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The Demon King and the God Tree

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Some days Zhao Yunlan curses ever joining the demon hunter Order, but at the moment he’s thankful. A normal human would definitely have already frozen to death among the snowy peaks of Hengduan. Not that he’s too far off.

As he shakes a lock of scraggly hair out of his face, he takes a moment to mourn the loss of his horse. He’d entered the region hoping to make his way to his destination in two months, maybe three at the outside, but he’s been here going on half a year now and winter is coming on strong. Luckily he keeps all his important gear on him at all times: his sword, a hunting knife, his talismans, the ancient map, fire-starting rocks, and a week’s food if he doesn’t ration. But the horse carried his tent and the additional food, not to mention allowed him to travel faster and further each day, and its loss down a treacherous ravine slowed his progress to a crawl.

Speaking of. The days are growing shorter, so he has to find shelter earlier in the day if he doesn’t want to be working in the dark. He quickly finds a nice rocky overcropping and builds himself a snow shelter before huddling into his cloak.

Just another two weeks of travel, he assures himself. Then he’ll know if this was all worth it, or if he should just lay down and die.

*

“Hey,” says Da Qing, scratching politely at the entrance of Shen Wei’s cave before padding inside. “Were you expecting visitors anytime soon?”

“Hm?” Shen Wei looks up from the book he’s attempting to repair, using his delicate human hands to tuck his human hair behind his human ear. “No, I don’t believe so. Why?”

“There’s a hybrid in the area. He’s been heading your way for the past three days.”

“A hybrid?” Shen Wei repeats. “A half-human hybrid?”

“That is what a hybrid means.” Da Qing yawns and sits, licking at his front paw. “Doesn’t seem too healthy, though. Was staggering a bit, seemed kind of thin.”

“It’s the middle of winter,” Shen Wei says, shocked. He makes his nest atop Mount Gongga because with his control of the air and clouds, snow and storms aren’t a concern. But a half-human, with none of the longevity of a spirit or their cultivated power, would be at the mercy of the elements. “I’m amazed he’s still alive.”

“Not for much longer,” Da Qing says cynically. “There’s that storm blowing in, so he’ll be stuck. He’s not going to make it up here in time before it hits.”

...Unless Shen Wei goes and gets him, is the unspoken implication.

It’s not an unfounded conclusion. Shen Wei is a bit of a soft touch for the weak and abandoned. He’s saved several small spirits when they were injured or lost: a young fox with only two tails after her grandmother died and left her alone to be preyed on by a wolf spirit, a determined carp that somehow swam up the wrong river and nearly froze, and once even a qilin that had been caught in a landslide.

And, of course, Da Qing himself. Shen Wei found the cat near death at the base of the mountain and nursed him back to health. When Da Qing couldn’t remember anything of his past, he stuck around and kept Shen Wei company. It’s worked out well for the last century, and now Shen Wei barely recalls a time when his warren didn’t have a furry visitor appearing at all times of day and night.

But see, all of those rescues have something in common. They were of spirits. Not humans. Not hybrids.

Shen Wei doesn’t have much direct experience interacting with humans, and what experience he does have is bad. The raging rescue of his brother, smashing cages and rough shelters to bits, and the terrible wounds inflicted upon Ye Zun’s flesh -- nothing there endears humans to him. It doesn’t stop him from taking on their shape, of course, since opposable thumbs are so convenient and all the interesting books are made for human proportions, but that doesn’t mean he’d welcome one of them into his nest.

The silence drags on. Da Qing looks at him with surprise, head cocked at an inquisitive angle. He’s too young to know Shen Wei’s stance on humans and has only met Ye Zun a handful of times.

“Are you not going to help him, Shen-laoshi?”

Da Qing must be truly concerned. He rarely calls Shen Wei by a respectful title, given his prideful cat nature, plus Shen Wei prefers a less formal address.

“Humans can be… problematic,” says Shen Wei. “Even hybrids. Of course, I will not turn him away if he appears seeking assistance, but in this instance I don’t believe I’ll seek him out.”

“All right,” Da Qing drawls. He eyes Shen Wei skeptically before flopping onto his side. “Hey, hey, have you eaten dinner yet? Let’s have some fish.”

