Shen Wei squared off against four other ghosts — one humanoid, three monstrous — and bared his teeth. They hesitated, scuffling their feet — or what counted as feet — and assessed. It seemed that the power of a healthy ghost king still had them wary, but the promise of taking a bite out of a weakened ghost king was too tempting.
Behind him, Ye Zun hissed, then coughed.
The ghosts’ eyes all shifted to his didi and Shen Wei tensed, hissing as well. Ye Zun was sickly and weakened. Why, they didn’t know. His didi could maybe take on one of the grotesque, lower-level ghosts, but if the humanoid one got past Shen Wei, Ye Zun would certainly not survive.
Shen Wei growled in warning, making sure he stood firmly between his didi and the ghosts. They reeked and were covered in dirt and other substances. Truly disgusting, that’s what they were. Sadly enough, they were his kin, lowly but still born from the same dirt. Shen Wei, however, refused to be associated with them at all.
When the humanoid ghost gave the signal and the others finally attacked, the fight was short but brutal. Shen Wei tore them apart, claws and teeth finding flesh and bone. It was disgusting. He was disgusting once the fight was over, covered in blood and gore as he was.
“Didi,” he said, turning back to Ye Zun. “Are you alright?”
Ye Zun nodded. His gaze shifted from Shen Wei to the remains scattered around and he licked his lips. Shen Wei sighed.
“Grab a piece and let’s go. The smell will attract others.”
Dashing forward, Ye Zun grabbed something that Shen Wei assumed had been part of the humanoid’s leg and put his teeth in it. Shen Wei contemplated, then forewent grabbing a piece for himself even though he could use the nutrition in case there would be others to fight in the near future. He’d also found that the topside animals were quite tasty as well.
“Come on,” he said, tilting his head to listen for the sound of water. “I can hear a stream and I need to get clean.”
“It’s just a bit of blood, gege,” Ye Zun answered.
“It’s filthy ,” Shen Wei answered.
They’ve had the argument before. Many times before, in fact. Shen Wei disliked being covered in blood, being dirty, while Ye Zun, much like their kin, didn’t really seem to mind. They moved through the forest and towards the water Shen Wei could hear. They went slowly and still Shen Wei could hear Ye Zun’s breathing grow laboured. It pained him. His brother used to be equally as strong as him.
“Give me the meat,” Shen Wei said, stretching out a hand.
Ye Zun growled in protest, narrowing his eyes. It was instinctive, Shen Wei knew.
“You can eat while I bathe,” he added. “I don’t want it.”
“I can carry it, gege,” Ye Zun protested.
“But you don’t have to,” Shen Wei insisted. “And I don’t mind.”
“You do. You think it’s filthy.”
“I’m already filthy,” Shen Wei countered. “I can’t get much worse.”
That caused Ye Zun to laugh, then cough. He reluctantly handed the meat/leg over. “It’s all mine though,” he still said.
Once they reached the stream, Ye Zun settled on a boulder and started eating while Shen Wei took off the clothing he’d snatched from the humans. The fabric was rough but the black colour suited him. Ye Zun had grabbed something of a lighter colour, closer to his unique hair, but it proved to be impossible to keep clean. Shen Wei disliked how stained it had become, but he couldn’t fix it, nor replace the robes.
He pushed his clothes into the small stream and scrubbed. The blood hadn’t really dried yet so it came out rather easily. After placing the fabric on another boulder in the hopes that it would dry somewhat before Shen Wei had to put it back on, he started scooping up water and trying to get the blood off of his skin. The gore that had gotten into his hair turned out to be the most troublesome. Luckily, he barely felt the cold of the water.
“Maybe we should go back, gege,” Ye Zun said as Shen Wei walked up to him, wringing the water out of his hair. “Maybe I’ll get better once I’m down there again.”
That, too, was a conversation they’d had many times before. “How, didi?” Shen Wei asked. “We don’t know where the entrance is. And even if we do find it, it’s probably swarmed with ghosts and they’ll all be out to get you. I wouldn’t be able to protect you.” And that’s what Shen Wei feared the most, that he would fail to protect Ye Zun at one point. “We can only continue on.”
“To your miracle solution,” Ye Zun mocked.
Shen Wei sighed. He’d picked up rumours, stories, that had given him hope. They said that there were gods roaming the land, and that one god in particular didn’t quite seem to mind who he associated with. A god that was brash and bold, uncaring of authority or who he insulted. A god that was connected to the land and had knowledge of many plants and their properties. One, Shen Wei had surmised, that might know how to save his didi.
The god was named Kunlun and lived on a mountain to the north, aptly named after himself. Or was the god named after the mountain? Shen Wei didn’t know. He was aware of how painfully ignorant he was. He didn’t know how to solve it though.
It didn’t matter anyway. The only thing that mattered was keeping his didi safe and finding the god so he could beg for help.
“Let’s get a little further away from where the fight was,” he said, putting on his still uncomfortably wet clothes. “Just a little bit further before we find a place to rest.”
Shen Wei smiled when Ye Zun pushed his hands in the water, then wiped his mouth and cleaned his hands again. He knew it was only for his sake that Ye Zun did it and he appreciated it. Hand in hand, they moved on.
They travelled through the mountains based on vague directions. No matter how much like a human he looked, Shen Wei was still easily recognised as a ghost. Even if he put his hood up, people were scared of him. They would either run screaming, or band together and attack him. When the latter happened, he most often ran, not wanting to fight with the humans. If it was unavoidable, he focussed on breaking their weapons and limiting his power.
He needed directions to Mount Kunlun though. No matter how unpleasant it was, Shen Wei had learned that the best way to get it was to simply grab a human, repeatedly demand to know where the mountain was, and wait until they either passed out or pointed towards the mountain. After he’d been led astray once, losing them several precious days, he’d learned to grab multiple humans and repeat the treatment so he was sure that the direction he was given was correct.
