Concentration is one of those necessities no one notices the importance of until it's ripped out of them. For most people, it seems like the easiest thing in the world to focus on a book, a training stance, a conversation. He used to think so as well. He never paid attention to the blessing being able to pay attention was. He never noticed how smoothly his thought pattern ran, how easily his mind could compartmentalize ideas and memories into tiny neat boxes, well ordered and simple to access, how instinctual it was to focus on something and ignore the rest for a little while.
Concentration was merely another commodity he took for granted, among countless others.
Murderer. Traitor. Monster.
Now, instead of running in a straight and narrow path, this thoughts scatter within the restless battlefield of his mind. He tried to fight the process in the beginning, to cling to his sanity and hold his thoughts on a leash. It only managed to make the chaos within the void he called a head worse, so he just… let go. He doesn't deserve sanity and peace of mind anymore. The voices made that very clear, and within his broken world, the voices make the law.
It does make it very hard to keep up with whatever this person, who he can't remember the name of, is trying to engage him in. The other talks and talks and talks, his mouth twisted with annoyance, and the only thing he can focus on is the funny way his interlocutor's eyebrows furrow. Everything else falls out of his ears, unaccessible, unreadable. It's like people speak a language he cannot understand anymore with their mouths, with their eyes, with their bodies, with their strange words.
You fucking piece of shit, go to hell already, you Xian Le trash whor-
A hand brushes over his arm, gentle, barely noticeable, a grounding anchor in the storm, and he jolts back to life. He blinks in confusion, as if he just woke from a long dream, and crimson red smiles soothingly at him.
San Lang. San Lang's long and clever fingers, skimming over the gold of his robes. San Lang's dead white fingers that will not touch his skin. Not in public at least, not under the judging stares of faceless gossipers, not where the lord can see. He wishes San Lang would touch him. It hurts when only his brittle god's costume and the cursed bandage around his ribs touch him.
"Your Highness," San Lang slowly says, and he nests himself inside the warm sounds of his retainer's clear speech. Unlike the incomprehensible voices of the outside and the unforgiving voices of the inside, San Lang's never hurts, never pushes, always accepts. "Your Highness, do you want me to make this lord leave?"
San Lang says the word 'lord' like he would utter 'useless trash', and even said lord doesn't miss the subtext.
"Excuse you?" the intruder sputters. "Such insolence! Such disrespect! Mind your words, I am an Upper Heaven Official, unlike you."
He tilts his head to the side, trying to remember who exactly this rude annoyance is. He looks like literally every other Official, a fool tucked in gold and condescence and self-importance, walking the path of fake glory.
He has no idea what this particular god wants from him, but that's alright. San Lang will know. San Lang always knows. His memory is good and reliable, his mind clear and organized. His San Lang is so smart, so clever. He keeps all the details his faillible god forgets in that brilliant head of his, without any holes in his head whatsoever.
"Yet you dare to bother His Highness with your nonsense." San Lang smirks, his beautiful fake eyes set alight in anger, his tone scathing. "What an impressive martial god you are, shamelessly crawling at my prince's feet to beg him to fight your battles in your stead. Pathetic."
"You! Your Highness, control your servant!"
So very few things affect him anymore, but bad-mouthing San Lang is one of those. Servant, the fool says, as if San Lang doesn't hold his heart in his hands, as if San Lang isn't is the last thread tying him to reality.
He wonders if anyone would notice this one useless god's disappearance. It would be so easy to slash his skin, snap his neck, cut off his head, burn his immortal flesh to crisps and spit on the ashes. So. Easy. The voices, vicious and resentful, long for blood. Anyone's blood. But no, he cannot. He would know. He would be mad his heir failed to control his temper in public and maintain his golden mask. He might punish San Lang again, and that's not acceptable.
It seems he has no other choice but to pretend he gives a fuck. "What is the issue?" he says, his voice dull and slow, every word crawling out of his sore throat at the speed of an agonizing snail.
"White No Face is the issue, Your Highness," the fool answers between gritted teeth. "Five of my temples have fallen to this creature already."
Oh yes, he wants to cackle madly. White No Face is quite the issue indeed. Insanity in funeral garbs, danger under a half-laughing half-crying mask, the terror who shakes Heaven and the mortal world alike. Now he does remember about this particular martial god. His worshippers haven't paid any respect toward Jun Wu in a while, and the fool hasn't discouraged them.
