He Xuan didn’t mean to fall.
He was always rising—from the loss of his loved ones, from the flames of madness that consumed him before his death, and from the throes of emerging as the last demon standing amid a thousand more.
His destiny was to be god, and when he was cruelly denied of it, he became the worst kind of demon there was instead, devouring even the wicked-tongued Reverend of Empty Words.
Was it compensation? He didn’t know. All he knew at the time was that he had nothing to lose, and desired everything.
Power. Revenge. To be something more.
When he discovered who it was that did it, the first feeling that settled in was fear. Fear because it was a heavenly official of the highest court, second only to Jun Wu in worshippers. He thought about the lives that his act of revenge would change, but the fear dissipated as quickly as it came. If he could have everything taken away from him, so could Shi Wu Du. If he could live without the grace of the gods, so could the worshippers who would eventually turn away from the Water Master.
Then betrayal, because a heavenly official of all beings had dared to do this, to abuse their power without even batting an eye at the misfortune of their chosen victim.
And finally, anger. A rage akin to the insanity that plagued his mind in the final moments of his mortal life, the kind that burned so bright that he felt the beating of a phantom heart in his chest, burning through his lungs like acid.
It wasn’t hard coming up with a plan—Crimson Rain Sought Flower was all too willing to help in exchange for some information on the heavens. “And,” Hua Cheng had said, “I have a precious person you are absolutely not allowed to lay a finger on.”
When he heard the name, He Xuan frowned. Not because he found it of significance—but because it was so insignificant that it made him wonder why the other demon king, the very one that had infamously defeated all but two of the previous generation of heavenly officials, would even bother himself with such a person.
Then again, he couldn’t care less. Hua Cheng could do and demand whatever he wanted so long as he didn’t get in the way of He Xuan’s end goal. Plus, he knew that Hua Cheng wasn’t the type to go back on his word. As much as he embodied chaos, the red-robed king was the type to stick to rules, never seeing the need for unnecessary strife, if the way he managed the Ghost City was anything to go by.
The first phase of his plan went well enough. He Xuan just had to infiltrate the upper heavenly court, and being a previous candidate himself, it was easy to identify who was on the cusp of ascending. Not to mention, Hua Cheng had spies everywhere to help him. The one he just so happened to kidnap was to become a master of earth. Funny, he thought as he chained the supposed god-to-be. All of this was done as an act of revenge against Shi Wu Du, yet was he not employing his enemy’s exact method? Stealing the glory of a man who worked just as hard as he had back in the day, all for the most selfish reasons?
Once upon a time, He Xuan was righteous. He only knew to look forward and up. But the day he lost everything was the day his heart, likewise, lost its color. And when he arose from the remains of Tong Lu, heart beyond decay, he sought only the blood of the heavenly immortal who had wronged him to quench his foul thirst.
He Xuan didn’t just make a deal with the devil—he became him. Although he wasn’t incapable of pity for the poor Earth Master, he decided that like he had been, the guy was just unlucky.
Every now and then, a voice in the back of his head whispered to him that he was no different from the Water Tyrant, but He Xuan paid it no mind. He may question his own actions, but never his motives.
He thought it interesting when he first laid eyes upon the Earth Master. It wasn’t difficult to make himself slenderer, stretch his forehead out a bit, thin his eyebrows. Other than that, they had similar enough features. His only complaint was the fact that he had to trade in the ethereal silver linings of his robes for a dull black—ironic, considering the name he had made for himself.
Then came the second phase. It wasn’t difficult per se, but it did take longer.
He Xuan was a meticulous man—person, demon, whatever. He had once been a scholar, so upon kidnapping the Earth Master, he naturally pried his list of life achievements from him and studied his temperament. No doubt the literature gods would have kept a record of his history. To He Xuan, no amount of caution was too small or unnecessary. He even had Hua Cheng call him by the Earth Master’s name—Ming Yi—for a time just so he could get used to it.
The arrays, which an Earth Master was expected to excel in, were easy enough. But powerful as he was, He Xuan couldn’t say the same for the shovel. Naturally, being a god’s tool, it had spiritual power that mirrored its master’s, and every time he used it he found himself having to expend just a tiny bit more energy to control the stubborn thing. Adding to this minor hardship was the simple fact that the shovel was downright tasteless—he couldn’t help feeling a little silly every time he took it out to test fly.
