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Masters of Fate

Chapter Text

It began with the hand on his neck.

 

Tighter and tighter it squeezed, cutting into his skin and killing him. It was cold, in the space of this watery prison. Even as those fingers moved he smiled and laughed because even now he had won.

 

Shi Wudu might die but Shi Qingxuan wouldn’t have to kill him.

 

Shi Wudu had won.

 

He died but that was not his end, because he woke with a hand on He Xuan’s neck and a mortal fate dancing above his fingers. He was in a room made of careful bamboo and modest upbringing, lashed together with the care of skilled fingers. A mat lay beneath his knees, the sleeping pad of a man who could have been a god.

 

It began with his hand on He Xuan’s neck.

 

The skin beneath his hand was warm with a delicate mortal life. It was not the skin of a ghost, not the cold chill of Black Water. It was strange. 

 

It was a room Shi Wudu had been in before, hundreds of years ago on a night just like this, with the moon filtering in through carefully woven bamboo. Shadows had danced across his hands then, as he’d ripped a happy fate from this man.

 

That day he’d celebrated as a success.

 

But this was not before but now, centuries later and with the phantom touch of a cold hand on his neck. He should not have been here; he had died laughing and victorious in a watery prison, with four urns before him and disrespect in his smirk.

 

This was not that moment.

 

This was a painful heartbeat in the movement of the world. This was the place where he broke the life of the man who killed him. This was the place where he had protected his brother, as he always had and always would.

 

This was the place where he forged fate into a sword to be wielded, but it was not a time he’d chosen.

 

It began with his hand on He Xuan’s neck and the pulse of a man throbbing against his fingers. For a long moment, Shi Wudu didn’t move. He was caught on the surprise of air flowing through his lungs and fingers that answered his call.

 

He was caught on the sensations of life for a moment too long. Slow like moving shards of ice, the man below him turned. Warm skin brushed against the edge of his thumb to whisper a heartbeat of a man who still lived.

 

The man turned until all Shi Wudu could see was the glare of golden eyes, and all he could feel was the neck held in his palm. The bamboo walls felt so small, when he knew only the gilded halls of his palace.

 

He saw hate in those eyes and know this was no mortal He Sheng but the demonic He Xuan.

 

“You—”

 

The word was spat out like poison, ripped from the throat of a man who knew no trauma but had felt every sting of the fate Shi Wudu had stripped away.

 

It sounded like death, come for him again. Shi Wudu sneered in response and tightened his hands, felt the body beneath him struggle and tremble. Warm skin felt hot beneath him, but the eyes that stared into his were cold and furious.

 

“You won’t threaten my brother ever again, demon.”

 

He spoke the words with a sneer and all his pride, felt the pulse under his fingers jump like fish leaping above the waves. There was no fear but fury in those eyes, and Shi Wudu had never hated anything more.

 

He Xuan may live in that skin but it still belonged to the body of a mortal. Shi Wudu had the power of a god flowing through his fingers, gilded energy made to power the waves and storm the heavens. He could crush this threat before it ever began.

 

This place, stained dark and eerie with the shadows of night, would be this man’s grave.

 

He looked down and felt the crush of a hand at his neck, cold and ruthless. He looked down and the demon bared mortal teeth up at him.

 

Shi Wudu had done so much worse than kill a man.

 

Before he had been stripped and broken down on He Xuan's territory, made weak by centuries of planned revenge. Before, Shi Wudu had done what he needed to protect his brother, as he ever had.

 

Now he was free to bring his wrath to bear on this fool’s body.

 

The neck below him snappe—

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

Proud eyes blinked awake to darkness, but he got to his feet with golden eyes haunting his memories. Sensations leaked in like the spill of oil over water, unstoppable and slow.

 

It was cold, chill with darkness. It was dark, with a sky he couldn’t hear. It was quiet, marked by the echoes of a space with no wind.

 

Shi Wudu did not know where he was.

 

He took a step, hesitant with the night but strong with his pride and power. As if fading through time, shapes emerged from the darkness, the corners of old walls catching his eyes.

 

There was a shadowed temple fading into existence around him, the age of centuries marking walls feeble and faint. It grew brighter with the talismans he pulled from his robes, light clearing the way through the dark of night.

 

Now it only showed him a place he didn’t recognize.

 

Shi Wudu felt the edge of a cold fury spill across his skin, a match for the fear creeping down his spine. He had been standing above He Xuan. He had killed his enemy.

 

He had felt pain himself, a phantom crushed bone splintering from his neck to make him shiver. Shi Wudu hated that. He would sneer and snarl before the very heavens he stood among, if it made the feeling fade.

 

But the heavens were nowhere to be seen, and neither was the demon. Shi Wudu was alone in this old temple, and he couldn’t help the clinging fear.

 

What had happened to Shi Qingxuan?

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

For long days he walked dirt paths and felt the very air tremble at his steps. There was no breeze in this place. Outside the temple was a city of cold stone and ancient murals, with a hard ceiling of settled stone high above.

 

This place was wrong, made of old history and the graves of a country long since dead. It was all the worse for the phantom warmth he felt beneath his fingers when he lingered too long in thought.

 

He had killed He Xuan, felt a mortal life fade beneath his hands. He had no regrets, but now they were a life for a life, and there was a weight across his chest that was unfamiliar. It felt invasive, like there were threads tied to his very soul and made heavy. Each step shook his skin with it, and each moment passed by in only the light of his talisman.

 

Shi Wudu had blinked cold eyes awake to the corpses of ten thousand statues, and there was no sun to be seen.

 

Why was he here? What threads wrapped around his spirit and drew him to this place? Why did he still feel warm skin beneath his hands?

 

Even as he took commanding steps through the city, he did not know. Even as he stared down the empty streets and watched them stand a silent vigil, he didn’t know.

 

There didn’t look to be a living soul in this entire city, but something told Shi Wudu that was very wrong. There was a trembling edge to the air that felt like death walked cold steps on hot ground.

 

Shi Wudu walked them too, and he was death in his own right. He flexed the strength of his fingers, felt the blood beneath his skin race to his call.

 

This was his body as a god, with all the power it knew and could summon from cold water. There were no wounds washing across the stretch of his skin, and no bruises to match the phantom hands at his neck. He stood on streets he didn’t recognize, with old resentment pounding beneath each of his footsteps.

 

There had been fresh paint in that temple, and each mural had told the tale of a kingdom long dead and lost to volcanic ash.

 

Fate had brought him here, but Shi Wudu was no fool; he had fought the threads of fate long enough to know when someone was twisting them. He called to the weak moisture in the air, let it coil across his skin as a thin armor.

 

The streets were too exposed, but Shi Wudu would walk them with his head held high. He was the Water Master and feared no enemy. A clear target would draw out any attacks, summon enemies to his feet.

 

Then he would make them kneel.

 

As he walked the dead streets Shi Wudu had only one proud thought; this was all He Xuan’s fault, he was sure.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

Long moments passed without time, the sun hidden away behind sheets of rock above. It could have been weeks and Shi Wudu wouldn’t have noticed, a godly body craving no food and no rest.

 

He kept walking, charting out the city with a keen mind and sharper memory. This was enemy territory and a land of clues in one; he would know every twist and turn if it cost him a year.

 

For every moment he had felt a tug at his skin too, a hint at the edges of his vision and hovering across the back of his bones. With each step he took it urged him onward, pulling him ever closer to the center of a dead city.

 

He couldn’t help but think something waited for him at the end of these broad roads, lurking and patient. He sneered at the feeling as he sneered at the fake flutter in his hands.

 

Shi Wudu recognized the touch of fate when it dared kiss his skin. He would rip it free like the parasite it was, pull it up by the roots and drown it in his victory.

 

But for now he had to let it rest. He had tried cutting it out with the precision of a swordsman, taking power to the hints that danced across his soul. Four trembling heartbeats later, he could not rip it free. The threads were bound into his spirit tight as a vice, and no matter his ruthless skill he could not break them. They were forged strong as divine steel, made to trap him into a fate he had not chosen.

 

He hated them, as he hated the chill that went through his skin at the sight of them. Red had always been such a garish color.

 

The streets held his cold anger and he could not think to mind. This place was dead and buried, but he did not know its past.

 

He did not want to. Shi Wudu wanted to wash it away and return to the familiar company of his brother, the sharp barbs of Ling Wen and stupid smirks of Pei Ming.

 

With every piece of sneering pride in his veins he wanted to be home.

 

But there was no exit to this place. He had scoured the edges of the city and seen only the fading memories of poverty. There were no doors but dried lava, and no sky but stone. He was trapped in the grave of ten thousand souls and he could only snarl at it.

 

There was only path ahead; he needed to find water.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

It took him long hours to find a river, even with the blood beneath his skin leading the way. Under the proud sky of the heavens, water came to his command like a chained beast, following each movement of his hand. Each flick of his fan summoned hurricanes, and each cold word flooded riverbanks.

 

Shi Wudu was a god to be feared. His power was vast as the ocean, and his temper was fickle. He did not like it when the waters under his command disobeyed.

 

But this river didn’t want to obey. He looked into its depths, watched black water writhe and shift. It looked alive as water should not, and Shi Wudu had a terrible feeling he knew why. A chill crept across the skin of his spine, frost spreading across still water.

 

Under a skyless dawn he turned and met golden eyes.

 

He Xuan looked cold as ice and twice as angry, standing on the bank of a deadly river. Golden eyes were glimmering in the half-darkness, lighting the very air around them like the sun had fallen into the ocean.

 

Shi Wudu looked at him and sneered, fingers twitching at his sides. There was battle lust collecting at the edge of his skin that he didn’t want to admit to, strong as the hint of phantom hands in his hair.

 

It had been long weeks since he had seen another soul, and the weak and fluttering part of him had missed that contact. The true him wanted to use all his pride and skill to rip He Xuan to terrible pieces and damn the consequences.

 

The threads of fate that bound him were such a vile color.

 

“Of course, it’s you.”

 

His words were hard and harsh. They echoed strangely in the silence of a dead city, bouncing across the corpses of buildings and the stone of coffins.

 

Shi Wudu would have spoken more, the anger of a fresh death clawing at his skin. This man had dared to put Shi Qingxuan in danger, had dared to try to hurt his brother.

 

The rusted iron of an axe still glimmered in his memories, no matter how many days he had spent in a dark city.

 

Shi Qingxuan would not have recovered from killing him. That gentle soul was too bright to take the stains of blood. It wouldn’t have recovered from a pauper’s death either, and neither would Shi Wudu.

 

He bared his teeth in the sneer of fury at that thought, staring into gilded eyes. How dare this demon hurt Shi Qingxuan?

 

“Did you—”

 

He spoke but his words were cut off by a flash of movement, bright in the darkness. Only a god’s instincts had him shifting in time, feet light on ancient ground. He leapt back, felt the edge of strong fingers catch at his robes.

 

They tore, under He Xuan’s nails, the fine silk of his sleeve shredding into tatters. Shi Wudu hissed his displeasure and struck back, furious as a whirlpool. He may not have his fan to make the blow unstoppable, but his hands were lethal too.

 

The water he had collected from air and blood for long weeks sprayed forward to make the motion strong.

 

He Xuan moved but not fast enough, the anger burning golden eyes burnished and shone. Shi Wudu felt his palm catch hard muscle and bruise. It would have been a deadly blow, to a mortal. He Xuan merely rocked back a few steps, face cold and angry.

 

The man didn’t look to have felt anything, but Shi Wudu had. A bruise was blooming across his ribs, and it would surely be black and painful.

 

A moment would wash it away, a surge of power brushing color from his skin. It would be nothing, before his power and the body of a god.

 

But Shi Wudu had bruised. He had struck He Xuan and felt his palm hit skin cold skin, and been bruised himself.

 

The silence of a dead city held him tight, but Shi Wudu could only swallow, loud and angry in the quiet. The talisman shone with a never-fading light, but he felt like he had been drenched in darkness. The threads of fate that bound him were not tying him alone, and they glimmered crimson and terrible in the ink of night.  

 

He hated their color all the more, knowing they tied him to He Xuan.

Chapter Text

No wind blew over ancient buildings, but Shi Wudu felt like he was pulled in a thousand directions by the threads of fate. The weight of chill air gripped his skin, but he did not shiver before it. He stepped and felt the dead wind tremble around him. There was a frost like an abyss filling the street, made of the fury of two Masters of Water.

 

It was loud as the lightning before a storm, and he glared cold eyes at He Xuan. A breath filled his lungs, and he pressed a hand against his side and felt the sting of broken ribs.

 

Gold eyes tracked the motions but looked only furious. In the silence of a dead city, they felt heavy on his skin, and heavier still when they narrowed in understanding. Shi Wudu snapped out his fury, cold as a sheet of ice.

 

“Again, if you dare.”

 

It was a foolish thing to say, but Shi Wudu didn’t care. Let the demon rage at him, let sharp nails rip into his skin; they stood on equal ground now, and there was no battle he would lose. He sneered and taunted and felt phantom hands on his neck.

 

He Xuan looked hungry for violence, and it was that hunger that filled the air. It was strong as static, pressing through the death of a city to curl on his shoulders. Shi Wudu rolled the weight off and pulled at the strings of his power, energy coiling at the edge of elegant nails.

 

It wasn’t enough.

 

The demon leapt forward again, and this time Shi Wudu wasn’t fast enough. A cut scored his cheek, bright with pain and sharp nails. He hissed against it, felt the furies of his pride stir under his skin.

 

How dare this demon lay a hand on him again? How dare He Xuan touch him?

 

The man had been nothing but a pathetic mortal once, with a life that Shi Wudu had deemed unimportant. And it had been, before Shi Qingxuan’s fate. He would do anything for his brother, if it cost him a thousand years and a thousand cuts. Shi Qingxuan would live a good life, long and prosperous. Shi Wudu would ensure it.

 

And if it meant stealing the life of a single man to make it so? There had been no easier decision.

 

But now He Xuan was Black Water Sinking Ships, feared supreme come to drown the world. Now the man had golden eyes that glimmered with power, and a glare that matched his own. Shi Wudu traced a single finger across his cheek, felt it come away wet and damning.

 

Across the edge of his nail collected a hint of blood, crimson and dark as night beneath stone sky. It was a rare sight; with his skill and the water that protected him, Shi Wudu was never hurt. It had been long decades since the last injury, and that had been at the hands of his heavenly trial.

 

For that and that alone, Shi Wudu had allowed wounds. That was before he had been thrown to the floor of a watery prison and ripped apart.

 

He could handle any pain, but he had not expected that cut. He had expected the matching cut on He Xuan’s cheek, bright on the pale skin of death.

 

They were truly cursed, and oh how he wanted to rage like a storm in winter at that.

 

The realization seemed to strike He Xuan at the same time, hunger turning to a cold rage in a heartbeat. The demon leapt forward again, and this time Shi Wudu snapped out a quick hand to catch at black robes. His hand closed around a strong wrist mid-motion, moved angry strength to stillness. 

 

He did not want to be touched again.

 

The demon’s skin felt cold beneath his fingers, like frost spread across a still water.  Shi Wudu wanted to rip that hand off, as he wanted to see this man dead for making him kneel.

 

With the last of his restraint, he did neither.

 

“Can you not tell our fates are bound, demon?”

 

His words echoed across dead air and made it breathe anger. It made it heavy too, and stung his throat with each sharp word.

 

He hated the need to say it almost as much as he hated being bound to this pathetic demon. Golden eyes narrowed, a cavernous hunger glinting from the corners of that look. He Xuan stood silent and cold for a long moment, hand tense in Shi Wudu’s grip.

 

Then strong muscle went lax, ice melting to water.

 

The demon pulled away in a slow motion, hand moving like the deepest ocean currents. He Xuan still stood too close, a towering presence at his side.

 

Shi Wudu wished for his fan, to slash gold eyes to shreds. He would have carved them out himself too, if not for this curse.

 

Fate had him bound to this path. That did not mean Shi Wudu would not walk it with a fiery anger.

 

“Did you do this, tyrant?”

 

Shi Wudu sneered, insult coiling over his skin. It was pathetic that the man thought him capable of this. It was infuriating that He Xuan thought Shi Wudu would ever bind himself to a demon.

 

“Why would I tie my life to your pathetic soul, demon?”

 

The words echoed out into the empty city but did not sound harsh enough. Shi Wudu wanted them to cut into cold skin and make it bloody. He had taunted this man to murder before. He could do it again, if he wished it.

 

It was a good thing for them both he did not.

 

Golden eyes stared at his cheek, and he could feel their weight as he could feel the blood dripping from the fresh cut. He Xuan raised a hand to his own cheek and felt for the matching cut.

 

They shared the same rage then.

 

“Our fate isn’t ours right now,” the demon said, as if it was a revelation. The words stung like nothing else could, made of Shi Wudu’s greatest fear and truest enemy. He wanted to rage before them, wanted to break out his oceans to scatter the world to pieces.

 

Shi Wudu stared down a ghost and hated the truth. He spoke anyway.

 

“Something brought us here and tied your low class life to mine.”

 

It was all he could do to make the words harsh through the beating of his heart and the fury pounding under his skin. He had looked at what lay between them and seen red dancing lovely and strong in a dead wind. The threads that bound them were so vicious, and so unstoppable. This was nothing he had ever wanted, not with this demon and not with anyone.

 

Shi Wudu felt anger swell like sea currents in his skin. It was an unstoppable force, made of the swirl of a hurricane.

 

He Xuan just glared back, equally furious. In this, at least, they were in agreement. Shi Wudu looked away, across the dark roads and beyond the reach of his talisman.

 

That light flickered so softly, on the black waters of this river.  

 

“Where is this city?” His words were snapped and terrible, and they echoed out across dead sculptures and grave-buildings. He did not expect an answer, not from the demon with the cold eyes. If he didn’t know this ancient place, there was no reason for He Xuan to know its stone walls.

 

He did not expect the answer he got, either.

 

“Mount Tonglu,” He Xuan said, stepping towards the curve of the river. The water greeted him with each step, dancing up like a living beast until the demon stood on a bank and stared into writhing black water.

 

Shi Wudu sneered against the shock crawling up his spine. He sneered against the hint of steely fear too, borne from long centuries of rumor and myth. The demon capital, the birthplace of the worst of all ghosts; Mount Tonglu was not a place Shi Wudu wanted to see let alone step into with a supreme at his side and biting for his throat.

 

He looked at the pale man standing before him, and watched golden eyes catch on dark swirls of current. The man looked furious. Good, they should both be angry.

 

“Well?” He asked, impatient and cold as he could make it. “Fate brought us here. Why are we here, demon?”

 

The question echoed out over writhing water and sounded as demand and command. It sounded loud, in this city of silence and cracking darkness.

