Eyes narrowed and trained on their target, his breathing slows as his left hand draws back the string with a firm grip.
He releases the arrow from his hold and lets it fly, before relaxing his posture and turning toward the junior official beside him.
"What is it?"
He hears the sharp impact of wood being pierced through, but he doesn't bothering looking to see the result.
Feng Xin knows it's a bullseye.
The junior official bows, "General. I've completed sorting through today's prayers. They have been placed on your desk for whenever you're ready to receive them."
"Very good," Feng Xin nods, "Anything worth noting?"
"Actually, there seems to be an abundance of prayers from one area in particular. Something about seemingly demonic powers haunting the local forest of a village. Mortals have prayed for it to be dealt with and also for their protection."
Feng Xin hums, "I see. Were there any details about this ghost's methods?"
The junior official shakes his head, "I'm afraid not. Some people entered the forest and never returned. The ones who did were said to be possessed, but that could mean anything as mortals throw around this term for any unexplained phenomena."
"I'll look into it. Thank you for your hard work. You're dismissed."
His subordinate bows once more and leaves.
Feng Xin loads another arrow and prepares to aim again. For a ghost to be reeking so much havoc it'd catch the attention of the heavens, it must be quite troublesome. Things had actually been rather peaceful as of late, ever since the whole Mount TongLu debacle and the rebuilding of heaven came to pass. If Feng Xin said he wasn't enjoying the serenity, he'd be lying. But as any other martial god, his fingers itched for a fight—one that a battered shooting target couldn't satisfy.
His hand lets go.
Feng Xin prepares to descend.
The village was nothing special, as far as villages go.
The population couldn't have been more than a few hundred, and the people were neither wealthy nor poor. Carts lined the streets selling a variety of things like fresh produce to handcrafted jewelry. The houses were average but also attractively decorated. People of all different types scurry about the streets.
Feng Xin stops one of them to ask for directions to the local medical clinic.
"Go to the end of this street and make a right at the steamed bun stand. It's the first building on your left."
He thanks the man and continues towards his destination. Feng Xin's first objective was to gauge the true state of these so called victims of the evil in the forest. Maybe then he could learn it's methods, power level, and hopefully how to reverse the damage it had caused.
As he was about to step into the building, he notices a little boy staring out of the window. Feng Xin stops to wave at him, but the boy didn't move a muscle. It was as if he hadn't seen Feng Xin at all.
That was odd. He knew he didn't have a good track record with children, but they'd always show some type of reaction towards him. In Cuo Cuo's case, this had meant biting and snarling.
Feng Xin shakes his head and enters before his thoughts could wander places he didn't want them to go.
Inside, a lady nurse sits at a desk and raises her head to greet him, "Welcome to the medical clinic, how may I assist you?"
"I'm looking for the people that've been possessed by the ghost in the forest."
Her eyes light up, "Ah! Are you also a cultivator? Come, come. The others are just this way."
Feng Xin doesn't even have time to inquire who these others are referring to before he's led down the hall and into an adjourning room.
He doesn't have to wonder long.
There stands Xie Lian and Mu Qing, one who notices his arrival and smiles gently, while the other merely rolls his eyes.
"Feng Xin, you've come as well?"
Feng Xin blinks, "No—wait, yes? Your Highness, why are you here? And why did you bring Mu Qing with you?"
Xie Lian had obviously also gotten word of the ghost problem, but why would he only chose to bring along Mu Qing, yet leave Feng Xin in the dark? Over the past couple years, they've visited and adventured with each other many times. Their relationship wasn't what it once was, but he thought it'd at least been mended enough for His Highness to rely on him a bit more. Putting it mildly, he'd thought he'd be slightly more reliable than Mu Qing. Not that it was a competition.
(It was a little bit, but hadn't it always been that way? Him and Mu Qing vying for Xie Lian's attention and praise.)
Mu Qing explains before Xie Lian gets the chance to, "He didn't bring me along. I ran into him on the way here, so wipe that look off your face as if you just walked in on your wife having an affair."
Feng Xin's lips tug down, and he feels his expression contort into one of annoyance, "I wasn't making a face."
"You clearly were."
"Maybe you need your eyes checked then. I think you may have permanent damage from how many times you've rolled them in the past eight centuries."
Mu Qing scowls at him. Feng Xin scowls back.
Xie Lian sighs and rubs at his forehead, "You two, please..."
Choosing to ignore the annoying asshole in the room, Feng Xin turns his attention back to Xie Lian, "Your Highness, how did you hear about the situation in this little village? It's quite a ways away from your Puji Shrine."
He didn't bother to ask Mu Qing how he knew because like it or not, this kind of occurrence was rather common for them. Both being gods of the south, their followers were frequently mixed among one another and thus encountered many of the same tribulations. It wasn't odd for Feng Xin to descend to take care of something only to find Mu Qing there for the same purpose.
It made things interesting, to say the least.
And maybe he was grateful for the company, though he'd first gauge out his own eyes than admit it.
"Ah," Xie Lian scratches at his cheek, "Well, I received a couple prayers here as well..."
He looks sheepish to admit such a thing, as if him receiving a prayer from within their domain was some sort of great offense. But Feng Xin wasn't offended, nor was he surprised. Xie Lian's followers had begun popping up all over the map ever since Jun Wu had been overthrown.
He is relieved His Highness is regaining the respect and admiration he deserves.
"Then, you also wanted to check the people who've encountered this thing in the forest to see if you could get any information out of them?"
Xie Lian nods, "We were talking to this man here, or, um, attempting to," he glances to where said man sits beside him, "Unfortunately he doesn't appear to be much for conversation."
It's not difficult to ascertain why. The man hasn't moved a muscle since Feng Xin entered, nor made any attempts to acknowledge the three of them. His eyes stare, unblinking and unmoving, straight ahead of him. When Feng Xin squints, he notices they appear to have a cloudy glaze layered over the irises.
"What's his deal?"
Mu Qing huffs, "They're all like this. The doctors say they don't respond to anything, not even the cries of their families. Touching them doesn't affect them either, but it's not possession. And there's nothing off about their bodies, so it's not life threatening. But they're basically..."
He waves a hand in front of the man's face.
"They're like shells," Feng Xin finishes.
Mu Qing huffs, "Yeah, they won't die, but to live like this isn't really living either."
Xie Lian pipes up, "Excuse me, this young lady, would you happen to know why these patients entered the forest in the first place?"
The nurse, who has remained silent throughout this whole interaction, blushes, most likely flattered by the polite way she had been addressed. To her, Xie Lian appears as a mere teenager, so to be called young by such a handsome youth as himself was taken as a compliment. Little did she know, he was actually several centuries old, and was only used to referring to others in such a manner.
"Yes I do. The majority of this town's men use that area for hunting, and enter it regularly. That's why, for those who come back, they tend to fit this description. Although..."
Mu Qing raises an eyebrow, "Although?"
She continues, "Although there's been one special case. A little boy, just under 10, wandered into the forest on his own a few weeks ago. He was missing for a several days before he returned, but he is also in the same state as the others."
Feng Xin feels a stray thought click into place.
"Oh! So that was the kid staring creepily out the window before."
The nurse tilts her head down solemnly, "He stays there all day, looking as if he's waiting for something."
Xie Lian pauses to consider this, then asks, "Does he have parents?"
Her expression grows even more forlorn, "I'm afraid not. We think he may be orphaned, and had taken shelter near the forest, which was why he was found there."
After hearing this, Feng Xin's heart twists. This child clearly already had it hard enough, to also be targeted by a malicious spirit...
It was truly pitiful.
What made it worse was there would be no one to miss him, should he not recover from this.
Silence settles within the room, while the three of them exchange knowing glances. Their resolves all converge into one, coming to a mutual agreement.