After the shovel, the next biggest pain for He Xuan was suppressing his spiritual energy, lest he gave his identity away by accidentally, and effortlessly, crushing a powerful array (he made sure to relay this sentiment to Hua Cheng, who rolled his eyes in response). He Xuan deemed his disguise complete when he visited Hua Cheng in Paradise Manor, and for a split second, the latter looked alarmed, halfway poised for an attack.
“Nice getup,” Hua Cheng sneered, relaxing back into his pillow.
Ignoring the remark, He Xuan merely stated, “I’m leaving today. Let me know if you hear anything suspicious about my place.” With that, he turned to leave.
“Have fun pretending to live the life you were meant to!”
He Xuan only had half a mind to pick a fight with Hua Cheng and start the apocalypse right there and then.
Upon arrival at the gates of the higher court, He Xuan was greeted by an abundance of mirth and praise. Not that he wasn’t used to it with his swarm of minions back in his lair, but they certainly weren’t heavenly officials in flashy robes.
The flashiest of them all was a beautiful cheery lady who practically bounced up to him, light brown hair flowing as easily as leaves in a breeze. Her presence was a tornado, even among the other officials.
“Finally, a fresh face! You must be the new Earth Master, Ming Yi! Say, can I call you Ming-xiong?”
Confusion draped over He Xuan’s face at the already familiar nickname. “No.”
Surprise decorated the lady’s face. It was obvious she was not used to being rejected. In a display of dramatic flair, she whipped out her fan to cover her face, the character for wind written on its front-facing side. She whined, “Oh, come on, why not?”
He Xuan raised an eyebrow, wondering if most of the younger (or at least, younger-looking) gods were as pesky as her. And wind…? Before he could complete the thought, a chilling voice cut through from behind the woman.
The lady froze, and so did He Xuan. The number of times he came across that voice could be counted on one hand, yet no matter how many years passed, it was one he could never forget. He straightened his line of sight, and standing there, clad in an arrogant aura was none other than the infamous Water Tyrant. Although he was not the tallest in the room, his presence towered over everyone, his stare as cold as on the night he came to see He Xuan’s corpse, to check that he had truly been dead.
Which meant…He Xuan looked back down at the woman who was staring back sheepishly at the Water Master. Whatever curiosity he felt toward her froze, melting away as the fires of hate took over once again.
Water Master Wu Du, and his younger sister—no, younger brother, Wind Master Qing Xuan.
Suddenly, the beautiful image of the woman in front of He Xuan became twisted, warping into a creature akin to his ugly formless minions. She was whining back at her brother, but all He Xuan heard was noise. The pretty words and the pretty light she illuminated—all fake. Undeserving. Because they were supposed to belong to him.
Mine. Mine mine mine mine—
The pair of siblings bantering in front of him barely registered in his mind. He Xuan blocked them out, taking several but inconspicuous deep breaths. Only then could he raise his head to meet their eyes once more, except this time his own were void of emotions, only reflecting a blank boredom.
“Qing Xuan, how many times do I have to tell you not to go around in that shameless form!” Shi Wu Du reprimanded.
Shi Qing Xuan pouted. “I just like using this form to greet new people…”
What, to seduce them? He Xuan stepped back, feeling overwhelmed by the whirlpool of emotions in him that threatened to surface. “It’s nice to meet you, My Lord and Lady. Pray you’ll let me retreat to my quarters to settle in.”
Shi Wu Du’s only form of acknowledgment was a grunt before he turned away, fanning himself obnoxiously. He Xuan stared intently at him, but in the end the Water Master didn’t even spare him a second glance. Not a speck of recognition was there, and although He Xuan knew he was in disguise, he couldn’t help but laugh bitterly in his heart. Perhaps, had he revealed his true form right there and then, it still wouldn’t be enough to jog Shi Wu Du’s memory.
However, unlike her apathetic brother, Shi Qing Xuan was all too excited to show the newbie around. Her disposition was truly that of the wind, blowing in whichever direction she pleased. “Ming-xiong, heading back already? That won’t do! Let me take you for a tour around the court!”