In order to get to those humans, however, as well as to hunt for food for himself and Ye Zun, he had to leave Ye Zun behind. He always tried his hardest to hide his brother as best as he could, be it up in a tree or in a crevice between rocks. Ye Zun hated it. He protested every time. But Shen Wei’s greatest fear was to return to that place and find his brother gone, to find only a few remains or to find other ghosts feasting on his flesh. Every time he returned, he hugged his didi close, and he knew Ye Zun understood.
Ye Zun’s state slowly but steadily deteriorated. The longer they travelled, they had to stop more often and they couldn’t walk as far as Shen Wei would have liked in a day. He stole more clothing to keep Ye Zun warm, even though he wasn’t even supposed to notice any cold. He was starting to refuse food, causing Shen Wei to beg him to eat at least something. Shen Wei worried. He didn’t know what he would do if Kunlun refused to help them.
Shen Wei felt it in the earth when they finally reached Mount Kunlun. Apparently, so did Ye Zun.
“You’ve found your mountain,” Ye Zun said. “Now where is that god of yours?”
He’d grown petulant and snide with his sickness. Shen Wei tolerated it, even though it hurt him sometimes.
“I don’t know,” he answered, looking through the trees. “I guess at the top.”
“Absolutely wonderful,” Ye Zun countered.
Still, he followed as Shen Wei headed on. The mountain was high and they could only follow trails left behind by wildlife. That first day, they didn’t get far.
The second day, not long past noon, Shen Wei helped Ye Zun up a rocky incline. When he turned around, there was a man watching him. Instinctively, Shen Wei pulled Ye Zun behind him and crouched in defence. He blinked and eased his stance, however, when he fully took note of the man.
He suddenly fully understood why the humans talked in such awe about the gods, because the man in front of them could be no other than Kunlun. There was a power emanating from him that was so different from Shen Wei’s. It was vast, rooted, and beautiful. Everything about the man was beautiful — his green robes and the way his long hair moved in the breeze, his face and the ease with which he held himself.
“Look what we have here,” Kunlun said. “I thought I felt something unusual move up my mountain. What can two Ghost Kings possibly think to find here?”
Kunlun looked at Shen Wei, then tilted his head to look past him at Ye Zun. Shen Wei shifted to block his line of sight, earning himself a raised eyebrow.
“You,” Shen Wei said after a moment. The god’s presence had left his mind scrambled. “We have been looking for you, uhm… How do I address you?”
“A polite Ghost King,” Kunlun said with some surprise.
“Gege,” Ye Zun protested behind him, before promptly starting to cough.
“And a sick one,” Kunlun added.
Shen Wei was desperate. He didn’t know how he was supposed to act, what he was supposed to say. The only thing he had to go on was what he’d heard in human villages before the humans figured out what he was.
He eventually did the only thing he could think of, kneeling and pressing his head against the ground. He knew he was leaving Ye Zun wide open like that, but he also realised he was unlikely to win against the god. And Kunlun hadn’t attacked yet.
“Gege!” Ye Zun exclaimed between coughs. “Don’t. Don’t do that.”
He tried to pull Shen Wei up but was too weak to do so. He eventually hissed at Kunlun.
“You’re making him do this!”
“I’m not doing anything,” Kunlun calmly answered.
“Didi,” Shen Wei admonished before speaking up. “I have heard of your great knowledge of plants and of your generosity,” Shen Wei stated. “I have come here to beg you to save my didi. He has become ill and we don’t know why. We don’t know much about this place. Please help us.”
Silence followed his plea and Shen Wei kept his head pressed into the ground. Ye Zun was still hovering next to him and the lack of comment on his part was the only indication Shen Wei had that Kunlun hadn’t left yet.
Eventually, Kunlun huffed. “See if you can reach the top of this mountain and then we’ll talk.”
Shen Wei could hear him walk away, even though he never heard him arrive, and waited for the footfalls to have disappeared before raising his head.
“Why did you do that?” Ye Zun cried out.
“To save you,” Shen Wei simply answered.
“You shouldn’t do that. We are kings!”
“I would do anything to save you, didi,” Shen Wei said.
And he meant it. If Kunlun demanded that he sacrifice himself to save his didi, then Shen Wei would.
“You should not debase yourself like that,” Ye Zun muttered.
Shen Wei ignored him. “Can you keep on going?” he asked. “Or should we rest for a while?”
“We’ve already been standing still for so long with that annoying god blocking our way,” Ye Zun grouched.
“He said he will maybe help you if we reach him,” Shen Wei said. “There’s hope, didi.”
Ye Zun rolled his eyes but took Shen Wei’s hand as he offered it.
It took them four more days to reach the top. Once they passed the treeline, winds battered them, stealing the air from Ye Zun’s longues and worsening his condition. Shen Wei hated how little he could do to help Ye Zun, other than try to use his own body as an ineffective shield against the wind. Ye Zun absolutely refused to be carried.
When they arrived, Kunlun was lounging under a massive tree. How it managed to survive there, Shen Wei had no idea. He didn’t really care; he only had eyes for Kunlun while he supported Ye Zun.
“You’ve made it,” Kunlun said, looking at them. “Tenacious little ghost kings you are.”
He stood and walked up to them. Shen Wei tensed but said nothing. If he wanted Kunlun to save his didi, he would have to trust him, no matter how his instincts were screaming at him to keep everyone away from Ye Zun, to keep him safe.
Kunlun paid him no mind as he tipped Ye Zun’s face up with a finger under his chin. “You look half-dead,” he dryly commented.
“That’s because I am,” Ye Zun snapped back. He didn’t cough but his breath was short and wheezing.
“Feisty,” Kunlun commented with a laugh. “You’ll get along splendidly with Da Qing. Follow me.”