 

Shi Wudu spoke it anyway. This was He Xuan’s birthplace after all, the kiln that had forged a pathetic ghost into a filthy demon. The man had to know something.

 

For a long moment, there was no response. Silence whispered across the space between them, made from the demon’s angry stare.

 

“That isn’t the question you should be asking now, tyrant.”

 

Gold eyes stared out at the water, and at last Shi Wudu thought to follow them. Still water did not writhe, and there was no power there but spirits. A thousand glimmering eyes peered out of the water, chittering sharp teeth and whispering of an endless hunger.

 

The river was filled with rats.

 

Shi Wudu hissed, the sound sharp and angry between them. He took a step back, summoning the clear droplets lingering in the air. They curled across his hand as weapon and shield, but he would be hard pressed to kill so many spirits.

 

He Xuan only stepped closer.

 

“The Water Master is a coward,” the demon said, taking slow steps forward. Black hair shifted with each movement, a waterfall of spilled inky down the man’s back.

 

Shi Wudu wanted to cut it off and make He Xuan feel the same disrespect of losing arms. There was darkness falling across his shoulders, but he stood proud and cold in the shadows.

 

How dare this demon slander him so? He had taunted the man into murder, and He Xuan believed him a coward.

 

Was the demon stupid as well as bitter?

 

But no, Shi Wudu could only wish that to be true. This enemy had proven a challenge; He Xuan was sharp and cunning, though a sentimental fool. Only a fool would let themselves grow so attached to the idea of a family to spend centuries in silent revenge.

 

Only Shi Qingxuan was worth that pain. Shi Wudu would do anything to protect his brother, if it cost him a hundred years of angry planning. But he wasn’t so fool to abandon all that he was to do it. Memories of a watery prison and cold stone beneath his knees shook that thought to pieces. He stopped, took a breath that echoed through cracked lungs.

 

Perhaps he was such a fool, but he wasn’t nearly so pathetic. Black Water had gripped his hair and asked him to kneel before those he’d wronged. He had done it for Shi Qingxuan, just as he had made the demon kill him for Shi Qingxuan.

 

Perhaps he understood the demon well after all.

 

“Pathetic and a liar,” he snapped, making the words as harsh as his disdain. They echoed loud as crashing waves over the chittering of ten thousand rats.  

 

The demon walked towards the river without a word, dark robes shifting like deep currents. The rats were massive, easily the size of a small beast, and small eyes glowed a haunting red.

 

Had Shi Wudu held the smooth wood of his fan, he would have swept them all away in the torrents of a hurricane. It would have been easy to kill them all, crush their hungry jaws beneath his power.

 

Without his fan he would have to boil the very blood in their veins, call to the water that made up corrupted bodies. He would have to reach for them.

 

But there was no need. He Xuan took quick steps forward and raised pale fingers. Like moths drawn to flame, the rats surged forward, leaping up in the air to snap at the edge of a strong hand.

 

It was a horrific sight, but Shi Wudu did not look away. He should not care if He Xuan was eaten alive, nor did he care if the rats were destroyed.

 

But fate bound him to this demon, and Shi Wudu would act to protect He Xuan, if only to protect himself.

 

As the rats leapt so too did He Xuan’s long fingers, cutting powerful lines through a dead wind. They swayed as if summoning whirlpools, slow as still water. The vengeful rats swirled to greet pale skin, small jaws snapping and chittering into the silence.

 

They stood no chance.

 

It took the demon a single bite to devour ten thousand spirits. A single bite, furious and hungry as a starved man, snapped the energy from the air.

 

It didn’t even look like He Xuan had opened his mouth particularly wide— but oh the spirits were sucked in as fish before an ocean beast, made to be devoured in one cavernous swallow.

 

Ten thousand powerful ghosts swirled into a meal for a supreme that didn’t need to be any stronger.

 

Shi Wudu couldn’t help the hint of fear crawling up his spine.

 

There was the lava of death above them, and here he was trapped with a demon of power like no other. He didn’t know how much energy He Xuan had just consumed, but it was enough to make golden eyes glow bright as the sun.

 

Shi Wudu could not look away from those eyes, even as he felt their threat to his pride and plans. He has worked far too hard to flinch and waver before a demon.

 

He Xuan stepped closer and Shi Wudu couldn’t help but shift. The animal urge in the back of his mind wanted him to run, to put harsh waters and between him and this beast.

 

But Shi Wudu did not back down. He was a god, and ever was he brave. He Xuan would not take his goals from him, not even in this city of old dead and cataclysmic destruction.

 

Not even when they were tied together by a fate neither had chosen.

 

“You are disgusting,” he said at last, watching the last scraps of ghosts disappear down He Xuan’s throat. They slipped into pale lips like currents disappearing into the depths of the ocean, swift and hidden away.

 

It was a disturbing sight, for all the horrors he had seen.

 

Shi Wudu could not look away and so he sneered.

 

“You made me this way,” the demon replied, with eyes like stars and molten gold. The demon took threatening steps closer, lifted a pale hand into the air.

 

For a heartbeat, it looked like the man would reach for Shi Wudu’s neck.  Did the demon want to break it as a mortal spine had been snapped, so very recently? Did those fingers want to rip his head off again, and let him win?

 

Shi Wudu didn’t know, but he glared that hand into stillness regardless. He was the water of winter, made strong and furious.

 

Let the demon try to frighten him. Shi Wudu would always win.

 

But they couldn’t kill each other for now, and so He Xuan stared with golden eyes but lowered those deadly fingers.

 

They walked on through the city, free to explore now that the rats were devoured. Each door whispered tales of families and laughter, of fights and crime and loud drinking. The stones beneath his feet were worn smooth by thousands of feet, and with each step Shi Wudu felt ghosts linger in the darkness.

 

This city had been lived in once. The buildings were made with an eye of love, elegant lines of temples made for beauty and the humble lines of homes made for comfort. The human shells took that beauty and made it haunting, but Shi Wudu couldn’t bring himself to care.

 

Mortal lives were lost every day. Illness took them slow and swords took them quick, but still people died. Many had been lost in a single night in this city; the agony painting the grotesque statues told that well.

 

Shi Wudu had no pity. They all would have died in the end regardless. Why did he care for a few lives, when there were so many left standing?

 

Why would he have cared for He Xuan’s?

 

Long hours of wandering and harsh silence took them past a thousand buildings and ten thousand bodies. Their pace began with the rage between enemies, and each step shivered at their malice. But that faded to sharp anger quickly enough, under the press of time.

 

They walked and did not speak, shepparded on by the glint of that brilliant talisman.

 

Silence greeted them, spilling from the thresholds of a thousand doors and the stone walls of a hundred buildings. Only one stood out from the rest. A temple clung on at the end of a wide street, grand but rotten and cored out with age. The stone was not weathered but dusted, and the wooden side door had dissolved long ago.

 

But the plaque was wet with fresh paint.

 

Shi Wudu could smell it from here, the scent curling into his nose to sting. He could feel it too, the hints of moisture clinging to worn stone. From the slow shifting at his side, He Xuan felt it too.

 

They were not alone in this city.

 

Head held high as it should be, Shi Wudu walked in and felt the world shake before him. The temple gates pressed open, the chill of sunless bronze leeching into his skin and leaving it covered with a delicate frost. It was not as cold as ghostly skin had been, beneath his fingers.

 

Shi Wudu didn’t think about it more. He sneered the memories away and took elegant steps into the temple, the ripped sleeve of his robe trailing weakly in the air. Like a shark smelling blood, He Xuan followed.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

They spent silent days studying the temple, and it spoke a story Shi Wudu had read before, long weeks ago.

 

It was the tale of a prince driven to desperation. It was the tale of a man made god by skill, and failure by a mortal nature.

 

Bright murals told the tale of destruction, in vivid paint and old walls. There were the marks of a living soul in this city of the dead, and each one was carved into the walls of these temples.

 

Shi Wudu sneered at the stories. That prince had been a fool to risk so much, and weak to fail.

 

But fresh paint told him this story meant more to the threads that bound him, and so was important.

 

The prince was still a fool.

Chapter Text

They spent two long months in the city of the damned, and with each cold step Shi Wudu hated a little less. He felt quieter, cast into silence with only He Xuan for company. The stale air of a dead city lingered in Shi Wudu’s lungs, clogging his throat into sneering silence and making his words lose their bite.

 

He hated that too.

 

Together with a chilly quiet, they picked apart the lonely buildings and fine temples apart for clues. Fresh paint led them forward to the hints of life left behind. Here, gambler’s dice, there a silk scarf bright and lush. On one crumbled wall they found a letter, written in a dead language with a shaking hand.

 

He Xuan had reached for it with cold fingers, paper shadowed under the light of golden eyes. Shi Wudu had taken the letter first, met a stare challenging and proud. They stood there, bound together and full of old hate and new anger.

 

Then He Xuan stepped closer, pale skin glimmering before a burning talisman.

 

“You do not decide for me,” the demon had said, with eyes like cracked gold. Shi Wudu had sneered, and shifted the letter to the side, until foreign characters stood stark in the dim light.

 

“As if you can read this,” he said, and it was truth.

 

He Xuan didn’t reply for a long moment, but the demon didn't look away until well past four heartbeats. Then the demon clicked an angry tongue, and turned.

 

The letter was left to Shi Wudu. He could not read the ink stains but he could see the blotches of tears left to dry untouched. Yet the paper was crumpled, as if gripped by uncaring hands. It was a study in contradictions, but Shi Wudu didn’t care to find them. He knew only a cold anger now. 

 

What soul led them on this chase would pay for his displeasure at the end. He would ensure it.

 

Two months cursed to the demon’s company, standing beside a man with glowing eyes and a hunger like no other, was too much. They grew a grudging tolerance of each other, with crusted lava lining the paths they walked and a broad roof trapping them in. Harsh words turned to snapping silences, and clashes and threats turned to a cold armistice.

 

They were not gentle, but they were at peace, and that stung so. Shi Wudu hated it, just as he hated how he no longer tensed when He Xuan walked close. The man stood at his side and loomed ever closer, cold breath brushing his fingers to read a lonely letter.

 

He Xuan had stood so close.

 

Shi Wudu would not stand for it. The threads of fate binding them together could be traced to this terrible corpse of a city, hints lining a thousand walls and murals painting them bright and damning.

 

Here they must stay until the mystery was solved, but Shi Wudu would not live with red threads holding him down. He was master of his future, and ever would be.

 

In crimson and hate, they painted their fate, but he would not let them be bound.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

The still winds of a dead city would not let them wander in peace forever. It was at the end of the second month, with another sunless dawn caught between Shi Wudu’s angry fingers, that He Xuan spoke heavy words. They had settled into the walls of a pointless temple, and here they stood, side by side and hate by hate.

 

They stood too close.

 

“You know of fate,” the demon said into the silence between them. The words echoed across the walls of the great temple, spinning plaster and murals into dust. They echoed so loudly, in a city of the dead and damned.

 

Shi Wudu had not expected them, but he had expected something. It had been two long months, but they had left the topic of fate still and dead between them. They had fought, twice, rocking the warm ground and cracking corpse-statues.

 

They had cut wounds across two bodies, and broken bones together. It had been brutal, and in the echoing silence, they had stared and not spoken.

 

Fate and four urns were not brought up again. Shi Wudu didn’t quite know why, but he didn’t care to find out. That thought was beneath him, as so many others were, as the doubt filling him was. He didn't want them.

 

“What of it?” He snapped out, commanding and regal. He met golden eyes and did not back down. A chill wind crept across his face and down his neck, tracing idle lines over proud skin. It was not as cold as fingers had been.

 

If it cost him his head again, Shi Wudu would never back down from this man.

 

He Xuan stood still as a cavernous ocean, and in his eyes swam bone beasts.

 

“If you can steal my fate, why can’t you unwind ours?”

 

The words were said with the quiet of a grave, and oh did golden eyes burn into his skin. Shi Wudu sneered at them, just as he sneered at the trembling of his chest and the anger in his fingers.

 

Did the man think him a fool?

 

“Are you stupid as well as low class?”

 

He looked down, felt the bitter taste of failure cloud his tongue as smoke. For the long years of his life, Shi Wudu had not failed. No task was too great for him. No mountain stood too tall for him to wash away, and no enemy was too fierce for the water dancing at his fingers. He had risen to godhood by the virtue of his skill and the strength of his resolve.

 

He was the Water Master, and before his might all but Jun Wu trembled.

 

That was, until He Xuan.

 

He looked at the strong shoulders of a ghost and saw the mortal lurking under dead skin. He looked at cold eyes and felt a challenge rise in his blood, hot like magma and the roar of a waterfall.

 

He looked at the man who had bested him and forced him to kneel on filthy stone. Shi Wudu had won then, but it had cost him so much.

 

What would it cost now?

 

Before He Xuan, before this dead city with its shell-corpses and sun that never rose, he had never tasted loss.

 

He hated the flavor.

 

Slowly, torn from his pride, he spoke. The words were cold as ice on his tongue, and he let them sting with all his fury. But two months in this place made their echo quiet and resigned.

 

“I tried as soon as I knew we were bound. The threads were too tight.”

 

And that was truth, but not the whole truth. His power was great as the oceans, skilled at shifting fortune and deft with the touch of fate. But the strings that tied them together were a deep and merciless red, and Shi Wudu knew those couldn’t be cut.

 

How he hated them.

 

“Did you not have enough power?”

 

The words were blunt with something calmer than hate, and Shi Wudu wanted to snarl at them. He wanted to feel spite and lash out, whirlpools gathering at his fingertips.

 

He did not.

 

Instead he bared his teeth into a sneer to hide bitter currents running through his heart. Red, the threads had been such a hideously beautiful red. Shi Wudu watched them dance now, catching in a dead wind and moving with each breath between them.

 

Ghosts didn’t breathe, but gods did. He Xuan could not know.

 

“Your disgusting energy isn’t needed, demon. It can’t be cut.”

 

Cold fingers wrapped around his wrist, quick as a silverfish. Shi Wudu could have fought them off and washed them into nothingness, could have bruised He Xuan’s wrist and body in turn.

 

He sneered and waited instead, regal with impatience. He did not kill a ghost; he didn’t even know if he could without cutting into his own soul.

 

He didn’t even know if he wanted to. Why bother killing He Xuan when the life the man walked was twice the suffering?

 

Shi Wudu’s thoughts turned, as they had so many times over the long days, to Shi Qingxuan. Was his soft brother living and well? The man surely mourned him; Qingxuan was too gentle to not, and loyal to a fault. That had cost them both so much, on the island with swirling black waters.

 

Qingxuan would want He Xuan alive, too. A good thing that Shi Wudu didn’t care for weak opinions. A bad thing, that Shi Wudu still didn’t know if he would kill He Xuan.

 

“Try again,” the demon demanded, energy curling from his fingers and pressing at Shi Wudu’s skin. It felt like a whirlpool was being channeled into his bones, made from the sand lingering at the depths of the ocean.

 

Power flowed into him and Shi Wudu could only grit his teeth to keep from gasping. There was a tide swirling in his blood, and it felt cold as black water.

 

It felt like He Xuan, and that was all the more unsettling.

 

“I have tried,” Shi Wudu snapped, and did not shift beneath the rushing spill of water in his bones.  

 

His words weren’t sharp enough, because He Xuan just took a step closer. They stood toe to toe now, anger burning between them like challenge. They were two beasts, leashed together for mutual destruction.

 

But the hate had shifted to the ropes that tied them, and Shi Wudu could only feel slighted pride at that. Two beasts would fight beside each other, for all the snarling hate between them.

 

The skin of a ghost was not as chill as he had thought, it seemed.

 

“Again,” He Xuan said, and more power flooded into Shi Wudu’s wrist to boil through him. The demon had devoured ten thousand souls and more, and here and now that energy was given freely.

 

If only Shi Wudu could kill He Xuan, this would be the perfect moment. If only he still wanted to.

 

If only.

 

“I cannot, demon.” Each word was pulled from his pride and the broken shards of his failure, and each one stung all the more. What would his brother think, he wondered, if Qingxuan saw how little control Shi Wudu had in this moment?

 

He hated that thought as he hated the red threads that danced across his vision, sparkling in the light of his talisman.

 

He Xuan could not see them. He Xuan did not have the skill at fate and the eyes of a god. He Xuan did not know they were red.

 

It was such a pathetic thing to be grateful for, but in this city of the dead, it was all Shi Wudu could grasp.

 

There was a long moment of silence, and golden eyes stared through it. They cored into his skin as challenge and cold assessment, but Shi Wudu did not shift before them.

 

He feared no demon.

 

Cold fingers let go, and left more chill in their wake. He Xuan did not step back, the eyes of a hungry beast burning into him. Shi Wudu stood strong and proud, a regal beast in his own right.

 

They did not speak. 

 

A cough interrupted them, loud and dry in the echoing silence of a dead city. As one angry army, they turned, water flowing up black and clear.

 

The man that stood there had a young face and old eyes, hair stretching long and endless over a strong back. Fine robes marked him as a cultivator, and dust and grit marked him as a traveler.

 

There was paint coating calloused hands.

 

“This is a temple,” the man snapped out, voice echoing like teacher to student, like it wasn’t strange that a living heart beat in this city. “Can you not defile it with fighting or fucking?”

 

Shi Wudu had never stepped back faster. He had never moved forward faster either, snapping out a hand to send rushing water forward, a wave of power made brilliant and clear. It was collected from a still river that shouldn’t have obeyed him, and the air droplets that moved to his every wish.

 

The man moved, but with two heavenly trials to his name and water at his call, no force could escape Shi Wudu.

 

He did not look at He Xuan, standing beside him. He did not watch black water slide beside clear to bind the man tighter.

 

“You,” he said, with an icy cold born from months of fury. “Have you done this?”

 

Shock flashed across the man’s face, followed by the pained lines of sympathy. He did not look bothered by the water tied across his wrists, and did not seem to care at the glares of two water lords.

 

The man was staring at the air between them instead, tracing the threads that Shi Wudu didn’t want to see glimmering.

 

“He tied you with fate,” the man said, quiet as a whisper and loud with shock. It rang through the skeleton of a dead city like the bells of fate.

 

Shi Wudu hated it.  

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

They asked a thousand questions, with sharp demand and sharper threat. To each the man replied, but to each Shi Wudu felt lies.

 

What is the date, He Xuan asked, in a voice like cold logic and born from knowledge of the city around them. The man’s answer sent colder shivers down Shi Wudu’s spine.

 

Two hundred years before that moment on an island with black water. Two hundred years before Shi Qingxuan looked scared and bound in iron chains.

 

Two hundred years too early.

 

Who did this, Shi Wudu asked, with regal fury boiling in his veins. He had been trapped in a city of the dead with a demon, bound by fate and hate.

 

Fury was too quiet a word for what his raging pride felt.  