Big mistake, that. The Emperor does not like to be ignored.
"And you expect His Highness to deal with it for you," San Lang snorts. "My prince is not your dog, Offi-"
He grabs San Lang's sleeve and tugs gently. San Lang is so attuned to him he needs no harsh movement for him to stop. San Lang is the only person who's never harsh with him, the only person he doesn't struggle to communicate with. The snarl on his retainer's face recoils under his mask of flesh, and he takes a step back, remaining close to him still. San Lang is ever close, ever vigilant, ever careful, a pillar in the ruins of his existence.
"Your Highness has defeated the White Clothed Calamity thrice before," the desperate god points out. "There is no one else who-"
"I'll see what I can do," he says with a misty smile. Which is not a lie. He'll see what he can do to make the god's fall as swift as possible and put a fast end to the agony he hasn't realized he's in yet.
The fool understands he's not getting anything more from the elusive General of the East and bows in gratefulness. His display of deference does not appease the tension within San Lang's heart, so he rolls the red cloth between his fingers soothingly. The god's glaze falls upon this spectacle, his mouth straightening. He says nothing, but greedy suspicion grows in his eyes.
No doubt he'll overshare his opinions with his fellow gossipers and throw gasoline on the constant trash fire that is the General of the East's relationship with his controversial choice for a retainer as soon as he passes the door.
"His Highness shouldn't let his pet run wild. How many Upper Heaven Officials has he offended this week alone? Countless!"
"It's indecent how the mongrel drools over his master, in public! Can you even imagine how shameless and improper he must act behind closed doors… I can't believe Jun Wu's own heir cannot control in his own retainer."
"Obviously they're fucking. His Highness wouldn't let his servant get away with everything if he wasn't spreading his legs and putting that smartass mouth of his to good use."
"I wouldn't be so sure about that. I can't imagine our apathetic general to be the dominant one. I bet it's the other way. I bet he lets his servant fuck him any way he wants to."
And it went on and on, the eternal mill of rumors never running out of grain to grind. In the end, it's always about sex and money, may it be on the mortal realm, Hell or Heaven. That kind of gossip would have made the proud prince he used to be lose his mind with frustration and shame. Now, he couldn't care less of what those people think of him.
You wish it were true, don't you, Xian Le slut? You wish your San Lang would fuck you so hard you would forget about us, ah? He won't. You're disgusting. Who would want to fuck you and your gross body you pie-
"Your Highness." San Lang is kneeling by his chair, beautiful dark eyes clouded with concern. "Your Highness, he's gone. You can rest now."
There is no such thing as rest for him anymore, yet he indulges his retainer and relaxes against the back of his chair with a sigh. His hand easily finds its way back to San Lang's head, patting the pitch black locks. His retainer smiles at the feather-like touch of the dead.
No One smiles back.
In the end, Xie Lian did not so much release the curse as it escaped from his grasp. The vicious souls had been clawing his fist constantly ever since he harvested their might for his own gain. They swarmed within the frail cage of his body, hungry for the revenge that was promised to them, poking at every single potential weakness to get out, and Xie Lian was so so tired.
He had been laying in the dirt with Fang Xin stabbing his gut for days, waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting for help that wasn't coming. Waiting for compassion that did not existed. When the man with the hat arrived, he thought maybe… but no. There was no hope to wait for. Kindness was a lie.
And so the hatred slipped out of him, and he let it. He felt joy when those disgusting people of Yong An, his enemies, screamed and pleaded and died in the dirt like they deserved. He rejoiced with the malevolent ghosts as the misfortune he unleashed upon an entire people slaughtered them to pieces, until he didn't.
Misery plagued his heart and regret bit his gut, too late, too late.
"Oh Xie Lian," White No Face cradled his unresponsive face between his bone white fingers. "What am I going to do with you?"
Kill me kill me kill, please, make it end.
"I wouldn't do that to my dear child, would I?" The Calamity patted his hair tenderly. "Don't worry, I'll take you to a place where no one will bother you. You'll grow well here, trust me. I'll-what is it with you?"
Somewhere, within the cocoon of agony, within the cage of White No Face's too warm hold, Xie Lian could feel his Ghost General raging. He was here still, after everything else had left. Surely he had better things to do but to keep serving this useless prince.
"You're a fierce little thing, aren't you?" White No Face laughed. "Yes, I remember you, child of misfortune. Why, you are loyal to him still? Even after what he did?"
