The light of a thousand lanterns was brilliant, captivating. Filling the skies with a little bit of heavenly light on earth, and they were all for Xie Lian. The brilliance of the lanterns couldn’t compare though, on that small road seemingly going nowhere, it led him right back into the arms of the light of his life.
Too long, he hadn’t known what he had been missing, what he had been waiting for. He couldn’t imagine the thought of hoping to one day cross paths with Hua Cheng after 800 years, to fathom that kind of longing. The yearning for something warm and sweet on a winter day, he melted in his arms. Never again, he wouldn’t leave his side even if the realms were destroyed and there was nothing but a sea of fire. He would walk through the flames to take his hand. Seemingly, like he knew what was going through his mind, Hua Cheng held him even more tightly, swallowing that burning feeling in their chests of destruction and pain, assuring nothing was going to seperate them. They stood there for a long time, for the first time, unmoving as the lanterns gently floated towards the sky. Xie Lian thought of nothing else but the promise of spring and a precious flower.
In the following weeks Xie Lian had made the decision to live with Hua Cheng in Ghost City. While he adored the little cottage he built near the capital, he was not a very good builder. It fell apart often, and painstakingly he would fix whatever had fallen or broken, until he eventually gave up and Hua Cheng quickly stole him away. He suspected Hua Cheng was purposely breaking things to slowly chip away at Xie Lian’s will, but even if he did Xie Lian was much too fussed to argue with him. Thus they took over Qiandang temple.
They spent the first few days catching up, Xie Lian informing him of all the things he’s done and what’s happened the past year. Hua Cheng didn’t care much for the affairs of others, but he would listen intently, his gaze fixed on Xie Lian as they lounged on a divan. He rambled off any stories that came to mind and interesting tidbits. ’Ah, San Lang, my cooking has improved! Qi Rong doesn't pass out as often!’ Or ‘Feng Xin and Mu Qing fight more often now...I’m not sure why. They get red-faced and brawl violently, at least they’re courteous to take it elsewhere.’
Hua Cheng was listening at first, but slowly his mind drifted elsewhere. He stared at Xie Lian’s lips, the rosiness of his cheeks like a spring plum, His Highness was truly even more radiant having regained his spiritual power. His divine energy came off like wafts, filling Hua Cheng’s spirit like it would when they kissed. He had wanted to just break that accursed shackle himself, but was afraid he would hurt him. His vexations were quickly dashed as Xie Lian turned to look at him, a gentle smile on his face, one he wished desperately to capture in his sculptures but he could never get it as right as the real thing.
“San Lang? Were you paying attention? I said there was someone calling for you at the door.”
Hua Cheng hadn’t realized he had spaced out, something Xie Lian did often and mentally chastised himself. “Sorry, your random periods of daydreaming seemed to have been rubbing off on me Gege. I’ll pay extra attention to you now.” He returned the smile, Xie Lian flipped through being mildly offended by his supposed daydreaming to a blush on his cheeks from the little promise. “No! Ah, I mean, I suppose…” He trailed off, defeated and unsure how to respond without further embarrassing himself, settling himself back on the divan. Hua Cheng chuckled and went to answer the door. He had specifically asked that any matters that didn't need his immediate attention to be handled by someone else, in order to spend more time with his highness. He was luckily in a good mood after having the morning to themselves, or else he wouldn’t be as forgiving for intruding on his personal time.
A nervous looking servant stands outside, refusing to make eye contact with Hua Cheng in fear they’d combust on the spot. They hold out a scroll, their hands lightly trembling but firm, and bows deeply. “I apologize profusely for disturbing you b-but I’ve been asked to deliver this to you. I’m told it’s urgent and requires your attention as soon as possible. Please forgive me!”
His influence on the city hadn’t waned since he left, the day he returned it only seemed as if he had gotten more fearsome. The stories that went around that he had fought and survived a battle with the Heavenly Emperor, even defeating him, spread like wildfire. Not a single ghost could hear his name and not shiver like a chill had passed through them. That was only half of it, His Highness was the one he felt had truly won the battle. Images of his prince flitting around like a white shadow and displaying his beautiful swordsmanship and divine power had never left his mind, captivating his dreams and made him sigh fondly one too many times when he thought of it. Truthfully, his powers weren’t even fully restored quite yet after their battle with Jun Wu and transferring his spiritual energy to his beloved, not that anyone could tell. If they even suspected something Hua Cheng would quickly squash the idea with a flash of his saber, pretending it had somehow slipped from its sheath. ‘Oh, it seems I hadn’t secured it properly. What were we discussing again?’ Not a single word of it he would hear afterwards.