They would eradicate this creature, whatever it may be, and free this child from such a fate.
Xie Lian gives the woman one of his signature reassuring smiles, "Do not worry. We promise to take care of this so there will be no further cases, and find a cure for those settled here. For now, we leave them in your care."
The nurse seems to relax at his words, and gives a small bow, "Many thanks to these young Daozhangs. If there is anything you need throughout your stay, please do not hesitate to ask."
With that, she exits the room.
Xie Lian claps his hands together, "Well then. Shall we go?"
They approach the outskirts of the woods and observe it silently.
Nothing appears odd, or out of place. No eerie dark fog nor inexplainable wails leak from within. Not even an aura of demonic energy surrounds the place.
Speaking of demons...
"Your Highness, I've been meaning to ask you this, but where is he?"
"Hm? Where is who?"
Feng Xin waves to the empty space beside Xie Lian, one that was nowadays so rarely left unattended, "You know, your...husband."
Even though he was the one to say it, the acknowledgment still makes Feng Xin uncomfortable. Don't get him wrong, he's happy Xie Lian is happy. And against his better judgement, he believes Xie Lian is in good hands. It's only that...
Well, to put it simply, he doesn't like Hua Cheng.
But who really does? Aside from Xie Lian, of course. And Hua Cheng doesn't like him either, rather loathes him in fact, so this is only fair. Maybe a bit of that disdain lies in the fact he knows that Crimson Rain now understands Xie Lian better than he ever will, and took his place at His Highness's side. This fact sits like a knife in Feng Xin's chest.
But that was only fair as well, since he was the one to vacate it in the first place.
"Ah, San Lang?" Xie Lian's face lights up at the mere mention of him. It's endearing. It's painful. The knife in his chest digs a little deeper.
"He's taking care of some business in Ghost City, so I came by myself."
Mu Qing grumbles, "Crimson Rain actually let you come alone to deal with this? How's he supposed to protect his dear Gege from so far away?"
The words are laced with deep sarcasm, the mocking tone used to spit Gege as if it were a curse. Feng Xin barely resists the urge to punch him in the face for daring to speak to His Highness in such a way, but only holds back because he can grasp the faint traces of insecurity lingering behind the statement. It's one he understands too well.
Xie Lian only frowns, "Don't be like that. Between San Lang and I, there is no let. If the situation called for it and I needed him here, he'd arrive immediately."
Neither of them have anything to say against that.
"Plus, I'm not alone, am I?" Xie Lian regards them with an emotion Feng Xin cannot quite place, "I have the both of you."
Feng Xin feels his mouth run dry at the statement. Next to him, Mu Qing goes red at the ears, "How you still manage to say such lines...is really beyond me..."
Xie Lian laughs and turns his back to them as he enters the forest.
The two of them glimpse at each other before hurrying in after him.
They continue walking long enough for the bright daylight to lull into a mere dimness. Even quite a ways deep into the forestry, they've still failed to encounter anything suspicious.
Feng Xin's patience is wearing thin. He slams his fist onto a nearby tree, as if disturbing it would suddenly make a ghost appear, "Where the hell is this thing? We've been out here for hours and there's no sign of it!"
Mu Qing snorts, "Yeah, the only thing we've managed to catch is that little bunny Feng Xin nearly shot to death with his arrow."
"That was an accident!"
"Try telling that to the bunny you traumatized."
Xie Lian taps his chin, "Do you think it noticed our spiritual light and was driven away?"
It wasn't implausible. Ghosts sometimes sensed the presence of a heavenly official, and the smarter ones were often wise enough to steer clear of them.
"Better for us if they were, but somehow I don't think it'd be that simple. This ghost seems to be particularly strong and malicious based on the state of its victims," Mu Qing replies.
Nodding, Xie Lian adds, "I believe so too. There were also people who never returned from the forest, correct? Something of that nature wouldn't give up it's prey so easily."
"What's it's objective then, letting some go while killing others? Seems pretty pointless," Feng Xin says.
This thing was really too inconsistent. Not to mention Feng Xin couldn't shake the feeling that something was watching them—yet every time he looks over his shoulder all he sees is trees, trees, and more trees.
"I'm afraid we don't have much information to begin with, so let's remain cautious," Xie Lian warns.
They keep moving, a couple minutes passing in silence before Feng Xin notices something protruding from a nearby bush.
"Wait," Mu Qing speaks up, most likely also noticing the abnormality, "Over there."
The three of them advance towards it cautiously, and then pause.
Turns out that object was no object at all.
It was a human leg!
"What the fuck? Is that a person?" Feng Xin whispers.
Xie Lian is the quickest of them to react, murmuring, "Forgive me," before pulling the leg from the shrubbery. Attached to it, unsurprisingly, is the rest of a person's body. A man, most likely one of the hunters the nurse had mentioned. His complexion is pale with death, eyes blown wide with fear, and neck soaked with blood. In his hand, he clutches a dagger.
"He slit his own throat?" Mu Qing doesn't even bother to hide the shock in his voice.
"Hm, it appears so," Xie Lian inspects the wound closer, "Although it's possible this was a set up, but from how tightly the fist is clenched around the dagger, he must have died holding it."
Feng Xin squints at the corpse, "So then this death is unrelated to the ghost?"
Mu Qing scoffs, "How could it be unrelated? Look at his eyes, he's obviously been petrified by something."
Bothered by his tone, Feng Xin snaps back, "What? Is it not normal to be terrified of death?"
Xie Lian rises from where he had been crouching beside the body, "You're not wrong, but his eyes are clearly unnatural. Look closer, they have that same glaze on the victim we saw in the medical clinic."
Upon further inspection Feng Xin realizes that the man did, in fact, have clouded irises, "This ghost most likely drives people to commit suicide, but it may not be actual suicide. Maybe it can take control of one's mind and force it upon them, but that still doesn't explain why some were let go."
Xie Lian hums his agreement and begins to push through the shrubbery, "Let's continue this way, we might be able to find some more—"
Feng Xin watches as his pupils dilate and his face pales, seemingly focusing on whatever lay beyond the large bush.
Alarmed, both Feng Xin and Mu Qing push through the leaves and throw themselves in front of Xie Lian.
But there is no danger.
Before them a man is hanged by his neck from a tree branch, lightly swaying back and forth with the wind.
Feng Xin feels his stomach curl at the sight, yet doesn't linger on the feeling for too long in order to turn back around and again call, "Your Highness?"
Xie Lian's gaze stays trained on the corpse, his expression one of heavy distress. For a moment Feng Xin fears he's fallen victim to the ghost's mind games, but slightly calms once he confirms Xie Lian's irises remain clear.
Mu Qing takes the initiative to firmly grasp His Highness's shoulder and shout, "Xie Lian!"
This seems to snap the prince's consciousness back into his body, and his eyes quickly move back and forth between the two of them.
Softly, Feng Xin speaks, "Are you alright?"
"Y-Yes I," he manages a smile that is undeniably forced, "I'm okay."
Unconvinced, Mu Qing prods, "Okay? Would an okay person be so shaken to the point that they had to have their name called thrice before they answered? What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing's wrong. I was just a little startled, I am alright now."
The quiver in Xie Lian's voice is indisputable, and Feng Xin's known him for too long to mistake the poorly concealed anxiety on his face. He pushes a little further, "I was worried you'd been influenced by the ghost, are you sure there's nothing going on?"
Xie Lian shakes his head. He hasn't let that fake smile slip once since Feng Xin first questioned his well being.
"It's nothing like that. Sorry for worrying you."
Feng Xin feels himself grow frustrated, "You know that's not what I meant. You don't have to apologize to me."
Mu Qing's hand had never left Xie Lian's shoulder, and he squeezes it a bit impatiently, "Nothing this, nothing that. Do you take us for fools? There's clearly something bothering you, so just spit it out."