Shen Wei looks down at his tattered book. The sheaves of paper have been stacked neatly and clamped. He is in the middle of stitching a reinforcement to the spine, but he can stop and pick it up again at any time. He slips the bone needle carefully between the pressed pages, tucking the thread underneath the book so it doesn’t slip free, and stands.

“Very well,” he says, smiling faintly. Six long steps take him to Da Qing’s form lounging on the ground, a mass of muscle and fur nearly twice the size of his human body, and he reaches out to scratch behind Da Qing’s ear. Da Qing pushes his face into his hand and purrs. “I believe we still have half of a giant salmon frozen in the storage area.”

“Salmon,” Da Qing says dreamily. “I’ll go fetch it. You get the fire started. Do you think you can do that glaze you made last time?”

“Only if you want to wait several hours for me to prepare it,” Shen Wei replies apologetically. “Next time.”

“Aw.” Da Qing shakes himself as he stands. “Oh well. Your cooking is always delicious, so it’s not too much of a loss.”

“You flatter me,” Shen Wei says, and waves a hand at him. “Go fetch the fish.”

Da Qing bounds away. Shen Wei moves into the adjoining cave, growing briefly to his real size in order to unhook the protective flue cover and then blow away the resulting dump of snow, before striking claws against the rock to start a fire. He rarely bothers to do this on his own. In fact, he rarely eats on his own, despite his skill at preparing food, given that his cultivation is high enough that he has little need to replenish his energy with physical matter. And when he does, he tends to cook with a magical, smokeless flame.

However, magical cooking has its drawbacks. The resulting taste of the meal is never as robust as when using true, physical methods. Da Qing much prefers the taste of real cooking.

“Hrrere,” says Da Qing through a mouthful of frozen salmon, depositing it on the smooth rock of Shen Wei’s meal preparation area. He licks his lips. “Need any help with anything?”

“No.” Shen Wei smiles at him again. “Relax. Take a nap. This shouldn’t take too long.”

Da Qing obeys, curling up by the fire in an out of the way corner. Shen Wei defrosts the salmon quickly and puts it in a pan with water greens and chestnuts, placing it to sizzle over the fire, and roasts some seeds as well to sprinkle over it when it’s done. Soon a delicious aroma saturates the cave.

He nudges Da Qing with a foot when he’s finished. Da Qing springs up and joins him at the flat eating area, chowing down with abandon and meowing out praise for the meal. Shen Wei laughs as he eats his own portion with clawed fingers.

“Don’t work too hard,” Da Qing says before he leaves again to do whatever cat things he does when Shen Wei isn’t looking.

“No promises,” Shen Wei murmurs to himself. He cleans the area before going back to his book repair.

*

Zhao Yunlan is beginning to think that he might have been too optimistic. Forget living for two weeks, he’ll be lucky to make it two days at this rate. As the icy wind whips at his face he squints into the storm and hopes that he’s still going in the right direction. This section of the route should have been relatively straightforward to navigate, but with visibility down to an arm’s length in front of his face all he can do is follow the cliffside and hope he spots the correct turn to bring him closer to his destination.

Something faint sounds above the wind. Zhao Yunlan pauses, listening, but it doesn’t repeat. Must have been his imagination.

A clump of snow hits his head. He’s only saved from being soaked by the covering of his cloak, and looks upward with trepidation. If that’s the beginnings of an avalanche…

Nothing but empty rock. No ominous rumblings. When he looks forward again he nearly suffers a heart attack as he sees the enormous black panther in front of him.

“Hey,” says the panther in an annoyed tone of voice. “Are you paying attention now?”

“What in all the hells,” Zhao Yunlan swears. A fucking demon? Here?

Then again, given where he’s going is that such a surprise? Some demons are solitary, others prefer the company of their own kind.

“Well, you’re still alive.” The panther eyes him critically. Zhao Yunlan realizes belatedly that the storm has all but ceased in a bubble around them, snow drifting down in fat flakes instead of hitting him sideways in a stinging wall. “That’s something.”

Zhao Yunlan points at him. “I take offense to that.”

The panther yawns. “Sure,” it says. “Which would absolutely hurt me if I cared what you thought.”

“...Okay.” Zhao Yunlan lowers his hand. Just because he isn’t being buffeted by ice doesn’t mean it isn’t cold. “That’s fair. Did you want something from me?”