Shen Wei wanted to ask who Da Qing was, if there was another entity on the mountain that he needed to guard against. But he held his tongue, afraid to anger Kunlun.
Ye Zun leaned heavily on him as they followed the god, completely exhausted. They walked down the other side of the mountain, between two sheer rock faces and into a small valley. Shen Wei blinked in surprise at the sight before him. There was something that looked like the humans’ houses he’d seen, made entirely out of wood, standing in the middle of the valley, but what was more astonishing was the greenery around it.
Shen Wei stared in awe at the large variety of plants and trees. Kunlun, by his power alone, made plants grow where it shouldn’t be possible. As he tentatively stepped on the path between the plants, he could feel the air change into something warmer than the cold mountain air he’d just been standing in. The air turned fragrant as well. Beside him, Ye Zun breathed a little deeper.
“What are you standing there for?” Kunlun complained. “Get over here if you want that brother of yours healed.”
Shen Wei quickly moved along the path towards the house. There were drying herbs stacked on wicker boards in front of it and bundles hanging from the ceiling beams. Shen Wei looked up and jumped back, dragging Ye Zun with him and behind him, as two eyes looked back at him. He hissed in surprise.
“Da Qing,” Kunlun called out.
“How is this my fault?” the cat complained, flicking its tail and still staring at Shen Wei and Ye Zun. “I’m just sitting here. You’re the one bringing ghosts.”
“Kings,” Ye Zun said between laboured breaths.
“You don’t look much like a king to me,” Da Qing scoffed. “You look just shy from dead.”
“That’s because he is,” Kunlun called back. “He’ll be fully dead if he doesn’t get in here soon.”
Shen Wei ushered Ye Zun forward, keeping an eye on Da Qing. Inside, Kunlun was already mixing herbs and boiling them in water.
“Sit on the bed,” he said, vaguely waving at the piece of furniture in the middle of the room. “You’re the first ghost I’ve tried to heal so I make no promises.”
He checked the temperature of the boiling mixture and walked up to Ye Zun. “Take off a few layers,” he said. “You won’t need them here.”
When Ye Zun was down to one layer of clothing, Kunlun started prodding and poking him, much to Ye Zun’s displeasure, all the while asking questions. Shen Wei stayed close, anxious, and immediately took Ye Zun’s hand again once Kunlun was done.
Kunlun walked back to the boiling mixture and took it from the stove he’d used. He started grinding a new collection of herbs. Once that was mixed with water and heating on the stove, he took the first mixture and walked back to Ye Zun.
“This will keep you alive until the other medicine is ready,” he said, handing over the bowl. “Drink up.”
Ye Zun sniffed the concoction and scrunched up his nose in distaste.
“I never said it would taste good,” Kunlun said. “Now drink it.”
“Didi,” Shen Wei said. “Please?”
“Fine,” Ye Zun snapped before emptying the bowl in one go.
He started swaying immediately after and Kunlun deftly plucked the bowl out of his hands.
“Didi?” Shen Wei questioned. “Didi? Didi!” he cried out as Ye Zun fell backwards. He caught him and lowered him to the bed before turning on Kunlun. “What did you do?”
“Oh, don’t worry, he’s just sleeping,” Kunlun answered, carelessly turning his back as if Shen Wei’s power meant nothing to him. “It’s the best way to conserve his energy. This medicine will take half a day to brew.”
“Are you questioning my Master’s skills?” Da Qing asked from the doorway.
Shen Wei turned towards him and growled in warning. The cat hissed right back.
“Don’t antagonise a ghost king, Da Qing,” Kunlun said. “It might end up eating you.”
“Don’t underestimate it based on its looks,” Kunlun said. “The prettier the ghost, the more dangerous it is.”
Shen Wei blinked at Kunlun’s back in confusion. Pretty? Meanwhile, Da Qing flicked his tail high in the air before walking outside again.
“I still don’t know how to address you,” Shen Wei eventually said.
“Just call me Kunlun.”
“What? But- You- I- I can’t! I can’t possibly call you by your name! You’re a god.”
Kunlun glanced at him over his shoulder. “The humans call me ‘Lord Kunlun’, if that suits you better.”
Shen Wei nodded, even though Kunlun was already focused on the medicine again. “Lord Kunlun,” he said. “Thank you for saving my didi. I am in your debt.”
“He isn’t saved yet,” Kunlun answered, putting a lid on the bowl. “This needs to simmer,” he said. “Don’t touch it.”
Kunlun turned and walked out the door. Unwilling to leave Ye Zun alone even though he should be thinking about a way to repay Kunlun for his kindness, Shen Wei crawled into bed next to his didi. He snuggled against Ye Zun’s side and wrapped an arm around his torso before closing his eyes and dozing off.
His eyes snapped open again when he heard footsteps, only to see Kunlun check on the medicine. Shen Wei knew it was silly to be so high-strung still when there was only Kunlun and his cat around, but he couldn’t help himself. He made an effort to learn the rhythm of Kunlun’s footsteps, and the exact feeling of his presence. After Kunlun had walked in a few times, Shen Wei no longer opened his eyes, although he still paid close attention to the sounds Kunlun made.
Eventually, when the sky had already darkened and Kunlun had lit a few candles in the room, Ye Zun stirred again.
“Didi?” Shen Wei softly asked, pushing himself up.
Ye Zun blearily blinked open his eyes, then scowled. “What did that bastard give me?” he demanded, pushing himself up.
“I don’t know,” Shen Wei honestly answered, helping Ye Zun as he wobbled. “He said it made you sleep so you could conserve your energy.”
“Do you trust him, gege?”
Shen Wei contemplated the question for a moment. “He could have killed us, or chased us off his mountain. I trust that he will at least attempt to help you.”
“Kill us?” Ye Zun echoed, disbelieving.
