History had a weight to it, inevitably. History was something that informed actions, reformed goals, held up the present and guided the future.
Yu Feng, honestly, was not a huge fan of history.
Yu Feng learned what he needed to, but forging steadily ahead was more his style, history a mere list of accomplishments to show what could be—a flow of time and consequence that he was impatient to join. History, to be fair, was no longer such a long subject; too much had been destroyed, the rest a constant reshaping and growth that could barely count as “history” at all. The academics of the recently-formed Samsara Domain might disagree, doing their best to reconstruct the lost history of an entire world along with their more general schools for humanity’s future, but as far as Yu Feng was concerned, history was no more than this:
Ten years ago, the world fell to poisonous miasma.
On that day, ten years ago, all of humanity was reduced to a single domain under the protection of the constellation Launching Spear, a formation granted to two boys alone—the developer of the new world, Su Muqiu, and the unseen protector, Ye Xiu. In taking that role the two became, regardless of their origins, the most revered and important people on the planet.
And what was history compared to that?
Of course, from that point there was more—over seven years ago, Su Muqiu Faded, leaving Ye Xiu to carry their constellation alone. Six years ago, the stars deigned to grant their ability to another, but not a new partner: to Han Wenqing and Zhang Xinjie, the constellation Brutal Defense. With it came another domain, the slightest and essentially useless lightening of the global miasma, and most importantly a target for everyone’s devoted fervor.
Ye Xiu, who never returned to the ground, never looked back to face them, was seen only in cast shadows and reflections on the boundary between terras and atmos, loved as an idea more than a person. It was a kind of weight, a kind of love; the world grieved that the stars gave a new constellation rather than his all-important partner.
But it didn’t change the hope Tyrannical Domain’s opening represented.
In the fifth year, Cursed Sword became the fifth constellation to be granted, and Yu Feng first joined the world’s defense under the new River Domain. Yu Wenzhou took over mid-range tactics, and rarely could attend to River Domain’s lower-sphere defense personally; Huang Shaotian and the Sword he carried were a force to be reckoned with, but more in the manner of an assassin than a defender. Over time, leading the defense of River Domain and even its administration fell more and more to Yu Feng, freeing their constellation bearers to assist instead the still partnerless Ye Xiu—carrying their bit of the weight of the world. Yu Feng did well under pressure, and was proud himself to carry his own bit of weight.
Four years ago, Su Mucheng was finally granted Launching Spear. Perhaps the stars took pity on Ye Xiu’s slowly dragging steps and humanity’s mounting fear, or perhaps there was no reason at all, but four years ago the persistent desperation to be named replacement over anything else eased into nothing—became its own kind of history.
Three years ago, already, Yu Feng began to wish for his own constellation, his own domain. Without it he could not ascend beyond the atmos, couldn’t be the first pillar of support everyone turned to, couldn’t make an impact on the Inflow in a way that really mattered—even his defense of River Domain was partially under the guidance of Zhang Xinjie. Yu Feng knew the danger, wasn’t ignorant of its difficulties, but the benefits outweighed the risks and he did enough of the work of one anyway: He wanted to be star-touched. Secondhand weapons and steady organization were so little compared to the significance of carrying an entire constellation, its grand and silvered weapons, his own name. He was sure he was strong enough to bear the weight.
From that moment on, regardless of his ability to substantially pursue it, Yu Feng had wanted nothing more than the acknowledgment of the stars, and his own domain to run outside of Cursed Sword’s shadow.
He wanted to write his own history, a history that belonged only to him.
Two years ago, Sun Zheping of the third constellation ever granted, Blood Blossoms, suddenly Faded. Last week, Zhang Jiale lost himself to the Fade as well, the stars having refused to grant him a different partner to the end. Blossom Domain did not collapse, to humanity’s great relief—as the center of agriculture and a home to many people, the loss of Blossom Domain would have been devastating—so presumably Blood Blossoms had been granted to new bearers, and the matter could be forgotten.
Yesterday, Yu Feng was finally granted his own constellation.
His constellation was Blood Blossoms.
Huang Shaotian descended to congratulate him, of course. It was no secret that Yu Feng wanted to more tangibly fight alongside their domain’s leaders, although nothing in particular could be done about it; who knew what it was that moved the stars?
And it was congratulations he meant to offer, and congratulations Yu Feng had to accept, because it would be impossible for Huang Shaotian to understand how much Yu Feng had wanted his own constellation, a name indelibly tied to his. It would be impossible for him to understand that Yu Feng’s connection to New Humanity as a whole practically centered around this want, because Huang Shaotian was granted Cursed Sword at a time when it was still a harsh blow to all of humanity when a new constellation was granted instead of a replacement appointed. The creeping fear that there would never be a replacement, validated even more so in retrospect with Zhang Jiale’s Fade, interminably alone. What if that had happened to Ye Xiu? So of course Yu Feng should be honored, to protect humanity this way, to take up someone else’s mantle. He should be.
Maybe, under all this somewhere, he was.
“I can’t believe you’re really leaving us!” Huang Shaotian chattered now. “How dare you, I mean of course it’s not really you but I know you always wanted to anyway, so I guess congratulations and we’ll see you on the field but it won’t be the same, you know? And you’ll have your whole constellation and domain to run, too, and we have to find someone else to run ours because you know how much we can’t personally lead the atmos fight, damn, you’ve done it so well for so long anyone else will be a pure letdown. And we’ll all miss you too, yeah? Not just because we’ll have no support to rely on ourselves, but you really—”
In the background his chatter continued, but Yu Feng’s attention was taken by Yu Wenzhou’s descent to congratulate him—a rather larger concession than Huang Shaotian’s in general, given Yu Wenzhou’s tactical role and usual standby orders in case of a new wave, but even more so with the two of them together. With both down here, no one was upholding Cursed Sword.