There was a vulnerability in White No Face's tone. Or was it jealousy? Xie Lian couldn't tell, couldn't think, his thoughts were sluggish, numb with disbelief and grief.
"You are. Such a good dog. I suppose you can follow along. It's fitting, after all, every emperor needs his faithful retainer. And it's because of you I noticed Xie Lian in the first place."
The revelation would have shaken Xie Lian to his core had he had enough emotional strength to feel anything but numb horror. As it is, he doesn't even struggle when White No Face takes him into his arms to drag him to Hell, his ghost general crawling behind them.
The streets of Heaven all look the same. Gold and blood entwined together in one dull illusion so bright it burns No One's fragile eyes. There was a time when he knew perfectly every angle, every line of the City of Gods, and could have navigated through it with his eyes closed. That knowledge, like many other things, was lost to the kiln and the voices.
He relies on San Lang entirely to take him where he needs to go. He also relies on San Lang to remember what exactly he needs to do. He forgets so much, he would be completely lost without his San Lang to guide him with a sure hand and a patient smile.
Today he knows why San Lang is tugging him in the direction of the Great Martial Hall. Jun Wu wants to see him. No One always remembers when it's Jun Wu. He has no other choice. The voices eat all his memories, but those ones they will not touch. Perhaps they taste too much like rot, even by their standards.
He walks in a blurry sea of white and gold, with a red string of fate leading him. The waves move out of his way, careful not to brush his tainted self, whispering between themselves with foaming mouths and steaming eyes. That's fine. They can speak all they want, as long as they don't force him to speak as well.
Unfortunately, some furious waves do want him to directly answer and will not hesitate to submerge him to get what they want.
"General," Nan Yang of the South steps in the middle of No One's path. "A word, if you please."
Unlike most gods who he can't tell apart, this one he always recognizes. He reeks of painful honesty in a world where clothes are woven out of lies, streets paved with deception and palaces built on falsehoods. But this one, this one says what he means and means what he says, as strange it seems.
He hurts No One. He doesn't mean to. He hurt No One. He didn't mean to. It's hard to think when he's here, harder.
"What do you want?" San Lang grunts, barely containing his loathing, scarcely trying to.
San Lang hates Nan Yang. San Lang hates betrayers, traitors, backstabbers, and his absolute vision of loyalty doesn't leave much leeway for interpretation.
Like you? Betrayer of your kind, traitor to your country, backstabber of-
"I heard His Highness is going to fight White No Face." Nan Yang doesn't let himself be intimidated by San Lang's blatant hostility. "I request to come with him."
San Lang snorts in derision, while No One tilts his head to the side.
"Why?" he asks, curious enough to force words into ordered sentences and out of his throat. "This is not your territory."
"I have a score to settle with the fucker," Nan Yang growls, anger foaming behind his armor, a wave turned tsunami. "I won't get in your way."
"You're in the way right now," San Lang points out with fake casualness.
Nan Yang scowls at the complete disregard for his status. He was always too frank for his own good, but when he was a Middle Heaven Official himself, he would have never spoken to another god that way. If No One could laugh, he would.
But you do laugh, god of lies. You laughed when you trampled us and danced on our ashes, did you not?
"So the rumors are true," a soft voice wonders. "The General of the East does let his retainer run his mouth as he pleases."
No One feels the ocean submerges him. Through the glassy lense of miles of water, he sees Nan Yang's arch nemesis arrive. The ever polite Xuan Zhen, also of the South. San Lang's eyes narrow dangerously. Nan Yang, he despises. Xuan Zhen, he abhors.
"Mu Qing," Nan Yang grunts. "What do you want?
"Same as you," Xuan Zhen haughtily declares. "I'd like to accompany Your Highness to fight White No Face as well."
Oh, now they both want to come with him. The irony isn't lost on him.
Ah, of course they abandoned you! A fake prince, a fake god, trash full of lies. Who would want to stay with you anyway? Except that freak of masochist you call a retainer. Fuck, you could step on his face and call him garbage, he'd still get off from the pain, that -
"Thank you both for the offer, but I must decline," No One says.
"Your Highness…" Xuan Zhen and Nan Yang protest in unisson. The title sounds bitter coming from them. They have more in common than they believe.
"Thank you," he says again, softly, sincerely. One last time, before he turns away from them for good. "San Lang, let's go."