“I’m not certain if I could beat him in a fight, didi,” Shen Wei answered. “He’s a god.”
Ye Zun scoffed, which caused him to start coughing. Kunlun must have heard because, only a moment later, he walked in.
“I see it’s about time you get your new dose of medicine,” he said, barely glancing at them before carefully taking the large bowl from the stove.
With a wooden ladle, he spooned some of the concoction into a smaller bowl. Shen Wei could feel a spike of Kunlun’s power as he blew on the liquid.
“Here,” Kulun said, handing the bowl to Shen Wei, who then gave it to Ye Zun. “It will taste just as bad as the first one.”
“Are you sure it will help him?” Shen Wei asked.
“It’s the best I can do,” Kunlun answered.
Ye Zun glared at the mixture in the bowl, scrunching up his nose.
“Didi,” Shen Wei said, glancing at Kunlun. “I think it’s our best bet.”
“What’s he going to ask of you in return?” Ye Zun asked, throwing a scathing glance at Kunlun.
“I don’t know,” Shen Wei answered, nervous that Ye Zun’s behaviour would anger Kunlun. “But whatever it is, it’s worth it if it saves you.”
“You shouldn’t be doing this,” Ye Zun grouched.
“You’re my didi,” Shen Wei said with feeling. He motioned at the bowl. “Drink it.”
Ye Zun sighed and threw Shen Wei a vulnerable, scared look over the bowl before downing the contents. Again, Kunlun was there to take the bowl after it had been emptied. Ye Zun started blinking furiously.
“I’m here. Go to sleep, didi. You’ll be better when you wake up.”
Shen Wei helped Ye Zun to lie back down, hoping he’d made the right choice; hoping that Ye Zun falling asleep again was what was supposed to happen.
“It depends on him now,” Kunlun said once Ye Zun was comfortable.
“What do you mean?” Shen Wei asked.
“What I gave him will help him fight off his sickness, but whether he succeeds or not is up to him.”
“When will he wake up?”
“When he wakes up,” Kunlun answered. “There’s no saying how long it will take.”
Shen Wei made a distressed sound at the back of his throat as he looked back at Ye Zun. Kunlun started cleaning his workspace but Shen Wei didn’t mind his presence as he moved back to his earlier position, pressed against Ye Zun’s side.
As light returned to the sky, Shen Wei finally got up from his position. He went outside to find Kunlun, anxious about leaving Ye Zun alone in the room but determined nonetheless. Kunlun looked up to him from where he was plucking leaves from a few plant cuttings but didn’t say anything.
Shen Wei shifted on his feet. “Lord Kunlun,” he started. “Tell me how I can repay you.”
“He is not saved yet, Little Ghost King,” Kunlun answered, looking back down at his work.
“But you’ve tried your best,” Shen Wei pressed. “I must repay you.”
“There is nothing that I want. I do not expect a payment from you.”
Shen Wei frowned, confused. “But-” he started, not really knowing what he wanted to say.
“I am a god, Little Ghost King. What could I possibly want?”
Shen Wei blinked at that, contemplating the words and realising the truth of them. Feeling conflicted and, for some reason, sad, he retreated a little. Surely a god did not appreciate being in the vicinity of something as unworthy as a ghost.
Sitting next to the door to Ye Zun’s room, Shen Wei spent the rest of the day watching Kunlun as he moved through the garden. Anxious, he regularly went inside to check on Ye Zun before settling at the door again.
It became a habit. Shen Wei watched as Kunlun worked in his garden or lounged under the shade of one of the trees. He worried when the god left the protected area, afraid he wouldn’t come back, no matter how irrational he knew that fear to be.
Whenever Kunlun was in the garden, Shen Wei observed how he cared for the plants; how he cut them and which tools he used. Becoming more at ease in his new environment, Shen Wei ventured further from the door to Ye Zun’s room, although he still returned regularly to make sure Ye Zun was doing okay. Often, when Kunlun left or dozed with his eyes closed, Shen Wei followed the path Kunlun had taken through his garden that day and smelled the plants. He was careful when he touched them, not wanting to cause any damage.
It was after one of those moments, where Kunlun was half-asleep under a tree and Shen Wei had silently moved through the garden, that he returned to Ye Zun to find Da Qing standing on Ye Zun’s chest, looking down at his brother. Without much thought, Shen Wei snarled and surged forward, flinging Da Qing away and coming to a stop in a protective crouch above Ye Zun.
Da Qing yowled as he hit the far wall of the room, then hissed, back arched and hair on end. Shen Wei hissed right back.
“What’s going on here?”
Shen Wei ducked his head a little at Kunlun’s words. Da Qing was Kunlun’s familiar, after all. He didn’t know what to say, yet also didn’t avert his gaze from the cat.
“Da Qing?” Kunlun asked with a sigh. “Did I not tell you not to antagonise our ghost king?”
“Why is it my fault?” Da Qing protested. “I was just checking on him.”
Shen Wei made himself a little smaller. If that were true, he’d attacked for no reason.
“From where?” Kunlun dryly asked.
“From on top of him, of course,” Da Qing answered. “How else am I supposed to see him?”
Shen Wei drooped, loosening his defensive posture. Da Qing huffed, flicking his tail, before relaxing as well. He made to walk around the bed but made a most pitiful sound as he put weight on his right front leg.
“Da Qing?” Kunlun asked. The concern was evident in his voice as he walked up to the cat. “Let me have a look,” he said as he picked Da Qing up. Once Da Qing was safe in his arms, he turned to look at Shen Wei, who made himself as small as he could while still guarding Ye Zun. “Your brother and you are safe here,” Kunlun sternly said. “Attacking Da Qing is not acceptable. You must learn to control those impulses.”
