The passage of time, thought Xie Lian wryly, truly meant nothing anymore. How many times had Ruoye retrieved the ball now? Ten? Eight hundred? Fifty-six thousand? He really didn’t know. The silk ribbon remained as eager as ever, childlike innocence suffusing its every darting move around the room.
At least one of them was having fun, though Xie Lian supposed he should be grateful mild boredom was the only thing plaguing him now, however-many-throws of the little leather ball into his so-called seclusion. After all, it could be much worse! He still had followers (their prayers ceased reaching his ears countless throws of the ball prior), he had friends (who never bothered to come see him), he had no need to go out and earn money (when there was no point in staving off starvation when it could do nothing for him regardless). He had plenty of time to consider where he had gone wrong in his childish quest to halt the passage of time.
It was perhaps a day or a year later when the ringing of bells cut into his muddled thoughts. An attack? A sighting of some stray Xianle noble? No – this was the Heavenly Capital; neither war nor remnants of his people could reach him here. Was it, perhaps –
Ruoye poked one of its ends into Xie Lian’s face suddenly, almost eagerly.
Xie Lian smiled at its enthusiasm. “Yes, I do believe it’s an ascension. Let’s see what’s happening.”
Ruoye shook eagerly in agreement. Xie Lian pulled himself to his feet, ignoring the stiffness in his joints (what reason was there to be sore when he hadn’t been sitting there for very long). While Ruoye slithered up his body, Xie Lian checked the public Communication Array and braced himself for chaos.
Heh, are martial gods getting shorter nowadays?
He looks like a kid.
A dirty street rat!
Who let the gutter trash in?
Someone must’ve said one of those comments aloud because the snide remarks were instantly replaced with panic.
Ow! Ow! My leg!
Someone take that thing away from him!
Xie Lian looked at Ruoye. “Sounds like a lively crowd. Let’s go take a look.”
The scene outside was pure chaos. Once Xie Lian’s eyes adjusted to the sunlight, he saw a writhing mass of gods gathered in a nearby plaza, some screaming, others throwing merits around like candy. He couldn’t see the new god; he must’ve been in the middle of the crowd, still attacking whoever came near. He carefully pushed his way into the crowd, ignoring the way some of the panicked hostility spread to him. Within a few moments, he was through the thick of it and at the edge of a quickly widening circle surrounding a feral looking young man. The new god – for this must be him – caught the eye of a tall burly figure near Xie Lian and rushed forward with a snarl, a gleaming silver scimitar in his grasp.
The burly god sidestepped the newcomer easily and tugged Xie Lian out of the line of attack with him easily. “Easy there,” he laughed. “Put the blade down, no need to be hasty.”
A hiss in reply. Someone on the other side of the circle called out, “You sure it’s not one of your women, Ming Guang?” and the new god spun around. Quick as a flash, he darted to the speaker and ran her chest through with his scimitar. This set off a fresh round of screaming and part of the crowd disappeared down nearby streets.
Something in the attack looked … oddly familiar to Xie Lian. Ignoring Ming Guang’s insistent tugging on his arm to pull him away from the new god, he took a careful, close look. He was dirty and disheveled, as others had mentioned, with messy bandages covering half of his face. He looked terrified and was clearly in need of a good bath, but Xie Lian didn’t see anything that would prompt all of the street rat comments.
He turned to Ming Guang. “What’s going on?” he asked. “He looks absolutely terrified. Has anyone tried to get him settled in or is he just being baited?”
Ming Guang laughed. “Truly, Dianxia, you see the best in everyone. Nothing of the sort has happened here; he started attacking everyone who tried getting close to him with no warning whatsoever.”
Someone nearby chimed in. “Pei Ming is right,” he said. “We can’t do anything with him waving that cursed sword around.”
Another voice muttered, “Are we sure this isn’t some crazed ghost that snuck in?”
The new god whipped around, blade already pointing at the latest speaker. Xie Lian caught a glimpse of something red and shining at the scimitar’s hilt – a gem? – before the man abruptly staggered. His eye widened and he stared right at Xie Lian before rushing for him. Pei Ming made to pull Xie Lian out of the way but he knew the young man meant no harm – the sword was down by his side, not held aloft with killing intent – so he unconsciously stood firm. Once again the familiarity struck him. The face, the eye, the fear giving way at seeing Xie Lian …
“Oh!” said Xie Lian, as the man fell to his knees in front of him. “You’re the boy from the parade!”
The young god gasped. “Dianxia remembers this lowly one?” His eye filled with tears and he fell into a kowtow.
Xie Lian blinked in shock. It took his brain a moment to catch up with the situation; he was thrown into too much of a loop by the fact that someone was showing him , unlucky, undeserving him, such great respect. Ruoye snaked down to gently tug the young man back upwards as he gathered his thoughts.
Whatever Xie Lian was going to say left him entirely a moment later when, at Ruoye’s gentle urging, the young man sat up, tears still covering his face. A simple white mask hung from his belt, a painfully familiar mask Xie Lian had thought he’d never see again.
