The passage of time, while almost imperceptible to gods, walked as an ever-present companion in the lives of mortals.
Shi Qingxuan landed in the Imperial City at the end of autumn with no brother, no best friend, and nothing left in the world.
The heavens went up in flames that winter, yet the near-collapse of the three realms caused but a ripple on the waters of time — by spring, humans had well forgotten the commotion and had moved on with their lives.
The seasons followed ceaselessly. A year that used to pass in the blink of an eye now flowed like a stream of sand, constant and steady. Day after day, sunrise to sunset. Shi Qingxuan found that savoring mortal life one day at a time wasn’t too bad, after all.
Before he realized, two years had passed and it was autumn once again.
Shi Qingxuan awoke to the crisp chilliness of a September morning in the dilapidated Fengshui shrine where he made his home. He folded his thin, threadbare blanket and began stretching his sore limbs. He had learned quickly that his broken arm and leg had a tendency to become stuck in uncomfortable positions during the night, but thankfully, the others had shown him early on how to massage his joints to keep blood circulating and avoid further damage. He carefully limped over to the center of the shrine, taking care to avoid stepping on any of the slumbering figures, and kneeled in front of the broken altar for his daily ritual.
Good morning, ge.
It’s almost the mid-autumn festival. Old Zhang said there will be a big celebration in the Imperial City again this year. Lots of restaurants are going to be throwing banquets and there will be plenty of food and wine. Some of the others are already celebrating, haha, it looks like we will be eating well for the next few days.
He blinked slowly. It really has been two years.
I miss you, ge. Take care.
Gathering his robes tighter around his body, Shi Qingxuan pulled himself up and began cheerfully calling out to the sleeping bodies huddled around on the floor.
“Alright, rise and shine, everybody! It’s about time to head out to the city to grab some breakfast. It’s almost the mid-autumn festival — the porridge shop is sure to have extra leftovers today!”
People began stirring. Shi Qingxuan walked around, checking up on the elderly and playfully teasing the young. The camp soon gathered their bowls and began heading into the city as a group, promising to bring back food for the ones who were too sick to leave.
As Shi Qingxuan predicted, the shops were much livelier as the festival drew close, and in good spirit there were more leftovers than usual for the group of beggars. Thanks to Shi Qingxuan’s skilled negotiation, many restaurants in the city had established a cooperative system with the beggar camps — daily leftovers were given out in exchange for odd jobs like sweeping or cargo lifting. Everyone was in a cheery mood as they sat around the street to enjoy a rare warm breakfast. Shi Qingxuan picked his way over to sit next to Old Zhang, one of the first people he had met when he arrived at the Imperial City.
Old Zhang was a kind-hearted old man in his fifties, with a boisterous temperament and a face full of smile lines. Many of the others — Shi Qingxuan included — looked up to him as the leader of the camp. Two years ago he had found a feverish Shi Qingxuan wandering around the city, injured, barely conscious, rambling nonsense about gods and demons. He brought him back to the Fengshui shrine and had looked after him in the following weeks as he recovered. Since then, Old Zhang had grown a soft spot in his heart for the young man and doted on him like a father.
That’s why, as he watched Shi Qingxuan gingerly sit down with a bowl of porridge and start blabbing about his next grand idea for the camp, he felt a pang of melancholy in his chest. Old Zhang had always been a sentimental man with a too-big heart, but he was no fool. From the impeccably dressed people that occasionally came to see Shi Qingxuan to his own hazy memory of a night with unbelievable, otherworldly sights two years ago, it was clear that the young man was no beggar or young lord down on his luck. But Old Zhang was a man of worldly affairs, and as such did not speculate over matters of the divine that did not concern him. What did concern him, however, was the faraway look he sometimes caught in Shi Qingxuan’s eyes and the knowledge that somewhere out there, there were people who cared for him that he could return to.
As he watched the young man he saw as a son — with dirt on his face, clothes, and hair — gently nurse a bowl of porridge with one arm, chattering happily about nothing in particular, he felt another ache in his heart.
“Old Feng,” he interrupted Shi Qingxuan mid-speech, “the other day, didn’t one of your old friends come by to visit again? Old...Xie or something?”
Surprised, Shi Qingxuan paused in thought for a few moments, then brightened. “Oh yeah! His High-......Old Xie dropped by the other day to ask for my expertise in divine artefacts! Let me tell you, Old Zhang— I may not look like it, but if you have a question about any divine treasure, then there’s not another soul more knowledgeable than me, hahaha!” he boasted.
“Bah, forget divine treasures, I wouldn’t know one if it was staring at me in the face! No, Old Feng, what I wanted to ask was… I remember seeing him from before, are you sure you don’t want to go back with him?”
Shi Qingxuan sobered up instantly. After deliberating for a few moments, he sighed and replied with a tired smile, “Haha, it’s… a little complicated, I guess. I… I don’t really belong with that crowd anymore.”
Xie Lian might be more preoccupied these days now that the red demon is back, but he definitely still drops not-so-subtle hints that they’d welcome him back at any time — like casually mentioning that they were lacking in manpower, and oh, by the way, did he know that the wind seat was still open? Pei Ming also still stubbornly visits him every few months, progressing from gentle cajoling to ‘I swear to the Heavens, Qingxuan, you’re coming back with me or I’m going to appoint you whether you like it or not.’
Despite threats or otherwise, neither of them actually forced him to return. He knew that it was because they both understood and respected his decisions — and for that, he was grateful (even to Pei Ming). Choosing favorites among mortals was definitely against the rules, but if Shi Qingxuan’s learned one thing after all this time it was that everyone in heaven was human, in the end.
He had no brother in heaven. No best friend in heaven. There was no one waiting for him in heaven, so why bother returning?
Scratching lightly at his scalp, Shi Qingxuan deliberated for a while and said, “Old Zhang, care to hear a story — the wild ramblings of a crazed man?”
Old Zhang saw through his obvious facade and nodded gently, “Go ahead.”
Shi Qingxuan took a deep breath, “Once upon a time, I had a dear brother and a dear friend who was my very best friend in the world. The three of us did lots of important things! I was really good at my job, too! We lived happily together for a really long time… Thinking back on it, those days I really thought we were destined to stand at the top of the world forever.
“But, as it turns out, the brother that I loved very dearly had tricked me from the very beginning. I was never supposed to walk that glorious path with the two of them. My brother had… done a terrible thing to put me on that road.
“And the friend that I cared for very dearly never existed from the very beginning. He was my enemy, all along. All those years — all of it — was a lie. I lived in ignorance for so long, chasing after frivolous and meaningless things and not once understanding a single thing.”
Shi Qingxuan smiled, “Anyways, no matter how my old friends bend the rules for me, I can’t go back because I didn’t deserve to be with them in the first place.”
Shi Qingxuan had never shared his personal history with any of the others. While Old Zhang didn’t understand the details of the story, he seemed to sense Shi Qingxuan’s uncharacteristic seriousness and understood its significance. He was deep in thought for a few minutes, then put a hand on Shi Qingxuan’s back and replied with the wisdom and gravitas of the elderly, “Old Feng, I don’t understand exactly what happened, but you have a natural ability to draw people to you. You’re earnest. You’re sincere. You’re easy to like, and hard to hate. If you were anything like you are now, I know that both your brother and friend would have cared for you deeply.”
Shi Qingxuan was surprised, but Old Zhang gently pressed on, “Look, I’ve lived for a long time. I’ve seen all kinds of suffering in this mortal life. ‘Birth, age, sickness, death’ — I’ve seen it all. I can tell that you’ve experienced much more suffering than a lot of kids your age, but you are much stronger than you think, and I’m immensely proud of you.
“That’s why it pains me to see that you are here by choice and not by circumstance. You deserve a better life than this. While I can’t know what wrongs were committed in your past, I can take a guess at what what’s keeping you here: guilt, repentance, atonement — some combination of the three, right? That’s because I know that you are a good and kind person at heart, Old Feng.” Old Zhang gave a hearty laugh and clapped Shi Qingxuan on the back, then continued earnestly, “That’s why I’ve gotta say this since you’re still young — this human life is too short to waste. I care about you, so I don’t want to see you shackling yourself down here with us when you have the potential to make a better life for yourself. If you don’t want to go back you your old friends, then don’t go back. Go somewhere else, because I know that you are strong enough to move forward.”
Shi Qingxuan was silent as he listened to the old man’s passionate words. After Old Zhang finished, he quietly mumbled, “....Thank you, Old Zhang, for looking after me. But look at me, I’m just a beggar with a limp arm and leg, where else can I go?”
Old Zhang’s face lit up with a grin, “What are you talking about, Old Feng? Who’s the first one to jump up and rush in whenever anything’s happening? Who’s the one always trying to run ahead even on a broken leg? Is there anywhere you can’t go? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to kick you out here; everyone in the camp loves having you around — even Old Zhao, despite how grumpy he acts. You’re free to stay with us as long as you like.
“But at the same time, I’ve seen you this year, and your head is in the clouds. Your heart is far away sometimes. So I just want you to understand this — you are allowed to want more. You deserve more happiness than you think.” Old Zhang smiled at him and added, “I want you to be happy.”
Shi Qingxuan’s eyes misted. He wiped his face on his dirty sleeve and said, “Old Zhang, thank you, really, for everything. I… I’ll take your words to heart.”
Old Zhang warmly patted his shoulder a few times.
The Mid-Autumn festival passed in an uproar of activity and celebration. Shi Qingxuan’s group spent a lively night wandering around the streets of the Imperial City among boisterous crowds of townsfolk. The good mood was infectious, seemingly heightening the generosity of passers-by, and in the end there was even more food and drink to go around than the group of beggars had expected.
Shi Qingxuan nursed a cup of wine and gazed up at the moon. While the lanterns that floated up around him weren’t nearly as extravagant as the ones his followers used to light at his temples, the warm camaraderie of joining the crowd in cheering brought a simple kind of joy, too. He smiled, and made a toast to the moon.
Ge, happy mid-autumn festival.
A few days after the festivities died down, Shi Qingxuan spent a few of the coppers he’d gathered throughout the year to buy a bundle of incense sticks.
He swept the floor of the Fengshui shrine and wiped down the broken altar with an old rag. He lit three incense sticks, bowed a few times before the altar, and carefully placed them in the incense urn. He took out a couple of stale steamed buns that he had saved from the festival, dusted them off, then placed them in the offering dishes on the counter.
Then, he kneeled in front of the altar, and prayed for a long time.
Afterwards, he took the buns from the offering plate and passed them out to the younger kids, instructing them to share amongst themselves. Turning to the camp, he announced, “Hey guys, I’m going to be taking a trip for a couple of days!”
“Old Feng, you’re going to that place again, huh?”
Old Zhang and the others knew about his yearly trip and offered him some leftovers for the journey. After thanking everyone and repeatedly promising that he would be careful, he packed a small bundle and parted ways from the camp.
The Imperial City was laid out in a rectangle with the imperial court at the center. Multiple gates were set into the four walls along the edges of the city with a near-constant stream of merchants and farmers flowing through. Shi Qingxuan set out from the Eastern Gate. His destination was about a day’s journey on foot, but fortunately, this year he caught a ride with some farmers heading in the same direction on an ox-driven cart. Emerging from a thin canopy of trees, Shi Qingxuan found himself at the edge of a massive, forest-green lake shimmering with the rays of the setting sun.
Just as he burned paper money for his brother during the Zhongyuan festival, he made a trip to this quiet, peaceful lake during this particular time each year. Ideally, he would have liked to go the ocean, but the Imperial City was landlocked and he had no means of using the distance-shortening array anymore.
It was the last day of autumn. It was the day he allowed himself to remember him.
He limped over onto a rocky outcropping over the banks and spread a thin blanket across the ground. He set up the spare incense urn he packed and lit a few sticks of incense. Then, he performed a series of kowtows to a family of five that he had never met.
For his father. For his mother. For his sister. For his fiancée. For him.
As he settled in to pray, the thoughts he dared not think throughout the year came rushing in at once, unbidden.
Ming-xiong... He Xuan…
I’m sorry, He Xuan, I’m sorry I called you the wrong name all those years, I’m sorry I didn’t know anything, I’m sorry I can’t repay you—
I wish I could meet you again.
The last thought caught him by surprise. Did he really want to see him again?
In the early days he had often awoken in the middle of the night in cold sweat from feverish nightmares — always vivid and distinct, always about that night on Black Water Island. He had long since locked the memories of that night away deep in his heart. He wasn’t ready to confront them, not yet. He didn’t know if he would ever really be ready to face He Xuan without those memories being dragged to the surface. He remembered trembling at the sight of the Earth Master shovel, when Yin Yu’s black form had for a split second looked just a little too familiar.
But ever since the night ‘Hua Cheng’ returned his fan to him, a tiny, tiny spark of hope had been born in his heart. The fear was still there, but there was also a timid curiosity that had grown over the years to a burning question that constantly plagued his mind.
Why did he show himself? Why did he repair his fan?
The more he thought and the more he allowed himself to hope, the more his mind twisted itself into a tangled mess. In the end, He Xuan never switched his fate. His arm and leg were really his own fault; he had gotten into an unlucky run-in with a horse-drawn carriage back in the first few days of arriving in the city, when he was still delirious. That was when Old Zhang had found him.
Though he understood now that the Ming Yi he knew was an act, memories strewn across hundreds of years of interacting with the Earth Master still sprung themselves upon him when he least expected it. Scattered fragments snuck up on him regardless of how hard he willed to forget them — how Ming Yi was easily bribed with the promise of food, how Ming Yi accompanied him in female form for the first time, how Ming Yi shielded in front of him without hesitation, how Ming Yi looked when he smiled (a rare, tiny pull at the corner of his mouth). Throughout the year, they came in the predawn hours of the morning and in the twilight hours of the night, in the lull of quiet summer evenings, and in the freezing stillness of winter. Old Zhang’s voice resounded in his ears. Your head’s been in the clouds, Old Feng.
He really was a mess.
...I wish I could talk to you again.
It was afternoon, two days later, by the time he made it back to the Imperial City. As the shrine came into view, there appeared to be an unusual buzz of activity.