As a half demon, he’s met with various types of receptions from full demons. Those who are familiar with the Order tend to want to kill him; those who aren’t are either aloofly fascinated by his status as a hybrid or surprisingly friendly. This panther doesn’t seem to be the latter type, but it also hasn’t tried to kill him.

“It’s sad watching you struggle,” it informs him blandly. “You’re here to visit Shenlong, right? I’ll take you here.”

“Why would you think I’m here to visit Shenlong?” Zhao Yunlan narrows his eyes.

“Who else lives up here? Besides, I’ve been watching you for the past three days. You’re definitely headed for the mountain summit.”

Zhao Yunlan hadn’t picked up on any surveillance. The failure stings at his pride, but he consoles himself with the fact that he’s not at his best. He could have detected the panther following him under normal conditions. Probably.

“Rude,” he says, stalling. “But under the circumstances... I accept.” If the panther kills and eats him, is it any worse than freezing to death in this damn blizzard?

The panther pads closer. Zhao Yunlan tenses, hand creeping toward his sword hilt, but the beast merely crouches a meter or so in front of him. “Get on.”

“What?” Zhao Yunlan blinks.

“Get on,” the panther repeats impatiently. “You’re never going to make it there on your own, you can barely walk. I’ll carry you.”

“Why?” Zhao Yunlan waits until he’s astride the enormous cat before he asks the question, but that doesn’t diminish his desire to know the answer. Why help him, some random half-demon the panther has never met and obviously isn’t that fond of?

“Just repaying a favor,” the panther replies cryptically, then stands with a ripple of heavy muscle. “You holding on? Not going to fall off?”

Zhao Yunlan takes two fistfuls of coarse hair at the nape of the panther’s neck and tightens his knees. “Ready.”

The first bounding leap nearly has him falling off anyways. Riding this panther is nothing like riding a horse; the rhythm is totally different, and the cat’s back arches and flexes in a completely alien way under his body. Zhao Yunlan flattens himself in his best imitation of a strangling vine and prays that he doesn’t get thrown off into a ravine, and to his death.

However perilous the method, they make amazing time. Just as Zhao Yunlan’s weak forearms and thighs are nearing the brink of complete muscle fatigue, the panther slows to a stop.

“We’re here,” it says.

Zhao Yunlan raises his head. Somehow, despite being right in the heart of the storm, no wind stirs. It’s as if the panther’s calm weather bubble has expanded to cover the entire mountaintop. In front of them is an entrance into the mountain, magical lights brightening the threshold with a welcoming orange glow.

Zhao Yunlan lifts a trembling leg and slides off the panther with a grimace, knees nearly buckling as his feet hit the snow. He immediately sinks shin-deep and uses the opportunity to hide his stumble.

“So this is Shenlong’s lair, huh?”

“Don’t call it that to his face,” the panther warns. “He prefers ‘warren.’ Or ‘cave’ if you want to be literal.”

“I’ll remember,” Zhao Yunlan says. And because it never hurts to be polite, especially to those who have done him a favor, “Thank you for the information.”

He takes a step forward before the panther lopes in ahead of him. “Hey, Shen-laoshi! You’ve got a visitor!”

A muffled voice replies. It certainly doesn’t sound like a millenia-old being of great power, but then again some demons can seem quite unassuming.

As Zhao Yunlan steps into the warmth of the cave -- which must be the act of wards, because the temperature inside is actually quite comfortable -- the panther and the most beautiful man Zhao Yunlan has ever seen emerge from a gap in the rock.

“It’s the hybrid,” the panther says with all the pride of a housecat which has brought its owner a dead cockroach and expects a reward. “He made it up here after all.”

“With no assistance from you at all, I’m sure,” says the most beautiful man in the world, voice light with amusement. He pats the panther casually on the flank, then looks at Zhao Yunlan. His eyes are dark, his brows elegant, and he has an intricate blue mark on his forehead that matches the deep color of his robes. “Welcome, stranger. I extend guest privileges so long as you do no harm within my home.”

“Shenlong...?” Zhao Yunlan’s traitorous, thoughtless mouth says. Then his brain comes back online. “I mean, please call me,” he wracks his brain furiously, “Huan Chou. I thank you for your hospitality.”