 

“I do not know what he is going by in your time,” the man said, standing in the grounds of a temple with fresh paint and old walls. Bright eyes flickered like silverfish, searching for a quick escape, perhaps.

 

Shi Wudu sneered, loud in the silence.

 

“I don’t believe you,” he snapped, and opened his mouth to say more. He would lash the knowledge from this man with a thousand droplets of clear water, and he would glare as he did. No one disobeyed him. 

 

But the sound of black robes rustling stopped him as black water had stopped his heart.

 

“Then who is he now,” He Xuan asked, voice quiet and sharp. The demon shifted, and old eyes shifted with his motions. The man looked wary, at the sight of a hungry ghost.

 

Shi Wudu wanted to rage.

 

“I’m not going to tell you. Learn to figure it out yourself,” came the response at last, dry as dust but made of a resolve Shi Wudu heard deep in his bones. He sneered into the silence, pride making his glare cold as the sting of a winter storm.

 

Shi Wudu wanted to destroy the city around them. He took a deep breath instead, thought of how tightly the threads were wound to his heart and soul.

 

It must have been someone close to him, to lay such a careful trap. It would have taken long years to spin the threads into being, and longer still to make them strong.

 

It had to be someone in the heavens, with skill and power to rival his own.

 

“You know that the threads are—” The man’s voice was light and curious, shredding heavy thoughts into tatters.

 

“Enough,” Shi Wudu snapped, letting his voice raise as sharply as he could. It cut the air like a knife, breaking through the tension lingering in an old temple.

 

The man looked at him for a long moment, gaze heavy with exasperation. Traveler’s robes shifted in a still wind, bound by the trembling of clear water. Black water stayed still and calm.

 

Shi Wudu did not look at He Xuan, keeping his cold stare fixed on the man with the tired eyes.

 

He didn’t care to look at the demon.

 

“The young are always such fools,” the man said at last, voice wry in the silence. “But I’ll let you make your own mistakes.”

 

But Shi Wudu had seen red threads binding the man too, with the skill of one used to manipulating fate.

 

If he was a fool for denying fate, then he wasn’t the only one.

 

“At least I did not spend long years running,” he said, and the words felt wry and darkly amused. It was a guess, but from the tiny flinch it was spot on.

 

The man only laughed a small laugh, too old to sound bitter. “Running is better than fighting, if you ask me.”

 

A good thing then, that Shi Wudu hadn’t asked.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

Mei Nianqing, the man was called, and the name sounded too truthful and hollow as the corpse-statues around them. He walked light and irritated steps, but never failed to turn to Shi Wudu and He Xuan with words and quick wit.

 

He talked with the aching voice of the long-lonely. Shi Wudu scoffed at the sound, felt a surge of disdain rise in him. He felt sympathy too, ruthless and unwanted. How long had Mei Nianqing been alone? How long had the man spoken sharp words to empty streets?

 

How long would it have taken Shi Wudu to feel the same loneliness, if he hadn’t been stuck with the damned demon?

 

That thought was washed away with a wave of anger, gilded foam crashing across his skin and mind. He would not bear such weakness, not when he had threads to cut and fate to bend.

 

Not when Qingxuan stood unprotected.  Mei Nianqing was weak to feel loneliness, and Shi Wudu was not weak enough to fall prey to the same fate.

 

Once, calloused fingers had pulled out cards like a street performer flourishing out a final act. The deck was a worn thing, stained by mud and streaks of flaking paint. It was well-loved too, with finger prints marked across every face.

 

Shi Wudu had never owned something so frivolous as a deck of cards. No, that was Pei Ming’s vice, and the man knew better than to bring anything but cards lined with gold and held in carved jade. Ling Wen and he would accept nothing less than the best, and Pei Ming had ever understood that.

 

They had played a few times, over the centuries. Three Tumors working a cancerous game, with Ling Wen winning every hand.

 

Shi Wudu did not miss that.

 

But he did play, with Mei Nianqing. 

 

Mei Nianqing knew more, of this Shi Wudu was certain; long pain painted the man’s lips, even as it fastened them closed.

 

But he would not talk.

 

They did not use force, though Shi Wudu’s fingers twitched for it. In a week perhaps, when all exploration was exhausted. Then he would twist the blood in the man’s veins for answers. In a week, if the card games died down and the lonely voice didn’t echo through broken temples, they would ask with crueler tools.

 

Long months passed, held on the corners of old buildings and dead statues.

 

Shi Wudu returned to the still water of a dead river. There were no currents now, and no rats to make the water boil.

 

It was but water, and he stood before it as the Water Master. It still did not wish to obey him, for black currents dwelled beneath the surface, as Black Water stood behind him.

 

He Xuan walked the slow steps of a shark to meet him, standing at his side with only a single cold glance. They stood and stared into the water. Threads of hate bound them as easily as threads of fate, red and glimmering.

 

Shi Wudu felt no disgust, for the first time in a long time. He did not know what to think at that, his pride washing through his blood like fury.

 

He did not want to flinch away. He did not want to sneer. He did not care to move. They had a lead to follow, but they were still bound to this city of bones made dust.

 

He hated this ease, and wanted none of it. It felt like his pride had been stripped away and replaced by a pathetic swell of water and lingering emotion. This man had threatened his brother. This man had killed him. Shi Wudu didn’t want to kill him in return, and that stung so.

 

He spoke without thought, but it was filled with the still water before him.

 

It was filled something that wasn't hate.

 

“I saw four urns,” Shi Wudu began, and it sounded like the first notes of a death knell. He kept speaking, cold as the frost of winter.

 

“Who died, for your poor fate?”

 

Chapter Text

The hand through his chest was quick and painful, long nails scraping over his ribs. It stung, left him breathless and broken into pieces of surprise.

 

Shi Wudu hadn’t thought He Xuan would strike him, not with fate binding them together. He hadn’t thought the man would hit him at all, not after long months spent walking a dead city in peace.

 

But cold fingers moved in his body and he could only spit out dark blood. He watched red boil out of pale lips too, and met eyes angry with hurt. He Xuan bled with him, in the sunless city. 

 

Pathetic, that the man was driven to this. Understandable too, something deep in his chest whispered through waves and currents.

 

An ocean of fate swept between them, with dead seabeds and cold waters. It was impossible to know what swam between them, though they were both beasts of water and fine corral.

 

He Xuan’s eyes were bright with fury, but a cold hand flexed in Shi Wudu’s chest. He was not afraid and did not die. He had taken worse wounds at this man’s fingers, lost hands and head to hate.

 

Now he felt a fury like nothing he had ever known, shaking across his bones and making him snarl.

 

How dare He Xuan cut into his skin? How dare the man strike him after these long months?

 

Shi Wudu was going to rage into the sunset of a dead city, where no light shone but what he had made for them.

 

How dare He Xuan betray him?

 

Shi Wudu shifted, and the threads around him tightened and coiled closer. They were water snakes binding his heart and lungs into a vice, and they fed into the wound holding him bloody.

 

They coiled around He Xuan too, crimson come to hold a pale hand still in his ribs. It was stained with blood, dripping between them and marking the ground red.

 

The man had still not spoken.

 

Shi Wudu coughed with the same blood and sneered, bright in the silence.

 

“Can you not handle a simple question, demon?” His words were loud and broken by gasping breaths. He did not care, a coiling anger raging in his blood.

 

There was a simmering fury in He Xuan’s eyes, but it did not wash away the silverfish swimming underneath.

 

The man opened his mouth to speak, and the threads tightened into agony.

 

Fate had made a choice. 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

When threads snapped back around them, Shi Wudu was standing above the waves of a vast ocean. Water rolled beneath him, catching at his ankles as beasts come to devour him.

 

He was not alone, but he felt cold.

 

The first attack came with bone teeth and endless currents, black water rising to meet its master. Shi Wudu only sneered and called the air around him, let sea foam coat his robes. There was no wound on his chest, but he could feel the phantom press of fingers scraping his ribs.

 

He Xuan stood before him and the oceans raged.

 

There were threads between them, red and glimmering in sunlight. The sky was bright above them, unfamiliar as a new dawn after so long in that city. There were threads around them too, twining through skin and into his very soul.

 

Fate bound him, and Shi Wudu had changed for it.

 

He had felt betrayal, at He Xuan’s fury. He had felt calm, standing by the demon’s side. He had not felt lonely, in the long months in a dead city.

 

Did that mean there was trust, curling across his skin? Shi Wudu would not stand for that, if it cost him everything.

 

Pride bubbled over his sneer, and words boiled through his throat, driven up by wounds he once bore and the currents in He Xuan’s eyes.

 

This was too much.

 

“I am the master of my fate, and I do not accept this!”

 

There was a storm brewing below him but all he could do was scream. He felt so raw, with three deaths beneath his skin and no brother to protect.

 

But He Xuan only snarled, loud as the waves crashing below them. Flecks of black water swept over ghostly skin and painted it with fury, but Shi Wudu would not look away.

 

He had never backed down, and never would.

 

“You took my fate from me,” said the demon, eyes icy as a corpse. The glimmered golden and terrible, in the light of a bright sun.

 

“You were the master of my fate, but I did not choose you.”

 

It was like the sun had set on his skin, and the world held its breath under crushing oceans. Suddenly, with a cold wash of hatred and pity, Shi Wudu understood. There was a river flowing down his spine, and it painted him with an oil-spill of realization.

 

He had summoned this on himself. He had made his own death. He would do it again, without pause. He would choose Shi Qingxuan over any pain, with a sneer and a protector’s pride. A gentle laugh and kind smile was worth so much more than any mortal life.

 

Qingxuan was worth so much more.

 

But he had made He Xuan a demon. He had done to another what he refused for himself. Sea spray caught his face and soaked him in a feeling he had never spared room for before.

 

Regret was a new taste, and so very bitter. So was sympathy, and Shi Wudu wanted none of it. He stood above the currents of two oceans, with rivers whirling at his command and raging against the inky stain of corpse water.

 

He stood and stared into eyes that were cold and pained with silence. He Xuan was near snarling but water had slicked long hair back and down, streaming across pale skin. A ghostly jaw was clenched, tight as pulled string.  

 

Gold eyes were painful to meet, but Shi Wudu made himself stare forward with a sneer.

 

He had done this. The waves beneath his feet were all his fault, the storm that raged around them was his doing, though he controlled only half of it.

 

This was his fault.

 

An enemy had bound them together with the strings of fate, but over the oceans roiling beneath them Shi Wudu felt like the true villain for a terrible heartbeat.

 

He would do it again. He would do it all again, for Qingxuan. His brother deserved the world, and nothing in Shi Wudu would ever stop protecting that laughing smile.

 

But this was his fault.

 

He let his storms rage on. He let waves collect on his skin and shatter against He Xuan’s fury.

 

But something in him couldn’t press forward. Shi Wudu was here as he must be, for they were tied together. He had never followed fate before, and never would— the skies themselves would bend knee quicker than Shi Wudu.

 

Breaking the red thread between them was more important than breath and life, in this windswept moment. He let his storms rage, until suddenly he could take it no more. Half an ocean calmed in a heartbeat, his sneer set like stone. Clear waters went quiet and motionless, and Shi Wudu felt no wind whip at his robes.

 

He was proud and noble, but oh did his hands tremble.

 

There was the silence of rage for a heartbeat, before He Xuan let his waters calm too.

 

“What are you doing,” the demon said, voice cold as the sunless city they had lived in for days stretching into months. They had shared hate and fury and cold peace. They had shared card games too, among stone corpses and dead temples.  

 

Shi Wudu looked away, across the long stretch of water and into the distance. There was no land in sight, but he could only feel at home.

 

The currents moved below him like a living thing, shifting and shaking for his attention. He wanted to lay down and have them carry him to a lonely palace. He wanted them to take him back to a time when his brother had a god’s fate and he had two fools he would never count as friends.

 

He didn’t want to be here with this realization.

 

“You are pathetic,” he began, and tasted the lies on his tongue. They were ash and dust, like lava made into a river come to wash him away.

 

He would sneer and rage before he allowed that. Fate was his to choose, but he did not care for his choice now. He did not care for so many things, caught above a black sea.

 

“I have no need to fight someone pathetic.”

 

The words rung out with a careful disdain, as fingers twitched for his fan. There were oceans billowing at his command beneath them, but he kept waters still and quiet. He did not want to speak the truth, and nothing could make him speak when he didn’t wish to.

 

Not even He Xuan.

 

For a moment there was a terrible chill, made of all his anger and the fury spread across deep waters. There was so much floating between them, and no bridge beneath their feet.

 

He had done this.

 

Cold eyes went all the icier, but there was a vein of something deeper swimming in the depths of glittering gold.

 

Shi Wudu hated that he noticed it at all.

 

He Xuan took a long moment to stare, and every heartbeat felt colder than the last. Shi Wudu didn’t care and did not shift, pride lining the length of his spine.

 

He had not become a god to bow before that look.

 

After a long eternity of waiting that was not waiting, black waters surged up gentle as a tame beast.

 

“Come,” the man said, and turned to catch the crests of waves under pale feet. They were bare, strong and calloused by a life hard lived, marked by scars and cold with death. It was such an unimportant thing, but in that moment, it caught his eyes and held his attention.

 

They looked very different to Shi Wudu’s, with the skin of a noble in life and the care of a god ascended. His feet were soft and warm with life. 

 

Shi Wudu took steps forward on clear water and followed those feet.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

Shi Wudu must have gone insane, for he followed the man who killed him willingly. He must have gone insane, because he felt no threat. They stepped over waves and water, until He Xuan’s home greeted them and an island held their heavy feet.

 

Shi Wudu walked in without pausing, water falling as rain from his robes to scatter the sand.

 

What would He Xuan do? They were bound by fate, and each death killed them both. Shi Wudu wouldn’t bow before that, but oh had He Xuan always been broken by his plans. Shi Wudu did not regret that, but he did clench his jaw and look up. He didn’t want his eyes to catch on scarred feet and the marks of a life hard lived.

 

Into a lake and out the other side they walked, and Shi Wudu took slower and slower step. He was not hesitating. 

 

“Are you afraid?” The words were quiet and menacing, dark in a way Shi Wudu had heard too many times. He Xuan did not look back as they walked, anger broken on the back of bone fish.

 

Shi Wudu sneered and spoke a half-truth.

 

“What is there to be afraid of?” He said, and felt all the things pulling at his skin. There was so much that would have driven a weaker god to fear. There was the violence in the air and the man before him, water boiling at He Xuan’s every command. There was truth spoken and heard, knowledge that could never be unheard.

 

There was the glimmering understanding in Shi Wudu’s chest, a painful emotion he wanted to wash away.

 

There was so much to be afraid of, but never had Shi Wudu let the world govern his fear.

 

He was the master of his fate. He was the master of He Xuan’s too.

 

Shi Wudu had made his life his own, and claimed his godhood with bared teeth and icy composure. There was noble blood in his veins and a talent he had earned coursing through his bones as silver marrow.

 

He had taken He Xuan’s fate too, ripped it away without thought for the life he was destroying.

 

Shi Qingxuan was more important than any mortal, he had known. He would make a similar choice today, if given the chance to save his brother.

 

But He Xuan was no mere mortal. 

 

“I was hungry for revenge. For hundreds of years I devoured every ghost I came across.”

 

The man stood vigil in a great hall, and a throne with dried bones sat before them. Slow and filled with a cold spite, Shi Wudu stepped up beside the beast of so many nightmares. Shadows collected across black robes and pale skin, dying He Xuan into a study of contrasts.

 

But He Xuan had eyes that glinted in the sun and bare feet, and Shi Wudu did not see a beast but a man.

 

He hated that.

 

Shi Wudu could only feel a vulnerable rage. They had been through fights and fury so many times, and he had used all the water at his command. But He Xuan had the oceans to match him, and the inky stain of black water spilled into his.

 

Shi Wudu could not untangle himself from this man. Were they doomed to stand by each other for eternity?

 

On the ocean currents and above foam and fury, Shi Wudu had railed against this. Now he stood beside this man and listened.  

 

“Do your worst,” he snapped, feeling the phantom press of a rough fingers on his neck. Cold hands had gripped him tight and terrible, in a watery prison below their feet.

 

Shi Wudu never wanted to feel those hands again, and yet—

 

And yet He Xuan only looked at him with gilded eyes and a stare that echoed like thunder. They had spent long months forced together, but here and now Shi Wudu felt vulnerable.

 

He Xuan pointed at the skeleton sitting a lonely vigil before them, pale hand bright in a quiet mansion.

 

“Those offerings say we are two years before Shi Qingxuan became mortal. Separate the threads that bind us, tyrant, and I will not touch his fate.”

 

My fate, floated in the depths of angry eyes, possessive but echous.

 

Shi Wudu didn’t care. He Xuan’s words brushed against his skin to burn into him, hot as fury and temptation. It was a promise that spread as oil across water, slick and staining.

 

It was a promise that Shi Wudu believed.

 

“And why would I believe you?”

 

He spoke hard words, made them cold as the air around them. They would rip and tear, if he wished it. There was no reason for them to sting now, when truth collected on his fingertips.

 

What trust had been won in long months together, and how had Shi Wudu grown so weak?

 

He Xuan stared at him, and hate bubbled to the surface of that look. But there was a deeper beast floating below it, and its scales glimmered like understanding.

 

They glimmered like weakness too, and Shi Wudu wanted to scoff. His eyes were caught in glimmering gold and he could not look away.

 

Oceans swam around them, but Shi Wudu had never felt closer to drowning.

 

“I will have an eternity to punish you,” the demon said, and that promise sounded haunting as the whispers of a ghost. Threats floated between them on the currents of power and the silence of an island. They brushed his lips and made them tremble into fury.

 

But somehow, He Xuan sounded kind.

 

Shi Wudu sneered to hide the confusion soaking into his skin. Why had He Xuan offered him this? They were bound together and had been for long months in a dead city.

 

Shi Wudu could stop his brother from losing the godhood he had worked so carefully to get. He could save Shi Qingxuan the trauma of a mortal life, and the blood of a brother.

 

His own blood.

 

Nothing in him could slow before that. But fate needed to be untangled before he could save his brother’s, or they would ever be doomed to undo his progress. It would take just one death to make Shi Qingxuan into a human again. Shi Wudu wouldn’t stand for that.

 

“You think I will let you live?” His words were sharp as the blades of his fan, and twice as deadly.

 

They were lies too, and each tasted foul and pathetic on his tongue. He spoke them anyway, forced each from proud lungs.

 

He had stopped fighting He Xuan on the crest of high seas. He had let the demon live and did not regret it.

 

You were the master of my fate, echoed across his skin as doom and curse. No shiver ran over the length of his arms, and there was no trembling understanding burning in his soul.