Hua Cheng took the scroll, twisting it around between his long black nails for a moment before slipping it into his robe. “Don’t worry about it, thank you.” His neutral expressions never gave much away but his tone seemed pleasant, which somehow frightened the poor messenger even more and they quickly bowed again before scurrying off. Hua Cheng raised a brow, but returned inside and untied the scroll as he walked, and felt eyes on him as he came in. Xie Lian stared at him, incredulous as if he had heard some sort of secret he wasn't supposed to hear.
"Did you...thank the messenger? Not that San Lang can't be kind, you are extremely kind, but I've never heard you thank someone before except for me." Xie Lian said, speaking with difficulty as he wasn't sure how to word it without implying Hua Cheng wasn't capable of being courteous. Hua Cheng merely reassured him with a smile and sat back down next to him, propping a leg up on his knee. "Because I'm very thankful for you, if I had something that I could repay you with I would gift it to you. I don't have such a thing, so a thank you everyday should suffice. Unless you want two?" His lips curled in amusement as Xie Lian goes red once again, still not ever going to be used to his constant teasing. Hua Cheng thinks it's adorable, well worth the wait.
"I'm in a good mood, being polite isn't difficult...sometimes." He said, Xie Lian raised a brow and Hua Cheng corrected himself again with a sigh. "Alright alright, all of the time. Gege, you torment me so, not everyone can be as wonderful and divine as you are." He laughed, snaking his arms around Xie Lian’s waist. His prince quietly chuffed, disagreeing of the praise but too comfortable to retort. “I like it though, San Lang needs friends other than me to spend time with when I’m not here, what do you do when I’m gone?”
“Wait for you to return."
If it wasn’t for the occasional call of duty as a Supreme Ghost King he might just wait all day if he had to. This did not amuse Xie Lian, a small frown pulling on his lips. “Not funny, I don’t want you to be alone all day for my sake. I’ll feel bad, truly! Please don’t think that way. It’s a challenge but I’m sure others would appreciate your company as much as I do. You have such fun stories you tell me, and you’re charming and kind. I want people to see what I see...I really admire San Lang.” Xie Lian said, his eyes bright with emotion, Hua Cheng thought the warmth of spring couldn’t compare to what he felt filling his chest, overwhelmed with joy and could hardly contain his infectious smile. “Gege thinks so?” Xie Lian nodded, returning the look, tenderly catching his hand and brought it to his lips. His fingers brushed against that flower petal softness, and his breath caught in his throat. Silently, as if he knew Hua Cheng was so enthralled, he gently kissed his knuckles and rested his face against them. Hua Cheng might quite literally burst from happiness, his heart thudding like a butterfly’s wing beats, but kept his composure. Xie Lian opened his warm brown eyes, threading his fingers through Hua Cheng’s and playfully squeezed. “I do. Come here, let me read that scroll of yours you hid so terribly from me. You need to get out more.”
Hua Cheng felt his knees weaken, the subtle command swooning him back into wisps of his youth, reminding him first and foremost Xie Lian was his prince and commander. He obeyed, leaning against Xie Lian’s shoulder and dug around in his robes for the scroll, presenting it with a practiced flourish. “Your Highness.”
Xie Lian took it, laughing softly at his silliness and unraveled the string that kept it secured. Hua Cheng appeared over his shoulder, placing his head to rest as they read it together.
A detailed report of a rogue ghost near the outskirts of Ghost City were written in careful letters. Apparently this ghost had been causing trouble in the city for some time now, but it had only recently been reported that it appeared in a small village and attacked a couple walking near a bridge at night. It struck fiercely, mad and volatile, tossing the couple from the bridge and into the river below where they struck rocks at the bottom and died. Once it had gotten a taste of blood, it went on a rampage and lashed out at any lovers it could find, with its most recent killing being just last night. There have been some attempts to contain this ghost, but its fury was much too strong and escaped every single time. Thus they requested the help of the Ghost City King in subduing this fearsome spirit.