Shi Qingxuan saw a group of beggars gathered around a basket outside of the shrine doors in animated discussion and high spirits. They eagerly waved at him as he approached, “Old Feng! You’re back!”
“You came just in time, Old Feng! Come look! We just got somethin’ real good!”
“I’m coming!” Shi Qingxuan made his way over and peered over their shoulders. In the center of the huddle was a basket full of fresh vegetables — turnips, squash, cabbages — tender and crisp, all freshly picked at peak ripeness. Shi Qingxuan was speechless; with this much food they could feed the whole camp for days. “How did you guys manage to get these? The vegetables at the market don’t even look this fresh at opening time!”
One of the beggars clapped, “Oh, that’s right. A really generous lady farmer gave them to us! Actually, she’s still inside—”
He was interrupted as the door to the shrine creaked opened and Old Zhang emerged. Upon seeing Shi Qingxuan, his face lit up and he hurried over, calling, “Old Feng! Old Feng!”
He grabbed Shi Qingxuan’s good arm and began gently steering him towards the shrine. Old Zhang was normally easygoing, but at the current moment seemed to be so distracted that he didn’t even apologize for cutting the other beggar off mid-sentence. He began excitedly, “I thought I heard your voice, Old Feng. I’m glad to see you back safe, but no time to waste right now — there’s someone here for you.”
As he spoke those words, he half-dragged, half-pushed Shi Qingxuan into the Fengshui shrine.
Shi Qingxuan stepped over the threshold and froze. Sitting in the middle of the shrine, offering medicine to a person lying on the ground, was a familiar figure he had not seen in the past two years.
“L-Lord Rain Master?” he whispered.
Yushi Huang looked up at him with warm eyes and a small smile. “Qingxuan.”
She brushed the dust off her clothes and stood up. Even though she was dressed in plain farmer’s clothes — a change from the simple gowns she wore in Yushi Country — she still carried herself with her natural grace. The Rain Master bamboo hat was on her back but her longsword was nowhere to be seen.
Shi Qingxuan ducked his head. He suddenly felt an inexplicable shame wash over him that he had never experienced when other gods visited. For some unfathomable reason, a part of him didn’t want Yushi Huang to see him in his current state.
“Qingxuan, would you accompany me for a bit?” Yushi Huang spoke with her airy voice.
Shi Qingxuan nodded sheepishly, “Ah, certainly.”
They stepped out of the Fengshui shrine together and passed the cluster of people arguing over vegetables. Yushi Huang led him into a clearing a short distance away, out of earshot of the camp, and turned to face him. “Qingxuan, it’s good to see you.”
“Lord Rain Master, it’s good to see you too,” Shi Qingxuan bowed lightly, still in disbelief, then asked, “What brings you here of all places?”
“When His Highness of Xian Le visited a short while back, he mentioned by chance that you were still here in the Imperial City. Since I have some business to attend to in the city, I figured I would take the opportunity to pay you a visit.” Yushi Huang’s gaze grew more serious as she studied his face, “Qingxuan, how have you been?”
A wave of shame crept over him again. He scratched at his hair and grinned, “Ah, many thanks then to Lord Rain Master for taking the time to see me! And, well… considering everything that’s happened… It’s actually not too bad. Honestly! I’ve made a lot of friends at the camp, and everyone here treats me well. There’s usually enough to eat, too. If there’s one thing I miss, it’s being able to bathe more… ” he finished a little self-consciously, rubbing his hair.
Yushi Huang listened with a serene expression until he finished, then placed a hand on his shoulder. “Qingxuan, let me be direct. The main reason I came to the Imperial City is because of you. Would you like to go back with me to Yulong Mountain?”
He wasn’t sure he heard correctly. “Huh?”
“I would like for you to come back with me.”
“Back to… your village?”
“Yes. My village is quiet, but my people are kind,” reading his expression, she added, “I have no intention of coercing you to go back to heaven, and I can imagine that you have no interest in doing so. Instead, I want to offer you my protection and my home because you are an important friend to me, Qingxuan.”
Her voice was soft and gentle as ever. Her words warmed Shi Qingxuan as if a blanket had been draped around him. “Lord Rain Master… I, I…” he stammered.
Yushi Huang saw his hesitation and smiled, “No need to rush. I will be staying in the city until tomorrow. I will be back again tomorrow morning, so please, think about it.”
With that said, she patted him lightly on the shoulder then gestured for them to head back. She parted ways with him at the threshold of the Fengshui shrine among vigorous thank-yous from the camp for the food and medicine. Old Zhang eagerly came up to Shi Qingxuan and sat him down in a quiet corner of the shrine, clearly expectant of details.
When he relayed her offer, Old Zhang burst into the brightest smile Shi Qingxuan had ever seen the old man wear.
“Well, Old Feng?”
Shi Qingxuan was silent for a long time. He thought about his newfound friends at the camp, about Old Zhang, the kids, and all of the others.
He thought about Yushi Huang’s smile, her warmth, her understanding.
Slowly, he nodded. “...I’d like to go.”
Old Zhang pulled him into a tight hug. When they parted, there were tears in the old man’s eyes.
“Oh, Old Feng… I’m glad, I’m so glad. I’ll miss you dearly, but I’m really happy for you. This calls for a celebration!” he swung an arm around Shi Qingxuan’s shoulders and hollered at the rest of the camp, “Hey, you guys! Quit arguing over your vegetables, we’re throwing a feast in Old Feng’s honor tonight!”
The next morning, Yushi Huang waited with her black ox as Shi Qingxuan exchanged farewells with the camp. Old Zhang was teary-eyed, and after making him promise to take care of himself, gave him another tight hug. The younger kids cried while the adults patted him on the shoulders, sending him off with a multitude of well-wishes and teary goodbyes.
As they made their way to exit the city, Yushi Huang took him on an unexpected detour to an inn on the side of the street. She paid for a room and a bath, then presented Shi Qingxuan with a set of clean white robes.
“Take as much time as you’d like. I will be downstairs when you are ready.”
With that said, Shi Qingxuan was left alone with his thoughts for the second time in two short days.
He immediately stripped out of his dirty robes and folded them, then carefully laid out the only two pieces of personal belongings he owned on the table. One was the twice-ripped Wind Master fan and the other was the longevity lock necklace from his brother — the last reminders of his past life.
He made his way over to the tub full of steaming water. Thankfully, the wooden tub was shallow enough for him to sit on the edge. With some difficulty, he maneuvered his paralyzed leg into the tub and then gingerly submerged himself in its warm depths. The water was still too hot to be comfortable, but the sting made him feel clean, and the heat of the water and steam combined soothed the deep-rooted ache in his limbs. He let out a long sigh and relaxed fully; he really needed make sure to thank Yushi Huang properly later.
After soaking for a while, he began washing the dirt from his body. Using a rag and soap ingot he meticulously scrubbed at his face, his arm, his legs, until he could feel layers and layers of grime fall away. He washed his hair and tried to undo years’ worth of knots from the tangled mess with a comb, starting from the bottom and working his way to the top.
The bathwater had become murky and lukewarm by the time he was done. Unfortunately, getting out of the tub was much more difficult than getting in. He carefully pulled himself up along the edge into a sitting position and shifted his bad leg out, almost losing balance a couple of times in the process but ending surprisingly without injury. After leaving the tub fully, Shi Qinxuan dried himself with a towel and put on the fresh new set of robes gifted by Yushi Huang.
He walked over to a bronze mirror resting on a side table and took a proper look at himself for the first time in two years. His face stared back at him, both familiar and foreign, framed by long tresses of wet hair leaving trails in his new clothes. What did he look like at the height of Wind Master’s glory again? He couldn’t remember anymore — he was no longer the Shi Qingxuan who used to be so meticulous about personal appearances. That Shi Qingxuan who prided himself in the peerless beauty of Lady Wind Master and preened in the attention of others seemed like a distant memory, lifetimes ago.
Shi Qingxuan smiled at himself in the mirror. His cheeks seemed thinner and his eyes looked tired but, freshly washed, hair loose, he still looked the part of the playful youth from the oft-described tale ‘Young Lord Who Poured Wine’.
He was still him, after all. And all things considered, his current life was good.
He tied his hair into a loose ponytail with a string and made his way downstairs. Yushi Huang was seated at a table near a window facing the busy city street, holding a pot of tea. She gestured at the open seat across from her when he approached and poured a cup for him as well. Shi Qingxuan sat down and graciously accepted the tea from her.
“Lord Rain Master, thank you again, truly… I am forever in your debt.” He inclined his head and held his limp arm in a small bow.
“There’s no need to thank me,” she smiled, “From now on you are part of my family. Hot water is a rare commodity in the country, so we should take advantage of it while we are still here.”
When she mentioned ‘family,’ Shi Qingxuan suddenly felt a swelling in his heart and tears stinging in his eyes. He blinked rapidly and tried to laugh it off, but Yushi Huang reached across the table and placed her hand firmly on his. Her voice was wispy but her gaze held a seriousness that conveyed the gravity of her words.
Without breaking eye contact, she said, “Qingxuan, thank you for agreeing to come with me. I’m truly glad to see you again, I only wish I had come sooner.”
Shi Qingxuan hung his head. He struggled to keep his voice steady as he mumbled. “...I am undeserving of your kindness.”
Her hand tightened on his. “Shi Qingxuan. Everything that happened, happened between your brother and that other person. There is nothing that you have done wrong. There is nothing that you deserve to be punished for.”
He stared out the window at a random spot in the distance, focus blurring. “But… everything started because of me.”
“It was never your fault,” she replied.
“I’ll never be able to atone for what happened.”
“You’ve atoned more than enough.”
Tears streaked down his face as he finally whispered, “I miss my brother.”
Yushi Huang squeezed his hand again and closed her eyes. “As you will. So remember him, mourn him, honor him, but it’s time for you to take care of yourself.”
“...I miss him, too,” he confessed, like an admission of guilt.
Yushi Huang was silent for a long time.
“...There are many things in this world that cannot be judged in terms as simple as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Likewise, human emotions are far too complex to be separated into clear distinctions, like love or hate. That too, is a part of living — and not even gods nor ghosts can escape it. I cannot tell you what you should or should not feel, but all of your feelings are an important part of you; do not be ashamed of them.”
She held his hand as silent sobs wracked through his body. It was the first time that he had been able to talk about his brother with someone and, like a dam breaking, he could not stop the sudden tears that had welled up from somewhere deep within. They sat together for a long time in the little inn as their tea cooled to room temperature. Eventually, Yushi Huang offered him a silk handkerchief and he wiped his face with a small twinge of self-consciousness.
As they were getting ready to leave, Yushi Huang seemed to remember something, and called out, “Qingxuan, your arm and leg...” she trailed off, but Shi Qingxuan shook his head.
“Don’t worry about it. I don’t think they can be healed, but it’s okay, I’m used to it,” he said, then added in a hurry, “I will start looking after myself now, I promise.”
Yushi Huang nodded, “I understand.”
“Can I trouble you with one request, though? Do you mind if we take a detour on the way back?”
Xie Lian was sweeping the front of Puji Shrine when he saw the telltale figure of a black ox in the distance.
There was no mistaking the seated figures as it grew closer. He ducked into the shrine and called out, “San Lang, we have guests!”
“Oh? Shall I put on some tea, gege?”
“Please. Thank you.”
Xie Lian came back out in time to see Yushi Huang help Shi Qingxuan off of the black ox. She nodded at him and greeted, “I hope you have been well since our last meeting, Your Highness.”
Xie Lian bowed. “Same to you, Lord Rain Master.”
Shi Qingxuan hopped over and began talking excitedly. “Your Highness! How have you been since the last time you came to the Imperial City? Did everything work out with the present?”
Xie Lian remembered the disastrous proceedings of Hua Cheng’s birthday celebration and coughed. “Well, there were some complications, but it turned out alright in the end! Anyways…” hurriedly waving the subject aside, he said, “It’s good to see you again, Qingxuan, Lord Rain Master. To what do I owe the pleasure of seeing the two of you together?”
The two visitors nodded at each other. To Xie Lian’s mild surprise, Yushi Huang began leading her ox further along the road. Shi Qingxuan seemed to become more serious as he said, “Your Highness, can we talk for a bit?”
Xie Lian nodded, and held the doors of Puji Shrine open for him.
There were two freshly brewed cups of tea waiting for them on the table in the middle of the hall. Hua Cheng was leaning casually against a wall on the far side of the shrine. He tipped his head in acknowledgement as Shi Qingxuan waved at him.
Xie Lian gestured at the table and sat down.
“Is Lord Rain Master not going to be joining us?”
Shi Qingxuan shook his head and pulled up a chair. “She’s going to wait outside. Your Highness, I came by today to let you know that I’ve decided to leave the Imperial City. I’m going to go with Lord Rain Master back to her village.”
Xie Lian was both surprised and delighted.
“Oh, Qingxuan, that’s wonderful!”
God or mortal, Shi Qingxuan had been his first genuine friend upon his third ascension. His integrity had always been a rare jewel among the ranks of heaven. Xie Lian briefly recalled the bleak year without Hua Cheng where Shi Qingxuan had even personally made a few trips to Puji Shrine to check up on him, despite his bad leg.
Ever since Xie Lian found him again in the Imperial City, he had been determined to keep an eye on him. Even between the restoration of heaven and Xie Lian’s newfound duties, he made time to visit Shi Qingxuan every few months. Nevertheless, Xie Lian had never been content with leaving the former Wind Master to the harsh hand fate had dealt him in the end. Something in his heart ached every time he saw Shi Qingxuan in the Imperial City. Having experienced too well all the hardships of mortal life, Xie Lian was conflicted; he wanted to help, but didn’t know how. He truly had nothing to offer except his company.
During his last visit to Yushi Huang he really had only mentioned Shi Qingxuan in a passing remark. Never would he have imagined that she would take matters into her own hands.
He was beyond grateful.
Shi Qingxuan grinned. “Yeah, I wanted to say goodbye before I left, ‘cause you won’t be able to find me in the usual spots next time.”
“Thank you. Next time I’ll pay a visit to Yulong Mountain instead,” he promised
Shi Qingxuan laughed, then began in a more solemn tone, “Your Highness, there’s also something I wanted to ask you about. Have you heard of any news of… He Xuan?”
