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Come my love be one with the sea

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Guo Changcheng is very confused about how he ended up here.

Admittedly, Guo Changcheng is confused on a daily basis, and this state of things didn’t change much after he had joined Captain Zhao’s crew. If asked, Guo Changcheng would even (in a surprising bout of honesty and courage) say that his confusion intensified in frequency after he had been first put on the The Lord Guardian. He rather swiftly accepted the fact that the first-mate preferred to be a cat most of the time, or that some weapons Lin Jing produced were more magic than science, but Captain Zhao managed to surprise him in new and terrifying ways. Like now.

Guo Changcheng had finished a navy academy. He wasn’t the brightest by far, but he was hard-working and passionate about the subject and he had learnt everything he could from the old tomes at the library. He’s read numerous accounts of battle tactics and sea manoeuvres and none included throwing your crewman into the water the moment you see a ghost ship.

Which is precisely what Captain Zhao did.

They were trading fire with pirates, for the first time since Guo Changcheng joined The Lord Guardian and they’ve been winning from the looks of it, because Captain Zhao had a manic smile on his face, and Zhu Hong asked Wang Zheng to make room in the cell for the pirates they were going to arrest, when a black ship emerged just next to their enemies. It sprung out of the water, like a dark, ominous beast, with waterfalls streaming down its sails and with hellish wind moaning between the yards.

Before he could panic and shout, and maybe run for his life, because ships weren’t supposed to appear out of nowhere, Guo Changcheng was unceremoniously thrown over the board by no one else but his own captain.

When he hit the cold water, he looked up to scream for help, but Captain Zhao just smiled in his direction and waved at him, making ‘shoo’ motions towards the black ship. So that definitely wasn’t an accident.

As he obediently swam towards the ghost ship, Guo Changcheng wondered if he had done anything to upset the captain. Sure, Captain Zhao suspected that Changcheng’s uncle was involved in granting him a commission at The Lord Guardian, but surely that wasn’t enough reason to leave him for a certain death? Did he offend the Captain in some way? Was the Captain one of the cultists uncle Guo warned him about?

As he got nearer the ghost ship, he noticed a movement above him.

There was an irritated shout and a moment later a rope was thrown for him to catch on. So ghost ships had ropes, Guo Changcheng’s panicked mind noticed and he clung to the rope with all of his might (which admittedly wasn’t much) and tried to still his shaking hands.

The person who threw him a rope shouted something again and then the rope started to move upwards. Whoever decided to save Changcheng’s life clearly got the right idea about Changcheng’s ability to climb the rope at the moment. When he got closer to the deck, someone caught him by his coat and hauled him over the board.

Which brings Guo Changcheng to now.

The ghost ship feels very solid underneath him, and when he looks up he is welcomed with a sight of a very annoyed man in black robes who definitely doesn’t look dead or ghostly. He is rather handsome, even if his glare terrifies Guo Changcheng immensely.

“Why did you swim towards us?” The man in black demands and Changcheng manages to sit up and look up at him, though it doesn’t help his situation much.

“The captain told me to,” he confesses and somehow the man frowns harder.

“What kind of an idiot…” here, the man in black stops himself and looks at Changcheng, then at the  retreating sails of The Lord Guardian. “Zhao Yunlan,” Changcheng’s saviour mutters with new level of irritation and there is a short moment for him to wonder if the man in black will throw him back into the sea, when they are interrupted by someone’s arrival.

The first thing Guo Changcheng notices is the long black robe. When he looks up, he sees that the man wearing it is covered in black, with a black hood on his head and a black mask covering his features. He looks terrifying and there is a cold aura of pure power around him and Guo Changcheng would like to pass out right about now.

“Hei Pao Shi,” Changcheng’s saviour says, his tone full of respect, bordering on worshipful and the sudden change of his demeanour distracts Changcheng from his words. But finally they make their way through Changcheng’s confused brain and he lets out an involuntary scream.

Hei Pao Shi. The legendary captain of The Ghost Slayer, the grim reaper of pirates, the terror of the sea, and the most powerful being described in the books Guo Changcheng has read so often. Not only is Changcheng dead, apparently he is also going straight to hell for pirates. He feels rather excused when he starts crying.

“Who is it?” Hei Pao Shi asks, his voice low, melodious and rather shiver-inducing.

