple lay, up to his chin in covers and as comatose as he’d been the night before. The dragon prince was curled beside him, snoring lightly as a small trail of drool dribbled from the corner of his mouth.

Wujing turned back and threw a blue hand around the nearest handle. “Congee or soup, make your choice.”

“I don’t know, soup?”

“I’m making congee.”

“Then why’d you ask!?”

“Why can’t I ask!?”

Bajie dismissed the argument with a snide wave of his hand. He adjusted his hat, gaze sliding towards the eldest disciple yet again, and said, “Don’t you find it strange? The boss, he’s usually so strong. Nothing touches him, and now… look at him- ill, injured, more helpless than a tadpole. Anything can kill him now. Even you.”

Then, silent, he pointed at himself and said with vague surprise, “Even me… I could walk up there right now and he couldn’t do a thing.”

Wujing: “No shit.”

The third disciple returned to his cooking, stirring rice and water as Bajie hovered beside him. Wujing had no desire to hear whatever else Bajie had to say, especially if it was nothing more than stating the obvious. He estimated a good hour before the fresh congee would be edible, and until then, his eyes remained glued to the task at hand. His concentration was disrupted when a warm hand clapped his back. Expecting Bajie, he turned and met the tired eyes of their Master, framed with evident dark bags.

“Good morning,” Xuanzang said, an empty pail in his hands.

“Congee’s not ready yet,” Wujing replied.

Xuanzang smiled, removed his hand, and walked on. “I know. Keep at it.”

“Master!” Bajie said, coming up to rub the priest’s shoulders, “how tired you must be. If only there was something we could do to soothe your worries!”

Xuanzang: “Actually there is something you can do for me.”

Ignoring Wujing’s laughter, the pig said, “Come again?”

“Since we’re at the foot of Longevity Mountain, you can help Master out by looking for danshen roots. I think they can help with the infection in your eldest brother’s wounds.”

“Red sage? Surely big brother won’t need to resort to mortal medicine.”

Wuneng .”


“Be quiet and go fetch those herbs. I’m being very patient with you right now.”

“Of course, Master! Right away!”

And with a forced laugh, the second disciple bowed and sprinted off, robes trailing as he disappeared into the nearest thicket of trees. Xuanzang watched him go with a sigh, rubbing a hand over his sore head, no doubt aching from a combination of Zhenyuanzhi’s blast and bitter insomnia. He hadn’t slept a wink the night before and he felt as if he was walking on numb clouds. But he wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyway, not with that monkey in such a perilous condition.

Legs stiff from sitting, he opted to go for a rejuvenating walk, though Xuanzang was sure all he’d end up doing was washing his face. The prospect was tempting regardless. He eyed the bucket, lighter than he remembered, and said, “I’m going to gather some water for the day. Wujing, which way to the stream?”

“Straight ahead,” the fish said, eyes refusing to leave the boiling pot, “Go left at the clearing. Congee’s not ready yet.”

You already said that. But the Tang priest decided against voicing that thought. He made to move on when he was stopped by the dragon- no, the fourth disciple’s shout.

“Master!” the prince called, stumbling after the monk on uneven feet, sleeves dabbing at the corners of his mouth.

Ao Lie blinked the sleep from his eyes, holding back a yawn as he ran to the Master’s side. “Wait- wait for me. Where are you going?”

“To the stream. Xiao Bailong, why don’t you come along and freshen up?” Xuanzang looked him up and down, the disheveled prince in sore need of a morning cleanup.

Without argument, Ao Lie nodded and the pair went on their way, Xuanzang tilting his head to say, “Wujing, take care of your big brother!”

“Congee’s not ready,” was the grunted reply, and Xuanzang assumed that was Wujing’s way of saying “fine.”

Ao Lie looked at his reflection with disgust, unsure when or how he woke up in such a state. Sleeping in the wild, it’s making me a vagabond like them . He knelt on the bank, grass tickling knees, and scooped a handful of stream into open palms. He splashed it over his face, the water cold and fresh against stiff skin, though it lacked the salty texture of his homeland.

He drank heartily before drying himself with the shoulder of his sleeve. The prince plucked the pins from his hair, held them with his teeth, and combed the fair locks back with his hands. Even if he vowed to stay with that lot, he’d sooner die than let himself look half as poor as the Tang priest’s pilgrims.

Beside his disciple, Xuanzang splashed water unto his eyes for the fifth or so time, lashes dripping wet as he finally felt himself wake up. He rubbed an arm over his eyes and caught sight of the brown stains on his wrist. His first instinct was mud before he remembered the events of the night before. It was blood.

Wukong’s blood.

Xuanzang stuck his hands into the stream and scrubbed, furiously rubbing skin against skin until his wrists went pink. The panic came back, that frozen fear and worry and all that followed with it. He refused to think on it. The first disciple was alive and that was all he needed- wanted- to know.

He inspected his hands to make sure they were properly cleaned and tried to shake them dry. He would collect the water, speak to Ao Lie, and wait for Wukong to wake up because that monkey had to wake up at some point. Then all would be as it was before. This, he was sure of, or so he hoped.

“Master,” Ao Lie said curiously, hair pinned back in place, “is it just me or is the sun getting… closer?”

“Say what?”

Xuanzang looked up, both hands shading his eyes as he squinted in the direction of an incoming light. Its beams stretched across the path of the sun and furled into a net of gold along the bobbing stream. And as the light sprinkled on, Xuanzang realized it was indeed aiming for the earth, flashing so bright he was convinced it’d swallow them both if they didn’t move.

“Xiao Bailong, let’s go!”

The monk turned, grabbing Ao Lie’s wrist as he prepared to dash for their lives. He ran, legs churning as fast as they would allow but he seemed to gain no distance. Before he could voice his worry, Ao Lie said, “Master, you’re not moving.”

“Yes I am- huh !?”

He looked down. He was indeed running but the ground stayed in place. Xuanzang looked behind his shoulder, only to see the mass of soft gold that enveloped them both and kept them in place. And gaping, the Tang priest had no choice but to stop his run and face the source of their newfound trouble.

Slowly, the light receded, pulling in until it formed the shape of a shimmering man, gold solidifying into a silk sash at his side and a long sword tucked between. As the aurora cleared, Ao Lie could make out the features of a handsome youth, slim and refined in face. Glowing, the newcomer approached them, not a strand out of place in his top knot and fine linen shoes gliding over the vapor along that stream.

“Who are you, venerable sir?” Xuanzang asked in awe.

Wujing: “Congee’s ready!”

Startled, Xuanzang turned in time to see the third disciple arrive, no doubt to the irritation of that heavenly young man.

“Wujing, we’re in the middle of a situ-,” Xuanzang tried to explain, but the fish cut him off by saying, “Congee’s ready. Master, get back here before it gets cold!”

“Who cares about your congee,” Ao Lie said, “it’s not that great anyway!”

“Oh! Like you’ve tried it, brat!?”

“I don’t have to try it to know it’s terrible!”

“You-” And before he could finish that insult, Wujing noticed the golden aurora in front of them and the scowl inching along the celestial’s face. Eyes bulging, the fish stepped back and pointed in his direction.

“You! You’re,” he said in shock, “Nezha’s brother!”

That was the wrong thing to say. Ao Lie stiffened, nervously watching the newcomer step forward, an obvious arch in his brow and that scowl now a full-on frown. He placed a hand on the hilt of his sword, glowered at Wujing, and flicked his fiery gaze on Xuanzang.

“Master Sanzang,” he said, “this one is Li Muzha, second son of Pagoda King Li and disciple to the Bodhisattva, Guanyin of the Southern Sea.”

Then he added, with no small trace of bitterness, “Third prince Nezha’s second eldest brother… as your knowledgeable disciple put it, though I’d prefer if you didn’t compare me to him .”

Xuanzang instantly kowtowed, feeling extremely unlucky, and said, “Your grace, please forgive my third disciple. He has an uncouth mouth and I’ll be sure to discipline him properly.”

And seeing the Master on his knees, Ao Lie dropped down and kowtowed too, comforted by the thought that should Li Muzha want to slaughter anyone, Wujing would be the first to die.

“General Juanlian was never good with words,” Muzha said with a forced chuckle, “but no matter. Tang Sanzang, I approach you today as both an emissary of the Bodhisattva and my father’s son.”

Xuanzang lifted his head and nervously asked, “Y- yes?”

“Your disciples, demon king Sun Wukong and the West Sea’s third heir, aided the escape of a criminal and that is no small crime in itself. The Bodhisattva issued a pardon for the deed, so for this, I’ll leave you be.”

Xuanzang: “Oh, that’s a great relief! Thank you, your grace!”

Muzha: “Please, don’t thank me yet, Master Sanzang.”

Li Jing’s second son put one foot forward and drew his sword, blade long and sharp in the light. “But that macaque demon did my father great injury and as his second heir, I cannot sit by. What kind of son would I be if I let this offense slide?”

Fears forgotten, Xuanzang jumped to his feet and said, “Wait, wait! I’m sure we can come to a better agreement. We’re all students of the Buddhist path and I know the Bodhisattva wouldn’t want this to end in a fight.”

“I’ll have my duel and be on my way. Sun Wukong broke my father’s arm and stole his pagoda, both of which are grave offenses to the name Li.”

“But,” Xuanzang said, struggling to find an excuse for his first disciple, “my student has immense power. I don’t doubt you can stand against him, but I fear he would cause you more inconvenience than he already has.”

At that, Muzha scoffed and reached into his sash with a free hand. He pulled out the tip of a broken spear point, coated with dry blood, and tossed it at Xuanzang’s feet. The Tang priest stared at the object, puzzlement on his face.

Muzha: “I appreciate your concern, but there’s no need. This is the tip of my father’s spear, covered in your eldest disciple’s blood. Father managed to do him injury and I trust the same in myself.”

“But big brother was already hurt when they fought!” Ao Lie said.

When all eyes turned to him, the dragon realized he had spoken his thought aloud. He pursed his lips and moved to hide behind Wujing, only to have the third disciple shove him back out.

“Do you doubt my father’s skill?” Muzha asked lowly.

Ao Lie looked to Xuanzang for help and as the Tang priest desperately searched for the right words to mend the conversation, an all too familiar voice answered Muzha’s query: “ And what if he does?

The celestial’s knuckles went white around his hilt, nostrils flaring as Xuanzang’s first disciple emerged from the woods across, twig between his teeth. Head rolling, Wukong cracked his neck and rubbed the popping joint, as-you-would cudgel placed across his cloaked shoulders, not a single rip or stain in his ragged clothes and not a bruise in sight. As far as Ao Lie could tell, the monkey was healed full-through, and a flood of relief washed over: Muzha was not going to kill them all today.

Muzha: “Sun Wukong! How dare you assault my father!?”

Eyes on his feet, Wukong tilted his head, dark hair rustling as he released an ugly chuckle. “Are you challenging me, boy? You couldn’t beat ol’ Sun five hundred years ago and you can’t do it now.”

“You wicked ape. Draw your weapon and let’s settle this now!” Muzha said, raising that blade into a fighting stance.

Slowly, Wukong let the staff slide into his hand and looked up, meeting Muzha’s eyes as that stick dangled by his mouth.

“Are you so sure about that?” he asked, “you really want a beating?”

“I’ll have your head and take back my father’s treasure,” Muzha said, teeth clenched.

“Ha! Kill me and you’ll never get that pagoda back.”

“Is that a threat?”

“No, it’s a fact. I’m feeling generous today, Li. So why don’t you leave us be, eh?”

Breath coming out in angry pants, Muzha lowered his weapon and asked, reluctant, “Where is it?”

“Where’s what?”

“Where’s the pagoda, you damned ape!?”

Wukong grinned, halfway between a grimace and smile. “Hey brat, where is it?”

Caught off guard, Ao Lie blinked and said, “Me? Oh! It’s between Kunlun and Huaguo, somewhere off the coast of the east.” Or so he assumed- he would only have to hope he hadn’t lied by accident.

“Hear that?” Wukong said, “a deal’s a deal and you’re not the type to break one, are you?”

Muzha sheathed the sword, swallowed back an insult, and lowered his clenched fists.

Wukong: “So why dont’cha’ fuck off and go get that pagoda?”

Shut up .”

Muzha turned to Xuanzang and bowed. “Master Sanzang, this one will be on his way. I’ll hold your disciples accountable for the location of my father’s pagoda and we can consider this matter settled for the time being.”

The Tang priest kowtowed in return and professed his run-on thanks as Muzha hopped towards the sky, disappearing in a shower of fading light. Leaning on his cudgel, Wukong watched the second heir leave, chewing that twig with thin patience. The pilgrims kept their eyes on the sky, waiting until Li Muzha had indeed gone. Then, a collective breath was released.

Ao Lie all but jumped to Wukong’s side, bursting with excitement. “Big brother! Are you alright!?”

“Boss, took you long enough!” Wujing said from the other direction, “you woke up in time for congee!”

Only Xuanzang kept silent, watching and waiting for the inevitable. Wukong took the twig out with two fingers and sighed, slumping in relief as he shook and shifted into pale robes and a made-up face. Zhu Bajie was left standing in his place, twig still in hand, and cudgel now the nine-toothed rake.

Bajie: “I was pretty cool, wasn’t I?”

Wujing: “The fuck!? It was you!?”

“Well, you’re welcome , fishead, thanks to me, Li Muzha’s off our back!”

“Nezha’s brother would have killed you if you really fought.”

“We didn’t fight, did we? And it all turned out fine. Thanks to me!”

Ignoring the senior disciples’ banter and disappointment falling over, Ao Lie tugged on Bajie’s sleeve and asked, “Then where’s big brother?”

“What do you think?” Bajie said, “still out cold. He should be happy I care so much for him.”

The pig pulled out the red sage root from his belt. Xuanzang stepped forward then, placed a hand on Bajie’s shoulder and Ao Lie’s, and said, “You did well, Wuneng. Come on now, let’s all walk back. The congee’s ready.”

Ao Lie: “Master, did you know this pig- second brother was faking?”

Xuanzang smiled. “I might have. But I didn’t say anything because I’m low key.”

While the monk brewed his herbs, the pilgrims did little throughout the day, hovering about the campsite and enjoying the cover of high trees. They would not continue west until the first disciple’s condition was stable in the Master’s eyes, and until then, the other three were in no rush to move on. Li Muzha never returned and they could only assume he had found the pagoda, however damaged, without complication. Rest did not come easy and for that, even the smallest boredom was cherished.

Xuanzang changed the monkey’s dressings in the afternoon, Wujing once more holding him up and Ao Lie lingering beside. Traces of fever remained but they were nothing compared to the nightmare from before. The bandages were moist with sweat and blood, but if Xuanzang had been disgusted, he was excellent at hiding it in the opinion of his remaining disciples.

The Tang priest applied salve to each wound, minding their careful stitches, and gently binding the damaged flesh with fresh bandages. The worst of the bleeding had been stemmed, but Xuanzang trusted his instinct when it said something was terribly wrong: Wukong should have healed long ago and those fresh injuries should have since been scars.

“Master,” Bajie reported, coming to join the others as he pointed at the monk’s pot, “your danshen’s ready!”

Xuanzang looked up as Wujing set the monkey back onto that pile of blankets on the ground.

Xuanzang: “If it’s cooled, then bring it over!”

“Right away, Master!”

Before Bajie could turn back around, Ao Lie darted past him and cried, “Master, I’ll do it!”

Silently scoffing, the second disciple watched Ao Lie gather the concoction and return, with no regard for his senior brothers. Is this boy trying to make me look bad? Bajie sat on a log and pulled out his fan, already knowing the answer.

The liquified roots likely smelled as bitter as they tasted, and Ao Lie was glad to be rid of them when Xuanzang took the bowl from his hands and knelt to tip the inside into Wukong’s mouth. Ao Lie wasn’t sure how effective a human remedy would be, but he was sure the Tang priest was simply desperate to make big brother well.

“So what are you going to do about his clothes?” Wujing asked suddenly.

Ao Lie: “What kind of stupid ques-”

Xuanzang: “Xiao Bailong, wait. It’s a good question. Wukong’s robes were… ruined. We’re of similar height. I’ll find something of mine for him later.”

You’d still look like beggars anyway , Bajie thought as he nodded in agreement with the monk.

“If he doesn’t wake up today, what do we do?” Ao Lie said.

Wujing: “That’s a stupid question.”

Xuanzang: “No, Wujing, that’s a good question too. We can’t sit by and wait forever. We’ll just… put Wukong in the wagon and go on. I’m sure he’ll understand.”

The fish looked to his eldest brother and said flatly, “If he doesn’t wake up, I’ll kill him.”

Bajie: “You best mind your words. Boss won’t be happy to know what vile things you’ve said.”

Wujing: “Ha! You’re one to talk.”

While the second and third disciples bickered on, Xuanzang turned to Ao Lie and said, “Xiao Bailong, watch your brothers. All of them . I have a matter to attend to.”

“What matter?”

“One of the mind and heart. It’s too advanced for any of you to understand.”

And with that, the Tang priest cast Wukong a final glance before rising and walking into the forest, Wujing’s cry of, “ Now where are you going!?” ringing behind him.

The sky was the color of blood when Xuanzang finished his climb up the mountain’s side. He placed both hands on the rocky ground, aligned his knees, and kowtowed, repeating each gesture as he prayed: “Lord Buddha, your humble disciple, Chen Xuanzang, comes to you for help again. I know my eldest pupil is brash, violent, and yes, even a murderer, but as you yourself have said, he’s not hopeless. That ape’s been wounded terribly and I fear the worst of his condition. If you can, please let me know what ails his healing.”

With no answer save the chirping of cicadas, Xuanzang repeated his prayer, again and again until his head bruised and scraped. Deciding Tathagata wanted him to wait, Xuanzang crossed his legs and shut his eyes in meditation, mind concentrated on one thing only: his answer.

“Tang monk?”

Eyes snapping open, Xuanzang whirled around and nearly fell back when his nose touched another’s. Below a high hat, an old man loomed over him, looking down with curiosity. He was finely garbed, with genteel features and a snowy beard glinting under the falling sun.

“Did I startle you?” the man said, not unkind.

“Did- did Lord Buddha send you? Who are you, good sir?”

“Oh!” the stranger said, understanding dawning, “no, I merely overheard your speech and was so touched I took it upon myself to answer. I hope you won’t mind, Tang monk.”

This man wasn’t sent by Tathagata? Xuanzang collected himself and clapped his hands together in a bow. Whoever the gentleman was, he couldn’t have been human- this much, the Tang priest was sure.

“And I do apologize for the wait,” the man continued, “I had to run to my companions and ask for a second opinion.”

Companions? There was no one for miles on end save Moonfield Village and Wuzhuang Temple. Xuanzang knew he couldn’t have gone to Moonfield and if not Wuzhuang, then only one being would have companions of equal footing to consult. His eyes widened. First Li Muzha, now-

“Tudigong?” Xuanzang gasped.

“Of Longevity Mountain, at your service.”

Xuanzang kowtowed and gave the earth deity his thanks, dumbfounded by this burst of luck.

“Please, please, Tang monk, you flatter me!” the earth god laughed.

Lifting his head, Xuanzang asked, “Tudigong, can you please tell this holy monk what ails his disciple?”

The god clasped his hands behind his back, nodded, and said, “Yes, but I fear it’s not as simple as you hope.”

“I want to know regardless.”

“The Great Sage was born from stone. He’s not flesh and blood by nature, no matter what form he may take. One can’t simply change their origins.”

“Yes, I knew that.”

“As such, he’s- forgive me for saying this- colder and crueler than most, even by demon standards because of that stone center, hardened by centuries of life.”

“Then what’s changed?”

“I’m getting there, Tang monk.” Tudigong glanced at the darkening sky, now a sweeping violet. “The stone cracked. Where there was no place for weakness, now there is. He’s becoming flesh, real flesh.”

“Does- does Wukong know this?”

“He must. I don’t know how familiar you are with the Great Sage’s… escapades. Only one person’s managed to damage his stone nature before: Erlang Shen the Illustrious Sage. He pierced that monkey demon’s pipa bone, but it’s long since sealed.”

The earth god brushed his whiskers. “It closed, it didn’t heal. One can’t recover from a wound like that. Your disciple may not have noticed for the past five hundred years because of that stone body, but the moment he became flesh, the wound likely opened.  Did that happen, Tang monk?”

Xuanzang thought back to the burst of blood from Wukong’s shoulders and nodded. He sat up, brows furrowing in confusion. “This does sound uh, disconcerting. Then, may I ask why this is happening?”

The god smiled, eyes warm. “This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Master Sanzang- something melted his heart of stone.”


“He’s learned to love.”

What .”

Xuanzang shook his head and rephrased that answer: “This is very bad for our journey. As holy men, we need to let go of all desires, including matters of the heart.”

“Keep in mind Sun Wukong’s never been moved so thoroughly. If he could love before, he’s long forgotten. And now, how can he let go if he has nothing to lose? This may be the perfect chance for you to inspire some teachings in your disciple.”

“When you put it that way, it’s not so bad… but Wukong’s been with me for the past two years. Nothing’s been out of the usual for him. Why now?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know,” Tudigong said, “has he paid attention to anything new- perhaps the kindness of a child? The goodness of another disciple? Or… no, that might not be it.”

But Xuanzang pressed him for more. “No, please, I want to hear!”

“It’s a silly conjecture though. Master Sanzang, is there anyone your first disciple fancies?”

Xuanzang blinked. And thought. Wukong never showed much interest in anyone they met on their travels. He showed no mercy in the demons he slayed. That left the pilgrims themselves. Bajie did have an unhealthy obsession with pleasing that monkey. Wujing got along with him well enough. Ao Lie certainly held him in high regard. But none of those options made much sense to him. There had only been one person Wukong steadily stayed by on their path west, had treated with anything resembling tenderness, and that person was-

No, Tudigong was right. It was just a silly thought.

“Not that I know of,” the monk said, “then is there any way to resolve this?”

“The Great Sage will have to lose this newfound affection for his nature to revert, or die and become stone himself.”

“Those sound rather harsh…”

“Yes, I can tell it pains you.”


Tudigong gestured at his face. “Your eyes, your mouth, your eyebrows, your body,.”

Xuanzang supposed that was evidence enough. As he thought of more questions, for a thousand were brewing in his brain, the earth god said, “I and my companions don’t think it’s a singular cause, this ailment of the Great Sage. It’s likely a combination of different factors.”

“So it’s not just because he can love?”

“Of course not! Even as stone, he had the potential to do so. What of his past, I can’t tell you, but as for the present, this is the first time he may have wanted to change.”

Tudigong again looked to the sky in thought, evening now upon them. “It could have started with something as simple as guilt or empathy, his newfound desire. It’s inspired compassion within him. And now it’s rendered him mortal, entirely by accident.”

“Then, what you’re saying,” Xuanzang said, a silent ache in his own chest, “is that love… is killing him.”

Before the earth god could answer, Xuanzang kowtowed again, giving thanks upon thanks at the deity’s feet, unwilling to let Tudigong see the turmoil written across his face. Because his disciple was dying. And he couldn’t do a thing.

Having bid the earth god a thankful farewell, Xuanzang returned to the sight of a lively campfire. Wujing ladled soup into five clay bowls while the distant shapes of Bajie and Ao Lie grew in approach. The dragon almost met the Tang priest halfway before Wuneng shoved him aside- by accident - and stopped in front of Xuanzang with short breaths.

“Master,” he gasped, “thank the heavens! Eldest brother, he’s awake!”

Ao Lie tugged at the monk’s sleeve and said, “Hurry, Master! Big brother just woke up!”

“Soup’s ready!” Wujing cried.

Whatever else they said, Xuanzang didn’t know, because he found himself deaf to every other word. Wukong was awake and that was the only phrase buzzing through his spinning mind. 

Following Ao Lie’s lead, he stumbled towards the monkey’s blankets. Wukong was sitting up, back resting against a log, and legs under that pile of covers.

He looked up when the Tang priest approached, groggy and weak from sleep. Xuanzang nearly fainted from relief upon seeing him. He dropped by the monkey’s side, eyes scanning his disciple over for signs of new damage, and to his relief, found none. But in the firelight, Wukong appeared as beaten as the night before, face littered with black bruises and dried cuts, features drawn tight with quiet pain.

“What are you looking at, baldy?” the monkey rasped.

Xuanzang bit his lower lip, raised a hand to strike that demon, and let his palm land gently on Wukong’s brow. The fever had broken once more.

“Bad monkey,” the Tang priest said, “scare me like that again and I’ll really let you have it.”

Wukong went still with surprise, as if a single blink would rip this tenderness away. And ashamed of such weakness, he swatted the monk’s hand away and dropped his gaze elsewhere, momentarily guilted by the look of hurt flashing across Xuanzang’s eyes.

“Boss!” Bajie said, kneeling before the first disciple, a bowl of water in his outstretched hands, “have some water! This is cause for celebration! You have no idea how worried I was!”

Wukong: “Shut up, asshole.”

He took the bowl and lapped it dry, the cold water soothing against his cracked throat. Wiping the dribble from his chin, he arched a brow and asked, “What was in that water? It’s bitter as hell.”

“Danshen roots!” Wujing called, “Master brewed it today!”

“That I picked!” Bajie was quick to add.

Danshen roots? Wukong held back a cry of frustration- since when did the Great Sage Equaling Heaven need mortal herbs? Puti’s warning came back to mind and it took every ounce of self control not to smash that bowl into the earth. While he brooded, Ao Lie wriggled his way past the second disciple and sat, bumping shoulders with their senior brother.

“Big brother, how do you feel?” he asked.

He felt as if he’d been burned with Samadhi fire. For five hundred years. Without respite.

Fine ,” Wukong said, “and what are you doing back here?”

“Xiao Bailong’s joining us on our journey west again,” Xuanzang said, taking his spot across the dragon, “you should be very proud of your little brother.”

The monkey stared at the grinning prince, aware of vague memories from the night before- he had trudged down that mountain in everlasting pain, somehow goaded the Master into another beating, and then all had went black. But Ao Lie’s voice had been there too. The dragon had intervened on his behalf, and the more Wukong thought about what may have taken place, the more he felt weighed down by utter humiliation.