Hua Cheng, who had been keeping a respectful distance away from their conversation up until this point, strode up behind Xie Lian and chimed in, “He’s still around.”
“I see,” Shi Qingxuan said quietly, staring at his cup of tea with a torn expression, “so he hasn’t moved on.”
Hua Cheng nodded. “He was quite active a while back, but there are still reports of activity in Black Water’s territory recently.”
Xie Lian pondered. Ghosts are born from unfulfilled desires. If the Ship-Sinking Black Water still lingered in the mortal world, then his revenge wasn’t resolved; there must be something else that kept him on the earth.
Xie Lian studied Shi Qingxuan’s expression and hesitantly asked a question he had been burning to know the answer to for a long time. “Qingxuan… what do you think of He Xuan?”
Shi Qingxuan’s face turned a little pale.
Xie Lian mentally knocked himself on the head for overstepping his bounds and amended, “No, nevermind. I was being intrusive.”
“No, no! Let me think about it for a minute…”
Shi Qingxuan seemed to struggle to find words. “...Honestly, I’m not sure anymore. I’m scared of him. Even though it’s been two years, it’s hard for me to think about him without remembering the… the other things. But— but I also know that he’s not… a bad person.”
He quickly took a sip of tea as if to clear his throat. He continued more steadily, “This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I was allowed to live. The more I think about it, the more confused I became. When I think about all of the things he’s done I can’t help but feel like it was always… mercy that he was showing me.
“To be honest, I would be fine with staying in the Imperial City forever. But I’ve come to realize that, all this time, what I’ve been thinking of as repentance… isn’t really that at all. I’ve… I’ve just been trying to appease my own guilt. It’s a personal, selfish desire, and it’s probably also…” Shi Qingxuan swallowed with difficulty, and continued, “...not what he had wanted.”
He looked up at Xie Lian and smiled, “That’s why I’ve made up my mind — I’m going to start valuing this life that’s been spared for me.”
Xie Lian’s heart swelled.
“Qingxuan, you’ve really grown up.” He murmured.
Shi Qingxuan laughed and waved his hand, “I owe it to all of the people who have been looking out for me, like the Rain Master and yourself, Your Highness! And besides,” he gazed out the window into the distance, “if I stay with the Rain Master, I might get to learn more about ghosts and spirits. Maybe one day I could…”
He trailed off, then seemed to catch himself and shook his head. Hua Cheng unexpectedly spoke up again, “If Black Water comes looking for you, what will you do?”
Shi Qingxuan was quiet for a while as he twisted a strand of hair between his fingers. “I… don’t think he will ever want to see me again, but I… I would like to talk to him. There’s are some things I want to say to him.”
Hua Cheng nodded.
“And of course! I might just come to bother you at the Ghost City, too, O City Lord!” He mock-bowed at Hua Cheng.
Hua Cheng scoffed and smirked. “If you burn anything down again, be prepared to pay for it.”
Shi Qingxuan laughed, then stood up. “Thank you for everything, Your Highness — and you too, Crimson Rain Sought Flower. I’ll be off now.”
Xie Lian looked fondly at the young man in front of him — freshly dressed, clean, with a new sparkle in his eyes — and felt a weight lifting from his chest. He walked Shi Qingxuan out the door to where Yushi Huang and the ox was waiting. With a few exchanges of farewells, the two travellers once again mounted the black ox and began heading off into the forest. Xie Lian couldn’t help but feel a surge of protectiveness as he watched Shi Qingxuan’s retreating figure wave back, and asked aloud, “San Lang, do you really think Black Water will go looking for him?”
Hua Cheng sat himself down in one of the chairs and propped his chin up on one arm. He seemed contemplative for a few moments, then said in a quiet but firm tone, “Gege, I do. I won’t say that we were close, but as ghosts, I understand on some level how he must feel right now. For someone of his calibre, letting go is probably not an option.”
Xie Lian nodded and replied, “I see. I feel the same, too.”
For both of their sakes, he prayed — may the outcome of their tangled fates be a fortunate one.
After the fallout, He Xuan threw himself entirely into rebuilding.
That Hua Cheng would bring the battle to his territory was undoubtedly payback for going overboard during his stint as the Earth Master, but surprisingly, He Xuan couldn’t find it in himself to be mad at the other supreme. In fact, he silently thanked Hua Cheng for giving him something to focus wholeheartedly on.
It distracted him from thinking.
So he poured all of his energy into re-establishing his territory, reconstructing the multitudes of seals, arrays, and other magical enchantments that covered Black Water Island. He reanimated his fleet of skeletal fish (that, frankly, served as guards only in appearance) and reorganized the ranks of water ghosts under his command. He repaired the Nether Water Manor to its original formidable presence in the aftermath of being stormed by Heavenly Officials.
He carefully reconstructed the altar to his family, this time with an extra offering.
Shi Wudu’s skull sat neatly on an offering dish below the altar.
But it brought him no peace; even the wretched skull of his once-proud enemy seemed to jeer at his inner turmoil. As the days passed, He Xuan allowed himself to stew in his hatred for Shi Wudu, to sink into a frenetic energy that he channeled into rebuilding.
Yet when the Black Water Island was restored and he ran out of things to rebuild, his rage continued. It was as if hundreds years’ worth of repressed loathing, contempt, and indignation had finally boiled over — its flow uncontainable once spilt. Even the ghosts that served him on the island stayed far away out of fear for their lives.
Hatred was good. Hatred was an all-consuming emotion that burned away the small voices at the back of his mind whispering inconvenient truths. If he lost himself in hatred for Shi Wudu, he could avoid thinking about Shi Qingxuan.
So he went on a rampage and didn’t think of Shi Qingxuan. He slaughtered ghosts and humans and didn’t think of Shi Qingxuan. He devoured countless demons and didn’t think of Shi Qingxuan.
Out of contempt, he sank ships that prayed to Shi Wudu for safe passage. When that did not placate his anger, he turned his attention to destroying dozens of Fengshui temples. He tore down altars and smashed plaques; he shattered the wind and water gods’ divine statues and resolutely did not think about Shi Qingxuan.
But no matter how much he killed, destroyed, ate, or slept, there was no filling the emptiness deep within some part of him — a persistent ache, as if a needle had been lodged in his still heart. Instead of being liberated by the death of his enemy he only felt more stifled than ever.
When the dust settled, he found himself more alone in the world than he had ever been, possessed of a hunger no amount of food could satisfy.
He remembered being surprised that ghosts could dream.
He dreamt of his parents and sister sometimes, faint flickers of memory disappearing with the morning dew.
Dreams about her were much less frequent, and stopped almost entirely after he began impersonating Heavenly Officials.
That’s why, as his mind slowly processed the image of the young woman sitting across from him at a table, gently rolling tanyuan, he realized that he must have unwittingly dozed off at some point.
“Miao-er,” he called.
She smiled and nudged the dough in his direction. “Ah-Xuan, help me, you know how busy it gets around here with the Yuanxiao festival right around the corner. Auntie told me to scold you if you sneak off again.”
He recognized this memory. It was from a few years before she was taken away, back when he was still a carefree youth with dreams of becoming a scholar. Wordlessly, he began making tanyuan with her.
“You’re so quiet today. What’s on your mind?”
“Ah-Xuan, I’ve known you your whole life. I can tell when you’re thinking too hard,” she teased, poking him in the forehead with a flour-covered finger.
It’s nice, being able to do mundane things like this. It’s nice being able to see you again.
“...Fine, if you’re not gonna talk, I’ll talk. Today, when you were out earlier, Auntie and I found…”
For a long while, he relished in the sound of her voice, the lighthearted chatter about the ordinary lives of an ordinary household.
But still, dreams were dreams in the end.
He closed his eyes.
Without preamble, he said, “I’ve finished it. After all these years, I’ve finally finished it.”
He had half-expected the dream to instantly dissipate, or for her to be confused by his words. Instead, when he opened his eyes again, she didn’t show any sign of surprise.
“Have you found peace, then?” she asked, as if they were continuing a regular conversation.
He looked down at his hands covered in flour. His tanyuan were slightly lumpy when lined up with hers; he was never able to make them as neat and even as her.
She hummed. “Because you still have someone to look after, right?”
“Ah-Xuan, you were never good at being honest with yourself,” she chided, “I think you know the answer already.”
He looked at her. The haziness of the surreal dreamscape prevented him from seeing her features clearly. Hundreds of years had passed since they were alive and, try as he might, he could not remember the details of her face anymore.
Instead, his mind traitorously reminded him of a different face, different eyes, accompanied by laughter on the wind.
He blinked, and the scene shifted around him. The tanyuan and table were gone. The two of them were walking along a seashore, hand in hand.
“Ah-Xuan, will you tell me about that person?”
He knew in his heart who she was referring to.
“...He’s a spoiled, childish, foolish brat.” He Xuan spat out.
She giggled, “Haha, even though you say that, he sounds like fun to be around.”
“No, he’s a frivolous person who has never been serious about anything.”
“Even his friendship with you?”
“...He was never my friend.”
The salty sea breeze whipped around their faces. She stopped walking and turned to him.
“But for you, these hundreds of years were not all an act, were they? You had fun. You cared about him.” She looked out at the sea and continued, “I regret not being able to live the rest of our days together, ah-Xuan, I really do,” raising their joined hands to her chest, she clasped her other hand over them, “but you’ve done enough. It’s time to let me go; let all of us go.”
He tightened his grasp on her hand. “I can’t!”
I won’t have anything else left.
“You don’t have to be alone.” As if reading his mind, she flashed her beautiful smile, her voice earnest yet pained, “You can have a new start. Please don’t continue making me the reason for your suffering — I don’t want you to suffer anymore, I want you to be free. I want you to find peace.”
Even though this was his dream, even though the greater part of his brain knew she was but a projection of his subconscious, he could somehow sense a finality in her words. He knew with an inexplicable certainty that this was the last time she would ever appear in his dreams again. She reached out to brush her hand along his cheek and he blinked in surprise — he was crying.
“Ah-Xuan. Please put this hatred behind you.”
He pulled her into his arms as decades of unspoken sorrow, guilt, and longing flooded through him.
“I don’t want to betray you,” he whispered.
“You never betrayed me. You’ll always have me,” she hugged him tightly back, “Thank you for everything, ah-Xuan, I love you. This is goodbye.”
The dreamscape blurred around them. Her voice lingered in his ear as he drifted into a deep, dreamless sleep.
He slowly came to consciousness.
Dim rays of gray light filtered through the window, illuminating the few dust motes hovering in the air. Any sunlight that could reach the island was of a washed-out, feeble quality, eternally bathing the bleak scenery in a watery light.
He Xuan was in his seldom-used personal quarters in a side wing of the Nether Water Manor. Languidly, he rose from the wooden bed. The main hall — which Xie Lian and company had intruded upon years earlier — had two wings that wrapped around a central courtyard and several additional corridors which formed the walls of the estate. He Xuan’s personal rooms were located near the back of manor. They were plain and austere in comparison to the main hall, furnished only with a bed and a simple writing desk. The water ghosts that served the manor had made sure to keep their lord’s quarters spotless even though he rarely entered the rooms.
He Xuan took inventory of his surroundings. He did not remember coming back to his rooms and sleeping. The last memory he had was of dealing with some rogue water ghouls that had tried to stir up trouble at the border of his island. It vaguely dawned on him that he had not slept for months in the time leading up and must have collapsed from exhaustion at some point. Judging by the amount of dust in his usually pristine room, he must have been asleep for days, if not weeks.
Like the breaking of the winter frost, the quiet after a heavy storm, his mind felt clear for the first time in a very long time. The restless energy that had possessed him up to this point had seemingly vanished along with his dreams. He could sense that a change had taken place deep within him, that he was in possession of a calm he hadn’t felt since first emerging from Tonglu Mountain. Back then, the Ship-Sinking Black Water had been born for one purpose. Now, he would be free to find a new one.
As if mirroring the change in the mental state of its master, even the sombre landscape seemed unusually vibrant in this moment. He Xuan gazed out at the familiar landscape for a long while, at the line of pines cutting jaggedly across the horizon, and made up his mind.
Wordlessly, he left the island.
After hopping through one distance-shortening array, he stepped out onto the busy streets of the Imperial City.
The bustling city had not changed much in the past two years. The battle that shook heaven was all but forgotten as mortals came and went with their daily affairs. He made his way south towards the dilapidated Fengshui shrine. Upon approaching the beggar camp, he slipped into the form of a plain-faced, plain-clothed youth, and observed silently from underneath a grove of oak trees nearby. When the person he was looking for did not appear, he approached an elderly man that seemed to be directing the others.
“Excuse me, sir,” He Xuan spoke with an amicable smile, “I’m looking for a friend of mine. He’s about this tall. I believe he goes by ‘Old Feng’?”
“Eh? You’re another one of Old Feng’s friends? You’re outta luck, he left a while back,” the old man looked him up and down and replied eagerly.
He Xuan’s mood darkened but his face did not change. Instead, he put on a baffled expression, scratched his head, and exclaimed, “Eh, I had no idea! Do you know where he might have gone?”
The old man rubbed his chin thoughtfully, “Truthfully, I don’t really know either. It was a couple of months ago. He left with his friend — a real nice farmer lady,” he stroked his beard, “Just last month a real warrior-lookin’ fella came looking for him too, I told him the same thing.”
A farmer lady? Did Shi Qingxuan make some mortal friends among farmers? He Xuan internally frowned. If Shi Qingxuan really left to blend in with mortals, the way he is now, it would be extremely difficult to track him down. Like trying to find a needle in the ocean, it would not be an easy task to accomplish even with all of heaven’s resources.
Did Shi Qingxuan truly intend to disappear forever this time?
The old man seemed to sense his agitation and hurried to reassure him, “Don’t worry about Old Feng, I’m sure that he’s doing fine! You could try asking around, I’m sure someone knows where he is.”
He Xuan thanked the man and made his way into a quiet part of the city. Out of curious eyes, he contemplated his options. The old man was right; there was another person who had been close to Shi Qingxuan, but to seek that person out was to invite the ire of a particularly vexing acquaintance.
He Xuan mentally sighed, and drew a new distance-shortening array.
The moment he stepped into Puji Village, Hua Cheng’s cold voice drifted over his spiritual communication array, “Leave.”