“I don’t know. But he swam towards us from Lord Guardian,” the frowning man replies and gives the other a complicated look which Guo Changcheng’s terrified brain cannot interpret. What is worse, he notices a small smile on Hei Pao Shi’s face. He is not going to hell. He is definitely going to be eaten. Or thrown to the Kraken, here the books weren’t very clear on the details as to what exactly Hei Pao Shi did to normal humans.

“Chu Shuzhi, thank you for saving him. Bring him to my cabin, I will be there shortly, after I talk with Sha Ya,” Hei Pao Shi orders, and the man, Chu Shuzhi, bows and doesn’t straighten his back until the black-clad legend moves away from them, presumably to find this Sha Ya.

“Please, just throw me overboard, I don’t want to… I mean, I should face my death bravely, I know that, and Captain Zhao will be very disappointed with me if I beg for my life, but I haven’t even seen any other country and he is the one who made me come here, so maybe I shouldn’t worry about disappointing him but he’s been kind to me, and I really want to live, please just throw me?” Guo Changcheng begs and all that gets him is an eye-roll as Chu Shuzhi bends down and forcibly lifts Changcheng up, throwing him over the shoulder and moving towards the cabin in which Changcheng is bound to meet his doom.

He makes a few attempts at struggling, but Chu Shuzhi carries him effortlessly and his back feels nice, so instead of fighting a losing battle, Changcheng allows himself to enjoy his last moments in the handsome man’s arms. At least he’s experienced that before his untimely end.

When they reach the cabin, Chu Shuzhi opens it gently and Guo Changcheng is a bit disappointed. He expected lavish captain’s quarters, with abundant treasure, a globe and a few nice daggers with incrusted handles, or maybe black curtains, candles and human skeletons laying on the floor;  anything really that would say this is Hei Pao Shi’s chamber. Instead, the cabin is clean, with almost nothing inside. Granted, there is a small desk but there are no treasures or globes on it, there is only a parchment with a painting on it. Changcheng is too busy praying to all the gods to pay attention to the subject of the painting but if he were to wager a guess under the threat of death, he would guess it was a man.

There is no sign of torture devices everywhere, so at least he won’t be tortured very badly before being eaten. Or maybe Hei Pao Shi likes to torture people bare-handed. Some people are like that. Or maybe he is simply going to be feed to the Kraken.

“Wait for him to return. Do not touch anything. Show him respect. And stop looking like you are going to faint any moment,” Chu Shuzhi admonishes and that’s easy for him to say he is not the one brought here as a snack for primordial beasts. But Guo Changcheng has survived so far by actually obeying, so he is going to obey now. Maybe Hei Pao Shi likes fierce sacrifices that refuse to bow down and curse him with their dying breath. Maybe that’s the way to survival, to be a very disappointing sacrifice.

“Don’t touch,” Chu Shuzhi repeats and leaves Changcheng alone, closing the door behind him.

Waiting is worse.

His brain starts conjuring all the ways he could be brutally killed within seconds, as if figuring out the exact scenario of his demise would make him any more prepared for it. To calm himself down, he looks around the cabin again. He doesn’t get near the desk because that way lies temptation, he might touch the painting and then Hei Pao Shi would come and smite him. Guo Changcheng has read enough novels to not fall for this trap. So he moves away from the desk, trying to figure out where does the captain of the ghost ship sleep.

His investigation doesn’t help much. There is no door to a separate cabin that might hold a bed inside, there are however, a few maps hanging on the walls, some with small circles around particular islands –is Hei Pao Shi looking for a treasure? Or has he buried some?

He notices that the Kunlun port is one of the circled location and he has heard it once when he was still with Captain Zhao’s crew but before Guo Changcheng mind unearths this particular memory, the door opens and Hei Pao Shi enters his cabin.

“I see you are unharmed, if a bit cold,” Hei Pao Shi says and Guo Changcheng drops to his knees, ready to beg for his life because he fully expects the following words to be ‘I would like to change that’. For a moment, nothing happens.

Guo Changcheng risks a look upwards. Hei Pao Shi has procured a second chair from somewhere and placed it in front of the desk. The man (is he really a man?) himself moves to sit behind his desk, glancing at the parchment displayed on the surface with something akin to fondness. Then he hides it in a drawer.

“Come sit with me and tell me who you are,” Hei Pao Shi orders and his calm tone still manages to send a shiver down Guo Changcheng’s spine.