"Nothing is nothing. I already told you there's no issue, so drop it. Let's keep moving."
His voice declares a sense of finality and absolution, one Feng Xin rarely hears nowadays, but one he had grown accustomed to when he was merely a royal guard. It was with this he knew it'd be better to stand down, but Mu Qing didn't care much for conceding to His Highness's authority.
"Is it so hard to talk to us?!"
Xie Lian opens his mouth, and then closes it again, looking conflicted. Mu Qing takes that as his answer and rolls his eyes.
"Fine! Don't say anything then. It doesn't matter to me anyways!"
Like a petulant child, he turns his back to them and stomps away, disregarding the hanging body entirely as he passes right by it.
"Very mature," Feng Xin grumbles.
Mu Qing's one to talk. It's not like he had the greatest track record when it came to saying how he felt. After all, it took the man eight centuries to say he wanted to be His Highness's friend.
Xie Lian's smile had finally pulled down into a tight frown, and his expression had only grown more complicated.
"Don't bother with him, Your Highness. Why don't you go on ahead? I'll lower the body."
Xie Lian appears as if he were about to protest, but then thought better of it and nods, "Thank you, Feng Xin."
Once he is a fair distance away, Feng Xin does as he said he would, untying the cloth and gently lowering the corpse to the ground. This one had no other abnormalities on it other than it's bulged, panic stricken eyes. Another victim of whatever the fuck this thing in the forest was.
Feng Xin felt a bit uneasy. Xie Lian wasn't one to shy away from gruesome scenes—wasn't this much obvious from how he had easily assessed the man with his throat slit open? His Highness was no stranger to such things, so why would he have such a violent reaction to a hanged corpse?
Xie Lian had made it clear he wouldn't discuss the matter any further, but even if Feng Xin was to try, he wouldn't know how to approach the subject. With Xie Lian, he never wanted to cross a line and risk breaking any of the trust he had just barely earned back.
Sighing, Feng Xin leaves the corpse behind and jogs to catch up with the other two.
He runs for awhile, growing more and more confused the further distance he travels. Shouldn't he have run into them by now? Feng Xin doubts they would've strayed too far, let alone leave him behind. Which could only mean one thing...
They had been intentionally separated.
"Fuck," he groans, running a hand through his hair. Going off on their own was such a stupid move on all their accounts. That's like, rule number one in the guide to hunting for a malicious ghost in an unfamiliar forest; for no reason, at any point in time, should you stray beyond each other's sight.
Feng Xin curses Mu Qing for acting like a toddler and marching off by himself in the first place, then he curses himself for telling Xie Lian to go ahead without him, even if he had done it out of consideration for the other's feelings. Hopefully Xie Lian managed to catch up to Mu Qing before whatever the hell was creeping was able to divide them. Unlikely, but it was better than the alternative—that the pair were also all alone.
To make things worse, dusk had finally settled in, leaving the woods at the mercy of the dark, just barely illuminated by the light of the moon. Feng Xin could now only make out the blurry silhouettes of his surroundings, and is left with no choice but to light a palm torch so he can keep moving.
He attempts to call out to Xie Lian and Mu Qing through their private spiritual communication array, only to find it's been blocked. This turn of events is far from surprising—of course it's useless, why the hell would it ever work when he really needed it?
He tries another approach, yelling, "Your Highness?! Mu Qing?!"
A beat passes. Another.
Nothing. Not that he was expecting a reply, that would be too simple.
The sensation of being watched returns, sending a chill down his spine. A light breeze blows across the back of his neck.
Feng Xin whips around, bow drawn and at the ready, "WHO'S THERE?"
He's met with silence. And trees. Feng Xin has never hated trees so much in all his fucking life.
"ENOUGH OF YOUR DAMN TRICKS! COME OUT AND FACE ME!!"
He glares at nothing and lowers his bow, "Right, well, guess I'll just go fuck myself then."
Patience worn thin and anger pumping through his veins, Feng Xin trudges onward. The longer he continues with only various plants to keep him company, the stronger his irritation becomes. Far too much time passes before he spots the glimmer of something shining in the distance.
Desperate to find anything besides a goddamn tree, Feng Xin rushes forward. A few minutes later, he arrives at a lake.
The surface is glowing in a way that can only be caused by something unnatural.
Wearily, he approaches the edge of the water, and peers down into it. What greets him is the reflection of a temple, run down and clearly abandoned. As he studies it, he notices movement appear in the form of a man doning white robes.
Without sparing another thought, Feng Xin dives into the water. A cold chill envelops him from head to toe, and his vision distorts briefly as he swims deeper. All that lies at the bottom are an assortment of rocks and sand, no abandoned temple, and no Xie Lian. Mentally cursing, he pushes himself back up towards the surface. When he emerges, he finds he's standing in front of that same temple, albeit perfectly dry.
A bit dazed, Feng Xin glances at his feet, which are firmly planted on solid ground with no lake in sight. Clearly something is messing with his head right now, but he disregards it in pursuit of Xie Lian. Perhaps they both have been pulled into some sort of illusion. Better to regroup than try to figure it out on his own.
As he draws closer to the temple, he hears a mixture of panicked voices ring out from within.
“It can be cured? How?!”
“Your Highness, do you really know?”
“Prince, please hurry up and tell us!"
"I don't know! There's no way. It's useless!"
The last one is the only voice he recognizes.
Feng Xin kicks open the door to see Xie Lian, restricted tightly by a white cloth upon the altar of the temple. Behind him, sits White No Face.
What the fuck was that bastard doing here? Wasn't he supposed to be suppressed under Mount TongLu?
Deciding to act now and ask questions later, Feng Xin grabs his bow and lets the arrow fly.
It's a bullseye.
The arrow hits White No Face directly in the center of his half smiling, half crying mask, but it doesn't stop there. To Feng Xin's utter disbelief, it passes straight through him as if the man was but a facade.
"It's an illusion."
Feng Xin startles as Mu Qing suddenly appears beside him.
"We can't interact with it, only spectate. I've already tried attacking, it's useless."
"If that's not the real Xie Lian," Feng Xin glances at the fake prince, "Then where is he? Why would only the two of us be brought here without him?"
Mu Qing rolls his eyes, "How am I supposed to know, idiot? Let's just observe for now, maybe we can figure out what this ghost's methods are."
Ah, right. The mission. It had escaped his mind the moment he saw Xie Lian in danger.
He sighs and asks, "How long have you been here? What's going on? Why are these people interrogating His Highness?"
"The human face disease."
Feng Xin does a double take, "What?"
Mu Qing repeats, "The human face disease. It's spreading among them and they want the cure, but His Highness won't say."
It's that moment that White No Face decides to speak up.
"Then, let me tell you."
Xie Lian attempts to silence him, but there's not much he can do except shout, "Be quiet!"
Feng Xin's breath catches in his throat.
The voice reverberates throughout the room, immediately followed by the anxious chattering of the people.
“How can this be?”
“But doesn’t that mean, in order to prevent being infected, we have to go kill someone first?”
“Who do we kill?”
Around them, the situation seems to have taken a turn in the worst possible direction. Everyone glances around at one another, as if someone's about to whip out a knife on them. A women holding a child wails at her misfortune. Xie Lian does his best to placate them with words, but they pale in comparison to the threat that looms nearer with every passing moment.
Feng Xin doesn't know why he is here, he doesn't know why he is being shown this, and he certainly doesn't like the foreboding sensation that surrounds him.
"Is this a just an illusion," he gnaws at his lip, "or is it a memory?"
Mu Qing can't give him an answer, so he doesn't reply at all. His eyes remained engrossed on the scene before him, fists clenching and unclenching to soothe the uptight tension coiling within his body.