“Yeah,” he heard himself say, “Bailong’s been good.”

Then he saw Wujing’s impatient face by the pots and said, “Soup’s ready. Shouldn’t you lot go eat before Friar Sand loses it?”

“His soup’s terrible anyway,” Ao Lie said, beam still apparent.

“You stay put, boss,” Bajie announced, “I’ll get our meals. Master, wait for me!”

As the pig took his first steps towards the third disciple, Wukong said, “Bajie, hold on.”

“Yes, boss?”

“Get Bailong’s too.”

The second disciple sucked in a breath, kept his eye from flinching, and said, calm as he could, “Of course, boss, of course!”

Smug, Ao Lie watched him leave and snuggled closer to the monkey, pale head up to Wukong’s shoulder. For once, the first disciple made no move to push him away, but his eyes remained on Bajie, looking anywhere but at the Tang priest. This, Xuanzang knew.

Chapter Text

Wujing gathered the dirtied bowls into his arms, allowed them a second to wobble, and promptly stacked them by the cooled pot, sure he could reuse those items in the dawn. While he wiped up what he could with a dusty dishrag, Xuanzang stood before Wukong with an impatient tap-tap of his feet, basket in hand.

“Monkey, are you going to obey me or not?” the monk asked, Ao Lie and Bajie silent as they waited for Wukong’s no doubt unfavorable answer.

And again, the monkey stared up with those weary eyes, not a word leaving his lips. If he was hoping this would dissuade the Tang priest, then he would be disappointed. Xuanzang shook his head, sighed, and said, “Bajie, Xiao Bailong, flip him over.”

Before Wukong could protest, the other two were upon him, pulling him up by the arms, the first disciple still too weak to resist. And as the monk expected, familiar spots of red were imprinted upon the log Wukong had leaned on throughout the night.

“Let go or I’ll bash your heads in!” Wukong barked, shoving both disciples to the side, himself tumbling over Xuanzang’s feet.

“No you’re not bashing anyone’s head in,” the Master said, “be a good disciple and sit still.”

“Or what, you’ll use your Sodding Palm!?”

“I was going to sing, but that’s not a bad idea, is it!?”


Reluctant, Wukong crawled onto his elbows and flipped himself up, legs crossed and arms still, holding back a hiss of pain. Xuanzang circled behind him, set the basket down, and bent, eyeing the fresh blood staining the pipa dressings, layer over layer of darkening red.

“Does it hurt?” the monk asked.

No .”

Bajie: “I knew you were a tough guy, boss!”

Xuanzang silenced him with a glare and said, “Wuneng, Xiao Bailong, if you two have the time to sit around doing nothing, then go help Wujing. I’m not putting on some play here!”

As the pair ran off, the Tang priest turned back to Wukong, and with restless fingers, peeled away the topmost bandages.

“Wukong,” he said, soft, “this might hurt.”

“You talk too much, baldy. Get on with it.”

Unable to keep his own wincing at bay, Xuanzang reached for a needle and took to plucking the broken stitches, one by one. He did his best to soak up the blood with a wad of bundled cloth and gulped, Wukong’s skin tight and sweaty against the sure pain. His hands slick with red again, Xuanzang cleaned them along his lap and rose, numbly stepping towards the campfire while Wukong waited.

The monk gone to do who knows what, Wukong snatched a rock from the nearby grass, grit his teeth, and stuffed it in his mouth to keep back a gathering cry. Then- crunch!- he bit down when an unexpected heat slammed into his back, quite sure he would have screamed to the heavens otherwise. Behind, Xuanzang removed the handle, a piece of heated silver tied to its end, that left wound smoking from cauterization.

Fuck you! The monkey thought, incapable of more thought as Xuanzang pressed the heated piece to his right blade. Wukong chomped on that rock until it became powder in his mouth.

Finished, Xuanzang jammed the handle into the earth, silver charring dirt, and returned to his basket. Stuffing more stones past teeth, Wukong waited in sweat while the monk bandaged him over, mindful of every other stitch on that damaged form.

“Are you bleeding anywhere else?” Xuanzang asked, prodding the monkey’s waist, “your shoulder alright?”

Wukong shoved his hand away, instinctively pressing a palm over his bound side. “No, I’m fine. Go meditate or whatever.”

Xuanzang: “I’m trying me best to keep you alive and that’s how you speak to your Master?”

Wukong: “Tsk! Nobody asked you to.”

The Tang priest raised a finger, opened his mouth to reply, and shut it in anger. He let out a breath and sighed. “You know what, you’re right- I’m going to go meditate. When you’re done sulking, you should bathe- you stink, stinky monkey.”*

Wukong grabbed another rock as the monk’s backside disappeared into the woods. Cursing himself, he broke it in half. He should have been elated by the Master’s care, but he knew Xuanzang had done it out of obligation and no more. And now he was here, a useless monkey with a useless tongue, not even good for conversation. If Tang Sanzang wasn’t such an infuriatingly holy man, he should have left the disciple for dead. He was a fool to have hoped the monk would ever see him as more than a murderer, and twice damned for being unable to purge that thought. And thrice as dumb for almost being convinced otherwise tonight.

He wanted to crawl back to his place by the log, but he’d sooner burn in hell than let the other disciples see him do such a thing. So he stood, blinked back spots of black, and limped towards that pile of blankets. He half collapsed onto his butt and felt himself pass out.

When his vision cleared a good hour or so later, he saw Bajie leaning beside him, propped on an elbow and cheek in one hand. The pig smiled, saccharine, white face pink in the firelight.

“You looked so peaceful in your sleep, boss.”

“Asshole,” Wukong said, sitting up, “quit looking.”

“Of course, boss, of course!” the second disciple laughed.

Wukong rubbed the back of his head, convinced the short nap had helped alleviate the pain to some extent. The pipa wounds ached but were a far cry from burning and the rest of him was too numb to care. Then, to his frustration, he wondered if it was the effect of the red sage roots.

“Where’s Wujing and the dragon?” he asked.

“Gone for a walk,” Bajie said, admiring the stars with dreamy eyes, “not together, of course. But not me- I’d never leave your side.”

The monkey scoffed, gaze tilting upwards to gander the night sky when the stars were abruptly blocked by an ogre of a demon- Wujing. The fish dropped two balls of pink at Wukong’s feet: rabbits, dead, stiff, and bloodied at the neck.

“The fuck is this?” Wukong said, glaring up at Friar Sand.

Wujing: “You lost a lot of blood, didn’t you? It’s red meat! Eat it!”

“So baldy can blame me for this!? No way, asshole- take them away!”

“Take them where!? I got them for you !”

Bajie: “You heard the boss! Get them out of here!”

Wujing: “Why should I!? They’re for him and he’s eating them!”

Ao Lie: “You stole my idea!”

Three pairs of eyes turned towards the returning prince, Ao Lie glaring as he stabbed an accusing finger in Wujing’s direction, a dead hare under his arm.

“Are you fucking with me!?” Wukong said.

“Your idea!?” Wujing snapped, “since when!?”

Ao Lie: “Since I thought of it!”

The dragon knelt by Wukong and held up the hare. “Big brother, hurry and eat it before Master comes back!”

Wujing shoved him out of the way and all pushed the corpses into Wukong’s face. “Boss, eat these! They’re stronger and healthier!”

“No they’re not!” Ao Lie said.

Wukong knocked the rabbits back into Wujing’s hands, hopped up with a frustrated grunt, and forced his way past Bajie and Ao Lie.

“Taking a bath,” he growled, “You lot stay here.”

“But what do we do boss!?” Bajie cried, Wujing and Ao Lie arguing as they clutched their game.

Wukong: “I don’t know, cook those rabbits or something!”

Moonlight bled through water as the creek took its course, a canopy of stars and leaves hanging above. Xuanzang paced along the stone bank, the chirping of evening cicadas strangely calming to his ears. Meditation had given him chance to reflect, and though no clear answer stood in sight, he was sure it did his soul good. All he knew was that such worries would fix nothing so he let the air clear his head and the moon wash his heart, for these were the natures he cherished most.

He found Wukong lying by the bank, a twig in his mouth, and legs soaked in rippling water. The monkey’s eyes were glued on the sky, absently chewing that twig as the branches swayed over and atop.

Xuanzang: “What are you doing here?”

Wukong: “You said I stunk. I’m bathing.”

The monk sat by him, lap brushing Wukong’s hair. The monkey didn’t move.

“I don’t see much bathing here, bad monkey.”

Wukong shut his eyes, sighed, and said, with a twinge of shame, “I can’t this way, Master… it hurts.”

“I’d be surprised if it didn’t hurt,” Xuanzang said honestly, “you don’t have to hide anything from your Master. I care about all of you deeply, but I may not say it often because I’m a very low key individual.”

Behind those closed lids, the monkey rolled his eyes.

“Wukong,” the monk said quietly, “I never got to say it. About the Gingsenfruit tree, I’m sorry. Master shouldn’t have doubted you, shouldn’t have-”

Wukong: “Don’t be. I deserved it.”

The first disciple opened his eyes, sat up, and sank farther into the creek, shuddering in pain as the water swirled past. “I deserved all of it.”

Again, Xuanzang felt that guilty twinge in his own chest, some unwelcome ache at hearing his disciple say such words. Wukong suffered and hid and suffered still more, and this, the Tang priest could not allow. He was the teacher and the teacher taught.

“Let me help you,” the monk said, shedding his beads and pulling away those outer robes.

Wukong: “Baldy, what are you-”

Half naked, Xuanzang dipped his toes in the water and slid all the way in. Wet, he surfaced, grinned, and said, “Relax, I’m not about to pull shenanigans with you- you should be ashamed of such dirty thoughts!”

“You’re really something, Master,” the monkey muttered.

He repositioned that twig and rested his skull against the bank, Xuanzang following suit, both surrounded by the hooting of owls and singing cicadas. Then the monk lifted a foot and nudged Wukong.

“Look,” he ordered.

“Master, that’s disgusting.”

It was his left foot, a bumpy stump in place of where the little toe should stand.* Xuanzang flexed the four remaining digits and said, “They used to call me Jiang Liuer, child of the river current. Master found me in a basket floating down…”

Wukong looked to him, then, unsure what the monk was planning to say. A touch of pink kissed Xuanzang’s cheeks when he next spoke.

“This might be hard to believe, but I wasn’t always this wise and virtuous and low key.”

No, you don’t say.”

“I learned to be a great holy man like everyone else… but before, I was nobody. And you better keep this a secret, Wukong, I’ve never told anyone this, not even Master or Lord Buddha.”

The monkey bit down on his twig, a strange curiosity swelling within. And honest, he answered, “Alright.”

Xuanzang: “I always wished I could be someone important. I’d imagine I was someone great, but I was just Jiang Liuer, some poor orphan. So I made up a story… my father was an official and my mother was a noble lady.”

He pointed at the missing toe. “Pirates killed my father and abducted my mother. She set me free and bit off my toe as a way to mark me hers… even though Master said my toe was eaten by a fish.”

Wukong: “Was it?”

“I don’t know.” Sheepish, Xuanzang laughed,  his leg lowered. “So I made another story to counter Master’s. I’d tell myself my father once saved a golden fish from the market, but that fish was actually a dragon.”

“Dragons are useless, baldy.”

“I’ll pretend you didn’t say that. Anyway, that dragon came to my father’s rescue. Then by chance, I’d meet my mother’s family, and all of us- me, my grandfather, the dragon king- we’d all revive my father and save my mother. Then father, mother, and I would reunite. We’d live happily ever after.”

Xuanzang sunk down to his chin, eyes drifting ahead. “But that never happened. I became Chen Xuanzang, just another priest… until now, and I know it’s vain but I like being the Great Xuanzang- I want the credit for taking all of us west, for getting the scriptures.”

That was the most about himself the Tang priest had ever shared with him, and Wukong was at a loss for response. He sucked on the twig, the bump-bumping of his heart obnoxiously loud in his chest, as if caught between some bridge of fear and delight. The Master must have expected this to resonate with him somehow, expected him to understand. And perhaps he did.

He focused on the moon instead, and said, to his regret, “Stone monkey--Siho… they used to call me that. But I didn’t have any silly stories to go with it- didn’t see the point.”

Because when all was said and done, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven had always been a freak of a demon and nothing more.

“Wukong,” the monk said, “do you know the story of Hanuman?”*

“Now what are you blabbing about, baldy?”

“It comes from a faith in the land of the western paradise.”

Xuanzang waited for some sarcastic quip, but Wukong seemed willing to listen, and so, the Tang priest spoke on.

“There’s a god- Lord Shiva- the destroyer and transformer, their protector of the universe. And Hanuman was his avatar. He was born from the air and sky. His father was the god of wind and his mother, a royal feitian.*”

Wukong turned towards him then, and the Tang priest met his gaze.

“When he was a child, Hanuman ate the sun.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“Keep your comments for the end. Great, now I’ve lost track. Where was I?”

“He ate the… sun?”

“Right, the rising sun was red and Hanuman mistook it for a fruit. Then he was struck down. And seeing how much his father was suffering, and how much suffering he was delivering, the god of life revived Hanuman. But he had a deformed jaw since.”

“I don’t like where this is going.”

“Comments at the end!” Xuanzang waded a few steps in the water and pulled Wukong towards him. “I’ll help wash your back, it looks terrible-”

“The story…”

“Oh, now you’re interested?”

Baldy …”

Sporting a smug smile, Xuanzang gently rubbed water over the monkey’s backside and said, “Lord Hanuman grew to have many miraculous powers. He could be large and small at will, take the form of whatever he pleased, harness great strength, and overcome anything in his way. Most importantly, he was loyal and kind.”

“Was he immortal?”

“What do you think? Of course he was! Do I not teach you to infer?”

Wukong resisted the urge to splash a pile of water in the Master’s face. Instead, he rolled those whites and waited for the monk to continue, Xuanzang massaging the water into his backside with steady strength. The priest grabbed his arm next and began shifting water over the bandaged limb.

“One day Hanuman saw a man. He was Prince Rama, but he wasn’t some ordinary mortal. He was the incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Now, Vishnu is the deity who preserves and protects from all evil in this world. Rama’s wife was Sita. She was the incarnation of Lakshmi, great goddess of prosperity and sense, and when she was-”

Wukong: “I thought this was Hanuman’s story?”

“It’s also Rama’s,” Xuanzang said, letting go of Wukong’s arm, “technically, it was always his. Just quit interrupting. As I was saying, Sita was abducted by demon king Ravana, who Vishnu was destined to kill.”

Wukong sniffed himself, the scent of blood and sweat successfully swept away by the creek’s fresh pools.

Xuanzang: “Lord Vishnu was once deeply devoted to Lord Shiva. But one day, when he made to offer Shiva one thousand lotus flowers, he lost one. When he realized Shiva hid the last flower to test him, do you know what he did?”

“No, Master,” Wukong said with exaggerated interest, “what did he do?”

“He took his own eye and made it the thousandth offering! And this made Lord Shiva so happy he promised his loyalty in their next life- then he was born Hanuman and Lord Vishnu born Rama.”


“Comments at the end! And so, Hanuman observed Prince Rama. He was awed by the prince’s virtues. He saw his pure love for Sita and the strength of his heart. Then Hanuman chose to serve Rama and help him rescue his beloved from the demon Ravana. Of course, there were many trials for everyone ahead, but none that didn’t end in triumph-”

“Isn’t your mouth tired?”

“Do you want to hear more or not?”

“Go on, baldy,” Wukong sighed.

Xuanzang pointed at the shape of Longevity Mountain as Wukong pushed water over his own face. “When Rama and Ravana went to war, the prince’s brother was injured. His only hope was a herb in the Himalayas- which, by the way, we’ll have to cross on our journey- but Hanuman couldn’t find the right herb.”

Then the monk raised both arms, and said with flare, “Hanuman knew what had to be done. He lifted that mountain straight off the ground and carried it from the Himalayas, all the way across the lands of the west. That was how he saved the man’s life.”

Xuanzang beckoned Wukong over and splashed his hair with water, running his fingers through those tangles until the crusted blood fell out.

Xuanzang: “So it’s of little wonder that Hanuman had Rama’s devotion in turn. Because Rama also saw how pure and true this servant was, and so did all of Hanuman’s devotees.”

Wukong said nothing as the monk ran the water over his head once more, the Tang priest still caught up in the excitement of his own story. It had been a tale he learned from a traveler in adolescence, one who claimed to have traded along the silk road. But he hadn’t had a reason to share it for a long time, and now, the irony was not lost.

“Now you can comment,” he said, giving Wukong a chance to shake that head dry.

“Master,” the demon replied, only one comment left, “you told me all this because?”

Xuanzang flashed a crooked smile. “Lord Hanuman is a monkey.”

“Master’s back!” Ao Lie cried, jumping to his feet and swirling around to warn his senior brothers.

Bajie gasped and rushed to stand in front of the flames while Wujing struggled to hide their roasted rabbits, charred meat still pierced by a spit over the campfire. He grabbed all three spits and hid them behind his back, sitting as still as could be. Ao Lie ran to the pig’s side and both offered their most-least sincere grins at the Tang priest’s appearance.

Nose wrinkling, Xuanzang approached, Wukong’s right arm pulled over his shoulder as the monkey limped in pace beside him.

“What’s that… smell?” the monk asked.

“Don’t know,” Wukong said, a bit too quickly.

When they reunited with the other disciples, the monkey wasted no time in leaving Xuanzang and joining his brothers in hiding whatever it was they wanted away from view. Suspicious, Xuanzang walked up to Ao Lie and patted the dragon’s head.

“Xiao Bailong, it’s in poor form to lie to your Master. What’s going on here?”

“Nothing’s happening!”

“That’s right!” Bajie said, “we’re just enjoying the night view is all!”

To the monk’s knowledge, there was no great amount of kinship between the second and fourth disciple, and this fact alone was enough to tell him they were keeping secrets from him. He glanced sideways at Bajie before circling around and seeing Wujing’s stiff stand.

Xuanzang: “I smelled meat. Wujing, show me your hands.”

Wukong: “What meat? I don’t see any meat, do you, Bajie?”

Bajie: “Nope! Not at all!”

Ao Lie gulped and approached Xuanzang, unsure if this was a great enough crime to risk the Sodding Palm’s wrath. He cleared his throat and said, “Master… the truth is… this is all third brother’s fault! It was his idea!”

Wujing: “You little shit! You said it was your idea!”

The fish prepared to strike Ao Lie, accidentally revealing the spits in his hands. Upon seeing the roasted meat, Xuanzang’s eyes widened as the rest went still. But the Master only sighed and said, “Nothing in this world is permanent. When I see that meat, my heart doesn’t see that meat, so it’s as if we never ate it.”*

He sat by the fire, looked at the others, and said, “My heart doesn’t see that meat right now, but give it an hour and it probably will. So I suggest you delinquents hurry up and eat it before your hearts start seeing that meat.”

Bajie: “The Master’s right! This meat doesn’t exist in our hearts!”

With that, he grabbed a spit from Wujing and offered it to Wukong. And awkwardly, the monkey took the first bite. The pig and fish followed suit, each demon overjoyed at the taste of flesh after so long without. Ao Lie watched his brothers eat, the demon trio munching loud and spraying grease on skin.

Xuanzang said nothing as he prayed for those carcasses, back turned to his disciples. Swallowing the roughest cut of rabbit, Wujing watched the Master ponder, still shocked by how lenient he’d been. But he knew why- Xuanzang’s thoughts had been the same as himself when he went for those rabbits. He wanted the first disciple’s blood replenished, and the others had simply been lucky enough to be in sight. This is favoritism , he thought.

“Bailong,” Wukong said, mouth stuffed with meat, “you caught one too, didn’t you?”

The monkey held up what remained of his own spit, half the roast still in tact.

“But I did it for you-”

“Little brother, just take it. Can’t eat much now anyway.”

Wukong shoved the spit into Ao Lie’s hands and moved to sit by Xuanzang’s side. Wordless, the monk handed him that golden circlet and Wukong pinched it over his head once more. And only a moment later did the prince realize what he’d been called. Little brother . Sun Wukong had finally called him little brother , and too excited to think more, Ao Lie bit into that cooked meat. It tasted terrible.

While the disciples spat out rabbit bones and finished the last of their meat, Xuanzang was privy to a rustling in the bushes behind. He tapped Wukong on the shoulder and both turned to see the new figure emerge with mild surprise.

“Master Sanzang, I am glad to have found you.”

Qingfeng’s familiar face came into view as the Immortal Zhenyuan’s trusted servant took his first steps into the pilgrims’ camp, silver ribbons orange under fire. He kowtowed, oblivious to the group’s harsh stares, and tilted that haughty nose at the heavens.

“What do you want?” Wujing growled.

“Is something the matter?” Xuanzang asked, sudden dread knotting his stomach.

“My Master intends to hold a banquet in honor of his new Ginsengfruit tree in five days’ time, and it would please him greatly if you and your disciples would attend, venerable elder.”

Qingfeng glanced at Wukong, and every fiber of his being reluctant, kowtowed before the monkey. “Elder Sun, it is my Master’s greatest wish that you at least attend.”

Wukong: “Tell him we’re busy. Can’t go.”

“I cannot take no for an answer.”

Xuanzang: “But we really must be on our way, Qingfeng. Tell the patriarch we’re most grateful for the invitation but in five days’ time, we have to be on the road again.”

Qingfeng prepared to speak, but Bajie cut him off.

“Don’t brag with us,” the pig said, “there’s one of you and five of us. And your Master’s not around to protect you.”

The servant’s eyes hardened but he clenched his fists and bowed once more. “I understand. Master Sanzang, do consider the offer and I shall return to Wuzhuang. However-”

He looked at each pilgrim and said, “You will find this a most regretful decision.” And he stared Xuanzang straight in the eye. “Especially you, Master Sanzang.”

Why me!? The Tang priest clapped his hands, bowed, and said, as polite as he could, “I’m terribly sorry, but we really need to be on our way. Please let your Master know how grateful we are.”

“Rest assured that I will,” Qingfeng answered, his assurance enunciated like a threat.

Then, to the jeers of those demons, the servant turned and walked back the way he came. The four disciples pointed behind him and laughed, beside themselves with mockery, until finally, the monk snapped and said, “Quiet or I’ll use my Buddha’s Sodding Palm!”

As the others lowered their sniggers, Xuanzang stared at the clouds, the moon’s shadow taking on a threatening cast as it loomed overhead.

Chapter Text

Her eyes traced earth as the clouds covered black. Under night, she walked on, silent, near drifting, along that trail of dried blood. She stooped, long nails raking soil, and tasted- it had been at least two, at most four, nights since that demon bled fresh. She grinned.

Fair , then, life was fair . But she was not here to judge.

She licked her fingers clean, the macaque’s blood bitter on her tongue, and followed that path. The Tang priest’s scent was ever so near.

“We’re running a little low on supplies,” Bajie reported, “Master, do you think we should stop by Moonfield while we still can?”

Atop Ao Lie’s white pony, Xuanzang furrowed his brow and said, “I don’t think we’re welcomed there, if our last visit was anything to go by…”

Aside from the innkeeper’s wife, the village itself did not seem the most hospitable of places, and the last thing the pilgrims needed was getting embroiled in yet another conflict. But the monk did see his second disciple’s concern- the trip to Moonfield would be an hour at most, perhaps less, and any farther would lengthen that time to a day. They’d already lost one day of travel to Wuzhuang and another three to Wukong’s injuries, and there was no choice but to start moving on the fourth, lest any more messengers from Zhenyuanzi return.

“What’s missing?” Wujing asked, “got enough rice for congee.”

Bajie: “Basic necessities ring a bell? Blankets for the Master, cough medicine in case he catches a chill again, and-”

The pig lowered his voice, leaning on Wujing’s shoulder as he walked in step by the third disciple. “-bandages. We’ve used up a lot these… past few days.”

Oblivious to the comments of his fellow disciples, Wukong led Ao Lie around a crooked tree, rein gripped in his right hand as his feet fought to overcome an uneven limp. The cudgel stepped along in his left.

“Master,” the monkey said, “maybe the idiot’s right. No telling how long until the next town.”

“You were the one whining about getting a move on,” Xuanzang quipped.

Wukong released a snort, scratched behind a ear, and said, “It’s not that far. Might need some things- you’re human, you’ll need more than the rest of us. And-”

He tapped the visible bandages around his chest, the rest covered by that cloak and the Master’s old shirt under. “You wasted all these on me. You’ll need ‘em more, baldy.”

Xuanzang mulled over that thought as the morning wind whistled about the woods. He looked over his shoulder, Longevity Mountain standing in the distance behind, and the fields of that village just over yonder. His disciples did have his best interests in mind, it seemed. Medical supplies, they did need, and though he knew their caution lay with the Master, Xuanzang couldn’t help but think Wukong would need them more.

“Fine,” the Tang priest said, “Bajie, Wujing! Let’s make one more detour!”

Ao Lie made a noise halfway between a huff and a whinny, hooves spinning as he changed direction, leaves scattering down from above. Xuanzang straightened his hat, waved the leaves off his shoulders, and watched Wukong shake the green from his head, much like the baby macaques he’d seen in childhood. And smiling, the monk reached down, plucking out a leaf wedged in that messy hair.

“Aren’t you the Great Sage Equaling heaven?” Xuanzang teased, “don’t tell me you can’t even get a leaf out.”

“What leaf?”

And smirking, Wukong gestured at the leaf in Xuanzang’s hand with a slight tip of the chin. A banana was left in the monk’s grip, half peeled and ripe-yellow. Xuanzang laughed, exasperated, warm, and for a moment, Wukong let himself bask in the glow of that tender chuckle.

Then the monk’s smile fell, replaced with tight-lipped surprise as his shoulders stiffened. When the first disciple eyed him in confusion, Xuanzang said, “Wukong, is there someone… behind me?”

The monkey looked past him, sensing nothing for miles on end, shrugged, and said, “No... You alright, baldy?”