“Yes, Your Excellency! Right away!” He stammers out, remembering his strategy of being an obedient, disappointing sacrifice. He sits on the offered chair with too much gusto and almost falls down along with it, but in a bout of inhuman display of agility he manages to hold on, as if some invisible force helped him to stay upright.

“I’m Guo Changcheng, a crewmember at The Lord Guardian!” he says and doesn’t quite manage to keep the pride out of his voice. Which is strange, because his last memory of his crewmates is Captain Zhao throwing him into the sea.

When he glances at Hei Pao Shi, he shudders. There is a strange intensity in the man’s gaze, as if the mere name of the ship had some effect on him. Considering the fact that Chu Shuzhi knew the name of their captain, maybe Hei Pao Shi and Captain Zhao are sworn enemies? Oh no, will Changcheng be tortured after all?

“I was thrown overboard by the captain, so he probably doesn’t want me back and won’t care if I get hurt so maiming me will not move him much,” he adds, just in case, hoping that Hei Pao Shi believes him.

“Zhao Yunlan will definitely care and he wants you returned, of that I am sure,” Hei Pao Shi says, his voice taking on a different quality. If it wasn’t the Captain of The Ghost Slayer, Guo Changcheng would risk calling his voice warm.

“Tell me more about him,” the terror of the seas orders and Guo Changcheng is torn between his loyalty towards Captain Zhao (who threw him overboard) and his own desire to keep on living.

“I won’t tell you anything that you might use to hurt him!” He warns, his voice sounding braver than he feels. Hei Pao Shi doesn’t smite him in his seat, so Changcheng starts his report of Captain Zhao’s character. He tells Hei Pao Shi of some of the battles with the pirates Zhu Hong told him about, he praises Captain Zhao’s leadership and his camaraderie with the rest of the crew, especially Da Qing, the first mate. About their investigations in the ports, about the way the captain looks out for them and about the fun they have every time they come ashore to eat some food and relax.

 As he talks, he realizes how much he’s enjoyed his times at The Lord Guardian and how much he wishes to come back to them. He even gets over the whole throwing overboard thing. Captain Zhao probably had a very good reason to do that. Even if Changcheng is not exactly seeing it at the moment.

Hei Pao Shi doesn’t seem enraged by Guo Changcheng’s praises of his rival, in fact, he looks like he’s enjoying himself immensely. Maybe it’s normal, to want to know everything about your sworn enemy, maybe if Changcheng ever gets his own nemesis he will also be perfectly happy to listen to someone describe every single detail of their life to him.

Since Hei Pao Shi proves himself to be a very good listener, Guo Changcheng gets a bit too comfortable and too engrossed in his answers, so when the Grim Reaper of the Damned asks him:

“Is he happy?”, Guo Changcheng doesn’t think twice before replying honestly.

“He misses his wife,” he says, and doesn’t notice the way Hei Pao Shi chokes on air, too caught up in his own thoughts. “ He sometimes stares at the sea and sighs, as if he expects to see her somewhere there. The rest of the crew usually tries to distract him with some teasing and complaining that he should ‘be with them and not pining away’ but whenever he’s alone he smiles in a wistful way and just watches the waves,” Guo Changcheng explains and because he apparently cannot shut up for the life of him, he adds:

“I think his wife is a mermaid,” he whispers conspirationally and Hei Pao Shi grows silent, his previous menacing aura returning. Oh no, do they hate each other because of her? Did Captain Zhao steal Hei Peo Shi’s lover? Gods, Captain Zhao probably would.

“Why do you think so?” Hei Pao Shi asks and Changcheng cowers in his seat.

“Because he claims his wife is the most beautiful, the most powerful being in the world and he looks at the sea so often, so I thought… Oh, and he said he gave her a necklace to remember him by!” For some reason that seems to appease Hei Pao Shi, because he leans back in his chair and the pressure in the room disappears. It probably isn’t the same mermaid!, Guo Changcheng realizes.  And mentioning the necklace proved that to Hei Pao Shi, maybe now he and chief Zhao can stop fighting?

What if this was captain Zhao’s plan all along? To clear this misunderstanding between them? And he’s chosen Guo Changcheng as his messenger? If that’s the case then the captain’s trust is touching but he should’ve explained the plan better. Or explained it at all.

“What will happen to me now?” Guo Changcheng finally asks, after what seems like hours of talking about his captain. Not that he has complaints, it’s better than being fed to the Kraken.