“It seems as if you already know my name,” Shenlong says. “You may call my companion who aided you Simao.”

Dead Cat? That’s both more straightforward and more ominous than Zhao Yunlan was expecting.

“I can speak for myself, you know,” Simao complains. “All right, now that all the useless pleasantries are out of the way, come on, stupid hybrid. He’s practically dead,” it says to Shenlong. “You should cook something for us to help him recover his strength.”

“For the both of you? Do you also need to recover your strength?”

“Shen-laoshi,” Simao whines. “I traveled in this huge storm and carried this guy on my back! I deserve a meal as a reward, don’t I?”

Although these two are obviously powerful demons, Zhao Yunlan is lulled by their casual back-and-forth banter. It reminds him of the good times in the Order, Zhu Hong alternately snapping and fussing over him, Guo Changcheng urging them to all get along despite his newbie status. The way they’d all yell at Lin Jing whenever his seal script experimentation would blow up in his face with a bang.

“Don’t beg,” says Shenlong, ruthlessly gentle. “It’s beneath your dignity. Huan Chou, do you have any dietary restrictions I should know about?”

“Nope, I’ll eat anything.” Then he remembers who -- and what -- he’s talking to, and revises himself hastily. “Anything edible for humans.”

“I believe I have some venison,” Shenlong muses.

He turns and heads deeper into his cave, beckoning Zhao Yunlan to follow. The tunnel is easily three times his height, roughly hewn from the rock in a natural-looking curve that opens into a cave the size of a town square. Zhao Yunlan gapes a little bit.

“I’m afraid I have few accommodations for strictly embodied humanoid entities,” Shenlong informs him. “But if you can forgive the lack, I believe we may be able to make do.”

There’s a human-sized desk placed by a tunnel by the far wall, also made of stone, covered in tools and paper, multiple light wards etched above it. A worktable. On the right is an alcove filled with furs and silks, clearly old but well-preserved. Two more tunnels branch off on their left. The rest of the cave is empty, the floor gently sloped downward in a shallow bowl.

Shenlong leads him to the alcove. Closer he can make out more wards etched into the stone around it: warmth, light, and something he hasn’t seen before.

“What’s this?” he taps at it.

Shenlong’s arm twitches with a suppressed movement, and Zhao Yunlan rolls his eyes mentally. He’s not a complete amateur, thank you, he wouldn’t activate a ward he doesn’t recognize.

(He ignores how he learned that lesson the hard way.)

“A privacy barrier,” Shenlong replies. His voice is so even, so polite -- now that Zhao Yunlan has gotten his feet under him again, it begins to grate. Somebody that controlled is hiding something. And yes, perhaps what Shenlong is hiding is his real form, but Zhao Yunlan thinks there’s something more to it. “Merely inject energy into it -- you know how to do so? Good. Once activated, it muffles sound and sight.”

“Muffles?” Zhao Yunlan places his hand next to Shenlong’s on the ward, fingers nearly touching. Shenlong’s human-looking hands are pale and delicate next to his own, warped as Zhao Yunlan is.

He activates the ward. Immediately the alcove becomes... blurry, indistinct. He can see wide smears of distorted color but little else, like peering at a reflection in greased bronze.

“The barrier isn’t physical,” Shenlong informs him. “You can hear past it as if through a closed wooden door. Those with manners treat it similarly.”

He taps the ward again, and it deactivates with a brief glow.

“Simao can show you the bathing pool if you would like to wash yourself. I ask that you stay out of the middle tunnel, as that leads to my sleeping area.” He points to the opening in the cave wall almost exactly opposite them.

“I will be preparing dinner here. Come find me when you’re finished.” He nods his head in a small bow and walks into the tunnel next to the alcove.

Simao, in the manner of all cats everywhere, is lurking silently behind Zhao Yunlan. He didn’t quite forget the panther was there, but Shenlong sucked in his attention like a whirlpool, pulling him into his depths. If he didn’t know better he’d believe that Shenlong cast an enchantment on him.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Simao tells him, the tip of his tail flicking back and forth. “He’s rescued dozens of people and about half of them fall in love with him. He never notices.”