Obviously this was possible under the protective umbrella of Launching Spear, and by design—another of Su Muqiu’s many safeguards against another Fade—but infrequently done anyway, due to the unsecure nature of leaving a constellation to rest untethered over its domain.
“I have to at least see you off,” Yu Wenzhou answered his unasked question. “We’ll see each other again soon, but I’d feel better for preparing you a little for what you’ve just been thrust into.”
Yu Wenzhou always spoke like that of the constellations, more duty-minded than most. He’d also had a sharper rise in status, given there’d been great hope Huang Shaotian would join Launching Spear back then while Yu Wenzhou seemed almost to come from nowhere, so perhaps that accounted for it. Yu Feng hardly thought he was going in blind, but Yu Wenzhou was a good leader, and his words were always worth listening to.
By the time Yu Feng was ready to make the trip from River Domain to Blossom Domain, he’d even become settled enough in all this to feel a little excited, and more than a little determined. His own name or not, Yu Feng had his own constellation, and that was more than many others ever got.
He didn’t think on those few still destined to carry new constellations of their own, later.
The shuttle between River Domain and Blossom Domain ran more frequently than many others, aquaponics and agriculture both essential to survival for the rest of New Humanity. Yu Feng sat in one of the seats for those passengers who wanted to come along, watching the miasma thicken outside the window as they drew away from Cursed Sword’s protection. Even though Su Muqiu had designed the travel mechanism many years earlier—a product of boundless optimism, given no domain beyond the main Dynastic Domain under Launching Spear had existed until some time after he’d fully Faded—and the lines for these particular tracks had been laid five years previous without a single accident since, it was unsettling to watch the arches vibrate into starlight glow, strenuously pushing the miasma back far enough to let this one pocket of clean air travel from one domain to the next. Each time, the miasma barely seemed to clear the arches before the shuttle passed, clinging maliciously in the hopes of eating away the interloping vehicle and everything within. Each time, watching the arches shudder into darkness again, swallowed by the miasma tide in an instant, it seemed as if the rushing corrosion would grasp the shuttle’s tail before it could escape.
Not even sound that dared touch the miasma’s borders could escape, though, and the muted rattle of the shuttle’s journey pressed on his mind like a physical smother.
Yu Feng would only be able to ascend to stellas, the sphere beyond atmos, through Blood Blossoms, so until he reached the Blossom Domain it rested over he couldn’t use the interconnected battlefield of the star-touched to cut this journey short, even if he might want to. And he actually had better reasons than the unnerving nature of travel through earthbound miasma to want to as well—new constellations were always granted in pairs, the two traveling new lightrails to their new domain together, and the only previous replacement had been Su Mucheng, who’d already lived and fought in the Dynastic Domain before being granted Launching Spear herself. Yu Feng’s partner had been granted their constellation a whole week in advance, and reportedly didn’t have to travel besides; as it was, Yu Feng would be arriving more than a little late. He had no idea what his partner might settle into before he was even there to talk to them.
Setting aside anything about being out of place in a new domain with its own sense of hierarchy, most partners tended to take one half of the constellation to embody for themselves, to better handle carrying two very different kinds of weight. Yu Feng knew himself well enough to know which of “Blood” and “Blossoms” he better fit, but if his partner had already chosen…
It was a mess, honestly, and Yu Feng really couldn’t understand why the stars had done it this way. Was it that hard to find a second pick? He’d wonder if maybe he’d been a last resort, but Zhang Jiale’s years alone proved the stars would have no issue granting this constellation to just one if they didn’t like the fit of another. So why do it like this?
As usual, though, it was useless to ask “why” of the stars.
The miasma swirled thick and menacing outside the window, held back by the weakest of starlight; around him the shuttle shuddered, and juddered, and groaned.
Yu Feng didn’t know exactly what he was expecting—Blossom Domain was beautiful, of course, and brighter somehow than River Domain’s watery clime—but meeting a boy who practically cried upon seeing him was…not it.
Perhaps calling Zou Yuan a boy was unfair, since he was only a year younger than Yu Feng, but everything about him practically screamed “inexperienced” and “overwhelmed” in a way Yu Feng and his long career of leading River Domain’s atmos fighters just didn’t. Zou Yuan, it turned out, had not been the leader of Blossom Domain’s defense, as Yu Feng had initially assumed. He’d been a good fighter, definitely, and the stars must have seen something in him, but if Yu Feng had been sure he could handle a constellation’s weight, Zou Yuan looked like the mere idea of it might knock him over.
Of course, his constellation’s last bearer had Faded fully little over a week previous, and in that time Zou Yuan had been granted this mantle alone. Pressure like that, for someone who hadn’t even put much thought into holding his own constellation before, was definitely a lot to handle.
At least he needn’t have worried about which half of the constellation Zou Yuan intended to hold; despite having watched Zhang Jiale’s wan smiles, bowed shoulders and slow steps, that wilted form of desperate violence—Yu Feng hadn’t seen him often, but it was not an image one could forget—Zou Yuan had haltingly stated his preference for Blossoms.
Yu Feng could only hope that Zou Yuan, much later to this fight as a whole than Yu Feng, didn’t think that Blossoms were meant to be as colorless and weak as Zhang Jiale had inescapably become.