“Since I only ferry the souls of the condemned and you are both alive, and a crewmember of The Lord Guardian, the treaty forces me to meet up with captain Zhao to return you to him,” Hei Pao Shi replies and there is definitely a smile on his face. He must be looking forward to reconciling with captain Zhao!

“How can you return me?” He inquires because despite the fact that he is feeling calmer now, he would like to return to his people sooner than later and searching for each other at the sea is rather time-consuming.

“I am bound to the sea and cannot touch dry land for now, but the treaty allows for one place that is exempt from the curse – the Dragon Island has been chosen as the one port where I can appear and Zhao Yunlan is probably already there, waiting for us.” That stops Guo Changcheng’s mind. A curse?

 “I’m sorry your Excellency but maybe as a reward for returning me you could ask captain Zhao for help with the curse? We’ve encountered many of those, especially on items, he might be able to help!” There is definitely a smile on Hei Pao Shi’s face now and it looks a bit unsettling.

“He’s already helping,” the man says and Guo Changcheng is once again very confused.

*

True to Hei Pao Shi’s words, when they approach the Dragon Island, the familiar shape of The Lord Guardian is visible. Guo Changcheng’s heart sings at the sight.

Not that he has suffered in any way aboard The Ghost Slayer, mostly because Chu Shuzhi has been helping him the last few days. When he is not frowning and glaring, Chu Shuzhi is surprisingly nice and Guo Changcheng is rather sad that he won’t be able to see him again, unless he is once again thrown overboard by his captain, which doesn’t seem likely, not if he and Hei Pao Shi make amends and become allies.

Guo Changcheng is also going to miss travelling underwater. Though it still confuses his mind what kind of magic allows for that, the effect is great – The Ghost Slayer travels unseen underwater, not reliant on the wind and safe from the rain. During these few days he’s spent on the ship, Guo Changcheng even managed to see a few sharks! The only aspect he won’t miss is the resurfacing, where the magic gives way to the laws of physics and everyone emerges drenched to their bones, aside from Hei Pao Shi who is seemingly untouched by the elements.

They throw the anchor next to The Lord Guardian and instead of asking them to prepare a boat or anything, Hei Pao Shi just… portals them to the beach. There is only three of them, Hei Pao Shi, Chu Shuzhi and him, Guo Changcheng, ready to return home.

The moment they appear on the sand they are accosted by Changcheng’s crew, but although they are visibly happy to see him, they restrain themselves and welcome Hei Pao Shi with respect. The man himself accepts their greetings a bit absent-mindedly, clearly searching for something.

Then, there is a rustle of the bushes and captain Zhao appears, a wide, happy smile on his face.

“Hei Lao-ge!” He exclaims and next to Guo Changcheng, Chu Shuzhi jerks as if ready to punish the captain for this blatant lack of respect. As if Hei Pao Shi couldn’t smite Captain Zhao on his own.

“Zhao Yunlan,” Hei Pao Shi replies and even despite the mask it’s clear that his face does something complicated which makes Captain Zhao smile even wider.

“I thank you for returning my man to me, he was sorely missed,” the captain says and Changcheng wants to point out that he wouldn’t have to be if he wasn’t thrown into the dark, cold sea, but decides to keep quiet in case Captain Zhao decides he doesn’t want Changcheng after all.

“I believe the treaty requires me to reward you for your help.”

“There is only one reward I require,” Hei Pao Shi replies and Captain Zhao makes a ‘follow me’ gesture and disappears in the greenery that shrouds a small path leading to gods know where. With something almost soft in his eyes, Hei Pao Shi follows. He must’ve really wanted to reconcile with Captain Zhao.

As the two captains leave, Guo Changcheng’s crew accosts him in a rowdy mess of people patting his back and ruffling his hair and loudly proclaiming how happy they are to see him. He’s close to tears with how happy he is to see them again.

When he detangles himself from Da Qing and Lin Jing, he notices the pained expression on Chu Shuzhi’s face.

“This is my saviour, he threw me a rope and helped me a lot!” He says as a means of introduction and thankfully it turns out he doesn’t need to say more because his friends are eager to ask Chu Shuzhi about The Ghost Slayer. For some reason, no one asks about Hei Pao Shi, which is the first topic Guo Chancheng would ask about, but maybe they want to wait until he returns from his meeting with Captain Zhao, and have a talk with Hei Pao Shi himself.