 

Shi Wudu had done it on a whim, and nothing more.

 

In the light of a dark hall, the demon stood too close. Pale skin glimmered in the light of a god’s bones, He Xuan standing as ghost and guardian.

 

He looked pathetic, and Shi Wudu wanted to lash him with the strength of his fan. The demon stared him down with eyes that had never looked colder, the depths of an ocean grave shining like the sunset.

 

“You stopped fighting,” the demon said at last, quiet and cold. He Xuan said it like it mattered, like Shi Wudu had done this from anything other than whim.

 

Then he said no more.

 

That was the last they spoke hard words for long months. It was not the last they spoke, conversation drifting between them on the currents of pride and hunger. Like a whirlpool calming to still seas, their hate focused on a different target.

 

Black waters mixed with clear, until all they were was grey.

Chapter Text

Golden sand lingered on his feet with each step forward, a beach lining the path to the sea. The air was light with the morning dawn, chill enough to set into his bones and make a lesser man shiver.

 

Shi Wudu ignored it, as he ignored so many things. His feet hit on cold water and he felt it catch on his robes. It was playful as the dead, dancing at his ankles and swirling to pull him in.

 

It was water that released no bones and devoured thousands. It was water that ate every sailor to brave its surface, drowning them in black and endless depths.

 

It was water that could do nothing to Shi Wudu.

 

There was little sun, but he stood on the shore regardless and felt the pitiful warmth catch his skin.

 

It did not matter that it was cold, for here he was strong. Water lapped at his skin and he could only wonder at his own weakness. He had spent a long month with red threads gathered in his hands, feeling through their twists and knots. They felt strange lingering on his fingers, heavy with power and hot with the color of devotion.

 

Progress was slow. Each day he felt over the tight strands and knew them a little better, the weave of fate clear to his eye. But with each day he felt a piece of his sneer fade into a cold sun.

 

He hated that, as he hated the way loathing had turned to understanding.

 

In the blood boiling through proud veins, there was a new feeling lurking. It was nothing he wanted, on this island with black waters and lonely manors. It was nothing he would admit to.

 

Shi Wudu would crush it beneath his heel as he would crush the threads binding them.

 

He took a step forward. The ocean greeted him like an old friend, waters raising to meet his fingers, playful as a tame beast. Black seas swirled and danced over his palm, moving to every commanding thought.

 

He Xuan allowed it to be so, he knew. This was the demon’s domain, and no matter Shi Wudu’s skill no currents would obey him here. But the oceans danced for his pleasure, and that made something beneath his skin tremble.

 

He took another step, water a soothing touch on bare ankles. He took another step, and knew he was not alone.

 

There was a flash of bone white, pale and blinding in the light of the sun. It flicked through dark seas and deep currents, threading forward to the sands of an island that was not lonely.

 

The currents parted for a beast, and the beast moved for Shi Wudu. He stood his ground. His death meant He Xuan’s too, and they both understood that. No tame monster would attack him in these seas, not even the corpse of a dragon.

 

The beast swam ever closer, until bone pressed against his ankles playful and deadly. A long head breached from the water and stared him down, empty eyes glimmering in the weak sun.

 

Shi Wudu stared back, cold as the depths of black oceans. No bone dragon would scare him into indignity, just as no sun could stain his skin. The only dead creature that stood a chance before him was He Xuan, and that demon’s hands were tied.

 

He was a god and he would not flinch.

 

But the beast only shook the length of its tail, playful over black water. It nudged him, with a bone nose. Shi Wudu blinked at that, felt his sneer falter and fade into sea foam. It did it again, until he raised a hand to press it back.

 

Then it purred.

 

Was the beast asking for attention? Shi Wudu let his hand stroke idle fingers down a bone crest, felt the crust of ocean salt crumble under his touch. The beast swiped its tail and sent droplets flying through the air.

 

They caught on Shi Wudu’s skin, cold as the first frost of winter. He sneered at the feeling. Once he would have called a hurricane to scrape the filthy water from his body, washing away the murk of oceans and leaving him unstained.

 

But now, caught in the light of a weak sun, Shi Wudu let it stay.

 

“That touch is gentle, for a tyrant.”

 

The worse were spoken quiet and lethal, echoing from the shore to slide across his skin like the water droplets he had let stay. He let that voice stay too.

 

Would it stain him?

 

He Xuan stepped into the waters and they carried him forward, until three dragons danced at his feet and he stood beside Shi Wudu. Pale hands lifted to pet at one of the great beasts, and the water shivered at its happiness.

 

Shi Wudu sneered in response and looked away. There was not a gentle piece of him, not even for his brother. Why would he have one for He Xuan’s filthy pets?

 

“You say that as if a man cannot be more than a tyrant. Are you so foolish?” He said, and meant I am a god too. Then heavens bowed before him, and the world trembled at his rage.

 

He did not shake for droplets of water.

 

But his hand did not stop scraping across the surface of bone, the motions idle. The beast purred so under his fingers, a chittering clatter of happy death.

 

He supposed the sound was endearing.  

 

“They have not been ridden in months,” the man said, and it sounded like a harsh invitation. It was quiet over the rolling waves, caught on the edges of seafoam and the cracks of the ocean floor.

 

Shi Wudu sunk into those words and let them wash over him. He had his pride, and it made him cold and sharp. A thousand times he had been a force to be reckoned with, and a thousand times he fought victorious battles.

 

Now he stood on smooth sand and wanted to ride a playful beast.

 

“You have neglected them,” he said, judgement icy on his tongue. He stepped forward and the water swirled to hold him on the surface, boiling with the bubbles of a cold tension.

 

He had not commanded it to move. That was stranger than any threads of fate binding them.

 

The bone beast chirped, a harsh clattering of bone and crusted salt. Shi Wudu looked down at it and did not smile. He did not raise his fingers to brush the wet bone either, and did not feel its resonant purrs.

 

The sun hit his skin and was so pitiful.  

 

Quick motions had him straddling the beast’s spine, resting between the spires of sharp bone. The ocean lapped at his ankles and stained his robes wet, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

 

The weak sun was shining overhead, and it burned into him like a brand. For centuries luxury had been his life, every breath taken in a gilded palace and at the end of a thousand rivers that answered his call. All was as it should be, for he owned the paths of waters and the barges of goods.

 

The Water Tyrant was owed his due.

 

Here he did not live in luxury but in quiet. He had not expected to be content with that— and he wasn’t. Nothing in his pride would allow him to accept contentment when victory lay within reach.

 

But he was not unhappy.

 

There was a shift at the edge of his vision, black and stormy with the winds of a hurricane. He Xuan rose up beside him, standing on the back of a bone fish that frolicked and moved quick fins through dark seas. Droplets of water caught on pale skin and made it shimmer in the light of day, brilliant and beautiful.

 

Shi Wudu looked at him and could find no cruel words to say. So he sneered and said nothing, riding a dragon through the waves of an ocean that didn’t answer his command.

 

Night had begun to sink the sun below the horizon when they returned, staining golden sand black and shadowed. Shi Wudu stepped free of the ocean and felt his legs shake, the strain of a long ride making them tremble.

 

Curse this weakness, he thought, as he stepped off smooth bone and stumbled. But a pale hand caught him, fingers pressing hard into the skin of his arm. He froze for a long moment, turning to stare at He Xuan. Golden eyes stared back, glimmering in the light of sunset like precious jewels.

 

They looked as surprised as Shi Wudu felt.

 

“Tyrant,” the demon began, slow and sharp with emotions Shi Wudu refused to name. He did not shift and did not move, and they were caught there, in a moment made gentle on the shore of an ocean.

 

The hand pressing into his robes was strong but not bruising, and Shi Wudu didn’t know what to make of that.

 

“I have a name, demon. It is worth more value than you have ever known.”

 

The words were sharp but not angry, the tone of chill annoyance slipping out without his permission. It was the voice he used to speak to Pei Ming, when the man had done something particularly stupid.

 

It was the voice he used for those who were worthy of his attention.

 

Shi Wudu wanted to rage across a black ocean, cold power searing his fingers for this weakness. The last time he heard his name from He Xuan’s lips had been in a prison soaked in water and madness.

 

He did not want to remember that day, even as he did not run from it. They had spent long months together, and Shi Wudu knew the man would not kill him.

 

He thought He Xuan didn’t want to, and that was the more enraging thought. What revenge could the demon want, that would last an eternity?

 

“As do I.”

 

They fell into silence at that, held on the long months of loud hate between them. Had they never used names in all this time?

 

Had they never truly spoken?

 

Shi Wudu sneered his distaste away, let it swell to cover the unease. He was a god and a fierce one at that. He didn’t need to hear his name to know his talent and worth.

 

He didn’t need He Xuan to speak it.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

The long rides in the ocean became habit, formed in the quiet of two people who were not quite enemies but never friends. He stood on the back of a dragon while it frolicked once, and watch others play through black water, tumbling and falling over each other to catch the skin of old corpses.

 

One caught on the edge of He Xuan’s robe and ripped it, dark fabric cut in two by the cheer of a bone fish. The beast hooked itself into fine silk the more it struggled, until the ends of a delicate sleeve were hopelessly tangled.

 

The demon looked ridiculous, with a robe caught on the writhing of a bone pet. The annoyance on a pale face made He Xuan look less of a threat and more of an aggrieved parent.

 

Shi Wudu laughed a cruel laugh, for the first time in long time. It was mocking and harsh, spread over the waves while ocean spray caught his face. It was too honest.

 

He thought he heard the sharp inhale of breath, echoing across the waves. The silence after that felt heavier than any before it.

 

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

Time had become something he didn’t care to track, in the manor of a demon. Days stretched into months, and the hate between them had turned to a sharp vengeance and mutual anger.

 

Shi Wudu knew He Xuan would never leave him alone. He would have a ghost haunting his steps, with revenge promised and given. He would rage against that, but he did not care.

 

Killing He Xuan was below his pride now. There was no need, not even with the phantom hands across his neck.

 

The itch to possess was scratching at Shi Wudu’s strength, burning through the powers of a god and all his endless skill. He Xuan hungered for revenge, but Shi Wudu hungered for power and the lives of people.

 

Did he hunger for He Xuan? The thought was laughable, pathetic. He was greater than a ghost and had no need for cold hands. He was better than that.

 

But the question lingered, painful and haunting in the silence of black waters.

 

It was again on that sunlit beach, with the morning light beginning to creep across the horizon, that He Xuan asked the most painful question of all.

 

“The threads tying us,” the demon began, and Shi Wudu felt a terrible chill run up his spine. “What color are they?”

 

He swallowed into the silence, jaw clenching tight enough his very bones creaked. If he opened it too quickly would the truth spill out? If he did not sneer would the last pieces of his disdain fade away? They had learned to hate the fate weaver more than each other, and they had moved past hate into a far more dangerous land.

 

Shi Wudu had lived beside this man for a long year. He had laughed and sneered at his side, until the wounds on his soul had healed and he was made strong again. There were bone dragons dancing in the waters before him, and he had helped scrape the salt from their spines.

 

How could he hate anymore?

 

“Brown,” he answered at last, watching crimson thread dance in the air at his lies. They shimmered as if painted in blood, but they were so warm. “A truly disgusting brown.”

 

He Xuan looked at him with glittering golden eyes and a face that was too beautiful, in this haunting space. Pale skin caught the sun, and the man looked every bit the untouchable supreme.

 

Shi Wudu hated it.

 

“I thought so.”

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

 

Shi Wudu had always been purpose given body. There was a drive beneath his skin to achieve, to push ever harder and faster. He had power floating beneath his skin, and every breath he took was to make it grow.

 

He would pass a third heavenly trial. He would control every current of water. He would give his brother a happy and comfortable life.

 

With each piece of his soul, he moved faster than he had before.

 

But here and now, he could do nothing.

 

They had hints at the threat that hovered above them, and they knew pieces of who had cast this curse. Mei Nianqing’s words drifted in his mind like wood across slow water, the memories of red threads floating into the distance.

 

Running is better, the man had said, holding cards Shi Wudu had seen before. Where had he seen them before?

 

As he stared across the water and watched it tremble, realization broke across his skin like a storm.

 

Someone with the power to bind a god and a supreme. Knowledge of the threads of fate, and the skill to manipulate them. A life long enough that no one knew his past, a life long enough that Shi Wudu had never thought to look for strands of fate. The shifting steps of a man with pained eyes and a deck of cards painted with figures Shi Wudu didn’t recognize.

 

Mei Nianqing’s eyes had been old, and the threads binding him looked worn and torn by centuries.

 

Only one god could match that age.

 

“It is Jun Wu,” Shi Wudu said, the slots of hints sliding into place. It had to be; no one else had the strength and opportunity, and fewer still the inclination.

 

Shi Wudu had made no secret of his craving for power. He would rise to the top, and Jun Wu had always stood at the summit of heaven. The path to greatness was laid with the bones of Shi Wudu’s enemies and fate’s fickle nature, and ever had he crushed that beneath his heel.

 

Two heavenly trials marked him as a god to be feared; a third would have made him one to sneer at a gilded throne. He would have been a threat, if he walked away from black waters victorious. Threats were to be removed, quickly and mercilessly.

 

Had he been Jun Wu, he would surely have done the same.

 

“You are sure.”

 

It was no question but truth, spoke in a cold voice. He Xuan walked to stand beside him, a sentinel at his side and a demon too close to his skin.

 

Shi Wudu sneered into the silence of an empty manor. Long halls greeted his every breath, holding the force of his disdain in thin woodwork. This place was not a home; nothing meant that to him.

 

Shi Wudu held his own heart, in the cold guard of his power. He was no fool for sentiment, and had no need for the comfort of familiar rooms.

 

But he had been here for long months, and these halls had held the weight of his steps. Water had stirred to his call in these walls, a privilege he knew He Xuan allowed. Shi Wudu hated that, but he hated the tight anger crawling up his neck more.

 

He felt too hot. 

 

“Do you take me for a fool? Of course, I’m sure.”

 

Each word cost him more than the last, but he spat them out regardless. They needed to be said, and never had Shi Wudu shied away from speaking painful truths.

 

“Then we know our enemy,” He Xuan said, like it was simple.  

 

Our enemy, the demon said, as if they were allies. Our enemy, the demon said, and Shi Wudu felt like he would boil free of his skin.

 

There was a feeling cutting into his chest and coring him open, and he hated every piece of it. He sneered into the silence and turned to face He Xuan.

 

The manor turned with him, and he trembled in the quiet of a place he had grown too comfortable in.

 

It was time to kill a king of gods.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

They found Jun Wu on a gilded throne.

 

They found him and walked angry steps into a hall, each quicker and filled with ever more loathing.

 

A blink had made He Xuan into Ming Yi, and a swirl of a strong fan had given Shi Wudu his godly apperance back.

 

It occurred to him as they leapt for the heavens that he could have left the island at any moment. There was no need for him to stay, surrounded by black water and the long dead. The deal between demon and god could have been done just as well in separate palaces.

 

But after a long year in He Xuan’s company, it hadn’t occurred to him to leave.

 

Shi Wudu hated that.

 

They found Jun Wu on a gilded throne and did not hesitate, water racing forward as a tide to consume the martial god. Shi Wudu called on all the power clinging to his skin, collected it from the clouds of the sky and the rain lingering in the air.

 

He Xuan stood beside him and called on the blood and bile of the world, the dark waters that lingered beneath shadows.

 

They found Jun Wu on a gilded throne and attacked, but it was not enough. They were not enough, even with all their skill.

 

Jun Wu struck forward and Shi Wudu watched He Xuan fall.

 

He had never screamed with more rage.

Chapter Text

He blinked angry eyes to a battlefield that tasted old and stale with blood. The clash of armies echoed across his skin, loud as the endless tide of oceans. A thousand hearts beat hot blood through the air, and he could feel every drop. It was horrific, low-class and gruesome as wars ever were.

 

Shi Wudu hated it, from the shaking touch of his fingers to the ground that rocked with thundering footsteps. The earth was soaked in corpses and screams, but he couldn’t even think to step away.

 

His hands were shaking, leaves caught in the swirl of a whirlpool. Wind pressed with endless heartbeats on his skin, but he could feel none of it. He stood on a battlefield, a thousand mortal voices echoing through time as thunder, but he was the weakest of all.

 

Shi Wudu’s hands were shaking, but there was a ghost standing beside him. Golden eyes were cold as the frost of winter, but Shi Wudu saw the edges of shock creeping through them.

 

He hated that, as he hated so much. He Xuan stood within reach and Shi Wudu couldn’t stop himself from moving closer, furious as the water he had been molding into weapons. And what a pathetic weapon that had been, to allow Jun Wu to strike at this demon.

 

Under the light of black waters, Shi Wudu had grown so weak. He would never have allowed a strike to fall before, not on—

 

Not on He Xuan. Not on someone who was his, and under his protection. It didn’t matter that the demon did not need it. Fate marked He Xuan as owned, just as He Xuan had marked Shi Wudu.

 

He cared for neither. But Shi Wudu stepped close and sneered, pulling up a curtain of water to hold the battle from them. Arrows rained down but shattered beneath the hurricane of his fury. The mortals outside screamed worries and fears, but Shi Wudu ignored them as the trash they were.

 

More important things lingered on his shaking fingers.

 

It was not worry that had him pressing a hand to He Xuan’s chest. It was not worry that made him rip at silk robes to feel for a wound. It was not relief that washed through him at unbroken skin.

 

He Xuan did not move, letting him rage and sneer and tear. The demon didn’t move as his fingers trembled either, staring at him through eyes that glimmered and swam with deadly beasts.

 

Shi Wudu wanted to lash that look to pieces with his fan. He wanted to wipe the knowledge from He Xuan’s face with the swirl of cold water and dominating power.

 

He wanted to destroy this ghost, for daring to be injured. He curled his fingers against a cold chest instead, felt the seas rage under his palm. There was so much hate between them, but it had gentled into a rage fueled by something else now, and Shi Wudu couldn’t stand that.

 

The skin beneath his hand was unbroken.

 

He Xuan stood still and looked at him with golden eyes that knew too much. The hunger there was not made from rage, and did not sink to the depths of the ocean. Shi Wudu felt like he would float in those eyes today, and that was all the worse.

 

“Weak and pathetic,” he snapped, cold skin smooth beneath his fingers. Muscle flexed and shifted under his palm, the motions of a beast swimming against deep currents.

 

Shi Wudu had fought the pull of currents for all his long life. He had raged against them, with pride and a sneering victory leading him forward.

 

He had never felt such strength as now, standing weak and pathetic himself.

 

He hated it. Sneer worn as gilded armor, he pulled back and golden eyes followed him. They looked hungry and angry, but the bone creatures swimming through them marked a deeper fear.