If he did, Yu Feng would be in serious trouble. It seemed a little foolish, now, that in all of his daydreaming of being lit with starglow he’d never given a single thought to this partner. Those who bore constellations together tended to have complementary traits, but which traits the constellation might need both sides of varied too much to guess what manner of “complementary” the constellation might choose. Yu Feng had figured it was likely his partner would have a preference for distance fighting, given his own preference for short-range, but other than that it was hard enough to accurately determine what an outsider saw as one’s own traits, let alone how the stars might think to balance them with another’s.
Thus, in Yu Feng’s mind, his future partner had always been a very nebulous thing. This might also have been influenced by what he’d seen of Yu Wenzhou and Huang Shaotian’s partnership—to some extent, they didn’t even seem to go near each other. Yu Feng had easily settled into the idea that he’d be the same, even though he was aware of how close Huang Shaotian and Yu Wenzhou were otherwise—carrying a constellation together meant holding the same weight, resonating with the same distant source. There was no way partners wouldn’t be close.
And yet, Yu Feng had imagined bearing its weight alone, all the way until his partner sat before him already, tense with anxiety.
…Yu Feng might actually bear the weight alone anyway, it seemed. He didn’t really mind.
Yu Wenzhou said to take as long as they needed to get the domain in order, like any other new constellation pair would, but Yu Feng knew it’d be better if they were done within a week. Zhang Jiale’s Fade had happened during the last wave, so they likely had at least some time before the next one, but not a whole lot. However much the other constellation bearers could handle it, if Blood Blossoms met the next tide unmoored it definitely wouldn’t be good.
Yu Feng was used to administration and Zou Yuan had put some effort into figuring things out in the week before he came, so it was easier than it could have been. Zhang Jiale hadn’t been a bad leader, but he’d certainly been more than a little distracted by the end.
At the very least, working together this way allowed Yu Feng to get a better sense of the condition of Blossom Domain in general and his partner in particular, who very slowly unwound as the days progressed, moving from following along silently to actually giving his own input at times. Though the issue of bearing the constellation itself still seemed to make him uncomfortable, he gradually got to the point where he could at least speak about it, as they undoubtedly must before any attempt at ascension.
“Captain struggled for so long,” Zou Yuan said when they’d settled into the defense headquarters’ cafeteria one night, quietly, like saying it aloud might break something. “He worked so hard, was so eager to coordinate, but…”
But the stars did not give him a new partner to work with. They wouldn’t see him take another.
“It entertained them,” said a much harsher voice, sardonic, bitter. Tang Hao, the head of Blossom Domain’s atmos fighters—the one Yu Feng would’ve assumed to be his partner, whom the stars passed over for a constellation as the fury of it burned still in his sharp words—had entered the room, unseen by either. “What a good story, Zhang Jiale, lovelorn. Why give him happiness or relief when pining is so much more beautiful? Isn’t he lovely in his desperation, in his madness?”
“He wasn’t mad,” Zou Yuan protested weakly. “Captain was very kind and helpful, and he held out for more than two years alone besides. He was just…tired. It was hard for him to focus on his own, carrying both halves of his constellation. There wasn’t anything he could—anchor to.”
The last words were obviously changed, but everyone there was no fool. Whether or not Zhang Jiale was anchored, whether he remembered or cared for the earthbound, or the agricultural division under his domain and all of the planet’s food resources, he’d had nothing that he looked forward to. Just fighting, fighting, fighting to keep up the fight.
“Sure, it was real hard for him to focus on anything else. Not a thing around him worth looking at. Saved himself for Sun Zheping, didn’t he?” The lack of respectful address for either in Tang Hao’s words was jarring. A scoff, and then: “Didn’t save himself at all.”
Tang Hao stomped away again, and Yu Feng turned to find Zou Yuan’s eyelashes wet, even if he was looking down to hide it.
Maybe that was what it was, then, that Zou Yuan had been so afraid all this time his words might break. The silence, an illusion, a heart.
(Could Tang Hao be so bitter if he didn’t care at all?)
Zhang Jiale wanted with all his being to find meaning again, to stop fighting alone, to not drown his blossoms in dying blood, but the stars would not grant him reprieve, and without it he could not see.
You are not alone, they could say, again and again, but he was.
There was beauty in the Fade, more beauty than death.
And deeply, distantly, in far-flung stars beyond, that cold and lovely entertainment.
(The Fade is not an illness, they learn in school, or what passed for it, then. From the records of Su Muqiu, who documented every moment of his nearing death without death, every answer he stole from the stars. The Fade is a resonance, greater than that of simply carrying a constellation—to fight with the power of a constellation, one must resonate with it, become it. In exhaustion and distraction, incarnations come untethered, pull away, less and less themselves until they are fully insubstantial, and slip into the calling beyond.
“To lose oneself in one’s work,” Su Muqiu had said, half a joke, because he was a man (a boy—so revisionist is history) prone to humor even in the worst of circumstances. “It’s not that I have nothing in the world to hold on to”—and years later they would know, when his little sister finally took up his dropped half of a constellation, that he’d said nothing but the truth—“but that it becomes hard to see, hard to pull back. Ye Xiu would not let me feel loneliness, and yet I feel alone. Impossible, but as it is, I cannot stop working, and working comes with the calling. When the stars grant new constellations”—and even here, he was so clearly, eternally optimistic, even as he poured his being into creating the technology and guidelines that saved all of humanity even today but never himself—“we of Launching Spear have agreed their incarnations will descend with regularity, even both at once. Ye Xiu knows how to hold up the sky. Do not ever overwork again, so that he might survive it.”
Su Muqiu was a star-touched boy, from start to finish, even as he became more light than human, how he glittered in starlight like it was made for him. Ye Xiu was an unknown, a back in silhouette, faceless as he alone faced only the stars. In the years since the Inflow devastated their world, he had descended not even once.