With that, Kunlun marched out of the room. Shen Wei felt miserable. Not knowing what to do, thinking he probably wasn’t welcome anymore, he laid down next to Ye Zun and stayed there. Not once since Ye Zun had fallen asleep had he stirred even the slightest. The only sign of life was his steady breathing. Shen Wei put his hand on his didi’s chest, and closed his eyes.
He didn’t know how much time had passed — It could have been minutes or a full day. All Shen Wei knew was that the light had dwindled when he opened his eyes. — when Kunlun walked back into the room. Shen Wei watched him but didn’t move. He didn’t dare to. After a soft sigh, Kunlun walked up to them.
Shen Wei still didn’t move when Kunlun reached for him. Expecting some punishment or another, Shen Wei was confused when Kunlun’s hand simply came to lie on his head, then started petting him. The feel of it was wonderful. Shen Wei had to fight the urge to close his eyes and push into Kunlun’s hand.
“I’m not angry at you, Little Ghost King,” Kunlun said. “You were only trying to protect your brother. There’s no need to though. Not here. Da Qing will be fine. His shoulder is bruised from the impact against the wall. He merely needs rest, which is something he does all the time anyway. You don’t have to stay away from us. Although, I guess Da Qing will claw at you if you come too close.”
After a few more brushes of his hand, Kunlun turned and walked out again. Shen Wei remained, thinking about Kunlun’s words. Could he trust them? Could it really be true that Kunlun didn’t blame him?
By the time the sky lightened again, Shen Wei tentatively made his way to the door. He sat right outside of it, not daring to venture further just in case he would still, somehow, offend Kunlun. Nothing happened. Kunlun went on his usual tour of the garden before busying himself with some of the dried roots. Still, Shen Wei stayed near the door, tense. He didn’t see Da Qing at all.
Two days later, Kunlun walked up to him. Usually, the god left him be; they didn’t interact much at all. Shen Wei watched him approach with wide eyes.
“Do you need to eat to survive?” Kunlun asked him.
Surprised by the unexpected question, it took Shen Wei a moment to answer. “I can go without food for a long time before it becomes a problem.”
He feared he’d said the wrong thing when Kunlun frowned.
“But are you hungry?” Kunlun asked.
Shen Wei ducked his head, embarrassed. “Yes,” he answered.
He hadn’t wanted to mention it before, both not wanting to leave Ye Zun and not wanting to bother Kunlun. He’d also wondered where he would go hunting and exactly how much he would insult the god by asking to be allowed to hunt on his mountain.
“Come along,” Kunlun said, turning and walking towards the exit of their valley.
Shen Wei scrambled after him, looking backwards. “Didi?” he asked.
“Is safe here, don’t worry.” They walked to the top of the mountain before Kunlun spoke again. “What do you eat?”
“Of other ghosts?”
Shen Wei scrunched up his nose in distaste. “I could,” he honestly answered, “but I prefer meat from animals.”
“Ghost meat… It tastes much like they look.”
Kunlun threw his head back and laughed. Surprised, Shen Wei stared at him. He liked the sound, and he felt something he couldn’t quite identify at the knowledge that he’d been the cause of it.
“Fair enough,” Kunlun eventually said. “Give me your hand.”
Shen Wei did what he was told and only had a moment to wonder about how warm Kunlun’s hand was in his, before, between one step and the next, they were surrounded by forest. Shen Wei startled badly, then mourned how it caused Kunlun to let go of his hand.
“Over there is a herd of deer,” Kunlun said, vaguely motioning to their left, somewhat further down the mountain. “Rabbits are literally everywhere,” he added, “if you prefer smaller prey. I’ll come back to get you when the sun starts going down. Don’t worry about where you are; I’ll find you as long as you stay on the mountain.”
“What about you?” Shen Wei asked.
“What about me?”
“Do you need to eat?”
Kunlun smiled. “I only eat when I feel like it. I don’t need it.” He tilted his head a little. “If you’re asking if you should catch me something as well, then no.”
He turned and disappeared while taking a step forward. Shen Wei stared at the now empty spot for a little while, awed, before heading into the direction Kunlun had shown him.
By the time Kunlun returned, he’d eaten his fill and was scrubbing away in a stream.
“What are you doing?” Kunlun asked, startling Shen Wei into a defensive crouch.
He quickly stood again. “Washing my clothes,” he answered.
Shen Wei looked up at Kunlun in confusion. “I got blood on them,” he said.
Kunlun gazed at him for a while before his eyes slid sideways. “What’s with the fish?”
“Ah.” Shen Wei glanced at the fish that he’d left on a rock, skewered on a stick. “For Da Qing?”
“You caught Da Qing a fish?”
Shen Wei nodded shyly, climbing on the rocks next to the stream and putting his wet clothes on again. He picked up the skewered fish. “Does Da Qing not eat fish?” he asked.
“He does,” Kunlun answered with some fondness. “But why did you catch him a fish?”
“I hurt him,” Shen Wei answered, looking down at his feet.
“And you feel bad about it?”
Shen Wei nodded again, not looking up.
“Silly Ghost King,” Kunlun said, amused. “I think he’ll like your fish. Now come here so I can dry your clothes and we can return.”
Shen Wei shivered when Kunlun’s power rushed over him and dried his clothes. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling though. It just felt a bit weird. And although he was now somewhat prepared for it, the sudden change of scenery after he’d taken hold of Kunlun’s hand was still shocking. Kunlun didn’t seem to notice his slight unease on either occasion, or decided not to comment on it. Either way, he simply continued on towards the little valley.
“Da Qing is dozing next to that bush over there,” Kunlun said upon arrival. “It’s one of his favourite spots.”
Feeling somewhat nervous, Shen Wei walked over to the bush and spotted Da Qing. The cat’s ears twitched at his approach and Shen Wei halted at a safe distance before crouching down. He extended the stick.