“No. I have business with His Highness of Xian Le.”
“I know what you’re here for. Leave.”
He Xuan ignored him and made his way over to Puji Shrine.
Hua Cheng had clearly made his arrival known to Xie Lian, who was waiting at the door with a slightly wary expression.
“Black Water… He Xuan.” It was technically their first meeting, but the way Xie Lian addressed him without honorifics made it clear that he was less-than-pleased with He Xuan’s appearance.
“Your Highness,” he solemnly responded.
Xie Lian sighed, then waved him in. Hua Cheng was lingering deeper inside the shrine, leveling him with a barely concealed glare. For a moment the tense atmosphere within the small shrine reminded him of the standoff from years earlier, only this time, Shi Qingxuan wasn’t around to diffuse the tension.
“I can hazard a guess as to what you are here for,” Xie Lian began without ceremony, “this is about Qingxuan, isn’t it?”
He Xuan nodded. For a long while, Xie Lian regarded him with clear eyes and an impassive gaze. He spoke the next words very slowly.
“Shi Qingxuan is dead.”
Within a blink, the temperature in the room dropped to a bone-chilling freeze. Hua Cheng moved in a flash and shielded in front of Xie Lian, expression livid. Xie Lian placed a hand on his arm as if to reassure him, then continued to address He Xuan, “Calm down. I lied.”
He Xuan blinked, and realized with a start that the killing intent permeating the room was coming from him.
Hua Cheng looked absolutely murderous but kept quiet. Xie Lian studied He Xuan’s expression as the room gradually returned to a normal temperature, then sighed and spoke flatly, “...I know where Qingxuan is, but he’s already moved on.”
He walked around Hua Cheng and stood directly in front of He Xuan, fists clenched. “After everything you’ve done to him, don’t you think it’s enough? As his friend— ” his tone was even colder than Hua Cheng’s, “ —I’m not inclined to let you to hurt him any more. You’ve already made your choice. Please pretend he’s dead from now on.”
So this was the anger of the Xian Le Crown Prince — a quiet and unyielding fury that burned like the purest blue flame.
Before He Xuan was able to retort, Xie Lian continued in a softer voice.
“...But if you’re angry, then you should reflect on yourself carefully — who is Shi Qingxuan to you?”
He Xuan hesitated, and sensed that this was not a question he should answer carelessly.
When Xie Lian said that Shi Qingxuan had died, all sound disappeared in that moment as if the entire world had suddenly been muted. He Xuan could only hear those words reverberating over and over in his head.
Why did he decide to seek Shi Qingxuan out? Even before he set off from the island, he was already aware of the hazy answer forming in the back of his mind.
A thousand scenes passed before his eyes: Shi Qingxuan dragging him to a flower viewing, white robes fluttering among the wisteria blossoms. Shi Qingxuan raising a cup of wine towards him in a toast with sparkles in his eyes. Shi Qingxuan clinging to him in female form as they walked around a festival at night, softly illuminated by paper lanterns. The sound of the Wind Master fan snapping open, the scent of incense lingering on his robes, the way his hair always seemed to be whirling even in stillness. A thousand days and nights when He Xuan’s conviction wavered and he convinced himself to delay the inevitable. How many times did the line between pretense and sincerity become blurred?
Those who ascend are human, those who fall are human. After hundreds of years of companionship, who can walk alone?
Meeting Xie Lian’s eyes, he replied in complete honesty, “I probably can’t continue to exist without him.”
Xie Lian’s eyes widened slightly, like he was impressed with the answer.
“...Alright. I believe you.” he rubbed his forehead and sighed, “He’s at Yulong Mountain, under Yushi Huang’s protection.”
He Xuan inclined his head in a bow. “Many thanks to Your Highness.”
The tension dispersed. Without further pleasantries, he turned and walked out of Puji Shrine’s wooden doors. After a few steps, Hua Cheng’s voice drifted from behind.
Turning, he saw the other man standing outside looking uncharacteristically serious. Hua Cheng spoke with no hint of laughter in his eye, “Fate doesn’t grant second chances easily. If you miss this opportunity, you won’t get another.”
As the only two supreme demons in the realm, over hundreds of years of colluding, he and Hua Cheng had reached an arrangement and perhaps even an unlikely sort of friendship. He was probably the person closest to being able to truly understand He Xuan’s situation. Hua Cheng’s words may be cold, but He Xuan understood his warning to be well-intentioned.
Hua Cheng smirked. “Good. Also, if you ever dare to threaten gege again I will make you pay for it. Now get out of my sight.”
He Xuan scoffed.
Yulong Mountain was his third and final destination after a long day of searching. By the time he landed it was already late afternoon.
Just as He Xuan was pondering whether or not to take on a fake appearance, he saw the black ox in the rice fields raise its head, pause for a few moments, then transform into a well-built farmer. The ox-turned-farmer casually walked onto the road leading towards the village and stopped there, like a guard waiting for company.
It looked like his arrival had not gone unnoticed, he mused. Xie Lian must have contacted Yushi Huang and given her warning in advance. Without concealing himself, he approached the ox from the other end of the path.
“Greetings, former Earth Master,” the ox called out with a knowing grin, “May I ask what business you have with our humble village today?”
A supreme demon king openly trespassing on a Heavenly Official’s territory was no small offense, but it seemed like both parties were willing to purposely overlook it out of convenience. He Xuan replied, “...I want to see Shi Qingxuan.”
As if the answer had been anticipated, the ox’s smile widened. “Qingxuan is currently in the forest north of here, collecting medicinal herbs near the old well. If the former Earth Master is so inclined, you can find him there.“
He Xuan nodded.
“Ah, one more thing. Qingxuan is currently under the protection of the Lord Rain Master, who has indicated that if anything were to happen to him, she will not hesitate to call upon the full force of Heaven in delivering retribution.”
The corner of He Xuan’s mouth lifted. How many times had he been threatened already today? “Understood,” he muttered, and headed off in the direction of the forest.
It took very little time to locate Shi Qingxuan.
He was kneeling in a clearing next to a stone well, rummaging among the plants while humming a light tune. He Xuan concealed his presence as he approached and observed from the shadows.
Two years. It had been more than two years since He Xuan last laid eyes upon him. Shi Qingxuan was dressed in fresh white robes. His long hair was no longer tied up by a headpiece or matted beyond recognition, but simply gathered with a ribbon at his back. He looked clean, well-kept, and happy — wholehearted devoting himself to the task of sorting herbs into a woven basket by his side.
He Xuan faltered for a moment. Xie Lian’s words echoed in his head: he has already moved on. He didn’t plan for what would happen after he confronted Shi Qingxuan. What did he want to say? What did he want to do?
What if Shi Qingxuan was already happy, and didn’t want to see him?
What if Shi Qingxuan resented him for the death of his brother?
A multitude of what-ifs kept He Xuan rooted to the ground. After a short amount of time, Shi Qingxuan seemed to finish up with his task in the clearing. Gathering his basket, he stood up with some difficulty and brushed the dust off of his robes.
He Xuan clenched his teeth and dropped his concealment.
Their eyes met. Shi Qingxuan’s eyes widened as the basket fell from his hand. As if acting on instinct, he scrambled backwards until he tripped and fell back against the well.
He Xuan froze. A twinge of pain flitted across the place where his heart was, like a mockery of a heartbeat. He suddenly felt as if he had been doused in cold water. Any half-formed words died in his throat and any half-imagined scenario of how this was supposed to play out dissolved at his dawning realization that Shi Qingxuan, the endlessly brilliant Shi Qingxuan who used to fear no god nor demon, was terrified of him. Not the Reverend of Empty Words, not the Ship-Sinking Black Water, but of him.
And why shouldn’t he be? An ugly voice whispered inside his heart. You did this to him, what were you expecting? Isn’t this what you wanted?
What did he want, in the end? A memory of Shi Qingxuan’s radiant smile and affectionate ‘Ming-xiong’ floated across his mind.
That Shi Qingxuan was gone forever, destroyed by his own hands.
Without a single word, He Xuan suppressed the surging turmoil in his heart and turned away.
Seeing He Xuan’s retreating figure, Shi Qingxuan immediately snapped out of his daze.
“Wait! W-w-wait! Hold on!”
“Please wait, M...H-He..He-gongzi… is that you? I want to talk to you!” He scrambled to gather his limbs, pulling himself up along the edge of the well, words falling in a panic, “P-please! There are things I want to say!”
He Xuan halted in his step. Shi Qingxuan’s clenched heart let out a sigh of relief. He took a few shaky breaths in an attempt to calm the muddy torrent inside his head, and tried his best to compose his thoughts into the script he had mentally rehearsed hundreds of times before.
“I… I want to have a conversation with you. Please stay for a bit, please give me a chance to set some things straight—
“I’ve thought a lot about a lot of things since we last met, and I think I’ve finally figured out what I want, no, what I need to say to you.” The words came out in a rushed jumble. Seeing that He Xuan had stopped completely and was listening, he took a deep and began again, “He-gongzi, after… after what happened on Black Water Island, I spent a very long time in a daze. A lot of things passed in a blur and before I knew it, everything had changed. In the end, I was the one who didn’t know anything, who didn’t understand anything, always naive, always protected…
“The carefree life I’ve lived these hundreds of years came at the cost of your suffering. Your family, your friends, your future, it’s a price that I… I could never afford but still stole from you. I will never be able to repay you for this life I owe. I will never be able to atone for my crime. I’ve really… I’ve really been a fool.”
His eyes stung, but he blinked rapidly and continued, “Yet I’ve realized that, these past hundreds of years… you’ve really taken care of me. You’ve saved my worthless self more times than I can count. You’ve gone along with my childish fancies… Despite everything, you’ve let me keep this life that I’m not worthy of. That’s why, even now, I…
“I cherish the days we spent together. Even if it was all an act, I truly think of you as my best friend! I want to travel the three realms with you again. I want to be by your side. I want to know the real you. I… I miss you.”
The last sentence became a whisper. Shi Qingxuan steeled himself and pushed onwards, “I knew that you might never want to see me again, so I made up my mind that if I ever had the chance — if fate allowed me the opportunity to talk to you again, I had to make my feelings clear to you!”
Tears threatened to spill out of his eyes but he kept his gaze locked onto He Xuan’s back, afraid that it might disappear at any second.
“He-gongzi, He Xuan — I can’t replace your parents, your sister, or your fiancée — but tell me, is there no path forward for us together?”
He could no longer hold back tears from flowing down his cheeks. “Is there no future where there is room for me by your side?”
When He Xuan spoke, his voice was cold like the frozen depths of the Black Water Sea.
“My parents,” He Xuan turned around, “suffered for years through poverty and ridicule while praying everyday for the Heavens to take pity on them.”
He wore the same expression of restrained fury as the last time on Black Water Island. Shi Qingxuan’s heart sunk. Maybe He Xuan changed his mind about letting him live, after all.
“My sister,” He Xuan started walking towards him in slow, measured steps, “was looking forward to finally starting her guzheng lessons before she was dragged off, broken and terrified.”
Shi Qingxuan began to tremble.
“My fiancée,” He Xuan stopped in front of him and gazed down from above, “used the same hands she made tanyuan with, cooked dinner with, to end her own life.”
Shi Qingxuan closed his eyes.
Suddenly, he felt something cool against the surface of his face. He slowly opened his eyes to see He Xuan wearing an indecipherable expression, cradling his cheek with one hand and brushing his tears away with his thumb.
“.......She had a smile like yours.”
His face began to feel warm and he found himself unable to tear his eyes away from the other’s scrutiny. He Xuan’s voice was strangely soft when he spoke the next few words, never once breaking eye contact with Shi Qingxuan.
“I killed your brother.”
Those words ripped through him like an arrow. The ocean of emotions he had locked away in the deepest part of his heart broke free and threatened to drown him in its black depths. Dread, terror, agony, and despair swirled together and converged on the black figure standing before him. He was suddenly back at the Nether Water Manor, struggling against chains as Shi Wudu’s warm blood splattered all over him.
Unable to break eye contact, he saw in his mind the bloodstained He Xuan from that night, the source of his darkest nightmares, the cause of his greatest agony, superimposed onto the person in front of him.
In a moment of blinding clarity, the truth that he subconsciously avoided acknowledging for so long engulfed him like a towering wave: From beginning to end, it had always been one person by his side — the Ming-xiong that accompanied him in the mortal realm, the Black Water Demon that murdered his brother, and the person calmly gazing back at him. Through hundreds of years, through loud banquets and tranquil autumn nights, through joy, through pain — it had always been He Xuan.
He replied, a thousand emotions conveyed through two words.
He Xuan’s brows were furrowed. “Do you hate me?”
Shi Qingxuan smiled a pained smile, “I can’t hate you.”
He Xuan’s gaze intensified, as if he was searching for something in Shi Qingxuan’s very core. For the very first time, his voice seemed unsure. “You still want to see me?”
Shi Qingxuan answered without hesitation, “Yes.”
He Xuan’s hand moved from his face to his limp left arm. With his other hand, he reached into his robes and took out a ceramic vial. He Xuan uncorked the bottle and poured a thin, smoke-like substance onto Shi Qingxuan’s broken arm.
Shi Qingxuan gasped. It was ‘Guanyin’s Blessing’ — an unspeakably high-level divine medicine, said to have been water poured from the Bodhisattva’s very vase itself!
After a few moments, he felt the gentle rush of healing spiritual energy followed by a few pinpricks of pain from his numb arm and leg. The limbs that have been unresponsive for years suddenly seared as countless nerve endings flared back into life. Shi Qingxuan winced, wobbling on unsteady knees before losing his balance and toppling forward. Instead of falling, he was caught by a strong arm wrapping around his middle, effortlessly supporting his weight.
He Xuan held his wrist in one hand and waist with the other, steadying him with an unexpected gentleness through a few moments of burning pain in his limbs. The sudden proximity scattered all coherent thought from Shi Qingxuan’s mind. Oh, a small voice commented as he studied He Xuan’s painfully familiar features in a daze, this is the first time you’ve seen his true face up close. He was unable to concentrate on anything other than He Xuan’s presence. The demon’s touch was cool, but a warmth spread throughout his body along the points where He Xuan’s hands made contact.