The ocean parts again as No One and San Lang walk through it, as if he were a shark followed by a trail of blood, making all the tiny fish swim away for their lives.
Contrary to common belief, White No Face did not throw Xie Lian in the kiln. Instead, he leisurely trekked in Mount TongLu, cheerfully showing a numb Xie Lian the sights of what had to be his homeland. They made their way toward the top of the volcano without hurry as madness raged within Xie Lian's mind, and he alternated between staring dully without seeing anything and sobbing hysterically over White No Face's shoulder.
And when they reached the kiln, he gently laid him down, kissed his forehead and kept the little ghost down while Xie Lian crawled into hell.
"What do you think, Xie Lian?" White No Face smiled benevolently as Xie Lian's general squirmed and screamed under his boot. "Should he come down with you, ah?"
"Your Highness!" No One shouted. "Take me with you! I can help!"
Xie Lian stared down at the grinning abyss under him, and before he jumped, he said, "No."
He stayed there for a year. Utterly alone, if not for the voices of the people he murdered gawking at his soul and the kiln eating the few crumbs of his sanity he had left. When he came out, half immortal, half ghost, all monster, his Ghost General was there, blood and might clinging to his skin, waiting for his master still. When Xie Lian fell, the ghost was crafted out black and cold fury, and now he draped himself in crimson and quiet devotion.
"Why haven't you left?" he asked, his voice scorched with disuse.
His Ghost General pledged his misguided loyalty on one knee again. "I'm Your Highness' most devoted follower."
Follower? Followers were for gods. Xie Lian was no god anymore. A remnant of divinity lingered in his broken bones, but he had been tainted with evil deep enough to corrupt his soul.
Xie Lian was a plague.
Still, he allowed the ghost to trail behind him on the warpath he walked. He'd get tired of Xie Lian soon enough. God knows Xie Lian was very tired of himself. If only he could ditch himself, he wouldn't hesitate for a second.
Sometimes, the voices say nice things. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it reminds No One he still does have a heart. He's unsure whether or not he should be grateful for the reminder.
You can do it. It's okay. Good luck!
"Xian Le," Jun Wu says, sounding very exasperated by his pupil's lack of focus. He should be used to it by now. "Are you paying attention?"
"Yes," No One answers smoothly thanks to sheer automatism. To admit his thoughts drifted away instead of religiously listening to Jun Wu would be akin to ritual suicide, just without the guarantee of the sweet release of death at the end.
Jun Wu hums along, clearly unconvinced but willing to let the matter go for once. He's in a good mood today. He pats No One's hair, sweeping away a non-existent twig. No One knows nothing is out of order in his appearance. San Lang is too conscious for that. He tends to No One's clothing, hair and skin every morning and night, restlessly diligent. Only his tender touches can coax something human out of No One. Only his caring hand has the power to tuck the calamity inside, out of sight, though not out of mind.
He knows there is nothing to be fixed, yet he lets himself be smothered like a child. He tells himself it's only because he has no other choice and not because he longs for the caring hand of a parental figure to ease his pains and promise him everything will be alright.
Disgusting pig murderer gross traitor kin slayer do not touch DO NOT TOUCH US-
"People have come to me to complain about you again, Xian Le," Jun Wu sighs as he pulls away his hand.
Yes, they seem to do that a lot. Instead of trying to solve the problem themselves, they love to whine and tug at Jun Wu's skirt.
"I apologize for the inconvenience," he says neutrally.
"You don't want to know why?"
He shrugs. "I assume they don't like San Lang's attitude?"
Among Heaven's extensive population, the only persons San Lang shows respect for are No One, Jun Wu, for obvious reasons, and Ling Wen. 'She's competent,' he once explained. 'I like that in a god. Though no one is more competent than Your Highness.'
He sincerely doubts that was ever true, but he appreciates the sentiment nonetheless.
"You're too lenient with him." Jun Wu tuts disapprovingly. "You need to hold your subordinates with an iron fist. They run amok otherwise."
His handsome face darkens with far-remote memories. It's perhaps one of the rare things he has in common with the Emperor: they're both still trudging out of their past, trying to reach out the present and move on to the future.
They're both failing.
"My Lord is right."
"You say that, but you don't mean it. Don't take me for a fool, Xian Le," Jun Wu declares with faint nonchalance. "You're going to keep letting him do what he wants in public and coo at him in private. I know you."