Hua Cheng already predicted Xie Lian would offer to help, being the reason why he hid it. He was correct, as usual. Xie Lian’s eyes lit up and turned towards Hua Cheng, the feverish look on his face was something he’d seen too often. The sense of adventure never strayed far from his mind.
“Sounds like a strong ghost.” “
Sounds like fun.”
Xie Lian had truly become reckless the more time they spent together, not sure if it was his influence or Xie Lian's restored spiritual powers. Hua Cheng thought for a moment, Xie Lian was much stronger now than he was a year ago, not that he wasn't already an excellent fighter. The man could crack boulders on his chest even as a banished mortal. Something like this wasn't an issue if they encountered a rock spirit. “If Gege wants, then we can look at it together.” Hua Cheng gave in without much fuss, rolled the scroll back up, and returned it to his robes. Xie Lian was ecstatic, a bright beaming smile on his face that could have blinded Hua Cheng if he had two eyes, and returned it warmly. All of the information we need is on this scroll. "We should go as soon as possible, Gege. The ghost may move again and it will be more difficult to chase down."
Xie Lian nodded in agreement, well used to missions like these and what they required, but it was the first one they've had together in quite awhile. Xie Lian couldn't help but feel elated, having not yet sorted out his feelings for Hua Cheng after their heartfelt moment in the Thousand Gods Cave, he took every opportunity he could to be closer to Hua Cheng. Too afraid he'd disappear again, his heart twisted at the thought painfully.
The pressure only released when Hua Cheng pulled out a pair of dice, gave it a good shake and tossed them on the floor. A bright portal appeared in front of them, a warm spring breeze blowing gently through the hole. Hua Cheng then bowed playfully and held out a hand for Xie Lian to take, completely unnecessary, but all the more sweet. "Your Highness? Coming along?"
Xie Lian relaxed his worrisome thoughts at that, having nothing to fear when San Lang led the way. He nodded and slipped his hand into Hua Cheng's, feeling a cool and comfortable touch, a reassuring thumb circling his knuckles. They stepped through the portal together, leaving behind Qiandang temple and transported somewhere unknown.
They arrived in a field, grass grew green as far as the mountains did, lazy clouds rolled across the sky like a tired ox after hauling a cart around all day. The breeze was warm, carrying with it the scent of wheat and the wild dance of leaves pulled from trees. The air had a slight crisp and refreshing humidity, noting it had recently rained. A small and peaceful village off in the distance looked occupied with daily tasks. The women aired clothes underneath the warm sun and minded the animals, meanwhile the men dug shallow trenches for water to soak crops in. Children ran about in between flock of sheep and played games in the dirt, dogs chasing after them and promptly scolded by their parents for frightening the animals. Xie Lian smiled, looking right at home in his simple white robes and bamboo hat he adored so much. Hua Cheng stuck out however, his crimson attire like a wild blaze in the brush, he was used to it by now though. A long time ago that would have been the complete opposite, he in his ragged peasant’s clothing and Xie Lian in his wonderful silk robes. Sometimes he missed how regal and beautiful he was back then when he thought his prince held the world in his hands, but Xie Lian was never happier than he was now, the same radiant glow in his face and divine aura. Hua Cheng believed he grew even more refined over the years. The thought would go as quickly as it came.
Despite Xie Lian's humble appearance, he was still recognizable, and borrowed a merchant's clothing to disguise himself. For the past year he's gained quite a number of believers again after the heavenly calamity. His god status fresh and anew in the mortal realm, he's worshipped alongside statues of Hua Cheng, the common people pray to him for endeavors in love, devotion, luck, and poverty. He's grown as a god, back when he was newly ascended he wasn't really sure what he was the god of, he received prayers of all kinds and felt overwhelmed. Now he had a purpose, now people understood who he was. A cultivator surrounded by misfortune and difficult circumstances, down on his luck and collecting scraps to get by, and through it all he finds love through fate. His story roused the hearts of people, no matter how embarrassing Xie Lian thought it was to have outrageous plays and tales written about his feelings for Hua Cheng, he never tried to change it. There was a time he so boldly declared, 'I want to save the common people.' He never kept that promise in his eyes and felt deep shame whenever he was reminded of it, but slowly, he's keeping true to his word. Unlikely lovers secretly prayed to him as they eloped, poor folks offered nothing but their fervent desire and hope for a better day, misfits and outcasts feel a home and comfort in his shrines they could find nowhere else.