Indeed, he held up the sky, and in gratitude and fear they let him until his pace grew too slow under the weight of the first constellation carried alone and they rose up to defend on their own, to lift their own weight, so that his burden might ease.
Sun Zheping, even after Su Mucheng ascended and all recovered, did not know how to go back to restraint.
So he fell to the Fade, so he left his partner to Fade, not an illness but a calling, a calling that can’t be denied, and while his was sudden Zhang Jiale’s was slow, a man turned to starlight smiling brightly, too brightly, how he burned.
It entertains them caught in the way a single tear from Zou Yuan’s lashes falls.)
(Yu Feng thinks now perhaps he did not, previously, understand.
Yu Wenzhou’s steady smile and Huang Shaotian’s chatter, where could he feel the weight of the stars? Do they ever hear the calling? They told him to be careful.
But he thinks they believe in him, too. Incarnations are never any more than human, and he just the same.)
Yu Feng had always felt the boundary between atmos and stellas as a weight—without a touch of the stars to him, there were limits to how far he could ascend. The starlit atmosphere and resonant weapons could only raise a normal human so high. Now that Yu Feng was star-touched, he’d expected to feel lighter, freed from gravity’s pull, or maybe even pulled further, toward where the stars rested beyond even the galasphere.
He was surprised, then, to find ascending beyond the atmos felt like pushing up through a blanket, dragging it further like a cloak around himself—heavy, so heavy. The stars resonated in him, he hummed with it, but it was not the airy feeling he’d imagined. It was as if, both above and below, there was a great pressure, and he squeezed between it. He dragged the constellation up from where it had rested, untethered, and now he understood the terminology when he had not before—as if binding every bit of air within his domain to his shoulders and stepping forward, upward, anyway.
But no, not every bit of it, or at least not alone—Zou Yuan stepped right after him, shaking a little even as he pressed his mouth into a thin, grim line. He was pale with more than just the light of the stars, but he didn’t linger at the boundary: He’d made his choice. Blood Blossoms rang between them, and encased in starlight the air felt particularly dark, and empty.
They weren’t given long to brood on it; between one breath and the next Yu Wenzhou stepped before them, hair limned by silver starlight, half-glowing the way anyone who ascended with their constellation was. There was a reason beyond the resonance of bearing the stars that the star-touched were called incarnations, the constellations given human form.
The sudden movement only added to the feeling of unreality bearers held, as with all things brought closer to the stars distinctly inhuman. Every level of ascension involved some aspect of distorted space—in atmos it was less obvious but still undeniable, the way weapons hummed in hand until the air itself seemed to glow, until the fighters could rise above the terrasphere to the more dangerous atmosphere, and even so high above the ground the scale was not beyond comprehension. It was better not to look down, though: The world was too small beneath them, and it gave many the sickest sense of vertigo that the distances never quite matched. Better to focus on the battlefield, and imagine that the things on their level were all that there were. The constellation bearers had their own fight above them, usually, and even so distant they looked close, immediate and larger than life.
Zou Yuan took a half-step closer to Yu Feng; he’d never really had reason to interact with Yu Wenzhou before, at least not directly, and the Curse was a particularly intimidating look in person. Yu Wenzhou was polite and welcoming as ever, though, and Yu Feng could feel Zou Yuan relax by degrees. There was a part of him, he thought on their way to meet Ye Xiu, that wanted to have that kind of ease with people, to inspire that sort of calm. Yu Feng had always looked up to Yu Wenzhou as a leader, but it was different trying to be one himself. He had a lot more to learn.
Ye Xiu turned his head as they approached, needing no announcement—no one came this close to the boundary between stellas and galas unless to see him.
“Hello,” he said, perfectly casual, no distant god nor maniacal battle demon. Just a man, standing amongst the stars. Somehow, despite the lack of visibly compelling features, his ability could not eclipse him. “Glad you joined us.”
(Ye Xiu’s eyes are filled with myriad points of light, but it is not that of the stars he ever faced, as Yu Feng once guessed: It is the planet, little reflected lights of New Humanity’s continuing civilization. He stands unbowed, the weight of his constellation nothing on his shoulders because he so surely believes that he doesn’t bear it alone. The sole light of humanity, maybe, but only if it is understood to mean the light of all humanity combined into one.
The spear in his hand is made of starlight, and he says without hesitation that he was never alone.)
One of them would have to descend again. The plan, initially, was for it to be Yu Feng, so that he could continue organizing Blossom Domain, as was well within his skillset. If he’d also thought it would be better to give Zou Yuan time to work with the light of the stars, if he’d figured the fading of human needs would be kinder, since Zou Yuan could hardly manage to overwork in just a little time, it was something he’d never said, and no one need know now. Yu Feng had thought holding the constellation to be the easier task, in the short term, and thus meant to give it to Zou Yuan while he himself continued to settle in.
Now, he could not agree that holding the stars was anything like a kindness.
Instead he urged Zou Yuan to descend, watching the already pale face go drawn and tight, knuckles white on his new silver guns in place of anything more grounding. It was a change of plans, but Zou Yuan only nodded his agreement and moved to descend.
The guns dissipated as he dropped, unable to hold form in the lower spheres, and Yu Feng felt the full weight of a domain’s mantle more keenly than even that first step alone had hit him.
“Tell me about your style,” Ye Xiu said. It wasn’t clear if he meant for it to be a distraction, but it certainly was, and even more so when Huang Shaotian joined them, undoubtedly sent by Yu Wenzhou.
Yu Feng lost himself in discussion of frontline tactics and how he’d fit into them, and could almost forget the weight of an entire population resting on his shoulders.
The blood sword was heavy in his hands, but he was getting used to it.