 

Shi Wudu didn’t care to see it. He didn’t want to be able to read this man, not when his fingers still shook beyond control. His hand was stained to filthy chill by ghostly skin, and he curled a fist over a battlefield. It would wash away as everything would, given enough of his pride. Nothing could mark him if he did not allow it.

 

And he did not allow this.

 

“We failed, Shi Wudu.” The words echoed out as stones breaking the surface of still water, cold and brutal in the quiet of mortal noise.

 

Shi Wudu froze at the name, felt it pull at his mind like the slow sink into tar. He had not thought to hear his name from He Xuan’s lips. He had not thought to be called anything but tyrant, as he had for the last year.

 

He had not thought to feel a pathetic tightness in his chest, not on a lonely battlefield with arrows raining into his waters and leaving him sneering.

 

“And who’s fault is that?” He snapped back, but the words were empty. They had failed, and Shi Wudu had failed too. For all his peerless strength, he hadn’t been enough.

 

They hadn’t been enough. It had been a foolish plan, made from the desperation of an eternity bound together. She Wudu had been a fool, but he had been weak too.

 

He Xuan’s golden eyes were glimmering like they had something to lose, and Shi Wudu wanted to curl into them and demand a thousand things.

 

The chest beneath his hand had been cold, but he could only feel a thousand heartbeats when he had been warm.

 

There was a battle raging around them, and for the first time Shi Wudu cared to look. This was no place he recognized, not in time or in faces. He had lived a long time in the heavens, and watched a thousand devotees pray in a thousand robes. Cultures and countries came and went, but Shi Wudu stood as the Water Master and was given a thousand offerings.

 

He did not recognize these clothes, and that could only mean they had been snapped to the past again.

 

Now they stood on ground wet with blood and the screams of desperation. Now Shi Wudu looked out and saw two armies, with poverty and pain lining half the faces and grim acceptance lining the others.

 

There was a man in white on the battlefield, standing strong and proud. He moved like a ghost, but the men around him screamed like he was death.

 

Shi Wudu saw a noble too, with sword raised and a sad rage driving each movement. He thought the man looked desperate. He wondered at the cause, what brought these two armies together and made ghosts walk mortal paths.

 

Then he turned away, for the fight was unimportant. They needed to leave the battlefield.

 

Quick flips of his fingers had water collecting around them and washing a path away, and quicker ones had him pulling He Xuan through warm water and off the battlefield.

 

A thousand mortal voices yelled, made into panic and pain. Shi Wudu ignored them all, swirling the water faster to catch and tear away arrows.

 

He gripped a cold wrist tight and angry, and it felt so very strong beneath his fingers. A sword to the chest could have made this skin fade to scraps of ghostly dust. It didn’t matter that He Xuan’s bones were hidden away and the ghost could return, dead and furiously hungry. It didn’t matter that their deaths moved them through time, impermanent and unimportant.

 

None of that mattered before a sword through the chest.

 

A forest greeted them in the end, and they stepped into the dappled shade of a thousand trees with an angry silence. He kept walking even as the water behind them faded into the ground. There was no battle here, and the sound of clashing swords echoed into quiet.

 

They were alone.

 

“Shi Wudu,” the demon said again, like his name was to be freely spoken between them now. Caught in the gentle shadows of a forest, Shi Wudu hated that like he hated nothing else. He dropped the wrist with a sharp anger and did not miss cold skin.

 

“Do not let that happen again.”

 

The words rang as command in the silence, ripped from his throat as the dying screams of honesty. He felt raw and angry, with the cold boil of ocean tides floating through him. How dare He Xuan be injured?

 

The sound of footsteps behind him faded to nothingness, and Shi Wudu slowed regal steps to a stop. His jaw was clenched as it shouldn’t have been, but he couldn’t help it.

 

If he turned he’d have to face He Xuan.

 

“I did not die. You know that.” The words were spoken quiet as death, but they echoed with a deep hunger.

 

Still Shi Wudu did not look. It didn’t matter that the words were truth, for he didn’t care to hear them. It had been the sword piercing He Xuan's heart that had sent them back, threads of fate tightening around their souls. It had been Jun Wu’s power twisted and bound around them, made to drive them into pathetic self-destruction.

 

He Xuan’s had not died. That did not make the hurricane swirling beneath his skin any easier to bear.

 

“Keep yourself whole,” was all he said in the end, words crashing against his tongue as poisonous waves. It was a command, made to the man whose fate danced at his fingers.

 

It was made for the red threads between them and nothing else, but the image of a sword through a pale chest was stuck in his head and wouldn’t shake free.

 

Every moment of the last year his fate had been tied to He Xuan, and they had walked and fought side by side. Shi Wudu hated that with all the pride in his peerless skin. Ever had he been master of his fate, and ever would he control the space of his heart.

 

But for a year, that had been out of his grip. He would thrash the very heavens for that slight, call the oceans to consume his enemies— to consume one enemy above all others.

 

Cold eyes flashed past He Xuan, standing a lonely vigil in the depths of a mortal forest. Leaves whispered above them, shifting with the wind and the smallest hints of far off battle. They had walked loud steps here, and the waters had lent them speed.

 

They were alone, but Shi Wudu’s hands trembled. He took a breath, through air that held no water, and lungs that were tight with anger. The sneer on his face was so forced now, but the rage was not, hovering beneath his skin like a demon itself.

 

They were alone, but the forest was moving around them. The rustle of deadly leaves caught his eyes as he did not look at He Xuan. No golden eyes caught on his skin, and he did not feel the phantom touch of a cold wrist under his fingers.

 

Shi Wudu was a proud god, and he did not give in to sentiment. He clicked his tongue, felt his hands tremble. His heart would not shake with that weakness, not if he could fight it.

 

And Shi Wudu had fought a thousand battles, with water and strength of will. This weakness would not win.

 

But another enemy might. The leaves moved again, and they shot towards He Xuan, a hurricane of cut flowers and quick vines. They moved as flowing water and breaking lightning, and they moved fast.

 

Shi Wudu had chosen the man’s fate. He would have done it a thousand times.

 

And he would choose it again now.

 

He moved before he thought, stepping out as shield and weapon. The blow struck his skin in a wash of poison and filth, and through a furious glare he swept out a hand.

 

Water answered his call, rushing to swallow deadly leaves and wash them away. Their screams echoed through the forest, the dying calls of a thousand petals drowned beneath his fury. They writhed and shook, but he only narrowed his eyes and called out more power. Oceans bent to his pride and rivers moved at his call; he was the Water Master, and here and now he wanted this enemy dead.

 

And so the waters made it so.

 

There was a terrible silence for a long moment, riding in his blood and the pounding beat of his heart. Filth collected on his skin and seared into him, a curse he was afraid he knew the name of.

 

There was an oil spill across his face and its name was lust.

 

Silence filled the forest, except for his angry breath. His heart beat a rhythm staccato before the stain of that curse. But he didn’t care, sneering at the broken leaves scattered on the ground before him. They had no match on his strength, and the bodies of demons lay cut into pieces by his water.

 

Shi Wudu felt weak, but he stood strong.

 

“Why.”

 

The word was flat as the edge of a blade, and rough as broken bone. He Xuan stepped forward as he spoke, golden eyes glimmering like a storm writhed beneath their surface.

 

The demon looked as angry as confused, and Shi Wudu didn’t know what to make of that. He leveled a cold look, met angry eyes with the frost of his skin.

 

He stood strong, as corpses fell around him in green leaves. His blood was pounding like a beast had been set loose, but he did not fall. It flickered through him, set his heart trembling, set his skin shaking.

 

Shi Wudu grit his jaw and pushed it away, made powerful by will and the set of his spine. He would not give in.

 

“Why what, demon?”

 

The question was casual, biting and proud. But he felt so raw with a slick sheen covering his skin. He felt vulnerable too, like control was slipping out of the steely grip of his fingers.

 

He hated it.

 

“Why did you step in the way?” The question was cold, but it swam with furious confusion. Shi Wudu sneered, all his pride boiling beneath his skin. It pressed against his ribs too, angry as a caged beast.

 

What were the bars holding him, he wondered? How could he break them to pieces?

 

Did he want to?

 

“Chance, and nothing more.”

 

It was not pride that moved him, but he would not admit that. It was not kindness either, or the soft touch of happiness. He had no reason to admit to anything; that was his truth to know, and his lie to tell. He clenched his jaw and turned away, skin slick with poison.

 

He Xuan’s fate had always been his. No king of gods could change that, no matter the power floating in Jun Wu’s veins. Shi Wudu wouldn’t allow it, just as he would not allow either of them to die.

 

He may hate the red threads that bound them, but they were his now.

 

Water came to the edge of his fingers and roared on his arms, washing away the slick acid of the curse. It was too late to stop it, but he wouldn’t bear the filth touching him for a moment longer.

 

But black water pressed along his jaw before he could boil all the poison away, powerful and quick as a whirlpool. It caught the lingering stain on his skin, carrying it to pale fingers and collecting on He Xuan’s palm.

 

The man stared at it for a long heartbeat, rolling slick poison in black water. Golden eyes were glimmering and dead, but they looked alive now.

 

Shi Wudu met them with all his pride. He did not look away. He would not.

 

Black water washed across his skin again in a last search, and he did not force it away. It was gentler now, careful to scrape off the curse from his robes and pull it from his skin.

 

It felt too good, and Shi Wudu sneered to keep the moan out of his throat.

 

“Land of the Tender. I could have handled this,” He Xuan said, and golden eyes glimmered with hunger as he spoke. They glimmered with something close to understanding too, and Shi Wudu hated that. And the demon was right; this was no blow the monster couldn’t have taken, and nothing beyond the scope of their abilities to bear.

 

Shi Wudu didn’t need to have stepped before the blow, but he had chosen that fate.

 

“It was not for you,” he said, but the words were weak even to his own ears. He felt weak too, a growing lust collecting across his skin.

 

He glared all the stronger still, and ignored the sensations trickling down his spine. The shredded leaves of dead demons littered the ground, but their poison littered his skin.

 

He would go mad with lust. He would feel a thousand tremors rock his body, and each would be hungrier than the last.

 

It would be unpleasant, but Shi Wudu would not lose himself. He took quick breaths through the tightness of his chest, felt the tingling grow across his hands. There was a vice coiling through his bones, wrapping his ribs with the desperate beat of his lungs.

 

Shi Wudu was boiling to pieces in his own skin, but this would not be allowed to kill him. He sneered through the discomfort and that took all his pride.

 

But he did not expect the touch. 

 

He Xuan reached to press a hand against his skin, cold fingers running along the side of his neck. Shi Wudu wanted to lean into it, wanted to breathe in the scent of still water and ice. He wanted to curl into the touch and demand it everywhere, demand He Xuan’s everything. The beat of Shi Wudu’s heart told him it was not only the poison spurring those thought. How he hated that.

 

He wanted cold hands touching him more, but He Xuan let a dead hand drop. Shi Wudu could only sneer and snap quick words in response.

 

“Touch me with that filthy hand again, demon, and I’ll cut it off.”

 

He Xuan looked at him with eyes that could have frozen a storm to snow, but the demon pulled back and took careful steps away, long hair drifting over pale skin like a storm over the ocean.

 

Shi Wudu wanted that touch back. He wanted to rip it to shreds, and walk proud steps over the memory of cold fingers.

 

He wanted so much.

 

“I did not choose this,” He Xuan said, in the icy voice of truth. Shi Wudu was the one who had chosen this, made himself a shield for the demon standing before him.

 

It still hurt to hear.

 

He sneered, and felt clean skin prickle. It had been washed by black water, and he did not even feel stained for it.

 

He hated that too.

 

“Will you survive?” The question was spoken was quiet in the space between them, caught on the gentle wind of the forest and made brutal.

 

Shi Wudu met gold eyes and snarled. Yes, he would survive. He was a god. His skin was made of the foam of the seas, and in his marrow ran water not mortal strength.

 

No mere poison could slay him, not when a tide of water had killed the ones responsible. He would be weak with lust for a long night, but that was it. There could be no lingering threat, with He Xuan standing vigil; as much as it pained him to admit, the demon was his equal in strength.

 

No one would disturb him as he sweated out the effects of this poison. It would not cloud his head or leave him lame, and would not hurt him.

 

But it would be unpleasant.

 

“If you cannot kill me, demon, why would such a small threat as this?” He spoke against the gentle touch of the wind and the memory of cold fingers running across his neck. Those hands had curled across his skin before, and they had not been careful.

 

But Shi Wudu did not feel pain.

 

He Xuan shifted, black robes moving with him as the currents of the ocean moved with wind. Shi Wudu was suddenly acutely aware of every breath he took, every motion of the blood in his veins and the lingering water on his skin.

 

He was aware of the want in his heart for this demon.

 

“You think me a threat,” came the reply at last. Golden eyes glimmered with hungry depths, but their light was sharp.

 

Shi Wudu sneered, and it was as angry as he could make it with four deaths between them and the understanding floating in his belly. It was far too soft.

 

“I know you to be a threat.”

 

The truth tasted brutal on his tongue, but he spoke it anyway, unflinching. He had never backed down from speaking hard words, and he never would.

 

Soft eyes and a brother’s smile washed across his mind for a heartbeat, but he pressed them away. Only for Qingxuan would he hold the truth as too cruel. Only for Qingxuan would he lie out of kindness.

 

This demon could handle any truth.

 

So he sneered and spoke, felt cold ground cradle his back. The sky above looked beautiful with stars that Shi Wudu had never cared to stare at before. He didn’t care to start now.

 

When had he fallen to the ground? When had the night came to wash the sun away? When had he lost himself in black water? He had lost a precious heartbeat, and he didn't care for it. 

 

When had He Xuan’s voice grown calming?

 

“I am no threat to you now.”

 

The words echoed strangely between them, far too heavy and far too quick. He Xuan stared as he spoke them, golden eyes whispering a language Shi Wudu couldn’t understand.

 

Shi Wudu wanted to tear off his skin and crush it for trembling, wanted to hear the words a thousand times in the voice of a ghost, wanted his heart to start beating again.

 

He wanted this poison out of his body and his fate to be his own. The promise in those words was too much for his sneer to take, and oh how he faded before it.

 

Shi Wudu felt weak, and he hated that.

 

“You look sick,” the demon said, shifting slow steps forward. A pale hand reached forward as if to lift him, but it hovered in the air instead, caught on the currents of a wind that did not blow.

 

The demon was hesitating, but Shi Wudu didn’t know why.

 

“And you look disgusting,” Shi Wudu snapped back, the lie bitter on his tongue. He Xuan looked so far from disgusting that he could hardly bear it, with the body of a strong man and a face made to be godly. Gold eyes stared into his chest and cored him out, leaving a terrible weakness eating at his heart.

 

There was lust building beneath his skin and he wanted to shake it out and wash it away. He wanted He Xuan to press hard fingers into his skin and fuck it out of him.

 

He hated this want.

 

“You made me like this,” He Xuan reminded, but the words sounded quieter than they ever had before.

 

That hand was still held in the air, and Shi Wudu stared at long fingers and craved their touch. He craved this man too, and had for longer than he cared to admit.

 

That stung worse than the poison creeping over his skin.

 

“Don’t remind me,” he snapped, and felt more strength fade from his arms. He was lying against the ground now, though he did not know when he had fallen. The earth was so cool, pressing through his robes to chill him icy.

 

It was not as cool as those fingers would have been, and he hated how that thought swum to the surface of his mind.

 

He sneered at He Xuan to watch deadly eyes go cold. They did not go cold enough, a hint of terrible hunger lurking beneath a gilded stare.

 

After a long year spent in this man’s company, Shi Wudu knew that expression would be the death of him. But that was nothing new— they had killed each other before, in cities and watery prisons.

 

The threads of fate were his now, and the deaths were his too.

 

A gasp cracked across his lips, spilling free like water flowing from a basin. He would start writhing soon, driven to desperation. This poison would not kill him, but it would break his dignity for a few hours. He could not stand the thought, just as he could not stand seeing He Xuan unaffected and staring down at him.

 

Gold eyes felt so hot.

 

“Are you so hungry for suffering you can’t stand my touch, Shi Wudu?”

 

The words swam with currents he couldn’t understand, but Shi Wudu sneered before them. He was so hungry for so much right now, need pressing through his blood and bones. Shi Wudu felt the glutenous demon between the two of them, caught in the grip of lust and the beginnings of writhing.

 

He could ride this out, and when it was through he would search out the corpses of those demons and grind them to dust beneath his heel.

 

Then he would find all such monsters, and destroy them.

 

“I want your touch, fool.” The words slipped out before he could stop them, caught on the beginning of a moan and made helpless. He grit his teeth to keep the others in, felt the height of his pride brought low.

 

He Xuan looked devourous, and Shi Wudu wanted to be eaten.

 

A hand landed across his neck, settling at the skin there. Shi Wudu shivered beneath it, felt a broad palm curl against his pulse. Cold fingers felt perfect against the heat of his skin, calming the writhing to a tremor.

 

“I will not rape you,” the man said, and golden eyes glittered so brightly as He Xuan spoke. Shi Wudu sneered through the lust, a last defense before his trembling body.

 

It struck him that there had been a time when He Xuan would have gladly inflicted every torture known to ghosts and gods on his skin. There had been a time when Shi Wudu could have expected knives in his skin and a hand ripping his head clean off.

 

Now he felt only good, with that palm pressing against the side of his neck. Now he felt the touch of a man who could have been something other than an enemy. A sword had driven through a ghostly chest, and Shi Wudu had felt his heart rage.

 

It had been a long year standing at this man’s side, and Shi Wudu did not wish this man dead.

 

Why had he let that change?

Chapter Text

Cool earth leeched into his robes and painted him chill, but the poison on his skin made him hot. Shi Wudu bared his teeth against the feeling, ripping through lust and the tiniest hints of fear.

 

He always put himself first in all things, and always would. Rivers bent to his wish and nobles kneeled before him, eager to please the Water Master. The world moved at the twitch of his fingers, as it should. Shi Wudu stood as tyrant and god, and he stood strong.

 

Only for his brother would Shi Wudu shape the world, and for him, Shi Wudu would do anything. Only for him, he thought, as nails lingered on his neck. Shi Wudu was spread on the ground, the earth cool beneath him but a fire boiling in his bones.

 

He did not want He Xuan to kneel. He did not want the man to break, or bend. He did not want his altar to be stained by black water. He wanted more, wanted cold fingers to cover every piece of him and hold him pinned.

 

Let the demon devour him, let the demon feast on his dignity. Shi Wudu would not ask for it. He leaned into that touch for a moment and a heartbeat, long enough to watch gold eyes narrow. Long enough that even a fool ghost would get the words beating a rhythm on his pulse.

 

“I can make my own decisions, demon. You could not rape me if you tried.”