Didn’t I already tell you not to call me that? He started, “You really don’t have to—”
“Just because you’re an Earth Master doesn’t mean you need to have such a shovel up your ass! Come, come!”
He Xuan blanked.
At the choice of words or the crass nature of its delivery, he wasn’t sure.
An uncharacteristic sigh fell through his lips. Already, he was swept by the wind.
Throughout his time in heaven, He Xuan thought a lot about his life. And death.
He once saw ascension to godhood as the ultimate honor. Imagining his old human shell in his current situation wasn’t too hard. He had been undeniably well-liked and diligent, so objectively speaking, he would have fit in easily. But death had changed him, as it changes everyone.
To keep up with his disguise, He Xuan had to do what every other heavenly official did—answer his worshippers’ prayers. He encountered all types of things, from farmers wishing to fix irrigation systems to the cheekier worshippers who wanted to ‘mend the bridges’ between them and their loved ones. He Xuan had no problem dealing with the former, and he blatantly ignored the latter to make a point.
To put it simply, heaven was boring. Whether he bore the thought from bitterness, He Xuan wasn’t sure himself. The closest thing to excitement he had ever felt was an overwhelming irony that tickled him when Jun Wu appointed him to spy on Hua Cheng, akin to a mole burrowing its way through earth. Yet even that quickly faded, since all he did in Paradise Manor in the past ten years of false duty was argue and gamble with the other Supreme.
Recently, Hua Cheng would pester him for details about what that thrice-ascended martial god was up to in the heavens; just to spite him, He Xuan never divulged. Other than that, the water demon trudged around aimlessly in his black clothes that matched the dullness of his life, only looking forward to what he would eat next.
But every now and then, a burst of colors would hit him like a tornado. No matter how unmoving He Xuan was, locks of desert sand, rose-colored cheeks and twinkling crescents greeted him excitedly each time.
“Ming-xiong!” And today was no different, He Xuan noted as the figure in white scurried up to him. “You’re back! How did your mission go?”
He Xuan grunted. “I already told you numerous times that it’s top secret information. When will you get it through that thick skull of yours?”
As always with the exaggerated reactions, Shi Qing Xuan gasped, even snapping his fan open for added effect. He Xuan couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “Ming-xiong, have you no manners! I didn’t ask you to tell me what your mission was, just how it went! Honestly, shouldn’t you mince your words more around your best friend?”
Another grunt in response, though this time it held audibly less weight. If anything, it bordered on an unamused sigh. He Xuan said the same thing he had been saying for the past decades, “I don’t have such a person.”
It was a statement that rolled off his tongue easily. He briefly wondered when the malice had stopped trailing along with it.
Shi Qing Xuan replied by concentrating all his energy into a single pout, before going off on a rant about how the title of being his best friend isn’t an easy privilege to come by. His vibrancy was enough to fill the space they both took up, and He Xuan, never one to chat so idly, let him. The Wind Master had always been an engaging storyteller anyway, though the other would never admit it aloud.
He wasn’t sure how; somewhere along the years, He Xuan found himself getting used to the noisy one-sided chatter that filled his meals and missions. Aside from whenever he went ‘undercover’ in Paradise Manor, a good majority of his time was spent either listening to Shi Qing Xuan’s shenanigans or enacting them with him.
Lost in his own thoughts, He Xuan snapped out of it when his eyes zeroed in on a lone leaf, quivering in between unruly brown locks. He reached out, plucking the leaf from its position with a click of his tongue. “Honestly, how old are you?” he grumbled, smoothing out the fine strands. However, when he was not immediately met with the typical rambunctious response, he glanced down and was met with a pair of wide eyes, pink dust settling underneath them.
Since when did they start standing so close to each other?
Before He Xuan could say anything, Shi Qing Xuan suddenly let out a yell. The next thing he knew the latter had jumped a foot back, pointing his fan at him in an offensive stance. “Look at what you’ve done, Ming-xiong! You distracted me from telling you an important matter! You almost made me forget the important matter but luckily for you, this Wind Master’s mind here is healthy and I just now remember what the important matter I need to tell you is all about!”