Meanwhile White No Face has cupped Xie Lian's cheek in his hands, and turns him to present to the crowd, “Who to kill? Upon seeing this face, do you still not know who to kill?”
Realizing what's about to happen, Feng Xin throws himself towards the altar. Mu Qing is following right behind him.
“Did you forget? He is a god. Which means…”
Their efforts are in vain.
A sword pushes through Xie Lian's chest, straight into his heart. It's gone as soon as it's entered, and then tossed to the ground in front of the crowd.
“—His body…is immortal.”
"Your Highness!" The both of them yell. Feng Xin desperately tries to cover the wound with his hands, but they pass right through Xie Lian's body. He fails to register a little ghost fire aiming to do the same.
Mu Qing's sabre is unsheathed and he stands firmly between the prince and the common people, as if daring someone to try and go through him.
But they can't see him, so of course they'd dare.
A mother and father place their child's hands upon the sword, and lunge straight for Xie Lian's abdomen. Despite knowing it won't prevent the inevitable, Feng Xin can't help but place himself in their line of attack. If this was reality, it would've pierced right into him instead.
But this is an illusion.
No. In his heart Feng Xin knows...
This is a memory.
The blade sinks into Xie Lian, who's face twists in pain. He looks as if he's holding back from throwing up blood.
The couple bows, muttering useless apologies before backing away. Mu Qing is angrily slashing through their incorporeal bodies like a mad man.
A young man comes forward, blathering this and about how he doesn't want to do this, how he has people waiting for him at home.
"MU QING!" Feng Xin roars.
Mu Qing is already failing to chop the man in half, but does it repeatedly as if hoping that if he swings hard enough, the sabre will meet skin.
"It's not working! Why the fuck isn't it working?!"
Feng Xin has never seen Mu Qing like this in all the centuries he's known him, eyes wild and composure completely shattered. Like he has already realized what's about to happen. Like he knows if this isn't stopped now, there'll be no turning back.
After all, if every single person here were to kill Xie Lian, what would be left of him in the end?
Eyes closed, the man thrusts the sword towards Xie Lian, but misses entirely and impales his side instead. His failure leaves him panicked, and he quickly stabs again.
Xie Lian whimpers.
Feng Xin's heart trembles.
Mu Qing is panting from exertion, but won't cease his attacks.
Another person speaks up, “I can’t stand this anymore.”
If Feng Xin had any doubt in his mind before that this was merely a dreamed up nightmare, it was destroyed by the appearance of this one man.
The street performer, the one who challenged them for taking his busking spot and broke his ribs shattering boulders on his chest. This is a detail that couldn't be faked, too minuscule in the grand scheme of their lives to have been plucked out by a ghost and used in a faux reality.
Feng Xin can't breathe.
Was it before or after he left? Did it happen while he was off fooling around with Jian Lan, or while he was gallivanting up in heaven as a middle court official? Where was he and why was it not here?
This street performer, who he once cursed to hell and back, was standing there defending His Highness in his place. Even as he's ridiculed and mocked by the crowd, he remains firm in his morality. Even when the beginnings of the plague begin to fester on his face, he refuses to stab Xie Lian and chooses to run out of the temple to his death.
Mu Qing gives up on fighting the air, and drops down to his knees, his own sabre clattering to the ground beside him.
Neither of them speak, because what is there to say?
“In all honesty, he had tried to rob me before!”
He hears Mu Qing choke.
“Isn’t he a prince? Isn’t he a god? To commit robbery?”
Feng Xin's mind is in disarray, warping with regret and shame. Didn't he think that too? Didn't he reject that someone like His Highness—someone he believed so benevolent, so perfect in character—had sunken to petty crime?
He should've reassured him. He should've told him it didn't matter, he would still follow him. He should've gone out and committed robbery himself. He should've, he should've, he should've. But he didn't.
He is no better than the people in this temple, these people who are now swarming around Xie Lian like a pack of hungry wolves who've cornered a defenseless rabbit, and Feng Xin thinks he might just burst.
The black blade is pushed into his body for a fifth time.
Feng Xin wills himself to move, to stop them, to do anything, please. But he only falls to the ground before the altar, legs rooted to the spot.
And he watches.
As the next person shoves the blade in, and Xie Lian lets out his first broken, pained scream.
And he watches.
As Xie Lian's mouth is muffled and his hands and feet are held down, body writhing against the restriction.
And he watches.
As the sword plunges in and out of him, large tears gathering and falling down his face.
His throat has been slit too many times to count, his torso so bloody and ripped open that organs and bones are visible.
Someone is screaming.
He isn't sure if it's only him.
Feng Xin can feel nothing and everything at once. He hears whispers echo throughout his head that sound suspiciously like Xie Lian himself.
"Where are you, Feng Xin? Why didn't you help me? Why didn't you save me? Why did you leave me, Feng Xin? This is all your fault! How could you do this to me? How could you let this happen? Where are you? WHERE ARE YOU?! SAVE ME FENG XIN! HELP ME FENG XIN!! SAVE ME!!!"
He clamps his hands over his ears and pleads, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Forgive me. Forgive me. I'm sorry, Your Highness. I'm sorry. Forgive me. Please forgive me."
An explosion blows out, and the temple is engulfed in flames.
Feng Xin is brought back to his senses by a sharp slap on his cheek. His eyes protest as he attempts to pull them open. He hadn't even realized they'd been closed.
"Feng Xin!" A distorted voice calls out. His ears are ringing, and his throat feels raw from screaming. But it can't even begin to compare to the tightening ache in his chest.
This time, he recognizes it's owner, and violently flinches back. His eyes begin to clear enough to see the blurry figure of Xie Lian hovering above him, hand raised as if he was about to slap him again.
Xie Lian. Alive, not a trace of blood or wounds on his person. Xie Lian, looking down at his with wide, frightened eyes.
Feng Xin's vision starts to blur once more, but this time it's due to a wetness gathering at the corners of his eyes. Once that first tear breaks free, the rest follow in an unbroken stream.
His voice comes out scratchy and broken, "Y-Your Highness."
Xie Lian's shoulders visibly sag in relief, and he loosens his hold on Feng Xin's arms. It wasn't until then that Feng Xin had even noticed he was being pinned to the ground, Xie Lian straddling his waist.
"Don't worry, it's over now. I'm here," he whispers.
Another wave of tears threaten to overcome him. In one fluid motion, Feng Xin sits up and throws his arms around Xie Lian, pulling him into a tight embrace.
"Feng Xin?!" Xie Lian stutters, flailing a bit at the unfamiliar affection. Feng Xin doesn't think he's ever hugged him before, wary of the fine line between royalty and servant that would always separate them. How stupid and insignificant that line seems now.
"I'm sorry, Your Highness. Xie Lian. I'm-I'm sorry," he mumbles into the prince's shoulder.
The other places his hand on Feng Xin's back and rubs comforting circles there, "I don't remember you doing anything that warranted an apology."
The hand pauses, "What temple?"
"The abandoned temple, where you...on the altar," Feng Xin shudders, "and all those people."
Xie Lian quickly pulls himself out of Feng Xin's hold and places both hands on his shoulders. The fire in his gaze is so intense Feng Xin has to look away.
"What did you see?"
Breathing shakily, he turns back to meet the stare head on, "All of it."
Xie Lian's grip on him tightens, then loosens, then tightens again before completely going slack. He bows his head, "Then I should be the one to apologize. You weren't supposed to find out."
At that, Feng Xin feels a familiar anger, one now laced with hurt, subdue his original panic. He wasn't supposed to find out? For eight hundred years, this trauma was Xie Lian's to bear alone. Why should he have to bear it alone, when Feng Xin could hold some of the weight for him? He's already failed His Highness by not being there physically, could he not even help him mentally either?
"Where was I?"
Xie Lian shakes his head, "It doesn't matter."