 

It was lies and truth mixed into one haughty sentence, and he tasted the flavor of a dare on his tongue. It was heady, clinging to his mouth as poison and oath.

 

It was not strength but hunger that powered his words, and Shi Wudu sneered that weakness away. This was not the place to feel the feeble thoughts of desperation, not when he didn’t have rage to power him. He felt the hand on his neck shift as he spoke, the weight heavy and far too comforting. He wanted it pressing bruises into him to wash this lust away.

 

He wanted it to hold him still.

 

His hands were trembling. They trembled more as he reached up to grip He Xuan’s wrist. Cold skin felt good beneath his fingers, and he pressed in hard enough to mark it purple and owned.

 

He didn’t press hard enough to break skin, and that was the most damning thing of all.

 

“Pathetic,” he spat out, and felt each the weight of that hand with each shaking motion of his jaw. A long finger rubbed on his pulse, and it jumped beneath the touch.

 

He was weak, when he had ever been strong.

 

“Can you not be decisive here? I have suffered through your company for a long year, demon.”

 

The wind shifted across them, pressing into Shi Wudu’s skin but offering no comfort.

 

“I can handle another night,” he said, and narrowed a proud glare into He Xuan’s stare. Golden eyes glimmered as he spoke, tight with something that had gentled from hatred.

 

But did they understand?

 

“The Water Master is a fool to allow this,” came the verdict, quiet and cold as a knife in the night. It came with a heavier touch too, fingers spreading wide on his neck but not ripping at him.

 

Shi Wudu hated that he did not feel fear. He sneered at the truth, furious and stained by hints of humiliation.

 

This man had killed him, a long year ago when they had stood as deadly enemies. This man was but a demon, made ghost and cold.

 

This man was so hungry, and Shi Wudu wanted to be devoured. He wanted to drive haughty fingers through gold eyes so he did not have to see their stare. He huffed instead, but the sound cut into a moan quick as the changing currents.

 

He Xuan hauled him up like he was a ragdoll, moving trembling limbs with sure fingers and too much care. Shi Wudu wanted them rough, wanted them to remind him of the beast he had invited to devour him. He didn’t want to feel the beat of his heart soothe beneath those hands.

 

There was nothing between them, and Shi Wudu would bite away all the thoughts that denied that. A year did not matter, the grave of hate in his heart was unimportant.

 

Shi Wudu always knew best, and he knew there was nothing.

 

Silk and fine robes fell to the ground at He Xuan’s touch, black water catching on the edge of ghostly hands and moving cloth out of the way. Shi Wudu sneered at the display of power, a last bitter defense before the shaking of his skin.

 

It felt too soft and far too fond.

 

He Xuan kneeled above him then, pressing Shi Wudu down on fine robes and with cold fingers. Broad palms lingered on his hips, chilling the fury of his skin but giving him no relief.  

 

Shi Wudu was bare and shivering, spread out like a feast before a demon.

 

Would He Xuan devour him? Would cold lips press into his body and leave hungry marks? Would Shi Wudu survive this without losing what he knew?

 

Shi Wudu snarled at the thought, but it came out a gasp. He had seen He Xuan devour ten thousand souls in a single bite, before. Rats and the spirits of a damned city had fed the demon until golden eyes shone like the dawning sun.

 

He Xuan was strong. A god of Shi Wudu’s power should be more than a match, but somehow Shi Wudu thought He Xuan could manage to swallow him.

 

He Xuan could eat him whole, but Shi Wudu did not shiver for that. He did not feel fear at that thought, and that was all the more damning.

 

What had he lost? When had he lost it? Why did he arch into He Xuan’s mouth, as the demon leaned down to devour him?

 

Why?

 

Shi Wudu didn’t know, but he could only sneer against the flutter in his chest. There wasn’t an inch of his skin that hadn’t been licked and tormented by He Xuan. The man moved as if obsession clung to cold skin, and only the taste of Shi Wudu’s sweat and moans could wash it away.

 

Lips on his chest, licking and biting nipples until they were sore and sensitive. A tongue on his neck, lapping at the sweat there and tasting for a pulse. Lips on his hip, sucking bruises into delicate skin and making him tremble.

 

And always, golden eyes staring down at him with a swirl of emotion beyond hunger.

 

It was too much.

 

With each breath he could feel He Xuan pressed down on him, a cold weight that Shi Wudu wanted to wash away with a sweep of his fan. He wanted to press into the demon too, arch his back to move closer to a teasing mouth.

 

He wanted to be devoured, and oh how his pride hated that. But his pride could not cling on before the face of poison, and so he moaned and spread his legs before the touch of a cold tongue.

 

With each trembling heartbeat his body betrayed him, searching out He Xuan’s lips as they kissed across his thighs, licking cold lines across his skin and making him shudder. Each moment became a test of his self-control, and with each shaking brush of wind Shi Wudu failed.

 

He Xuan bit down; Shi Wudu moaned and clenched his jaw to catch it. He Xuan used strong hands to pin down his hips; Shi Wudu sneered to hold the whimpers hard and fast.

 

He Xuan sucked at his cock and took it in a cold mouth; Shi Wudu shook to hold his body still. He couldn’t stop the way his hands searched for strong shoulders to cling to, but he could dig hard nails into the silk beneath his fingers.

 

It would have ripped, if Shi Wudu had any strength left in his body. But he was lying bound by the poison soaked into his skin, and there was no power left in the stretch of his arms. He pressed down anyway, the last of his rage and humiliation driving that motion quick and ruthless.

 

He Xuan did not move. Golden eyes shifted to look up at him, endless as the depths of the ocean. Shi Wudu could drown in those eyes, for his power couldn’t help him swim through what hovered between them.

 

He hated that as he hated little else, in a world that hardly deserved his attention. For a breathless moment, there was only the wind brushing over his skin, and the silence between them.  

 

Then He Xuan sunk down to the hilt, taking Shi Wudu in and swallowing around him. He gasped and couldn’t stop it, shuddered and couldn’t go still. There was no power in three realms that could have stopped He Xuan from sucking Shi Wudu to trembling pleasure. He writhed against the ground, snarling up at the demon even as he shook.

 

How dare the man bring him pleasure? How dare the man do it so gently? How dare He Xuan make Shi Wudu want?

 

Nothing in him could forgive that, and so as the curse flooded his veins with need, Shi Wudu came.

 

The demon swallowed it all, eyes glimmering in terrible hunger. He Xuan sucked him clean until he was trembling and shaking, mouth moving careful lines over his body. No trace of white coated those pale lips, and no drop of cum littered Shi Wudu’s skin. It was too much, washing the boundary between pain and pleasure until all he could do was clench his jaw.

 

He would not moan again.

 

There was a nip at the skin of his hip, hard enough to make him jolt and hiss. Shi Wudu looked down to glare his fury, heart beating with the speed of a racing blade. He Xuan only pressed a kiss to his thigh, and the delicate skin trembled before it.

 

That mouth had devoured ten thousand souls in a single bite, a long year ago. It could consume spirits without thought, swirling them into food for He Xuan’s unending hunger.

 

Now it licked at Shi Wudu’s sweat and cum, and he could only shake. But he would not moan.

 

For a moment they held a sharp quiet across the flow of water. He Xuan’s mouth was moving across every plane of Shi Wudu’s body, biting and sucking at delicate skin until it was red and raw.

 

He was hard again soon enough, twitching with every hungry nip. He wanted to rage at that, wanted to sneer it all away.

 

He pressed harder into the shoulders before him instead, feeling cloth shift beneath the grip of his fingers. There was fine silk beneath his back, but he was spread out like a feast for the taking. Air prickled across his bare skin, caressing every vulnerable inch of his body.

 

Shi Wudu had never been vulnerable before, and he did not care for the feeling now. But it was hard to push it away when a demon knelt over him in dark robes. Heavy fabric brushed across his chest as He Xuan bent to bite at his neck, ghosting across a swollen nipple and making him hiss in a breath.

 

He held back the moan, but it took every inch of his will.

 

“I did not think I would need to give you instructions,” he snapped, and felt each word echo out of tight lungs. The curse was making his body tremble and ache for more of that mouth, more of those merciless teeth.

 

It made him want to be devoured, and he sneered before that thought.

 

He Xuan just shifted to suck marks across down his chest, lips cold but leaving hot and abused skin behind. Sharp teeth nipped at his nipple until he writhed, but there was no relief. His skin would be red and raw in the morning, but now he could only feel the lightning shock of a ghost’s touch.  

 

Shi Wudu sneered that thought away, and paid for his anger with a moan.

 

He Xuan seemed to know just when to suck to catch him off guard. He would be gasping to the man’s pleasure if this kept up, singing a song just for a demon. Shi Wudu clenched his jaw against that, resisting the urge to spread his legs wide and tempting.

 

Why couldn’t He Xuan just force his legs apart and fuck in? How dare the demon tease and taunt?

 

As soon as he could speak without moans, Shi Wudu was going to break a whirlpool on He Xuan’s skin. 

 

“Words are powerful.” He Xuan said into the bruised skin of his chest, each breath brushing over his body to make him shake. The man did not move or shift, hands pressing him down into the robes beneath him.

 

There was a heartbeat of nothingness, as Shi Wudu grit his teeth against need. The demon was going to wait until Shi Wudu demanded more; there was no crueler torture.

 

“Fuck me,” Shi Wudu said at last, and each word cost him more than the last. He snarled as he spoke, making every breath a weapon and every gasp a knife in the dark. If he had to admit this, he would make it vicious.

 

If he had to want this, he would make it violent.

 

“If you dare,” he finished, shivering and bare on his own robes. His body was stained and sticky with the marks of He Xuan’s teeth and a thousand hungry kisses. He felt like every part of his skin had been licked and teased by a chill mouth.

 

He wanted more. He wanted to be spread open around a demon’s cock and feel it marking him from the inside. He wanted to be filled with He Xuan, and feel strong arms hold him close.

 

A year had washed by in He Xuan’s company, and Shi Wudu didn't want to break the ghost to pieces.

 

What did that mean?

 

For a long moment, He Xuan simply stared down at him. Cold hands were pressed against his hips, fixing him to the ground like anchors weighing down a ship. He would drown, under their weight. Could he bear that without snarling?

 

Did he even want to?

 

“You want this,” the demon said, words low with damning truth. They echoed across his skin and made him shiver, made him shake. They made him sneer too, all his pride swimming to the surface of a body heavy with lust.

 

His fingers tightened on He Xuan’s shoulders, and he did not let go.

 

“Who would want this?”

 

The words were snappy in the silence, but they tasted so bitter on his tongue. There was a trembling need he didn’t want to admit to curling up his spine, and Shi Wudu craved a cock to fill him.

 

But he only wanted He Xuan.

 

The demon did not move. Golden eyes did not shift from his face, and suddenly Shi Wudu wondered how flushed he had grown. Was there a blush spreading down his cheeks? Had his body betrayed him so?

 

Did Shi Wudu look like a pretty thing to be taken and used? He hated that thought with every scrap of pride and hard-earned muscles.

 

He was a god, and should be treated as such. The ground should shake with worship, and the waters should wash golden with tributes.

 

He should not be an offering to He Xuan. But here he lay, a hunger of his own boiling through his veins. He wanted He Xuan to lift him off the ground, manhandle him onto his hands and knees. He wanted to feel a cold chest press against his back, while He Xuan fucked into him.

 

He sneered against the twitch of his cock, growling the flush into nothingness. This poison was making him so weak.

 

It was only the poison.

 

“Shi Wudu,” the demon said, hands cold as iron branding his hips. He shivered at the name, brought low and desperate. He loathed that, as he loathed nothing else. He tightened his fingers still, and did not feel comfort at the body above him.

 

“You deserve to be fucked filthy. You deserve to be stained for my pleasure. You deserve to be used.”

 

With each word He Xuan bit at red skin, leaving gentle bruises in his wake. With each word Shi Wudu shook, the trembling across his body beyond his control.

 

“I won’t give you that unless you call my name.”

 

There was hunger swimming beneath He Xuan’s voice, a bound beast that Shi Wudu had heard unleashed. He had felt that beast’s hands on his neck, across his skin, holding his hips like they were precious.

 

He had felt them cruel and ruthless, and been cruel and ruthless in return. Now they teased and pressed careful bruises until it was all he could do to not whimper.

 

He loathed it with all the pride swimming beneath his fine skin. Control had ever been his, and there was nothing beyond his reach. But now he could not keep his need to himself. He Xuan tugged at his nipple and pulled free a whimper. Shi Wudu tried to catch it between his teeth but there was no hope.

 

He moaned long and needy, bare beneath the stars. The ground held him as a throne but He Xuan’s hands cradled his hips like he was owned. He didn’t even care, as long as He Xuan did not let go.

 

“Demon,” he began, and felt a cold mouth suck fresh bruises across his neck. He moaned at that too, helpless for the first time in his long life.

 

Even kneeling before four urns and snarling he had not felt so helpless.

 

“My name, Shi Wudu. I will hear it with your punishment for long years.”

 

That should not have sounded as gentle as it did. It shouldn’t have sounded like an oath either, not when there was so much hate floating between them.

 

But there wasn’t hate anymore, was there? Their hate had been channeled into loathing for Jun Wu, for the threads of fate that bound them red and pitiful.

 

The emotions that swum between them now were so much worse than hate.

 

Shi Wudu could hardly bear that, for all his fury and pride. Sweat was collecting across his neck, made sweet and sickly by the pollen. The demon leaned in to lick it off with a cold mouth that was too gentle, and Shi Wudu broke.

 

“He Xuan,” he snapped at last, the poison eating at his thoughts. It did not corrode them enough that he did not know what this meant.

 

All he could wish for was pleasure, and all he could do was submit. It was only the poison, he whispered through moans and gasps and whimpers. It was only the poison, he snarled, as He Xuan’s eyes went glimmering and devourous.

 

It was only the poison that made his chest lurch as the demon lifted him up.

 

Fingers slid into his ass slick with black water. They worked him open ruthlessly, until he was writhing in He Xuan’s lap and trying not to moan. He had never fought a losing battle before, for he had always won. When the Water Master raised his fan, everyone bowed or died. There were no exceptions to his strength.

 

But now he was opened up like an offering for a demon, and he lost with every gasp. After long and shameful moments, cold arms wound around his back and pulled him close. Every inch of his skin was pressed to He Xuan, from sore and abused nipples to leaking cock.

 

He felt sheltered and bound, pressed against a strong chest. He felt fury, made from the pride in his bones and turned to rage.

 

He felt a cock against his ass too, thick and leaking against him. With each hitching breath it shifted more, until his skin was wet and sticky with He Xuan’s pleasure. Oceans of power could not have washed away that feeling, not when it sunk into his body and devoured his control.

 

Shi Wudu was filthy as an animal, submitting to this beast of a ghost.

 

“Are you just going to sit there?” His words were a sharp demand, said through the beginnings of a sneer. They were a pathetic cover for the desperation clogging his throat, water to a drowning man.

 

He Xuan stared at him, golden eyes glimmering and hungry. There was a threat lurking in those eyes and it spoke in the gentle touch of hands on Shi Wudu’s waist. It spoke in fingers that only pressed gentle marks into his skin, though there was still anger and death between them.

 

Shi Wudu wanted to rage, body trembling like wood cast out on the ocean. After sucking bruises across his skin and leaving him squirming, how dare the man be gentle?

 

“I will do what I want,” the man responded, and leaned in to nip along the edge of his jaw. Sharp teeth and a chill mouth felt like the touch of ice and water, welcome and hated.

 

The motion put too much pressure on his chest, and Shi Wudu hissed out a breathy moan. How much had He Xuan bitten at him, to leave him so sensitive? Why did he crave more?

 

It was the poison, he chanted through grit teeth. It was the poison that made him moan as He Xuan fucked lazy and terrible between the cheeks of his ass. It was the poison that made him want more.

 

But it was He Xuan that scraped a hand down his back and held his hole open. He twitched, desperate to shift away from the stain on his honor. But he was bound by a strong arm around his waist and the cock sliding slick and terrible across him.

 

He was bound by his own lust, and so a demon spread him open and fucked into him. Shi Wudu shook, as he was filled. He trembled, as He Xuan twitched inside him. It felt like the oceans had come to wash his mind away and spread him wide.

 

He hated it.

 

When had he reached forward to press a trembling hand to He Xuan’s chest? Why had he not dug his nails in sharp and angry?

 

He would fix that, he would move, he would rage.

 

But He Xuan just gripped his wrist in a cold hand, pinning it to a ghostly chest and snapping strong hips up. Shi Wudu hissed, angry at the manhandling. He could feel a hint of skin, through the robes he had ripped earlier. He could feel a whole body, that bore no sword marks.

 

That did not make him tremble. There was no lust pounding through his blood, and his cock did not twitch and leak on pale skin. It did not, but he took a shuddering breath through the tight press of his ribs. He felt weak and out of control, with his hand pressed into cold skin. He shook, speared on a cock and owned by a demon. He shook from the gentle fingers on his back too, and oh how those fingers pressed just deep enough to bruise and no further.

 

He Xuan was taking him to pieces, and Shi Wudu could only sneer.

 

The man fucked up, angry and unstoppable as the tide. That cock split him open with each thrust, wide and leaking in the depths of his ass. Shi Wudu snarled and spread his legs to sink deeper.

 

It was the poison, he said. It could only be the poison.

 

He Xuan leaned forward to bury cold lips against his neck, teeth greeting his skin like fish feeding on bones in the ocean. Would he be devoured too, beneath He Xuan’s lust and hunger?

 

The cock in his ass seemed to speak that truth. His moans did too, punched out as the demon moved him up and down like a plaything to be fucked. The wind brushed over his skin and made him tremble, but it did not shake him as much as He Xuan’s lips.

 

Shi Wudu hated that.

 

The demon fucked him for long hours, through a second orgasm and then a third. It was only at the last, when his skin was slick with cum and he was too fucked out to resist leaning forward, that He Xuan came.

 

A hot rush filled Shi Wudu, black water washing into him and leave him moaning. He was marked as owned, left sticky and full.

 

He hated how much he loved the feeling, even as the last of the poison faded from his skin. There was no energy left to sneer or snarl, but he pushed away from He Xuan’s chest with angry fingers and the edge of furious nails. He was no fainting maiden to be cradled, and the demon would do well to remember that.

 

But the demon pressed him into the ground with a growl like thunder, slipping out to bite down the length of Shi Wudu’s body. He could feel cum leak slick and lewd from his ass, catching on the robe beneath him.

 

He shivered, before the sensation. It was like He Xuan was marking him as owned, with white droplets as brand and burden.

 

Weak and fucked into shaking limbs, Shi Wudu could not even sneer.