He listens to the conversation around him and finally relaxes. He’s home.

Then he remembers the mermaid problem and wonders if the captains managed to have an honest talk and reconcile. It was only a misunderstanding after all! Still, Guo Changcheng is now personally invested in this conflict so he gets up from the sand and follows the path the captains disappeared on.

He walks for a little while and sees a small hut next to a little lake. It makes sense, if the treaty requires the captains to meet and exchange rewards then there should be some shelter from the rain.

As he approaches, he sees a movement in a window. His heart beating in his chest, afraid that maybe there is another misunderstanding happening, Guo Chancheng runs towards the window and looks inside.

His mind registers long black hair, captain Zhao’s bare chest and a sigh ‘Xiao Wei’, before he turns on his heel and runs back the way he came from, his face heating up and his mind just blank.

When he gets to the beach he is welcomed with his crews’ laughter and Chu Shuzhi’s exasperated sigh.

“We forgot to tell you not to follow them,” Wang Zheng says apologetically and Lin Jing laughs out loud in delight.

Guo Changcheng collapses on the sand and looks at everyone in confusion.

“But the captain is married?” He finally stammers out and Da Qing rolls his eyes.

“He’s an idiot, that’s what he is. Only a complete moron would look at Hei Pao Shi and decide to call the man his wife of all things,” the first mate says and oh, oh. No mermaid then?

“Why aren’t they together then?” he asks and this time Zhu Hong takes pity on him.

“It’s a long story but the two of them might have reshaped the world a bit using sacred items. Gods didn’t like that very much so they distributed punishment – Lao Zhao catches pirates, Hei Pao Shi delivers them for judgment. If they manage to fulfil their duties for one hundred years then they will be free,” she says and there is something sad in her voice. Guo Changcheng understands, he also feels like his heart is breaking for these two.

“It’s horrible! Not being able to meet your loved one for a hundred years… what a cruel punishment!” He exclaims and for some reason his gaze lands on Chu Shuzhi, who huffs in annoyance.

 “It would be if they actually obeyed. Your captain is great at finding loopholes in the treaty that allow them to meet up much more frequently,” he says and looks to the side, clearly annoyed by such blatant rule breaking.

“But a century! Chu-ge, when the curse ends Captain Zhao will be long dead!” Guo Changcheng points out and only later, when Chu Shuzhi repeats ‘chu-ge’ silently, does he realize what he’s just called the other man. Lin Jing sends him a curious look and Changcheng has to look away for now.

“Not really, it ends like next year or something,” Da Qing says, shrugging.

Guo Changcheng’s mind takes a moment.

And another.

“Captain Zhao doesn’t age?” He wagers a guess and his own crew blinks at him.

“Xiao Guo, none of us do. Or at least, not as normal humans do. We told you stories about piracy from the last century!” The first mate says, as if he is talking to a small child.

“I thought you read them in books and just inserted yourself into them!” Changcheng screams in his defence, and it causes Chu Shuzhi to laugh out loud. He has a nice laugh, Guo Changcheng realizes.

“Oh, kid, just you wait. You will see things that even your books didn’t prepare you for,” Chu Shuzhi says and he clearly means to sound threatening, but Guo Changcheng has associated him with safety for far too long to be truly intimidated.

Since the captains are probably not coming back anytime soon, The Lord Guardian’s crew decides to start a fire and prepare some food while Guo Changcheng tries to come to terms with new facts about the world around him. He asks them a lot of questions and he is frankly horrified at the answers. A bit excited too.

“So is the Kraken real?” He finally asks, because that is crucial for his survival.

“Yes, but you don’t want to meet him. Homicidal and rather unpleasant,” Da Qing say, stealing a fish from Wang Zheng’s stick.

“But you have met him?” Guo Changcheng insists because the existence of the Kraken seems rather important.

“Hard not to, he is Lao Zhao’s brother-in-law.”

Guo Changcheng brain has quite enough at this point so he manly passes out, choosing Chu Shuzhi’s arms as his landing place.

*

Guo Changcheng is unceremoniously thrown… no, accidentally knocked overboard two weeks later and this time he climbs up the rope of The Ghost Slayer entirely on his own.

Behind his irritated scowl, Chu-ge looks rather proud, if Changcheng is any judge, and it makes him feel rather accomplished.

He just hopes this time the journey to the Dragon Island takes a bit longer.