His face burned, mind flooding with with the words he had boldly declared just moments before.
I want to be by your side. I want to know the real you.
Those words sounded almost like… almost like he…!!
“Come with me.”
He Xuan was still staring at him with the same intensity as before. Shi Qingxuan’s heart did a weak stutter in his chest.
He understood the weight behind the unspoken choice being offered. It felt like a lifetime ago, when Ming Yi had offered him a choice time and time again and Shi Qingxuan had always, always chosen his brother.
He finally understood, and made his choice for the last time.
Before he could try to take a step forward on his trembling legs, He Xuan scooped him up by the bend of the knee and lifted him into his arms.
Shi Qingxuan yelped and grabbed onto the front of He Xuan’s black robes. He Xuan simply said, “Stop struggling. You can’t use that leg yet.” and started carrying him back towards the village.
He had no choice but to settle against He Xuan’s chest, heart hammering from a mixture of fear and something else he wasn’t quite sure of.
He Xuan cut him off, “Don’t call me that.”
After a while, He Xuan spoke again in a low voice, “I also want to give it a try. Finding a path together.”
Hearing those words, Shi Qingxuan was stunned into silence. After a few moments he wiped his face on his own sleeve and broke into a genuine smile for the first time in front of He Xuan.
“Alright… He Xuan.” Shi Qingxuan tested that name out on his tongue again. He Xuan. Not Ming-xiong. Not even He-xiong. That wasn’t quite right.
A voice from the deepest part of Shi Qingxuan’s heart vowed to never call him by the wrong name again.
By the time the village came into view, it was near sunset. The ox was waiting again in the form of a farmer. He smiled a cryptic smile upon seeing the two of them returning together.
“Welcome back, former Earth Master, Qingxuan.”
“Thank you, niu-xiong, haha!” Shi Qingxuan blabbed, face burning at being seen being carried all the way back to the village. “I, uh, have something I want to discuss with Lord Rain Master, is she free right now?”
“Yes, she is expecting to have a conversation with you. She also wishes to extend an invitation to the former Earth Master to join us for dinner tonight.”
“Eh? Dinner with H-...Earth Master…?” Shi Qingxuan glanced at He Xuan, whose face only betrayed the casual indifference he often wore as Ming Yi. “...Do we have enough food prepared?”
The ox laughed, “Lord Rain Master has advised us in advance. Preparation is still taking place in the kitchens.”
Shi Qingxuan made his way into the tranquil Rain Master temple with the help of a bamboo walking stick he received from the villagers. Yushi Huang was waiting for him at a table with two cups of tea already set out.
He sat down, then bowed.
“Lord Rain Master, the matter of the Black Water Demon intruding upon your village today, I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience it may have caused.”
Yushi Huang shook her head slightly and said, “We can hold our own, no need to worry about the village. Besides, Lord Black Water doesn’t seem inclined to cause trouble today.” She looked him over carefully, then asked, “Qingxuan, have you already made up your mind?”
Shi Qingxuan nodded, and said in a low voice, “I’ll be going with him. We… had a talk in the forest. I’m scared, and I don’t know where I’ll be going from here, but I know in my heart that this is the right choice.”
Yushi Huang listened in silence and nodded once at the end of his words.
“Very well. I have faith in your decisions.”
Relief flooded Shi Qingxuan. Yushi Huang stood up from her chair and lightly tapped him on the shoulder, smiling, “We’ll save our farewells for later. Let us go and enjoy dinner with everyone first.”
Dinner was, by all means, a truly bizarre affair.
There were several long tables set up in the largest cottage, which had been designated as the main social and dining hall for the villagers. No one sat at the head of the tables; everyone under Yushi Huang’s protection — whether they were mortal, god, or ghost — sat together in equal standing, and mingled with each other as equals. The villagers usually ate together while Yushi Huang usually stayed in her temple in seclusion. Today, however, her presence at the main hall put all of the villagers in a good mood.
Unlike most mortals, the farmers of Yulong Mountain were aware of gods in their midst, but even they did not have extensive knowledge of events happening in the other realms. Thus, they were only vaguely aware of Shi Qingxuan and He Xuan’s statuses as former gods. With no knowledge that a supreme demon king was among their ranks, they spoke to He Xuan with a degree of casual playfulness that made Pei Su sweat nervously at the other end of the table.
“Former Earth Master, eh? I hear you’re taking our Qingxuan away now? What’s so bad about living with us?” the villager sitting next to He Xuan asked, giving him a friendly clap on the shoulder.
“That’s right — Qingxuan! Why’re ya leaving us after such a short stay? Not used to the hard-working life, eh?”
“It’s not that! Everyone’s been very kind! I’ve really enjoyed helping everyone in the fields these few months! I just, um... ” Shi Qingxuan blabbed in a hurry, mind still reeling from the strangeness of the situation. He glanced across the table, breath catching as he found He Xuan staring back at him, and quickly looked away.
Yushi Huang’s melodious voice chimed in from his left, “It seems that the former Lord Earth Master has a way to help Qingxuan’s arm and leg, and will be taking him to a place better fit for recuperation and healing. Isn’t that right, my Lord?”
He Xuan merely closed his eyes and nodded.
Though her soft words were directed at He Xuan, she was helping Shi Qingxuan placate the curiosity of the villagers while simultaneously imposing a subtle threat upon the former. Shi Qingxuan couldn’t help but be impressed by her authority and serenity even in the presence of a demon king in her own home.
Despite the flurry of events, the night passed much like any other. Shi Qingxuan continued to steal glances at He Xuan throughout the evening. He Xuan appeared calm and stoic, and so achingly familiar that Shi Qingxuan still couldn’t quite believe that he wasn’t dreaming. Many young village girls blushed as they set dishes down or refilled his tea, looking for excuses to talk to the handsome stranger. To Shi Qingxuan’s surprise, the demon seemed to be making an effort to respond to the casual conversation initiated by the villagers, perhaps even more than the aloof Ming Yi once would have. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of that revelation.
It was surreal. Against the backdrop of the friendly chatter, it was so easy to sit across from He Xuan and enjoy a simple meal. It felt like no time had passed at all and they were just two old friends meeting again, instead of two enemies with a river of blood between them. Even though they did not talk, He Xuan’s presence felt natural. The weight in Shi Qingxuan’s heart lightened ever so slightly.
As the dinner drew to a close, the villagers began clearing the tables and filtering out of the hall.
“Lord Black Water...” a timid voice piped up from behind.
The two of them turned around. It was Banyue, with Pei Su trailing nervously behind her. Despite being several heads shorter than He Xuan, she confronted him without a fleck of hesitation in her wide eyes.
“Qingxuan-gege has always been very good to me. It’s thanks to him that I’m here today,” Banyue said, clasping her hands together in a deep bow, “Please… be good to gege.”
He Xuan stared at her small form, then nodded.
Banyue and Pei Su left the hall after exchanging farewells with Shi Qingxuan. When Yushi Huang became the last person remaining in the building, she stood up and motioned for them to follow her outside. She walked them to the entrance of the village, where the ox-turned-farmer was waiting with a lantern on a stick.
She accepted a bundle from the ox, then turned to Shi Qingxuan and draped a heavy outer robe over his shoulders.
It was early spring, and the night air was bitingly cold.
Shi Qingxuan held the walking stick in his good arm and bowed as far as he could, a sudden warmness stinging in his eyes. “Lord Rain Master, thank you… Thank you for everything.”
She smoothed out the robe on his shoulders and said, “Qingxuan, I wish you the very best wherever you may go, but know that you will always have a second home here. Yulong Mountain will always welcome you with open doors.”
She then took the lantern from the ox and passed it over to He Xuan. “Lord Black Water, though I wish we met under different circumstances, we have now shared a meal under the same roof and are no longer strangers. I am entrusting Qingxuan to your care. Please take care of him from now on.”
He Xuan also bowed and replied quietly, “I will.”
She smiled at them both. “Then may the blessings of Heavenly Officials be upon you.”
Shi Qingxuan slowly opened his eyes.
He only dimly remembered the trip after leaving Yulong Mountain. They had walked for a while; there must have been a distance-shortening array involved somewhere. He vaguely recalled being carried for a portion of the journey when the darkness overwhelmed the lantern, and realized with a start that he must have fallen asleep along the way.
He sprung up in bed, wincing as his injured arm and leg burned with the movement, and took in his surroundings.
Sunlight filtered through the window along with the soft chirps of birds and insects. The scenery outside appeared to be a lush green forest packed with aging cypress and oak trees. Branches rustled in the gentle breeze, scattering dappled shadows across the floor.
Where was he?
He pulled himself out of bed, using the bamboo walking stick lying against the wall to gingerly maneuver around the house.
The house itself was a simple five-bay structure made of wooden frames and a bamboo roof, composed of a main room and two smaller living spaces on either side, including the one he woke up in. There was a bed, a table, and two chairs, but no other furniture nor sign that anyone lived in the house. He made his way outside and found a smaller building that had the minimal furnishing to serve as a kitchen, but was otherwise equally sparse.
The two buildings were completely empty. There was no sign of He Xuan.
He appeared to be in the clearing of a forest. Judging by the scenery, he guessed that he was somewhere in the southern regions whereas Yulong Mountain had been located in the north. Shi Qingxuan circled the buildings a couple of times but found nothing unusual. As he made his way back inside the larger building, his bad leg got caught on the threshold and he tripped forwards.
As he braced for the earthen floor, an arm suddenly reached around and caught him from behind.
He turned around to meet He Xuan’s scowl. “...Why can’t you stay still anywhere?”
Without waiting for a response, he was half-lifted, half-dragged inside and deposited into a chair.
Shi Qingxuan watched with wide eyes as the demon king wordlessly kneeled in front of him and reached for his injured leg. Pulling his robes aside, He Xuan began to carefully examine the condition of his leg, testing his pressure points and checking his joints.
Shi Qingxuan froze. “H-He Xuan…?”
He Xuan ignored him and continued pressing with firm but gentle fingers. The sight, the sensation — combined with the already-complicated emotions in his heart — was too much. Shi Qingxuan couldn’t stop a full-body shiver from passing though his body, and squirmed a little in the chair.
His movement seemed to break He Xuan out of his trance. The demon’s hands stilled. Finally, he stood up and said in a toneless voice, “Your arm will be fine, but your leg might never return to what it once was. Try to keep weight off it for the next few days.”
Shi Qingxuan experimentally flexed his arm and found that while it still burned, it was indeed getting easier to control. “I… thank you, but to use a treasure like ‘Guanyin’s Blessing’ on this, is kind of…” he trailed off, head hanging, thoughts jumbling together, “...you should have saved it for yourself.”
He Xuan didn’t reply.
“Anyways!” Shi Qingxuan raised his head, hurriedly changing the subject, “I’ve been wondering — where are we?”
“This is Bogu?” Shi Qingxuan asked in surprise.
“You have a problem with it?”
“No! No, I just— I just expected— ”I had just expected to be taken back to the Nether Water Manor, is all. He shook his head vigorously and said, “...nevermind!”
He Xuan seemed to be able to read his thoughts. “The array of the Black Water Island is designed to draw life force off of living creatures. It’s not a place meant for hosting living humans.”
Shi Qingxuan’s thoughts were unwittingly pulled back to the group of madmen that had been kept on the island. He winced.
…Even so, did He Xuan purposefully avoid the Nether Water Manor because he knew Shi Qingxuan would have a hard time going back? Was he acting out of consideration for Shi Qingxuan’s peace of mind?
A strange emotion seeped through Shi Qingxuan and he smiled in spite of himself. “Thank you, He Xuan. Is, ah, is this house… could this be your old home?”
He Xuan glanced at him then turned to look out the window, expression faraway. “No,” he replied, “My old home is gone now. This is a just a house I own, make use of it as you like.”
Shi Qingxuan let out a breath of relief.
He didn’t know how he could ever have the face to set foot in He Xuan’s home.
Days passed as they settled into a strange but compatible routine.
In the beginning, He Xuan would show up at random times, bringing food from the town then disappearing, leaving Shi Qingxuan to his own devices for the majority of the day. Other than being forbidden to move around without his walking stick, he was free to roam and explore the surroundings of the little house. His limbs steadily grew stronger as the days went on. He Xuan reexamined his leg on a few more occasions, and each time Shi Qingxuan’s heart would beat erratically for reasons he didn’t want to think too carefully about.
The fear that welled up at He Xuan’s appearances slowly, but gradually, decreased. He still wasn’t quite sure what to make of their situation. He Xuan wasn’t keeping him locked up; if fact, he had the feeling that if he ever wanted to leave, the demon wouldn’t stop him.
He Xuan never stayed long. They often exchanged less than a dozen sentences, each time leaving Shi Qingxuan with more questions and tiny sparks of disappointment.
From their exchanges, he learned that the house was located in the foot of the mountains surrounding Bogu. The town was close enough to reach by foot but far enough to avoid the hubbub of merchants and travellers.
He also learned that due to He Xuan’s frequent absence there was a rise in weaker ghosts who set their sights on Black Water Island, including several menace-leveled demons who had banded together to launch attacks on his territory. While they were of no threat to a supreme demon king, they were as persistent as insects — quick to escape and difficult to eradicate. He Xuan was frequently required to intervene in the disputes on the island caused by their troublesome ghosts.
But for most of the day, Shi Qingxuan was alone and bored. He dusted the house and cleaned the kitchen. He found a broom amongst a pile rusty tools behind the house and swept the yard. He wandered the mountainside, familiarizing himself with the scenery, roads, and streams. He headed into Bogu and explored the sights of the city. Truly, he was a person who couldn’t stay still at all.
After a few weeks, when his leg was strong enough for him to move around without his walking stick, he began plotting out a garden in the empty area behind the house; Yushi Huang had left him some seeds and the season was right. When he mentioned the idea to He Xuan, the demon merely shrugged, but returned the next day with a spade and some other tools.
Shi Qingxuan was on the verge of making a shovel-related joke but caught himself, realizing that there were some topics he couldn’t bring himself to treat lightly yet. Instead, he sheepishly said, “...Thanks.”