“Hopes?” Zhao Yunlan sputters. “What hopes? I have no hopes regarding Shenlong. And besides, wasn’t it you who rescued me?”

“Yeah, and have I received any thanks?” says Simao. “Of course not! What’s a cat compared to Shenlong, am I right? I get no respect around here.”

Zhao Yunlan’s instinct is to fling a sharp retort, the next step in a friendly battle of wits. But he’s acutely aware that he’s exhausted, still shivering, hungry, and in the company of a demon who can likely kill him with little effort, even with the tricks he has up his sleeves. And he needs Shenlong’s help.

So he bows. “My gratitude, Simao, for your assistance.”

“Now you decide to have manners,” Simao sniffs. Nonetheless his tail raises up in a jaunty curve over his back. “Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up before dinner.”

Zhao Yunlan follows him down the tunnel closest to where they entered the cave. Almost immediately the rock beneath their feet slopes downward at a steep angle, occasionally leveling out like the world’s largest and roundest steps of stairs. After descending what must be close to thirty meters, the tunnel levels out again before opening into an even more massive cave than the one they came from.

More barrier wards, Zhao Yunlan notices as he steps into the cave proper. When he breathes in the air is humid and warm, smelling faintly sulphurous. All throughout the area are pools of steaming water, lit in unearthly cool greens and blues, interconnected through faintly glowing channels that flow from the enormous hot spring in the center. He stares in awe. While the smallest pool seems just large enough to fit a grown man comfortably, the largest is wider across than some small lakes. He can barely see its far edge in the steam-hazed air.

Simao shakes itself irritably, licking at a dark-furred shoulder. “Clean yourself in the smaller pools first, then swim in the big one if you want. Don’t drown because I won’t jump in and save you.”

“Wait,” Zhao Yunlan says as it turns to go. “Can I wash my clothes as well? Do you have laundry supplies?”

“You can wash them, but you don’t need supplies. The water will clean anything. And you see that?” Simao lifts a paw and points to its right. Zhao Yunlan turns to look and spots a raised circular platform of rock perhaps five meters in diameter. “That’s got a drying ward applied. It’ll evaporate any excess water. Throw your clothes on there when you’re done. I don’t really recommend standing on it, but you can if you want.”

“What, will it suck all the moisture out of my eyes or something?” Zhao Yunlan eyes it warily.

“Nah, but all your fur will stick straight out.” Simao wrinkles its nose. “Terrible.”

Zhao Yunlan can’t stop his laugh. Simao flips its tail and turns its back on him dismissively. “Come find us when you’re finished, if you’re not in the kitchen by the time Shenlong has the meal ready we’ll assume you drowned.”

“Sure,” Zhao Yunlan says in an agreeable tone. The prospect of a hot bath improves his mood immensely.

Simao leaves. Zhao Yunlan waits until the count of sixty until he moves, kneeling by a steaming pool and peering into it. The light seems to be coming from the water itself, and he touches it cautiously with his non-dominant hand.

Warmth leeches into his skin, soothing a bone-deep ache that he didn’t even realize he had after so long in the wilds of winter. When he raises his cupped hand, the water in it looks completely normal, clear and non-glowing.

Whatever. Good enough for him. Entries in reference texts that mention mystical pools say to be wary of enchantment, but the warnings are always of things within the water, not the water itself. And he doubts that Shenlong lives with any malicious entities within his own cave.

He stands and strips off his sword, his bags, and his cloak before bending to take off his boots. The sulphurous smell in the air gets stronger and he wrinkles his nose. Hopefully the water is as magical as Simao implied and can strip the stink from his socks.

Although he badly wants to submerge his aching body in warm water, he washes his clothes first. The dirt comes away as soon as he rubs fabric together, billowing out to dissipate in a way that leaves the pool just as pristine as before. He thinks idly that if he could bottle the water and use it elsewhere, maybe even sell it, he’d live easy for the rest of his days.

The washing goes amazingly quickly, and he leaves the garments floating as he chooses another pool to bathe in. Two channels over seems the correct size and depth for him to sit on the bottom comfortably.

He groans aloud as he gets in. The heat doesn’t even register at first, then seeps in all in a rush, piercing him like painless needles and rendering him completely boneless. He slumps against the smooth rock wall of the pool and rests his head against the edge. The air is heavy in his lungs and his face turns flushed and sweaty.