Hua Cheng knew no greater joy than his savior receiving the adoration he deserved. Even in the most challenging of times when he's seen him in his triumphs and downfalls, rising and falling like the unreachable sun he's chased after for centuries, he would always be his most devout believer.
Hua Cheng changed his clothes, wearing simple brown robes and soft white slippers. Anything he wore managed to suit him, damn him. Xie Lian approved with a thumbs-up and put his bamboo hat on, fastening it around his chin to shade his face from the sun. The wind breezed through their sleeves as they looked over the village, searching for a good place to start their investigation. “It would be a good idea to ask around the village, see if there’s any talk about the ghost or information about the victims. Why don’t we start over there? There’s plenty of people.” Xie Lian gestured towards a hut in the centre of the village, a smokestack fumed from its roof, surrounded by fences to keep lazy chickens in. Cats batted at people’s feet as they went in and out, quickly distracted by the tall wheat grass swaying under their nose and lost interest. Hua Cheng nodded in approval, taking a sash and tied his crow black hair up. “Looks like a pub. Those places are filled with gossip and people with nothing better to do. Good thinking, Gege.” He finished tying, took Xie Lian’s wrist, and guided him to avoid the mud puddles hidden amongst the grass. He’d rather take a lashing than get him dirty, always so diligent. Xie Lian ‘pffted,’ lightly stepping over the puddles like a frog on lily pads. “You have a gambling den, betting people’s limbs like tokens, what’s the difference?”
“I have taste.” Hua Cheng hums and they turn onto the village road, reminiscing how he held Xie Lian’s hand to teach him how to shake cups under that gauzy red curtain. He couldn’t help himself, the innocent look on his prince’s face thinking there was a technique to shaking dice made his heart soar, a fond smile appeared on his lips just thinking of it.
Xie Lian could tell what exactly cheered him, a petulant pout on his face and his cheeks turned red once more. “I don’t gamble, how was I supposed to know there wasn’t something as silly as that involved? Lord Windmaster even teased me about it later, laughing about how we played in the manor and held hands! The whole den of ghosts thought I was some poor fool who didn’t know how to shake a cup! I wanted to crawl into bed and never look at a pair of dice again!” He groaned, Hua Cheng is beside himself with laughter, delighted with this new information. Xie Lian was flustered and indignant, but couldn’t help seeing Hua Cheng so endearingly amused by his shortcomings and a small giggle bubbles past his lips. It dissolves into a bout of laughter, and the villagers can’t help but wonder what is so amusing? What a strange pair that have entered their quiet little village.
The pair meandered up to the pub, having calmed down from their earlier fits and examined the outside. The chickens paid them no mind, though one did attempt to peck at Hua Cheng's slippers, the idea died down with one sharp glare from him and the chicken decided it wanted to live another day.
The cats they had seen from afar had completely taken over the pub, some lounging on the roof and others perched on the chicken fence, watching all that entered like it were their domain.
Xie Lian knelt to pet one of the more curious cats that had walked up to him to sniff, he scratched underneath its chin until it purred and rubbed against his knee, its tail curling pleasurably at the attention. Hua Cheng thought it was cute at first, but after a few moments of Xie Lian cooing, he became a little jealous at how much affection Xie Lian was lavishing on the kitty and his face turned dark. A Supreme Ghost King, defeated by a single village cat!
“Hm? What is it San Lang?”
Xie Lian looked up, seeing the gloomy expression on Hua Cheng’s face and his crossed arms, his air cool and indifferent. He held back a snort, retracting his hand from the cat. “Does San Lang also want to be pet…?” Hua Cheng said nothing, but shifted his weight on his other foot. Xie Lian could hardly stand seeing his childish displeasure and chuckled gently, standing back up again and stroked his hair. Hua Cheng relaxed under his touch, seemingly pleased and induced more laughter from Xie Lian. “Really now! So childish, I forget sometimes that I’m older than you. There there…” Hua Cheng, ever the aloof and terrifying demon, felt the faint springs of their first meeting breeze by and a light flush tinted his pale cheeks. There were not many moments where he experienced being a child, fighting tooth and nail to survive and living on scraps, but the warmth and overflowing kindness of His Highness was always something he could remember fondly.