Xuanzang relaxed and shook his head. “Just tired. I felt like I was being watched.”

“Who’s watching us?!” Wujing called from behind the pony, wagon shaking as he crossed a fallen log.

“Is it a man or a woman?” Bajie asked in addition.

Xuanzang: “No… it’s nothing.”

Wukong bounced the staff over his shoulder and looked again to the woods behind, a haughty smirk on his lips. “Whatever it is, Master, don’t let it get to you. They’ll have to get past old Sun first before they touch your bald head. Isn’t that right, Bailong?”

The prince huffed in agreement. But Xuanzang said nothing, heart dropping like lead as he forced a grateful smile across his face, for what the first disciple said was exactly what he feared.

Moonfield Village was less pleasant to look upon in the daylight, scrunched buildings scratched with dust and age between high fields, each house the color of mud and hay. But it was rife with noise, Moonfield’s people bustling through the street as they went about their day, children skipping stones and parents toiling away into noon. The villagers were so preoccupied with each other that the Tang priest and his disciples attracted little a curious eye.

“Alms, alms,” Bajie pleaded, face a charming gent’s, long hair down to the sashed waist, “for holy men on our way west.”

He held up a begging bowl, dramatically batting those lashes at anyone who so much as looked his way. A child took his first steps towards the second disciple and was immediately pulled away by the mother while Bajie called after: “Can anyone spare a beautiful coin?”

The pig eyed his empty bowl, glanced downwards, and said, “Hey, you- I know why nobody’s coming near us! What’s up with that mean face?”

Stooping by Bajie’s knee and head still up to Wuneng’s chest, Friar Sand glared up. “What’s wrong with my face? Maybe you’re just bad at this!”

“Please! I’ve been doing nothing but turning up my charm. Look at this face! Look at it! And look at you, sitting there, all blue and sour. No wonder the ladies won’t come near us.”

Wujing stood up with a growl, yanked the bowl from Bajie’s hands, and pulled the nearest passerby up by the scruff of his robes.

“Hey you! Spare some alms!” the fish said.

The villager took one look at him and screamed. Bajie popped up beside him, applied his handsome charm, and said, “Please spare some alms.”

The man screamed louder.

And upon hearing that scream, the Tang priest was quick to charge out of the apothecary’s shop, fresh purchases still cradled in both arms, Wukong and Ao Lie right behind. Xuanzang shoved his way past several onlookers with muttered pardons and stopped to see Wujing holding up two men, one in each fist, as Bajie busied himself with keeping an angry spade-wielder at bay.

“Wujing!” Xuanzang cried, “let them go now!”

Bajie: “Oh, now you’ve done it! You’ve gone and upset Master!”

“Let me go, please!” the man in Wujing’s left hand said, wrinkled eyes wide in his gaunt-scared face.

“You’re under arrest for disrupting the peace!” the other man said, this one younger, bearded, and in what appeared to be some sort of officer’s uniform.

“Demon!” the spade-holder shouted, “this is a demon come to attack!”

Xuanzang: “No! No! There are no demons here. This holy monk is Xuanzang of Tang and these are my disciples, reformed disciples. Wujing, let go now!”

“Monk?” the officer said, “what kind of monk takes in demons?”

“He’s got to be a demon himself!” the spade's owner said, turning that weapon on Xuanzang.

“Big brother,” Ao Lie whispered as he watched the villagers back their Master into speechlessness, “should we do something?”

Wukong: “Nah, this is funny.”

“I’m not a demon!” Xuanzang said in the middle of that crowd, clutching his purchases like a shield, “but my disciple here is volatile! We’ll accept responsibility- I only ask not to be slandered!”

“That’s what a demon would say!” a woman cried.

“That’s right!” the crowd went on, “demon! Demon!”

“Is this the face of a demon!?” Bajie challenged, touting his gorgeous head for all to see.

“Yes,” Wujing said from the side.

Bajie: “Who asked you!?”

Wujing: “You did!”

“Alright,” Wukong said to the dragon, “now the joke’s getting old. Come on.”

The man with the spade moved to strike Xuanzang and before Ao Lie could follow, the monkey disappeared. When the prince next saw him, he’d arrived in the middle of that commotion, left elbow balanced on the tip of his staff, spine arched as one hand blocked the spade from touching their Master’s head.

Wukong: “Asshole, wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

He lifted the spade up, its owner rising along, and tossed both into the crowd before more could be said. Knocked down like pins, the villagers scrambled to their feet, eyes large and the word “demon” stronger than ever on their stammering lips.

“Took you long enough,” the monk hissed at his back, “now look at this mess we’ve made.”

“Just use your charm on them, Master,” Wukong said with a rough chuckle, “works every time, eh?”

Wujing dropped his hostages then, both men rolling down the street as the fish and pig took their places by the first disciple, each weapon raised, Xuanzang shielded behind their backs.

“Just once, just once,” Xuanzang said, “can you hooligans stay out of trouble? Just once !”

Wukong: “Don’t worry, baldy. I’ll give them a good whacking for you later.”

Xuanzang: “You better!”

Bajie: “Oh... no, I’m so scared, big brother…”

“You want a fight!” Wujing called to the crowd, “then come on!”

“Hey, shush it, asshole!” the monkey said.

Xuanzang squeezed between Wukong and Bajie, stuck his head out, and said, impassioned, “People of Moonfield! We may have made a bad impression, but please, find it in your hearts to see us for what we are- we’re nothing more than monks on our way to the western paradise! Not demons-”

“So you admit it- you’re a demon!” the officer said.

Xuanzang: “What? No!”

And again, the onlookers took to chanting, Ao Lie standing awkwardly at the rear, unsure what the pilgrims would do, for it seemed that this was not such a rare occurrence for their band. Then another voice spoke, low and scratchy.

“This priest is no demon.”

Back hunched, an old woman came forward, face sagged with wrinkles below a white top knot. The villagers parted, quieting as they made way for her small, slow steps. Upon seeing her aged countenance, recognition dawned in Xuanzang’s eyes.

“You’re-” the Tang priest said.

“We met in the Crescent Tiger’s Inn, yes,” the woman said, “I warned you not to bring your demons here, venerable elder.”

She turned to the man still clinging to his spade. “Drop that shovel. It’s sad just sitting there- ah, where was I… uh, yes. Everyone, let’s agree to end this fighting here. These strangers mean you no harm.”

“But Chieftess,” the officer said, kowtowing at her feet while the others stared in trepidation, “they came here and started an incident .”

“Please don’t interrupt me, officer Yi,” she said, “you know how hard it is for this old lady… where was I? Everyone, let’s agree to end this fighting here. These strangers mean you no harm.”

“Chieftess?” Xuanzang mouthed, exchanging confused glances with his disciples.

“Let’s get this street cleaned up. And you, venerable elder, we should go inside, though I’m not sure if my son would like that.”

Whilst the villagers accepted their orders with no small amount of grumbling, Ao Lie used the opportunity to blend into the crowd and place himself back by the Master’s side, standing beside Wukong as if he’d never fallen behind. And with no other recourse, the pilgrims lowered their weapons and followed the chieftess away, the Tang priest at the front, and Moonfield’s people glaring holes into each of their backs.

Chieftess Liang’s son was a burly man some time past his prime, whose head came up to Xuanzang’s chest, and what he lacked in height, made up in muscle and girth. As his mother prepared a hospitable pot of tea, Liang Guo sat across from the Tang priest, thick black brows slanted in a piercing glare. In the backroom of the CRESCENT TIGER’S INN, Xuanzang and his pupils occupied five stools, awkwardly meeting the younger Liang’s gaze in polite silence.

“This is a pleasant establishment,” the monk said.

Liang Guo: “I know.”

The son’s gaze flicked towards Bajie, again in his masked visage. “Demon, don’t hide your face.”

“This is my face,” the second disciple said, leaning forward to allow Liang Guo a better look at that glossy skin, “one of my favorites, in fact.”

“Hmph!” Liang Guo wagged a finger at each disciple and said, or rather, threatened, “All of you demons are cowards hiding behind human flesh! Show me your true forms!”

Wukong cackled, crisp and nasty. “That’d be a terrible idea.”

Xuanzang nudged him, and eyes on the chieftess’ son, said, “Forgive us, Master Liang, but it’d be best for my disciples to stay the way they are now- some of their true shapes can get rather… big.”

And dirty . But that, the monk kept to himself.

Fortunately, Chieftess Liang returned by then, whistling to herself as she poured her guests tea.

“Be nice to them, little Guo,” she said, taking a seat by her son when all was done, “now, venerable elder, let’s get you taken care of.”

“Thank you, bodhisattva. But I’m still rather confused as to your identity.”

“Oh yes, I forgot to tell you. I’ve been the chief of this village for sixty years and counting, and young Guo here will take over when I’m done… his dear uncle owned this inn and the poor man died without an heir, so Liang Guo took over.”

She blew at her tea and sipped. “It’s not too safe to be out at night here in Moonfield so I help young Guo out in the evenings… did you think I was just some grandmother?”

“Oh no, that’s not what I meant-”

“It’s quite alright, venerable elder, you’re not the first outsider to think so. Now where was I?”

Liang Guo: “Getting rid of this lot.”

“That’s right! Young monk, I have a plan for you- we’ll simply reintroduce you and your disciples to the people later and you can send some of your men to help in the fields.”

Xuanzang: “That sounds agreeable.”

Disdain colored Ao Lie’s face, but he quickly flushed back his retort with tea, for fear that he would speak out of turn. The mere idea of a prince doing laborer’s work turned his stomach. Likewise, Bajie was not looking forward to ruining his manicured hands.

“And if young Guo agrees,” the chieftess said, turning to her son, “then you can stay the night. Nobody should wander out this week.”

“And why is that?” Xuanzang asked, “we had little trouble moving about a few days prior.”

“What holy man’s this dense?” Liang Guo said, “it’s the third night of the blood moon cycle. The Immortal Zhenyuan’s left his mountain for the earth gods’ gathering, and the only thing between us and those woodland devils are our fields.”

Xuanzang thought over those words, some tingling of familiarity broiling in his brain. Qingfeng had delivered his message two days prior and the moon hadn’t been seen since. The date of Zhenyuanzi’s banquet . And neither of his servants had appeared again.

“This gathering,” Xuanzang started, his disciples looking at him as if the same question sat on their tongues, “does it last for five days?”

“See? The venerable elder’s not ignorant,” the chieftess said, “yes, five days. We call it the devil’s forest, those woods beyond Longevity Mountain- without the patriarch’s presence, they’ve free reign. Can’t count the number of villagers we lost to that forest.”

“Then how are you still alive?” Wukong asked, “they should’ve eaten all of you by now.”

“Fire,” was the old woman’s reply, “we light bonfires in the fields at night and let it burn ‘til dawn.”

“And if not for my mother,” Liang Guo added, “the five of you would’ve been tied up and burnt tonight.”

At that, the three demons burst out laughing, only to be silenced by Xuanzang’s angry “shh!”

Thanks to the mercy of Chieftess Liang, Xuanzang and his disciples were allowed a second chance at appeasing her villagers, though it seemed a wasted chance nonetheless. At the old lady’s beckoning, Xuanzang cleared his throat and straightened his back under the archway of the CRESCENT TIGER’S INN, nearly all of Moonfield’s residents gathered around.

“I do sincerely apologize for the trouble we’ve caused in your humble home,” he said, “this monk is Tang Sanzang, sent west to retrieve Lord Buddha’s holy scriptures with my faithful disciples. We’re a band of holy exorcists and it was never our intention to disturb you. I will now introduce my disciples-”

The disciples stayed rooted behind him. Xuanzang coughed and said again, “I will now introduce my disciples who will obediently step forward .”

Slowly, Wukong came to the front, head downcast as he stood by the monk, flashing murder at all who tried to meet his gaze. Xuanzang elbowed him and muttered, “Well? Say something, we rehearsed this.”

“Hello,” the monkey drawled, rolling out those scripted words with all the emotion of a marionette, “I’m the Great Xuanzang’s first disciple, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, Sun Wukong. I’m ever pleased to meet you.”

“Aren’t you the guy who tried invading heaven?” someone in the crowd asked.

“Yeah! You’re that monkey thing!” another added.

Wukong’s eye twitched, and sensing the demon’s boiling anger, Xuanzang quickly squeezed his arm to quell that rage and said, “Wuneng, you’re up!”

Bajie took the spotlight next, unfolding his fan with dramatic flare, and with the flamboyance of an entire acting troupe, cried, “Hello, people of Moonfield! I am Tang Sanzang’s second disciple, heavenly Marshal Tianpeng, Zhu Bajie. I’m reformed from my sinful ways and now I stand before you as your humble servant. How blessed I am to meet you!”

Hand still on Wukong’s arm, Xuanzang gestured for Wujing before leaning beside Bajie and whispering, “What was that? You went off script.”

The mass of villagers backed away out of instinct when Wujing stepped up, the fish easily towering over everyone there.

“Hello, I’m Sha Wujing,” the third disciple growled, his greeting rumbling out like a violent warning, “I’m the third disciple, General Juanlian and I apologize for the trouble. I’m so pleased to meet you.”

Ao Lie was the last to line up by his senior brothers, head held high as he addressed the villagers gathered before them. “Hello! I am the fourth disciple, Prince Ao Lie, third heir of the western sea! I’m pleased to meet you.”

“Never heard of you!” a voice said, much to Ao Lie’s indignation but he had no time to insult the man back.

When the Tang priest forced out a grin, all five pilgrims looked straight at the crowd once more, clapped their hands together, and bowed. Chieftess Liang applauded, her enthusiastic support the only noise echoing through that group of onlookers.

“There!” the chieftess said, “now you all know our priest means well. They’ll even help in the fields, isn’t that right?”

I never agreed to this , Ao Lie thought, but Xuanzang had already nodded. Then, save for a few curious stares, the novelty of Tang Sanzang’s pilgrims seemed to have worn off as that crowd dispersed. While the Liangs discussed Moonfield’s matters amongst themselves, a woman approached the monk, hair done up and babe in arms.

“Master Sanzang?”

Xuanzang smiled, genuine, when he saw the friendly co-owner of THE WANING LION’S INN, the innkeeper’s wife looking much tidier in sunlight.

“Bodhisattva,” he said with a bow, “we meet again.”

“I thought you’d gone away,” she replied, “and here you are, surprising our little village!”

“Yes, things didn’t quite go to plan and I’d hardly call this a surprise.”

“Oh, you’re hilarious as ever, venerable elder!”

Beside the monk, Wukong guffawed. “Master’s funny, isn’t he?”

“Very!” she said in agreement, Xuanzang feeling rather insulted in between.

Awake, the infant stared at the Tang priest with wide eyes, toothless mouth pulling at a fresh grin.

“Did the chieftess tell you about the blood moon?” the mother asked, “I’m not sure how true it is, but it’s always better to be safe.”

“Yes. She’s allowed us to stay at the Tiger’s Inn.”

“Ah,” was the reply, a hint of disappointment within, “then we should have a cup of tea again, maybe with all your disciples this time.”

Xuanzang bowed again. “Yes, that’d be lovely. Um, bodhisattva, I don’t think I ever caught your name?”

“Oh? You didn’t. I’m called Yao Yachi, but that was before my marriage.”

“Then your title now is?”

“I go by my husband’s name now: Sun.”

Behind the monk, Wukong broke into a peal of coughs, having choked on the thin twig he’d just popped into his mouth. And immediately, Wujing and Bajie flanked him, busying themselves with tending the monkey’s sudden fit.

“What a coincidence!” Xuanzang laughed, “hear that, monkey? You have family here!”

Wukong kept coughing, mumbling something that sounded suspiciously like fuck you to the Tang priest. Still amused, Xuanzang made to say more to Madame Sun before Liang Guo smacked his back and sent him stumbling.

“Monk,” he said, “time to work. Stay here and bless the village. The rest of your lot comes with me.”

“I have a question,” Ao Lie asked.

Liang Guo: “Yeah?”

Ao Lie: “Do we… have to?”

The dragon’s question had been a moot point because little less than an hour later, the four disciples found themselves laboring in the nearby fields, sacks loading, wagons pulling, and rice stalks pulling. Ao Lie carried and filled sacks for Moonfield’s farmers, running hither thither to bring them water from the village well, and was chastised for being too slow all the while. His senior brothers raked the fields, three demons working at a pace fit for ten and twenty men as they cleared and planted and dug anew.

“Why doesn’t baldy have to do this?” Bajie muttered in spite.

“Because he’s the Master,” Wujing said.

Wukong: “Quit whining and work. The sooner we’re done, the better.”

The second disciple raked the soil ahead and placed his head by the monkey’s shoulder.

“Boss,” he said, “baldy said you didn’t have to come along. Why give up the chance?”

“Do I look invalid to you?” was the bitter retort, “this work is fucking easy.”

Wujing: “Not so easy for the brat.”

The demons stopped to observe Ao Lie, the dragon tripping in the distance, water spilling from the buckets hung over his royal shoulders. The fourth disciple crawled to his feet and ran back the way he came. And while the senior disciples watched him with vague amusement, the men of Moonfield stared at them with more than some apprehension.

“Look at them,” a farmer said, adjusting the strings of his straw hat, “monsters in our field.”

“They work like demons too,” his companion added, “makes my skin crawl. Really ought to burn them in the fire tonight- that fop of a Master too.”

“If you’ve got time to question my mother’s decisions,” Liang Guo said as he trudged by, pulling a wagon along, “then get back to work.”

“Liang Guo,” that farmer explained, “we’re not criticizing the chieftess here. Just pointing it out- those are demons, no matter what the bald fellow says.”

Liang Guo: “I’m not blind. I know they’re demons, and trust me, I don’t want them here either. But they’re working fine and they’ll be on their way soon enough.”

He stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow with a rag about his neck. “And you can’t go ‘round burning every outsider that comes in.”

“But we should,” the second mumbled, comment failing to reach Liang Guo’s ears.

Then Ao Lie returned, emerging from a row of rice stalks two heads taller than his own, a beam across his back, two buckets at each end. Careful, he set the buckets by Liang Guo, ladled out a bowl of water for the man and said, “Here- you must be parched.”

The chieftess’ son gratefully gulped it all, and releasing a sigh of satisfaction, he said, “Leave that bucket here, kid. Your lot can have the rest.”

The dragon bowed, beamed, and said, “Thank you.”

He lifted the remaining bucket and made his way towards the senior disciples, swearing upon his father’s heart that he would never resign himself to such crude toiling again. Upon seeing his approach, the demons dropped their tasks and gathered by the dragon’s side, Ao Lie holding up the bucket for each.

“Big brother, second brother, third brother,” he said, “Liang’s son said we could have this.”

Bajie: “Great! But aren’t you spooning it out for us?”

Ao Lie: “No way! Do it yourselves.”

Too tired to argue, the other disciples relented and ladled their own water into small chipped bowls, hungrily lapping the liquid up before plopping down by the swaying stalks in respite. Above, the sky bled orange, rays of pink casting down past the yellowing clouds.

“Bajie, Wujing,” Wukong said, “go check the other side for bad stalks. Get rid of them if you find any.”

“You got it boss!” Bajie said, dragging Wujing along on one last survey of their assigned field.

Arms crossed over his waist, the monkey stayed seated, chewing on a stalk poking from his mouth as he stared blankly ahead. Ao Lie sat beside him, enjoyed the start of evening breeze, and let his gaze wander across the grass between them. He blinked, wondering if what he saw was a trick of the setting sun- a splotch of red staining the lowest blades, fresh and wet.

“Big brother,” the dragon said, unsure how to proceed, “did you see-”

Then, with a shot of trouble, he turned that gaze on the monkey’s side, Wukong’s right palm pressed against seeping red.

“You’re bleeding!” Ao Lie gasped, “big brother-”

Wukong lashed out, slamming his left hand over Ao Lie’s mouth as he pulled the dragon back, the fourth disciple trying in vain to speak over those tight fingers.

“I’m fine,” the monkey whispered, “quit screaming.”

He let go and Ao Lie almost tumbled down. Balance regained, the dragon grabbed Wukong’s arm and said, “But big brother, we need to tell Master-”

“Baldy’s got enough problems,” Wukong said, “don’t bother him, got that? I’ll take care of it.”


“Bailong, drop it.”

Ao Lie’s reply was interrupted by the pig’s return, Bajie happily declaring that there was nothing left to tend. And Wujing again perched his bottom by Wukong’s form, the second disciple wasting no time in following suit. But Liang Guo’s voice rang out next.

“Demons! Dinner! Wrap up your work and get over here!”

“Finally!” Wujing said.

As the other three stood to leave, Ao Lie found his eyes still glued to that red stain, unsure if he would have the appetite to eat anything more.

Chapter Text

Moonfield was a communal village, a family of people who worked and played and ate as one. Its farmers were no different, as the Tang priest’s disciples soon learned. On the border between town and field, the three were ushered into a line by long-toiling farmers, each clinging to fine clay bowls, as plain as they were sturdy. Wujing eyed the hatless heads in front of him, those men refusing to acknowledge the demon’s looming presence while their shoulders grew stiff all the same. He turned to stare at the men behind, gaze met with glares and downcast eyes, his fellow pilgrims scuffling the grassfed dirt.

“We’re not really sharing our food with these things, are we?” a man whispered to his fellow worker.

“Old Liang’s lost her mind,” was the grunted reply.

And having picked up on those sounds, the dragon prince turned his head and said with a frown, “What did you just call us?”

“Eavesdropping huh? I’m calling you for what you are- monsters and freaks.” With that, the man turned back to his companion, sparing no more than a second glare.

Ao Lie: “I am a prince, you cretin-”

“Now, now, little brother,” Bajie said as he ruffled the fourth disciple’s hair with a heavy hand, “remember Master’s orders. We’re not to get into fights with the locals, no matter how… uncouth.”

“They’re asking for a beating is what this is,” Wujing growled.

Wukong placed an arm on Wujing’s shoulder, tapped his fingers one by one, and said, low, “Keep that up and you’ll be the one asking for a beating, asshole.”

“Demons, move it,” the chieftess’ son ordered, stepping out of line to join the disciples where they stood, “or I’ll force you lot.”

Liang Guo prodded their group along, his deadpan glare alone prompting the cook up front to heap enough rice for three mouths into each of their bowls. The cook made to give them fresh pork when Liang said, “they’re vegetarian.”

And with a touch of disappointment, the disciples took their meal of cabbage and radish, and walked to the farthest bench, the farmers behind them taking care to sit as far from them as could be. As far as Bajie was concerned, that was for the best, for he was not fond of cannibalism. Irritated by his growling stomach, Friar Sand all but shoved rice down his throat, silently blaming the cook’s bad skill for how long that took.

“It’s better than your cooking,” Ao Lie said truthfully, picking at the radish in his bowl, trying in vain to imagine it as shrimp.

Wujing: “Fuck you, brat!”

“Fuck you both,” Wukong said, fumbling with his chopsticks as he bent over his bowl, nose near touching rice, “just eat so we can go.”

“Boss, can you eat that way?” Bajie asked. The pig mimicked the first disciple’s bend, but found himself at a loss when he tried to maneuver those chopsticks.

In response, Wukong flicked a chopstick at his eye and Bajie reeled backwards with a high yelp of pain, specks of rice sprinkling between them. “What’s it to you!?”

“Ah- ah! I’m sorry, boss!”

The monkey cast him one last glower as Bajie recovered, grunted, and returned to his bowl, chopsticks in hand. He shoveled a wad of cut cabbage into his mouth in an effort to keep down a telltale hiss. The wound in his side throbbed like a splintering bone, warm blood bursting over stitch after stitch with each move he made. And ignoring that ache, he ate on with a sour glare, the pain gaining twofold with every bite he took.

The dragon set his bowl on his lap and eyes on the first disciple, felt his hand move to his side of its own accord, wincing as he imagined the fire of that monkey’s stinging wound. Simply looking at Wukong was enough for the prince to feel his own skin throb. Ao Lie rubbed away the nonexistent pain and again picked up his bowl.

“Big brother,” he said.


Wukong’s index finger was poised on the left chopstick, thumb ready to toss the utensil at Ao Lie’s head any given second. This, the dragon saw, and Bajie’s swollen eye was warning enough of what would happen if he so much as said the wrong word.

Ao Lie: “N- nothing.”

The monkey went back to eating and Ao Lie found himself once more chewing his food with guilty swallows, quite sure he would have made the wrong choice no matter what course he took: betray big brother or let him suffer on.

“Why the long face, little brother?” Bajie asked, a condescending edge to the last word.

“Better than your face,” the prince said in return.

Wujing released a chuckle that sounded like a choking snort.

“You’ve got no right to laugh,” Bajie huffed, “you’re the handsomest one here after all, aren’t you?”

Wujing: “Ha, you said so yourself! What’s wrong with being the handsomest here, huh?”

Ao Lie: “More like the strangest one.”

To the dragon’s protest, Wujing pinched one of those two horns and said, “I’m not the one with these growing out of my head.”

Bajie: “Can’t argue there!”

Wukong: “Assholes, shut up and eat.”

He slid his bowl in Bajie’s direction, stood, and wandered back into the high fields with a dim statement, “Clean my bowl. I have to piss.”

Friar Sand released Ao Lie and the pair exchanged glares before returning to what remained of their bowls, oblivious to the grim eyes of Moonfield’s farmers and their silent begone judgment. And though the monkey seemed to pay it no mind, Bajie knew the air around was tense, and as the red sun set, the tenser it only grew.

Xuanzang rejoined his disciples not long after the tables were cleared, tongue thoroughly worn out by the sermons he’d preached throughout the afternoon. He’d eaten a vegetarian meal with Chieftess Liang, blessed the village altars, and upon retrieval by Liang Guo, was relieved to find the four loitering by the fields, which they had thankfully not destroyed with their presence alone.

“About time you got here, baldy,” Wukong said, tugging at that cloak, a stick of wood in his teeth.

“Amitabha,” the monk sighed, “the fields are in one piece. So you thugs can do something right after all.”

“Master, we worked really hard!” Ao Lie protested.

Wujing: “Hard? All you did was run around with water!”