It was his turn to fall to his knees now, tears welling in his eyes. “ Oh ,” he gasped.
“Dianxia?” Wu Ming – for it was him, steady, loyal Wu Ming, here in the heavens instead of dispersed completely – said, concern lacing his words. His hands hovered over Xie Lian, wanting to comfort somehow but clearly lacking the confidence that his touch would be received.
Xie Lian took one of Wu Ming’s hands in his own. Steady, solid, here . He was really here. He’d known in some abstract, detached way that losing Wu Ming had hit him hard, but he’d ignored the hurt to focus on everything else his second ascension brought.
Wu Ming knelt silently, letting Xie Lian weep over his hand without a single word. Some of the gods gathered around dispersed at seeing that the fight was over, but several others remained to watch the new spectacle. One of them stepped closer and lightly tapped Xie Lian on the shoulder.
“Er. Dianxia?” Pei Ming asked. “So, you know this guy?”
Wu Ming bowed his head lower. “I am Dianxia’s humble servant.”
No, not again. Xie Lian snatched his hands away from Wu Ming’s and wiped his face dry. “None of that. You’re my friend.”
“No,” Xie Lian cut in. “You are worthy enough. More than enough.” He stood up and held out a hand to pull Wu Ming to his feet. After a moment, the other god tentatively took it.
Suddenly, the scimitar at his side gave a quick rattle. Wu Ming grimaced and reached down to slap it but Xie Lian stopped him. He’d completely forgotten in the rush of the reunion about the sharp, gleaming blade. Surely Wu Ming wouldn’t begrudge him one quick look….?
“May I see?”
Wu Ming grimaced again, but drew the scimitar and handed it to him. It was shiny and sharp, just as he’d observed before, but the red gem on the hilt truly drew his attention. By moving.
“Oh!” he gasped, as the eye closed partially, radiating happiness. The blade began to tremble in Xie Lian’s hands. How cute! It was happy! He couldn’t resist cooing at the blade, tickling the hilt just below the eye. “What a good sword!”
“Dianxia, please.” Pei Ming looked pained.
“What?” Xie Lian said, still petting the sword.
Pei Ming stared at him wordlessly, clearly hoping he’d figure it out on his own. When Xie Lian made no attempt to do so, he sighed. “Whatever. You know what you’re doing.” He waved goodbye and left the reduced crowd still watching them.
Several gods turned to stare at the retreating Pei Ming. One of them shook his head incredulously. “Really? He’s not gonna do anything?”
Xie Lian had felt the aura of hostility since arriving, of course, but he’d been too caught up, first in the excitement of the new arrival, then in the joy of seeing Wu Ming again, that he completely ignored it. It slammed into his senses once more, much stronger than before. Suddenly, he remembered that he was still holding Wu Ming’s sword and hastily handed it back. Wu Ming nodded slightly and moved to stand in front of Xie Lian. His scimitar was held out in front of him, the eye on the hilt narrowed in vicious focus.
Xie Lian could easily imagine what would happen next. The remaining hostile gods would attack Wu Ming, intent on throwing him out. Wu Ming would fight to defend Xie Lian, not himself, and would eventually fall. Xie Lian couldn’t even help — he no longer wielded a sword, and Ruoye alone was no match for a horde of angry martial gods.
Still, he set a hand on Wu Ming’s shoulder and moved to stand next to him. He looked out at the assembled gods and their drawn weapons with narrowed eyes.
“Enough,” he said. “He has every right to be here. If any of you try to hurt him in any way, you’ll have to go through me first.”
The threat felt silly once it was out in the air. He could serve as a living shield for Wu Ming — it wouldn’t be the first time he’d gotten stabbed dozens of times — but he couldn’t fight. Still, he clung to his resolve to keep his friend, his dear Wu Ming, here at his side for as long as he would stay.
The gods stared him down for several long, tense moments. Finally, one backed off, sheathing his sword and turning to leave. The rest quickly followed suit, muttering angry remarks under their breaths but taking no further action against them.
Xie Lian let out a sigh of relief once they were gone. “Sorry about that,” he told Wu Ming. “I haven’t been around the newer gods much, I hadn’t realized how hostile they can be.”
He turned to Wu Ming then, smiling wryly, and froze at seeing the starstruck look in Wu Ming’s eye.
“Dianxia would truly defend this lowly one against a whole host of martial gods?”
Xie Lian’s smile shifted into something smaller, softer, more heartfelt. “Of course,” he said gently, squeezing Wu Ming’s shoulder. “That and more. I meant what I said earlier; you’re my friend and you’re very dear to me. I’m very happy to have you here with me.” He held out his free hand to Wu Ming. “Will you come with me? May I take care of you?”
Wu Ming looked down shyly. Slowly, hesitantly, he reached out and rested his hand in Xie Lian’s. “Yes,” he said. “I’d like that.”