He Xuan continued to come by everyday, sometimes bringing various household items — dinnerware, kitchen utensils, a laundry board, books, ink and paper. Along with the miscellaneous things Shi Qingxuan acquired from the town, small piles of knick-knacks and pieces of furniture began accumulating in the once-empty house.
Until one day, He Xuan didn’t show up.
A few days passed. A week passed.
At first, Shi Qingxuan continued living like normal. He shopped at the markets in Bogu and tended to his garden. He swept the yard.
But the demon king had never disappeared for so long without a word before. In the span of a few weeks, Shi Qingxuan had grown used to seeing He Xuan on a near-daily basis and had begun looking forward to his visits. A sense of restlessness and unease grew within him as the days passed. He had no method of contacting He Xuan, nor a method of finding him.
After nine days without any sign of He Xuan, Shi Qingxuan was beginning to panic. Just as he was debating whether or not to go ask Xie Lian for help, the doors to the house were suddenly thrown open. Shi Qingxuan looked up in surprise and felt his blood run cold.
It was nighttime. He Xuan stood in the doorway, covered in a thick layer of blood and an aura of malicious energy.
“Oh my God! He Xuan?!” Shi Qingxuan leapt up from his seat and dashed over, “Gods, are you okay? What happened?”
“I’m fine.” He Xuan watched his panicked movement with a strange expression. “The blood isn’t mine, it’s the Sea Witch’s.”
“‘Sea Witch of Fuzhou’, the menace-level demon that was giving you trouble before? Is she that strong?” Shi Qingxuan blabbed, hands shaking at his sides. Part of him wanted to reach out and touch He Xuan, to verify that the other was actually real. “Oh God, there’s so much blood, are you hurt anywhere?”
“No, but…” He Xuan winced and brought a hand up to his forehead, swaying a little.
Shi Qingxuan instinctively reached out to steady him by the arm. He frowned. Beneath his fingers He Xuan’s spiritual energy was running wild, internally battling with itself like a turbulent storm. Guiding He Xuan over to one of the chairs, he asked, “What’s wrong with your meridians? Did she get you with a curse?”
“No.” Their gazes met. He Xuan paused, “...Do you know about the concept of ‘ghosts devouring ghosts’?”
“You… devoured, the Witch?” Shi Qingxuan asked, his voice a bit odd to his own ears.
He Xuan nodded. “When a ghost devours another ghost, the stronger spirit absorbs the weaker. But sometimes, there’s a backlash when assimilating the energy, especially when the spirit is strong. I just… need some time to adjust.”
Shi Qingxuan digested his words in silence.
“Here.” He pulled back his sleeves and offered his arms. “While I don’t have spiritual power, I can still help regulate and rebalance your energy. You can use me.”
He Xuan stilled. He looked down, seemingly torn for a moment then cautiously grabbed Shi Qingxuan’s hands with his own. His eyes closed in concentration. A current of agitated spiritual energy began circulating through Shi Qingxuan across their joined hands.
He Xuan seemed to be careful about controlling the transfer of energy, never letting too much spill over for it to be overwhelming. Shi Qingxuan too closed his eyes and focused on tempering the flow of energy, delicately cleansing the lingering malice from the stream. They stayed in silence with their hands joined for a long time. Eventually, the torrent of energy became a gentle spring, ebbing and flowing in unison with the rest of He Xuan’s spiritual power.
Shi Qingxuan opened his eyes as the last of the spiritual energy left him. It was well into the night and the oil lamp had grown dim. He Xuan was still holding onto his hands, face pale as he slowly formed words.
“Thank you, Qingxuan…” He trailed off, slowly closing his eyes and sagging forward against Shi Qingxuan.
Shi Qingxuan froze. It was the first time He Xuan had spoken his name after… everything that had happened. Even before, he could count the number of times Ming Yi had used his name on one hand. Shi Qingxuan shook his head to get rid of the sudden surge of inexplicable emotions.
He Xuan seemed to have fallen asleep, but was still covered in a layer of blood. Shi Qingxuan carefully removed his outer robes before laying him down on the bed. He dipped a clean cloth into the water basin and busied himself with cleaning the specks of dried blood from He Xuan’s face.
Ghosts didn’t need to breathe, so in the dim light He Xuan lay perfectly still. Shi Qingxuan took the opportunity to study his face — heavy brows, deep-set eyes, and a sharp jawline — his real appearance still painfully familiar. It was difficult for him to reconcile this peaceful sleeping face with the face that had haunted his dreams on many nights in the past two years. He Xuan’s skin was much paler than any living human’s when he wasn’t wearing a fake appearance. His body was cold, and if it were not for the faint flow of spiritual energy that Shi Qingxuan could still detect, he was truly no different from a corpse.
Without him realizing, his hands lingered for a bit longer than necessary over He Xuan’s cool skin. Hurriedly withdrawing his hands and mentally scolding himself for acting imprudent, he pulled the covers over He Xuan and laid down on the floor, using the thick coat Yushi Huang had given him as a makeshift blanket.
The next morning came, but He Xuan showed no signs of waking.
Shi Qingxuan frowned. He tried to remember everything he knew about ghosts. How long do ghosts usually sleep for? Do ghosts even need to sleep at all?
He should have asked Xie Lian or Yushi Huang more about ghosts when he had the chance!
Considering that it was He Xuan, he probably will be fine — Shi Qingxuan decided, and busied himself with mundane tasks for the rest of the day. He tried his best to wash the dried blood out of Xe Huan’s robes in the stream and hung them to dry in the yard. The demon continued to sleep until evening, just as Shi Qingxuan was putting rice on and getting dinner started in the kitchen.
Shi Qingxuan was busy preparing food and washing vegetables, lightly humming to himself. He didn’t notice He Xuan stepping into the kitchen until the latter spoke, “Qingxuan.”
Shi Qingxuan let out a short yelp and dropped the squash he was holding.
“You’re awake!” he turned around, heart hammering.
He Xuan’s face still showed some signs of lingering fatigue, but otherwise looked much better than the previous night. He seemed slightly wary as he asked, “How long was I asleep for?”
“About a day,” Shi Qingxuan replied, “How are you feeling?”
He Xuan glanced outside at his robes hanging on the laundry pole.
“...I’m fine. I usually sleep it off,” he responded, looking solemn, “but it usually lasts longer.”
“Oh. That’s good, then!”
They stared at each other in awkward silence for a few moments, then He Xuan’s gaze fell to the table behind him. “You’re cooking?”
Shi Qingxuan brightened. “Oh, yeah! You’re hungry, right? Let me make something for you.”
He Xuan walked over and muttered quietly, “I didn’t know you knew how to cook.”
“Of course I can!” Shi Qingxuan preened, “I learned from the villagers at Yulong Mountain. I mean, I had to make myself useful somehow, so I helped out with dinner all the time— ”
He Xuan watched him with what almost appeared to be a light of amusement in his eyes. “...Alright.”
With He Xuan watching, the fragrant aroma of stir-fry soon filled the kitchen. That night they ate around the small table, and Shi Qingxuan bombarded him with all sorts of questions.
Do ghosts need to eat? No.
Do ghosts need to sleep? Not necessarily.
Between him and Hua Cheng, who’s stronger? It depends.
Hua Cheng once said that he needed to hibernate, is that true? A glare.
Did he have to devour other ghosts to survive?
He Xuan blinked. “No. I don’t.”
He studied Shi Qingxuan with a thoughtful expression, as if picking up a common thread between all of his questions. “Food, drink, sleep, air — a ghost doesn’t need any of those to survive. While it may not be a fulfilling existence, for a ghost like me or Hua Cheng, there’s only two things we need to stay in this realm.”
“What are they?”
He Xuan held up two fingers. “A will, and a purpose. While a ghost is born out of unfulfilled desires, for it to continuing existing, it needs both. If a ghost has a will but no purpose, then it will eventually lose all semblance of humanity and become no better than a demonic beast. If a ghost has a purpose but no resolve, then it will inevitably fade away into nothingness with time.”
Shi Qingxuan was quiet for a long while as he pondered He Xuan’s words. To what unimaginable depths must He Xuan’s hatred have extended to have driven him during Tonglu Mountain, during those hundreds of years? He folded his arms close to his chest and lowered his head, then spoke with a small voice, “...Does that mean… if you still exist even now… then you still aren’t satisfied?”
Are you still unsatisfied with your revenge?
He couldn’t see He Xuan’s expression but heard his quiet reply, “...No, I’m not after revenge anymore.”
Shi Qingxuan glanced up from his folded arms, eyes glistening. “Huh? What? But you just said— so… there’s another reason keeping you in this world?”
Inexplicably, there seemed to be a shadow of a smile at the corner of He Xuan’s lips. “Something like that.”
After that night, their routine shifted as they began to eat dinner together on a regular basis. Shi Qingxuan discovered that not only could He Xuan also cook, he was particularly skilled, especially at the region’s southern style. As time went on He Xuan would show up more frequently in the afternoon and cook while Shi Qingxuan helped out in the kitchen, then they would sit down for a meal and talk until night fell.
Conversation between them had become an easy back-and-forth. Shi Qingxuan made jokes, laughed, complained, and gossiped. By silent agreement they both avoided certain topics but nonetheless, Shi Qingxuan was amazed at how easy it was to fall back into the comfortable rhythm they once had.
It was both familiar, and new.
He Xuan looked like Ming Yi, scowled like Ming Yi, and had the mannerisms of Ming Yi.
But it was as if Shi Qingxuan had always been looking at the reflection of the moon on the surface of the water, and was finally, finally catching glimpses of the person beneath the mask. He Xuan’s tone, his speech, and his actions all carried subtle differences from the friend Shi Qingxuan remembered. He Xuan seemed cold on the surface but was more receptive of Shi Qingxuan than Ming Yi had ever been. He was calm where Ming Yi had been irritable. He was expressive where Ming Yi had been reticent. Sometimes brash, sometimes cautious, it felt like He Xuan too was figuring out how to act around him — as if Ming Yi had been a carefully constructed facade that he had grown into, melded with, and was slowly relearning how to peel off.
By contrast, in the few months of knowing He Xuan, Shi Qingxuan realized that he had never really made the effort to get to know Ming Yi in the previous several hundreds of years. He had truly been a fool to proclaim ‘you are my best friend’ so adamantly, so mindlessly, when he never understood him in the first place.
One day, on a rare event when He Xuan accompanied him into the town for the markets, he remembered something. “You’re using a distance-shortening array to travel — the one on the outskirts of the city, right?”
He Xuan nodded, “Yes.”
“Well, I was just thinking, doesn’t it take a lot of spiritual energy to travel between here and Black Water Island? Back when I was still— ah, back when I used them, I remember it always being a difficult spell.”
“It’s fine,” He Xuan replied, “After the Witch the rest of the ghosts scattered. There’s fewer attacks on the island these days.”
“Oh, that’s great!” Shi Qingxuan exclaimed. “Why don’t you stay at the house here, then…?” he asked hesitantly.
...What was he saying? He Xuan had an entire palace that was far nicer than a little house in the forest! How could he expect a supreme demon king to live like a servant? Shi Qingxuan frantically waved his hand and quickly backtracked, “Nevermind! I mean, of course you’re free to do as you like, since it’s your house, after all! But I’m sure the manor is much more comfortable!”
He Xuan watched as he floundered then looked away, replying in a pensive tone, “Not now, but maybe someday."
“...Either way, Bogu is a really nice town,” A light smile played on Shi Qingxuan’s lips as they walked around the bustling markets. “It’s a decent size, lively, but not too loud. There’s good food and drink, and the people are a welcoming bunch.”
They were passing in front of a fabric shop. Wooden bolts of brightly-colored cloth hung from racks in shop’s interior as dresses and sashes of dyed silks fluttered in the wind in the storefront display. Shi Qingxuan’s gaze lingered.
“...Though I suppose, there are some things I miss,” he added wistfully, almost entirely to himself.
When they arrived back at the house, Shi Qingxuan was struck by a sudden inspiration. “Why don’t you set up a permanent distance-shortening array, right here? That should be a lot more convenient — you won’t have to walk the extra distance or redraw the seal everytime anymore.”
He Xuan looked around the yard thoughtfully, then agreed, “I could set up a new connection point here.”
Within a few days, a simple and unobstructive shack was constructed next to the house. He Xuan drew a complex seal of swirling symbols on the door with cinnabar.
“It’s done,” he stepped back, “I’ve set up the seal so that it’s restricted from the network; no one else will be able to use it.”
Shi Qingxuan grinned.
As the days passed peacefully, another realization made itself known in his heart —
The feelings that he had been carefully ignoring since the beginning had taken hold in his chest.
It wasn’t like he had never experienced the proverbial whirlwind of peach blossoms; back when they were gods, he had harbored somewhat of a tender affection for his sullen-faced companion, dragging the other on countless journeys that were less about godly duty and more about winning his attention. It had been safe and harmless, and all seemed like a blissful dream.
But they could never go back to those days. There was too much blood spilt between them, too many ill-fated circumstances for something new and fragile to grow.
Yet somewhere in his heart, the feelings he tried to squash stubbornly refused to die. Every time He Xuan brushed past him in the small kitchen he became hyper-aware of his surroundings. Every time he held He Xuan’s gaze for too long he felt his skin burn. Every accidental touch set his nerves on fire.
His head was a mess; guilt and shame settled deep in his stomach — why did it have to be He Xuan, of all people?
Ge, I don’t have the face to meet you in the next life…
So Shi Qingxuan continued to push his unwanted feelings down, as spring bled into summer.
Shi Qingxuan picked up a jar of rice wine while shopping one day.
He was in a good mood. The brewer told him that they had just unsealed a new batch made fresh from last autumn’s harvest. The sweet aroma of new wine was thick in the air, the timing just right for a moon viewing, and Shi Qingxuan couldn’t help but be tempted.
That night, he laughed made a toast with He Xuan under the brilliant full moon.
It was a hot night late into summer, so they moved the table outside to eat under the stars. The food was delicious and the local wine sweet, the faint fragrance of osmanthus flowers permeating the air. Insects chirped softly in the distance as the moon bathed everything in a gentle white light. Shi Qingxuan couldn’t tell which was more intoxicating — the atmosphere or the wine.