Da Qing blinked his eyes open and stared at him. “What’s up with the fish?” he asked, tail flicking a little.
“For you,” Shen Wei answered.
“You got me a fish?”
Shen Wei nodded. Da Qing continued to stare at him without speaking.
“You don’t want it?” Shen Wei asked, frowning. “It’s a good fish.”
“Why did you not eat it then?”
Shen Wei’s frown deepened. “Because it’s for you.”
“Why, by the Heavens, would you catch me a fish?” Da Qing demanded, incredulous.
“I-” Shen Wei shifted. “I hurt you,” he said, hanging his head.
He knew he shouldn’t have attacked, should have trusted Da Qing and, if not him, by extension Kunlun, and it bothered him. It bothered him even more that Da Qing had gotten hurt because of it.
“You’re a weird ghost king,” Da Qing said.
“Oh,” Shen Wei said, pulling back. “I’ll not bother you then.”
“Where are you going with my fish?” Da Qing protested.
Confused, Shen Wei turned back around.
“You’re confusing him, Da Qing,” Kunlun said from where he’d been watching the proceedings.
“It’s a good fish,” Da Qing said.
“It is,” Kunlun agreed. “And I guess you want it grilled?”
“Grilled?” Shen Wei asked, frowning at his fish. “What’s wrong with it now?”
“Come here, Little Ghost King,” Kunlun said with an amused shake of his head. “I’ll show you.”
Shen Wei followed him closely, making a slight detour to check on Ye Zun, and watched as Kunlun grabbed one of the small stoves he had, put a metal grate on it, and lit some wood underneath. He watched with confusion as Kunlun descaled and gutted the fish, and threw away the intestines. They disappeared right before hitting the ground. Kunlun then put the stick back through the fish and placed it on the grate.
“And now we wait,” he said.
“What for?” Shen Wei asked.
“Until it’s cooked.”
Shen Wei frowned, not understanding, but settled down to wait. The smell of the fish changed the longer it was on the fire and he watched with fascination how the fish’s colour changed as well.
“Is it almost done?” Da Qing called from his spot.
“Impatient, as always,” Kunlun answered. “Why don’t you come and grill it yourself, hm?”
Shen Wei hung his head.
“You’re making our Little Ghost King sad,” Kunlun said.
Da Qing huffed. “I’ll forgive him once the fish is done.”
Shen Wei looked up at where Da Qing was lying, hopeful.
“He’s not angry at you, Little Ghost King,” Kunlun said. “And he really likes fish. He just doesn’t want to admit it.” They sat in silence for a little while longer until Kunlun lifted the fish from the stove. “Finished,” he said.
Da Qing stood and walked over to them, tail high up in the air and at times the only thing of him to be seen between the plants. Shen Wei followed Kunlun inside and became even more confused as Kunlun grabbed a small bowl and started pulling the flesh from the fish, getting rid of the grates, tail and head. The flesh was shredded and put into the bowl. Back where they’d been seated, Da Qing was waiting for them.
“Fish,” he exclaimed as Kunlun put the bowl in front of him.
He promptly started eating, clearly enjoying the food. Once the bowl was half-empty, he looked up.
“You want to try?” he asked.
“Me?” Shen Wei asked in turn.
“Try some grilled fish,” Da Qing said. “You’ll learn that it’s much better than raw fish.”
“But it’s your fish,” Shen Wei protested.
“Try a piece, Little Ghost King,” Kunlun said.
After a glance towards the god, Shen Wei tentatively picked a small piece from Da Qing’s bowl. He studied it before popping it into his mouth.
“See?” Da Qing said.
Shen Wei nodded and Da Qing promptly started eating again. In all honesty, Shen Wei didn’t know what to think of the grilled fish. He glanced at Kunlun, who was gazing at him as if he knew what Shen Wei was thinking.
The days continued on and Shen Wei felt more comfortable venturing out into the garden again. He watched and learned.
One day, Kunlun was trimming a bush when he got distracted by the grass-like plant a little further away. As he walked over and crouched next to it, Shen Wei saw him reach for a tool he wasn’t carrying. On quick feet, Shen Wei went to grab the tool he knew Kunlun needed and went to give it to him.
He hoped he wasn’t overstepping. He’d never gone into the garden while Kunlun was working, let alone approached him. It felt like he finally could do something though, something to repay him for letting them stay and helping Ye Zun.
Kunlun looked at him in surprise as he crouched next to him, then looked at the tool Shen Wei was holding out.
“Huh,” Kunlun merely said before accepting the tool and setting to work.
Shen Wei felt inordinately pleased with himself. He was about to head back to his usual spot, when Kunlun started talking. He told Shen Wei the name of the plant and then talked about where it could be found apart from his garden. He explained what it needed to grow, how to take care of it and what it could be used for. Shen Wei soaked up the information.
When Kunlun returned to the bush he’d been working on before, he notioned Shen Wei to follow. There, too, he explained about the plant. Shen Wei ended up following him for the rest of Kunlun’s usual tour through the garden. By the end of it, his head was buzzing with new information. He wasn’t sure if he’d managed to remember it all, but he did his best. He didn’t want to forget anything Kunlun told him.
The day after, Kunlun gazed at him, then invited him to join him as he started working. Again, Shen Wei listened to Kunlun as he explained plant after plant. Shen Wei realised he enjoyed listening to Kunlun talk, no matter what he was talking about.
Day after day, Shen Wei learned while his brother slept on. After some time, Kunlun started asking what he remembered of this plant or that, then added some extra information or supplied what Shen Wei had forgotten. It was Shen Wei’s most favourite time of the day.
Despite that they now spent more time together, however, Kunlun hadn’t petted his head again and Shen Wei silently wished he would. He couldn’t forget about how it had felt. He didn’t know what he had to do in order to get more headpats. Clearly Kunlun didn’t mind petting Da Qing at all. Then again, Da Qing did have a tendency to unceremoniously climb on Kunlun’s lap and demand to be petted.