Bajie held up his palms for the Tang priest to see and mock-weeping, said, “Oh Master, see what this hard toiling has done to my flesh! See the wounds and callouses!”

Xuanzang squinted. “Wuneng, your hands are fine…”

“Really, baldy? You’re actually humoring this asshole?” Wukong laughed.

Xuanzang: “Watch it, bad monkey, or I’ll-”

“Use your sodding palm, blah blah, what else is new.”


“Holy man!” Liang Guo said, coming up from behind and smacking the monk’s shoulder, sending Xuanzang stumbling forward yet again, “come, bless the bonfire. It’s about to start.”


Wukong: “Better do what he says, Master.”

“Liang Guo, I’ll be there right away,” the monk said, throwing his disciples a wary glance, “and I don’t want to hear a peep out of you four.”

“My lips are shut, Master!” Bajie said, “for as long as you wish-”

He was silenced when Wukong flung a knuckle over his mouth. He stumbled back in pain as the monkey grinned. Xuanzang watched them with a sad shake of the head before he turned to join the men gathered in the field.

The chieftess’ son lit a torch and passed it on, and one after the other, the men’s cressets were set alight. As if poked by Moonfield’s eyes, the Tang priest marched into the path those villagers took, the shadows of his companions passing behind. In the moonless dark, he could see nothing save what the torch fire touched-- grim faces flashing like pale masks, the ghostly heads of young and old, men and women. And as they neared its center, the field rose like a grassy ocean, grey and black in the night.

Liang Guo tapped a log of charred wood with his toe, no doubt from the night before, and rounded the pile of remaining logs. He gestured with his free hand and his men stepped forward to dump their fresh firewood atop those left over. Then he turned the torch on Xuanzang and said, “Holy man, do what you’ve got to do.”

As if on cue, every bit of light was cast on him, and Xuanzang soon found himself in a circle of fire, orange and red shadows bobbing towards him like devilish ghosts. He stepped back and heard Wukong grunt when his heel dug into the monkey’s foot. He slid a glance behind and saw his disciples gathered in place, their group of five having found themselves trapped in that tribe of flames. And for a moment, he wondered if Liang Guo meant to cast the first torch and burn them to ash on the spot.

“Of course,” the priest said instead.

He cleared his throat, closed his eyes, and clapped his hands in prayer. He clutched the beads around his neck and bowed at the wood, willing his fate in Lord Buddha’s hands. The task done, he again turned to Liang Guo and said, “It’s done.”

“Then step back,” Liang Guo said, the monk wasting no time in complying.

The man moved past Xuanzang, his fellow torchbearers following suit as they parted around the pilgrims like a swarm of burning fireflies, sparing each disciple an odd glance. In front, they pressed their flames to the sitting wood, torch tips turning into smoke whilst the new fire grew and grew. It spread from corner to corner, blanketing that piece of field with yellow and red, the bonfire swirling bright against the coal colored sky.

Transfixed, Xuanzang stared with the rest of those there, heat and sparks flying past his face, bits of ash touching his still nose. He hadn’t been this close to fire since Red Boy’s tantrum in the court of Biqu and even that demon’s Samadhi flames had never been this seductive to his wide eyes. Amitabha , he thought, because these flames were made by mortal men, and then, he wondered if there was any difference between fire and flame.

“I don’t see any demons,” Ao Lie said from behind.

“Quiet, I’m trying to look,” Wujing said, eyes concentrated on what lay past that fire.

Ao Lie: “Look harder! This is so crass.”

“Crass? I think this mob’s gone mad,” Bajie muttered.

“Mad or not,” Wukong said, one eye shut as he looked on, “seems to be working. And here they come…”

“Boss, what are- oh, ugh.”

Ahead, a pack of wolves surged forward, near impossible to distinguish from the rocks and shadows around. Xuanzang squinted as they howled, realizing those heads were some mixture of man and beast, each body too large for even the strongest wolf. The woodland devils . He saw them pounce at the wall of fire, shrieking in pain upon impact, red eyes brighter than even the flames themselves. And still, they clawed and yelled in the ever-growing fire, gnawed with hunger and cursed bloodlust.

“Begone demons!” Liang Guo yelled.

“Begone! Begone!” the crowd joined in. The demons snarled, high roars turned to screams as they burnt to bone, and soon, Xuanzang could barely hear the difference between Moonfield’s chanting and the devils’ cries.

“How stupid can they get?” Bajie said, “who would walk through fire?”

“They’re not stupid,” Wujing answered, “it’s arrogance. They want to prove the village wrong and if they get in, these people are good as dead.”

Ao Lie: “That… that’s worse. Big brother, what do you think?”

Wukong heard the question, but deigned to answer, lost in thought as he watched the little devils burn. It was enough to blind and he had no doubt the smoke would soon cover their crimson eyes, as it had covered his so long ago, and then Marshal Ma’s. It must have been the same sight to Beng and the others when Erlang Shen’s fire spread and spread, Huaguo’s demons screaming in vain as it burned on, until all was ash and soot-charred earth.

And dizzy, the first disciple looked away, a slight nausea bubbling within. He turned his back on the fire and made a straight path for Moonfield village.

“Wukong, where are you going?” Xuanzang called.

“The inn!” he replied, “turning in.”

“Oh.” Then, hesitating, the monk added, “be-”

But Wukong had disappeared into the high stalks by then.

“-careful,” Xuanzang finished.

He looked at his remaining disciples, but the three were thoroughly distracted by the bonfire at work. Even the villagers had eyes for none but the burning fire, and still, the Tang priest couldn’t help but feel that there were several eyes on his back. He was sure, then, that this was not imagined. And unsure what else to do, he rubbed the beads once more.

Bajie found it rather difficult adjusting to the dark after the field’s bonfire debacle, his ears still sore from the burnt devils’ ringing howls. In the distance, that fire still burned, but the crowd around had long since dispersed, himself included. Ao Lie and Wujing were bickering beside him, arguing about which direction to take, a moot point in the pig’s opinion, seeing as their Master was leading on quiet steps.

“Boss was right,” the second disciple said to his brothers, “we should have left early. That took far too long.”

“Brutal customs for brutal peasants,” Ao Lie added.

“Like you would know,” Wujing mumbled.

And ahead, the Tang priest screamed as he rounded the corner of the CRESCENT TIGER’S INN.

“Master!” Ao Lie cried, the disciples quick to flank the monk’s side, only to see the man trembling on himself.

“Oh, Master Sanzang,” a surprised voice said, “I’m terribly sorry for the fright!”

Xuanzang bowed in embarrassment, quite sure the two demons were laughing behind his back, and said, “No, I’m sorry. Madame Sun, it’s been a long day.”

The innkeeper’s wife nodded, for once without the babe in her arms. “I hope the bonfire didn’t disturb you. It’s a heavy sight.”

Though the warning came too late, Xuanzang appreciated it nonetheless. He hugged himself against the sudden night chill and forced a smile in that woman’s direction, unsure if she bumped into him by coincidence or more.

Xuanzang: “It’s getting late, Madame Sun. I think it would be wise for you to retire too.”

“About that, venerable elder, I was hoping to-”

“Yachi?” Liang Guo asked.

Five heads turned around, the chieftess’ son approaching with a lantern in hand, brow covered in sweat and cheeks red from the firelit heat.

“Liang Guo,” the woman said, holding the younger Liang’s gaze for a moment before she looked away.

“Master Sanzang, I’ll be going now. Goodnight.”


Madame Sun offered the disciples a farewell smile, slowed her steps as she passed Liang Guo, and crossed the street without a backwards glance. Liang Guo waited for her shape to fade into shadow and sighed, the sound so forlorn Bajie was by him in an instant.

“Sir Liang,” the pig said, “did you have a lover’s past?”

“None of your concern demon! Now get inside, all of you.”

“Bajie,” Xuanzang hissed, pulling the second disciple back and bowing in apology before the chieftess’ son.

Liang Guo scoffed and opened the door. As the pilgrims filed in, he said to Xuanzang, “You’re lucky, holy man. If you lot traveled during the blood moon cycle, those devils would’ve come for your heads. Best to stay until it passes.”

“I understand.”

Still feeling as if he was being watched, Xuanzang entered last, only for the chieftess’ face to appear before him with a welcoming grin. And all thoughts forgotten, the monk screamed again.

Chieftess Liang had assigned the pilgrims to one room, spacious enough to fit two beds and a table between. After a period of much bickering, Xuanzang divided their quarters into five: Wujing and Bajie would share one bed, while he and Wukong took the other, and assuming nobody moved in the night, they would be able to make do. Ao Lie had the choice of picking one or the other, and with no hesitation, he chose to bunk with his eldest brother.

The prince had headed for the bed immediately after and curled into a corner, looking much like a white snake in the candlelight. Wujing and Bajie lay side by side on the opposite bed, either fast asleep or too tired to talk. And Wukong was dangling by the window, peering out for whatever it was that the Tang priest feared so.

“Still don’t see anything, baldy,” the monkey said.

“Then try harder,” Xuanzang ordered, “are those fiery eyes for nothing?”

Wukong: “I feel like a pervert.”

“Stop complaining!”


The monkey stared out again, poked his head left and right, and turned back with a negative nod. Xuanzang made to force him again when he heard the first disciple’s sharp gasp. And the outside forgotten, he grabbed Wukong’s arm and asked, “What was that?”

“What was what?”

“That noise!”

“What noise?”

“Don’t mess with me, bad monkey. You made a disgusting sound.”

“Your voice is disgusting.”

Xuanzang tugged his sleeve, glared, and said, “Quit it. Come here and let me see.”

“See what?”

Wukong .”

“Let it go, baldy.”

“Alright… My child, my child, why -”

“Wait! Wait! Don’t be so hasty. I’m coming, Master.”

Wukong rolled his eyes, snatched his arm out of Xuanzang’s grip, and dropped on the ground, legs crossed one over the other. The Tang priest circled him, prodding at his backside for signs of blood before coming up front and sitting across. Lips pursed, Xuanzang placed his hands on Wukong’s chest, pushed the cloak aside, and lifted the fabric that covered his dressed torso. And blanched.

The bandages were stained with browned blood, the puncture on his side held together with leaves dyed red, no doubt fresh picked and slapped over the very same day.

“What’s up with this, bad monkey?” the monk said, “how long has this been bleeding?”

“It’s not bleeding now.”

“Why would you hide this from me!?”

“Let me go, baldy,” Wukong mumbled, prying the Master’s hands away and spinning on his bottom until the monk’s eyes faced his back.

“You,” Xuanzang spat, “you’re going to get yourself killed this way.”

“What part of ‘immortal’ do you not understand?”

He knew that word no longer applied. Then, reminded of his exchange with the earth god, Xuanzang sucked in a breath and stiffened, outraged by the audacity of that lie. Who’s the Master here anyway, monkey?

“Fine, have it your way, damn ape,” he said, jabbing a finger at Wukong’s back, though he was quite sure the latter couldn’t see it, “but did you ever think for one second what would become of the rest of us? If you’re that heartless, then fine, abandon our journey!”

Wukong snorted, head sliding to fall on a lazy palm. “You’re fucking noisy, baldy.”

The finger fell, Xuanzang’s head lowering as his eyes shifted to those flickering candles, wax waning into the night. And voice down to a near wisp, he said, “Then at least stop and think what would become of me… without you.”

Wukong said nothing, stone still as he stared ahead, and worn out by the day’s events, Xuanzang decided he could care less if that demon heard or not. He climbed to his feet, discarded his cassock, placed it by the bed in a folded pile, and took his place upon the bed. Ao Lie barely moved as the monk lay flat, eyes glued to the wood ceiling.

“And blow out those candles when you’re ready to sleep, stinky monkey,” Xuanzang said, “it’s too bright.”

On the opposite bed, Bajie opened one eye to a half slit and pointed his sight at the first disciple’s back. He’d heard enough of that conversation to know it was best to feign ignorance. This, he would share with the fish in the morning. How interesting , he thought, how tantalizingly interesting .

Then, for a moment, he wondered if a shadow had flit by their window.

As expected, the following day met the pilgrims with even more of Moonfield’s glares, nearly every villager convinced that the priest from Tang would turn his demons on their home at any given moment. And this rumor, as Xuanzang soon learned, came from the loud and respected mouth of Officer Yi.

“He’s still holding a grudge?” Ao Lie said in disbelief over the breakfast table, Liang Guo having delivered that news with no shred of affection.

“Of course he is,” Wukong replied, “it’s only been a day. Men like him are the pettiest.”

“Petty?” Xuanzang said, “what’s wrong with you four? You assaulted that man the day before! He has every right to be mad at us.”

“Now, now, don’t hold it against him, venerable elder,” Chieftess Liang said as she poured more tea, Wujing thirstily emptying his cup while Bajie picked at his stiff steam bun.

“Officer Yi’s always been a rash boy,” she said, patting Liang Guo on the arm, “and as long as you boys stay in line, there won’t be any more trouble.”

Xuanzang: “Hear that? No more trouble!”

Wukong: “Speak for yourself, baldy.”

The Tang priest shot him a glare, but refused to bicker on, and this did not go unnoticed by the second disciple. Bajie cleared his throat and said, “Well, if all’s said and done, are we to work in the fields again? Or would the beautiful chieftess prefer-”

He lowered his gaze in Liang’s direction and all but purred out, “company.”

Then Liang Guo was upon him, fists wrapped around the pig’s robes as he pulled the demon into a tight choke hold, the second disciple gasping all the while. “Have you no fucking shame, demon!? My mother is eighty!”

“Ah- punish- ah- me!”

“Careful, boy!” Wujing laughed, “you’re making him happier!”

Liang Guo: “You perverted fucks!”

Ao Lie watched this go on for a good two minutes before he looked to the monk and said, “Master, should we break this up?”

As if pulled from his thoughts, the monk blinked and nodded, his calm face a stark contrast to the scene at hand. “Oh, yes. Wukong, take care of this.”

The monkey lifted a foot and kicked that table on its back, Bajie and Liang Guo flipping with it as they rolled through the air. Diving back down, they fell into Wukong’s grip, one collar in each of his hands. When Bajie opened his mouth to speak, Wukong dropped them both, demon and man slamming into the ground with separate cries.

“Now where was I?” the Chieftess said, “Officer Yi can be a rash boy. Ah, there we go.”

Liang Guo spoke as little as possible to the disciples in the fields, no doubt embittered by their morning incident, much to the demon trio’s amusement and Ao Lie’s irritation. And so, throughout the afternoon, he made sure to be clear in who he was- the dragon prince of the western sea, with no affiliation to demonkind. In response, Liang Guo had simply said, “Uh huh.”

Again, his senior brothers worked the fields, plowing through like some unholy force, their combined efforts doing twice the labor of every farmer there. On account of their productivity, Liang Guo said nothing more of their last argument, and though he was grateful for this, Ao Lie couldn’t help but look to the others present.

“Look at the imp go,” he heard a farmer say.

“Hope he doesn’t stab us with those horns,” another said.

And Ao Lie twisted his head to shout, “I am a dragon, you uncultured peasants!”

With a huff, he walked on, water buckets sloshing at his sides, but that outburst did little to dissuade their gossip:

“It’s unnatural, the way those three work.”

“You’ll have nightmares about the blue one.”

“That mask creeps me out.”

“Didn’t that first one say he was a monkey? Looks like he’d eat you on the spot.”

“Chieftess is getting senile, eh?”

“Hear, hear.”

Ao Lie assumed that the demons could hear their comments too, and seeing as his senior brothers regarded them with nothing save a proud amusement, he opted not to engage further. He was too busy running back and forth anyway, and thus, the afternoon passed once more, sun setting into dusk. And soon, the figure of the Tang priest appeared before them, the Master having spent a day trying to speak with Officer Yi.

“So how’d it go, Master?” Wujing asked, Xuanzang gesturing for the four to join him at a distance, far from the farmers’ ears.

“Terrible,” the monk sighed, “such a narrow-minded little man. I mean, yes, the lot of you did try to kill him, but me? I’ve been nothing but the epitome of a good priest! Of course, I won’t say that because I’m low-key.”

Wukong: “Did he arrest you?”

Xuanzang: “Chieftess Liang stopped him. Anyway, that’s not the point. I have something important to tell you, all of you.”

“A secret? How juicy, Master,” Bajie said, Ao Lie nodding in agreement.

It was the fourth night of what these mortals called the Blood Moon Cycle. What an ugly name , she thought. It was such a boring name, unspecific and lacking in a certain poetry. Had it been up to her, the cycle would have had a much better name. She shook her head in pity for these small people, swaying grass tickling her legs as she made her way through the high fields.

Ahead, she was them approach, that man’s scent so near. It was a hard scent to forget, almost mouthwateringly memorable. She laughed, silent, as they neared, the Tang priest’s handsome visage at the lead, their shapes illuminated by the little fires behind. The monkey was next, followed by the pig and fish, and a boy whose pretty face she would surely have recognized.

They were exactly as she remembered, and seeing them then, she wanted nothing more than to tear them to itty bitty bits. And now they were close, so so close.

She stopped behind a curtain of high stalks, the Tang priest’s pilgrims chatting among themselves a few feet away, as oblivious as the sky above. Then they stopped speaking altogether, stiff in their spots and breaths baited in. The first disciple turned first, slowly lifting a finger to stick in her direction, and twig bouncing in his mouth, said, “Do you ever feel stupid, getting tricked by us all the time?”

Then, he cocked his head and added, “Come out.”

And begrudgingly, she applauded them with clap after clap, snarl twisting into a grin as she stepped out.

Chapter Text

Eyes pinned to the rustling stalks ahead, Wukong kept a digit aimed at that emerging figure. The others held their breaths beside him, Xuanzang holding one hand forward, as if ready to call on the Sodding Palm if need be. Pale yellow robes waved under wind, bare legs tickled by grass beneath, a rich sash of gold and silver shimmering as a woman’s waist eased into view. Then silk and steel glinted and glistened, a shining headpiece above a head of flowing dark hair. And when that long hair parted, Wukong lowered his hand, satisfied that his order had been met.

The newcomer’s lips split into a scarlet grin, her eyes lined with golden paint, and a powdered glow about her cheeks. Flashing white teeth, she laughed and said, near snapping, “So you caught me. Good for you, good for you! It’s been a while and I did so miss you all.”

Ao Lie gasped. “You’re-”

The dragon furrowed his brows and looked to Xuanzang. “Who is this?”

Wukong: “Minister Jiu Gong. Now, what did ol’ Tathagata call you again? ”

The monkey laughed, a low condescending snarl, and said, “The Nine-Headed Immortal Golden Vulture, that’s it. He let you out so soon, nine heads?”

“Or maybe she broke out,” Bajie said, “you really can’t trust criminals in this day and age.”

Wujing: “What an asshole.”

Xuanzang met Jiu Gong’s gaze, noting that the mirth of her grin did not reach those vicious eyes, and said evenly, “Minister, what is your purpose? I should hope you’re not looking to fight again.”

“Yeah! You’re no match for Master’s Sodding Palm!” Ao Lie piped, before adding hesitantly, “Right, Master?”

Xuanzang placed himself in front of Ao Lie and glared at the vulture. “And I’d suggest you think twice before harming the people of Moonfield.”

“Whaaa?” Jiu Gong said in mock disbelief, pressing a hand to her heart, “Me? Harm these little villagers? I’d never do such a thing. Don’t you remember, dear priest? I only do what the heart wants.”

Then, in a blink, she was gone. The vulture appeared behind Ao Lie and drooped to his height, silks snaring him like tendrils as long fingers framed the dragon’s chin, sharp nails poking into tender skin. Holding his breath, Ao Lie watched Jiu Gong rake his features, transfixed by her wild grin. She’s mad , he thought, absolutely mad.

“Your disciples are all so adorable, aren’t they?” Jiu Gong cooed.

She pushed Ao Lie away with a rough shove and in a glide of blurred yellow, moved onto Xuanzang within a blink. The Tang priest froze as she yanked him forward, nails digging into the front of his cassock, other hand poised to strike. “But I still think you’re the cutest of them all… Tang-Tang .”

Xuanzang: “Hey, a little help here!”

“Ah, you’ll be fine, baldy,” Wukong said.

“And by cutest, I mean, most irritating.” With that, Jiu Gong released the monk, her grin finally receding into a scowl. “If not for you, I would have met all my heart’s desires. But Lord Buddha plays favorites, I suppose, and not all of us are as lucky as you .”

She gestured at all of them, taking the time to fire a glare at each of their faces, and hissed, “You fight dirty for holy men, and my only regret is not killing you all sooner. You’ve no idea what I suffered since then, and believe me, I’ve suffered. Much .”

Ao Lie: “I don’t know you.”

Jiu Gong: “Quiet, kid!”

Then she shut her eyes, sucked in a breath, and exhaled, hands opening of their own accord. She sighed and muttered, “Deep breaths, deep breaths.”

The pilgrims eyeing her with caution, Jiu Gong lowered her arms and placed them in front, palms one over the other. She opened her eyes with the faintest of twitches and smiled. “Lord Buddha’s disciplined me well. Now I can look at your faces without wanting to dismember all of you. I just wanted your band to understand that I still hate your guts with a passion.”

Xuanzang: “Uh, yes, you’ve made that very clear.”

Wujing: “We hate you too.”

Jiu Gong replaced her incoming frown with yet another serene smile, now regarding the pilgrims with heated bemusement, rage still evident in her eyes. “In return for my freedom, Lord Buddha sent me to… advise you, Tang Xuanzang.”

The monk raised both brows, jolted by the statement, and said, “Amitabha, this is a turn of events.”

“And how do we know we can trust her?” Bajie asked.

“We don’t, asshole,” Wukong replied, “it’s all baldy’s call.”

“Stop calling me that,” Xuanzang muttered before he said, louder, “I say she’s honest. Then by Lord Buddha’s orders, Minister Jiu Gong, we’ll put aside our differences.”

Jiu Gong: “Delightful, how delightful! I knew there was something between us, Tang-Tang.”

Wukong: “Then cut to the chase, nine heads. Why the fuck are you here?”

The vulture laughed, rather forcefully, and said, “Candid as always, elder Sun . I’ll be sure to cut out your tongue next time… now, why here? Our Tang priest is in a pinch. You’re being tailed, Tang-Tang dear-”

“I knew it!” Xuanzang snapped, gesturing at his disciples in validation, “see? See, bad monkey? I told you but you didn’t believe me! See? See!?”

“Shut it, baldy!” Wukong said, “I didn’t see anything! And you’re believing her over me?! What gives?”

Jiu Gong: “If you’re done interrupting, I’ll go on! You’ve caught the attention of someone who’s both bad and strong, and that does not make a good combination. So either he’s so strong this monkey didn’t notice, or you, elder Sun, are so weak, you didn’t notice.”

“Then who’s after us?” Wujing demanded.

Jiu Gong put a finger to her lips and giggled. “That’s a secret. Lord Buddha said I had to advise you- I don’t have to baby you.”

Wukong approached the former minister, kicked the cudgel up by its tip, pulled, and- whoosh!- swung down, nicking off a net of hairs as Jiu Gong slid out of temper’s way.

“Stop bullshitting!” he snarled with a yank of that staff, its end bumping into the vulture’s pointed nose. “Tell Master now or your skull’s coming off!”

Jiu Gong: “Aww, you’re going apeshit on me. Isn’t that cute?”

She shuffled away from the as-you-would cudgel, feet crunching grass as she leaned up against him, mouth near pressing cheek.

“And why’s that, monkey? Because you know I’m right, hmm?” she said in a floating hum.

Muscles twined with rage-bound nerves, Wukong bit and snapped that twig clean in two. Murder promised, he yanked the cudgel sideways and struck again, only to stop and skid when Xuanzang’s face replaced Jiu Gong’s.

Wukong: “What the fuck, baldy!?”

Between vulture and monkey, Xuanzang heaved, the cudgel before his eyes, and whispered a prayer at having avoided the disciple’s wrath. Behind him, Jiu Gong laughed.

“My bald hero,” she said in mock glee.

And ignoring her, the Tang priest said, “Wukong, calm down. The minister comes to us as a servant of Lord Buddha. Let’s just listen a little longer, alright?”

Then upon seeing the monkey’s darkening face, Xuanzang bit back the next string of words- you’re in no condition to fight anyway . Wukong gulped, the sound like lead, and locked that vicious gaze on the Master’s knowing eyes. Then all was silent.

Until Bajie spoke: “Wait, wait now- how long has this been going on? We’re on a terribly busy schedule.”

Jiu Gong pursed her lips, then said, “Since the Bodhisattva came to you.* They’ve been watching and waiting since.”

“They?” Wujing cut in, “now there’s a they ?!”

Bajie shook his head in shallow condolence. “Alas, we’re such a charming group none can resist us. But this is such heavy news- what would we do if Master was slaughtered by demons, what would we do.”

The pig leaned against Wujing’s shoulder, the fish eyeing him with disgust, and said, “Or worse yet, what if it’s not Master… oh, I’m shaking already!”

“I didn’t see anyone when I was following big brother around,” Ao Lie said.

Xuanzang cast his disciples a disapproving glance and looked again to the grinning vulture. “Then, minister, tell me, what would Lord Buddha have us do now?”

“Keep your guard up, Tang-Tang,” Jiu Gong replied, placing a seductive hand on the monk’s covered chest while her fingers roamed free, “keep this beautiful body alive and don’t lose faith. These enemies won’t fall for your tricks like I did- they’ve waited long enough to see-”

Her eyes flicked to Wukong for a split second, the demon still looking like hellfire.

“-That you’re all falling apart,” she finished.

Bajie looked from priest to vulture, unsure if the conversation would go on, and Wukong had been silent since. The second disciple prepared to break the silence when Xuanzang said, rather awkwardly in the pig’s opinion, “Thank you, minister. Along with Lord Buddha and the Bodhisattva, I’ve no doubt that Xiao San would also take pride in your efforts from the afterlife.”

Wukong: “Baldy, what the-”

Jiu Gong threw her head back and howled with laughter, body trembling with cackles from crown to toe. She shook her head between breaths and said, “Xiao San? Tang-Tang, you’re serious? You have the gall to mention her?”