"IT MATTERS TO ME!" he demands, voice shaking, "Where the fuck was I, Xie Lian?!"
Xie Lian takes a few moments to study his face, and whatever he finds there gets him to withdraw, "You hadn't...left yet. It was after I started seeing White No Face, and I fled in pursuit of him."
His mouth runs dry, "After you fled because I didn't believe you."
"That's not the only reason..."
An old memory resurfaces from the corners of his mind, and the realization makes his jaw clench.
"When you came back, I punched you."
Xie Lian tries to speak up, likely to placate him with words of reassurance, but Feng Xin cuts him off. He doesn't want to be reassured, he wants the truth, no matter how brutal it may be.
"I punched you, I yelled at you, I berated you for not fulfilling the image I had of you in my head, and then I left."
"I was the one who told you to leave."
"You had every right to. I wasn't being a very supportive friend."
"Neither was I!" Xie Lian startles at his own volume, then clasps his hands together, "If it hadn't been for me, you could've been happy with Lady Jian Lan. Your son..."
"Those things were my own responsibility and my own failure. It has nothing to do with you," he insists.
Feng Xin has never blamed His Highness for the way things had turned out, and he never will. It was the curse of bad timing, his own indecision, and his own inadequacy. Jian Lan had been a comfort where he fell short, an ear when he needed someone to listen. She was a feeble attempt to repair the heartbreak seeing his prince hit rock bottom had left behind.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
He returns the question, "Why didn't you?"
Xie Lian considers his words before speaking again, "I, I didn't want you to leave. I was afraid more than anything that you would but," he pauses and sighs, "I thought I'd rather you go before things escalated so far that we hated the sight of each other. I also hoped...I wanted you to choose to stay despite me becoming the worst version of myself. That you could accept me as I was."
Feng Xin closes his eyes and let's the confession sink in. A secret lay heavy on his tongue, one he's still hesitant to admit. But if His Highness was being so honest, wouldn't it be too disrespectful to deny him the same?
"I came back."
Xie Lian's body tenses, and he's a little breathless when he says, "You...came back?"
"It was a few days later, when I'd calmed down and screwed my dumbass head back on right. But the place where we were staying, it had been destroyed. I searched the nearby areas, asking if anyone had seen you, but it was hopeless. It was as if you and Their Royal Majesties has disappeared off the face of the earth."
If it wasn't so heartbreaking, the expression on the others face could almost be considered comical. His is lips are parted, and his eyes are widened in shock.
"I searched for awhile, then guessed you hadn't wanted to be found, so I...did what Mu Qing had, and returned to heaven as a junior official."
The decision had always felt hypocritical of him. He looked down on Mu Qing and cursed at him for leaving His Highness to return to heaven, but in the end he was no better. But where else was there for him to go? There was nothing left in the moral realm worth staying for.
"I had never thought that..." Xie Lian trails off, at a loss for words.
Feng Xin runs a hand through his hair, which he assumes had fallen loose from it's usual tightly knit bun in Xie Lian's attempt to restrain him, "I looked for you again after I secured a place in heaven, but my resources were limited and maybe—no, definitely—I had not tried hard enough."
"It's better that you hadn't."
Not expecting such a blunt rejection, he inhales sharply, "I wouldn't have bothered you, I swear. I just wanted to check to see if you were doing well."
Xie Lian shakes his head and begins to stand up, "That's not what I meant."
He offers a hand, "Come, I'll explain more to the both of you later. We must find Mu Qing."
Feng Xin freezes.
Shit. Mu Qing.
He jumps up from his position, with the help of His Highness's hand to steady him, looking around a bit frantically.
"Mu Qing? You mean you haven't found him yet?"
In his own panic, he had completely forgotten that Mu Qing had been trapped in that hell too. If he hadn't been pulled out in time...
"I only came across you because I heard you screaming. Let's hope he hasn't run into the ghost's hands as well, and search for him hastily."
"Fuck," Feng Xin mutters under his breath, "We need to go now. Mu Qing, he was in the same illusion that I was. If he's still been stuck there all this time..."
Xie Lian pales, "When I found you, you were trying to choke yourself with your bowstring. Mu Qing has his sabre on him, he could've-"
It's only then that Feng Xin registers the sting on his neck. He lightly grazes a finger over it to find a ring indented into his skin.
Xie Lian grabs his wrist and starts pulling him forward, "He's most likely up ahead since I came from behind. Stick close to me so we're not separated again."
Feng Xin doesn't resist and allows himself to be lead away.
Xie Lian's grips never loosens.
There is no such thing as hell.
There is heaven, there is earth, and there is the ghost realm. The hell of fire and torture, of eternal damnation, was a mere myth of the mortal people. If you wanted to believe it existed, the closest you could come was probably the mortal realm itself—where people rip each other apart and inflict suffering in an endless cycle of hatred.
Mu Qing does not believe in hell.
But this may be the closest he's ever come to it.
The people are unaffected by his attacks, oblivious to the sharp edge of a sabre being slashed through their intangible bodies. But he continues, again and again until he's breathless and his muscles scream from exertion. He's disheveled in a way unfit for his character, impulsive like he's always scorned Feng Xin for being. But Feng Xin's desperation is different from his, he tries to use himself as a shield for Xie Lian, futilely blocking the stabs with his own body until the pointlessness of it forces him to his knees. If right now Mu Qing is the attacker, then Feng Xin is the defender.
Not that either mattered.
“In all honesty, he had tried to rob me before!”
The words tug open the door to a feeling he's long suppressed, guilt clawing it's way up his throat. It's suffocating, so intense he can't help but let out an audible choke.
“Isn’t he a prince? Isn’t he a god? To commit robbery?”
The crowd circles around Xie Lian, and Mu Qing is unwillingly reminded of a similar sight from the past.
Thirty three heavenly officials, dressed in the finest silks and jewelries, surrounding a young man who only donned dirtied and torn up robes. Thirty three heavenly officials, all with swords pointed towards a former crown prince, who tightly gripped a branch as his own defense. A prince who declared him his friend, who boasted this friend would never side against him, who asked him to believe in him.
Xie Lian, who collapses to the ground when he's rejected and who Mu Qing doesn't offer to help up until it's too late.
The regret he feels, it's the same.
Xie Lian is pinned to the altar, screams muffled and body struggling. A sabre lays worthlessly at Mu Qing's side as he watches the black sword plunge into his friend over and over—a sabre that was granted to him by that same friend, and who he had vowed to protect with it.
Vows mean nothing here. The promises he held quietly in his heart were broken the moment he was the first to walk away.
At Mount TongLu, he had pledged he would never betray His Highness again, would work to be someone worthy of his companionship and not leave the faith he had been showed unappreciated.
It seems he would not be able to keep this promise either.
He hears screaming, but he knows it's not him. His lips are sealed shut, jaw clenching so tight it could snap. Sweat pools down his forehead and mixes with his silent tears. Everything is cold.
"Mu Qing, why did you leave me? I was always so kind to you, I thought you were my friend. Is this how you repay me? You throw me aside for power, and then watch as I'm killed a hundred times?! How unlucky I am, to have a friend like you! I should've never promoted you as my servant, Feng Xin was right when he said you'd revel in my failures!! You're worthless! Useless!! I will never forgive you!!!"
Xie Lian's hatred runs deep into his bones and floods his blood like poison. It's unceasing, freezing his veins and stiffening any movement. He no longer can feel himself breathing.
An explosion erupts, and the ice in his body melts into a blazing fire. He's engulfed by the flames, they kiss his cheek and tickles his hair, but he still cannot will himself to move. There's nothing to see except the blinding flashes of orange and yellow.
"You deserve this."