Of course he will. Despite what everyone seems to believe, San Lang is not his dog. He's his light in the dark, his last shred of humanity, his red in the gold. He'd sacrifice a hundred of them for his San Lang's sake without a second of hesitation.
"I'll tell him to control himself more," he promises dully.
"I'm not going get anything better from you today, am I?" Jun Wu says, the very picture of a disappointed parent. "Oh well. Make sure that you do. You can't become Emperor if you can't even make your only servant behave."
Good. He doesn't want to become Emperor. He never wanted to. "Yes, my lord."
"You may go now," Jun Wu finally dismisses him, to his relief. "Oh, and Xian Le? Take care of that one god we talked about. He's been pestering me for too long."
No One's bows to the man who holds the three realms in his merciless hands. "It will be done."
Well. It went well enough, all things considered.
White No Face came to Xie Lian with gifts. Xie Lian answered with a sword to the chest.
"Not bad, not bad," White No Face chuckled with paternal indulgence as Xie Lian lied on the ground, his own blade tearing his guts apart. "But you still have much to learn."
Loser. Failure. You're the fucking worst, you said you would avenge us, you're so goddamn useless, you promised, you PROMISED-
"And your pet!" He gestured at Xie Lian's last companion, pinned to a tree with no less than five swords piercing his body. "I have to admit, I thought he would have left by now, but no. He stayed, and he slaughtered every single ghost who ventured by the kiln. So loyal. It's very rare to find servants who knows the meaning of faithfulness, you know?"
Fucking Xian Le dog! Stand up and fight! Kill the beast, kill the monster, kill him kill him killhimkillhimki-
He couldn't. He was too weak. Even after the kiln rebranded him and rearranged his insides over and over, he was still too weak.
"Go to hell, White no Face!" he snarled as the voices tore his mind apart.
That made the supreme burst into hilarity. It was a horrifying sound, the kind that rang into the darkest hour of the night, the kind that could shake worlds and destroy empires just because. "Oh, you're talking to me? Silly A-Lian. Haven't you noticed? I'm not the White No Face anymore."
The mask cracked open under the tremors of his wicked laughter, revealing Jun Wu's smile. "I'm not the White No Face. You are."
Xie Lian touched his face with a shaking hand, and there it was. A mask. He didn't need to see to know a half smiling, half crying face is painted on the smooth surface.
The voices went dead silent.
"...What are you doing?" Jun Wu asked, his amusement buried under confusion. "You… disgusting. Control yourself, Xian Le."
Xie Lian looked down at himself. Countless faces had bloomed all over his cracked skin, their mouths open in a silent scream.
This time, he was the one to laugh and laugh and laugh.
The first things to go are his hair ornaments. San Lang slowly removes the delicate trinkets he arranged his god's hair this morning, careful to not hurt him in any way. Then, still gently, still reverently, his retainer unravels his hair, letting it flow over his shoulders and along his spine.
No One takes a deep breath while San Lang's fingers run across his locks.
"Alright, Your Highness?" San Lang asks patiently.
"Alright," he lies.
After the hair, the makeup San Lang applied lovingly to hide the signs of his perpetual state of exhaustion is washed away. On San Lang's soft tissue, No One bleeds in shades of rouge, kohl and powder, freeing the face that is not his own of any mortal artifice.
He didn't understand the appeal of makeup before. What purpose do they serve but to hide natural beauty? A loss of time and energy, he thought. Now he gets it. Makeup is not hiding. Makeup is appropriation. When San Lang runs a brush over this fake face he has to wear, they reclaim his identity together, line by line, color by color.
Once his face has been cleaned of his armor, San Lang's clever fingers slide to his clothes. He plucks his god open without hurry, and No One lets himself be stripped. At San Lang's prompting, Ruoye slithers from his chest to his arm, rolling over No One's biceps with affectionate enthusiasm. What an obedient child it is.
San Lang works diligently and efficiently, and he finds himself idly wishing, not for the first time, that San Lang's touches would stray, that his glaze would linger, caressing No One's old skin with the fervor of his endless devotion. It doesn't happen, of course. San Lang has seen his god at his lowest, his grossest, and not only once. A curse shoved inside the body of a fool, garbage made devastation. Who would be attracted to that?
Yeah, you're so fucking ugly. Absolutely disgusting. Pretty ghost boy wouldn't fuck you if you were the last corpse on earth, hahaha!