At one point, it occurred to Shen Wei that maybe he could ask for it too; he just didn’t know how. Gathering his courage, he walked up to where Kunlun was lounging against his favourite tree and crouched next to him.
“Little Ghost King?” Kunlun asked.
Shen Wei shifted. He didn’t know how to ask for what he wanted. He didn’t even have the right words for it. Biting his lower lip, he gazed at Kunlun’s hands.
“Something with my hands?” Kunlun asked, lifting them.
Carefully, tentatively, Shen Wei moved forward and lightly pushed the top of his head against one of Kunlun’s hands. Kunlun pulled it away and Shen Wei shrank back. Had he made a mistake? Was it something reserved for Da Qing only?
“You want to be petted?” Kunlun asked.
He huffed, sounding amused, and Shen Wei felt Kunlun’s hand on his head again. He couldn’t help the pleased little sound that escaped him. As Kunlun started brushing his hand over Shen Wei’s hair, Shen Wei all but melted. He closed his eyes and relaxed.
“You’re going to have to learn how to use your words more, Little Ghost King,” Kunlun said. “You can just ask.”
Shen Wei made a sound that was close to the purring he’d heard Da Qing do and Kunlun laughed softly.
“I see Da Qing has his influence on you,” he said. “Come on, lie down.”
When his hand left Shen Wei’s head, Shen Wei blinked open his eyes.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Kunlun said. “Lie down.”
He patted his thigh and it took Shen Wei a moment to comprehend his invitation. He looked at Kunlun in surprise but Kunlun merely smiled and patted his thigh again. Hesitant, Shen Wei laid down. He immediately relaxed, however, when Kunlun started petting him again. He relaxed so much that he ended up falling asleep.
When he blinked open his eyes again, Kunlun was no longer petting him. The position of the shadows told him that quite a bit of time had passed. He shot up and turned wide eyes on Kunlun.
“I see you’re awake again,” Kunlun merely said.
Feeling embarrassed, Shen Wei fled. As usual, he retreated to Ye Zun’s room. He wondered if Kunlun was angry that he’d fallen asleep on him like that. He hadn’t sounded angry. What if he was maybe not angry but annoyed? Had Shen Wei crossed a boundary by falling asleep like that?
And then there was the fact in and of itself that he’d fallen asleep. Shen Wei wasn’t used to trusting anybody other than his brother, let alone enough to fall asleep and trust that the other would protect him. Even though there was nothing he needed protecting from in Kunlun’s valley.
Shen Wei didn’t know what it meant.
The next day, he was skittish around Kunlun but the god didn’t comment on it. Ever since that day, however, Kunlun became a lot more free with his touch around Shen Wei. It started with a single head pat when he got something right, to taking his arm to move around the garden and guiding his hand when feeling the texture of a particular plant.
At the same time, Shen Wei became some sort of an assistant to Kunlun. He fetched tools and baskets, helped Kunlun with the drying herbs and was allowed to cut a few plants under Kunlun’s watchful eye. Kunlun started telling him about how several herbs could be combined and allowed him to crush them into a powder.
Shen Wei wondered where all the concoctions they made went to but didn’t ask. He figured Kunlun would tell him once he was allowed to know.
They were in the middle of pulling leaves from a bush, Kunlun asking him questions about the medicinal qualities, when Shen Wei heard a sound from Ye Zun’s room. Without much decorum, he dropped the basket holding the leaves and hurried away.
He rushed into the room and found Ye Zun blinking his eyes open.
“Didi,” Shen Wei exclaimed, running to Ye Zun’s side. “Didi,” he said again, looking at Ye Zun before embracing him. “You’re awake. Didi, you’re awake!”
“Ge?” Ye Zun croaked.
Shen Wei pushed himself up again. “Didi. I’m here. You’re awake.”
“Well, obviously,” Ye Zun answered.
“You slept for so long,” Shen Wei said, hugging Ye Zun again. “I was starting to become afraid you would never wake up.”
“That was an option?” Ye Zun asked, sounding scandalised. “How long did I sleep?”
“A little over three seasons,” Kunlun answered from the doorway.
Shen Wei shot up and ran to him, enveloping him in a hug. “He’s awake. You saved him!”
Kunlun laughed, wrapping an arm around Shen Wei and kissing the top of his head. It caused Shen Wei to let out a happy sound.
“Gege?” Ye Zun called, sounding utterly confused.
Slightly reluctant, finding that he liked having Kunlun’s arm wrapped around him, Shen Wei stepped away and returned to Ye Zun’s side, who’d sat up in the meantime.
“How are you feeling?” he asked. “How is your breathing? Do you feel weak?”
“Give him a moment to properly wake up, Little Ghost King,” Kunlun said, coming to stand next to them.
Ye Zun eyed him warily. Then, Da Qing jumped on the bed. Ye Zun startled and swung at him but Shen Wei was fast enough to stop it. He was pleasantly surprised at the strength of the impact.
“That’s Da Qing,” he said.
“I see you’ve finally decided to wake up,” Da Qing said, licking his paw as if he hadn’t almost been knocked into a wall, again.
“Don’t talk to me like that, cat,” Ye Zun answered.
“I’ll talk to you however I like,” Da Qing said.
“Don’t you know who I am?” Ye Zun started.
He didn’t get far though, as Shen Wei tackled him into another hug. “You really are feeling better,” he exclaimed. “I’m so happy, didi.”
Ye Zun loosened a breath at the impact, then wrapped both his arms around Shen Wei. “I’m okay now, gege,” he muttered in a low tone.
Behind him, Shen Wei could feel how Kunlun picked Da Qing up. His hand brushed shortly against the small of Shen Wei’s back as he did so.