Time passed differently in the upper spheres, with no demarcations of day or night, only infinite stars and relentless void. Without the needs of a human, caught firm in the grip of his constellation and the glow of Blood Blossoms, larger than life, time distorted nearly as far as space, and it didn’t feel overlong before Zou Yuan returned. He felt it first, the shift of the constellation from his shoulders alone to shared between them, and he’d never realized he could be so aware of another person’s presence until he found himself half-turning toward someone the space distortion of the stellasphere hadn’t even brought into sight yet.
Zou Yuan shone bright from within with the light of the stars, silvered grips smacking solidly into his palms as punctuation to the agitated spins of guns around fingers he didn’t even seem aware he was doing. Something about the way he subconsciously learned their heft and balance was almost mesmerizing.
Certainly, Yu Feng couldn’t think of another reason he would have missed Huang Shaotian going off to call Yu Wenzhou instead. It made sense, of course—Yu Wenzhou was in charge of mid-range fighting, and therefore would need to learn Zou Yuan’s habits as much as Ye Xiu had needed to learn Yu Feng’s—but he hadn’t noticed, and that was something else entirely. The constellation still dragged on him, body and mind, and it was entirely possible it was leaning toward too much. For all that he worried about Zou Yuan, so pallid under the washed-out starlight, it was Yu Feng’s first full ascension as well.
“I can handle it,” Zou Yuan told him, shoulders set firm.
Yu Feng nodded, and let himself fall.
Yu Feng took his first breath back in terras with the uncomfortable realization that he could not say if he, regardless of words spoken, had spent any time at all while in stellas breathing. The scent of flowers lay heavy on his tongue, thick and clinging as the air itself, and Yu Feng felt more aware of his body than he had ever dreamed anyone could be. He meant to distract himself with administration, but most of what he’d initially planned to do upon descending had been laid out before they decided to let Zou Yuan descend first, and to his surprise most of the necessary tasks had been completed without him.
“Zou Yuan has always been a hard worker,” Tang Hao said pointedly, and Yu Feng felt suitably chastised. He really didn’t know much of Zou Yuan, least of all what kind of person he’d been before the looming threat of a constellation and vanished leader drove him to distraction. It seemed Zou Yuan had been paying attention, not just trailing after him blindly, and picked up the workings of a domain surprisingly quickly.
Yu Feng hadn’t been so fast when he’d started, at the very least.
So instead of administration Yu Feng spent more of his time getting to know the defenders that would fight below them, and Tang Hao in particular as their leader. Tang Hao, it turned out, did not fight with a standard blade or gun, but the claw-type bracers more typical of hand-to-hand combatants. Yu Feng had to wonder if that had factored into the stars’ decision—if, had Tang Hao been a swordsman, Blood Blossoms would rest on him along with Zou Yuan.
It was, as always, impossible to say.
But Tang Hao really was a talented fighter, definitely worthy of his position. He’d held the leadership role long enough to know a bit about command, and for all that he obviously would have preferred to fight in the stellas he didn’t seem particularly eager to leave Blossom Domain behind, either. Maybe because it was his home, maybe because of the people, or just the environment. Yu Feng hadn’t been to too many different domains, but there was a reason Blossom Domain was devoted to agriculture, and the weather was so pleasant he found it consistently startling.
Maybe, eventually, it would sink into the background, but with the cold absence of stellas and starlight to contrast it with he thought perhaps just as likely not.
Yu Feng didn’t wait long to ascend again, ill at ease with the idea of leaving Zou Yuan alone when he’d looked so much like he was preparing for a dire tribulation. It might be a long time still before Zou Yuan could approach holding a constellation alone without lingering fear.
Zhang Jiale’s Fade had been agonizingly slow and brutally obvious in a way no number of smiles could ever hide.
The two of them were meant to fight together anyway, and Tang Hao was far from incompetent, so Yu Feng returned to the stellas shortly after his descent with the intent of planning their coordination. The constellation shared between them meant they always knew their exact distance from each other, overly aware of the other’s presence, so it should have been easy.
It was not.
Zou Yuan’s Blossoms had none of the wilting desperation Zhang Jiale’s had taken in the end, but the flowers blooming around Yu Feng were more of a distraction than he’d anticipated, and Zou Yuan’s focus was strained in trying to cultivate a consistent field in space. It had been two years since anyone had seen the famous combination of Blood Blossoms, but it was clear from the outset how much their version was a pale imitation.
When it came to defending the entire planet, they could not afford a pale imitation.
Rather than risk it, the choice was made that they would fight separately, contributing to the mid-range and close-range forces individually instead of working as a pair. It was hardly unprecedented, as Yu Feng well knew from his own experience in River Domain, and their shared constellation thrummed a steady awareness between them regardless, but it still burned like a failure. Yu Feng was unsatisfied, and he could feel a restlessness under Zou Yuan’s skin he was sure meant his partner was unsatisfied, too.
The wraiths that met Yu Feng in the next tide were far stronger than anything he’d faced in atmos, those forces mere eddies in comparison to the targeted, burning monsters he faced now. Though he met them at the boundary between stellas and galas, nothing but the mildest reflections of lower spheres to block their view for a seemingly infinite distance, the miasma and its wraiths seemed to spin itself from almost nowhere, arriving so quickly even the space distortion inherent to the higher spheres felt like an insufficient accounting. There was far less order than Yu Feng had imagined, and he found himself falling into a mess of reactions, crudely and forcefully setting his own pace only through years of experience.