In the coldness of their room, No One lays bare with only a thin inner robe on his body and a ring of ashes around his neck, and San Lang rebuilds White No Face over him, layer of white after layer of white. At last, he kneels on one leg and presents the cursed mask to his god.
No One puts his face on, and a breath later, it's White No Face who smile-cries to his most devoted follower.
"If you will excuse me, Your Highness," San Lang mutters as he gets back on his feet.
By comparison, San Lang's preparation takes practically no time. San Lang disappears for five minutes, and No One comes back, robes black as midnight and a woeful smile painted on his mask, his Ghost General's armor strapped to his chest.
"Your Highness." No One bows to press White No Face's hand against his mask, where his lips would be.
White No Face allows his soldier to prove his worship while he pretends his heart is dead dead dead, and not beating madly at the feeling of No One's hand cradling his close to his fake mouth. "Ready?"
"Always," No One vows.
Later, the entire process will repeat itself in reverse. No One will cut the chunks of sorrow and war out of White No Face's skin, unravel the white layers crested with blood and dirt, strip his slaughter-tainted master to his barest essentials so he can reassemble the god over the foundations of the monster. He will comb his god's hair out of the grim, and he will clean his face with unspeakable tenderness, while his void of a master tries to remember how to walk outside of the path of war.
He will let White No Face be No One again, while he returns to be Someone. One of them has to be Someone.
But this is later. Now, he must be White No Face, and his ghost general must be No One.
Let's wreck some bitches.
Jun Wu crafted a new skin first. Youthful, unmarked by war and grief, flawlessly beautiful: to his image. If Xie Lian stood by his side, one would think of them as brothers. A mask among others, another veneer, another layer to hide Xie Lian and his ugly sorrow and his ugly faces.
"I don't want to see those disgusting faces again," Jun Wu told him as he critically examined Xie Lian in his brand new shape. "Do you understand, A-Lian?"
He understood. He understood that despite being responsible for their release in the first place, Jun Wu loathed the face plague with a fervor that spoke of personal wounds. He understood that to Jun Wu's eyes, he was a mere extension of the Emperor, and such ugly flaws were not acceptable.
Doesn't matter if you bury us under your fake skin. We're still here. You know we're still here, Xian Le mutt. You're not escaping us so easily.
"Yes," he said as he slipped inside his liar's body.
Then, Jun Wu crafted a golden armor similar to his own. He tied the cursed bandage to his ribs and strapped Fang Xin back to his side, and Xie Lian let it happen.
Then, he crafted a whole new identity for Xie Lian. The persona of a far removed prince from Xian Le's royal family, stepping in after five years of utter chaos to establish order in a country torn apart and who ascended to godhood in the process.
"Fitting, don't you think?" Jun Wu chuckled, quite amused by his own scheme. "Fixing the mess you unleashed and have people adore you for it. Break and rebuild the way you want it. That's how you stay a leader, Xian Le, trust me."
At last, he crafted a name. Strong, beautiful, worthy of Jun Wu's magnificence.
Xie Lian hated it with all the ash of his burnt out soul. The only thing he hated more was to be Xie Lian.
It's not the name you hate. Names mean nothing. It's your nature that's rotten, Xian Le pig. You can change your name, but it won't change who you are. A piece of shit.
"If Your Highness can't be the person he wants to be, and can't stand being the person Jun Wu wants him to be," No One whispered in the dead of the night. "Then he could be No One."
Xie Lian laughed. What a curious idea, coming from a curious man. "But who would you be if I was No One?"
"Someone. Whoever Your Highness needs me to be."
Xie Lian stayed silent for a long moment, thinking, considering. "You had to lose your identity once already because of me. Aren't you mad?"
No One shook his head. "No. I didn't like the person I was anyway. I'd rather be who Your Highness wants me to become."
It wasn't how it should be, Xie Lian knew. None of this was. "Alright. How about San Lang?"
Third child, for it was the third person his most devoted follower had to become for his selfish god's sake.
"I love it," San Lang said honestly. "I'll cherish this name until I die. Ah, no, Your Highness, don't say-"
"But you're already dead!" No One giggled before San Lang could stop him. It wasn't funny, San Lang was too lovely to be dead, but he was, and so was No One, and it was funny in the worst way possible.
He wakes up with a hundred voices screaming in his head and a hundred faces rotting on his skin.
He should be used to it by now. He has learnt to keep the plague under control by now, but shifting into White No Face always make them go insane afterwards. Well. More insane than usual.