“We’ll leave you to catch up,” Kunlun said.
“Gege,” Ye Zun said. “What’s been going on?”
And so Shen Wei told him about everything that had happened while Ye Zun had been asleep. Ye Zun’s expression grew more astonished the more he told him. Eventually, it grew petulant.
“Have you forgotten about me, gege?” he asked.
“What?” Shen Wei said in surprise. “I’m right here, didi. I’ve been waiting for you to wake up all this time. How could I possibly forget you?”
“You seem really friendly with this Kunlun-guy.”
“Didi, he saved you. He took care of us both and taught me all these things about plants and medicine. Of course we got to know each other.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Ye Zun muttered.
“Didi?” Shen Wei asked. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s nothing,” Ye Zun said. “I’m still a bit tired.”
“Are you?” Shen Wei asked, anxious. “I don’t know if that’s normal. I should ask Lord Kunlun if that’s normal.”
Ye Zun grabbed his sleeve as he made to get up. “No,” he said, pouting a little. “Stay?”
“Of course, didi. Of course.”
Shen Wei laid down next to Ye Zun and was exorbitantly happy to feel Ye Zun cuddle into him. Ye Zun fell asleep but woke up again not too long after, much to Shen Wei’s relief. After, they intermittently dozed and talked.
The next morning, Shen Wei went to find Kunlun. “Lord Kunlun,” he said, finding him against the side of the house. “Ye Zun is hungry.”
Kunlun looked at him. “I know your brother’s name,” he said, “but I don’t know yours.”
“Oh,” Shen Wei said, tilting his head, wondering why it was important at all. “Shen Wei.”
“Shen Wei,” Kunlun repeated in a sad way that confused Shen Wei. “Will you hunt for him or will he go along?”
“He wants to come along,” Shen Wei answered.
Kunlun nodded and stood. “Go get him then. I’ll help you both down the mountain.”
Shen Wei nodded and went to get Ye Zun. Kunlun was silent when he led the way to the top of the mountain. Once there, he offered a hand to both of them.
“Take his hand, didi,” Shen Wei said, his already secure in Kunlun’s.
“Why would I do that?” Ye Zun protested.
“He’ll help us down the mountain,” Shen Wei answered, “so that we don’t have to walk the entire way. It’s a bit, uhm, confusing, at first, but you get used to it.”
Frowning at Kunlun, Ye Zun reluctantly did as he was told. He startled badly once they arrived.
“I promise,” Shen Wei said, grinning. “You get used to it.”
“Over there,” Kunlun said, pointing at where Shen Wei knew he could feel a herd of deer. “I’ll find you when the sun reaches its highest point.”
Shen Wei nodded at him, despite the odd tone in Kunlun’s voice. After a long look at Shen Wei, Kunlun turned and disappeared.
“How does he do that?” Ye Zun exclaimed.
“I don’t know,” Shen Wei admitted. “He’s a god,” he added. “And this is his mountain.”
“You never asked him?” Ye Zun asked, incredulous.
“It never occurred to me.”
Ye Zun shook his head in disbelief but let it drop. “I’m hungry,” he complained.
Shen Wei smiled at him and led the way. It had been a very, very long time since they’d hunted together.
By the time noon came, they were both sated and lounging next to the stream they’d used to clean up. As usual, Shen Wei had caught Da Qing a fish. When Kunlun showed up, Shen Wei immediately made his way over to him.
“You’re still here,” Kunlun said with a confused little frown.
“Of course we are,” Shen Wei answered, tilting his head. “Why wouldn’t we be?”
“Your brother is healthy again,” Kunlun said. “You have no reason to stay. I figured your hunt would only lead to you leaving.”
“Lord Kunlun?” Shen Wei asked, feeling small. “I- We can no longer stay here?”
“Of course you can, Little Ghost King,” Kunlun said, cupping Shen Wei’s cheek. He turned his face into it. “But you don’t have to. I’m not forcing you to stay. You also do not have to pay me back or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Shen Wei looked up to him. “But I want to stay,” he said.
Kunlun smiled a little. “Okay.”
“Ye Zun, let’s go. Bring the fish,” Shen Wei called out.
“Why did you insist on catching a fish for that damned cat?” Ye Zun complained.
“Because he likes it.”
“Ugh,” Ye Zun merely said. Then, “I guess I have to hold your hand again?”
“I’m afraid so,” Kunlun dryly answered.
A step later, they were back at the top of the mountain. Grumbling about the indignity of it all, even though that made no sense whatsoever, Ye Zun marched off ahead of them. There was only one path so at least he couldn’t get lost. Kunlun placed a hand on Shen Wei’s arm and held him back.
“Are you really staying?” Kunlun asked.
Shen Wei nodded. “I don’t want to leave,” he answered.
Kunlun tilted his chin up and leaned their foreheads together. “That makes me very happy,” he said, before softly pressing their lips together.
Shen Wei was still processing what was happening when Kunlun pulled back. He smiled brightly though, when Kunlun looked at him.
“What about your brother?” Kunlun asked. “Will he be willing to stay too?”
“I don’t know,” Shen Wei answered with a frown. “I think so.”
“I’ll make do with that, for now,” Kunlun answered with a smile, before taking Shen Wei’s hand and walking towards the valley.
“Lord Kunlun,” Shen Wei started.
“I’ve told you before, Little Ghost King,” Kunlun said, “just call me Kunlun.”
Shen Wei shook his head. “No,” he said. “But I do have a question.”
“What is it?”
“Ye Zun asked me how you step down the mountain like that and I didn’t know. Can you tell me?”
Kunlun glanced at him. “I will teach you,” he said.
“You can teach me?” Shen Wei asked, astonished.
“Of course,” Kunlun answered. “I will teach you whatever you wish to know, Little Ghost King. You only have to ask. There will be plenty of time to answer your every question.”