He threw back another cup and peered at He Xuan across the table. The demon was relaxed against a chair, long hair fanning down his back, the moonlight catching perfectly on the dip of his collarbones. Shi Qingxuan felt warm and tipsy with alcohol thrumming comfortably in his veins.
“Was it painful, in Tonglu Mountain?” he asked, his heartbeat loud in his ears.
He Xuan sipped on his own wine and met his eyes. This was the sort of topic they usually avoided.
“Yes.” he replied.
Shi Qingxuan tilted his head back to look at the sky and spoke in a quiet voice, “I wish… I wish I could have met you, before— before everything happened, back when you were alive. I think you would have been a great man. I think we could have… really been friends.”
Before He Xuan could say anything, Shi Qingxuan suddenly slammed his fists on the table and tossed back another cup.
“I mean it! If there wasn’t, wasn’t any Venerable of whatever, then we would have really been friends! You would have been a great Wind Master, better than I ever was. I can see it now — ‘Wind Master Xuan’, stalwart guardian of the southern wind, the indomitable yet gentle force,” Shi Qingxuan pointed at him and gestured excitedly with rosy cheeks, “And I, I would have been in Middle Heaven! We definitely would have met…”
He Xuan hid a smile in his cup. “Oh? And how would we meet?”
Shi Qingxuan rubbed his forehead, considering the question seriously. “...You’d save me from a demon, like a general on a white horse.”
He Xuan chuckled. “But I would be the Wind Master, not a general, remember?”
Shi Qingxuan crossed his arms and pouted, “You can be both an elemental master and a general, anyway, the point is… the point is that you would sweep me off my feet, and then I’d force you to give me your personal spiritual array password… then we’d become friends! You’d never be able to get rid of me.”
“Alright, alright. You’re drunk.”
“I’m not that drunk.” Shi Qingxuan retorted with a grin.
He Xuan stared at his cup in contemplation for a while, then said quietly, “...I think you made a great Wind Master, though.”
Eventually the wine grew low, and He Xuan said, “It’s getting late. I should be off.”
Shi Qingxuan was resting his head across his arms on the table, eyes closed. “Why do you always have to leave? I want to spend more time with you…”
He Xuan reached over and ruffled his hair. Shi Qingxuan leaned into the gesture.
“Go to bed, Qingxuan.”
Shi Qingxuan made an unintelligible noise. Sighing, He Xuan got up and carried him inside. Shi Qingxuan rested his head against He Xuan’s chest and murmured, “I don’t like being alone. I like being with you.”
He Xuan deposited him onto the bed, but Shi Qingxuan refused to let go.
“...Stay…” he mumbled.
He Xuan looked down at the sleepy figure clinging to his sleeve. He could leave if he wanted to.
He looked at the bed. It was large enough to fit them both.
He hadn’t slept in a while, anyway.
Shi Qingxuan woke up with a dull throb in his head. He had been drunk, but apparently not drunk enough to escape the vague recollection of some very embarrassing things he might have said the previous night. He groaned, turning to curl further into the cool embrace of the pillows.
After a few moments, his brain caught up with his senses and his eyes snapped open. Shi Qingxuan froze. He Xuan was sleeping on his side next to him, and from his distance he could see every detail of the demon’s peaceful sleeping face. His usually furrowed brows were smooth and a few strands of long hair were falling into his lashes, creating a surprisingly vulnerable scene that made Shi Qingxuan’s heart flutter. He had somehow rolled into He Xuan’s space during the night and one of the demon’s arms was casually thrown across his waist.
Shi Qingxuan yelped as he scrambled backwards, heart pounding, brain backpedaling as he tried to recall exactly how they had ended up in this situation. Woken by the disturbance, He Xuan’s eyes opened into slits as he scowled at him, “...Don’t be so loud in the morning.”
He Xuan yawned and sat up slowly, as if completely unperturbed by their close proximity. The demon gave him a once-over and casually got out of the bed.
“...Well, do you want some breakfast?”
After that incident, Shi Qingxuan was very careful about not drinking too much around He Xuan. Thankfully, the demon never brought up that awkward morning again.
Summer rolled into autumn rolled into winter. One day, out of the blue, He Xuan asked, “Where’s your fan?”
“Your fan. You still have it, right?”
“Oh yeah— I never did thank you for this,” Shi Qingxuan pulled the broken Wind Master fan from his robes and tapped it in He Xuan’s direction. “Thank you for returning it to me, but…” he trailed off, smiling wistfully and spreading the fan with both hands, “...I broke it again.”
He Xuan offered his hand and Shi Qingxuan passed the fan over. The paper body was tattered and a few of the wooden ribs had snapped as a result of his final display of power as the Wind Master more than two years ago. The ‘feng’ character was no longer recognizable. He Xuan carefully closed the fan and tucked it into his own robes. “Lend it to me for a bit.”
“Sure, but I don’t think it will do you any good now. Unless…” Shi Qingxuan’s gaze flitted to He Xuan’s face, voice uncertain, “There’s no point in fixing it again.”
He Xuan didn’t respond.
A few weeks later, He Xuan laid the fan on the table and slid it back to him.
Shi Qingxuan gingerly picked it up and unfolded it. The broken ribs had been replaced with new bamboo that had been selected with care, making it indistinguishable from the original wood of the guard. The fan had been remounted with new paper with the same level of skill as the very original he cultivated, all those hundreds of years ago. Even the paper was the same. He ran his fingers across the surface, relishing in the comforting sense of familiarity.
Divine weapons, however, could not be so easily fixed.
Even though the craftsmanship was meticulous, it was not the same Wind Master fan. Even if he had his powers, he probably would not be able to use it to wield the wind like he once had. It was a very nice, but ordinary, folding fan.
Most notably, the surface of the fan was blank. He Xuan reached over and placed a bottle of ink and a brush on the table in front of him. Shi Qingxuan stared at the fan, then the ink, then back at the fan. Infinite possibilities seemed to unfold on the blank screen before him and, in a moment of inspiration, he turned the fan around and set it down in front of He Xuan.
“Would you write it for me?” he asked shyly.
He Xuan looked surprised, but picked up the brush. He held the brush in the air for a few moments, then dipped the brush into the ink and wrote with slow, confident strokes.
He Xuan set the brush down and turned the fan back to him. On the fan was a single character — ‘xuan’ — the same character in both of their names, the same character that tied their fates together. ‘Profound’ and ‘mysterious’ indeed was the fate that led them to this moment. It felt like there was a special meaning in He Xuan bestowing this particular character to him, as if along with it the circle of fate had finally been completed. It felt right. A warmness slowly bloomed in his heart, spreading to his fingers and upwards to his cheeks. He smiled, carefully setting the fan aside to dry.
A tiny part of him thrilled at thought of He Xuan signing his own name, like a claim of ownership.
“Thank you,” feeling bold, he caught He Xuan’s wrist and grinned at him, “Will you lend me some spiritual power too? Haha, just kiddin—”
He Xuan reversed his his grip and clasped Shi Qingxuan’s wrist in return. Before he could react, He Xuan’s other palm darted forward and made contact with his chest, glowing with a white energy. The resulting force would have thrown him off his chair if it were not for He Xuan holding him in place.
Shi Qingxuan heaved several deep breaths, then shakily brought both hands in front of his eyes.
Spiritual energy! It was his spiritual energy!
He Xuan hadn’t just lent him spiritual energy, he had returned the spiritual energy that was taken from him that night by the Venerable of Empty Words!
...He Xuan had been the one controlling the Venerable. If he could take spiritual energy, then it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility for him to give it back.
“What… no— no, no no, I don’t want this!” Shi Qingxuan cried, falling out of his chair, “Why did you— take it back!” He looked at He Xuan in desperation. “...Take it back, please, I don’t want it. This… this isn’t mine!”
He Xuan walked over and crouched down next to him. He clasped his shoulder with a firm hand, grounding him with the single point of contact. “I’ve only returned what was rightfully yours. Like you said, you were an official of Middle Heaven once.”
Hesitantly, Shi Qingxuan tested the extent of the power. It indeed felt a lot weaker compared to when he was the Wind Master.
He slowly steadied his breathing. “...Why?”
With his other hand, He Xuan reached out and tucked a few strands of loose hair behind his ear, the gesture strangely intimate. “There are some things you miss, right?”
A complicated emotion went through Shi Qingxuan as he remembered the day at the market. He hadn’t expected the demon to be so perceptive, or perhaps, he hadn’t expected He Xuan to understand.
Shi Qingxuan shook his head and let out a long sigh. “That’s not the point. There’s no meaning to the punishment if you give it back. I don’t deserve it.”
He Xuan frowned. “I’ve changed my mind, is all.”
“You… why are you being so kind?”
He Xuan’s grip on his shoulder tightened painfully. Shi Qingxuan winced.
“Do you expect me to hurt you? Do you expect to be punished forever?”
“...No, I’m scared.” He murmured, pulling his legs up to his chest and burying his head in his knees. “You… you’re always kind. This year you’ve given me so many things. I’m scared you’re giving me too much, when I owe you so much, and can’t repay a single thing.”
The pressure on his shoulder disappeared. He Xuan was silent for a long time. From Shi Qingxuan’s position he could not see what sort of expression the other was making.
Eventually, He Xuan stood up, dusted off his robes, and spoke with a distant voice, “Qingming Festival is coming up soon, I’ll see you again on that day. There’s something I’ll have for you, then.”
It was early spring; a full year had passed since he and He Xuan had met again.
Ever since the night He Xuan returned his spiritual power, the demon had not appeared once. They had parted on an unpleasant note, but Qingming was only a few weeks away, so Shi Qingxuan tried to put worry out of his mind and focus on living normally.
He stood in the yard and ran his fingers along the familiar spine of his fan. Tentatively, he snapped it open and tried channeling spiritual power through it. A small gust of wind whirled around him, gentle and comforting, like the embrace of an old friend.
Laughter bubbled through him. He twirled in the yard and made a shower of dancing leaves.
After a few moments, he stilled and let the leaves rain down around him. The black character on the fan stood stark against the paper in He Xuan’s penmanship. When he told He Xuan that he was scared, he had meant it. The peaceful status quo of companionship over the past year had been safe, but recently he couldn’t help but feel like they were reaching the verge of something else, like they were barrelling towards some kind of irrevocable change in their relationship.
It made him uneasy.
On the day of the festival, Shi Qingxuan was cautiously waiting outside of the house when He Xuan stepped out of the distance-shortening array. A greeting was on his lips, but he stopped dead when he noticed a silk-wrapped bundle hanging from the other man’s hand. It was an inconspicuous package, but he was unable to tear his eyes away from it.
Qingming Festival, tomb-sweeping day.
Every hair stood up on Shi Qingxuan’s body as an overwhelming sense of dread engulfed him.
He Xuan wordlessly held up his hand and offered him the bundle.
Shi Qingxuan received it with shaking hands.
He knew; he knew what was wrapped in the silk. His head felt like it was underwater as he struggled to breathe, ears ringing. Slowly, he sagged to his knees. An indeterminable amount of time had passed before he registered that He Xuan was speaking to him.
“...with this, I’m declaring our debts cleared. You don’t owe me anything anymore, nor I you.”
“...Huh?” Shi Qingxuan blinked and looked up.
He Xuan’s face was flat, voice distant and emotionless, a complete shift from the person Shi Qingxuan had grown to know over the past few months. It scared him, but what scared him more was an unsettling sense that He Xuan was going somewhere far away.
He Xuan turned to leave. Shi Qingxuan cried out, “Wait!” He struggled to his feet, clutching the bundle tightly to his chest, and asked, “What are you talking about? Where are you going?”
He Xuan paused at the door of the distance-shortening array. “Shouldn’t you have other priorities, right now?”
Shi Qingxuan froze. He gripped the bundle tighter. There was something he needed to do. There was somewhere he needed to go. “Yes, but…”
“There’s nothing keeping you here anymore. Go anywhere you like.”
All of his words were wrong. Shi Qingxuan suddenly got the impression that there was an important misunderstanding somewhere between them, but things were happening too fast and his mind was still sluggish with shock. “Wait— He Xuan, wait!” Shi Qingxuan yelled as He Xuan stepped through the door, “Hang on, don’t go!”
The door closed, and Shi Qingxuan was left alone in the middle of the clearing, dumbfounded.
“I… I’ll be right back! Do you hear me?!” he yelled into the emptiness.
“I swear I’ll come back, so don’t leave…”
Ge… I’m here.
A stone memorial stood before Shi Qingxuan, ‘Water Master Wudu’ inscribed on its surface in proud, dignified lettering. It was his first time setting foot in the Immortal City after losing his godhood, his first time seeing and first time paying tribute to Shi Wudu’s grave. He kneeled and bowed several times, then lit a new offering of incense.
Ge, you can finally be at peace now.
You don’t have to worry about me anymore. I’ve grown up. I’m able to take care of myself now.
You might not approve of the choices I’ve made, but I’m not a kid anymore.
I’ve finally figured it out, I know what I need to do. I pray that you can forgive me in the next life.
I will be fine from now on.
So, ge, please rest in peace. I miss you, take care.
He straightened up as he finished praying. After deliberating for a few moments, he removed the longevity lock necklace from his neck and hung it around the memorial — he didn’t need it anymore; he would always carry the memory of his brother in his heart.
Pei Ming, who had been keeping a respectable distance to give him some privacy, approached silently. He clasped his hands together in a bow towards Shi Wudu’s memorial and spoke in a sombre voice, “Shui-shixiong, may you rest in peace now.”
Shi Qingxuan turned to bow to him as well, “General Pei, thank you for bringing me here on such short notice. And thank you for looking after my brother’s grave.” The fresh offering of flowers and incense had not escaped his notice.
“Ling Wen would come pay her respects too, but her freedom is limited. Needless to say, we both owe you our most sincere gratitude for bringing closure to our dear friend,” Pei Ming spoke with more seriousness than usual. He hesitated, then frowned at Shi Qingxuan. “Qingxuan, are you really going to go back? To that… man?”
“You can always stay. Your brother would have wanted that for you.” There was an frustrated edge to his tone, almost pleading.
Shi Qingxuan smiled and softly shook his head. “I know. But still, I’ve made my decision. Take care, General Pei.”
His task was done. He turned and walked out of heaven.