For a moment, he thought of Zou Yuan, and how much less of that he had to rely on. Only a moment, though, the acid hiss of wraiths cutting through all other thoughts, cutting through even his starlit armor, and it occurred to Yu Feng in a distant kind of way that the starlit air of the lower spheres blocked far more of the Inflow than he’d ever known. In holding a constellation, he bore a concentrated point of starlight, nothing like the suffusing luminescence that bolstered each sphere below. With each injury the sword in his hand glowed brighter, cut harsher. As expected of the embodiment of Blood.
By the time the tide subsided exhaustion dragged at Yu Feng’s bones, and his skin felt like starfire in the worst kind of way. Ye Xiu told them to descend—not unusual in general, since there was usually a good amount of time between tides, and even more so for new bearers—and before the battle Yu Feng might have imagined objecting.
At this point, it couldn’t even cross his mind. Existing ached, in a way not even the stars’ graced inhumanity could make him ignore.
Zou Yuan was tired, but almost certainly better off than Yu Feng; he found himself leaning on Zou Yuan even as they descended, feeling the weight of the constellation catch on the edge of the atmos as they reached the boundary and slipped under it. The constellation drifted away, and Yu Feng had the delirious flash of almost sense-memory, ducking away from pond scum left floating on the surface. An illusory kind of clean.
The atmos wasn’t fully empty, still guarding against the vestiges of swirling miasma, but such things were no longer his direct responsibility. Yu Feng, somewhat corroded and unimaginably tired, sank into sleep.
It took a few days for Yu Feng to recover—and indeed, once he’d woken a little he was able to confirm that Zou Yuan had been far enough back to receive little damage in the fighting, and needed very little to recuperate—but as soon as he felt steady again he rejoined Zou Yuan in the stellas. Zou Yuan should have taken more time for himself, but he’d set himself to practicing Blossoms at their most dazzling instead, determined to make a more useful partnership of their constellation. Zou Yuan might not have asked for the responsibility of an incarnation, but now that he had it he was intent on doing his part. Yu Feng joined him in practicing again and again, rebuilding the perfect coordination of past years until they’d drilled the motions into their bones, and faced the next wave as a pair.
The next tide, though, was one of the bad ones. There was no real pattern to how the ferocity of the assaults waxed and waned, so there was no way of knowing beforehand. Their performance was a credit to the work they’d put into it, but it was an intense strain; Yu Feng remembered how Sun Zheping fought, at least a little, but everything was so much harder with a constellation dragging after every step.
He had an armor made of silvered light and he still felt so, so heavy.
Yu Feng had thought fighting with a sword would be simple since he’d done it before, but it was far too different to wield a weapon from the stars. No level of practice could have prepared them for the maelstrom they met, the interminable turbulence of a rushing fight, and they both came out of it injured. The two were exhausted when they descended, something like a mutual stumble and fall, and were met with Tang Hao at the border to bring them the rest of the way down. His face was a study, but Yu Feng was too tired to learn—it seemed dark, though amidst afterimages of whitehot light anything would.
Tang Hao couldn’t bring them as far as terras and their headquarters, with the defenders in the atmos still under his lead, and they were too tired to figure out something so complicated as separating to different rooms on their own. With that burning ache in every breath and the ever-encroaching darkness, it didn’t feel much like it mattered, anyway.
Tang Hao’s face had, in fact, been dark that day, it was easy to tell when they were on their feet again.
“Stop trying to be other people,” he said, sounding more than a little disgusted. “It’s useless, and a waste of our time.” Rather than belabor the point, he followed it with a report of their casualties—the kind of thing that would happen after every wave, but somehow a harsh punctuation to such a blunt message.
It had been a bad tide; the injuries wouldn’t have been light regardless of their efforts. The statement weighed nonetheless.
The next time they ascended together, Yu Feng dropped the tendency to push toward the front lines like he had something to prove, and Zou Yuan stopped trying to be support in every direction at once. Yu Feng wasn’t insanely intense the same way Sun Zheping had been, and Sun Zheping had Faded for it anyway; it was better not to emulate him. Zou Yuan had always admired Zhang Jiale’s dazzling garden of flowers, a bolster on all sides, but there was more than one way to use guns like blossoms, a single rose with thorns its own kind of impressive against a bouquet of many petals. He spun Blossoms in his hands instead and fired without a cloud of color around him, blooming flowers of direct damage to match Yu Feng’s relentless push. They were nothing like the original Blood Blossoms, but their own styles fit together surprisingly well, and the constellation settled better on their shoulders for it.
In fact, perhaps it was no surprise to find their styles complementary. The stars hadn’t chosen a recreation of their original bearers, or they might as well have given Yu Feng Blood to carry years ago.
The pair did well during the next tide, so well that only Yu Feng descended at all, and mostly for the purpose of making sure the domain was in order. Tang Hao didn’t say anything nice about it, but Tang Hao rarely said anything nice at all, and might not even know what a pleasantry was in the first place.
Yu Feng ascended again shortly after as if it were a matter of course, as if they had not long settled into a fairly consistent schedule of alternating time off before. But their new style required practice from both at once, not rote motions that could be repeated with or without a partner there to complete them, and it was worth investing in. They could find respite later, together or separate if needed, but there was no need to make it so regimented.
They’d already seen how much better it could be to let things come more naturally.
Yu Feng hadn’t been injured much in the latest tide, but he descended with Zou Yuan anyway, kneeling in front of where Zou Yuan sat on the side of the bed to bandage fingers that shook with their affliction.
“I’m sorry I’m such a burden,” Zou Yuan said, curled over as if it could let him hide from a man who’d so easily lowered himself to soothe the burn of unfiltered miasma and the stars. Zou Yuan’s fingers half-curled around their stiff bindings, frustration or pain, while he looked at them like they’d personally betrayed him. “If you hadn’t needed to support me for the second half of the tide…” Literally, too—though the damage was to his hands it had hurt even more the guns in them, and the weight of the constellation as it pressed him down without conduit had been crippling.