Long minutes pass as he drifts, obscenely comfortable, until his sense of caution reawakens and prods his muscles to move. The leather tie in his hair might be a lost cause; he dunks it in the water anyway, thinking that even if the wet ruins it he has at least made an attempt. His hair is disgustingly tangled, but some rough combing with his fingers while it soaks clears out the worst of the snarls.

After another indulgent moment where he curls up with only his nose and mouth exposed, he stands. Best not to keep his hosts waiting no matter how hospitable they seem. They are still demons, and he is still a member of the Order. Even when he’s like this. Even if he might be the last Order member left alive.

He’s here for a reason, he reminds himself. To obtain Shenlong’s pledge to help kill the demon king, or die trying.

*

Da Qing bursts out laughing as Huan Chou walks into the dining area. Shen Wei turns to face the entrance instead of keeping it politely in his peripheral vision as an expression of trust, and only holds the muscles in his face still with rigid effort.

“I told you not to step on the drying dias,” Da Qing chokes out. He flops down on his side, paws paddling in helpless mirth. “You look like a diseased dandelion.”

While unflattering, the description isn’t completely inaccurate. The hybrid is neatly dressed -- as well as he can be, with travel-worn clothes -- and his jade skin has a pleasing tint to it that wasn’t present when he stumbled in from the storm. But his hair puffs out in a wild halo around his head, wiry strands crackling with static as he pats futilely trying to tame it.

“Shut up,” he mutters, and shoots a pleading expression at Shen Wei. “I don’t suppose you have a hair tie? My own is… unusable.”

Shen Wei does not. When he embodies, he embodies everything he wears, including robes and hair accessories. All he can offer is what is in the kitchen: chopsticks, rough twine, metal hooks.

“I think I can work with this,” Huan Chou says doubtfully, choosing a chopstick. “I’ve seen hairstyles where a woman put her hair up with one, anyway.”

He scrapes his hair into a rough bun. Some stray strands escape to frame his face and fall down his back, but the result is enough for him to eat without getting hair in his bowl, and that is what’s important. Shen Wei presents the food, thin cuts of meat stewed in soy sauce and wine with wild potatoes and other greens, served over rice with a slow cooked egg on top. Huan Chou and Da Qing fall upon it with gratifying enthusiasm. When they’re done Shen Wei pours tea.

“Thank you for the meal,” Huan Chou says, holding his cup with both hands.

“It was no trouble,” Shen Wei replies. “You must have been traveling for quite a while to have passed by Gongga. We are a bit far from human settlements.”

Huan Chou looks down at his tea, sipping it before he replies. “Yes, I actually came here looking for you.”

“For me?” Shen Wei is genuinely surprised. Even other spirits rarely seek out his company, Da Qing being the only exception. They are intimidated by his power, or his reputation, or his longevity. “Why?”

Huan Chou fiddles with his cup. “Have you heard of someone calling themselves the Demon King?”

“Demon King?” Da Qing tilts his head. “That sounds kind of familiar.”

“He was sealed,” says Shen Wei. A cold dread trickles down his spine, weighing down his limbs. “More than ten thousand years ago.”

“Yeah, well, he’s been unsealed,” says Huan Chou. His voice is flat and grim, inflectionless. “The imperial city fell seven months ago, and demons have overrun most of the surrounding area. Humans have formed several strongholds further out, but I have no doubt that if the Demon King isn’t stopped they’ll fall under an assault.”

“The seal was entrusted to the humans,” Shen Wei says through numb lips. He considers briefly that Huan Chou may be lying, but can’t see how the hybrid stands to gain anything from doing so. “I heard they even established a special order to oversee it. What happened to them?”

“I don’t know.” Huan Chou’s cup shatters in his hands.

Da Qing yowls in alarm and Shen Wei jerks, fingers flexing into claws; he smooths them back into human shape immediately and reaches out to help the hybrid pick stone shards out of his palms, his deep red blood startling against green-marbled skin.

“I might be the last,” Huan Chou says tightly. His skin is very warm. “My squad stayed behind to let me escape as we were overrun. We’d teamed up with the sealing monks, who had a text that mentioned what happened in the primordial wars. Yours was the only name that survived to the modern day.”