A silhouette is walking towards him—no, it's more like it's crawling towards him. Mu Qing cannot mistake the rough dragging sound of skin against pavement. Out from the flames emerges what can barely be described as a person; they're covered from head to toe in blood, innards spilling out and dangling from their torso. Their eye sockets are hollow, and their hair is pulled half up in a bun.
"Look at what you've done to me."
Who else could it possibly be?
Xie Lian has finally arrived before him, and latches his mangled, burnt body onto Mu Qing.
"Help me!" He whispers in Mu Qing's ear.
His voice is raspy and painful to force out. It's a miracle he manages to say anything at all. Xie Lian only looks up at him and smiles sweetly through the blood coating his face.
The scene changes.
Now he's kneeling in debris, among burnt buildings and a field of wreckage. The ruins of Xian Le, he recalls immediately. Mu Qing stands, legs trembling, just barely enough to support his weight. He stumbles forward, then regains his balance, and stumbles again. Something draws him towards the battlefield—a force he doesn't possess the strength to resist. As he approaches it, he spots the flutter of white robes and a familiar half crying, half smiling mask.
Only this person has a white silk band fluttering from their wrist, an accessory he'd never witnessed on Jun Wu. One that belonged to...
"Do you hate?"
Mu Qing's halts his footsteps. Dead souls wail and cry from the soil, turning the air black from resentment.
“The people you swore to protect and die for have now become the citizens of the new kingdom. Do you hate?”
It couldn't be.
“They’ve forgotten you who have died on the battlefield, forgotten your sacrifices, and are cheering for those who robbed away your lives. Do you hate?”
It wasn't possible.
“What’s the use in screaming? Answer me, DO YOU HATE??”
Mu Qing falls under the intensity of the figure before him. Innumerous wails ring out into the air, chanting their hatred, their resentment, their agony.
“KILL… I WANT TO KILL THEM!!!”
That white clothed man opens his arms towards them and extends both his hands, “Come to my side.”
Every word he speaks hammers straight into Mu Qing's skull, “I promise, the people of YongAn shall never know peace!”
Mu Qing knows who it is, there is no doubt in his mind. But he won't—can't formulate a coherent thought at the sight.
The last thing he sees is a black clothed youth bowing behind Xie Lian, and then he blacks out.
They find him leaning against a tree, body entangled with white vines that pulse not unlike if they had a heartbeat. His eyes blankly staring ahead.
Xie Lian removes his grip on Feng Xin's wrist and rushes towards Mu Qing. He reaches to pull away the vines, but is stung upon contact. A sickly black color begins to spread across his hand. Poison.
"What the fuck?!" Feng Xin exclaims, kneeling down and grabbing the aforementioned hand, "Your Highness, are you alright?"
"Yes, it's nothing."
An eyebrow is raised in response.
He coughs awkwardly, "Sorry, habit. But it doesn't hurt too much, don't make a fuss over it."
"If you insist," Feng Xin releases him, "Be more careful next time."
Xie Lian pulls out Fang Xin from where it's been strapped to his back and begins chopping away the vines, careful not to injure Mu Qing. He gestures to the side, "His sabre is over there, grab it and help me cut him free."
The other complies without complaint, and with their combined effort it's mere minutes before Mu Qing is released. The loss of support causes him to slump onto Feng Xin.
"Mu Qing!" Feng Xin props the other upright with one hand, "Hey asshole! Are you alright?!"
When he doesn't get a response, he pauses, then seems to remember something and slaps the other hard across the face. Mu Qing doesn't so much as twitch. Feng Xin slaps him again. It's only as Feng Xin prepares a third hit that Xie Lian stops him, not sure if he should laugh or cry.
"Feng Xin, stop slapping him. It's not going to work."
"What the hell else am I supposed to do? Didn't you slap me to wake me up??"
Xie Lian shakes his head, "The situations aren't the same. You weren't this docile, showing clear resistance and moved your body easily. You also didn't have these vines anywhere near you. The methods of mind control must be different."
Realization flashes across Feng Xin's face, "So the people we found dead in the forest, and the ones who were returned to the village..."
"They experienced the same types of hallucinations you and Mu Qing did, and their reactions were split as well."
Feng Xin glances anxiously at Mu Qing, "Then that means that he won't wake up no matter what we do, right?"
He tilts his head down solemnly, "Exactly. We must find and defeat this ghost first, then hopefully that will free him. If it doesn't..." Xie Lian tightens his fist, "We'll certainly find a way!"
The tone in which the words are declared is a bit embarrassing, far too much of a resemblance to the bravado of his youth, but it seems to reassure Feng Xin nonetheless. He carefully picks up Mu Qing and then places him over his shoulder, "I'll carry him. You wrap up that hand of yours so the poison doesn't spread."
Xie Lian tears his sleeve and ties it tightly around his palm, not wanting to use Ruoye in case he needs it as a weapon. He stands, "I think the ghost is manipulating the forest's terrain to capture its victims. First we were forced apart, and then individually targeted. It tried to inhibit me with flower pollen, but I covered my face in time. Did you experience something similar?"
"I found a lake and saw you in the reflection so I dove in. When I resurfaced I was standing in front of that temple."
"So the lake behaved as a catalyst," Xie Lian taps a finger onto his chin, "If this ghost's influence is so widely spread, it must be a Menace level. Something lower wouldn't have been able to disarm two Heavenly Officials."
"How the hell do we find it if it can change the forest at will?" Feng Xin groans.
"Easy, just follow the vines," Xie Lian points at the injured plant, which is now making it's hasty retreat. They chase after it, needing to quicken their pace as it zips backwards, but it's nothing two martial gods can't handle. The vine leads them to a small clearing in the forest, and attached to the very end of it is a woman. She's sitting in a meditative position on a tall rock, silent and still except for her hair, the source of the vines they had just followed. Where her pupils are supposed to be, there is only blankness.
She's blind, he notes, feeling a little dejected about his plans to ambush her. He wasn't fond of using such underhanded tactics, and would rather face his enemies head on. Yet he doesn't get to linger on it for too long before he accidentally steps on a branch, the snap exposing their quiet approach. Feng Xin slaps a hand onto his forehead, "Your Highness your luck is really..."
The sentence is cut off by the woman's hair, vines? Nevermind. The woman whipping her hair in their direction, forcing the two of them to dodge. Xie Lian yells, "Ruoye! Restrain her!"
Eager to show off as always, Ruoye slips out from under his robes and flies towards the ghost, dodging every vine with ease and wrapping around her tightly. She struggles against the restraints and topples off the rock onto the ground. Her hair keeps thrashing about, slamming into trees and just narrowly missing Feng Xin, who's having difficulty avoiding it without jostling Mu Qing on his shoulder.
Xie Lian flashes forward, Fang Xin drawn, and slashes down through her hair. The vines break off, screeching as they turn black and shrivel into dust.
"Not much of a close range fighter, are you?" he questions, peering down at the woman. She only hisses in lieu of an answer.
Feng Xin comes up behind him, Mu Qing still dangling off him listlessly. Xie Lian points his sword at the ghost, "How do we heal him?"
She hisses again.
"Your Highness, don't bother. Let's just kill her, that'll likely undo whatever enchantment she's put him under."
Xie Lian tucks Fang Xin under her chin, "I'll give you a count of five. If you don't answer me by then, I'll detach your head from your body."
He applies more pressure to the tip of the blade, "Three."
An arrow whizzes past him, going straight through the woman's skull. She doesn't even have a moment to scream before her body disintegrates into nothing. Xie Lian whips around, "Feng Xin!"
Feng Xin slowly lowers his bow, Mu Qing removed from his shoulder and instead lying on the grass, "Forgive me, Your Highness, but she wasn't going to talk anytime soon and I wasn't risking waiting any longer."
Xie Lian rubs at his forehead. Even with his threat, he wasn't actually going to kill her; only knock her out and take her to Hua Cheng for assistance. No ghost ever seemed willingly to disobey him, after all.