He Xuan stared at the outburst in disbelief. “What are you—”
“AAAHHHH, DON’T INTERRUPT ME!”
A bout of silence.
He Xuan could only look on, exasperated.
When he was finally calm enough to gather his bearings, the Wind Master straightened himself, clearing his throat. He had even lost enough face to look ashamed. “Ahem, as I was saying, Ming-xiong, I overheard an interesting topic just now in the array!”
Although He Xuan was a frequent user of the communication array, he had mastered the art of filtering out unimportant things long ago, though it never stopped Shi Qing Xuan from trying to fill him in on the gossip. This time however, he could make an educated guess. “The Banyue Pass?”
The twinkle shimmering from Shi Qing Xuan’s eyes was telling enough. “That’s right! You’re free right now, aren’t you? What say you we take a look?”
He Xuan thought back to his schedule. Seeing as he was done with reporting back to Jun Wu, he figured there would be no harm in going. And it wasn’t like he hadto be stationed in Paradise Manor all the time anyway. He mockingly sighed in defeat, though even to his own ears it sounded a bit too enthusiastic. “Do you not have anything better to do in your spare time.”
Shi Qing Xuan grinned, knowing that when it came to the Earth Master, not saying nowas as good as a yes. “Ming-xiong, you’re the best! Now, let’s depart! The mortal realm won’t wait forever!” he ushered, and as an afterthought, added, “Hey, do you think I should go for white or green today?”
Obviously, Shi Qing Xuan was referring to his female form, which he was banned by Shi Wu Du from donning in the heavens ever since General Pei had tried to hit on her, unbeknownst that it had been him—safe to say, it did not go well, even more so for Ling Wen who was charged with filing the paperwork for the mess afterward.
He Xuan rolled his eyes, seeing right through the other’s agenda. “Frivolous!”
“You say that like it’s not a compliment!”
Laughter that rang light like the calling of migrating birds in spring. An unnamed yet familiar warmth settling in his chest.
Like most nights after returning from their godly duties, He Xuan and Shi Qing Xuan went out for drinks.
Granted, the Banyue Pass had been an unassigned task, and the scrap god with his entourage did most of the hard labor, but Shi Qing Xuan took almost any and every opportunity to stay in the mortal realm longer, away from the overbearing watch of her older brother.
“I mean,” Shi Qing Xuan hiccupped, already tipsy after a jar and a half, “would it kill gege to be a little bit nicer? He’s got the face, the status, the merits… but I probably socialize more in a day than he does in a century!”
He Xuan didn’t reply, focusing on the snacks and alcohol. Despite his outwardly uncaring appearance, he would usually entertain Shi Qing Xuan’s ramblings to a certain degree—that is, except when it came to the topic of Shi Wu Du. If Shi Qing Xuan had at all noticed his indifference, she didn’t comment on it.
“Ling Wen’s also one of the three tumors but that’s because men are just assholes towards women… and don’t even get me started on Pei Ming—xiong! Are you listening!”
He Xuan continued not to pay any obvious form of attention, instead relishing in the burn of the alcohol sliding down his throat. Just as he was about to refill his cup, it was snatched away and tossed to one corner of the room. In the next second, a soft bundle of chaos was seated on his lap, glaring at He Xuan through hazy eyes.
“Hey! You should really pay more attention to your—hic—best friend!”
He Xuan blinked at the other. He had a million and one thoughts racing through his head, yet the only one that managed to leave his lips was, “Who’s that.” Immediately he regretted it however, because Shi Qing Xuan then grabbed him by the shoulders and started shaking the life out of him.
“See! That’s what I mean—hic! If you just smiled and talked you’d make more friends and—”
There was an abrupt pause, and He Xuan was vaguely surprised by how short-lived the strangling this time around was. But when his eyes focused on Shi Qing Xuan’s face, he noted the way the inner ends of her brows furrowed, lips pressed in a thin line. “What is it?”
Shi Qing Xuan bit her lip. “Ming-xiong, you have to… even if you make more friends, promise me that I’ll still be your best friend?”
In any other situation, He Xuan would have deemed the question laughable. But the way Shi Qing Xuan slid her hands from his shoulders down to play with the lapels of his robes, eyes cast down, made it a little more difficult for him this time. Still, He Xuan managed to grumble out, “Ridiculous.”