Xuanzang yelped when a nail poked him in the chest.

“Don’t be righter than thou with me!” the vulture said.


“You seduced her, you used her, you killed her!”


“And well played too! I thought she was hooking you when-”


“It was you luring us!”


“But I don’t give half a fuck about that wimp of a demon, so don’t pretend you do either!”


“Don’t you blame this shit on me!”

Xuanzang found himself pedaling backwards, step by step as that finger nailed him in the chest, nigh close to breaking skin. But something in all of Jiu Gong’s spew touched a nerve, sprung, and let it bust. He stood ground and looked her on as she finished with a final poke.

Xuanzang: “You don’t give a ‘fuck’?”

He hadn’t thought of Xiao San since then, had purged her from his mind as soon as she came in, and let what had been be. And yet the minister chose to fan those flames he’d since put out: sorrow, anger, and the sliver of fondness he’d had for the dead demon.

“Minister, I must disagree,” he said, “I wish we didn’t have to lie to her, but it was your ploy that pushed us. It was you who sent her in, it was you who treated her life as nothing.”

Xuanzang clutched the beads hanging about his neck, rubbing them together as he spoke. “She was just a pawn to you. You saw a victim you could use. You knew what you were putting her up against. You ruined any chance she had of salvation.”*

Jiu Gong: “You-”

Xuanzang: “So don’t say you feel no guilt, minister. Because I can’t think of any other reason for your blaming me.”

Jiu Gong paled with unsaid rage, finally lost for words, while the disciples watched. Bajie whistled, and said, impressed, “Good speech, Master, good speech!”

Ao Lie: “Master burned you with words!”

“You weren’t even there!” Jiu Gong snapped.

Wujing: “So do you have anything else to say or is that it?”

“We ever seeing your stupid mug again?” Wukong said, batting the cudgel against his hand.

“I’ll take my leave now,” the vulture answered after a moment’s pause, “provided Tathagata lets me. And mark me, you’ll wish I’d stuck around more.”

With that, Jiu Gong turned and added, “By the way, I don’t feel guilty. Fuck you, Tang-Tang.”

Moonlight sprinkled as her robes melded into shadow, Jiu Gong disappearing into the wind with a beam of soft light, leaving nothing behind save a grass print of nine vulture heads. Xuanzang bowed and whispered, “Amitabha.”

Wujing observed the last of Jiu Gong’s light fade, calculating her warning through his head. If they had been followed since Liu Manor, the watcher would have seen them leave Wuzhuang. There would have been ample time to attack the Tang priest with the first disciple down, but nothing had happened of the sort. Then why? He thought, then why?

“Why?” Bajie heard the fish murmur.

“Why what?” the pig asked.

“Shut up, I’m thinking.”

“Then keep on thinking,” Wukong said, “I’m done here.”

While the monkey trudged past with a sour-faced glare, Ao Lie reached for his sleeve and said, “Big brother, let me come with-”

Wukong pushed out of the dragon’s grip with a muttered, “fuck off, Bailong.”

He hadn’t used that tone with the prince for days. Ao Lie stopped, dumbstruck, and lowered his disappointed hand. Wukong faded into the tall grass stalks without a word to Xuanzang and the monk did not pursue.

“What’s wrong, little brother?” Bajie said in fake sympathy, “boss doesn’t favor you anymore? Ah, how bad that must feel.”

“Like he favors you ?” Ao Lie retorted, “he’d kill you if he had the chance.”

Bajie laughed. “He couldn’t do that to me. To you, however, there are plenty of things that’d like to kill you, little brother!”

“Try me!” the dragon said, “come on, lets-”

Wujing: “I said shut up! I’m trying to think!”

Xuanzang stepped in, then, and said to his remaining disciples, “Have some shame! If any of you dare fight in Moonfield, you’re facing my Sodding Palm. You’re brothers- act like it!”

And huffing, the Tang priest walked off, back into the fields and towards the villagers by the fire.

“What’s bothering them now?” Ao Lie muttered, not daring to pursue the Master’s angry backside.

“Xiao San,” Bajie said wistfully, “she was the fourth disciple before you came, the minister’s pretty little spy.”

Wujing: “She was a demon, white bone all the way through. Master made her think she reminded him of… someone else.”

“Because she did,” Bajie mused, “she really was in love with him, but he never had eyes for her. Still had an ugly spat with the boss over her though. We say it was acting, but some things baldy said-”

“Were real,” Wujing finished.

Bajie: “Real ugly, real ugly. Even made the boss cry, you know?”

Wujing: “Master cried too. It was very dramatic. But it’s all bullshit now- Xiao San’s dead anyway.”

“Then maybe the vulture’s right,” Ao Lie said, eyes focusing on that distant fire, “maybe Master’s the one that feels guilty…” For what happened to that demon, for what he said to big brother, for everything leading back to Duan.

“And that, little brother,” said Bajie, “is what pisses eldest brother off.”

Ao Lie: “How long was Xiao San with you all?”

Bajie: “Like, a day.”

Wujing cackled, cracked and harsh, as Ao Lie released a flabbergasted, “seriously?”

“And what a day,” the pig tacked on, “what a day.”

Wukong kicked away the dead stalks in his path, soles crushing twigs as he stomped his way through the moonlit fields. He held up an arm, letting the sleeve roll down, and stared at the dimming wounds. The lacerations from Zhenyuan’s whip were almost healed and soon those harsh cuts would be nothing but scars. He wondered if the monk would notice, or if those marks would just become scars among scars, no more business of Tang Sanzang.

The Tang priest never loved the white bone demon, this much he knew, and still, he knew the girl’s death weighed on Xuanzang’s mind. Had Master truly been so desperate to save Xiao San, the monkey would have rolled his eyes and ignored all else. But he knew, that act or not, it had never been about Xiao San- for a split second, Xuanzang had seen her as Duan.

He had wanted to save Duan.

And again, the first disciple played villain, a role Xuanzang let him fill without question. Then their fallout had been a charade from start to finish, filled with petty feelings fit for the stage.

But Xuanzang had fooled him too. The monkey had thought, believed, that Xuanzang purged Xiao San from his mind, that Xuanzang knew she could never be Duan, that Xuanzang had stopped seeing him as the damndest devil around. Then the monk had mentioned Xiao San, right to the minister’s face, and then, Wukong knew that the forgiveness he dared not beg for would never be.

“What would become of me without you?” the Master had asked. And the first disciple had almost believed Xuanzang had wanted him as much as Wukong wanted-

As much as the priest wanted Duan. And perhaps for a moment, the priest did. But Tang Sanzang was lonely and damaged and oh-so-guilty. And Wukong wondered if he was as well, if he had no business envying the very woman he killed and the demon he let die, for every moment Chen Xuanzang loved Duan was every moment he would hate Sun Wukong. It was for Duan that Xuanzang mourned the white bone demon, for her that he had been so moved by the girl’s death.

Would he mourn me too?

He knew the answer. The arm went down. Wukong stopped in his tracks, shuffled his feet in the dirt, and basked in a chill of wind. He chuckled, lips twisting into a grieving smirk. He felt no jealousy for Xiao San, and perhaps even less for Duan. It was much simpler than that, he realized, because it was a strangling sorrow that pushed him along like a crying spirit. It was heartbreak, through and through.

He’d lost everything and still, he could feel that stone heart tear on and on. It’d tore in Huaguo, it’d tore for Beng and Ma and all his clan, and even before, then after, it’d tore for Xuanzang again and again, through every waking day he lived.

And for once, in a near thousand years of existence, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven wanted nothing more than for the pain to stop.

But he had a job to do. “I see you,” the monkey said, shifting to eye the grass-filled ground.

A scorpion froze, pincers clamped tight as blades of grass blew over its reddish head. Wukong let the cudgel tap the earth nearby and said, “Something your size has really got no business going against us.”

The scorpion crawled out, six legs crossing and tail blood red, its shadow the size of a pipa mandolin. The pincers clicked together, pinching up a noise that sounded like giddy laughter, a demented giggling that challenged Wukong forward.

“I heard what nine heads said,” the scorpion told him in a woman’s singsong voice, head morphing into that of a painted mask, etched red and black.

He knelt and picked her up by the waist, taking care to pinch her sides together with sadistic glee. Wukong held her up to the moonlight, glaring fire as she squirmed and writhed in his tightening grip.

“And what’d she say, asshole?” he asked dryly.

“You- you’re huuuuurting me,” the scorpion whined.

“Aw, you’re hurting me ,” he mocked back.  

“She said you’re too weak to sense us! Ahh, stop it!”

“Fuck. Something like you? I could see you from a mile away.”

The scorpion’s presence was new to the fields, this much he was certain. And another thing Wukong was sure of was this- Jiu Gong was wrong. There had been no stalker, or rather there had been no body to this invisible enemy. It was a portion of a demon that followed them, so small and insignificant that only the holy likes of Xuanzang would notice.

He flipped the scorpion on its belly, shook, and watched an eyeball roll off, veins losing hold of the scorpion’s shell.

“Hey! I need that!” she cried.

The eyeball hit the ground, turned on its back, and stared at him with a glass green iris, pupil a menacing slit.

“So this is what nine heads was yapping about,” Wukong said, nudging the eye with a foot, “go fuck yourself, demon.”

He looked again to the scorpion. “And you, who are you working for? Who's fucking eyeball is that?”

“I’d rather die than tell you, meanie!”

The monkey grinned, feeling much nastier than he had in a very long time. And- scrunch!- the scorpion’s ribs crushed in his hand. As she struggled for escape, he lifted her high, laughed, and dangled her over an open mouth.

Wukong: “You’d rather die, eh? Fine with me!”

“No! No! No! Stop it-”

He opened wider and prepared to toss her in, ready to bite down and swallow her in one spiteful gulp when- “Help me!” - a man’s terrified screech pierced the silent air. Stunned, he dropped the wounded demon, swept the cudgel over his shoulder, and dashed in the direction of that desperate cry. And under his shadow, the eyeball rolled away.

Running towards the sound of that scream, Xuanzang pushed past the high stalks obscuring his way, three disciples at his heels. He felt for the center and stepped out onto open grass, everything grey and orange in night and fire. Top-knot undone, a man lay in a shallow ditch, body muffled in bloodied silk, an all too familiar web making its way across his head. And as he wailed, the first disciple stood in front, batting away a pack of blazing devils with the as-you-would staff.

“What happened!?” the monk yelled.

Wukong turned a head of gold, face encased with bristling fur, and said, “Like hell I’d know!”

Wujing: “Boss, look out!”

A wolf collided with the monkey’s chest, saliva swinging as its teeth sunk into the plate of Wukong’s shoulder. The first disciple slid the cudgel back, dug a knee into the devil’s back, and flipped it all the way round. Then- “change!”- the cudgel stretched and burst through the wolf’s backside with a splash of blood. Wukong tossed the corpse aside, faced the pack once more, and returned those snarls with his own.

Ao Lie entered the ditch at Xuanzang’s behest, and together, they pulled the man out, silk trailing like entrails behind. While the dragon’s claws undid his binds, the man looked to the Tang priest and said, “Venerable elder! Venerable elder, help!”

“You can relax!” Xuanzang said, “my disciples and I are here to save the night, but we won’t say that because we’re low-key!”

Ao Lie: “So you better be grateful, peasant.”

The man shook his head as the silk came loose. Clinging to Xuanzang, he struggled out of his webbed prison and gasped, “Not me! The village!”

Ao Lie tilted his gaze upwards, saw his seniors tearing their way through the pack amongst blood and howls, and stared into the bonfire.

“The fire-” he began.

“Won’t work,” that man said, “not on bigger demons! I-”

He clutched Xuanzang’s hand, eyes wet. “It was me, venerable elder. I was in a daze- I wasn’t thinking- I was- I don’t know.”

Xuanzang: “Calm down, venerable sir, what did you do?”

“I told their chieftain-”

Wujing cut open a dashing wolf with his spinning spade, crimson flying out as the moon fell into scarlet shadow. Fire became smoke. Moonfield screamed. And all was black.

“-how to put out the fire,” the man ended.

Xuanzang held him, baiting breath as his eyes sought for light. Ao Lie’s hair shone pink in the moonlight, that moon eclipsed with blood red. The dragon looked to Xuanzang and said, “Master, what do we do?”

“We do as he says,” the monk said, “exorcise Moonfield and-”

“Yachi!” the man gasped, “venerable elder, my wife, she doesn’t know yet- please save her-”

That name sparked in the Tang priest’s mind, the image of the innkeeper’s wife coming forth. Then the man in his arms was none other than the husband, Sun.

Xuanzang: “I will, good sir. Even if it kills us.”

Ao Lie: “That’s right- wait, us ?”

Xuanzang shushed him and said, “Hurry, tell me what happened. I can’t help if I don’t know.”

Sun shifted, looking left and right as he shook the webs off, much to the chagrin of Xuanzang’s robes. “I’ve been sleepwalking, dreaming of- someone very dear. But it must’ve been a demon’s work. I don’t know how long this trick’s gone on, but she asked me how to put out the bonfire... I said: with sea breeze. Then her arms became-”

He pointed at the remains of the trapping silk and said, “this.”

Xuanzang bit his lip, mind clicking to the last time he saw Madame Sun, and blamed himself for not realizing sooner. She’d wanted his help, then, for she worried over her husband’s ailing spirit, but soon dismissed it as a petty fear when Liang Guo interrupted. And the Tang priest too had been distracted from the matter at hand. Now the consequences bled around them like burning night.

“Go back to the village,” Xuanzang ordered, “tell them not to worry. Get Master Liang, and I’ll-”

Sun: “Elder!”

Before the next word even whispered, the monk was pulled back, falling in a heap of flapping robes and screams as low shadows bound his ankles down. Xuanzang clawed at the dirt, pulling grass and earth while he called through grit teeth: “Wukong!”

The first disciple heard, pounded another wolf back, brought the cudgel upon its skull, and charged forward in a flurry of dusted blood. He flew past the innkeeper as Ao Lie ducked, and landed in front of the struggling priest. Behind, a mass of shadows tugged at the monk’s legs, eyeball over eyeball swirling within its dark shape.

“So you’re the asshole fucking with us?” the monkey growled.

“Don’t talk to it! Save me!” Xuanzang snapped.

Wukong: “I’m getting there, baldy!”

The monkey’s arms stretched, hands latching onto Xuanzang’s shoulders as the shadows tugged and tugged. The Tang priest cried out when Wukong managed to wrangle one leg free, the shadow snapping back behind them. Then those hundred eyes rolled back and through, until a hole of a mouth revealed itself, glistening red under the blood moon.

“Tang Sanzang, I won’t let go until I have your life!” it roared.

Xuanzang: “What did I ever do to you!?”

“You know full well what you did! You and your bastard disciples!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Wukong said, “cut the crap!”

He swung the cudgel down and a dark tendril rose to catch it midway, staff and shadow inches from the Tang priest’s head.

“You murdered my sworn sisters- the spiders of Silken Cave! For that, you’ll pay!”

With that, the shadows charged forth, enveloping the monk in a cloud of black and bouncing the first disciple left. Wukong tumbled, staff in hand, and recovered in time to see Xuanzang reach forth. And mind blank, the monkey reached back, fur grazing finger as the priest pulled away.

“Wukong, I’ll! Be fine!” Xuanzang cried, “save Moonfield!”


“I have the Sodding Palm! Go!”

A wolf fell over the first disciple, then, taking him down in another tackle as eye upon eye spread over the devil’s shadow, the Tang priest carried away with each melting tendril. Wukong rolled, climbing over the wolf as he watched Xuanzang fade from view, teeth bared in a screeching snarl. He bit into the demon under, tore it limb from limb, and turned, staff over shoulder, Moonfield in view.

Behind, the Buddha’s Sodding Palm shot from the heavens, gold against red as it parted clouding smoke. Wujing swatted another wolf back, twisting his spade through its throat, and looked to the skies with a silent gasp. The palm swept down, crushing what appeared to be the silhouette of centipede legs, and stayed stiff as those legs fought back.

“Quit staring!” Ao Lie said, “we have to save Master!”

The dragon ran past Friar Sand, the innkeeper trying in vain to keep up, their hands barely tangled. Then a golden head popped between, Wukong yanking both back by the folds of their sleeves.

“We’re going to Moonfield,” the monkey ordered, “Bailong, take this asshole. Wujing, Bajie, with me!”

Ao Lie: “But-”

Wukong: “We take care of the village, then we save Master. Baldy’s so dumb he won’t have it any other way.”

Wujing: “Sounds like Master.”

“Come on,” Wukong said as he took off,  “the quicker, the better!”

And still spinning from the carnage at hand, Bajie gathered his rake and jumped after with a call of, “Boss, what if we leave baldy behind-”

“Oh, shut up!” the monkey snapped.

Xuanzang braced himself for a tumble as the devil’s tendrils rippled left and right beneath him. Arms raised high, he leapt down, the golden palm striking along while he dropped below. Those shadows pursued, thousand eyes rolling about, pupils swirling like a mass of poisoned petals around the Tang priest. He fell against the wrist of the Buddha’s summoned hand, gulped, and let another spell out his lips.

The palm slammed through that demon’s defense, squashing a cluster of eyeballs flat and dispelling a spike of shadow into solid red. The demon howled in a mix of rage of pain, retreating into a man’s naked shape, his skin tattooed with shadows coiled, and body littered with eyes sunken in. On his chest, Xuanzang saw the white shape of a centipede’s mark, as if the creature itself was buried into that ribcage.

But the monk knew all too well that the body was but a shape, and the demon’s true face lay in the centipede itself.

A golden thumb pressed against the demon’s head, ready to crush every bone in one swift push should the Tang priest wish.

“I hadn’t meant for them to die,” Xuanzang said, solemn.

“It must be so easy,” the centipede said through a quivering throat, cradling his bleeding arm, “to say that from there. I thought you of all people would know, priest… how it is to lose what you love.”

Xuanzang stiffened, willed himself not to fall for the demon’s tricks, and said, “I deal with my own ghosts. And I hope no loud mouths are spreading rumors in the world.”

The centipede extended his good arm, palm open as he begged, near-human tears streaking down those dark cheeks. “Then please, if you can’t bring my sisters back, spare me, let their memory live with me.”

Xuanzang: “I won’t ask for forgiveness, but for your life, I ask that you leave the village be.”


“I failed them, but your soul, I can help.”

That said, the Tang priest took the demon’s hand into his own, genuine grace in his eyes. Because for all his tricks, all his schemes, and all his boasts, Xuanzang was and always would be a kind man. At his core, he knew there was risk, but he took it all the same.

“Master Sanzang! Stop!” a voice cried.

He knew there was a chance this dare would work, as it had with Xiao San and those four disciples.

Xuanzang glanced up, a figure in the distance, familiar black beard flowing down and a tassel in a white-sleeved hand. The Immortal Zhenyuan, patriarch of the local earth, flew towards him, alight with panic.

And he knew there was a chance this dare would not, as with Honghaier and the minister before.

Zhenyuanzi arrived one step late. Then the centipede’s shadows struck, looped around the Tang priest’s arm, and- snap!- broke the bone in two.

“Yachi!” Sun called, stumbling forward as his wife fell into his web-covered arms, the babe in between.

“What’s going on?” the woman asked, “what is this- where- where’s the venerable elder?”

“It’s all his fault,” Wujing said, towering over the couple as he caught a pair of incoming wolves and- crack!- broke their necks.

“You should have kept your mouth shut,” Wujing spat at Sun, “now look at all the shit we have to do!”

The fish turned to the plight of Moonfield village, its people running wild and waving torches in a desperate bid to survive the woodland devils, that clan of demons coming through the fields in a never-ending pack of teeth and fur. In the village square, Bajie held his rake, and like a dreidel, spun, until those nine prongs rendered the demons around him blood and meat.

Ao Lie ran around and grabbed Yachi by the wrist. “You and the child, come with me!”

Wujing: “You trying to run away, brat?!”

“I’m not a coward, you dolt!” the dragon snapped back, “if you had any manners, you’d know that we aid women and children first!”

Yachi: “I still don’t know what’s going on!”

“Ask your dipshit of a husband!” Wukong growled, jolting the innkeeper’s family as he landed behind, cudgel still spinning in his hands.

“I knew this would happen!” Officer Yi accused from the rooftop, cowering along with the rest atop.

Wujing looked up and yelled, “Like hell you did!”

Ao Lie ushered Yachi towards the center of the square, a crowd of villagers already rounded, and yelped when a fallen wolf gripped his ankle. A spear came down and pierced its head.

Chieftess Liang lifted her weapon, flicked the blood off, and straightened the white headband around her head, a strip of yellowed cloth: “Have no fear! We’ll send these vermin back to hell by the time this night’s over!”

“Kill or be killed!” Liang Guo added, joining with his own weapon. He scanned the villagers’ faces and the demons crowding in before asking Ao Lie, “Where’s your Master?”

“Kidnapped by demons,” the dragon replied honestly.

Liang Guo: “Fuck. I knew you lot were bad luck.”

“It’s not their fault,” Yachi said.

Upon noticing her, the younger Liang was by Madame Sun’s side immediately, Yachi awkwardly sandwiched between him and Sun as Ao Lie looked on. The senior disciples backed up into the crowd, the villagers retreating with them as the wolves crawled forward.

“Trai-tors!” the devils chanted, voices jumbled and low, as if speaking for the first and last time, “trai-tors!”

“Traitors?” Bajie said, “are you talking to us? Why, I’d never.”

Wukong laughed, pointed the staff, and said, “Oh, that’s a first!”

Wujing joined in and Ao Lie chuckled nervously as his brothers cackled, little difference between their manic laughter and the growls of those devils.

“We know you!” one of the woodland devils said, rising on two legs as it took pseudo-human shape, “we know all of you!”

And the pack went on.

“General Juanlian, Marshal Tienpeng! You were celestials, weren’t you? But look at you here! No better than us! No better than us!”

“Better looking, at least!” Bajie charged back.

But his voice was drowned out when the demons spoke on. “Heaven’s outcasts, unwanted up, unwanted down- nothing but freaks, freaks, freaks!”

“That’s it- I’ll rip them apart!” Wujing cried, rushing forward and grasping two wolves by the throat.

“Heaven’s convicts, demon’s traitors!” the pack chanted.

And it was then that it occurred to Ao Lie- these were not the thoughts of every wolf in unison, but rather a mantra beat into their brains, over and over by whoever this ringleader was. And before he could voice his thoughts, they disrupted him again, the pack turning their eyes to the first disciple now.

“The Monkey King!” the devils said with glee, “you sicken us most!”

Wujing: “Boss, what the fuck?”

“Let them finish,” Wukong said coldly, “I wanna hear.”

“You were demon first, demon first, demon first!” they accused, “but not good enough, no! You wanted heaven and they said no!”

Wukong lifted a hand from the cudgel and cupped his left ear. “Go on, grandpa’s listening.”

“We weren’t good enough for you! You betrayed us and you lost! But heaven cast you out and you’re nothing, less than nothing, the worse of the worst, most hated in all the three realms!”

“Hey! Take that back!” Ao Lie retorted, but his words were moot.

“You three! Not man nor demon, hated by heaven and hell- you’re nothing but dust and bugs!”

Bajie: “I can’t say they’re wrong, but it’s rather hurtful when they say it that way. Right boss?”

“I was hoping for better insults from these fucks.”

Wukong supposed that was the end of their chant, for the pack started to repeat themselves from the top. And rolling his eyes, he snapped his fingers. Bajie and Wujing wasted in no time to charge, and soon those chants were silenced by the fight commencing once more.

The monkey joined one step after, taking care to whack each demon in the mouth, quite sure that though he knew what they said to be true (more or less), such unoriginal drivel had done nothing but waste the disciples’ time. And while Ao Lie guarded the villagers gathered, he realized the most important detail of all.

“Damn it!” the prince said, “they forgot me!”

They spoke of Juanlian, Tienpeng, and the Great Sage, but no time could have been spared for King Ao Run’s third son? In a rage, Ao Lie swooped down, stretching into the white dragon’s native form as he collected a cluster of devils in one fierce bite, and took to the sky, gleaming silver against the blood moon.

Below, the pig swung his rake once more, poking its teeth through each devil that crossed his way. And whistling, he turned to the first disciple, still furred gold and armoured grey, and said, “Boss, I know these are low-level demons, but this is taking a lot of time.”

“Yeah, what’s your point?” Wukong asked, prying open a wolf’s head and plucking its tongue out.

Growling, the monkey ripped that tongue clean off and popped the demon’s head.

“It’s ugly, but you and I, why not show our true forms? Go boar and ape on them?”

Officer Yi: “Hurry up! You’re exorcists, aren’t you!?”

“Shut up!” Wujing shot back with a thrust of his spade, the tip barreling through a crouched wolf.

Go boar and ape? Wukong deigned to answer, deeming the pig’s question a waste of time, but he knew Bajie’s reason to be sound. He could rise stories tall, as he had then and then, and ram that body of rocks into every devil here, and perhaps charge straight to their lord. But such a move took power and chi, and his body, as it stood, was far too weak to pull it off.

Bajie: “Ready when you are, boss!”

“Waste of time,” the monkey said, “don’t drag me into this, asshole.”

“I’m willing, boss, but-” Bajie bit his tongue instead and took the first disciple’s orders to heart. He would fight in this shape if it so pleased that monkey, but the words echoed in his mind- but are you? - and he already knew that answer.

“Monkey, look out!” Yi said.

Wukong turned, a pile of devils descending on him like a flock of birds, and against that weight, he could only fall, the cudgel rolling from his grip.

“Big brother, I’ll save you!” Ao Lie cried, voice cutting through the dragon’s roar in a throaty boom.

The white dragon twisted his body and dove down, careening straight for the wolves piled over his senior brother. The villagers screamed, rushing out of the dragon’s shadow, just as the prince realized he’d soon crash.

“Big brother, save me!” the prince cried next.