"Plus I think it worked, look."
He turns back around, and sure enough, where the woman once laid were little wisps of blue. They weren't particularly strong, easily flickering with the slight breeze; Xie Lian is afraid one might even blow out. Yet unlike the others, a golden wisp burns particularly brightly, displaying complete indifference to it's surroundings. It floats over to Mu Qing's motionless body, and disappears into his chest.
"Are those...souls? She fed on their goddamn souls??" Feng Xin shivers, "That's fucking nasty."
The other wisps rise up into the air and head back towards what Xie Lian recognizes is the direction of the village, "I suppose you were right."
The other hums satisfactorily and nudges Mu Qing with his boot, "Hey, you awake yet?"
Xie Lian pulls open one of Mu Qing's eyelids, "The irises are no longer clouded, so he's been released from the mind control. It should be only a matter of time before he wakes up. Let's return to the village and rest at an inn."
Feng Xin goes to pick him up again, "This bastard better be grateful for all the carrying I've had to do for him. I'm expecting at least three kowtows and an apology back massage."
Laughing, Xie Lian follows after him, "I very much doubt you'll get either of those."
When Mu Qing comes to, all he sees is white.
He blinks once, twice, before he registers that what he's staring at is only a ceiling. He's laying on something soft, too comfortable to be the ground, head propped up by what could only be a pillow. The atmosphere is serene, but Mu Qing doesn't dare lessen his guard. He groggily tries to push himself into a sitting position, before two hands force him right back down.
"You're awake! Feng Xin! Mu Qing's awake!!"
There's a bang in the distance and a flurry of footsteps. Feng Xin appears in his line of vision, hovering over him.
"Hey sleeping beauty, enjoy your nap?"
Mu Qing doesn't have the strength to muster up anything besides a halfhearted glare and a feeble, "Fuck you."
Xie Lian places a hand on his shoulder, and Mu Qing shifts his head towards him.
"How are you feeling? Does it hurt anywhere? You were under the control of the ghost, and have been unconscious for almost an entire day. The other victims have woken up already, but you seem to had been hit with the worst of it."
Aside from the exhaustion, his body feels unaffected. However, there sits an unbearable ache in his chest, like someone has shoved their hand in and is squeezing without any restraint. But he doesn't verbalize this, because how ridiculous that would be; it's not a pain inflicted through injury. He's overwhelmed. He doesn't know what to say, he doesn't know how to deflect. All he can do is stare at Xie Lian and hope he isn't exposing too much of what he really feels through his eyes. He wants to ask a million questions, but isn't brave enough to receive the answers.
Xie Lian makes the choice for him.
"Feng Xin told me you saw it too, what happened in the temple."
Mu Qing remains silent. Xie Lian shifts uncomfortably.
"Don't you dare apologize, I don't want to hear any of it. I don't care."
Xie Lian snaps his jaw shut.
Feng Xin, irritated by the dismissal, intervenes, "You don't care? What do you mean you don't fucking care? Who the fuck was slashing through those people like a goddamn madman-"
"Shut up!" He snaps, "That's not what I meant! Maybe let me finish before you jump to your own conclusions!"
Feng Xin crosses his arms, "Stop fucking tiptoeing around what you want to say, and say it clearly. Unless you need me to go find another pit of lava to get you to open up?"
Mu Qing bristles at the taunt. Deep inside him, centuries old feelings he's struggled to keep under lock and key struggle to break free. For the first time, he lets them.
"Listen clearly, cause I'm going to say this once. You don't owe me an apology, you never have...I've done selfish things that I'm not proud of. I let my own insecurity twist the kindness you showed me, put twisted meanings to everything you've done just so I wouldn't feel inferior to you. But you...never thought yourself better than me. And when you needed me, I wasn't there like a friend should have been," Mu Qing takes a deep breath, rising from the bed to offer Xie Lian a genuine bow.
"I'm unworthy of your forgiveness, let alone your friendship. Yet still, still I hope for it. Everything I said at Mount TongLu was true, I think you're rather amazing, and what I've seen today had only proved it further. I'd like to put all this behind us so we can move forward, if you'd allow me too."
Xie Lian flounders, trying to pull Mu Qing up, but he won't budge. His face feels like it's on fire, burning much hotter than the flames from the temples explosion. His pride is stinging, but he feels like an eight century old weight has lifted off his shoulders—one he wasn't even aware had been so heavy.
"Mu Qing, please don't bow to me," Xie Lian pleads. Mu Qing raises his head slightly, and the tired expression he finds on the prince's face forces him upright.
"You really, you don't need to ask for forgiveness. I've forgiven you long ago, and you certainly weren't the only one in the wrong."
Mu Qing's lips tug down, "What do you mean? You never-"
"I rashly acted out, and didn't take the time to consider your own situation. You came back out of goodwill, and I treated you terribly."
"It was out of guilt, not goodwill."
Xie Lian shakes his head, "Either way, you still came back to help. I shouldn't have thrown it right back in your face, quite literally."
Feng Xin snorts and then coughs to cover it up. "What you did was fucked up, but at least you knew you were in the wrong. If it makes you feel any better we did use the rice after you left."
Mu Qing lightly punches his arm, "Am I supposed to be relieved you ate the rice you smacked me in the face with?"
Feng Xin doesn't bother to smother his laugh this time, and Mu Qing can't help but find it amusing as well. At the time, it had been heartbreaking, but now it just seemed rather stupid. Xie Lian only glanced between the two of them, looking as if he wanted to join in but found it inappropriate to do so.
"Xie Lian, can I ask you something?"
The other squares his shoulders and nods, "Anything you two want to know, I will tell you. No more secrets, keeping them has only inflicted more harm than good."
Mu Qing braces himself before saying, "I saw something else too, after the temple. I was in the ruins of Xian Le, and the White Clothed Calamity was there, only he had a silk bandage tied around his wrist...Was that you?"
Feng Xin's face pales. The temperature of the room drops.
"En, it was me."
Mu Qing inhales sharply, not surprised because the truth had been obvious, but shocked by it nonetheless. He had drawn his own conclusions, but this admission was something he could never prepare for.
"The morning after Feng Xin left, I had this uneasy feeling once I woke up. When I rushed to my parent's room, they were hanged from the banister by a silk band."
"That's when I snapped. I tried to suffocate myself, but it was useless," He lets out a dry chuckle, "I cannot die, after all."
"Rouye is the conceived spirit of my parents, combined with my blood that was spilt on that alter."
The silk band in question slithers out from beneath Xie Lian's robes and taps his face affectionately, as if trying to console it's master.
He can't get himself to speak another word, and Feng Xin seems to be fairing about the same. They stay hushed, absorbing the truths they were being trusted with, and allow His Highness to continue.
"It happened to be the day of the celebration for the newly built Yong An imperial palace. People were laughing and cheering while my parents lay dead beside me, I couldn't take it. Why should they live happily when everything I loved was ripped from me for their triumph? It wasn't fair, and I wanted them to suffer what I was suffering." He takes a deep breath.
"So I resolved to unleash the human face disease upon the people of Yong An, and donned the identity of the White No Face."
"But I never heard of a second outbreak in Yong An, so you must've stopped the plague, didn't you?" There's no real doubt in Feng Xin question, like he's already sure of the answer before he receives one.
"En, although I don't deserve the credit. I wanted to turn back too late, and someone else took on the resentment of all those spirits for me."
Mu Qing has an epiphany.
"It was that boy in black, wasn't it?"
Xie Lian smiles sadly, "I'm sure I don't have to tell you who that was, do I?"
"...Hua Cheng," both he and Feng Xin answer simultaneously.