Shi Qing Xuan quickly snapped her head back up and whined, “Ming-xiong!” But she didn’t say anymore, only staring at him with intense eyes. All He Xuan could think about was how incredibly light she was in her female form.
They stayed in that position for a while, unmoving and unspeaking. He Xuan fought to meet the other’s gaze. But finally, he was unable to take the scrutiny, and caved. “Then… isn’t staying like this okay?”
Shi Qing Xuan was confused at first, and He Xuan could see the cogs in her mind turning as she struggled to interpret his words through her state of inebriation. It was almost comical how easy it was to tell when everything clicked together; her entire face lit up. “You mean you won’t make any more friends? You’ll just stick with me?”
When worded like that, He Xuan couldn’t help but snort. But the implication was clear. “One of you is already more than enough. I don’t need any more trouble.”
A cry of “Ming-xiong!” before Shi Qing Xuan threw herself onto He Xuan, face pressed happily into his chest. The action drew out a grunt from He Xuan, though really, she was near weightless. Being an elemental god, Shi Qing Xuan did not pack much muscle, stature lean even in her male form.
The next few minutes were spent in silence. The room they had chosen was on the top floor of the establishment, away from the chatter of the other customers. Outside, the stars shone bright, and under the accusing glare of the moon, He Xuan allowed his hand purchase on Shi Qing Xuan’s waist. He refused to address the growing contentment in his chest when she snuggled closer.
Shi Qing Xuan was the first to break the silence. Although her manner of speaking was still the same, her voice this time was much softer, as if afraid to chase the tranquility of the moment away. “You were so cool out there today, Ming-xiong,” she said, dazed. “Not that I couldn’t have blocked it myself, but the way you absorbed the flame made you seem like a knight—no, lady in shining armor!” She chuckled, the pleasant vibrations coursing throughout their joined bodies.
He Xuan scoffed, bringing his other hand up to card through Shi Qing Xuan’s mass of hair, the silky strands light on his fingers. “Ridiculous,” he murmured. Shi Qing Xuan only laughed in response.
Ridiculous, how comfortable he sat there; the troubles he had gone through as human, demon and false god seemed so far away.
Ridiculous, how he had swum for so long, looking for a way out, looking for shore, only for his salvation to be the storm.
Ridiculous, how he wondered if ‘He-xiong’ would roll off those lips just as sweetly and prettily.
Ridiculous ridiculous ridiculous—
How he thought that maybe, maybe he could be happy.
As the dragon of fire ascended into the sky, the illusion of He Xuan’s world began to crumble.
He did not need to check with the array to make a guess as to who it was. It could only have been the Rain Master or the Earth Master—the real one; in this case, Ming Yi must have escaped while the two demon kings were busying themselves at the Banyue Pass.
However, Ming Yi had been considerably weakened after spending an eternity in captivity, with no way to cultivate his spiritual energy. Performing the Ascending Fire Dragon Spell had taken up all his remaining power, and his body paid the price. By the time He Xuan found him, Ming Yi laid on the ground, unmoving. Reducing him down to a skeleton afterwards was a mercy.
Hua Cheng arrived shortly after. “What are you gonna do about his remains?”
He Xuan understood what he meant. He could not discard the bones of a god, lest he risked its wrath in death. It would be even more of a dangerous business than when he had kept Ming Yi in chains but alive. So, he tidied the skeleton up, dressed it in fancy wear and sat it on a throne within his own halls. A gesture of respect—minus the sincerity.
“That should keep him at bay,” He Xuan stated, mostly to himself. When he turned to face Hua Cheng, the red-robed king stood there, face and stance unreadable. “What?”
“You know this changes everything, right?”
He Xuan turned away as if the question had slapped him in the face. “Shut up.”
“I saw you with the Wind Master. I know you care for him—”
He Xuan snapped. “Shut up! SHUT UP, SHUT UP!”