As he left the Immortal City, Shi Qingxuan’s walk became a pace, then a sprint. He could not explain the urgency in his heart — as if pulled by an invisible force, he knew with a certainty that he needed to see He Xuan as soon as possible. When he landed in Bogu, he dashed through the yard and into the distance-shortening array in one breath.
Will this even work?
He haphazardly concentrated his spiritual power on the door, and yelled, “Nether Water Manor!”
The door flung open. Before him was a dark corridor, the salty tang of the sea hanging heavy in the stagnant air. How ironic it was that he was relieved to return when, the last time he was here, he had been desperately looking for an escape?
He leapt out and ran blindly through the corridors, yelling, “He Xuan! Are you here?” He rushed by some small water ghosts and doubled back. “Wait, you guys! Where is your master?”
The ghosts, who appeared to be weak palace servants, seemed alarmed and scared by his presence but dutifully led him to an inner chamber. He was about to charge in but the ghosts stopped him, crying, “Wait, young lord! The master had forbidden anyone from entering this chamber! It’s best if you…”
“He Xuan! I’m here!” He yelled at the door.
The wooden doors opened outwards. The servants squeaked in fear and scurried off. He Xuan stood in the doorway, a look of surprise flashing across his face before he scowled. “...Stop being so loud.”
Shi Qingxuan’s heart was in his throat. He took a few deep breaths and started, “He Xuan… We need to talk.”
He Xuan sighed. “Why did you come back? Like I said, there’s nothing here for you anymore.”
“No!” Shi Qingxuan blurted out, “No, that’s not it! Did you— did you think I would just leave once I got everything back from you? Do you think that’s the reason I’ve been staying with you?”
He Xuan looked at him strangely, “No. I thought you were staying because of a debt — and now that debt is cleared.”
His head was spinning; his heart felt like it was going to burst from the flood of a thousand conflicting emotions. What had He Xuan been thinking all this time? He reached out and grabbed He Xuan’s sleeve. “...Did you think I’ve been… forcing myself to stay? Don’t you remember what I said from the beginning? You haven’t been keeping me in Bogu — all along I’ve been staying because I want to… I don’t want to go back to Heaven or Rain Master or anywhere else… He Xuan… it’s you. It’s always been you. I want to stay with you, I want to keep being together with you! Even if it’s selfish, I… I…”
He was suddenly overcome with a sense of daring, and, moving without thinking, he stepped up on his tiptoes and pressed a kiss to the corner of He Xuan’s mouth.
From his angle, the view of the room behind He Xuan slowly emerged from the darkness. It took him several moments to realize the scene he was looking at: an altar with four urns in a row. Like a soap bubble bursting, the perfect illusion ending, he froze as the realization of what he was doing sunk in.
By the Heavens, what was he doing?!
Without even daring to glance at He Xuan’s face, he turned on his feet and bolted.
White noise filled his head as he scrambled down the corridor he came from, blindly turning corners and running down passageways. He internally wailed. What was he doing? What was he thinking?!
He Xuan had a fiancée. He Xuan was going to be married. He heaved as guilt twisted his guts into painful knots.
She died because of him.
What right did he have to steal her place?
After they had finally, finally, reached an understanding, how could he let his careless emotions destroy the one chance of salvaging the relationship they had left?
A few moments into his frantic escape, he felt a firm tug on the back of his robes and stopped struggling, not really expecting to outrun a supreme demon king in his own palace. He covered his burning face with both hands and lowered himself to the ground, facing away from He Xuan.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I couldn’t… I didn’t… I didn’t mean to...” he began mumbling incomprehensibly.
He Xuan cut him off, “Qingxuan, look at me.”
“I’m sorry, please forget it… t-there’s something wrong with me.” A sob wracked through his body as tears fell from his face.
With a sigh, He Xuan walked around and crouched in front of him. He grabbed both of Shi Qingxuan’s hands with his own and gently peeled them away from his face.
“...” Shi Qingxuan resolutely refused to meet his eyes. The silence was only punctuated by his occasional sniffling.
He Xuan wordlessly pulled him up to his feet. The demon studied his tear-stained face in silence for a while, then spoke with an uncharacteristic softness.
“Qingxuan, I’ve long forgiven you.”
“There’s something I need you to understand: I don’t want you to feel that you owe me. I don’t want you to feel that you are obligated to me. I don’t like how you think you deserve to be punished for the crimes you didn’t commit.”
“You said you were afraid of me giving too much, but if you are willing to stay with me, then there’s still one thing left.”
“The very last thing. My life, my fate — this time, I give it to you willingly.”
Before Shi Qingxuan had time to process his words, his right arm was being pulled forwards and he felt something cold come in contact with his skin.
He looked down.
He Xuan had slipped a black jade bracelet onto his wrist. As if in a trance, he slowly held his hand up and studied it. The stone looked like the highest quality of jade, an intense semi-transparent black with a smoky cloud curling around inside, as if the very torrents of the ocean itself have been crystalized around his wrist. He’d seen enough divine artefacts in his life to know at a glance that it was made of no ordinary material.
Somewhere in the back of Shi Qingxuan’s mind, the faint memory of a rumor he’d once heard began to surface.
An old tradition in the ghost realm.
Shi Qingxuan was suddenly frozen to the spot, unable to tear his eyes away from his hand. Against his pale skin, the black bracelet looked like a shackle.
His brain was working on overdrive. There must be a mistake somewhere. This can’t be, can’t be what he thinks this is—
He Xuan grasped his hand with both hands. Shi Qingxuan’s gaze flew up to meet He Xuan’s eyes and found an unexpected tenderness that took his breath away.
“Shi Qingxuan, second master of the house of Shi, ‘Young Lord who Poured Wine’ and former Wind Master,” He Xuan enunciated each word slowly and carefully, “this time, I promise myself to you. Would you be willing to become mine?”
The floor fell away from underneath Shi Qingxuan’s feet. He suddenly felt like he was falling, his mind blank and his hammering heart drowning out the sound of everything around him. The world narrowed until the person before his eyes became the only thing that existed. A sudden warmness surprised him as tears began to roll down his cheeks anew.
In a split second, he threw himself against He Xuan’s chest and was caught by a familiar pair of arms. He buried his tear-stained face in He Xuan’s shoulder and whispered in a hoarse voice, “...yes, if you’d have me.”
The next thing he blurted out was, “I want to have a big celebration at the wedding.”
He Xuan laughed. It was a deep, reverberating sound that Shi Qingxuan had never heard before. Wrapped in He Xuan’s embrace, he felt the vibrations against his skin. Nothing was clearer in that moment than the realization that he never, ever wanted He Xuan to stop laughing. He was dizzy and overwhelmed, heart beating so hard against his ribcage that he wondered if it were possible to die from feeling so much at once.
He Xuan tucked his head against Shi Qingxuan’s and spoke right against his ear, voice full of promise, “Yes, you’ll get everything you want.”
Shi Qingxuan shuddered. His entire head felt feverish and he could only bury himself further into He Xuan’s cool, welcoming embrace. Wrapped in He Xuan’s arms, he gazed at the black bracelet on his wrist in wonder.
Not a shackle, but a promise.
His grip tightened on He Xuan’s robes as he thought back to the altar room. “May I… may I pay my respects to your family?”
He Xuan paused for a moment then lightly shook his head, hold tightening on Shi Qingxuan. “Not here,” he said, looking around the island, “I want to bring you to meet them properly. It’s about time I laid them to rest, someplace better.”
Two figures stood before a stone memorial in the mountainside of Bogu. The sunlight was bright, the incense was new, and the fresh mountain breeze carried with it a shower of fallen petals.
Silently, the two figures bowed together.
There was an uproarious celebration in the small town of Bogu.
A wedding was taking place at the finest winehouse in the city, and the townsfolk were abuzz with excitement. Rumor had it that the couple recently moved to Bogu from somewhere far away and had booked the whole winehouse with free wine for all. Even more auspicious was the fact that the couple had the surname ‘He,’ just like the hero of old in their famous bloody fire social!
Prosperous! Truly prosperous!
As the red bridal sedan approached the winehouse, the townsfolk gathered around all craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the rumored beauty. The bride stepped out, dressed in a magnificent brocade wedding dress of red and gold with a red veil covering her face, the fabric billowing around her with an air of weightlessness.
The inside of the winehouse was packed full of people, many of whom seemed to be visitors from other regions, wearing a strange range of expressions varying from joy to barely-contained outrage.
Had any of the townsfolk been more perceptive or had practiced cultivation, they might have seen a truly strange and spectacular sight. For example, had our friend Heaven’s Eye been present, he’d have seen half of the visitors in the room glowing with a brilliant divine energy and the other half shrouded in unmistakably demonic auras!
But it went largely unnoticed by the excited citizens of Bogu, whose collective attention was glued onto the two figures in red at the center of the room.
A lady in green robes was holding the ceremony. For some reason, the bride and groom only bowed two times, instead of the traditional three. The townsfolk held their breath as the groom reached forward and lifted the red veil—
The entire room seemed to let out a gasp at the sight of the bride.
Her face was delicate, her cheeks rosy. Her hair was intricately pinned up, exposing the pale column of her neck. She possessed a carefree grace like that of the clear autumn breeze. More beautiful than the moon, more radiant than the sun, with finely drawn brows and delicate painted lips, she was the absolute image of a divine goddess!
Then she smiled at the groom, eyes glittering with unrestrained happiness.
Truly, looks that could move mountains and topple empires!
In time, the couple would go on to establish themselves as respected cultivators in the town of Bogu. The groom — a man named He Xuan — would be known for his sharp gaze and cool demeanor, and the lady would be known for her unparalleled beauty and her elegant techniques with a fan. They would live quietly and peacefully on the outskirts of Bogu, protecting the town from ghosts and demons alike.
At the present moment, however, the wine was just beginning to flow. The bride fluttered around the room, thanking and chatting with the guests while the groom stayed back and exchanged few words with others. The energy in the winehouse was palpable as more and more toasts were made to the health and happiness of the new couple. In the midst of the rowdy celebration, nobody noticed the bride and groom slip out of sight.
Shi Qingxuan giggled. “Did you see Pei Ming’s expression? He looked like he was going to whip out a sword right there if it weren’t for Lord Rain Master. He was really angry with me.”
Shi Qingxuan was back to his usual form, hair loose and dressed in simple red robes. “Hmm, what about you?” he asked, carefulling filling two cups of wine to the brim and carrying them over, “Did you have a good chat with Crimson Rain Sought Flower?”
“He was insufferable as always.”
Shi Qingxuan laughed. He sat next to He Xuan on the bed and offered him one of the cups.
“Now, here’s the important part — do you want me like this, or do you prefer like earlier?” He asked with a coy smile, eyes glittering.
He Xuan accepted the wine and caught his hand before it could retreat. He pressed a kiss to the inside of his wrist, on his pulse. “I want you, in any way you like.”
Shi Qingxuan’s breath hitched.
Together, they crossed their arms and drank.
To a long life.
To a long time.
To be together, forevermore.
Shi Qingxuan set his cup aside and draped his arms loosely around He Xuan’s shoulders, face inches away, smiling with open adoration, “...Thank you, for going along with my whims again, husband.”
He Xuan’s hands settled themselves comfortably, possessively, on his waist as he leaned forward to capture his lips.
Seasons came and went, and it was autumn once again.
Shi Qingxuan propped himself up with his elbows on top of He Xuan’s chest, pouting slightly as he studied the other’s face under the moonlight. After a while, he reached out and poked He Xuan on the cheek.
Frowning, He Xuan caught his hand and asked, “What are you doing?”
Shi Qingxuan reached forward with his other hand to pinch He Xuan’s face, squashing and stretching his cheek. With a huff, He Xuan caught both wrists and leveled him with a half-hearted glare.
“I was just thinking, you really didn’t change your face much when you were pretending to be the Earth Master. You… didn’t take Ming Yi’s appearance, did you?” Shi Qingxuan frowned.
“No.” He Xuan let go of his wrists.
“What if someone in Heaven had known what the real Ming Yi looked like?”
“Then they just had bad luck.”
It wasn’t so much a joke as the truth and they both knew it; He Xuan would have personally disposed of anyone in heaven who knew the real Ming Yi.
Shi Qingxuan let out a breathless laugh and pulled himself up. He cupped He Xuan’s face with both hands and dropped a featherlight kiss on the bridge of his nose. “I’m glad you didn’t use his face,” he murmured, “I’m glad I met you first.”
Little confessions. Little truths he only dared half-whisper under the cover of night. He Xuan pulled him in for a proper kiss.
Later, Shi Qingxuan settled his head into the crook between He Xuan’s neck and shoulder, one hand splayed over the skin above He Xuan’s heart. The black jade bracelet nestled between their skin was warm with his body heat.
“Ah-Xuan,” he yawned, “I’m glad I met you… I’m really happy….”
He Xuan wrapped an arm around his waist and pulled him closer into his embrace. Shi Qingxuan’s inky hair spilled like black rivers across the sheets, his face completely open and relaxed as he dozed. He Xuan was lost in thought as he brushed a few strands of hair out of his sleeping face, fingers lingering over his delicate features. Young lord, Wind Master, beggar — despite having tasted all the bitter flavors of life, Shi Qingxuan could still be so at peace, still so full of youthful passion, still smiling so brightly. Despite everything, he was still as dazzling as the sun scattered on the surface of the ocean.
Thank the Heavens.
How strange fate was, he mused, that hundreds of years of hatred could disappear, and the enemy who stole everything from him would one day become everything to him.
He looked down at the black bracelet resting against Shi Qingxuan’s pale skin and laced their fingers together. They’ve come a long way.
A blood debt repaid in blood.
Two fates finally converging in the end.
Against all odds, they had found the path they were looking for. As He Xuan held a sleeping Shi Qingxuan in his arms he realized that he would live through it all again — through the Reverend of Empty Words, through the Tonglu Mountain, through hundreds of years of deception — just for this outcome.
You have given meaning to my existence.
You are the reason I will go on living.
“Qingxuan, I’m glad I met you, too.”
He planted a kiss on the crown of Shi Qingxuan’s head, a silent vow to keep walking by his side wherever their path may lead. Through all the three realms, through every joy and sorrow of human life, into the horizon of their future.