Wukong rolled those eyes, kicked a duo of devils off his waist, and jumped to his feet, the wolves flying back. He swept the fallen staff back into his hand and- change!- rode along its growing form as the as-you-would cudgel grew and grew, until it stood straight against the dragon’s streak. One palm pressed on the staff’s tip, the monkey swung both legs over and pushed himself over the dragon’s spine.

Wukong tumbled along Ao Lie’s mane until he reached that royal head, wrapped his hands around the horns, and steered the dragon north, Bailong’s belly a breadth away from all those below. They touched the sky once more, and as the cudgel shrunk back into a staff that fit his hand, Wukong saw the moon go dark. That shine of light from yonder no longer cast.

He turned, eyes widened as he saw the Buddha’s Sodding Palm disappear from view in a snap of black.

“Baldy,” he heard himself say and that one word was enough for every panic and fear and rage and sense to rise through every fiber.

And sense less , he hopped off the dragon, descending back into that demonic fray, only one task in mind: he would kill them, each and every one.

Xuanzang felt himself slip, a sudden cut of chi as sharp as the pain in his cracked arm. Without so much as a cry, he fell backwards, lungs white hot, the centipede’s eyes swirling around. Zhenyuanzi caught him mid-air, and Xuanzang in his grip, the patriarch turned, flipping that tassel at the demon in front. When the monk next blinked, they’d landed on the ground, Zhenyuanzi propping him by a tree as the centipede cried out. Twice wounded, that demon hit the dirt, blood gurgling from his mouth, a deep slash across the chest.

“Master Sanzang, let me see,” the patriarch said with a furrowed brow.

Zhenyuanzi took hold of the priest’s limp arm, looked it over, and said, “This is bad, but it’s just the bone- we can heal this-”

Teeth grinding, Xuanzang looked over the patriarch’s shoulder, forced himself to see into the distance, and managed to say, “Moonfield-”

And jaw dropped, he saw a cyclone of blood under the crimson moon, a blur of gold tearing its way through corpse upon corpse of wolf. His first disciple was clawing his way through every demon from village to wood, with a savagery so fierce Xuanzang mistook him for a devil himself. The monkey bit and scratched, pounded that cudgel every way he could, and spared no room for shouts.

He tore and tore in his approach, popping heads and slicing throats, a road of steaming blood in his wake. Such lust for blood, Xuanzang hadn’t seen since the moments before Duan’s death, and in that instant, he was back there . He was there and he could see Sun Wukong, features twisted and laughter raw, happy to slaughter all who dared challenge the demon king, all who had the gall to stand in his way.

And Duan was there. And he’d shown no mercy.

The monkey struck. And she was gone.

And so distracted by the demon’s fury, Xuanzang failed to see the centipede rise once more. When he looked again, the devil was already on his way to strike the patriarch’s back.

“Zhenyuan!” the monk shouted, on instinct doing the only thing he could.


He shoved the immortal away, saw the centipede come, and waited for the fastest blow. But Wukong was faster.

The monkey landed between man and devil on spread steps, staff spraying blood about the Tang priest’s head as he stood firm, eyes narrowed as he took that hit square on. It thrust him overhead and smashed the first disciple into a row of thick trees, taking every log down as he slid. And the wind from that thrust sent Xuanzang crashing into the nearest bush, Zhenyuanzi’s form following not soon after.

And as soon as he fell, Wukong jumped back up. He pounced on the centipede before the demon could make another move. And relentless, the monkey delivered blow after blow, hacking his staff like a butcher’s axe. The shadows struggled to fight back, but were no match for the Great Sage’s wrath. And when Wukong at last stopped, there was nothing under him but thick black blood and the smoking shadow of a broken bug.

Chest heaving, Wukong collected his breath, dug the cudgel’s edge into the earth underneath, and looked to where Xuanzang stood. Sitting by Zhenyuanzi, Xuanzang stared back, aghast at the crimson all around, twice red under the blood moon.

“Amitabha,” the monk whispered.

His right arm dangled limply, but the pain was gone, for his mind was too numb to sense it through. He couldn’t hear anything more, not from the village or crickets overhead, and even the patriarch’s voice was but a mumble. All he heard was the tearing of flesh, again and again as death looped in his mind, as if wounds he thought scars had reopened twofold.

Wukong approached him, brows raised in worry, fur soaked in the devils’ blood. En route, the monkey shook himself back into human shape, gold head turning black. And soon, he was crouched in front of the Tang priest.

“Baldy, are you alright?” he asked, pangs of concern in every word, “Master- your arm-”

The next word never came. Xuanzang was tossed back into the present, seven senses tripled with every pain there was, when Wukong froze still. Eyes bulging, the monkey gagged, red spilling from between his lips. Wukong doubled over, coughing and coughing heaps of fresh blood.

And before he could hear the Master say his name, Wukong felt himself topple under a spinning sky, the world closing in around him until he saw nothing but black upon black.

Chapter Text

Xuanzang sat within the WANING LION’S INN, bundled in a blanket that wrapped over his scalp, left hand gripping the edge to his chest. Numbed with fatigue, the monk stared at the cup of steaming tea Madame Sun had so generously left on the table in front. But he was too parched to drink. His right arm was hidden within the bloodied cassock, bones set and joint bandaged by Zhenyuanzi’s silk sling.

The patriarch was only a few steps away, in a room with paper windows, his shadow grand in the candlelight. Zhenyuanzi was kneeling by the first disciple’s prone silhouette, the remaining three pilgrims gathered outside the door. Only the Master remained where he sat.

His throat was sore. Xuanzang couldn’t quite recall what happened the night before. He remembered Zhenyuanzi grabbing him from behind as he screamed the monkey’s name. According to the immortal, he’d been hollering at the top of his lungs, first as a cry for aid before devolving into utter nonsense. Xuanzang believed him.

He had been pried from Wukong’s form by the patriarch. He didn’t remember when he had been passed into Liang Guo’s arms or when Madame Sun had ushered him into her home, or why her home and not Chieftess Liang’s. Perhaps Officer Yi had insulted him in some way, but his mind simply could not remember.

What he did remember was this-- Wukong toppling over, a stream of blood leaving the corner of his mouth in rivulets that seemed to never stop.

The image repeated in his head, again and again like some sort of cursed stage act. And try as he might to forget, each detail played out as vividly as he remembered. Xuanzang tightened his hold on the blanket, shutting his eyes to purge that memory, and opening again when he failed. Sleep was not an option, for the nerves in his damaged arm screamed too hard to be ignored.

The door slid open, and as Xuanzang lifted his head to look, the three disciples were already in the patriarch’s path.

Bajie: “Is- is he dead?”

“Why would you ask something so stupid?” Ao Lie snapped.

Wujing grabbed Zhenyuanzi’s arm and said, “Well, say something!”

With a scoff, the immortal shook him away, walking past the disciples as if he’d never heard them. And bickering, they followed, all three coming to a stop before Xuanzang. In a strained mumble, the Tang priest asked, “How is he?”

The patriarch stroked his beard, took a seat by Xuanzang, and said, demeanor gentle, “All right. My magic has done what it could, and now there’s nothing that can’t be fixed with some rest and water. Fortunately, the damage was minor.”

Xuanzang: “Then, what is the damage?”

“Just some ruptured organs here and there.”

“How is that minor!?” Wujing said.

Bajie: “May I ask, which organs?”

Zhenyuanzi fixed the fish and pig with a single glare, decided to let his irritation go, and answered, “The liver, the stomach, a lung, need I go on? I’m confident you understand anatomy. And yes, when it comes to your eldest brother, this  is  minor. He’s been through worse, I’m sure.”

Wujing: “Like when you beat the shit out of him.”

The patriarch’s nostrils flared, chin high as he said, with no small amount of anger, “If not for me, he’d be much closer to death! How dare you- as if would wish any harm on my younger brother.”

Incredulous, Bajie bit his tongue, and thought,  You almost skinned him over a few fruits .

“I’d like to blame that devil, Master Sanzang,” Zhenyuanzi continued, “but I’ve examined your disciple’s body... he was already in a bad state. And this was nothing more than adding flame to oil.”

Xuanzang nodded, a flat “I know” leaving his lips.

Zhenyuanzi turned to the disciples. “Can’t you see your Master is tired? Go elsewhere.”

Ao Lie: “But-”

Xuanzang: “Xiao Bailong, Wuneng, Wujing, do as the patriarch says.”

“Of course, Master,” Bajie said, “your wish is our command.”

While Ao Lie protested, the second disciple ushered him and Friar Sand away, eager to head to bed. When the last of their arguing had faded, Xuanzang glanced at the patriarch, eyes beckoning him to speak on.

“I don’t trust that pig demon, bit of a gossip by the looks of it,” Zhenyuanzi muttered. He shook his head. “No matter, there are some things I wanted to tell you in private, venerable elder.”

“Is it about Wukong?”


Xuanzang shut his eyes in relief, but the relaxation was short-lived when the immortal said, “it’s about you.”

Zhenyuanzi touched the broken arm, fingers gently pressing along each nerve. “This arm of yours, if it was a mortal injury, you’ll heal in a mortal’s time. But this is a demon’s damage, cursed and spiteful.”

“That doesn’t sound… good.”

“It’s terrible, Master Sanzang, I won’t lie to you. And my magic can only go so far- even when the bone mends, the demon’s grip will stay. This one harbors a particularly strong resentment.”

“I’m aware.” Xuanzang stared at the arm, stiff in its binds, unable to muster the proper concern for it, mind preoccupied with Wukong and Wukong alone.

“There’s a devil’s bind on your bone. These seals are rare to come by, though not impossible to remove.”

Xuanzang: “Can I break it with the Buddha’s Sodding Palm?”

“That’s the issue. You can’t use the Sodding Palm with that seal, not unless you undo it with chi,  life  chi, Master Sanzang.”

“Patriarch, I’d never murder another for this!”

Zhenyuanzi: “Then all you can do is pray.”

Xuanzang wanted nothing more than to slam his head against the floor. Hopefully, it would crack open and he’d finally be free from this progressive nightmare of an evening. But he knew these were just idle thoughts, exaggerations to keep him distracted from the problems at hand.

“Do you have anything else to say, patriarch?” he asked.

“Your first disciple will be fine,” Zhenyuanzi said, a nervous twinge to his tongue, “it’d be more beneficial if you worried more about yourself. However…”

Xuanzang looked away, eyes once more falling on the door to where Wukong rested.

Zhenyuanzi: “He would die for you, Master Sanzang. That’s a wonderful thing for your pilgrimage- he’ll take you west, no matter the cost.”

Xuanzang said nothing. He knew full well what the patriarch said was true, and perhaps it’d never occurred to him how raw those words were until it left another’s lips. It left him uneasy, leaving him wondering for the first time what he was to that monkey.

“As Zhenyuan the Immortal, I tell you that,” the patriarch continued, “but as your friend, Master Sanzang, I tell you this… let him go.”

Xuanzang turned to him again, unsure what was being said. “I don’t understand?”

“This won’t be the first or last time he risks life and limb for you. And in this state, Sun Wukong won’t survive your trip west. This, I know. But the choice is yours, Master Sanzang.”

Zhenyuanzi’s tone was grim, the patriarch no doubt aware of the gravity in his words. But the Tang priest could only stare into those grave eyes as the earth all but crumbled beneath his feet.

Wujing shoveled away the rest of the devils’ corpses, and stepped aside as the farmers lit the clan afire. He looked up, beams of pale sunlight shining through the dawn. The villagers worked to patch up their ruined buildings, too busy to give the blue demon their signature glares.

The fish yawned, muscles still sore from the fight before and weary at having been woken at the crack of dawn. In pink robes, Bajie walked back and forth with wooden boards, pretty gent’s face plastered for all to see. Ao Lie wandered about, Officer Yi nagging at the prince all the while.

“Didn’t your Master tell you to save the village?” Yi said, “look at this damage, you call this a rescue, demon?”

Ao Lie: “I’m a dragon! And none of you are dead, are you?!”

At his wit’s end, Ao Lie spun around and whipped a finger at the officer’s face. “My Master was injured saving you lot and our eldest brother’s yet to wake, so shut your dirty mouth!”

Yi backed away, rendered dumb by Ao Lie’s outburst, a dragon’s temper flaring across the prince’s boyish features for the very first time. Bajie sidled over, clasped a hand on Ao Lie’s shoulder, and said, “Come, come, little brother, let’s not start anything.”


Xuanzang: “Xiao Bailong, listen to your second brother.”

At that tired voice, the disciples turned in unison. Xuanzang walked towards them, a battle-worn sheen about him, as if he’d crossed thunderbolts and feared no more. The villagers parted as he walked, no doubt surprised by the monk’s bitter countenance.

He stopped before Officer Yi, bowed, and said, “Excuse the damage, but given the circumstances, I’d hardly consider this bad. My first disciple risked everything for Moonfield and I trust the people appreciate his efforts.”

Yi: “You-”

Xuanzang: “We exorcised this village out of the goodness of our hearts, officer. We asked for nothing in return. I may be low-key, but please don’t cross this holy one.”

“Since when did baldy get so sharp with words?” Bajie whispered.

“He’s always been a jerk, but only to us,” Wujing muttered back.

Ao Lie cast them a glare and looked again to Xuanzang, the monk leaving a flabbergasted Yi behind as he approached.

“After Wukong wakes up,” the monk said, “we’ll pack and leave. We can’t waste any more time here.”

Wujing: “It was your idea to come!”

Xuanzang blinked, as if not quite awake. And then he was. He nodded. “You’re right. I- still, be ready.”

After another blink, the Tang priest walked off, and before the disciples could ask where, a chorus of cheers drowned each voice. Bajie turned, only to see the villagers crowding in front of Zhenyuan the Immortal, the patriarch waving as they scrambled to kowtow and spill offerings at his feet.

“Zhenyuanzi, I love you!” he heard an old man cry.

The patriarch returned each compliment with a celestial’s smile, frame practically glowing as he walked on, nearly floating with each proud step. And all too elated at seeing their patriarch in the flesh, the villagers went wild with tears and celebration beside him.

Since the first disciple remained absent, Wujing did the honor of rolling his eyes.

“Tudi,” Xuanzang said to the empty fields, the smell of burnt wood and grass still lingering about, “Tudigong, it’s Tang Xuanzang again… I need you.”

When he received no reply, the monk gulped and dropped to his knees, preparing to kowtow and summon the earth god with another prayer. As he placed his head against the ground, he heard a woman say, “Master Sanzang, don’t cry!”

Xuanzang tumbled over, rolled over his robes, and clumsily stood back up. “M- madame Sun!”

Yachi ran up and put her arms around him. And blushing, the priest said, “I- I wasn’t crying.”

“It’s alright, Master Sanzang, you can cry around me. I’m here for you.”

“What? Madame Sun, really, I’m-”

“You’re not alright, I know.” She pulled away and looked him in the eye, nothing but sincerity in that concerned face. “I’m sorry about Elder Sun.”

Xuanzang felt his features change at the mention of those two words, and that look said it all to Yang Yachi. She took his good palm in hers and pressed them to his chest, smiling reassuringly as she said, “He’ll be fine, I know.”

Xuanzang: “Thank you.”

Then the monk remembered what scene was unfolding before them- a married woman embracing him, both standing alone in the fields. He stepped back, held his left hand up in prayer, and awkwardly said, “But I wasn’t crying... may I ask what you’re doing here, Bodhisattva?”

“I was going to make you breakfast, but then you left in such a hurry. I was afraid you’d be here alone, what with that broken arm and all.”

The innocence in her voice told him she had no other intentions, and wary, the Tang priest could only choose to believe it.  She’s madly in love with her husband , he reminded himself,  she’d never think of you, right?

“Thank you,” he said, “I’m very moved, Madame Sun.”

Then she took his hand again, and Xuanzang could only think  I was wrong! Damn it! Wrong! Wrong!  as he babbled on: “Wait, bodhisattva, this is- I’m a holy man- you’re married- please!”

Yachi let go, tilted her head, and clearly offended, said, “I know that. What do you take me for, Master Sanzang?”

And now he’d offended her, the one person who had cared enough to offer comfort, so mortified, the monk dropped to his knees and kowtowed.

“Forgive me, bodhisattva, I meant no offense. I’ve just been too tired to think.”

“Get up. I know that too.”

She stooped down as he sat up, and again put her arms around him, much like a mother to a son.

“Guess I can’t blame you. You’re so handsome, Master Sanzang, you’ve probably got women throwing themselves at your feet all the time.”

“That might be the case, but I don’t speak of things like this because I’m low-key.”

Yachi laughed, a warm chuckle that spread to the monk though he meant no humor. Looking to the open field, she told him, “You’re always so funny... maybe that’s why I trust you.”

She pushed a lock of hair behind her ear and said, “I really was sorry about Elder Sun. I know how you feel- helpless, sad, wishing you could do more.”

“Madame Sun-”

She turned to him, ever honest. “I lost a person too, very very close to me. I’d always wondered if we would have been happier together.”

“I know this feeling all too well,” he replied, more to himself than her, Duan’s face again surfacing in his mind after so long a period without.

“But this person loved someone else more. I wanted them to be happy, I really did.”

Xuanzang: “Did this person know?”

She shrugged and said, “I hope so. This person was smarter than me. I watched them marry, and then she died in childbirth.”

She . It was a woman. Yang Yachi had been in love with a woman. Startled, Xuanzang’s eyes widened, meeting her gaze as he asked, “Childbirth? Then this person was-”

“My husband’s ex-wife,” she said with a sad laugh, “so I took her place, lived with the man she loved, and birthed a child that should have been hers. Maybe part of it was spiting her for leaving us. Or maybe I could be closer to her this way.”

“Was that the case, Madame Sun?”

“In a way. I love my son more than life itself. And I do love my husband, really, but, I- she was gone. And even her ghost haunted him, not me. I was so jealous, Master Sanzang, so jealous that she haunted him instead.”

“Put that to rest, bodhisattva, we all learned that it was a demon in disguise.”

Yachi nodded, placing a hand over her breast. “It still hurt, Master Sanzang. There’s a hole in me where she should be, but she’s gone and I don’t even have a ghost to fix it with.”

“I- I’m sorry.” Xuanzang was at a loss for words, the woman’s statement an exact reflection of his own heart, mirroring in a way that no more replies could match.

“I told you too much, I’m sorry, Master Sanzang. But I thought you’d understand.”

“But why?”

She smiled again, that smile meant for him and no one else. “Because the way Elder Sun looks at you… is the way I looked at  her .”

“Master,” was the first word he heard, a strained whisper that escaped his lips the very moment he woke.*

Wukong stared at the ceiling, blinking away remnants of sleep from his eyes as he settled into consciousness once more. He wondered where he lay, and as he pondered on, a rumble of coughs rattled his throat, familiar pricks of pain bouncing through his chest. The events from the night before blurred through his mind, freezing on the image of the Tang priest cradling that wounded arm.

What happened next, he had difficulty piecing together, but he assumed he’d fallen one way or another during the fight. With a groan, he forced himself up, blankets shifting, a desperate panic urging him on- he needed to see the Master safe before all else. The monkey glanced down, body bandaged from chest to waist, each layer of gauze tighter than the last. When he looked up, paper windows surrounded him, a thick pile of cloth beneath where he sat- a floor-made bed.

Wukong scanned the room, finding no traces of the as-you-would cudgel or his robes for that matter. Teeth grit, he stood, legs as sturdy as cotton while he walked towards the door on unwilling feet. He pushed it open and immediately fell back when Ao Lie responded with a sharp “AH!”

The dragon fell on his butt, bushels and bushels of bananas falling with him, a small hill of yellow pooling in that doorway. Ao Lie shook off the pain, crawled to his feet, and all but flew to the first disciple’s side.

“Big brother,” the prince said, “you’re awake!”

Wukong allowed the dragon to help him up, too grumpy to offer a proper greeting, and said, “Where’s baldy?”

“Master went to meditate.”

He’s fine, was what the monkey heard. Relieved, he gave in to those tired legs, and would have sunk to the ground if not for Ao Lie’s sturdy grip.

“Big brother, careful! You’re hurt…  again .”

Those words did little to faze the first disciple, for the Tang priest was alive, and he assumed the village itself was in tact. He pushed himself away from Ao Lie, scooped up a banana, and bit straight into the peel.

“So what are these for?” the monkey said as he chewed, the taste fresh against his dry tongue.

Ao Lie: “I picked them for you, big brother. I thought you’d be hungry when you woke.”

Wukong swallowed the rest of that fruit and chuckled, near grinning as he said, “Are bananas all I eat, Bailong?”

Ao Lie flushed and ran a nervous hand through that pale head. “I- I didn’t think you’d mind, big brother.”

“I fucking love bananas,” the monkey said, “but peaches, now, those are the best.”

He looked down at the prince, enthused by Ao Lie’s antics, some familiar joy resurfacing within. He hadn’t felt this way for centuries, and for a moment, Wukong was back in Zheng Chozi’s home, Xiao Wa and Xiao Hua sleeping by his bedside. But he wasn’t that ape anymore and Bailong was not Xiao Wa or Xiao Hua. The memories faded as soon as he next blinked.

“You did a good job with these though,” Wukong mused, “I’ll give you that, little brother.”

Ao Lie’s face lit up at those words, and before he could reply, Wukong had already made to leave. Stuffing a few bushels between his arms, the prince ran to join him, forcing himself into the role of Wukong’s crutch.

“Big brother, where-”

“Where are my clothes?”

“Oh! Drying- there was a lot of blood Madame Sun washed off.”

The bloodshed, at least, Wukong remembered. The aches in his chest, he did not, but the dull pain told him these new wounds were internal. They were severe, he assumed, but this, Ao Lie did not need to know.

Sensing that the first disciple would say no more, Ao Lie chimed in, “Master’s going to be very happy once he sees you, big brother. He was so worried he couldn’t sleep.”

They rounded a corner, Wukong pausing to catch his breath. The monkey’s features brightened, voice surprising Ao Lie with a shy, almost gloating, “Really?”

Then it dawned on Ao Lie that the Master’s affection was what would please big brother most. He nodded and answered, “Yes! He had a broken arm but he didn’t care about that one bit. Just you. Actually, he didn’t care about the rest of us either.”

Come to think of it, the Tang priest hadn’t asked on the wellbeing of his other disciples at all, and thinking back, Ao Lie realized they’d been slighted.

“Is his arm alright?”

“Zhenyuanzi said it’d heal!”

They reached the inn’s door and Wukong furrowed his brows, tilting his head as he said, “Zhenyuan? When did he come-”

Ao Lie opened the door and was again bumped away when Zhenyuan the Immortal swooped in and pulled Wukong into his embrace.

“Younger brother! I must rejoice at seeing you well!”

“Define well,” the monkey gasped, breath lost, “and what are you doing here?”

Dizzy, he walked on, Zhenyuanzi’s arm around his shoulder, steadying every step.

“I’d heard your Master rejected my invitation to the Ginsengfruit banquet, so I left the earth gods’ meeting early. My servants say your band took up in Moonfield Village so I paid it a humble visit.”

They stopped in the middle of the village square, the monkey squinting as sunlight washed over his groggy vision.

Zhenyuanzi: “Good thing I came when I did. Those devils really did plan to slaughter the village that night, and with it, your Master.”

Bits of memory pieced together, and Wukong began to recall glimpses of Zhenyuanzi here and there. Vision cleared, he could see the villagers hiking about, nailing new wooden planks and the like.

“Elder, tell Old Sun what happened after.”

“You saved Master Sanzang from that centipede, Great Sage. Although you suffered some injury afterward. Fortunately, I was able to contain the harm. I shudder to think of your fate if we’d left you with these mortal healers.”

“The centipede?”

“Dead! You did a mighty fine job on him!”

“What about-”

The patriarch had stopped listening by then, instead choosing to parade about the square with Wukong in his arms.

Zhenyuanzi: “Come, come! This is the one who saved your village, applaud my younger brother, the Great Sage Sun!”

The people of Moonfield stopped their work to obey, overjoyed as they came out to cheer for Zhenyuan and his sworn brother. Wukong accepted their applause with a half-hearted grunt, fully aware that he was gaunt with blood loss and save those bandages, his top was bare. He appeared a wreck of scars and gauze, and was far too tired to care.

“Boss! Boss!” the second disciple cried, pushing his way past the crowd to stand at Wukong’s side, “I’m so happy you’re fine!”

Wukong: “What’s with this getup? Looking for sex again, asshole?”

Bajie laughed, a charming gentleman’s chuckle, and said with a wave of his fan, “Oh boss, I missed your good humor!”

“Boss, you just got up and already, you’re taking all the credit!” Wujing said, the next to swat his way pass the crowd and into Wukong’s path.

The monkey only rolled those whites, Zhenyuanzi passing him into Friar Sand’s grip. Ao Lie squeezed in between them, Wukong’s cloak in hand.

Ao Lie: “Big brother, here! Put this on.”

The whole village had already seen him nude, and Wukong thought it pointless to contest the past, but Ao Lie had come. He bit back a shot of snark and took the cloak with a nod of his head. As Bajie helped drape it around him, the disciples again turned to the crowd and accepted their cheers with stroked egos, Zhenyuanzi laughing behind them.

Liang Guo had decided to keep Sun’s involvement a secret from the rest of his villagers. The devils acted of their own accord, and that was that. Xuanzang learned this from Yachi and though he knew the younger Liang had spun the lie to protect her, he daren’t ask more. She’d taken the pilgrims into the WANING LION’S INN not soon after the first disciple’s collapse. Zhenyuanzi had needed to tend Wukong on the spot, and the Sun inn was far closer than the Liangs’.

And so worn out from the night’s battle, good Chieftess Liang retired for the night, her son tending her from dusk to dawn. They had no time for Xuanzang and his band, and this, the monk understood. Yachi shared all this with him as they walked back to Moonfield, as if their last conversation had never taken place.

He’d parted with her with an embrace and sent her home first. Himself, the Tang priest had another matter to attend to. He could not sense Tudigong but another, he could. And so, turning on the outskirts of Moonfield, he looked to a well and said, “Minister Jiu Gong, I know you’re here.”

A head bobbed above the well, the vulture’s headpiece gleaming in the afternoon sun. Jiu Gong rested an elbow on the edge and tapped her nails along the stone.