Of course, he knew. Even though Ming Yi was practically dead by the time He Xuan reached him, if the heavens caught wind of this news, Jun Wu would place a bounty on the demon’s head, no questions asked. He knew he could not keep pretending forever, but more than his own revenge, the thought of that person’s smile, white robes fluttering in the wind—
“You don’t have to keep living like this.” Hua Cheng’s voice was barely above a whisper; the unspoken message was clear: you don’t have to keep living for hate.
He Xuan wanted to laugh. What would he live for then, if not hate? Even his current source of happiness remained that way because he was oblivious toward the truth, the truth of his own fate, his brother’s sin and most importantly, the truth of He Xuan’s identity. Unlike Hua Cheng, the only thing the water demon knew, the only thing he knew was real, was hate.
“He will know soon enough,” He Xuan murmured, quiet, tired. “And his brother will pay.”
“Killing him will not bring them back.”
Something in He Xuan broke, and in a second his hand was on Hua Cheng’s throat, squeezing the pale column. “KILLING HIM WILL BRING ME PEACE!” he roared, voice carrying the agony only a demon king could know.
But as they stood there, eye to eye, demon to demon, there was only cold pity in Hua Cheng’s gaze.
And then he was gone, leaving He Xuan with the skeleton of the god whose skin he had worn for far too long.
It had been a while since He Xuan last visited his manor.
Security was never a problem. As a Supreme demon, he was powerful enough to conjure illusions within his area, and even void whatever spiritual energy an individual possessed if they were unlucky enough to end up on his island. He still had minions stationed at every corner, in case someone managed to bypass his tricks. However, there was only one place they were not allowed access to—
He Xuan stepped inside. He had forgotten how chilly it was compared to the rest of the manor, and it was with a flash of guilt that he realized his own neglect. The guilt only continued to gnaw at him when he laid a hand on the urn on the far left. His lips trembled as he choked out, “I’m sorry, Father.”
And he repeated this to his mother, and then to his fiancée, and finally his sister. He wondered where their spirits were, and if they were at peace. More than anything, he wished he could be with them, to unchain himself from his hatred and join them in a final death. Yet as he lowered his head, a voice called out to him, light and bright.
Ming-xiong! Look at me!
Why was it, that even in the deepest pits of his darkness, that voice could still reach him?
The voice that rang with ignorance, slipping from between lips that never even once called out his real name. The voice of a person so proud, he proclaimed himself the best friend of another; so shameless, he paraded around wearing another’s glory, throwing away merits like they were nothing.
Yet, it was that same voice that haunted He Xuan’s waking dreams, even as he stood there before the ashes of his loved ones.
Amidst the guilt, the shame, he wanted nothing more than for Shi Qing Xuan to call out to him, to have that warm wind wrap around him like a blanket.
And he hated. Hated the tyrannical Water Master for taking everything away from him. Hated Shi Qing Xuan for living whilst unaware of his brother’s deeds. Hated every single corrupted person in his life, god or human, that had wronged him and his family.
Above all, he hated himself. Because he yearned—for the very person whose fate his loved ones died for.
He Xuan did not deserve love.
Not while his wretched memories lived on in the four vases that seemed to stare down at him blankly in the cold, cold altar.
The Water Master’s trial period was the opportune time for He Xuan to set his plan in motion.
News of it spread like wildfire. Of course, with Shi Qing Xuan by his side talking his ears off about it, checking into the array was hardly necessary. It was the night of the announcement when they were out drinking with some of the middle court officials that He Xuan decided to give the other a little scare using the powers of the Reverend whom he had consumed.
He thought it amusing, but he couldn’t help the twinge of guilt when Shi Qing Xuan’s face twisted into an image of fear.
He will know soon enough.
However, He Xuan did not factor into account certain possibilities. Scaring Shi Qing Xuan once wouldn’t be enough to get him to go to his brother at such an important time, that was a given. But He Xuan hadn’t expected that his first mode of action would be to seek out that Scrap God prince.
More infuriatingly, Crimson Rain Sought Flower was there.
“Leave,” Hua Cheng spat.
“You think I want to be here?” He Xuan sneered back.
But unlike the two of them, Shi Qing Xuan and Xie Lian enjoyed a comfortable relationship, despite having crossed paths a mere few times. The latter was all too willing to help his friend out, which meant Hua Cheng would also be there by default.