The villagers just stared, unsure what to make of this...display between two men, nevermind the fact they hardly arrived and were already being strange. Truly odd!
Leaving behind the cats vying for the god’s attention, the pair entered the pub, finding it lively inside compared to the rural peacefulness of the village. Dim, but warm, lanterns hung from the ceiling, the wood floors and walls gave it a rustic and countryside feel. People milled around drinking and playing games like cards. Day drinking when there was work to be done, Xie Lian felt the inner disciple in him getting his hands smacked with a stick for even going near a pub, much less in the afternoon! Such shamelessness!
Hua Cheng, meanwhile felt right at home. He guided Xie Lian to a corner table before he went dizzy from the distant echoes of disapproval from his masters, waving over a barkeep to bring him a drink for himself and tea for Xie Lian. “Let’s focus on seeing if there are any generous souls willing to tell us about the ghost, or the families affected. Listen carefully Gege, anything could be a clue.” He sat back in his seat, Xie Lian following his lead after a moment and eavesdropped on the many conversations going on.
“That son of yours is such a troublemaker! Pulling up all my cabbages and selling them back to me!”
“How dare you! He only sold half of them to you!”
“I pray twice a day, offer only the most delicious food, and light dozens of incense but my wish never gets granted! Am I doing something wrong?!”
“What is your wish?”
“For my neighbor’s head to turn into a boar head. I can’t stand him!”
“Step right up, step right up! Who dares challenge the mighty Yao Zhang?! Unrivaled! Unparalleled! The madman dueled with a fierce ghost and chased it off! Is there no one brave enough to take him on?!”
Hua Cheng and Xie Lian shared a look, their combined luck immeasurable, a scary thing really. The barkeep returned at that moment, setting down two cups for them with a cheerful smile. “Drinks for the masters, you’re not from around here are you? This is He Qiao Village, we’re a little small, but lively!” Seeing that there was a friendly person, Xie Lian decided to ask about this ‘Yao Zhang’ character, it was best to see if he was reliable. “Pardon, but who is that who keeps challenging people? Do you know him?”
The barkeep’s merry mood instantly soured, as if they tasted something bitter and unpleasant. “Ah, Yao Zhang? Pay him no mind, he’s just the village drunk. Comes in here every few days with his buddies and scream themselves hoarse daring people to challenge him to drinking games. We try to chase him off but he's persistent. People can’t win his games as his tolerance is crazy strong, so they’ve grown to be annoyed and ignore him- oh no- here he comes.” The barkeep glared in their side view, and the two turned to follow his eyes. A man limped up to their table, his enormous belly knocking plates and cups from nearby tables and drew angry shouts from the people sitting. A lackey trailed behind him, thinner build but, bloated in his stomach as well. It seemed as if they drank everyday for it to swell so much.
Hua Cheng smiled insincerely, as if greeting an old friend with a knife behind his back. Xie Lian became slightly nauseated from the reek of booze, but spoke before Hua Cheng insulted or offended the men. They needed information after all. “Greetings! What brings you here? We’re just travelers and stopped by for a drink.” He said warmly, but a bead of sweat rolled down his forehead, the bamboo hat covering it up. The lanky man bent down to look at Xie Lian, his eyes squinted and in thought, Xie Lian smiled back nervously in hopes he wouldn’t recognize his face. After a few uncomfortable moments, Hua Cheng’s glare cold as steel, he stood up straight again and nodded to himself. Then, quick as lightning, he swept over to a random table, snatched up a jar and slammed it down on the table so hard the liquid sloshed over the edges.
“YAO ZHANG HAS CHALLENGED YOU TO A DRINKING CONTEST! ACCEPT OR PERISH!”
Xie Lian was dumbfounded, looking around as if he had been yelling at someone else, but the man clearly had his crazed eyes set on him and pointed an accusing finger at him. Xie Lian could only stammer, unsure of what to say. “M-me?”
“I MAY BE DRUNK BUT I LOOK BLIND TO YOU?”
“Your eyes do seem a little cross…”
The lackey howled in rage, as if Xie Lian had insulted his ancestors and kicked over their graves. Now he’s done it, his luck may have returned but his words were not as sharp. What sort of predicament had he gotten himself into now?