Murderer traitor son of a bitch dog pig disgusting trash garbage slut hate you hate you hate-
"San Lang," he croaks over the cacophony of his own mind. "San Lang!"
His savior appears within the next breath and slips by his side. He was probably waiting for this to happen, his ever thoughtful San Lang.
"I'm here, Your Highness," he promises. "Your San Lang is here."
No One rests his head to the side while San Lang pries open his night robes, revealing the grotesque spectacle underneath. The faces wail and wail as they bloom over his chest, back, legs, arms, face. No expense of skin is spared from the invasion, and No One has no other choice but to lie there and wait for the multitude of hateful Someones to go back to sleep.
San Lang's beautiful fingers hover over his calf. "Alright, Your Highness?" he asks softly, showing no fear or disgust at the battlefield his master's body has become.
Fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck, shameless dog! Bet he's getting off of this, the pervert, bet he's thinking of-
"Alright," he says.
San Lang finally touches him. His palm lingers on the swell of No One's muscle, and his finger traces soothing circles around the face by his tibia, slow and caring, until it goes away.
"There we go," San Lang says. "Your Highness, you're doing so good. So beautiful."
One by one, he coaxes the faces away out of tenderness and praises, using only his blessed hands and gentle words. First his feet, then his legs, his hips, his chest, his back, his arms, his neck, finishing by his face.
"So good, Your Highness, so pretty and strong," San Lang whispers sincerely as he kisses away the last face on No One's eyelid.
If he still had the ability, No One would sob in relief. Each time, he fears San Lang won't manage to ease the plague raging through him, that his love won't be enough to calm the storm of No One's hatred.
Sometimes, it takes hours and hours, but eventually, his dear companion always succeeds to defeat the disease war has bred. Temporarily, at least, but it's better than nothing.
"Why are you still here?" he mutters once the voices are all tucked back inside. "I don't understand. I'm disgusting. A monster. A freak. I'm not the prince you once looked up to anymore."
"That's not true. Your Highness is never disgusting," San Lang protests, laying his cold lips on No One's wrist.
There is one upside to his face disease relapses. Afterwards, San Lang is so high on his touches he dares to do what he usually wouldn't. If No One was braver, he'd push his luck and ask for more. He'd hook his leg around San Lang's narrow hips, locking his tall servant against him, and he'd run his hands by San Lang's long spine and twist his fingers inside the black locks. He'd shamelessly beg to be filled with San Lang's cock, for only his love can make him feel whole again. He'd plead for kisses that weren't for sole purpose of chasing away corruption.
But it's too much to ask. No One has already taken so much of San Lang. This, he will not demand.
"Sleep with me?" he asks instead.
San Lang visibly hesitates, conflicted. Jun Wu has punished them for sleeping in the same bed before, their limbs intertwined together, their unbeating hearts laying side by side.
"Servants," he hissed as he dragged San Lang out by the hair, "must know their places. And their place is at the foot of their master's bed, not inside."
San Lang, being the self-sacrificing devotee that he is, doesn't think of his own punishment, only of No One's. He remembers still the excruciating weeks they spent apart until Jun Wu deemed they had learnt their lesson. They hadn't, but they had learnt discretion instead.
"Just this once," San Lang concedes.
He slides under the cover and No One latches onto him immediately. They cradle each other's broken bodies until dawn light bleeds upon their bed.
It's the closest thing to happiness No One will ever get.
He walked in Heaven's streets under a fake skin and a fake history and a fake name. He thought, surely, it couldn't so simple to fool thousands of gods? Surely one of them would understand, would see the obvious, would help him. Jun Wu said they were too stupid and self-centred to, but surely...
No one recognized him.
Not Pei Ming, with whom he shared a thousand boring meetings and trained a thousand times. Not Ling Wen, whose eye was so keen, whose mind was so sharp. Not Feng Xin, not Mu Qing, who passed in front of the General of the East without blinking twice.
He lurked in a cage made of sunlight and smoke and no one noticed, as if the only things left of the Crown Prince of Xian Le were memories and a ghost adorned in lies and illusions. He was dead. He hadn't realized that before, not truly. He was dead and buried within Mount Tong Lu's kiln, with no one left to mourn him.
"Useless trash," San Lang raged in the privacy of No One's palace. "Fucking garbage-"
He had dots of ink speckled on his red sleeves. Tiny traces of imperfection, the barely noticeable proof No One did exist. He had been teaching San Lang to write this morning. He was absolutely terrible at it, though he wasn't terrible at anything else. It was lovely.