Watching the other pair of demon king and god, He Xuan couldn’t help but feel slightly envious, though he quickly shook the feeling away. “Let’s go.”
It was a risky move, even for He Xuan, to deliberately change the destination of the Distance Shortening Array and use the Reverend’s voice the moment the door to Puji Shrine closed behind them. However, the two gods—one fallen, the other twice fallen—remained in the dark. When they finally stepped out, they found themselves in anywhere but the Imperial City.
Instead, they stumbled upon the small town of Fu Gu. It was only natural for He Xuan to start there; after all, it was where his life ended.
It was the second last day of autumn, and the Bloody Fire Social was being carried out in his honor. Whether the townsfolk were aware that they were technically praying to a demon king, no one could say. Even so, it would not be such an uncommon thing—Hua Cheng had his fair share of human worshippers, what with that infamous fiasco he imposed upon the thirty-three heavenly officials long ago.
Considering his circumstances, He Xuan was not one to believe in fate, but the coincidence between Shi Wu Du’s trial announcement and the anniversary of his own death brought a cold smile to his face. He vividly recalled the day he went mad, and steeled his phantom heart.
Throughout the trip, the amity between Hua Cheng and that prince proved to be more troublesome than He Xuan anticipated.
Though he knew of Hua Cheng’s undying adoration toward the other, he didn’t think the demon king would be so infatuated as to agree to reveal He Xuan’s identity, much less with a pathetic game of truth or dare. Not that that would have been enough to expose him, but He Xuan made a mental note to have a word with his colleague after this.
Not needing Xie Lian to interfere any further, He Xuan called forth a commotion to distract him while he summoned a fragmented copy of the Reverend to take Shi Qing Xuan away. However, he did not expect Xie Lian to be so diligent, even going so far as to perform a soul-shifting spell to find out the Wind Master’s whereabouts. Although it was of the prince’s own initiative, He Xuan still found himself three feet into the ground, courtesy of Hua Cheng’s quick temper when it came to His Highness.
Eventually, Xie Lian found out that Shi Qing Xuan was being taken to the Terrace of the Cascading Wine, and it was then that He Xuan questioned his place in the other’s heart—if he ever held a candle to Shi Wu Du, or perhaps, had never been a contender to begin with.
“Even if I am reduced to mere bones, no way will you dig me out until after my brother’s trial!”
There, that sickening bond between the two brothers that knew no bounds, not even after the countless of lives lost in its name.
He doesn’t know, a voice in the back of his mind whispered.
But he will. And it was at the very place Shi Qing Xuan ascended that he learned the twisted truth of his fate, and fell.
The first thing He Xuan did when he reconvened with Hua Cheng at Paradise Manor was to return the favor and slam him three feet into the ground.
Hua Cheng blinked, lying there in his personalized crater. He thought he deserved it, though all he said in response from down below was, “Okay. Fuck you.” Crawling out of the hole, he was met with a cold glare from the water demon. “What is up with you?”
“He knows now.”
Hua Cheng dusted himself off. “He lost all his spiritual powers, didn’t he? To begin with, he wasn’t supposed to be a god, so after losing complete faith in himself, that’s just natural. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
But He Xuan’s face only darkened. “What I want is for his brother to pay.”
“And you want the Wind Master to be the one to report his bad deeds,” Hua Cheng added, studying his associate closely. “Do you think he’ll be able to do it?”
“He knows what’s right and wrong,” He Xuan stated, but even to his own ears he sounded unconvinced. And judging from Hua Cheng’s raised eyebrow, so was he.
“Oh, so sure? Is it because he’s willing to rescind godhood and descend?” It was a rhetorical question, a mocking statement meant to be spoken for its naiveté to show. Hua Cheng didn’t bother pulling any punches. “No matter how you look at it, that Water Tyrant is still his brother.”
He Xuan snapped. “And I’m his friend!”
There was nothing Hua Cheng could come up with in response to that declaration, for he knew that anything he could possibly say was probably running through He Xuan’s head in that moment. But one thing was obvious: the water demon had been alone for so long, that eventually even he caved in under the warmth of another.