 

He Xuan licked the cum from his skin and cock too, until Shi Wudu was writhing and desperate. It was too much, the pleasure edging into pain. His composure would crack and break soon, and he didn’t have the poison left to curse.

 

In all his life, every victory was his and his alone. Shi Wudu had earned them with the glory of a conqueror and the skillful twist of his fan. Oceans came to his call and whispered at his cold command. All was as it should be. 

 

Now he had been pushed down and conquered, opened up around the cock of a man he couldn’t hate.

 

Shi Wudu loathed the weakness trembling across his skin, but he was pressed to the ground and he did not hate it. He Xuan paused between his legs, cold hands pressing gentle bruises into the skin of his thighs. Golden eyes looked up at him, glinting in the light of a lonely forest.

 

They looked beautiful. 

 

“I am still hungry,” the demon said, and pressed cold lips to Shi Wudu’s ass to lick into him.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

It would have been too much before. Before it would have cost him rage and pride, sneers and revenge. Before, it would have been dangerous.

 

Now it was deadly.

 

Shi Wudu had tried to break the threads tying them tight and desperate. He had flexed his power and threaded his skill between fluttering strands and felt their steel. He had failed.

 

But now he had to succeed. There was weakness pressing into his skin and a cold hand spread over his stomach, and he did not move away. He was being cradled and held like he was precious, with ghostly fingers lingering oh his skin.

 

Shi Wudu had been taken on rough earth and made to moan, and he had enjoyed every terrible moment. It was too much. The hand on his skin burned him so, long fingers loose at his waist. There was a bulk of muscle pressed against his back too, broad and unmovable. He Xuan felt so good, curled around him and laying strong hands over the bruises dotting his skin.  

 

Shi Wudu’s pride was writhing as much as his heart, and he could bear neither. How had he allowed this? How had he thought this would leave him unstained?

 

He Xuan shifted and a hard cock shifted to press against his skin, lukewarm to the ghost’s chill. It felt thick, wide and terrible against his skin.

 

Shi Wudu choked on a moan and wanted to sneer. He had taken that cock, felt it carve him open and fill him. He had moaned at the feeling, on his hands and knees before the rage of a demon.

 

They had killed each other so many times and snarled at each other more. Bones had broken between their fury and skin had bled, but this was the first time Shi Wudu had felt vulnerable.

 

He was shaking, he realized, as if through a distant memory. He grit his teeth against that and forced his body to calm. The hand on his waist tightened for a moment, deadly fingers pressing into his skin and scraping it with the edge of a nail.

 

The touch was so very gentle, made of idle thoughts and the waking moments of the man behind him. The cock against his ass was idle too, a hard line pressing into his skin as a reminder.

 

He Xuan had fucked him last night. Shi Wudu had let him, had moaned with desperation at the feeling, hungry for more. It didn’t matter that the poison coated his skin, slick and terrible as the cum that had dripped from him.

 

He had allowed this to happen. He could have been strong and sneered the touch away, as he could have broken his own hands before moving to take that blow.

 

There was so much he could have done.

 

Weak, he was so weak. Never had he allowed himself to be so pathetic. Every scrap of his life he had earned at the hands of his own skill, and fate had bowed before him time and time again.

 

But he had given in to the threads tying them tight and terrible. He had let his heart grow weak with his resolve, and that cost him so much.

 

He hardly recognized himself, today. Shi Wudu didn’t know if that was the stain on his honor or the bite marks covered his thighs.

 

Neither was forgivable.

 

Powered by the fury and fear that collected over every inch of his bruised skin, he reached for the threads of fate. They felt warm and soft, like the catch of seafoam on his face. They felt strong too, made of the steel of Jun Wu’s power.

 

They felt like they touched three souls, and not two.

 

He had tried to cut them before, with the deft touch of long practice. He had tried to unwind them, careful of their hooks in his soul. He could not be damaged by this damn bond; nothing in his pride would allow that. It had failed, as so much else had failed in the last year. The hand resting possessive and heavy across his stomach was proof of that.

 

So was the weak flutter beneath his skin. He hated both with all the scraps of his dignity.

 

Now Shi Wudu dig the claws of his power into them and ripped.

Chapter Text

It began with the hand on his neck.

 

Looser and looser it gripped, until cold fingers were barely resting on his skin. Shi Wudu felt cradled in the press of a broad hand, in the body he had felt so closely. The hand was cold, as the stone beneath his knees was cold, as the filthy water on his legs was cold.

 

The world was cold as the dread pressing into his knees as rough stone. Shi Wudu wanted to snarl.

 

He looked up, and saw golden eyes that were far too familiar. Watery air gripped his throat tight, but the bruises on his knees welcomed him to a future long past.

 

Shi Wudu knew this moment. He had been here before, bowed in this spot and mocked the demon before him into murder.

 

He had lost, in that moment. He had paid a price that did not pain him, and cut into his heart a thousand times for the chance to save his brother. He had sneered and screamed through the first moments of death.

 

He had won, in that moment. But that was a long year ago, before cold days in a sunless city and colder nights on a quiet island.

 

Shi Wudu had been tied with red thread and ripped it to shreds, since that day.

 

But gentle moments ago he had He Xuan’s arm pressed into his waist and a cock at his ass. He had been cradled in strong arms, even with the remnants of hate floating between them.

 

Had he won now, or lost a new battle entirely?

 

Golden eyes glimmered down at him, and Shi Wudu couldn’t look away. Was this the same man? Was this the demon he had spent a year with?

 

He Xuan had devoured him whole and left so little behind, from the cock that filled him to the mouth that pressed bruising kisses to his throat. Shi Wudu’s pride had suffered for a long year and too many quiet mornings standing before the ocean. It had suffered while riding bone dragons too, as his dignity had suffered with his laughter.

 

He hated the feeling beneath his skin, and wanted none of it. That time had been a curse, as beast had burrowed into his heart and been owned.

 

But Shi Wudu would rip the man before him to shreds if those memories were lost. How dare He Xuan forget? How dare the demon think to forget him?

 

Shi Wudu would snap He Xuan to pieces, for that slight.

 

He would be free, too. Did he want that? The bitter rage in his bones said yes. The flutter of his lungs said no.

 

A flicker of power let him see fate, and only empty air greeted his eyes. There were no threads of tying them together now, no flickering red shimmering between them. Shi Wudu had ripped them away and he still felt the soft touch of power beneath his angry fingers. He felt a phantom hand on his waist too, but he sneered that memory away.

 

The threads would scar on his soul, but Shi Wudu had more worries now.

 

Was this the man that he had grown to know?

 

“Rats,” the demon said, quiet in the echoing space of a watery prison. Rock walls met the word and bounced it back a thousand times, sent it pressing into Shi Wudu’s skin. It did not cut but soothe, and he could only snarl at that.

 

Shi Wudu relaxed into the hand holding his neck with a sneer, and hated the instant relief. This was He Xuan, hisHe Xuan. This was the man he had let into his body and fought a god beside.

 

This is the man who Shi Wudu had trembled for, so long ago.

 

When had the demon become his, he wondered? Ever had Shi Wudu controlled this man’s fate, and now he wanted to own it. But when had that urge become soft?

 

It didn’t matter; the demon remembered.

 

“You devoured them. It was filthy,” he answered back and watched eyes shift and shine with something like relief.

 

He Xuan looked strong, standing in black robes and blacker water.

 

Shi Wudu wanted to kiss him. He hated that thought, but there was too much exhaustion dancing in his veins for him to care. There was the edge of silent fury too, the disquiet lingering in his blood like poison.

 

The threads of fate between them had been snapped, but Shi Wudu had not done it gently. He had not done it with permission.

 

He did not care.

 

The demon hauled him to his feet, hands gentle on his skin. The weakness of captivity made him sway forward, lean into He Xuan’s strength.

 

A warrior’s chest cradled him, just as cool palms rested on his hips to keep him steady. They felt so caring that Shi Wudu wanted to lash out with all his strength.

 

Those hands had broken him to pieces, and he had allowed it. They had driven him to panic too, a shame he did not care for. Shi Wudu was made of victory and skill, and never had he panicked like a blushing virgin before.

 

How dare He Xuan hold him so gently?

 

He stayed there for a heartbeat before his pride made him shift away, a heartbeat before worry boiled through his skin. Shi Wudu took quick steps to Shi Qingxuan, for the first time in a long year.

 

There was confusion and fear dancing across his brother’s face, painting it sickly with a horror Shi Wudu never wanted to see. Shi Qingxuan looked so pale, kneeling and bound by iron and the greedy hands of madmen. His brother looked terrified too, the worry of cold torture and colder betrayal swimming across soft hands.

 

Shi Wudu had never wanted to leave him to a life alone. Shi Wudu had missed him, dearly as a missing limb.

 

But it had been worth it, to win.

 

It was the sickly look of a mortal life, and Shi Wudu had never hated anything more. His death would have hurt Shi Qingxuan deeply, he was sure. He could never forgive He Xuan that, even though he understood it.

 

Shi Qingxuan would always come first, with the brother’s protectiveness painted across fine skin.

 

Qingxuan would always come first.

 

“Ge?” The voice was quiet and broken, skittish as a rabbit. Shi Qingxuan was darting frantic looks at He Xuan, eyes glimmering with emotions beyond betrayal. The looks made Shi Wudu pause, even as cold fingers brushed across his neck.

 

They made him feel the sting of betrayal again.

 

He Xuan and Qingxuan had been friends once, hadn’t they? They had walked the halls of the heavenly capital in laughter and dark silences, and they had walked together for centuries.

 

Shi Wudu had not time for friends, and he was glad for it. There was no soft weakness in his life, and no one tied down his soul.

 

He did not think of the rustle of scrolls and the clank of smug armor. He did not think of a life of luxury and cold remarks.

 

Shi Wudu did not have friends.

 

But the hurt expression on Shi Qingxuan’s face made him want to snarl at He Xuan. How dare the man hurt his brother? How dare He Xuan hurt Qingxuan, when the laughing wind had spoken friend?

 

Shi Wudu wanted to rage and snap, for the slight. He wanted to lash He Xuan with his fan and feel dead skin bruise.

 

He did not want to summon lethal waters, and that was all the more damning.

 

He stepped closer to his brother, watched the confusion grow and shake. Shi Wudu’s hands were bruised, by the demon. But his thighs were not, and no hungry bites lingered his skin.

 

He wanted them back. He wanted to forget they had stained his skin.

 

He wanted so much.

 

“Calm, Qingxuan. Be calm and do not struggle.” 

 

The words sounded rough with strain, torn from a throat that was rough with use. His arms were whole and hale, but bruises lined the length of his body. A long year later, he hardly remembered getting them.

 

He remembered kneeling still, driven down by He Xuan’s rage and hard kicks.

 

He hated it still.

 

“What—”

 

Shi Wudu ignored the question, pressing worried fingers into mortal skin. Shi Qingxuan’s pulse was jumping with fright and the maelstrom of worry, but his brother’s body was beaten and weak.

 

Qingxuan was hurt.

 

Shi Wudu really would lash He Xuan a thousand times for this. He didn’t care that he had begun this, or that he wished he had not chosen He Xuan; anyone who touched Shi Qingxuan would pay.

 

But perhaps for He Xuan, he would settle for an angry battle and fresh blood. Perhaps for He Xuan, Shi Wudu would not kill.

 

Power leapt to his fingertips, dancing across the edge of his nails to spill gold and liquid in the air.

 

It pressed across Shi Qingxuan’s skin to soothe away the bruises; it could not fix all the injuries, and Shi Wudu wanted to rage at that. There was an elemental god’s skill in his hands, and he could summon hurricanes and win wars.

 

He could heal so little.

 

“Open your damn prison, He Xuan.”

 

The name slipped out before he could bite it back, and it echoed strong and terrible in the silence of a watery grave. This place had been Shi Wudu’s death once.

 

It did not deserve to hear that name.

 

The last time he had called that name, He Xuan had been biting him into submission and fucking him. They had been pressed together, and cold skin had felt good as nothing else ever had. Shi Wudu had felt owned and treasured, in that terrible moment.

 

That had been before he felt so vulnerable, before the lust had worn off and left his slighted pride behind.

 

He had not wanted to speak it again, but it was too late for that.

 

The shackles snapped free with the harsh ring of iron and metal on stone, loud over the low murmurs of He Xuan’s madmen. A sneer caught on his lips as he lifted his brother, holding Shi Qingxuan up above the low current of water. It lapped at his ankles, black and cold as the depths of the ocean.

 

It felt familiar, and he did not want it gone. He hated that.

 

He Xuan stared at him for a long moment, golden eyes catching shadows and holding emotions he didn’t want to name. Shi Wudu met that look with all his pride and every piece of his strength.

 

He still felt the whisper of those lips on his skin. He did not shift before them.

 

Like the tide pulling back from the shore, the demon turned away. They walked through the mansion in silence, Shi Qingxuan glancing between them with the look of a man lost at sea.

 

Shi Wudu ignored it, as he ignored anything inconvenient. It was more important to heal Shi Qingxuan than to speak to him.

 

His brother could be told later, though what part of the tale was a different issue. Shi Wudu wanted no one to know how easily he had submitted to fate.

 

And to He Xuan.

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

Shi Qingxuan shook with every step to the distance shortening array. Shi Wudu felt it through the fingers that cradled bruised and filthy robes, through the arms that held a body that should be laughing.

 

He felt it, and rage whirled in his bones.

 

“We should not leave the island,” He Xuan said, words quick and effortlessly sharp. They echoed down the hallways as they walked, the demon’s feet tracing Shi Wudu’s every step. He did not look back, and did not bother to change his path.

 

Shi Wudu didn’t want to look at He Xuan and see no red threads.

 

“Qingxuan needs healing,” was his only response. There were hard bruises marking his brother’s body, and the filth of lunatics staining soft skin.

 

He would not leave his brother like this.

 

“He will heal here,” echoed back, made angry and strong by the demon’s hard eyes. They glittered as gilded gems in the shadows of the manor, coring into Shi Wudu’s skin and breaking his sneer.

 

When had Shi Wudu looked back? When had he searched out He Xuan’s stare?

 

When had he grown weak?

 

“I don’t want him healing in this filth.”

 

Shi Wudu looked away. He had not wanted to see golden eyes, as he had not wanted to feel relief that this was his He Xuan. The manor greeted him as an old friend, and he walked through the familiar halls without stopping.

 

His feet slowed with each step.

 

“There are more enemies outside this manor than in it,” He Xuan spoke again, and the words rung with a painful truth.

 

Shi Wudu did not want to admit that they shook his skin.

 

“Ming-xiong—” The words were cut off and gentle, spoken with all helpless plea. Shi Qingxuan trembled as he spoke, leaning against Shi Wudu’s shoulder quiet with strain and loud with the strength of a bright personality. He Xuan went still and silent at that name, dead skin taut with tension.

 

Was He Xuan remembering what friendship lay between them? Was he remembering all the death Shi Wudu had caused?

 

Or was he remembering the long days they had shared with sea foam catching on their skin?

 

Shi Wudu didn’t know, and didn’t care to. He felt like the last year had been washed away by his brother’s voice. He felt like he was at home in the halls of the Nether Manor.

 

Fate would be ripped to pieces beneath his hands again, if it could drive these emotions away.

 

The next plea came louder, when neither of them spoke.

 

“What is going on, please, ge tell me.”

 

It would be better to keep Shi Qingxuan in the dark. Shi Wudu had never hesitated to do so in the past, lies spilling from his lips to keep the smile on a wind-swept face.

 

He would do anything to make Shi Qingxuan happy, and if that meant caging his brother to give him a long and naïve life, so be it.

 

But He Xuan stared at him with glimmering eyes and took a step too close, until the cold of a ghostly body leached into Shi Wudu’s skin. He shifted his brother away, moving the weight to his other shoulder.

 

A pale hand raised, as if to grip his neck. Shi Wudu felt no fear but a shivering pleasure, and that was all the more damning.

 

It did not touch him but to sink down again, and he hated that.

 

“Tell him,” He Xuan said at last. The words sounded cut out of stone and the ocean floor, but they sunk into his skin too easily.

 

He looked at Shi Qingxuan and saw the eyes of a worried man. He saw the eyes of a kind man too, for his brother had always had such a soft heart.

 

There would be no protecting the innocence of their youth now.

 

“Fine,” he said, and the word felt like failure. He Xuan and Shi Qingxuan both relaxed at that, tension fading from the set of their shoulders.

 

Shi Wudu hated that he could read the demon well enough to tell.

 

“But we treat your wounds first,” he said to Shi Qingxuan, voice tight with a command he demanded be listened to.

 

At last he turned to He Xuan, and let his gaze rest long and heavy. The man looked beautiful and terrible as the roaring tides of the ocean. Pale skin reflected in the manor like He Xuan stood before the moon and challenged its shine.

 

Golden eyes stared at him and spoke a thousand tales of earned trust and bitter anger. There was an undercurrent in those eyes that had dragged Shi Wudu deep as the sand and rock. He did not want to swim away from the feeling.

 

“And send one of your pets to fetch Pei Ming.”

Chapter Text

Words echoed like the drop of dead water on stone, and they echoed for long hours into the night.

 

Shi Wudu spoke, and each word dropped from his lips and tasted like poison. But He Xuan did not lick it free, did not step in to eat the poison from his lips or speak part of the tale.

 

It was a story of two men, but Shi Wudu sneered and spoke it alone. He Xuan’s stare burned into his skin, as Qingxuan’s worry broke his bones.

 

Shi Wudu spoke anyway, and did not care. The story felt cold and sordid to tell, even with the last night left silent. With each brutal word Shi Qingxuan’s eyes went wider, until his brother looked white as a sheet at all the betrayal.

 

But soft hands were steady, where they rested on thick sheets. Kind eyes were bright with relief and horror, where they glittered in a mortal face. Shi Wudu had told a tale of tragedy and honest darkness, but his brother did not shatter.

 

Qingxuan was strong, when death did not break him. His brother was naïve but not a coward, bright and carefree but not stupid.

 

Shi Wudu told the tale, and Qingxuan listened. The truth had been spilled in the silence of this room, a year of discovery and struggle laid out like it was a story of old.

 

Like it was something people deserved to hear. Like it was something for people other than a demon and a god. Like it was not private.

 

In the depths of Shi Wudu’s skin, he hated that. 

 

“But the threads of fate are severed now,” he said at last, and it sounded like lies and pain and truth, echoing through the quiet walls of a waterlogged manor.

 

It sounded like the end, and Shi Wudu felt the edges of his soul flutter with fresh wounds. How long would it take to heal, he wondered?

 

Did he want to? Long years and brief days ago, he had thought he owned He Xuan. The thought had not disgusted him, had not sent low class hate curling down his spine. It had made satisfaction curl in his stomach, the snapping jaw of a beast clattering in his veins.