“Holding you could never be a burden,” Yu Feng replied. He lifted bandaged fingers to his bowed forehead, a careful press so it wouldn’t hurt, and Zou Yuan’s breath shuddered like crying without tears.
Zou Yuan, Yu Feng had heard from multiple sources by now, was a bright and cheerful man. Zou Yuan had faced becoming a defender for his domain with determination, and perhaps the slightest sense of distant ambition, but mostly with a genuine enthusiasm for doing his part that made him eminently likable. Zou Yuan had not been close to Zhang Jiale, necessarily, but he’d learned his marksmanship from him, he’d supported him where he could, he’d become good enough to at least converse occasionally in a relatively short amount of time. Zou Yuan was just considerate and convivial and a breath of fresh air in a world that always felt a little stifled.
Yu Feng was abruptly so, so angry that he’d never gotten to meet that Zou Yuan.
(He ached, rather, for Zou Yuan as he was now, but it was not a useful feeling, so he left it to hurt in his chest as if a soft brush of reassurance against hands that tried so hard would help anything at all.)
The week between Zou Yuan’s appointment and his own had been blatantly unnecessary from the start, but there was a wretched kind of fury to the thought that Yu Feng could have been there sooner, that Zou Yuan watched a man Fade to nothing and was from nowhere, he was only a rookie, promoted to take his place, slated for the same, who could smile under pressure like that? Yu Feng would have borne that weight if he were there to bear it, but they didn’t even give him a chance to, why? Why? And Zou Yuan was always so worried about letting him down.
Zou Yuan wouldn’t think so much about relying on Yu Feng, might not even need to, if he hadn’t had that time when he thought he could rely on no one.
Had it made Zou Yuan appreciate Yu Feng any more, that he’d thought for dragging days that he might have no partner at all? A week wasn’t long, but it was a very long time to carry the weight of the world.
It was a long time to feel crushed under the inevitability of not being enough, and all that could mean.
It entertains them, and for the first time Yu Feng fully understood.
He felt an anger so intense it was cold, as cold and ruthless as the stars themselves, and he banked it away inside himself. There was nothing he could do now but be there for Zou Yuan, no choice but to work with these distant constellations, but he wouldn’t forget.
It was the kind of rage that knew how to wait.
(In school children ask:
Where do the wraiths come from?
The galasphere, or maybe beyond.
And where are the stars?
Yu Feng didn’t notice, after, how their schedules slipped, how natural moving in concert had become, until Tang Hao was already giving his reports to both of them without even bothering to mention there need only be one. The pair would listen to how much of the wraiths in the miasma got through each time, how their defenders handled it, and share a look because next time, next time. They could do better, and they would, they kept working at it. They kept working together, for all that they still traded time off, it no longer felt like scheduling time to meet so much as laying out what times they needed to spend apart—a process that was so natural Yu Feng had never thought to comment on it, the easy understanding of splitting shared duties rather than individually picking them up. It was a subtle difference, hard to point out.
Maybe more a product of framing than an actual adjustment, but tangible nonetheless.
The will to change things, the belief that they could, followed everything they did, and looking out over the lands they protected no longer made breath catch tight in their throats at the sheer magnitude of responsibility. It was what it was, and like anyone else, they would keep fighting.
What they had here was worth it.
There were orchards in Blossom Domain, as anyone could expect of their agricultural hub, but somehow it had never occurred to Yu Feng that with produce came first flowers. Of course it was called Blossom Domain, he should have guessed, but his own experience with aquaponics could not prepare him for forests of trees dripping with flowers and luxuriantly sweet air. Zou Yuan liked flowers, real flowers, all on their own, and if they lingered longer in the orchards than truly necessary no one said anything about it. They couldn’t spend all their time together, especially here on the ground, but they could have this.
There was a calm to Zou Yuan’s small figure amongst vast tracts of trees, the settled perspective of it, the feeling of life yet untapped waiting to bear fruit. Yu Feng wondered if Zou Yuan would find the growing fruits just as calming, and found he was genuinely looking forward to finding out—not from words or rumors, but from watching, waiting to see.
The sun set brighter in Blossom Domain than Yu Feng had ever seen in the thicker, watery air of River Domain, and despite the amount of time he’d already spent there, Yu Feng still found it amazing. He stopped to watch color light the whole sky at once, a flood of reds and entwined silvers that made the glow unbelievably bright and set boundless fields aflame, and every time it was a revelation. How beautiful, the only star of their own could be, how much it gave them. The sun was never so distant and cold when it granted such beauty, when it faced miasma and starglow and burned through anyway, like a gift to those left to see it.
Zou Yuan would lean against him where he sat, watching their domain light up, just watching. There was no other point to it, just soft breaths matched in a brilliant hush, and Yu Feng knew then more than ever what a fool he’d been to think it wouldn’t matter who shared his constellation. Maybe that was the nature of it, though, maybe that was why no one really tried to explain. It was something that couldn’t be known before it was experienced, the settled feeling of contentment, of not having to look to know.
Their breathing was even, and calm, and the sky lit with a vivid lilac afterglow long after the sun passed out of sight. Unearthly, like a lingering promise.
And no matter how high he cast his gaze, the weight against him reminded that he would never get lost.
(Yu Feng kisses the knuckles that curl arounds guns’ triggers just to see the way red can spill across Zou Yuan’s face, too.)
When the newest constellation, Spectral Magic, was granted to two boys from Herb Domain, Yu Feng didn’t remember until long after welcoming and working through the doubts of their newest swordsman that he should have felt jealous.