“Aww, you ruined the surprise, Tang-Tang,” she said, “I was hoping to scare you.”

“I’ve had enough frights by now.”

“Oh, I can imagine.” Jiu Gong placed a nail in her lips and grinned. “It was a real show last night, I wish I was part of the fun.”

Xuanzang stiffened, nearing the well with half a mind to yell. “You… saw everything?”

“Of course! My favorite part was when they fucked up your damned monkey.”

The monk’s good hand was on her robe by then, the fabric scrunched in his fingers, every ounce of willpower telling him not to strike with that broken arm. Jiu Gong laughed, howling aloud as she said, “That’s it, Tang-Tang! This is what you should do all the time- follow your heart! Do whatever you want!”

Disgusted, Xuanzang let go and turned his back on her, muttered prayers on his lips.

“You could have helped,” he said, “would it have killed you to help?”

“I only do what Lord Buddha told me. Advise, was all he said. So that’s that.”

So that’s that . Xuanzang lowered his head, wondering if there was anything more to say. He’d thought of the patriarch’s words, thought them over until they were raw and used. But that blow had been meant for Zhenyuan and Xuanzang had chosen to take it- if it had been anyone else, Xuanzang knew he would have chosen to do the same. This, he would not deny.

But Wukong had paid the price regardless, and the Tang priest had been so adamant that it would not happen again. He’d failed.

“Here’s my advice,” Jiu Gong said behind him, “it won’t matter what you lot do to me. That ape’s done for either way, and he won’t be useful to you for long. I’d use him to the end, but you, Tang-Tang, you’ll probably want him gone before that.”

“Be quiet,” the monk said, with such animosity that the vulture obeyed.

That said, the Tang priest made his way back into Moonfield, Minister Jiu Gong again smirking at his back.

“A little to the right,” Chieftess Liang said, waving her tiny fan to and fro as she stretched on the wooden chair, “left, left, there, perfect!”

Bajie set the table down, a litte way from the door of the CRESCENT TIGER’S INN, and cracked a grin. “Chieftess… this is exactly where I put it before.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“Yes, it was.”

“What was?”

The pig only smiled, flabbergasted as the chieftess laughed, Liang Guo returning to serve her warm tea.  She must be doing this on purpose , he thought. But it beat toiling in the fields and repairing the rest of the village. For Zhenyuanzi’s official welcome (and to thank Xuanzang and his disciples, an afterthought no doubt), the chieftess had decided to prepare a communal dinner in the village square. All of Moonfield was welcome and it was there the patriarch intended to again invite Xuanzang to his banquet. And all of this, the second disciple had heard through a healthy round of eavesdropping.

“The devils are gone, so that’s one good thing that came out of having you demons here,” Liang Guo said.

“Our pleasure, our pleasure,” the pig replied.

“Then stop calling us demons,” Ao Lie said in passing, an armful of blue flowers in tow, “I’m a prince, the third heir of the Western Sea.”

“Nobody cares, brat,” Wujing said behind him, Liang’s cooking pot strapped to his back, the fish having offered his services in cuisine (much to the younger Liang’s chagrin).

“Great Sage!” the chieftess called, “how are those extra tables coming along?”

Wukong replied with a positive wave of his hand, a dozen or so round tables popping into being, perfectly waxed and fitted, each from a single hair. Ao Lie set the flowers on the nearest table and said, “Big brother, did Master Puti teach you that?”

“More or less. What, you can’t?”

Sheepish, the prince smiled. “Not really.”

“Wait.” The first disciple put a hand behind Ao Lie’s head, fingers close to the ear as the dragon froze. “What’s this?”

With a flick, Wukong pulled out a cornflower, the words “Yu” and “Long” tattooed over its petals in clear white.*

“How?” Ao Lie gasped in delight as Wukong dropped the flower into his hands.

And laughing airily to himself, the monkey said, “I’ll show you, little brother.”

Excited, Ao Lie followed him aside, Wukong plucking a hair from each of their heads and blowing into the wind, conjuring pink orchids and the like. Xuanzang saw the floating petals when he returned, first met with the sight of Ao Lie chasing the monkey about those tables as Wukong hopped from here to there.

Ao Lie blew a ghost of a flower at him and Wukong slid off his spot. He removed a strand of pale hair from the fourth disciple’s crown and twisted it into a sapphire peach. The two laughed, and transfixed, Xuanzang could only watch- his disciples were happy, the monkey’s joy especially foreign to his ears, almost heartbreakingly so.

“Master’s back!” the dragon cried, bright with excitement.

“Finally!” Wujing said from his place by Chieftess Liang and her son.

“Are you feeling better, Master?” Bajie said as he strided over, but the Tang priest passed him without a word.

He kept himself on a steady beeline towards the first disciple, Wukong turning from Ao Lie to meet his gaze. He could see the relief flutter over Wukong’s glad eyes, that face instantly lighting up at his arrival, as if Xuanzang was sun above cloud. And this did nothing but hurt the monk twice over.

“Master,” Wukong said, and before he could go on, Xuanzang spoke, chest tight as he forced his voice out.

“Bad monkey…”

“Now what?” the first disciple said, meaning to tease, but Xuanzang knew that would not be so.

He gulped and carried on, arm stinging anew.

“You’re the same,” the monk told him gravely.

Wukong raised a brow and said, “You’re still bald, so?”

“You haven’t changed at all.” Then, for emphasis, Xuanzang repeated it again. “Wukong,  you haven’t changed at all .”

The other disciples approached, equally perplexed at his grave tone, and from the corner of his eye, Xuanzang could see the rest of Moonfield gathering to see him speak.  Wukong, I-

Wukong: “What are you yapping-”


And everything stopped.

The sound of wood froze over wood, feet dug into earth, and for a split second, there was nothing in the air but the first disciple’s angry breaths.

All eyes turned to Master and disciple, the monk’s left hand trembling in the air, still throbbing from the impact of stone-hard flesh upon its palm. Wukong stared to the side, head angled from the priest’s sudden blow as he remembered the splintering of a chair over his head- but that had been an act. This was not.

He turned his head back with a crack, and blood boiling, threw his hands onto the Tang priest’s robes. He lifted the monk up, to the gasps of the crowd around, and snarled, “ What the fuck is wrong with you?

Xuanzang dangled helplessly in his grip, feet swaying as he struggled for balance, but those deadset features showed no signs of remorse. He’d struck the monkey first and he intended to strike on.

Xuanzang: “You enjoy the bloodshed, don’t you!? All those demons you slaughtered, they could have been redeemed! Like Xiao San!”

“Like Xiao San?” Wukong mouthed, bringing the Master down just enough to glare him in the eye, “the fuck are you on?”

You would strike me over a demon?  He’d asked the priest once, though he knew it was just a script. There’d been no reason for Xuanzang to answer back then. But was he not a demon too?

“We could have saved them, if not for you! And it’s not just them- Duan, Xiao San, they’d all be here if it wasn’t for you! I- I wish I’d let you rot under that damned mountain!”

Duan. The monkey stared at his own hands, realizing they were trembling for the very first time- he was shaking and so was the man he held up. He’d wanted to drop Xuanzang, wanted to kick him for the wild accusations, wanted to repay that smack with a smack. But the desperation, the sheer tragedy in the monk’s eyes told him he could not. He never could.

And just like that, the monkey let go. Xuanzang fell with a noisy thud, groaning as he climbed back to his feet. Ao Lie was about to run towards him when Bajie grabbed him from behind. The pig and fish looked on, gazes locked on the scene at hand. Wukong stared at him then, genuinely confused, those eyes dampening with salt, but Xuanzang kept his face clear and spoke on.

“You don’t know the meaning of mercy. I was an idiot for thinking- for thinking-”

Wukong, I-

“For thinking you’d ever be anything but a heartless monster. You kill without blinking, you shed blood without a trace of remorse… it- it  sickens  me.”

“What do you want, an apology?” the monkey snapped, quiet and breathless.

Wukong, forgive me.

“No. I want you gone,” the priest said, cold, “there’s no room for you in our pilgrimage.”

He walked up to Wukong, towered over him by barely an inch, and all but spat out the next tumble of words: “You’re a murderer to the core and Buddha’s mercy is wasted on you. The very sight of you disgusts me and I order you to leave.”

Bajie: “Hold on, hold on! Master, surely we needn’t resort to this!”

Wujing: “What the fuck!?”

Wukong could only look at him, speechless, the monk’s eyes glaring into him. It was a look the monk that had never used on him, not even when he took Duan away with those very hands. He doubted what he heard, or perhaps he chose to doubt, because he’d always feared this would come. His hands balled into clenched fists, face darkening at Xuanzang’s onslaught of sharp words.

The Tang priest expected Wukong to strike out again. He braced himself for a blow to the head or chest, for Wukong to slam him onto the ground and threaten to chop his throat. Perhaps that was what he wanted. That would have made this easier, much easier than what was to come.

Wukong: “Master, please.”

Xuanzang jumped back, resolve wavering as the monkey got on all fours and kowtowed, head all but buried into the dirt.

“I promised to take you west,” the monkey said, “at least let me do that. Then I’ll be gone. You can hate me, fine. You’ve got every right. But let me stay with you, Master-”


Stop it! Stop it!  Xuanzang wanted to scream. He turned his back on the monkey, heels kicking dirt as he said, “Don’t beg me, demon! I already told you- just go.”

He made to walk away but he was stopped in his tracks by four voices in unison: “Master, wait!”

When he next looked, Wukong had boxed him in with three kowtowing clones, four of himself in total, each more apologetic than the next. There was no way out and heart pounding its way into oblivion, Xuanzang could only stare at the top of those four scraggly heads.*

“What are you trying!?” the monk cried, “These tricks won’t work on me!”

Why couldn’t he have fought back instead. He should have knocked the wind out of the monk, as he did in Rivermouth, should have beat him black and blue, and walked out himself. He should have forced Xuanzang to choke those words back. He should have decided to hate the Tang priest, to truly hate him, then and there, to vow to leave him and never look back. But the monkey chose now to display his loyalty and never had the priest felt more undeserving, more lowly, more painstakingly lost and worn.

Sun Wukong would always be a thorn in his side, pricking and pricking until the monk broke and bled. He was falling apart like some dying lotus and he could not let anyone see, not here, not now. He couldn’t break here- he couldn’t- not with Zhenyuanzi’s warning pounding at his head.

Ao Lie: “Master, they were just devils! Who cares!?”

“Master, please,” Wukong said, lifting his head to plead once more.

He reached for the Tang priest, sheer desperation in that voice, looking at Xuanzang as if there was no one else, as if there would never be anyone else. Xuanzang lifted his hand, clutched the beads, and moved his lips, mouth drier than a desert itself as he spoke the last words.


He couldn’t look into the monkey’s eyes. He thought of nothing else as he read those sounds for the very first time.


It was what he’d hoped to never use. It was Wukong’s flesh split open in Wuzhuang.


It was Wukong crumpled at the feet of Longevity Mountain.


It was Wukong, pale and still in Zhenyuanzi’s grip.


And always, always bleeding out.


“Big brother!”

The monkey fell, hitting the ground with a sharp- thud!- eyes popping twice their size as he lay shuddering. Wukong gasped, and gasped, trembling fingers rising to touch the band circling his head, as if struggling to believe what the Master had just done. The air was thunder around him, and he alone lay in a wrathful ocean, numb to all except the flames in his head.

He understood then. Tang Xuanzang had been sparing him all this time, and all this time, he had thought himself the merciful one. But no more. Whatever was between them, the monk no longer wanted, and as the pain faded from his head, the very core of his mind itself, the first disciple knew. The tears fell freely as he gasped, a thousand pricks of pain leaving at once.

Xuanzang kept his back turned, willing downcast eyes to stay dry. He heard Wukong crawl to his feet behind, silently rising as he near whispered, “I see. I see, Master.”

“I’m not your Master,” the monk said, angry and forceful, every bit of regret masked with rage.

“Fine. Chen Xuanzang, fine.”

They were broken whispers, gently spoken as the monkey brushed his eyes over with a knuckle.

“Take my last kowtow.”

There would be no fight now, not so much as a protest from the monkey. He kowtowed once more behind him. When Xuanzang next turned, nothing was left but Duan’s circlet on the ground. Wukong’s back was on him now, the monkey walking away on easy steps, a slight hunch in his gait, not even sparing a second glance.

Mouth shut in a tight line, Xuanzang watched him go, Ao Lie’s head whipping from priest to demon as he struggled to speak.

“Boss,” Bajie said, “don’t be like that, come on! We can discuss this!”

“What the fucking fuck!” Wujing said.

Friar Sand took a step forward and was promptly pulled back by the second disciple, the latter vehemently shaking his head. Angry at their indecision, the dragon ran after their eldest brother.

“Big brother, wait!” Ao Lie cried, rushing to the monkey’s side, “big brother, big brother, don’t just leave like this-”

Wukong slowed, pulled the prince into a half-hearted embrace, and said into his ear, “Bailong, take care of baldy, ya hear?”

“Big brother-”

Then Wukong left Ao Lie where he stood, walking past a crowd of gaping villagers as he headed for the fields, each onlooker parting to let him through, Wujing shouting for his return. And soon, even his footsteps faded into nothing, the once disciple’s back disappearing behind tall stalks. And then, no more.

Ao Lie ran back to Xuanzang, and wide-eyed with bafflement, said, “Master, why did you do that?”

“Xiao Bailong, that’s none of your concern,” the priest responded, eyes on the ground and none else.

“You didn’t have to humiliate him!” the dragon snapped, “you  still  hate him, don’t you!?”

“You can join him if you wish.”

Holding back a snarl, the prince yanked at Xuanzang’s good arm and forced himself into the Master’s view.

Ao Lie: “He’s injured. And you sent him away alone- you didn’t hear what those devils said about him! They’ll rip him apart out there!”

And ever stoic, the Tang priest replied, “They won’t attack him if he’s alone. Only if he’s by my side.”

Then he looked past Ao Lie, staring Wujing and Bajie straight in their faces as he said, “Don’t think I’ll send either of you out, you cowards. The rest of us go west and that’s final.”

Disappointment flashed by Bajie’s features, but the pig was quick to hide it with a nod and gulp. Beside him, Wujing broke a table clean in half, furious at the Master’s words before and then.

“Calm down there!” Bajie said, Wujing replying with a curt, “fuck off!”

While the two grappled, Ao Lie could only stare at Xuanzang, as did the rest of Moonfield, all unsure of what to say. The prince knew then that of everyone there, none ached more than Tang Sanzang.

“Did something bad happen?” Zhenyuan the Immortal asked, stepping out of the CRESCENT TIGER’S INN for the first time since Xuanzang’s return. Ao Lie looked at him and nodded once.

An eyeball rolled to the foot of that gilded throne, winds howling before the owner's cave, its mouth atop a cliff towering over roaring waves. The scorpion scuttered to the battered eye and prodded its shadows, the last remnant of the centipede’s spirit.

“Guess he failed! What do you think, your grace? Kill him here?”

Her lord chuckled from that throne, low and raw, manicured nails smoothing the ripples of his pale cape. Lids streaking red from lash to cheek, yellow eyes narrowed at the centipede’s remains.

“You came to me for vengeance,” he said, each word clear, “I let you into my good graces and how do you repay me? Acted on your own, got my minions killed, and worse yet, tried to take the Tang priest for yourself.”

He lifted a hand, spun those fingers, and watched in glee as the eyeball exploded in a blend of red.

His flesh is mine ,” he hissed, “and you’re not even worthy of cleaning my shoe.”

Chapter Text

Wujing helped Chieftess Liang slap carrots, rice, and fine-cooked goat into the bowls of all who passed his pot, the scent of meat and smoke fresh in his wrinkling nose. And the villagers were too hungry (and much too eager for a free-cooked supper) to care that their food had been prepared by a senile old woman and a hulking demon from out east. Since the death of the woodland devils, there was now a budding familiarity between Xuanzang’s band and the people of Moonfield, some unspoken acceptance that wasn’t quite friendship or the like. Wujing could have cared less either way, his mind a bubble of frustrations after the first disciple walked out.

He looked up at the strung lanterns, faded red glowing with firelight as they swung to and fro in the free night gusts. The effects of the Tang priest’s afternoon episode had yet to fade, and Wujing was sure the incident would be the talk of town for the rest of the evening for more suppers down.

“Demon, this turnip is undercooked,” Officer Yi said, frowning up at the fish, chopsticks tapping along the edge of his wooden bowl.

“Like hell it is,” Wujing growled back.

“Look at it!” Yi shoved the bowl upwards, that offensive turnip ripe and cracked above his leftover rice.

At this, Friar Sand only had one answer: he dashed out one blue palm and- whack!- slapped the bowl of out Yi’s shocked hands, food splattering across dirt in a smash of grains and greens. The officer’s chopsticks followed suit, and in an instant, Yi hopped up, ready to climb over the pot as he cried out, “You heathen! I could have you arrested, you-”

Bajie interceded, then, caught in between as Yi and Wujing exchanged back-and-forth blows, until his chiseled face was rendered pink and red from slap over slap.

“Oy, oy!” the pig said, “stop hitting my handsome mug!”

Wujing punched him straight in the eye and the second disciple fell back, crashing into Yi as they both tumbled onto the ground.

Wujing: “Fuck you!”

Chieftess Liang laughed from the nearest table, a spoon of noodles pressed to her lips, free hand waving the fan beneath her neck. Beside her, Liang Guo shook his head in disapproval, elbows propped up and scowl apparent. And sitting to his left, the dragon prince watched his brothers rumble, pale face blank.

Their antics did nothing to faze him, and Ao Lie knew well why- he looked past the quarreling trio and their laughing audience, gaze stopping at the gleaming scalp in the distance. Xuanzang sat on a wooden stool at the square’s edge, back turned to the feast, bald head shining under pink moonlight. He appeared to be looking into the distance, but at what, the prince couldn’t tell.

Ao Lie considered approaching the Master, but he knew already that the monk would not reply, regardless of what he said. So the prince turned away, instead looking to the fields, now washed violet under the final night of the blood moon. He wondered how far Wukong had gone, the words, one-hundred eight-thousand li suddenly sharp and heavy to say. The monkey could have sailed all the way to the western paradise by then, or perhaps returned to Mount Huaguo, or maybe he’d decided to say “fuck it” and gone somewhere that could never be found.

He’d gone some place where no one would hurt him again, and that might have been for the best. Ao Lie said this to himself and as the tears pricked at his eyes, knew he didn’t believe a single word in that thought.

“Tonight ends the blood moon cycle,” a low voice said, calm and regal.

Jolted, Ao Lie glanced left, just now noticing Zhenyuan the Immortal, the patriarch having taken a seat beside him, a cask of plum wine in his hands. And it was then that Ao Lie realized he had never actually spoken to the immortal on his own.

“P- patriarch,” he addressed, cursing himself for the shocked stutter.

“You’re Ao Run’s third son, correct?” Zhenyuanzi asked, tipping the cask into his mouth as he stared at the prince from the corners of his eyes.

“I am, Ao Lie of the-”

“You stole my ginsengfruit.”

The dragon’s feet shifted, ready to burst and escape should the patriarch pursue revenge, because truth be told, he’d completely forgotten about that theft. Somehow, I had a good reason didn’t seem to be the best answer. But all the patriarch did was offer him that cask of wine.

“You look scared out of your wits, boy. I’m not a spiteful individual,” Zhenyuanzi said, “come, I should be like a wise uncle to you.”


“I’m so close to your eldest brother, after all.”

Um …”

“Ah, forgive me. I meant to say, Sun Wukong.” The patriarch sighed while he passed the wine into Ao Lie’s hands. “Master Sanzang cut ties with him, I’d forgotten. Tell me, how is your Master taking it?”

Holy men were forbidden from drinking copious amounts of wine, but on this night, it was exactly what Ao Lie needed. He downed half the cask in one gulp, set the drink down, and said, eyes again falling on the Tang priest’s head, “I don’t know. He’s in pain, but I doubt he regrets it- Master, he has a hard time letting go.”

Zhenyuanzi nodded, contemplating, and said, “Like any mortal, then.”

“Nothing wrong with being mortal, you know,” Liang Guo interjected, voice so sudden that the heads of dragon and immortal snapped towards him as soon as he spoke.

The chieftess had fallen asleep by then, wrinkled cheeks flushed pink as she snored along her son’s broad shoulder. Liang Guo smoothed her silver hair and said, soft, “Nothing wrong with being like my mother. You love, you age, you die- but ain’t that the whole point of being mortal?”

Zhenyuanzi stroked that beard, regarding the younger Liang’s words with understanding, and replied, “I suppose. It’s been too long for me.”

Ao Lie scanned the tables around him- the leftover food, the stained chopsticks, the laughing villagers, and the flowers left by big brother, bright and lovely under those lined lanterns. The air smelled of petals, plum, and ending summer, a distinct sorrow cast in that red-black sky. And it told them this would all end in one child’s blink. Then Ao Lie admitted, he did not want this to end.

He placed a finger behind his ear, where he’d tucked the first disciple’s cornflower, as if the act alone would bring the monkey back.

Xuanzang ignored the celebration behind him, opting instead to stare blankly at the fields ahead, trying and failing to repeat mantras in his mind. He felt as empty as a dried pail, and still, knew he was drowning in thoughts best hidden. He ran his left hand over the bandaged arm, fingers pausing at the sling- he’d once overheard Wukong talking about snapping his arm in half. How much of it was in jest, and how much in truth, he’d never know, but he assumed there had been a bit of both.

But Wukong was gone now, and if fate was kind, the demon would stay gone.

And yet the monk was unable to congratulate himself on having saved his disciple’s life. Hurting the monkey was the last thing he’d wanted to do, but he might as well have driven a dagger into Wukong’s gut and twisted it for good measure. Wukong had gone through enough pain for his sake, and Xuanzang had dug the wound still deeper.

The priest pressed the hand to his chest, as if the heart within was clenching of its own accord. This was an unfamiliar pain, something not unlike the hole that Duan left, and entirely different on its own. And the worst part was he knew exactly why it ached so.

“Master Sanzang, mind if we chat?”

Without acknowledging that voice, Xuanzang nodded, ears soon filled with the rustling of robes as Zhenyuanzi took a seat beside him, the immortal smelling of smoked meat and liquid plum.

“Do you resent me?” the patriarch asked, a simple question.

Did he? Would he have cast the monkey away if not for the immortal’s warning? Would he have let Wukong die if they were left on their own? Would it even have occurred to him that he was the root of his disciple’s pain?

“I wish I could,” Xuanzang answered.

He smiled. “Patriarch, forgive me. I know you mean well, and I do thank you. But I had no idea… that it’d hurt so much.” Or at all .

Zhenyuanzi put a sympathetic hand on his back, running fingers up and down the monk’s spine like a father to his ward. “Neither did I, Master Sanzang. I thought you’d part more civilly than that, but you do know him best.”

Xuanzang sighed and let his head fall on the patriarch’s shoulder, giving in to the allure of his grandfatherly touch. For a moment, he was Jiang Liu again and Master Fa Ming was soothing his night terrors with a gentle reprimand.  

“Really? That ape’s gone a day and you’re canoodling with an old geezer,  Tang-Tang?”

Xuanzang and Zhenyuanzi pulled apart, the moment ruined by a familiar sharp and irritating tongue. Jiu Gong stood before them, a teasing glint in her eyes, a look that said she only said such irksome words because she could.

“Such coarse words!” the patriarch snapped, “it’s called ‘fatherly’ comfort, a task that I’m rather good at!”

Jiu Gong: “Ooh, a daddy kink.”

“Minister, kindly shut up!” Xuanzang said, “what happens between the patriarch and I is none of your business, and for the record, I have no kinks because I’m pure of heart!”

“Oh please, you wanted to fuck Xiao San at first sight. And let’s not get started on everything you’ve done to that monkey.”

Zhenyuanzi: “What language! You base vulture, what business have you here-”

Jiu Gong: “I should be asking you that, geezer! Advising Tang-Tang is my job.”

And a fat lot of advising you’ve done , Xuanzang thought bitterly. As the minister and patriarch bickered on, he buried his face within his lap and prayed that they would fall silent soon. And he couldn’t help but think that if Wukong had been there, the monkey would have sniggered, a nasty little laugh that Xuanzang now admitted he’d always found just a tad endearing under its ugly, ugly sound.

Bajie went to bed sporting two black eyes, with no small thanks to his unhelpful third brother and that pest of an officer. After removing his outer robes, the second disciple allowed his pig’s form a moment of well-earned respite. Then he crumpled over the bed for two and sighed, low and earnest. Damned fish .

He half expected Wukong to burst through the door, kick him off the bed, and call him an asshole. But that was force of habit- the monkey wasn’t coming back and by all rights, he was the first disciple now.

“Eldest brother,” he said to himself, the words foreign and odd, “Zhu Bajie.”

And with “eldest brother” came all its responsibilities and chores- was he now expected to save the priest at every turn? Put up with the Master’s crop? Stand front and center, and take the worst of every blow? Simply thinking of such things gave him a sow’s headache. He tried to flip on his side, and when that failed, sighed again.

But it was easier now that the boss was gone. At least now, he wouldn’t have to-

“Where the fuck am I supposed to sleep?” Wujing demanded, popping through the door with a glower fixed on that bed.

“The floor, asshole. Don’t bother me- I’m very tired, you see.”


With that, Wujing huffed and toppled over Bajie, thrusting all seven feet of weight into the pig’s prone form. Crying aloud, Bajie twisted and pushed the fish off, but Friar Sand stayed rooted, determined to take his rightful place.

“What the fuck is wrong with you!?” Bajie said, “who does this!?”

“I’m in a bad mood, don’t push me!”

“You’re in a bad mood? So I’m not in a bad mood? Have you no shame!?”

“Fuck no!”

They squirmed and grappled through the night, fighting on and on for the first time unending, because now there was no monkey to pry them apart.

And below, Xuanzang and Ao Lie sat in the parlor of the WANING LION’S INN, the youngest Sun cradled between them, giggling at the thuds and thumps from above.