“My words were cruel,” Shen Wei says. He would never have guessed that Huan Chou was a seal overseer. In fact, he had no idea they accepted hybrids into their organization.

“You needed to know.” Huan Chou shakes his head and presses his hands to his robes after dropping the last shard of his cup onto the table. When he takes them away again his palms are whole once more. “I would have had to tell you eventually as part of my story, anyway. Shenlong, I come to you as more than a traveler. I come as a supplicant begging your aid. Please, help me defeat the Demon King.”

Shen Wei watches Huan Chou press his hands to the table and bow until his forehead touches his fingers. His shoulders tremble with tension.

More than ten millennia ago, Wei laid side by side with his brother in front of Nuwa and Shennong, waiting for divine judgment. They were sentenced to assist the gods in sealing away the primordial chaos, a blight upon reality that took the shape of a perverted black dragon. Humans and spirits alike fled from the shadow of his dark wings while his presence withered crops and fouled the water. Wherever he traveled the natural order became disrupted.

Wei and Yu were young, newly ascended to dragon form. Yu questioned how they would be able to assist the gods who were so much more powerful than they.

Nuwa sent Yu with Shennong to the south to flank the Black Dragon and cut off his advance. She ordered Wei to accompany her to fight the Black Dragon directly, acting as a distraction so that she could strike the killing blow.

Even when the battle was over, he would not see his brother for another thousand years.

Now he is faced with the same choice without the obligation of a god. He knows what his brother would choose; Ye Zun has always valued their relationship and Shen Wei’s safety above all else. But will Shen Wei be able to live with himself if he allows the gods’ sacrifice to be in vain, to see Nuwa’s creation undone? Will he be able to face him when it comes time to travel to the Pure Lands?

“I need some time to determine if I can grant your request,” he says at last. Huan Chou rises from his kowtow, expression resigned. It seems as if the man was expecting such an answer. “In the meantime, continue to be welcome within the mountain. Rest and regain your strength. Simao, if you are amenable, could you act as Huan Chou’s guide?”

“Sure, sure.” Da Qing waves away the awkward tension. “If you give me another serving! I’m still hungry.”

Shen Wei smiles. Trust Da Qing to try and cheer him up. He’s a good cat, and a good friend.

“Of course,” he says, and ladles more stew into Da Qing’s bowl.

Later, when Huan Chou’s exhaustion has caught up with him and he retires to the guest alcove to sleep, Shen Wei retreats to his own nesting chamber. Da Qing follows, standing obstinately at the edge of his nest until Shen Wei sighs and looks at him.

“Yes?”

“So who’s the demon king?” Da Qing demands. “I don’t recall hearing about him, although I feel like I remember the name.”

“He’s a remnant of the primordial chaos,” Shen Wei says. “When Nuwa killed the Black Dragon -- you know of the Black Dragon? Good. When Nuwa killed the Black Dragon, a shade reanimated from the corpse. As a revenant can’t be killed, merely appeased, it was sealed by the gods until its resentment waned. The seal was given into the care of humans as Nuwa’s favored creations, and they have kept it safe until now.”

“So we’re fighting a powerful evil ghost.” Da Qing makes a face. “Great.”

“Maybe.” Shen Wei coils in on himself. “I need to speak to Ye Zun before making a decision.”

“Ugh,” says Da Qing, unenthused.

“You don’t have to come along. In fact, it may be better for you to stay here with Huan Chou.”

“Terrible fake name,” Da Qing opines. “Doesn’t suit him at all.”

“He seems to be on a quest of vengeance,” Shen Wei points out.

“It’s a bad name,” Da Qing says with finalty.

Shen Wei gives in. He has no opinion about Huan Chou’s courtesy name. “Keep him out of trouble if you can. I’ll visit Ye Zun tomorrow.”

“Give him my worst wishes,” Da Qing says.

“I will not.”

“You’re too nice, Shen-laoshi,” Da Qing says over his shoulder as he leaves. “Ye Zun deserves four claws to the snout, and you know it.”

Shen Wei sighs as Da Qing’s tail disappears around the corner. He and Ye Zun are so similar in personality, he doesn’t understand why they can’t get along. One of life’s mysteries, he thinks, before he closes his eyes.

Dawn is only hours away.