Not because there was anything underwhelming about Spectral Magic, a constellation that heralded the opening of an entirely new domain and, for the first time ever, brought the cumulative lightening of the miasma worldwide to a point that allowed tentative and well-equipped exploratory teams outside the lightrails. Not even because it would have been unfitting for him—Qiao Yifan, the boy holding the Spectral half of their constellation, wielded a sword as well, for all that it summoned specters and warped the space around him like the bearers of Spirits Departed more than sliced. The boys were a good fit for each other, best friends, though clearly unprepared for such a sudden ascension, but neither was it that. Yu Feng had learned of Advancement Domain opening and a new constellation being granted long before the bearers had been ready to pick up their mantle and ascend, long before he knew nearly enough to judge Spectral Magic by its own qualities.
No, it simply hadn’t occurred to Yu Feng to be unsatisfied. Blossom Domain was his; the Blood of Blood Blossoms was his; Zou Yuan was his. There was nothing in the world that could make him want to give them up, nothing he felt was missing.
A long time ago, Yu Feng had thought what he needed was a name of his own to stand out above others, to gain recognition for all the work he did, to make an indelible mark in New Humanity’s history. But he didn’t need the world to recognize him, in the end—he needed to be a pillar of support, he needed to be seen by people who understood, who wouldn’t look away.
He already was.
(Zou Yuan turns to smile at him, alight with the security Yu Feng has given, and it’s almost embarrassing how quickly Yu Feng forgets ever wanting anything else.)
“Well done,” Ye Xiu said one day when the two ascended, still flushed bright with laughter and the closeness they’d shared before arriving. Yu Feng was baffled at first—they’d only just arrived and hadn’t done anything in particular that went unaddressed last time—and then flabbergasted at the idea that Ye Xiu would care for or comment on their personal relationship, but Ye Xiu continued in a different direction entirely. “Your constellation no longer weighs on you.”
Yu Feng halted the defensive response rising to his lips, stunned, while Zou Yuan’s hand tightened around his in surprise. He’d…forgotten, the weight of his own constellation. When he’d stopped trying to become Yu Wenzhou or Sun Zheping, when he’d found his own rhythm with Zou Yuan, when they walked the boundaries of Blossom Domain and ascended side by side, somewhere along the way the weight of the stars no longer burdened him. Beside him, he could feel Zou Yuan having the same revelation, that he no longer feared Zhang Jiale’s end nor walked in his shadow when he moved with the stars—Yu Feng didn’t even need to look to know.
The power of their constellation settled around them like a nebula rather than a heavy cloak, drifting between rather than dragging after, and once pointed out Yu Feng had no doubt what Ye Xiu was saying.
“Stay balanced, and go fight,” Ye Xiu told them now. Though the call hadn’t gone out yet, he always seemed to know a little sooner than most when the next tide approached. “We have a world to protect.”
Behind him stood Su Mucheng, hair drifting elegantly, weightlessly, in the interstellar wind; on her shoulder rested a cannon made of starlight. The two looked so naturally of the same, effortless picture it was hard to imagine they might have ever been apart.
Maybe that was just what it meant to be a constellation.
(“And a beyond to get to,” Su Mucheng murmured as continuation, but only after the bearers of Blood Blossoms had left the two of them alone at the edge of the void.
“Why wait so long to say it?” Ye Xiu asked, amused. “I already know. Probably, so do they.”
When constellations called to their bones, when they brushed so close to the Fade, there was no avoiding learning things the stars hadn’t meant to share. Who asked them to make these humans their incarnations, though?
Nothing came for free.)
(“I want to go get them,” Zou Yuan says to Yu Feng, earnest and so endlessly determined. Something a little like he once was, maybe, if a little more grown up. “I think they’re still there, though they aren’t in the constellation anymore. I can feel it.”
Sun Zheping, Zhang Jiale, the original Blood Blossoms. Faded in the draw of the stars.
“Don’t rush,” Yu Feng says back. “You don’t want it to pull you in too early.” They can feel it, if they look—the hum in their bones, the inhuman hands that hold intangible weapons, a fight against enemies that aren’t quite real but burn caustic all the same. The constellations grant them power through resonance, and they call ever after, always calling.
Without an anchor, it would be too easy to slip across the void.
“We’ll get there,” Yu Feng promises, and he means it. “Steadily, in our own time.”
Zou Yuan nods in return, mouth set, before he gazes out toward starlight and ends the expression almost soft, nearly a smile. “I bet they’re happier now that they’re together, though,” he says. “It’s so much harder to be alone.”
“Maybe they are,” Yu Feng agrees. He knows his face falls to affection, but he doesn’t in the least mind.
“I know I am.”)
(Later, much later, a new constellation is chosen, and the star-touched ascend, a young man who looks like he could disappear for how average he is, who might be holding dual blades tucked against his arms or might be holding nothing at all, and a young woman with a spear not unlike Ye Xiu’s and a fierceness to her that cannot be denied.
“What domain?” they’re asked. No one has heard; it’s unprecedented.
“No domain,” Ye Xiu says, and his eyes have that same burning light as always, the one reflected in hers. Ye Xiu is the one who helps lay tracks to new domains, is the one who held the whole world when no one else did, if there were a new domain under him he would know, but the miasma on the world lightened as a whole, as always, with no specific new land to guard, nothing for this new constellation to tether to.
“What’s this constellation called, then?” someone asks around the whispers this news brings.
The new woman grins, bared teeth as white and dangerous as the stars. “God Killer.”
And Yu Feng feels himself grin too, sharp and ruthless with the cold of rage he’s never forgotten, because he knows, he knows, exactly what it means.)