“Those two are at it again,” the monk muttered, “Xiao Bailong-”

“Master, I’m not going up there.”

Seeing that there was no swaying the dragon, Xuanzang looked back to the babe, its tiny fingers curled over his own. He could see Yachi in its tender features, and a bit of Sun’s simplicity in those small eyes. It was a good countenance, an innocent one Xuanzang hoped the babe would never lose, that it would only weather with age and laughter, and never pain. Amitabha , he thought as he looked upon its smile, amitabha .

“Master Sanzang.”

Xuanzang turned at the voice, momentarily surprised to see the innkeeper entering without his wife by his side. Fresh bathed and robes changed, Sun appeared a new man in the floating night. He was lankier than Xuanzang remembered, taller now that his demons were at rest, and weary all the same. The man crouched before his son, nose pointed and cheekbones high, traces of a goatee on his clean chin.

In that moment, Sun was no longer the troublesome face to a man. He was finally flesh and blood to the Tang priest. Xuanzang was struck then, by an awareness in his mind- had he been so lost that the existence of another human being should shock him so? Sun and Yachi were as real as himself and his.

“I never got to thank you,” Sun said, “for saving my life.”

Then it occurred to Xuanzang that he never even asked for the man’s name. It reminded him of everything he’d never asked her . The image of Duan flashed before his mind, and with her, the image of Wukong. And chest tight, the Tang priest met Sun’s eyes.

Xuanzang: “I only did what’s right. Master Sun, tell this holy one your name.”

“You don’t know?” Sun pried his eyes from the babe, a touch of embarrassment on his sharp nose. “Thought I’d told you. Sun Hong.”

“And I’m-”

The innkeeper chuckled. “The whole village knows, Master Sanzang.”

“Well, my incredible humility can only go such a long way,” the monk replied.

Ao Lie: “Master, that was the opposite of humble.”

Xuanzang: “Xiao Bailong, are you the high priest or am I?”

“You are.”

“That’s correct.”

Sun Hong picked up his son, the babe’s fingers clinging to Xuanzang’s beads as the priest hunched over to fit its tight grip.

“Darling, let go of the holy man,” Sun Hong coaxed, though all his voice did was make the babe’s grasp firmer.

Uncomfortably bent for fear of making the babe cry, Xuanzang sighed and looked to Ao Lie for help. The prince approached, hands making to remove the young Sun’s own, only for the babe’s attention to switch from bead to hair. And soon, Ao Lie was yelping for freedom as the babe latched onto his left horn, giggling all the while.

“Let go of the demon, darling!” Sun Hong said.

Ao Lie: “Are you kidding!? I am a dragon, third heir of the western-”

Xuanzang shushed him. “Xiao Bailong, there are people sleeping.”

In the midst of trying to pry his son off the fourth disciple, Sun Hong told the two, “I know it hasn’t been the best of visits, but we do thank you for staying the night. Yachi says you’d planned to leave today.”

“That had been my plan.” Xuanzang’s eyes drifted to the ceiling with vague disapproval. “But my other disciples are dead asleep now.”

Sun Hong: “That’s good. More rest for you- I imagine you all have quite a way ahead. We’ll be sorry to see you go.”

Ao Lie finally wriggled free, infant digits slipping from his horn as he stepped back and twisted behind the Master’s high shoulder, a healthy length from Sun and son.

Xuanzang: “As will we.”

In the morning, Yang Yachi and her husband saw the pilgrims off, the Liangs beside, along with what little villagers had managed to wake up. A vulture watched them from afar, perched above a gnarled branch, the Immortal Zhenyuan standing at Moonfield’s edge.

“Good luck, Master Sanzang,” Yachi said in parting, arms tight around the monk as Xuanzang hugged back. “And-”

Here, she paused, breath low as she said into his ear, so soft that even Bajie couldn’t hear, “If Elder Sun comes back, let him- you’ll hate yourself otherwise.”


But Yachi had stepped away already, a knowing smile on her lips, sad and understanding, as if she’d stood in his very spot and made every wrong choice in his stead. Sun Hong passed the babe back into Yachi’s arms and bowed, top-knot gleaming against the pecks of rising sun.

Xuanzang bowed back, left hand clasped against an invisible right. He wanted to say more, an apology on his tongue, for he was sorry, so very sorry. To who and for what, he knew no longer.

“Are you leaving or not?” Officer Yi grumbled from his place behind Chieftess Liang.

Wujing tightened his grip on the wagon’s handles and said, “Nobody asked you to come, asshole!”

“I can go wherever I like!”

Between Wujing’s wagon and Bajie’s rake, the pony huffed in annoyance, coal blue eyes rolling up. Ao Lie tapped one hoof, waiting for Xuanzang to finish his goodbyes and return to his saddle.

“I’ll miss you demons!” Chieftess Liang laughed with a slap to her thigh, still tipsy from the night before.

“And we shall miss you too, Lady Liang,” Bajie replied with flare, throwing the rake over his shoulders as he came to kowtow at the chieftess’ feet. “I will forever cherish our time together!”

Liang Guo: “Back off, demon.”

Bajie: “Of course, of course!”

Xuanzang turned to the chieftess as well and did his best kowtow, sling shifting uncomfortably as his arm slid against cloth. “Thank you, Chieftess, for your mercy and hospitality. This holy one will never forget your kindness. If there’s any way we can repay you-”

Chieftess Liang: “Fuck me.”


Then the old woman cackled again, delighted at the blush spreading across Xuanzang’s face. “Just kidding! Here, holy man-” She pointed at a wrinkled cheek, “a kiss for a kiss.”

This, Xuanzang could do. Relieved, he bent down and placed a peck on the elder Liang’s cheekbone. She held him in place and kissed his cheek, wet and warm and motherly. Watching, Bajie twirled his weapon’s handle, a hint of envy in his masked face.

Liang Guo took Xuanzang aside, Chieftess Liang leading the party behind them into another bout of merry laughter. The younger Liang shook his head with a grumpy sigh.

“She’s drunk- you’ll have to forgive my mother, holy man.”

“It’s no trouble.”

“I guess I misjudged you lot,” Liang Guo said, the reluctance clear in his gruff tone, “Tang monk, you’re a good man.”

Before Xuanzang could thank him, Liang Guo’s gaze briefly flickered to Bajie.

Liang Guo: “Almost misjudged you, anyway.”

It was as close to a compliment as they would get from the man, and that itself was good enough for Xuanzang.

“Amitabha,” he said with a bow, “and I thank you too, Master Liang, for everything.”

Then, seeing that Yachi was busy laughing at whatever Chieftess Liang had just said at Yi’s expense, Xuanzang went on and said, “Master Liang, I don’t know if my disciples and I will ever return. So I must ask now- do you have a loved one?”

“Gossipy for a holy man.” But Liang Guo understood the sentiment behind, so he nodded and said, in that near grunt, “I do. You know who.”

Yang Yachi.

“Even if she loves another?”

“She told you, didn’t she?”

Xuanzang said nothing, the silence enough to answer Liang Guo’s question, a question he already knew to the answer to. The acceptance in Liang Guo’s words told him more than enough, the apathy he had for Sun Hong, the soft light in his eyes when that bodhisattva was near- all this was enough for Xuanzang. Liang Guo knew who she loved. He knew, and he did not care, and he loved her all the more.

“Lee Yu Qing,” Liang Guo said, the name coming out like a prayer, “her name, the first Madame Sun.”

Lee Yu Qing, the only one Yang Yachi had and ever would want. But she’d loved Sun Hong. And Liang Guo loved her- he’d loved Lee Yu Qing not because he loved her, but because Yachi had- he’d loved her for her . It was a wordless sacrifice, one Xuanzang doubted Yachi would ever know, but heavy all the same and marveling in the end.

“She loves Lee Yu Qing,” the monk said, “but you’ll love them regardless. Master Liang, your love, I admire.”

“And what would a monk know.” Liang Guo scratched his beard, uncharacteristically self-conscious, and said, “So why’d you want to know, elder? You want to leave me with some advice?”

Xuanzang clumsily pulled the straw hat over his scalp and shook his head, a weary smile gracing his lips. “No, I was hoping you’d leave me with some, Master Liang.”

“Won’t matter if I could. Your lot’s all about ‘letting go,’ right?”

“That’s what I’d thought.”

Xuanzang bowed to him once more and turned back to his disciples. With Wujing’s help, he climbed onto Ao Lie’s back, and in the missing disciple’s place, Zhenyuanzi came to take the reins.

“Remember,” the patriarch said to the villagers present, “my banquet is open to all, but for now, I bid you farewell!”

And just like that, all of Moonfield gathered to send him off, cheering and sobbing as if they’d celebrated ten new years in one.

“I feel like there’s some favoritism going on here,” Bajie muttered against the gathering crowd, villagers shoving past his party to kiss the hem of Zhenyuanzi’s robes.

Wujing: “Assholes.”

Tang Sanzang and his pilgrims left at the crack of dawn, the priest himself atop his silk white horse, flanked by the second disciple with his nine-toothed rake, and the third disciple gathered behind, spade in hand, and wagon in tow.

In the days that followed, the Master’s mood grew ever worse, and Ao Lie was sure the road west would be all but paved with holy scoldings and dark-browed glares. Xuanzang forced the disciples to recite Tathagata’s teachings should the need arise, and as of late, the “need” was every ten minutes. Ao Lie had counted the little things that set their Master off: Wujing’s rude laughter, Bajie’s pretentious poems, the dragon’s complete lack of interest in his parables, and so on.

And more often than not, Xuanzang’s frustration did not come from his fellow pilgrims at all. Jiu Gong had accompanied them, much too merry for everyone’s comfort, and insisted on helping with every little thing. That is, if helping meant sabotaging, because Ao Lie was quite sure she dumped too much salt into Wujing’s congee out of spite, that she dropped a pan on Xuanzang’s foot because she could, and that she used some spell to make her night snores louder. She’d been determined to make the pilgrims’ lives hell, and as far as Ao Lie could tell, she had succeeded.

Zhenyuan the Immortal was a slightly more pleasant companion, though the vulture tested his manners and he somehow felt it his right to lecture the disciples in their Master’s stead. He’d critiqued their postures, awoken them before the light of dawn, and shamelessly eaten roast beef as the rest of them crowded around rotten greens and sticky rice. If Xuanzang had been annoying, then Zhenyuanzi was unbearable.

And he did not get along with the former minister one bit- they bickered from dusk to dawn over the color of dirt and the direction north. Between their arguing and the disciples’ own spats, it was little wonder that the Tang priest lashed out at his three students with every bump of mood.

“Baldy’s a real hypocrite,” Bajie told them one night, exactly nine after they’d left Moonfield, “he tells us to love each other, but look at him.”

Across the campfire, Wujing flicked a gaze over to where the monk sat, out of earshot and atop a dry boulder. He appeared to be meditating, but Ao Lie suspected “brooding” was the more accurate term.

Bajie: “He’s been nothing but a bully these past days.”

“A real asshole,” Wujing grumbled.

“So what do we do?” Ao Lie asked.

“How should I know?” the pig said, “wait for him to feel better. But honestly, not like it’s our fault he’s heartbroken.”

Wujing: “Maybe if we got the boss-”

Bajie: “We talked about this. That’s not an option.”

They tried not to speak of the boss as often as they could. The word left a pang in Ao Lie, as if the first disciple was dead and to speak of him after was to slander his grave. He wondered if the others felt the same, but he had no desire to pry. This, he wanted no more part of.

Instead, the prince said, “You’re eldest brother now. You should know what to do.”

Bajie glared at him. “I’m under a lot of pressure- I have a lot more to do than be a baby horse, you know.”

“What’s that supposed to mean!?”

Ao Lie surged forward, ready to claw out the pig’s eyes, when Wujing blocked his path and wrestled him to the ground. They squirmed and growled as they fought, wiping dust and grass with angry backs. Amused and irritated, Bajie looked on, too lazy to intervene and rather hopeful that the fish would get rid of Ao Lie then and there.

Xuanzang: “You’re hopeless.”

The three disciples froze and looked up, the Tang priest having stood up, cold eyes locked on their heads from above. There was a spiteful edge to his tone, strangely mean and empty.

“You’re worse than babies,” he continued, “how can you achieve enlightenment that way? Have you any idea how much shame this brings me, as your Master?”

Ao Lie: “But he started it-”

“I don’t care! Clean up your acts and go to sleep. Now I have to pray for your stained souls.”

The monk turned around and returned to his perch on the rock, head lowered in dark thought. The disciples broke apart and after casting each other a final glare, turned on their backs and faced away. Bajie watched Wujing drop like a corpse in sleep and Ao Lie curl his limbs in. Then, pushing leaves over himself, the pig gazed past the Tang priest, at the vulture and Zhenyuan behind the nearest tree.

“Who spends more than a thousand years on some shitty fruit?” Jiu Gong was asking, riled at the flare in Zhenyuanzi’s nose.

“ Those are the fruits of true immortals. Apologize right now.”

“Or what, geezer?”

“You have no idea!”

And so on. Bored, Bajie shut his eyes, quite sure neither Jiu Gong or Zhenyuanzi needed sleep. They’d stay long enough for the Master’s arm to heal, and then be on their way, hopefully forever. The thought was enough to push a smile over the pig’s lips.

He hadn’t seen her in a long time-- Duan. Xuanzang approached on silent footsteps, her messy hair blowing under moonlight breeze. She turned to him, wrapped in clear white fabric, a trace of blue cloth hanging past, and grinned.

“I missed you,” she said.

“Me too.”

She danced around him, breaths light against his skin, as he tried to touch her, hands meeting air instead. She was teasing him. And the ocean surrounded them, waves rustling around soft sands.

“Miss Duan,” he said, “what would you do?”

“What kind of question’s that supposed to be?”

She laughed in his face. Then she put her head against his shoulder, and said, “I’d do whatever I want. I’m not some weakling like you.”

“But I’m your weakling.”

“That’s right.”

He embraced her, trying to memorize the texture of her skin, the cloth on her body, the shine in her hair- he hadn’t seen her in so long. He hadn’t dreamt. And he hadn’t thought. He’d been thinking of someone else. And it plagued him then, a terrible, terrible guilt he knew he could not brush away.

She walked out of his grip and turned, enough to extend a moonlit hand. Around her wrist was the golden circlet, familiar and stinging as it dangled. He touched it, gently folding his fingers around hers.

“If I went into the ocean, would you follow?” she asked, tilting up to meet his eyes.

“I’d go anywhere for you.”

“And what if he followed you?”




“I don’t understand.”

Him .

“If it were me and him, who would you save?”

Him . But who could swim? Couldn’t she? Couldn’t he? Then Xuanzang would not have to pick. Except one had long since drowned, and the other had not, and even in his dreams, he knew this was the bitter truth.

“I’d send Wujing and Xiao Bailong to save you,” he blurted, “they’re good at swimming.”

He was very proud of his answer. It was a smart answer.

But Duan only said, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard… Tang-Tang.”

Tang-Tang? And then, he was face-to-face with minister Jiu Gong.

Xuanzang sat up with a groan, the vulture grinning as she watched him wake. He hurriedly padded at the corners of his mouth, hoping that no drool had escaped, and looked past the leftover smoke of their campfire from the night before. Zhenyuanzi was sitting by Ao Lie on a log, munching on fresh lamb leg as the disciples looked on in envy.

“You’re cute in your sleep,” Jiu Gong said.

“Minister, you scared me.”

“Aww, don’t be like that.” Then she leaned in, grin wide. “So, who was it? Were you dreaming about that woman?”

“Her name is Duan,” he snapped, “now please, leave me be.”

He got up, bandaged arm aching as he stood on ruffled robes, and lifted a hand to smooth his bald head. Xuanzang strolled towards the rest of their band, passing in time to hear Ao Lie ask the patriarch, “Can we have some?”

Sensing the Master’s approach, Bajie wiped his own mouth and said, “How dare you say such a thing, little brother!? Us holy men should never dream of such a thing!”

Xuanzang shot them all a glare and said no more, save: “Finish your congee. We leave at noon.”

“We’re lost, vulture!” Zhenyuanzi said, “I foresaw this outcome the moment you took the reins!”

“Oh shut up, you geezer!”

Jiu Gong threw the reins aside, Ao Lie nearly tripping as she stomped away from the pony. On his saddle, Xuanzang sighed, squinting his eyes at the night sky- they were indeed unsure of where to go next, and he only hoped they were still on the course west. All around were bamboos and high trunks, each step steeper than the last.

“What, you got us lost, asshole!?” Wujing cried as he lugged the wagon forward.

Jiu Gong: “Oh sure, blame the pretty one!”

“Wait, wait,” Bajie said, “I’m Marshal Tienpeng! I’ll just look at the stars and find a way out of these woods!”

“Or we could ask him,” Wujing said, pointing at a passing rider.

Bajie: “Thank you for ruining my heroic moment.”

“You’re welcome.”

Xuanzang hailed the new horse and its master, both black blots in the dark, and said, “Good sir! We’re a band of holy men on our way to the western paradise- have you any idea where we are?”

The horse stopped as the figure atop stayed it, and when they approached, Xuanzang could see that the newcomer was bundled from head to toe in fabrics grey and black. The figure lifted a gloved hand and pulled the cloth from his face. Xuanzang felt a hitch in his breath- such features he had not seen since the blurry days of childhood, when that stranger from the silk road had passed him by.*

It was a man that stopped before them, his eyes a striking green, skin toned and tinted olive, curls of brown hair atop his head. A trader from Hu.*      

“Hello,” he said, his language spaced and peppered with accent, “you are in the border of Huang Tian, the Kingdom of the Yellow Sky. Keep going straight and you should come to it.”

“Thank you, venerable sir.”

The trader nodded and prepared to move on, before thinking better of it and turning back, “Wait, holy man. The festival of the Lion is tonight. I left in time to avoid it. If you go now, I do not know how long you will be stuck.”

“Ohh, a festival!” Jiu Gong said, “Tang-Tang, we’ve got to go!”

Flashbacks of Biqu and its parade of balloons came to mind. Bajie pursed his lips and said, calmly, “Master, local celebrations tend to bring us nothing but trouble.”

Zhenyuanzi: “Yes, I feel like your party’s been to every celebration except my-”

Jiu Gong: “You’re still on about that banquet, geezer?”

The argument started again, and distracted, the trader looked back to Xuanzang, just now catching sight of his disciples. Taken aback, he blanched at Wujing’s complexion and stammered, “Mas- masakh-”

Xuanzang: “Pardon? I’m afraid I don’t understand-”

“Your servant looks very… strange,” the trader said, recollecting his wits.

You look strange!” Wujing snapped back.

“Please excuse him,” Xuanzang mumbled, leading Ao Lie to stand in front of Wujing, “my disciple is… odd, but he’s a student of the Buddhist way.”

Backing his horse away, the trader nodded mutely and said, “I should be going now. Fortune be with you, elder.”

Before Xuanzang could repay his parting, the foreigner had turned and galloped off, no inclination to stay any longer in Wujing’s presence.

“There you go again, scaring everyone off,” Bajie chastised.

In turn the fish said, “ He’s the one that looks strange.”

“Neither of you look strange to me,” Xuanzang lied, “now let’s follow his directions and go on. Patriarch, please lead the way.”

Zhenyuanzi: “With pleasure. Now, young vulture, you’ll see how it’s done.”

Jiu Gong scoffed as the patriarch puffed his chest and took his place at the front of their band, sleeve folded over sleeve. Nose twitching in disdain, she followed, and not far behind, the Tang priest pushed his pony forward.

Behind, Bajie turned to Wujing and muttered, “He wasn’t that strange on the eyes. Rather strapping, actually. I’ve seen Hu tribes that look a little like the brat over there-”

He bobbed his head in the direction of Ao Lie’s tail. “Real blue eyes, yellow hair, and almost as tall as you to boot. Funny looking mortals, that lot.”

Wujing: “Are you saying I look funny!?”

Bajie: “There you go again, putting words in my mouth! Do you ever listen to other people!?”


“You’re the asshole here!”

Ahead, Ao Lie neighed, exasperated at the conversation behind him, for it started from nothing and went to nothing. But Xuanzang paid it no mind.

The foreign trader had not lied, and his warning fell true, for the Kingdom of the Yellow Sky was indeed in the midst of their grandest festival. There had been no office to collect their passports when the pilgrims entered, and Xuanzang could only assume even their civil servants were making merry into the night. They arrived to the sight of flying lanterns the size of boulders, paper lions paving the streets, and singing dancers all about. Jiu Gong’s eyes had widened, eager as a child to join in Huang Tian’s celebrations.

Bajie walked past the vulture, no cares left for his Master when he caught sight of those dancers atop their parade floats. They were beautiful tapestries of skin and fabric and batting lashes-- and then- drip!- the pig slobbered on. Men and women in golden cloths marched behind, hair held back by pins and bands, as they beat their large hide drums. And at their heels were grinning acrobats, spinning and spitting fire with every flip.

Red banners snaked through the crowded streets, BLESS THE LION painted across in fresh, black strokes. A far cry from the rural town of Moonfield Village, Huang Tian was a kingdom nearly on par with Chang ‘An. Its people danced and laughed under a sky of glowing lights, banners swishing left and right, and rooftops splashing color with each burst of flying firecracker. Merchants and peddlers swarmed the streets, selling cloths and meats and silver hair pins.

But Ao Lie could not see any of this as he clopped through the crowd, blocked by all shades of hat and hair, top knots and turbans, and black and brown (and every now and then, a speck of silver or gold). He heard the crowd against mandolin strings, erhu, and drum. And all around was yellow, red, and the warmest fires. But enough was enough.

So as Wujing dragged the wagon past Xuanzang’s steed, not catching a single eye from the citizens around, Ao Lie huffed and knelt, scrunching in until he was once more in human shape. For his part, the Tang priest unceremoniously slipped off.

The monk stood, dusted himself, and shot Ao Lie a cool glare. But nothing more left his lips.

“Where’d Zhenyuan go?” Wujing said.

Ao Lie: “What?!”

“Where’d Zhenyuan go!?”

“I can’t hear you!”

Giving up, Wujing pushed his wagon forward, knocking Bajie onto it as the parade passed them by. They’d lost Zhenyuanzi and Jiu Gong somewhere along the line, though Wujing suspected it was the duo that’d lost them instead. The festival, for all its shallow spectacle, reminded him of a day centuries ago, high in heaven. He’d been standing in a world much like this, a jade bowl in his shaking hands…

“Now this is more like it,” Ao Lie said, shoving past the third disciple, rather unnerved by the fish’s spacey look, “this is closer to the feasts of the western sea!”

Then he laughed, boyish and bright, dazzled by all that was happening. And he couldn’t help but imagine that monkey rolling his eyes. Xuanzang walked beside him, absently blending in with the crowd, the high priest’s hat now atop his head, flags trailing flat behind his back.

“Master, wait!”

Ao Lie ran towards him, bumped back by passing shoulders and opposing steps. Xuanzang heard the dragon call, but did not stop. One hand touched the beads along his chest as he made his way forward, only once pausing to stare at a pool of swimming koi. Their vendor reached for him, and Xuanzang walked on, a group of children rushing to gather before those fish.

Everything was glowing and rich, as if all the brightness and cheer in the world had been poured into this one night. But the monk could feel none of it, save a hollowness that told him this was all fake. And yet, he knew this was no illusion, and the glee of Huang Tian’s citizens was enough for him to see.

“Master!” the dragon’s muffled cry rang.

Duan would have been as excited as Jiu Gong had she been there, and the thought of her moonlit face set his chest afire once more. She’d asked him who he would save, and he had refused to answer in that dream. But he knew.

In that moment, he knew the answer clear. But he’d refused to say- to tell her would mean he had let go. And he did not want to let go of her. He thought of her warm skin, her loose hair, the feel of her plush lips- they would all be gone should he admit the truth.

Xuanzang had moved on, when he did not know, and it was a deep, angry betrayal he did not want her to know. A broad shoulder clipped him, and the monk stepped back, bumping into another spine along the way.

And- crack!- a firework burst.

He felt himself drop, balance lost.

If he’d ever been lost, Sun Wukong would find him, pull him up by the collar and shield him from harm. He’d do it with a rude laugh and a bloodthirsty glare. And he would not leave. For Xuanzang would fall into that spiral again, and Wukong would pull him out. Even should the Tang priest push him away, bind his limbs, lash his skin- even after every bitter word and hit, Wukong would stay and take each blow.

Then Wukong would deliver a blow for each blow, and leave Xuanzang wondering just who had stayed for who. His palm scratched the pavement, knee scraped as he plunged down. But Wukong was gone. He’d sent him off.

A sturdy hand caught his right elbow before the rest of him could hit the ground, fingers gentle as they propped his limb. Xuanzang caught his breath, and in that instant, heard a whisper, clearer than all the noise around:

“Venerable elder, be careful.”

Xuanzang turned his head, in time to catch a glimpse of covered top knot and a peddler’s backside. But when he opened his mouth, the stranger was gone, melted into the crowd, one dark head among many more. And he was lost once more.

“Master!” he heard in the distance.

His gaze fell to his left hand, fingers digging into the solid ground, shaking body refusing to inch one muscle. Another burst of color painted the night sky, drips of pink and green dotting his nose.

The Great Sage Equaling Heaven had seventy-two transformations. Seventy-two shapes to bend and use at will. He could take the form of anything he wanted, anything at all, and should he never want to be found, disappear for good. And Xuanzang would never again find him among the mortal realm.

Wukong was gone.

“Master!” Ao Lie said, out of breath as he dropped by the Tang priest’s side, “are you alright?”

Xuanzang stayed huddled on the ground, and fearing that the priest would be trampled by the drunken throngs, Ao Lie pulled himself closer to the Tang priest and put a hand on his sleeve. And as he looked close into the monk’s face, he felt his throat clench.

Tears rolled down the man’s high cheekbones, drip by drip as they hit his prone hand.

Ao Lie: “Master…”

Xuanzang shook his head, the slightest of movements as his vision blurred.

Wukong was gone. And he was not coming back.