Another nod, "I ascended, but I felt it was wrong and asked to be banished again, only this time to also have a shackle to seal my fortune as repentance for that nameless ghost I so horribly wronged. But Jun Wu couldn't banish me without reason, so we made it seem like I attacked him out of rage. Well, his cooperation was but a farce. I know that now."
"I wouldn't have been able to do it," Mu Qing states, "If I were you, I would've unleashed the plague and never looked back."
It's true. He's not trying to appease anyone by making himself seem like the bad guy. He had once supported using the disease as a military tactic, and would still have used that strategy to this day. Whether that is right or wrong, he doesn't care, that is just his character. If you're hit, hit back harder. The people of Yong An tore apart everything he knew as his home—if he did the same, who could blame him? Still, no one was more wronged by them than Xie Lian, and in the end even he was able to pull back from enacting what would've been justice for him and his family.
"You underestimated our understanding of you if you thought we'd be disgusted by this," Feng Xin says, firmly clenching his jaw, "And maybe that's partly my fault, because I gave you the reason to doubt me. But Your Highness, Xie Lian, even before I was your subordinate I thought myself your best friend. We grew up together, how could I not comprehend your resentment? If I had not left you in the first place, you wouldn't have been driven to such desperate measures, so how could I condemn you for them?"
Feng Xin takes a breath, "As for the deaths of Their Majesties, I am truly sorry. I know it's long overdue, but if you'd let me I'd like to go pay my respects at the Imperial Mausoleum."
Xie Lian's eyes are misty when he agrees, "Of course you can."
Mu Qing jabs his thumb in Feng Xin's directions and huffs, "The idiot's right. You're only human, no matter how amazing you may be. You can make mistakes just like the rest of us, so don't act all ashamed of them. We've made a hell of a lot more than you, so we can't even talk."
Xie Lian seems to hesitate in his movements before he shakes his head and throws his arms around the both of them. Their height difference is just enough that they need to lean down to accommodate him.
"Thank you, Feng Xin. Thank you, Mu Qing," He murmurs, "I once said 'I hope the sight of the three of us standing together fighting will become a tale of the ages' and I hope those words still hold true."
Mu Qing feels his ears burn, "There you go with your outlandish statements again..."
Feng Xin only chuckles, and pulls them both in tighter, "We'll be even fucking better than a tale of the ages! Where else in all of history can you find a trio like us?"
"Not you too," Mu Qing rolls his eyes.
"Looks like you've run yourself dry for today when it comes to emoting, huh? Why don't you lay down and rest a bit, I know it must be difficult for you," Feng Xin teases.
"I'll punch that grin right off your face."
"You can't, we're hugging right now."
"Want to test it out?"
Xie Lian starts shaking, and their bantering comes to a halt. But the concern is unnecessary, for Xie Lian only throws his head back and let's out a joyous laugh, more genuine and light than anything they've ever heard from him before.
"You two, I really," he giggles, "I really love you both."
If Mu Qing's face wasn't red before, it sure as hell was now.
Feng Xin grins, "We love you too, Xie Lian. I'll say it for Mu Qing since he looks like he's about to combust any second now."
Xie Lian finally pulls back from the embrace, smiling, "Why don't we go back to Puji Shrine? I'll cook us one of my new recipes!"
Despite the protesting twists of their stomachs, neither of them have the heart to say no.
"Gege!! I'm home!"
Xie Lian looks up from where he's setting the table to see Hua Cheng saunter into the room with a wide grin on his face, one that promptly slips off when he notices the two guests sitting in their dining area.
"San Lang you're back!" Xie Lian hurries over, wanting to greet him with a kiss. (And maybe wind down a bit of his irritation while he's at it.) It's only meant to be a light peck on the lips, but when he attempts to pull away Hua Cheng draws him back in for longer than can be deemed appropriate, present company in mind.
"What the fuck, we're right here?!" Feng Xin squawks.
Hua Cheng parts from Xie Lian and smiles insincerely at the other two, "Gege, we've seemed to have acquired an insect problem while I was gone. Shall I exterminate these pests for you?"
Mu Qing snorts, "The biggest pest just walked right through the door."
"Takes one to know one, doesn't it?"
Xie Lian rubs at his forehead, not sure whether he should laugh or cry. The three of them take that as their cue to back down, if only to preserve their prince's sanity.
"Gege, what are you cooking? It smells delicious."
The compliment dissipates any lingering stress and replaces it with excitement, "Dumplings! It's something new I wanted to try, won't you sit? We were just about to start eating."
Hua Cheng allows himself to be led by an eager Xie Lian to a chair, who then scurries off to fetch the food. Meanwhile, the three at the table engage in a silent stare off until he returns.
"Here they are!" Xie Lian places a tray on the table, where about two dozen dumplings sit. He folded them all himself, so they're a bit saggy and deformed, and maybe the color is a little darker than it should be, but San Lang had said they smelled good so his confidence was restored. He settles himself in the seat beside Hua Cheng, across from Mu Qing and Feng Xin. They're both wearing a complicated expression.
"Gege seems more happy with his dish than usual," Hua Cheng comments.
Xie Lian smiles gently, "Of course I am happy. I am sharing a meal with my three most precious people."
Having heard this, Mu Qing and Feng Xin each quickly stuff a dumpling into their mouths. Their faces pale, then redden, then pale again as they chew.
"What do you think?" He asks anxiously.
Feng Xin swallows hard, "V-Very good, Your Highness. You've-" He coughs, "You've improved a lot since the last time I had your cooking."
He turns his attention to Mu Qing, who responds meekly, "Xie Lian this taste, honestly, it is truly beyond words."
Xie Lian brightens at what he assumes to be praise, "You really think so? I'm glad I made so many then, since I knew there would be more of us. Please continue!"
The other gods can only gulp and reach for another dumpling. Hua Cheng seems to be in good spirits again, lightly chuckling, "What's the name of this dish?"
"Fulfilling the Trials of Friendship!" Xie Lian declares. Mu Qing chokes on his dumpling, and Feng Xin has to smack him on the back a few times to force it down.
"This is definitely a trial," He mumbles under his breath, earning a kick in the shin from Feng Xin. Luckily, Xie Lian doesn't take notice of the exchange.
"San Lang, won't you have some?"
Hua Cheng leans in close to his ear, brushing a finger under Xie Lian's chin. "Hmm~ But I'd rather Gege fill me up with something else~" he teases, voice barely low enough to qualify as a whisper.
Two chairs abruptly screech against the floor as Feng Xin and Mu Qing jump up from their seats.
"YOUR HIGHNESS IT WAS NICE SEEING YOU BUT I'M AFRAID I NEED TO DEPART NOW PLEASE CONTACT ME ABOUT THE MAUSOLEUM WHEN YOU GET THE CHANCE THANK YOU FOR THE MEAL GOODBYE!" Feng Xin then flees from the room, leaving Xie Lian a bit frazzled by the rushed departure.
Mu Qing glares at Hua Cheng in disgust before nodding at Xie Lian, "Thank you for your help today. Let's..." He crosses his arms and looks away, "Let's hang out again soon. If you need anything, you know where to find me. I'll take my leave now."
He moves towards the door, but then backtracks to take a couple more dumplings before he leaves entirely.
Xie Lian slumps his shoulders, "San Lang, you scared them away."
"But Your Highness, this San Lang didn't say anything."
Hitting his arm playfully, Xie Lian admonishes, "So insincere."
Hua Cheng smirks, "You'll never find anyone more sincere than me in this world...and right now I sincerely want Gege to indulge this poor touched-starved San Lang, who's gone two whole days without His Highness's affections. How cruel, how pitiable." He places the back of his hand to his forehead and feigns fainting onto Xie Lian's lap.
Xie Lian sighs, exasperated yet unbelievably fond, and leans down for another kiss.
When Feng Xin returns later to retrieve his forgotten quiver, his curses can be heard from the heavens.