"It was to be expected," No One cut in. "I'm not the same person I used to be."
Even No One wouldn't recognize himself. How could he expect Feng Xin and Mu Qing to?
"Are you going to leave me too, San Lang?" he mused out loud.
"Never," San Lang viciously snarled. "Not matter how, where or when, I'll always find Your Highness. I will always recognize you."
To me, he did not say, you'll always be Someone. That night, he slipped a ring around No One's neck, a ring made of silver, ashes and vows, and for the first time in a very long time, No One believed.
He likes the sound of rain. There is something incredibly soothing in the unstoppable symphony of cloud tears falling down from Heaven and crashing over a safe roof.
When the rain speaks, the voices quiet down to listen.
"An auspicious sign," the Rain Master says evenly. Everything the Rain Master does seems to be inherently calm and peaceful, as if time itself slowed down around her.
"Is it really?" the Head Priest wonders, full of skepticism.
It's a bit rich coming from him, considering how thoroughly he relies on astrology, but No One says nothing. Instead, he pets an excited Ruoye spread out on his lap. The cursed bandage was allowed to come out and play for once, and it intends to make the most of his rare moment of freedom.
Instead, he listens to the sky sob, and he wishes he could cry too. Mostly, he wishes San Lang were there with him, instead of stuck in Heaven with No One's clone. They would sit by the porch, their legs dangling and their shoulders pressed together, a cup of warm tea on their hands, Ruoye snug between them. At some point, No One would doze off and rest his head on San Lang's lap. San Lang's long fingers would stroke his hair and it would be the nicest, most peaceful feeling in the world.
"Your Highness. Your Highness… Xie Lian."
"Hmm?" No One blinks confusedly. "What?"
"I was saying," the Head Priest repeats slowly, "that with General Ming Guang and Ling Wen on our side, we're ready to act. There is nothing holding us back. Waiting serves no purpose."
Were they? The three of them have been plotting for decades, but it doesn't seem enough to defeat a man who is an empire of his own. To No One, Jun Wu has always existed, as large and invincible as the sun. He tries to imagine a world without the Emperor, and his mind pictures a blank void with no sun and no rain.
He doesn't even remember how the Head Priest found him. It's one of those details that San Lang has to recall for him. It doesn't really matter in any case. He's here, and they're here, listening to the rain and discussing how to murder the god of gods.
"Are you ready?" the Rain Master says, her eyes old and gentle and merciless.
There is no such a thing as being ready when you're walking up to the sky to kill Day itself. Yet he nods in agreement. He's as ready as he can be. He made a promise, and he intents to keep it, no matter what.
"You won't lose your mind in the middle of the action?" the Head Priest sighs.
'I don't know, will I?' he idly asks the voices.
No. Keep your word, Xian Le dog. We won't get on your way, if you give us what we want.
"I won't. Will you?"
The details are lost to him, despite the Head Priest telling him many times now. However, he does remember about the Crown Prince of a country who is now a volcano's playground, and his attendant. He remembers Mei Nian Qing used to be for Jun Wu what San Lang is to him. Except should No One wish it, San Lang would have been all too happy to haul criminals into the kiln. He's not sure whether or not that's a good thing.
"Don't worry about me." His former master scowls. "Worry about yourself. I know what I have to do."
Ah! You know what you have to do. Fucker.
If I kill him, he spilled his last tears inside the kiln, if I kill him, will you let me go?
The volcano roared.
There is no word strong enough to properly describe the sound an Empire makes when it collapses. It's like a house crumbling down, like the last breath of the agonizing. It's the sound a sunset would make if days died in excruciating pain as nights ate them alive.
Heaven is burning when Xie Lian of Xian Le drives Fang Xin through Jun Wu's heart and murders an era.
At last, clutching Xie Lian's arm, the Emperor say,: "Thank you."
At last, releasing Xie Lian's soul, the people of Yong An say, "Thank you."
At last, Xie Lian reclaims his name and his life, and he has no idea what to do with it. It doesn't matter. San Lang will know, and he will know until Xie Lian learns again how to want things for himself.
It rains while the sky mourns its lord of eons. Xie Lian sits by the porch of a broken palace, his head unnaturally empty, his hand unnaturally warm as he stokes San Lang's hair. It is indeed the nicest, most peaceful feeling in the world.