 

But that had been a lie, as so much had in the centuries of his life.

 

He had not owned He Xuan; He Xuan had owned him.

 

Shi Qingxuan picked at the blanket laying across mortal legs, restless to the last.

 

“But ge, how did you even break them? Why didn’t you break them earlier? How—”

 

There was a desperate tension dancing in the air as wind over still water. Shi Qingxuan looked up and the words cut off, broken on Shi Wudu’s eyes.

 

Shi Wudu didn’t know what his brother saw, swimming across his face. He didn’t know what painful truth danced over the proud curve of his jaw, or what more than hate dropped from his eyes.

 

He didn’t care too; he knew his own weakness. He would not let it strike again.

 

“Unimportant,” was the response, and it tasted bitter and sharp. Would it cut his own tongue, and leave blood to stain his fine robes filthier? Would He Xuan give him clothes to wear, as the man had once?

 

He Xuan shifted beside him, a great beast moving through the ocean depths, and Shi Wudu did not know.

 

There was a beat of silence, held on the currents of the sea around them, and the clean cloth covering Shi Qingxuan’s body.

 

At last, his brother smiled. It was a shaky thing, trembling as the first breeze of spring.

 

But it held determination and grit Shi Qingxuan rarely needed to show. It held an unbroken spirit, though betrayal had bent the wind and a mortal body made this god weak.

 

Shi Wudu had almost lost his brother, in this place. Now there was understanding in the air between them, and the beginnings of a gentle smile lingered in Qingxuan’s face.

 

Shi Wudu could not help but smile back, and it was quiet with relief. It was not weak, for nothing Shi Wudu did allowed weakness.

 

But it felt fragile, when He Xuan shifted beside him. It turned sharp, at the rough intake of dead breath.

 

If He Xuan wanted to judge his smile, Shi Wudu would lash him with a fan until supreme blood dotted the floor.

 

“You are strong ge but, from what you said, we will need more to defeat Jun Wu. I think I can call in some help?”

 

The words were questioning, but Qingxuan’s eyes darted as he spoke.

 

They still looked strong, through a bruised face and body. Shi Wudu wanted to hold Qingxuan close and whisper sharp tales of old victories, press energy against his brother’s wounds until they were healed.

 

He wanted Qingxuan to be mortal again, but that could not happen until Jun Wu lay dead.

 

“Who?” He asked, words cold in the silence of a water manor. Shi Wudu had lost one battle in his life, and the memory of a bright sword through cold skin still clung to him.

 

His hands had shook, when they felt He Xuan’s chest for wounds. He would not allow it to happen again. Qingxuan smiled again, sheepish and bright as the sun.

 

“You aren’t going to like it ge, but I think they are great!”

 

When the Crimson Rain Seeking Flower and the Scrap Collecting God stepped light feet on the island a few hours later, Shi Wudu knew his brother had been right.

 

He didn’t care for it at all.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

Pei Ming came quickly, at his call. The martial god surrounded him with familiar smug grins, standing close enough he could tell Pei Ming wished to hover. He took steps through the manor of Black Water Sinking Ships, and with each lazy smirk a calloused hand lingered over his sword. The god glared sharp eyes at He Xuan, as Ling Wen spoke sharp words through the communication array.

 

He Xuan had opened contact, brief as a heartbeat. Shi Wudu did not think on what that meant, even as the voices of the tumors surrounded him.

 

They were worried, and he could not hate it. He sneered at it, with the cold disdain they had weaponized.

 

He did not move away from Pei Ming, and the soothing voice of Ling Wen.

 

For them, it had been mere moments without him. For him, it had been a long year. He sneered and snapped cold words at them until they relaxed, until they settled into a quiet and sharp familiarity.

 

But Pei Ming did not leave his side, and he knew the man noticed how He Xuan lingered beside him.

 

He knew Pei Ming saw the changes Shi Wudu had let invade his soul.

 

What did his old friend think of them?

 

Hua Cheng and Xie Lian came fast, at Shi Qingxuan’s call. The scrap god didn’t want to believe in the treachery of the Heavenly Emperor, but that was easy to fix when you were a god of Shi Wudu’s skill.

 

All they had to do was find an old man, lingering in the depths of a dead city. And Shi Wudu had always excelled at tracing down the hidden. He had tasted the threads that bound Mei Nianqing, and could hunt the man down with the speed of a raging river.

 

It took three days, to find the man and spill enough of the truth for Xie Liang to believe. It took another, to plan the trap. It took another, for the haunted look to fade from Qingxuan’s eyes.

 

Shi Wudu did not care to look at He Xuan’s face.

 

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

“You kept fighting, hmm?”

 

Shi Wudu flicked a cold glance to the priest, made from broken shards of ice and the storm raging in his blood. He did not step closer, and he did not let his expression flicker.

 

Somehow, it did not surprise him the man remembered. The knots tying them to future and past had lingered around Mount Tonglu, and lingered around the skin of a cynical man.

 

It did surprise him that the threads lining the man’s soul were shredded and ripped, lingering in the air like the broken pieces of love. They were ugly things, unhealed and scarring. They made Mei Nianqing’s hands shake, as Shi Wudu’s wanted to.

 

He hated them.

 

“You didn’t,” he said, and felt the sound linger on his tongue like poison.

 

Mei Nianqing smiled, and it looked old and weary with too many years lived and too many roads walked. The man was weak, and Shi Wudu sneered with the frost of an ocean.

 

How dare Mei Nianqing make him remember?

 

“What do you take me for, little god? You did this, you know. At least now I can gamble in peace.”

 

The words echoed like truth, but Shi Wudu froze before them. They echoed like death, and the shredded strands Shi Wudu had torn a few nights ago.

 

They sounded like now I don’t have to run anymore.

 

Loss rung so deeply, in the air between them. With every glittering piece of his pride, Shi Wudu did not want his voice to sound the same.

 

What would it take, to speak the truth? What would it take, to heal the holes torn in his soul?

 

Could he admit to love?

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

It was only later, staring out at a black ocean and not thinking of cold fingers, that Shi Wudu heard the words.

 

You did this, Mei Nianqing had said, in the voice of the broken. The scars of threads had lingered in the air between them, and they had been red and frayed.

 

Shi Wudu had ripped another soul, and that could be used.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

The trap was easy to set, with the knowledge fate had given to a supreme and a god.

 

Jun Wu had tied together their lives, expecting them to destroy each other. He had expected their crash to be cataclysmic, and their deaths to be eternal. Instead the threads binding them had been red and bloody, shining over a flickering ocean. Instead they had fucked under the stars of an old night, and held each other close with a soft anger. They had learned and explored together, walked through the fields of volcanic ash and over black water.

 

Instead they had understood each other.

 

Mei Nianqing had spoken the truth in the quiet voice of the damned and old, and they had listened.

 

Xie Lian, the favored child, acted as bait and summons. The scrap collecting god looked betrayed, with eyes that lingered on white cloth and black collars that bound him.

 

Hua Cheng and Pei Ming raised their blades to strike forward, holding back Jun Wu for a heartbeat and a single second.

 

They would have fallen, before that terrible strength. They would have died, cut down by a god who had become a demon.

 

But there was a tremor running down the silver armor of the Heavenly Emperor, and it shook from the core of the man’s steady face. A black blade did not stay steady with strength, and tension threaded through Jun Wu’s jaw.

 

Shi Wudu looked with the power of fate, and understood.

 

It took a sacrifice, to bind together two souls. It took more than mere power, to tie a god and a supreme.

 

It took a gamble, and Jun Wu had paid it in the threads anchoring enemies to his soul and life.

 

No wonder they had walked through the past on ancient stone; they had walked through Jun Wu’s lives, pulled back by the strands of fate that bound them to a third person. They had wandered the moments of another life, Shi Wudu had not realized.

 

He wanted to rage.

 

Instead, Shi Wudu and He Xuan summoned the depths of the ocean to swallow Jun Wu whole and terrible. The roaring tide was hungry for power, and it hungered even more at its masters’ call.

 

Even Jun Wu sunk, in the black waters of the He Xuan’s lair. With the force of the two greatest masters of water ever to walk the realms, he could not swim up.

 

The ocean boiled into calm, as it held the heavenly emperor prisoner.

 

“Does he live?” Xie Lian asked, after black collars had broken off his skin. The god had such sad eyes, though they glimmered with kindness too.

 

Shi Wudu had never seen kindness matched with knowledge before. He was not sure he would ever see it again. He didn’t care too.

 

Despite all Shi Wudu’s annoyance, Xie Lian seemed a truly unique soul. Better the prince leave him alone, and not touch the scarred edges of his soul.

 

“He will live,” Shi Wudu said, and felt the hate in him writhe at that. Jun Wu had twisted his fate like he was a plaything dangled at the end of pretty red tread.

 

Shi Wudu would never forgive the god that, not while he drew breath and power pounded over his skin.

 

But none of them had the strength to kill the heavenly emperor. That first devastating battle had taught him that, long days ago. He still wanted to rip the black sword from Xie Lian’s hand, so that it could not go near He Xuan’s chest.

 

But the emperor’s hands had shook, and Shi Wudu knew why. He knew why He Xuan and he had walked the roads of a past life too, through the maws of Mount Tonglu and the battlefields of eight hundred years ago.

 

He did not care.  

 

“And the fish will not eat him,” he said, feeling a petty justice rise up in his skin. They would not devour Jun Wu, but the bone dragons of the depths did love playing so.

 

The emperor’s hands had shook with torn threads of fate, and Shi Wudu could only feel an angry satisfaction.

 

He did not speak it.

 

Xie Lian smiled, and it seemed soft with old regrets.

 

“Ah, I am,” there was a pause, caught on the edge of kindness and tattered robes. Crimson Rain Seeking Flower seemed to sense the silence and stepped close, standing as sentinel behind the god. Red glimmered in the sun as much as the sand beneath their feet.

 

Even from here Shi Wudu could see the love in the demon’s eye. He did not look away, but he did wonder.

 

What did he look like, when he looked at He Xuan? Surely it was not so weak. Surely he was not so pathetic.

 

But was love truly pathetic, the pieces of him that cared for Shi Qingxuan whispered. Did it truly hurt him so?

 

He had ripped the threads Jun Wu had tied, but a piece of him wanted to create new ones of his own.

 

“I wish it had not come to this,” Xie Lian finished at last, with the determination of a hard-lived life. Strong eyes shone as kindness, but they were made from the price of war and battle.

 

Shi Wudu remembered, in a moment caught on watery thoughts, seeing a prince stand on a battlefield. He remembered watching a man fight a mortal war.

 

Xie Lian looked very much like that prince.

 

Shi Wudu sneered, bright and vicious in the splash of black water. He did not turn from the waves. Jun Wu’s hands had shook, from Shi Wudu’s skill. Mei Nianqing had shook too, with the laughter of the long damned.

 

Had Shi Wudu ripped those threads too?

 

“Pathetic, to mourn an enemy,” he said at last, and turned away from the scrap collecting god.

 

He did not leave the island.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

There was breath in the lungs of the world, after the Heavenly Emperor fell. It came like the rushing tide, sweeping through mountains and into the chirping melodies of birds. It washed human faces from broken skin, and sewed shut the mouth of a volcano two thousand years in the making. It was clean and fresh, and the world craved it.

 

But it washed across Shi Wudu’s skin to leave only silence.

 

He sneered before it, and walked quick steps across the world. He walked quick steps over the span of an island.

 

But he did not leave yet.

 

Qingxuan was still healing, he told himself. His highness the prince of Xian Le was still here, watching the oceans and standing too close to Crimson Rain Seeking Flower. Here were two supremes, two ghosts with the power and knowledge to open the Kiln and forge a mortal into eternal life.

 

Here were people who could help save Qingxuan again, if Shi Wudu allowed it.

 

There was still reason to be here, he told himself, staring out over black water.

 

There was a quiet laugh like the breeze beside him, fragile but endlessly strong. Shi Wudu turned like the world rotated, ready to catch a mortal body.

 

He was ready to protect Qingxuan again, as he always was. He would stand as gilded shield before the maws of any beast, if it protected his brother.

 

Shi Wudu was a tyrant god and he would own the world. But Qingxuan just smiled, bright as the wind catching at long hair.

 

His brother looked happy, taking quick steps over the sands of a dead island.

 

“You know, this isn’t a bad ending! We lived, Ming-”

 

There was a pause, and the softest and most bittersweet smile yet. Shi Wudu wanted to burn the world, for making his brother live to that smile.

 

He stood on a silent beach instead, and stared out at black water.

 

“He Xuan is alive, well, alive for a ghost!” Qingxuan laughed as he spoke, bright and dancing through the breath of a new world.

 

It spread over an island that had once been pathetic and lonely. Now it bustled with the movement of celebrating gods, and now it was stained by Qingxuan’s laughter.

 

It was better, in the bright sun of the future.

 

“We made it, ge,” Qingxuan said at last, quiet in the echoes of happiness. It sounded like hope and prayer, and Shi Wudu did not shake before it.

 

He snorted, sharp and derisive. It felt far too soft, but Shi Wudu could be kind, for Qingxuan.

 

And maybe for another soul too.

 

“As if there was any doubt,” he said, and felt the air shake with his brother’s laughter. Black water shook too, until the seas moved from the beasts that swam in their currents.

 

Bone fish burst from the water, white and coated with a thick crust of salt. Droplets splashed from the crests of dead dragons, but Shi Wudu did not flinch away. Even as sharp jaws chittered towards them, even as the teeth of monsters nipped at his robes, Shi Wudu did not move.

 

He Xuan would not hurt them.

 

“Ge,” Qingxuan said, the words breathed like awe. Bright eyes went wide, alive and strong in the light of a new day. Shi Wudu’s heart clenched, at that strength. He wanted to sneer the world away and protect that happiness forever.

 

He wanted to smile, for his brother.

 

“The fish, can I touch them?” Qingxuan’s words were quiet and breathless, but bruised fingers were already catching droplets of water in the air, reaching out.

 

His brother ahd always been so reckless.

 

“Yes,” Shi Wudu answered, and felt the word linger bitter on his tongue. He watched his brother touch reverent fingers to the edge of bone, watched the dragons preen and purr under a mortal palm. He watched delight bloom to life on Qingxuan’s face, and the warmth bloom on mortal skin.

 

He remembered when he had touched these dragons too, with the rush of black water beneath his feet.

 

He remembered walking with a light chest and a sneer that barely caught his skin. He remembered a firm hand, holding him to bruises.

 

He remembered too much.

 

“Yes, you can,” he said, and reached out to scrape calloused fingers over the crest of bone. It was salty beneath his hand, rough with the marks of a deep ocean.

 

He missed He Xuan.

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━⊰

 

 

Shi Wudu took slow steps into a watery prison, and each one sounded like defeat. Each felt like victory, echoing through the splash of old water and stale death. There was stone beneath his heels, but he did not want to grind it to dust.

 

Shi Wudu walked the path to his once-grave, and did not feel fear.

 

The altar was just as he remembered, as was the iron of rusted chains and the cold of drowning stone. A slick of black water lined every surface, dripping like poison to the floor. But there were no bodies, and there was no blood.

 

It was all as he remembered before the end, down to the four urns glittering in the darkness.

 

Shi Wudu stared with the ice of a proud god, at the altar. The sheen of the urns caught his eye and held it, as the iron did not and the water did not.

 

Shi Wudu watched the urns and did not look away.

 

They looked clean and pure, but he was not here to worship. They looked like old memories, but Shi Wudu didn’t care for nostalgia.

 

He would not bow. He would not speak apologies, when there was nothing he regretted. He would not kneel, for he did not kneel for man or demon.

 

But he would burn incense in the light of black water. He would stand before urns and spend his time speaking quiet thoughts to the ghosts they held.

 

He would not apologize, but he would stand sentinel.

 

The smell of incense threaded through dead air to light the room in flowers and expensive taste, and Shi Wudu breathed it in and tasted its weight.

 

He did not bow.

 

“Your deaths,” he began, staring at the urns before him. They seemed to murmur into the darkness, made from the heartbeats of bone dragons and the currents of a black ocean.

 

They seemed to speak of the love of family, and he could hear it whisper into the air.

 

“They were avoidable.”

 

And that was all he said. He would not apologize for saving Qingxuan, not in this life or any other. For Qingxuan, he would destroy the world and carve its pathetic bones into presents. For Qingxuan, Shi Wudu would die.

 

But he wished he had picked a different mortal, all those years ago.

 

The incense kept him lingering for a moment longer, until all breath was scraped from his lungs and black water stained his ankles.

 

Then Shi Wudu turned away, never to return. Slow steps took him out as quickly as he had come, the smell of fresh prayers clinging to his robes. They were He Xuan’s robes, dark as night and soft with wear.

 

Shi Wudu hadn’t bothered to return to the heavens, not even for fine silks and finer palaces. Qingxuan’s fate was held in the knowledge of two ghosts, he had told himself. He only lingered for Qingxuan, he had told himself.

 

But Shi Wudu knew that to be a lie.

 

He Xuan was waiting, at the entrance to the prison. Golden eyes were cold as the touch of winter ice, but there were other beasts swimming in their depths. Shi Wudu met them unflinching, sneered into their glare.

 

He would never back down.

 

“What you did cannot be forgotten,” the demon said, and the words echoed over his skin like water across rock. He felt each one hit him, spill over the scars lining his soul.

 

He did not care.

 

“And it can’t be forgiven.”

 

Shi Wudu looked away, a cold glare washing onto his face. He felt warm robes shift around him, and pressed at their threads. He had never wanted this demon’s forgiveness for an act he had done to save his brother.

 

But— but maybe he wouldn’t have done it to He Xuan.  Maybe he wished he never had, a feeling close to regret and closer to weakness.

 

Maybe he wished He Xuan did not stare at him like the man could see through his very soul.

 

“Do you think me a fool?” He asked, voice weak. Nothing in him could make it sharp, not now. He would do everything over again to save Shi Qingxuan, but oh how he wished he hadn’t chosen He Xuan.

 

He wished he hadn’t cut this life to pieces.

 

A cold hand gripped his face, fingers firm but gentle. That touch would have surprised him, months ago. He had not thought this pathetic demon could use gentle fingers, just as he had not thought he would welcome them. He had not thought he would crave the touch.

 

But they were the masters of their fate, and they had forged this. They had created a bond, where the red strings had lingered.

 

They had chosen a life together, through fury and revenge.

 

“I know you to be one,” the demon said, and leaned in to kiss Shi Wudu’s words away. Once again, Shi Wudu felt the terrible rush of understanding, and he could not hate it.

 

I cannot forgive, and I cannot forget. But we can still have this.

 

We can move forward, with all that ties us back.

 

It began with a cold hand on his neck, ripping and pulling. It ended with gentle fingers on his face, cradling him close.