But He Xuan was not Shi Qing Xuan’s friend. Ming Yi was. The skin of the deceased Earth Master he wore, the fake title, the fake identity. What He Xuan craved, he knew he could never have, for it was only as long as the illusion lasted could he remain by the other’s side, listening to that sweet voice call out a name that was never his.
Such was the curse of the Black Water—to condemn everything he touched into a vortex of nothingness. Including the one he loved and called a friend.
If you could turn back time, would you?
It was a question that Hua Cheng asked him once upon a time. And He Xuan had answered yes in a heartbeat. To turn back time and change what though, was another question. He had lived most of his mortal life honestly, studying and working hard without complaint. Perhaps he would have stopped those men from taking his lover and sister away before it was too late, or perhaps he would train tirelessly so that he could ascend sooner and protect those he loved, and himself, from the wretched hands of a perverse fate.
But now, he wasn’t so sure.
Vengeance was still his main drive, yet if that question was posed to him now, knowing that he would have to unravel whatever memories he created with that person, he could only say yes with half a heart.
Because when he closed his eyes at night, it was not his past that greeted him, but the present that stood by his side, linking arms and occasionally soft fingers. His father’s dying breath no longer plagued his dreams; instead, he was lulled by the breathy laughter of a figure, voice sometimes high, sometimes low, and always, always bright.
Against his better judgment, He Xuan came to him.
And it was that realization that dug the knife deeper, when Shi Qing Xuan insisted on walking out that door to accompany his brother during his trial.
Why must you choose him?
Despite it all, there was that small voice in the back of He Xuan’s mind that never stopped whispering, never stopped telling him that it was not Shi Qing Xuan’s fault. That he did not know. That had he known it was his Ming-xiong that fell victim to his brother’s transgressions, he would have done something about it.
Or so he thought.
He Xuan didn’t mean to fall.
He was always rising. Even when the Water Master ambushed him and blasted a hole in his chest, he rose not a minute later.
But although he should have been immune to the pain, there was an ache in his hollow chest. It persisted, even as his tissues grew back. And as he watched the retreating back of Shi Qing Xuan, who once again chose to run with his brother, the ache only became more unbearable, before a familiar coldness took over, freezing whatever sentimentalities he had ever harboured.
Then, he walked. And walked. Within just a few steps, they were face-to-face with each other. Still, Shi Wu Du held his head high, and even had the audacity to ask who he was.
The way the Water Tyrant’s face twisted horrifically upon realizing He Xuan’s identity only marked the beginning of the latter’s enjoyment.
Father, mother, fiancée, sister.
It was the day He Xuan had been waiting for, to avenge the ashes contained within those urns. Shi Wu Du kneeled beneath his foot, head forced onto the ground along with his pride. On the other side of the room, Shi Qing Xuan laid chained and too weak to move, the full magnitude of his brother’s crimes reflected in the remorse in his eyes.
So why did He Xuan feel so empty? He stared at the vases, as if to ask, are you happy? Or maybe it was the other way around—as ridiculous as it sounded.
At one point, he found his answer, but he could not pinpoint when and who said it. Perhaps the answer lied somewhere between the cries of the two brothers as they scrambled to choose what the better option was for them. Perhaps it was in the way that Shi Wu Du chose neither, instead mocking He Xuan’s powerlessness and provoking him to fulfil a third option, as he had always done. Or perhaps it was in his own words, as he looked straight into Shi Qing Xuan’s eyes and ripped his brother’s head off, as easily as snuffing out the flame of a candle.
That once melodic voice was broken; the only tune it knew how to carry now was a scream. Amidst the cries of anguish reverberating around the chamber, that small voice in He Xuan’s mind returned, much softer, much quieter than when it had previously appeared.
What will you live for now?
Once the screaming died, He Xuan walked over to that person, footsteps heavy on the blood he spilled. When he spoke, the words sounded like they came from another’s lips. “Do you have anything else you want to say?”
Shi Qing Xuan lifted his tear-stained face, not to look at He Xuan, but past him—at the four urns, and at the fans that he and his brother once brandished so proudly, torn in half down the center of the characters for wind and water. And even though his eyes were dazed, the light in them smothered by He Xuan himself, the latter could not help but think—
Look at me.
“I want to die.”
Just look at me.